Ever since Maria Theresa introduced statutory schooling back in 1774, all children in Austria have been taught how to read and write. And about 100 years ago, the first research started into dyslexia, the reading and writing disorder. This learning disorder makes school life difficult for many parents and children. On average, one to two children per school class are affected by it. Today, primary school teachers are aware of the issue and dyslexia tests and training programmes are offered at many schools. For a long time, experts assumed that the two deficits always occurred together. Recently, however, there have been increasing indications that not all children who have problems reading also have difficulty spelling and vice versa. A statement to this effect can also be found in the current diagnostic manual (ICD11) of the World Health Organization (WHO). "We were intrigued to see that there are children who know how to write words but still struggle with reading”, explains the developmental psychologist Karin Landerl from the University of Graz. Intuitively it would be logical to think that reading is the easier task: the individual letters are read together and the reader does not have to know how a word is spelled. However, simple explanations fail to address the root causes of the various learning disorders.
A diversity of material & methods for complex skills
In terms of human history, the cultural techniques of reading and writing are young cognitive skills that are processed in different areas of the brain. In a soon-to-be-completed project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Austrian Science Fund FWF, a joint research team from the universities of Munich and Graz has been taking a close look at brain function and behaviour in the processing of written language. One of the reasons for the collaboration between the two universities was to ensure representative samples. The researchers examined and compared four groups totalling around 200 children from the third and fourth grades. A quarter of the children showed a level of reading and spelling that corresponded to their age (control group), another quarter exhibited a combined reading and writing deficit, and the two remaining quarters displayed just one of the two deficits, respectively. The researchers spent a whole year developing precise and child-friendly test methods and another year screening 4,000 children. The actual data collection was conducted either on the basis of standard tests or by using material tailored specifically to certain experimental assumptions. Data relating to behavioural and structural / functional brain processing was collected using three methods: eye-tracking, EEG and magnetic resonance imaging.
Dictionary available, access difficult
Previous explanations for reading deficits were based on the assumption that children do not remember what words look like. They do not have access to a “dictionary" in their heads and therefore always have to start from scratch decoding each word out loud. ”The assumption that the children get stuck in this beginners’ reading mode does not hold water. Even children with weak reading skills build a mental dictionary of written words, it’s just that they are not very adept in using it”, says Karin Landerl in the interview with scilog. The most recent article on this theme was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
Tests with real and artificial words
This connection was examined using real words and pseudo-homophones: “The latter sound like an existing word, but look differently, replacing the V in Vater by an F, for instance. When you only hear it read out you can’t tell the difference. Children with reading difficulties, however, also showed differences in processing in this context. They look at the word longer and the reading times are measurably increased”, explains the experienced developmental psychologist, who has been conducting research on learning disorders since her diploma thesis. Abnormalities in the structure and function of the brains of children with reading and / or spelling disorders are clearly noticeable even before birth: “This also means that ‘quick fix’ therapies are pointless. Two months of intense practicing and hey presto, it’s done simply doesn’t work. It's a serious deficit that children have to learn to live with and cope with.”
Impact on diagnosis and therapy
The team has developed recommendations for diagnosis and support: “If you want to determine a child's written-language abilities, you must always look at both skills. If only a spelling test is undertaken, an isolated reading difficulty could be overlooked”, emphasises Landerl. In general it can be said that experience helps. Children improve reading by reading and spelling by spelling. The real challenge is to maintain the children’s motivation and interest by offering attractive remedial classes that enable them to find their way to written language at their own pace. A strong anti-dyslexia movement began to develop in German-speaking countries from the 1970s onwards, which dismissed reading and spelling deficits as a bourgeois invention. This led to a setback that Germany and Austria have yet to recover from. Karin Landerl describes the importance of research and teaching as follows: “We need to work specifically and in an evidence-based way to resolve this issue. Poor spelling is not the end of the world - spellcheckers are readily available nowadays. But if you can't read, your life and career opportunities are severely impaired." Starting in October 2018, the University of Graz will offer another part-time master's programme (therapy of learning disabilities/disorders) which takes a holistic view of learning disabilities and builds a bridge between research and practice.
Personal details Karin Landerl is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Psychology at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz. From 2007 to 2010, she was a project manager at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience at Tübingen University, a DFG Cluster of Excellence. She studied psychology and linguistics at the University of Salzburg and was a research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College of London) and at the Institute PI Research of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.