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Professor Jenny Thomson

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Audio: Struggling to read:
The rhythms and sounds of dyslexia
HGSE Professor Jenny Thomson

Q1. Is it true that readers with Dyslexia see letters backwards? Isn’t that the main problem children with dyslexia face?

" It’s certainly true that in the first descriptions of dyslexia, visual problems were commonly emphasized as the main problem. But since an explosion of research in the 80s we now know that that although visual problems can often be associated with dyslexia, they are not the underlying cause.

We also know that letter reversals are a developmental stage that many children go through.

What is now clear is that the root cause of dyslexia is a difficulty being able to analyze words in terms of their constituent sounds – for example, knowing that you split the word ‘rocket’ into five little sounds, r-o-k-e-t, or you can split it into two syllables, rock-et, or that it rhymes with other words like ‘pocket’ and ‘locket’.

Alongside this root cause there are then many other associated behaviors, such as visual perception differences, motor skill delays and attentional difficulties. Currently research is trying to untangle exactly how these different abilities relate to the core problem. The most likely explanation is that although they don’t cause dyslexia, they have additive effects, which will affect the child’s overall developmental pathway."

 

Q2. What are some of the early signs that a child may encounter problems with reading?

"At the moment it is difficult to predict with certainty which children will go on to have persisting reading problems. Children particularly at risk are those with a family history of reading difficulties, as dyslexia has a strong genetic component. Also, children with a pre-school history of speech and language difficulties, for example a mix of speech and language difficulties, as well as severe speech-sound problems, [are at risk].

But in terms of concrete signs, early sound awareness difficulties are one of the best predictors we currently have. For example, can a child hear rhyming words? Can they tap out syllable beats in words? Difficulties learning letter-sound associations are also a red flag.

In my current work, which I am doing in collaboration with Usha Goswami in the UK, we’re looking at children’s ability to hear the rhythm of language, as a further marker of difficulty. For example, can children hear the differences between stressed and unstressed syllables, in words such as banana or caterpillar? The ability to hear these subtle distinctions is crucial to knowing where words begin and end when, as an infant, learning language, you’re just exposed to a continuous stream of speech. This ability also paves the way for thinking more about the sounds within syllables, which is vital for literacy. "

 

Q3. Why do you think a developmental approach is needed for understanding reading difficulties?

"I think one of the reasons we are not yet very good at predicting dyslexia, is because our studies are not developmental: people are looking at factors that are associated with reading difficulties once dyslexia has been diagnosed, for example at 6-7 years old, and assuming that relationship remains the same right through development. This means we are in danger of writing off certain explanations, if they are not found within the age group we study.

This snapshot approach is also not very good at dealing with diversity. [T]here will be always be variation and a developmental approach will help us make more sense of this.

What we need to be doing more of is tracking children who we know are at risk of reading difficulties, for example genetic risk, from before they even start learning to read, right through to their school careers and into adulthood. By carrying out developmental studies we can see how all the different signs fit together over time, and how that varies across individuals. Then when we assess a child at a certain age, we will be better able to predict what specific difficulties they may be about to face, and know what the past weaknesses have been, so we can provide really individualized help. For example, an older child may score well on standardized reading tests, but on further investigation, difficulties in recognizing the syllable pattern of longer words is seen. This would suggest a previous profile of poor language rhythm sensitivity, and might predict future difficulties trying to learn a foreign language, which will have new rhythmic properties to master. "

 

Q4. Are we at the point yet where we can look into dyslexia at the brain level?

" Brain-level research has lots of exciting possibilities for extending our understanding of dyslexia. The research we are doing here at the Graduate School of Education involves using scalp sensors to measure neural activity. This technique is powerful because it can examine pre-conscious processing – so we have the potential to look at risk factors, for example rhythm perception, even within the first weeks of life.

Neural recording is also useful in terms of helping evaluate the effects of intervention. For example, we can compare groups of children carrying out different types of reading intervention and see what underlying neural changes these cause – are they helping ‘normalize’ brain responses, or creating alternative pathways?"

 

Q5. What are some ideas that teachers can use right away, to help kids with reading?

" One practical implication of this research is that early years teachers should really keep emphasizing skills such as syllable clapping and linking language and music. Because research looking at older readers has not found strong associations between these skills and reading, these kinds of activities have fallen out of favor with some teachers. But if we consider this new research on the importance of these sensitivities early in development, these kinds of activities will help children with all the subsequent steps of literacy acquisition.

For struggling readers too, who are failing to respond to a systematic phonics approach, it will be really important to bolster these underlying rhythmic skills.

A long-term goal of my research here at the Ed. School is to develop a structured program of activities to help children with these early skills, using evidence-based techniques that integrate aspects of musical rhythm training with early literacy skills. "

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