Spelling Out Dyslexia
Northwest Researchers Shed Light On Spelling Problems Of Dyslexic Children, Provide Hope For Treatment
That was the winning word in the 2005 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Every year, the national media covers this story, and we marvel at the ability of a 12-year-old child to master such a sesquipedalian word. Far more common and far less public, however, is the struggle that millions of dyslexic children have in learning to spell even simple words, a disability that can hamper them for a lifetime. But it doesn't have to.
In January of this year, a team of researchers from the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle reported that dyslexic children who are taught explicit spelling strategies not only improve their spelling ability but can actually change their brains' activity patterns to better resemble the brains of normal spellers. The study, which appeared in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, is just the latest achievement in a 10-year effort by Virginia Berninger and colleagues at the UW's Multidisciplinary Learning Disability Center (MLDC) to illuminate the causes of dyslexia and to find effective interventions for this most common of learning disabilities.
"This study shows that there really are effective treatments for dyslexia," says Todd Richards, a Professor of Radiology at UW and a co-author on the study. "Dyslexic children can improve their spelling and their brains can change too."
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that makes reading and spelling difficult but preserves other aspects of a person's IQ. It affects males and females nearly equally. Popular accounts of dyslexia often depict dyslexics inverting the order of letters within words, while in reality, such mistakes are only occasionally made. The real problem for dyslexics is in learning how to decode the letters and sounds within words.
Ten years of research into dyslexia by UW Professor of Education Berninger and the MLDC team has revealed some important features of this disability. At its core, dyslexia is a deficit in the mental processing of the sounds that make up words, called phonemes. Phonemes are the subject of "phonics" instruction and it is through phonemes that beginning readers and spellers "sound out" words, a skill that is also used by adults to pronounce unfamiliar words such as appoggiatura (ah–pah–jah–toor-ah).
Berninger, who is the principal investigator of the MLDC, says dyslexic children who are identified in grade school are often taught specific ways to overcome their problems with reading. But this is only half the battle. "Kids with dyslexia are getting dismissed from special education once they can read but they're not kept long enough to work on spelling and writing," Berninger says.
Dyslexic children who return to the general education setting find that most school districts no longer teach spelling and writing as separate subjects, expecting students to pick up these skills without any explicit instruction. This works for many students but according to Berninger, without this instruction, most dyslexics never learn to spell and write normally.
Donald Bear of the University of Nevada's College of Education explains that children normally progress through three stages when they are learning to read and spell: alphabet, pattern, and meaning stages. After mastering the alphabet, or phonological stage of sounding out words, most kids begin recognizing patterns of letters among written words, called the orthographic stage. Finally they gain the ability to parse words based on meaning units (morphemes) within them, called the morphological stage. Dyslexics get stuck at the first stage due to their difficulty with phonological processing. According to Berninger, explicit instruction that teaches them about patterns (orthography) and meaning (morphology) can help them progress to more sophisticated stages of language processing.
The new research suggests that teaching dyslexic kids orthographic spelling strategies does help them learn to spell and may even make their brains work more like the brains of normal spellers. "There really is a brain basis for why dyslexics need explicit instruction," Berninger asserts.
"This study of how the brain responds to instruction promises to be a powerful indicator of the efficacy of particular methods of instruction [such as orthographic strategies]," says Bear.
The study involved third, fourth, and fifth graders from Western Washington, half of whom were dyslexic. At the outset, images of participants' brain activity, called functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI), were taken while the kids performed spelling tasks. The dyslexic kids showed greater brain activity than the normal spellers in some brain regions and less activity than normal spellers in other brain regions, especially in parts of the right hemisphere.
Next, Berninger taught the dyslexic children explicit strategies for spelling: One group learned orthographic strategies focused on the letters themselves, which included two techniques: "photographic leprechaun," where children are asked to use an imaginary leprechaun in their mind to take a picture of the word and then focus on each of the letters and the "proofreaders trick," in which the kids visualize a word in their mind and then try to spell it backwards. A second group got morphological instruction that taught them to parse words into meaning units (roots, prefixes, and suffixes).
After three weeks of instruction, the researchers again examined the children's brain activity while spelling words. Those in the orthographic treatment group showed a different pattern of brain activation from when they were first imaged. Remarkably, the activity of two brain regions in the right hemisphere that had been less active in dyslexics before the instruction became indistinguishable from normal spellers. Both the orthographic and morphological treatments helped the dyslexics spelling abilities, but only the orthographic group had changes in brain activity as a result of their treatment. Berninger believes this to be due to the fact that the children were too young to move on to the morphological stage of processing.
"This study serves to focus attention on a largely neglected topic, the relationship between orthographic instruction and functional brain changes in right hemisphere regions," says Lynn Flowers of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who studies learning disabilities using brain imaging.
The stakes for dyslexic children couldn't be higher. Not only do difficulties in spelling and writing make completing school assignments more difficult, but many important standardized tests now require writing. The WASL exam that is now required for high school graduation in Washington state requires students to write about all of the subjects tested (including math), and the SAT now includes a written portion.
Barbara Resager's son Will was one of the dyslexic participants in the study. "His teachers didn't know what to do with him," she says. "He was really frustrated. He thought he was stupid, his teachers told him he was stupid. So his self-esteem was very low."
After participating in two studies at the MLDC and learning techniques to overcome his disability, things got a lot better for Will. "The amount of progress that he made was unbelievable, compared to what he was doing in the regular school program," Resager says. "He felt smart for the first time"
Berninger relates a story she has heard from several parents of dyslexic kids in her studies. While going through college, they say, "'I had to always take what I wanted to write and then revise it according to the words I was pretty sure I could spell,'" she says. It's kind of like typing on a computer without an "N" key.
Berninger has some advice for local school districts: "Don't dismiss dyslexic kids too soon from special education, before the writing issues have been solved." Making sure these children get proper instruction to help them progress in their language skills is more than just good policy. "It's not just a matter of teaching them reading or writing skills but it's also giving them hope," she says. "It's going to take people out there in the schools to make the difference."
Now, can I have the definition please? An appoggiatura is a musical note that embellishes another note and that is indicated by a special sign. The research of Berninger, Richards and colleagues at the MLDC is indeed a special sign for all dyslexics: as Richards puts it, "Hope is there."
Joel Dahms has a Master's degree in neurobiology and is pursuing a second in technical communication with an emphasis in science writing.
Brain activity in a dyslexic child while performing a spelling task. Regions of the right cerebral cortex are less active during spelling in dyslexics compared to normal spellers. After being taught explicit orthographic spelling strategies, dyslexic brain activity better resembles that of normal spellers. Image: T. Richards