A Detour: Teaching Younger Dyslexic Students to Read

Dr. Robb Mapou Health Guide
  • 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).

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    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.

  • Students whose teachers have knowledge of these interrelationships can help students overcome struggles in learning to read and spell English words. This knowledge is often referred to as linguistic awareness. Unfortunately, research has shown that teachers often do not have adequate linguistic awareness and, as a result, are not ideally positioned to teach children with reading challenges. Dr. Shaywitz, Dr. Berninger, and other researcher/clinicians have emphasized linguistic awareness as a crucial component of teaching children to read. Those children who have difficulty must be taught linguistic awareness very explicitly, in a highly structured manner. Failure to do so early in elementary school can lead to persisting dyslexia.

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    Another secret that my colleagues believe should be shared more widely is that the interrelationships among phonology, orthography, and morphology differ among words of Anglo-Saxon origin (most of the words in our conversation and primary grade readers), Romance origin (French and Latin words that are frequent in textbooks from fourth grade to graduate school), and Greek origin (many words in science and math textbooks). Teachers who understand the distinction of the short, common, often irregular Anglo-Saxon words which both compound and affix to expand the base words, the affixation of Latin roots, and the compounding of Greek roots (combining forms) can then convey this knowledge effectively to their students. By being taught this knowledge, their students will learn to read longer and more complex words as they continue in school.

    Dr. Apel and his colleagues have developed a curriculum that targets written English using lessons focused on the sound, pattern, and meaning underpinnings of English words. A teacher or specialist must have a good understanding of what children lack in their knowledge of English orthography so that the instruction/intervention provided is optimally tailored to their learning needs. This can be accomplished only through regular assessment. Dr. Apel and his colleague Julie Masterson have described an individually-tailored program to improve spelling in students having unexpected difficulty. Assessments that form the basis of the program, which are different from more familiar weekly spelling tests or yearly standardized spelling tests, provide teachers with information about whether a child would best benefit from instruction in phonemic awareness, orthographic awareness, and/or morphological awareness.

    Although children learning to read and write in a deep (morpho-phonemic) orthography like English take longer to learn to read orally than students learning in another language, in the long run, a deep orthography has advantages for reading comprehension. English also does not have one meaning for each pronunciation--that is why we have dictionaries with multiple meanings recorded for the same spoken version of a word.

    In my next installment, I will provide resources that teachers can use when working with students with dyslexia.


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    Laasonen, M., Lehtinen, M., Leppämäki, S., Tani, P., & Hokkanen, L. (2010). Project DyADD: Phonological processing, reading, spelling, and arithmetic in adults with dyslexia or ADHD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 3-14.

    Mapou, R. L. (2009). Adult learning disabilities and ADHD: Research-informed assessment. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Mapou, R. L. (2010). Dyslexia in a young adult. In J. E. Morgan, I. S. Baron & J. H. Ricker (Eds.), Casebook of clinical neuropsychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Paulesu, E., et al. (2001). Dyslexia: Cultural diversity and biological unity. Science, 291, 2165-2167.

    Ransby, M. J., & Swanson, H. L. (2003). Reading comprehension skills of young adults with childhood diagnoses of dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 538-555.

    Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


Published On: November 18, 2010