Unfortunately, the demands of my work have prevented me from writing as regularly as I had hoped. I recently learned that a blog is typically updated daily, so these monthly to every-other-month posts certainly do not qualify as blogs. I hope my readers will forgive my less-than-timely posts and will stick with me to learn more about learning disabilities in adults.
After my September post on dyslexia, one reader challenged my emphasis on phonological awareness as a building block for reading and as a core deficit in dyslexia. This is not my opinion, but, rather is based on years of research with children and, more recently, with adults, as I have summarized (Mapou, 2009, 2010). Indeed, numerous researchers, including Sally Shaywitz, have shown how this deficit persists even in adults who become better readers. The deficit is also found cross-culturally, in languages other than English (see, for examples in Italian and French, the article by Paulesu and colleagues that appeared in the prestigious journal Science in 2001, and the more recent 2010 article by Laasonen and colleagues, for an example in Finnish).
But, as my reader has pointed out, that is not the full story. Despite the persistence of phonological deficits, some researchers have found that, for adults, other aspects of spoken language are more important to understanding reading difficulties (Ransby & Swanson, 2003). Phonological awareness is essential when learning to read, but may be less important for adults who continue to struggle with reading comprehension.
My reader's comments also seemed to be focused on children. Because I am not an expert on children and because research on intervention in adults is still very limited, I sought the help of several colleagues (Dr Virginia Berninger, at the University of Washington, who, in turn, introduced me to Dr. Kenn Apel, at the Florida State University, and Dr. Marcia Henry, who is retired from San Jose State University) to respond to my reader's post. The following is more technical than my prior posts.
To help, here are a few key definitions (for more on these, see Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz's excellent 2003 book, to which I have previously referred):
- Phoneme: The smallest unit of sound in a word.
- Grapheme: The smallest written unit in a word that corresponds to a sound.
- Morpheme: The smallest unit in a word that conveys meaning.
- Orthography: The visual word form and its spelling as a whole.
In children, it is now clear that phonological skills are necessary, but not sufficient when learning to read. Similarly, impairment can extend beyond phonological awareness in children with dyslexia. As one colleague pointed out, not only George Bernard Shaw (think Henry Higgins in Pygmalion or the musical, My Fair Lady), but also many teachers continue to believe that the reason children have difficulty learning to read and spell in languages like English and French is because the orthographies of these languages are "hopelessly irregular" in their structure and pronunciation. That is, many words cannot simply be sounded out by following standard phonological rules. Yet, these teachers do not realize that English (and French) are morphophonemic orthographies. This means that although each letter is not pronounced with the same sound all the time, there is predictable regularity at a deeper level at which phonology (sounds of spoken words), orthography (letters in written words), and morphology (bases and their prefixes and suffixes) are interrelated.