Deep Understanding

I currently have the pleasure of taking a course with Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist and educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  One of the assigned readings was a piece that she wrote on deep understanding back in the nineties.  Although much time has passed since then, it is still a concept that is met with much resistance in some respects.

For example, in 2010, Alberta introduced a new math curriculum.  Seven years later, parent groups and a political party still take issue with many aspects of the curriculum and put out a steady call to go ‘back to the basics’. (As a side note, this is a concept that always intrigues me in the education realm.  We would be quite distraught if our medical professionals ‘did things the way they always did’ rather than have them advance their practices as knowledge and technology advances.  Why do some people hold opposite expectations for education and not want practices in this field to advance as our knowledge about teaching and learning advances?)  One of the components that was a source of frustration in the 2010 curriculum was that it reduced the number of concepts that were required to be taught, and the assumption was that this would lead to less learning.  In her article, “Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science”, Tina explains why this is not true.  She builds a strong argument for deep learning and explains why teaching fewer concepts with greater depth is more beneficial than teaching many concepts superficially.   I believe that this is the intent of Alberta’s 201 0 math curriculum.  Yes, there were problems (particularly that the roll-out of the curriculum was poorly done and that teachers, who themselves lacked deep understanding because they had been taught superficially, were therefore ill-equipped to foster deep understanding in their students), but the curriculum’s intent at deepening students’ understanding of math is not one of those problems.

Tina has graciously allowed me to post the pdf of her booklet.  Take ten minutes to read it through and see why deep understanding matters!

Grotzer: Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science (shared with permission from Tina Grotzer)


The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: Book Review

It’s rare that I read an informational book in the same “can’t put it down until I finish reading it” method that I use for novels, but Sam Kean’s book, The Tale of the Deuling Neurosurgeons, was definitely one such read.

Kean’s wit and humour marry with his descriptive explanations and advanced vocabulary to lead the reader on a delightful tour of the brain.  He uses masterfully crafted anecdotes of individuals whose less-than-fortunate experiences and abnormalities led to discoveries of the human brain.

Many familiar brains, such as H.M. and Phineas Gage, make an appearance, but the lesser known details surrounding their circumstances provide context and bring their stories to life in a fresh way.  The book also provides a plethora of lesser-known stories of lesser-known legends.  He recounts stories of siamese twins who can see through each others’ eyes, of phantom limb pain numbed by mirrors, of electrical impulses on the tongue to counteract a loss of balance and of clicking tongues to help the blind ‘see’.   He tells of brain preservation gone right and brain preservation gone wrong, and of an autopsy being secretly performed on a cadaver that was supposed to be at its own funeral.

Kean preserves the humanity and highlights the resiliency of the characters in his stories, while enticing the reader to read on in disbelief.  We owe much gratitude to those who willingly underwent risky surgery or who not-so-willingly fell to the hands of fate and dove into the neurological unknown, before the days of MRIs and other modern technology, and taught us what we know about the brain.  Likewise, we have learned much from the doctors, surgeons, and neuroscientists who acted on finesse, persistence, and wisdom, (or in some cases, sheer ignorance, carelessness, and lack of thought) to discover the mysterious organ contained inside our skulls.

For anyone with an interest in human biology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, or history, this is a delightfully entertaining read that will push you to the end of your seat and leave you with a better understanding of the human brain.  Fortunately for you, your brain will remain intact and untouched, but you will learn and be challenged by those who weren’t so lucky.




Research-based vs. Preference-driven Teaching

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a researcher from the Netherlands who was reiterating the importance of using research to guide practice.  He pointed me to this journal article from the mid-90s, which raises concern over educators who have a tendency to use preference to guide their practice, even if their preferences defy research.  The paper identifies this as both (understandably) problematic and (surprisingly?) common.

This brings to mind a relatively recent article from the Edmonton Journal.  Ever since this debacle a few years ago, Edmonton media does a great job of portraying this part of the country as a hotspot of poor assessment practices.  I hope that there is a disconnect between the reports of the media and the actual practice being employed in classrooms there, but their local media sure seem to have a love affair with promoting practice that is based primarily on preference and that laughs in the face of research.  It tends to paint such practice as bold, brave, and desirable.  Equally as concerning are the public comments which further support such preference-driven practice while bashing research.  I find this “if it feels good it must be good” approach to be troubling.  Why does statistical data not have a more prominent role in determining what happens in our schools?  Why is so much left to preference?  (As an aside, I do realize that statistical data can be taken to the extreme and used in places where it doesn’t apply.  Particularly when dealing with people, not everyone fits into typical statistics and I’m aware of that.  I’m looking forward to reading this book for more on that topic).

It’s tough to stay on top of the research.  There is so much to know and limited time to learn.  Educators have a never-ending stream of tasks to be done in any given day, and sifting through journals to find information pertinent to our individual areas of desired growth is a nice wish but not a reality for any educators I’ve ever met.  Not to mention that for many (most?) people, sifting through journal articles doesn’t make it into the “ways I enjoy spending my time” category.  Even if it was something a particular teacher enjoyed, Hardiman et al. point out that “teachers do not typically possess the background knowledge that is necessary to parse research articles and apply findings in appropriate contexts”(p.136). And yet, despite the difficulties that are inherent in being wise consumers of research who use research to inform and drive our practice, I firmly believe that we can do more; we can do better.  There simply must be a way.

Twitter has become such a tool for me, (read more about how I use Twitter for my professional development here), but it has its limitations too.  Twitter can become a venue for groupthink or a means of propagating  preference-based practice if opinions are left unchecked.  With the right connections and knowledge of where to look it can, thankfully, also be a sharing space for research.  Unfortunately the latter is more difficult to find.  There are opinions aplenty but sharing of research among educators seems to be a much less common occurrence.

I’m not sure exactly what this means for educators in general, but I do have some ideas of what I’d like it to mean for me.  I’d like research to take a more dominant role in my practice.  Not the “I think I read it in a book somewhere so I’ll defend my practice by prefacing my conversation with generic ‘research says'”kind of research (oh, I’m guilty of using that tactic!), but the more authentic “these researchers in this study in this year found these findings and this is the conclusion that I’m drawing from that” kind of research.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that’s the answer for everyone.  I think that most of us, certainly, could benefit from having an increased general awareness of education-related research data and we could be more intentional in sharing that data and in using that data to drive our practice, but I think there’s room for variation in specifically how that looks from one person to the next.  Could we each agree, however, to be a little more intentional in reading, finding, and sharing data that can inform our practice?  I’m willing to venture a guess that the results of this would be noteworthy.  After all, ‘research says’.


Photo source


What Can Neuroscience Teach Teachers about ‘Aha!’ Moments?

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I love it when I can read about research and immediately see some direct implications of that research in my teaching practice.

For the results to be legit, researchers must surrender control of the outcome.  Due to this, sometimes scientists devote a chunk of their life to a project that didn’t reveal what they thought it would, or didn’t reveal what seemed useful.  What a terribly frustrating thing, yet inherently necessary due to the very nature of research.

Gabrieli referred to such unusable research as “file drawer research”. Interestingly, he stated that there are issues with this.  No one wants to publicize research that they’ve done that didn’t work, or that didn’t cultivate useful data, yet if they did, it would contribute to the greater field of knowledge.  At the very least, it would enable others to ensure that they didn’t repeat the same research, but it also would contribute to the pool of studies.  If data reveals that ‘all studies showed X results’, but in reality there were studies that didn’t show those results but they weren’t published, then the full story is not being revealed.

But, I digress.  My point is that sometimes research doesn’t seem to work.  Other times, it generates data but it’s not immediately apparent how that data is useful.  Again, this makes sense given the nature of research.  In light of this, it feels like a treat when there is research done and shared that contains workable, useable data.  I enjoyed such a treat when I read this article about the ‘Aha!’ moments of insight, summarizing some of the work of cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios.  Here is some of the useable knowledge I pulled out of it:

  • Finding: prior to that moment of enlightenment, or sudden ‘knowing’, our brains have been processing the information but at a subconscious level. Thus, it feels like a sudden state of enlightenment but our brain has actually been thinking about it for a while.
    Application: that dreaded “blank stare” that students give when they have no idea what we’re talking about, does not necessarily mean that they are not taking in any of the explanation that is being given.  They might be processing on a subconscious level.  Persevere through those blank stares – they might just be the precursor to sudden insight.
  • Finding: a surge of brain activity happens immediately before sudden insight. One of the changes in the brain during this time is a sudden burst of alpha waves visible on EEGs.  This is interesting because alpha waves inhibit the visual system – the higher the amount of alpha waves, the more the visual system is inhibited.  It seems, from what Kounios shares, that the brain essentially dials down its use of visual stimulus to allow for greater use of other brain activity for that short moment of time.
    Application: teachers often struggle with the concept of ‘wait time’.  It can feel uncomfortable and unproductive to have moments of silence during conversation with a student.  Watching a student’s eye movements could help encourage effective use of wait time.  If a child is looking away, it’s probably a good idea to help with their brain’s attempt at reducing stimulus.  Stay quiet, let them think, and see if a moment of insight arises as a result.
  • Finding: Those who are prone to have moments of insight show different brain function (even when not having ‘Aha!’ moments) than those who have fewer such moments.  Kounios is working on developing “different type of thought exercises” that can be administered to further develop the areas of the brain that are activated for sudden insight, but even with his existing research, there are some implications for teaching.
    Application: Kounios himself gives some application here:
    – He speaks of the importance of having a positive mood. For more learning on developing this in the classroom, a great place to start is to read Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (#growthmindset on Twitter) or follow the culture of learning chat (#COLchat) on Monday evenings on Twitter.
    – He also speaks of the benefits of large rooms with high ceilings (most classrooms) or, more ideally – the outdoors.
  • Finding: ‘Aha!’ moments cause an emotional rush. It doesn’t matter if the outcome of the problem that was solved has a positive or negative connotation to it, simply solving a problem through sudden insight creates this rush.
    Application: This indicates the importance of working within a child’s zone of proximal development (if you’re not familiar with this concept, I highly recommend reading more on this important work by Vygotsky).  If we give students work that is consistently too difficult or too easy for them, they will not have opportunities for such sudden insights and that emotional rush of learning will not be something that is accessible to them.

Throughout the article, Kounios references his book eureka factorThe Eureka Factor” and explains that it contains much more information about his work (written in lay terms) and many more ideas for the practical applications of it.  The positive feedback loop of reward from sudden insight is something that I greatly value in my teaching – it’s a large piece of what makes the job both meaningful and rewarding.  If there is some way that I can further cultivate such moments in my classroom, I’m all for it.  I’m looking forward to ordering his book and learning more about this.

Dear Friend with Dyslexia

An audio file of this post is available here.

Dear Friend with dyslexia,

I am not an expert on dyslexia – nothing of the sort – but I did recently attend a summer institute on the neuroscience of reading.  The institute was primarily focused on dyslexia.  I’d like to pass along to you some of the information that was shared.  I hope that much of this is information that you already know.  I think, however, that it might feel good to hear someone else validate it and to remind you of the presence of legitimate research to support the information.

Let me begin with one of the most crucial pieces of information: In no way does having dyslexia indicate compromised intelligence.  You already know that, don’t you?  I hope, dear Friend, that you haven’t been fighting against that truth for years, but unfortunately some of you carry with you the scars of comments and stigmas of untruths surrounding this.

Let me elaborate a bit.  Those working in the field of dyslexia have little agreement as to the criteria for establishing whether someone has dyslexia.  The most agreed upon criteria, however, is a gap between intelligence and reading ability.  More simply put, the very fact that you have dyslexia indicates that your intelligence is just fine, but that your reading ability does not match what one would expect for your intelligence.

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence.  What it is related to, however, is the way that your brain works.  Neuroscientists are doing some really interesting work with people with dyslexia.  They are able to have them go in an MRI scanner, have them complete a task while in the scanner, and then see what parts of their brain they are using to complete the tasks.  This generates a picture of the individual’s brain, and the parts of their brain that they are using light up in the picture.  When the same tests are done on people without dyslexia, it becomes very apparent that people with dyslexia use entirely different parts of their brain to complete reading and reading-related tasks.  This is crucial information for you to know.  It means that your reading deficits are not related to effort.  Your reading deficits are not related to the reading instruction you received or didn’t receive.  We’ve already established that your reading deficits are not related to intelligence.  Your reading deficits exist because your brain is wired to work differently than people without dyslexia.  Regardless of how hard you try or how much instruction you receive, your brain can’t be rewired to process reading differently.  There are certainly things that can be done to help make reading be less difficult for you, but your brain will still use alternate systems to read.

When people without dyslexia read, they are primarily using the back areas of their brain.  The front area of the brain, which is the thinking area, is not utilized during reading for those without dyslexia.  This is rather convenient.  It means that, while reading, a person can be using the thinking area of the brain to be thinking about what they are reading: connecting it to their life, asking questions, making predictions, and so on.  This is part of what makes reading be so engaging and enjoyable.  In contrast, when you read, one of the dominant areas of your brain that is being used for the reading process is this front area of the brain.  This is unfortunate.  It means that your thinking area is dominated by the act of reading and thus it isn’t readily available for you to be thinking so much about what you are reading.  There are other areas of your brain that you use when you read, too.  In fact, you use more areas of your brain to read than people without dyslexia.  Your brain is working much harder to complete the reading.  Again, this is a fact that you already know, at least to some degree, don’t you?  Reading is tough for you.  It’s tough because your brain doesn’t use the areas that are most efficient at reading and processing language.  It’s tough because you use more of your brain to read than people without dyslexia – this shows, in concrete form, that it takes much more effort for people with dyslexia to read than it does for people without.  It’s tough because your thinking area is so occupied with the process of reading that you don’t have the luxury of interacting with your reading in the same way that non-dyslexic readers can.  Reading is tough for you, and science backs this up: your brain lights up light a light bulb on the MRI scanner when you’re reading.

There is good news in this, though.  One of the great things that science shows us is that our brains have a lot of plasticity.  Plasticity is the ability to change and develop.  We would expect this of a child’s brain, but the adult brain shows no less plasticity than a child’s.  What this means is that we can continue to grow and develop our brains.  We can establish more connections within our brain, thus allowing brain systems to work more efficiently.  The simple message from this is: don’t give up.  You always have the capacity to continue to learn and develop, even in terms of reading.  Though you can’t rewire your brain, you can continue to develop ways to compensate and make the reading systems that you use work a little better for you.

There’s other good news, too.  When our brains have deficits in one area, they often make up for it in other areas.  You have probably heard stories of people who lack one of their senses but another sense is incredibly strong as a result.  For example, perhaps they can’t see but they have an incredible sense of hearing.  Have you considered that the same principle applies to you?  When your peers were learning to read and were growing and developing the areas of their brain that typically process reading, you were probably growing and developing another area of your brain.  Perhaps you have an incredibly powerful memory.  Or maybe you’re very skilled in music, art, or another area of fine art.  Memory and/or fine arts are often areas that, for whatever reason, end of being extra developed in people who have reading deficits.  Your skills in this area have likely developed to this degree because you have dyslexia.  They are an important part of what makes you be you – and they certainly need to be celebrated.

You should probably be aware of the fact that dyslexia has been shown to have some heritability to it.  This means that there is some likelihood that your children will have dyslexia as well.  The important thing to know with this is that research indicates that the earlier that reading interventions are given, the more helpful they will be.  So, if you are aware of the fact that your children stand a chance of having dyslexia as well, you can be proactive in seeking out supports for them early.  There is continuing work being done in the area of finding early identifiers for dyslexia and hopefully in the foreseeable future children will be given reading interventions before they fail to develop reading skills, rather than after.

Another thing to consider with regard to your children and the fact that they, too, might journey with dyslexia, is the fact that 25-40% of students who meet the criteria for ADHD also meet the criteria for dyslexia.  If your child receives a diagnosis for ADHD, given that and the fact that they have a parent with dyslexia, be aware that their chances of having dyslexia would then be quite high.  Advocate for them and get them access to the supports that they need so that, if they do indeed have dyslexia, they can reap the benefits of early intervention.

Having dyslexia isn’t inherently desirable, but we all have our limitations and deficiencies.  Just as those of us with vision issues can’t squint harder or tell our brains to process our sight more clearly, so too, sheer willpower or determination won’t rewire your brain to not have dyslexia.  Unfortunately many people still attribute dyslexia to laziness, but this is a stigma that needs to die.  You and I know that it has nothing to do with effort.  Neuroscientists can show you all sorts of pretty brain pictures indicating how, when you read, your brain looks much different than non-dyslexic readers.  It’s a brain thing.  It’s not an effort thing.  It’s not an instruction thing.  It’s not an intelligence thing.  It’s a brain thing.

We all have areas where our brain excels.  We all have areas where our brain has limitations.  The beautiful thing is that where one person’s brain is limited, another person’s excels.  And where that person’s brain is limited, someone else’s brain will excel.  There is deep beauty and richness in this.  It has been dubbed ‘neurodiversity’.  We each bring our own unique flavour into this world.  We each contribute our piece of individuality to the beautiful mosaic of humanity.   And that, dear Friend, is something to celebrate.


So today, I celebrate you.  I celebrate your uniqueness.  I celebrate your persistence.  I celebrate your ability to overcome.  I celebrate the fact that you have developed ways of compensating for your dyslexia.  I celebrate your bravery.  I celebrate your resiliency in light of the scars that you bear from the stigmas you fight.  I celebrate your incredible effort.  I celebrate your intelligence.  I celebrate your unique skills that have been developed as a result of your dyslexia.  I celebrate the uniqueness and diversity that you contribute to humanity.

Dear Friend with dyslexia, I celebrate you.

Related Posts:
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3

The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3


Theories on the Causes/Effects of Dyslexia

On the third day of the Learning and the Brain: Neuroscience of Reading summer institute, Dr. Gabrieli shared some other theories about presenting causes/effects (it’s very difficult to determine which is a cause and which is an effect) of dyslexia.  One of these was that of rapid auditory processing.  In the English language, many of the letters, and in fact, even entire words are nearly identical in the sound waveforms that they produce.  For example, the waveforms for the words “stay” and “say” are identical, other than a 100 millisecond silent gap in “stay”.  We are so attuned to miniscule variations that we can identify such a difference and use it to inform our comprehension.  Gabrieli referenced a study that showed that non-dyslexic readers were able to distinguish rapid sounds much better than readers with dyslexia.  Those with dyslexia increased their accuracy significantly when there was more of a gap between the delivery of each sound stimulus.  There is a strong correlation between reading ability and ability to pick up these incredibly subtle differences in sound.

Gabrieli also spoke of the anchoring hypothesis.  This was a study that showed that non-dyslexic readers were able to identify and use tonal anchors in speech essentially as a landmark from which they could reference other sounds.  When the same test was given to readers with dyslexia, they were unable to use the anchor tones in this way.  Gabrieli suggested that it could be that this is an issue related to learning rather than perception.  The control students were not told to use the anchor tone.  In fact, they were not even told that there was an anchor tone.  Regardless, they were able to learn a cue and use it essentially as their own scaffolding and then further build their learning from there.  Children with dyslexia, however, were unsuccessful in identifying or using the anchor tone to guide their learning.

Another interesting study was conducted to investigate magnocellular processing.  A study on this found a 27% reduction of size of magnocellular cell bodies in the lateral geniculate nucleus of those with dyslexia (Livingstone and Galaburda, 1991).  This is significant because this is the part of the brain that is sensitive to visual motion.  When people with dyslexia are shown a series of moving dots, they had an abnormal brain response.  This is surprising, since reading doesn’t involve motion, but perhaps it is connected to the fact that our eyes are constantly moving as we read and to the fact that many dyslexic readers have difficulties with visual tracking.  Research suggests that practicing reading makes a very significant impact on the development of the motion area of the brain.

There was also evidence presented from multiple studies that suggests that those with dyslexia have much more difficulty identifying anomalies in visual cues than those without dyslexia.  Again, this is not surprising since one would expect strong readers to be able to pick up to slight visual cues, just as they would pick up slight auditory cues.

Reading Interventions for Students with Dyslexia

Gabrieli began this lecture with an apology.  The fact of the matter is that neuroscience does not have much to offer in terms of data here.  There is very little data from neuroscience regarding the ‘how’ of intervention.  He stated that the question of ‘now what’ – what can we do to better serve students than we did before – really remains to be answered.  This is due to many reasons, one being the logistics of conducting a major study requiring students to receive fMRIs, given that MRI machines are not at all portable.  Another reason for the difficulty in studies in this area is that one of two options has to be pursued: 1) a control group is deprived of the interventions given the test group.  This seems rather unethical – to take struggling readers and intentionally deprive them of the supports that they need. 2) Give the intervention to the control group slightly after it has been given to the test group.  This allows the initial research to be done while not depriving either group of the intervention that they need.  The problem with this, however, is that there no longer is a control group to be used in longitudinal studies.

It is necessary, when examining reading intervention programs, to note the difference between programs that are based on research, and programs that have themselves been researched.  The former is fairly common but the latter is incredibly rare.

The research has consistently and clearly demonstrated the plasticity of our brains.  Adult brains exhibit no less plasticity than children – both are capable of incredible growth, change, and development.  As was stated in an earlier post (The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1), I am grateful that the data shows such a propensity towards brain growth and development because it marries so well with the work that Carol Dweck is doing on growth mindset.

The simple summary here is that neuroscience does not tell us what interventions to use, but it does indicate a couple of things:

  1. It very strongly supports the practice of using interventions in general.
  2. It supports the use of interventions as early as possible. The earlier the intervention, the better it seems to work.  By grades three-four range, the type of interventions that work well for the younger students really don’t have the same effect anymore.
  3. It also indicates, as Gabrieli stated, that there is a pretty big diversity of students who need a pretty big diversity of help.  A one-size-fits all approach to reading intervention is not going to work and the neuroscientific data certainly agrees with that.

Additional Considerations

 One consideration that I’d like to share is something that came up over and over through the duration of this course.  It is that of the importance of practicing reading.  The research that was presented to us showed that regular reading helps develop multiple areas of the brain.  It was really clear from the research that the benefits of reading on brain growth and development cannot be overstated.  Unfortunately, for those with reading disabilities, they tend to get stuck in a cycle: reading is difficult so they do less of it, but not reading does not help make it be any easier.  The less reading they do, the more the ability gap widens between them and their non-dyslexic peers.  Likewise, for those who enjoy reading, the more they enjoy it the more they read; and the more they read, the more they develop their reading skills.  Thus, the reading ability gap continues to widen in each direction.  Gabrieli shared that in grade five, a good reader may read as many words in two days as a poor reader does in a year.  Again, this speaks to the importance of early intervention.  If we can intervene early so that readers with dyslexia can learn how to compensate early, we might be able to reduce that ability gap at least somewhat.

Also in light of the increased effectiveness of early intervention, it seems prudent to consider how we might be able to be proactive rather than reactive in our approach to reading interventions.  Typically it is only after a child fails to develop reading skills that we intervene.  What could we do to intervene before they fail?  In the future, this might be an area where neuroscience could play a role.  In the meantime, the best predictors of future reading difficulty in prereaders are deficits in phonological awareness, rapid naming, and letter knowledge.  Additionally, there are multiple predictive indicators that relate to a child’s ability to rhyme.

Another role that neuroscience can play is to simply show the differences in brain function of a typical reader and a reader with dyslexia.  To see the very visible differences in brain function can be very empowering to a struggling reader and their family.  To know that the deficits are not due to a lack of intelligence, a lack of effort, or any other such factor, but rather due to a very legit brain difference – that is powerful knowledge.

Related Posts:
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
Dear Friend with Dyslexia

The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2

The second day of Learning and the Brain’s “Neuroscience of Reading” summer institute was a continuation of great learning.  The majority of the lecture time was spent examining what’s going on in the brain of regular readers and those with reading disorders, specifically dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia?

Both Gabrieli and Christodoulou firmly established that there is very little agreement as to the diagnostic criteria for dyslexia.

  • The one dominant and widely accepted criteria is that there is a discrepancy between intellect and reading ability.
  • The other fairly readily (but not entirely consistently) agreed upon criteria is that of a limitation in phonological processing.
  • The often cited criteria of letter or word reversals is not inherent in dyslexia. Some readers with dyslexia will have reversals show up as a presenting issue, but many will not.  Word and letter reversals can also be present without having dyslexia.  It seems to be pretty much a non-issue in terms of diagnosis, although the explanation as to why such reversals happen is pretty interesting.

When considering the issue of diagnosis, it is worth noting that there is a high comorbidity between dyslexia and ADHD, although it seems that often the dyslexia component is present without diagnosis in many children with ADHD. There is a 25-40% comorbidity rate between ADHD and dyslexia.  It is easy to see that difficulty in reading could certainly cause a person to be/appear to be unfocused.

Why do children struggle with letter reversals?

Both Christodoulou and Gabrieli indicated that humans are programed to be able to identify any given object regardless of its orientation.  If any type of transformation is applied, confusion does not ensue.  For example, if you see a chair lying on its side, you still know it’s a chair.  If you see your cat lying in a new position, you still know it’s your cat.  Written letters and numbers seem to be the only exception to this rule.  They are the only instance when seeing it from a different perspective no longer renders it as that object.  Think of the letter ‘b’, which, under a variety of transformations, could be a ‘d’, a ‘p’ or a ‘q’.  So with that, we are to render the differences as significant, and yet we are expected to view any particular letter, written in any conceivable font, or handwriting, as the same.  It is on this premise that letter reversals occur.  Children must override the innate rule that teaches them that objects seen from different perspectives are still the same object, and teach themselves that letters and numbers are exceptions to this.

When breaking down the process of reading, it becomes apparent that it is an incredibly complex task on a neurological level.  Thus, it is of little surprise that there is capacity for brain processing issues in one or more areas of this process, which in turn may present as reading disabilities.  With any area of ability, there is possibility of disability.  The more complex the task, the more potential areas there are in the breakdown of employing that task.

What does our brain do when we read?

Reading is a complex task that requires employing various skills in tandem:

1. Auditory and visual neurological functions:

Gabrieli points out that we are designed as visual and auditory people.  There are large sections of our brains that are devoted to each of these tasks.  Reading, he notes, is something that was developed after the existence of humanity and is not a task for which we have an innate ability.  We have an innate ability to see and we have a visual processing area of the brain.  We have an innate ability to listen and we have an auditory processing area of the brain.  Likewise, we have an innate ability to speak.  What we don’t have, however, is an innate ability to read or a specific ‘reading’ part of the brain.  Reading involves many areas of our brain.

2. Orthography and phonology:

Orthography is the way that words look and phonology is how they sound.  In an ideal world, there would be one phoneme (sound) for every grapheme (letter symbol).  This would greatly simplify the reading process and would enable people to learn to read with much greater ease.  The problem, however, is the number of letters that have multiple sounds as well as the number of rule exceptions that exist.  There is no language that has a 1:1 ratio of graphemes to phonemes.  Italian has a 33:25 ratio, so it is quite close.  English, on the other hand, has a 1120:45 ratio.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Italian-speaking children, on average, learn to read in a year, whereas English-speaking children take three years to accomplish the same task.  Gabrieli spoke of a study that compared the ability of dyslexic readers and non-dyslexic readers to identify letters and sounds.  The study shows that regular readers very often activated the brain’s areas for processing of sound and letters simultaneously, but the brains of the readers with dyslexia very rarely activated both neural processing areas at the same time.  This is important to note because it makes a distinction between being developmentally behind in reading as opposed to having a brain that processes reading in an atypical manner.

Gabrieli explained another study that illustrated exactly this fact.  Children with dyslexia were compared with non-dyslexic readers who were a number of years younger but read at the same level.  The study quite clearly showed that the children with dyslexia were using a different processing method to accomplish the same reading as their ability-matched peers.

3. Listening comprehension and decoding

Christodoulou spoke of the “reading equation”.  She stated that reading comprehension = listening comprehension + decoding.  Both of these processes must be working at the same time as well.  The listening comprehension refers to being able to contextualize and make meaning of the words that are being decoded.  If you were given a sentence of nonsensical words, you would be able to decode them, but you would have no listening comprehension as to the meaning of those words, thus reading comprehension would be non-existent.  The opposite is also true, if a student can understand and make meaning of words but does not have the ability to decode, obviously they will not have reading comprehension either.  Perhaps here it is worth mentioning yet another study, which illustrated the fact that children with dyslexia use a far greater amount of their brain when they read than those without.  To accomplish the same task, they must work much harder.

Other complexities of reading:

Another interesting fact regarding the complexity of reading is that it requires the children to go backwards in a process with which they are very familiar.  A pre-reading child can converse about a great deal of topics.  They can speak of the chair in the room, and the word ‘chair’ has meaning.  There is nothing that they need to do to unleash that meaning.  When they begin to read, however, their ability to gain meaning from words is compounded by the addition of many extra steps.  They now must simultaneously employ all of reading skills that were previously mentioned, just to get meaning from the word ‘chair’.

I suppose that the strongest thing that was reiterated for me in this day’s session was that dyslexia does not simply mean that students are behind in their reading.  Rather, it means that their brain uses quite a different process to read than most.  It seems that there would likely be many families that would benefit from seeing some of the fMRI pictures which show this with great clarity.  Dyslexia is not related to intelligence.  Dyslexia is not related to effort (in fact, there is much evidence that readers with dyslexia exhibit far greater effort than the average reader).  Dyslexia is a term that is applied to brains that respond in a very unique way to print on a page.  As teachers, we’re not going to be able to change the way the dyslexic brain functions.  We can only hope to to intervene in meaningful ways to make the dyslexic child’s method of processing work for them in the best possible way.

Related Posts: 
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3
Dear Friend with Dyslexia