Reading Requires a Full Set of Colors




NOTE: The following is an article I wrote a few years ago following an evaluation feedback session for a second grade child with significant reading challenges. His teacher asked for an explanation of what dyslexia was. I use three examples of students I come across each year as a school psychologist working in elementary schools. Students that may initially be missed.

Reading a word is an amazing feat of coordination. No one enters the world with eyes that zero in on printed lines and curves and instantly convert patterns into meaningful words and concepts. Yet many young minds learn this skill with the same apparent ease with which toddlers advance from grasping end tables to racing across the living room floor. This is the growth we hope for all our children. And yet in every classroom, one to three children fail to experience the joy of mastering reading.

As a simple analogy, think of your home printer. When each individual ink cartridge has adequate supply, the printer can create pictures of every variation in color and nuance. We appreciate the picture without seeing the unique mix of three primary colors plus black.

Similarly, skilled reading seems a graceful unitary task. When the “primary colors,” or cognitive components, are in adequate supply, the reader does not “see” letters and sounds, but rather images and concepts. When these cognitive components (which include many more than three or four) function as a unit, readers can read most any combination of letters, even those they have never encountered before.

Dyslexia: The Missing Colors

In a printer, when one or more of the primary colors are low, a distortion detracts from the picture. When any cartridge is empty or near empty, the picture becomes unrecognizable, despite an abundance of the other inks.

Dyslexia results not from a damaged brain, but rather from an inadequate supply of the specific cognitive abilities that support the skills in learning to read.

What does learning to read look like when one or more of the “primary colors” are in short supply? Here are three students I encounter every year:

“Emma” enters kindergarten full of enthusiasm. She attended two years of preschool and is proud that she can print her first name. Midway through the school year, her teacher becomes concerned. Emma still cannot identify all twenty-six letters and sounds. In fact, she struggles to get ten of them right.

“Jason” enters first grade knowing all the letter names and sounds, and at least ten sight words. His teacher has no concerns until noticing, in February, that despite Jason’s ability to call out letter sounds, he never uses the sounds to read words—he is a master at memorizing. If he does not instantly recognize a word, he has no idea how to use sounds to figure it out. Simple “sound out” words such as “fog” or “clap” stop him cold, or he guesses wildly.

“Owen” also knows his letter sounds, and unlike Jason, he can put them to use. He is good at reading and spelling word families (“fan, tan, ran”) and can sound out most simple words. Even so, in September his second-grade teacher is alarmed when she listens to Owen attempt to read the word “was”—a word most children instantly recognize by first grade. Owen sounded out the word “was” in a letter-by-letter fashion and arrived at a word that rhymed with “pass.” He also stumbles on other common first-grade words such as “what,” “are,” and “there.” Yet, he can read words his classmates miss, such as “splendid” and “dinner.”

Emma, Jason, and Owen, like approximately 10 percent of children, are attempting to print a sunset without the full range of colors. What are the “primary colors” needed to learn to read?

One necessary color is “paired associative learning.” These three words describe an aspect of memory that supports learning a letter name with a specific letter sound. Jason and Owen have this “color,” and therefore did not come to their teacher’s attention until first and second grade. Emma does not.

There are reasons other than weak paired associative learning for children to leave kindergarten without knowing letter names and sounds. Most of these reasons have to do with circumstances such as learning a new language, absences, stress at home, or poor school instruction. Emma, however, has strong family and school support—her teacher should be concerned.

Jason’s and Owen’s reading experiences are examples of what may occur when one of two other primary colors are missing. These colors appear in the literature on learning disabilities as “phonological and orthographic processors.” Jason initially fooled his teacher into thinking he had both colors, as he spouted out his letter sounds. Yet, phonological, also called phonemic, awareness is a sensitivity much deeper than the surface expression of mimicking sounds. Children who do not grasp that spoken words are composed of sound units will not come closer to this understanding by repeating letter sounds such as “guh” for letter G and “buh” for letter B, because in fact, these letters never do make those exact sounds when embedded in an actual word.

With a profound lack of phonological awareness regarding the sound units in words, Jason relied on the color cartridge that had plenty of ink: orthography. When he encountered the frequent word “was,” Jason’s strong paired associative learning skills, combined with visual, orthographic, processing, supported his brain in strengthening the relationship among the letter combinations and whole word unit, and he became a whiz at learning to read and spell sight words.

Why Red, Green, and Blue are Necessary.

In simple terms, “orthography” can be thought of as the visual aspect of reading, and “phonology,” the sound aspect. This very simple conception has misguided some into believing that children with cognitive traits similar to Jason or Owen should be taught to read exclusively using a “visual” or an “auditory” approach. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Skilled reading involves coordination of orthographic and phonological processing, both of which interact with the language center of the brain. The persistent myth is that dyslexia is seeing letters and words backwards. Research, including brain imaging, has clearly established that dyslexia has little to do with visual processing, but rather has a lot to do with processing small sound units (phonemes) and integrating these units with larger units of language as well as its visual representation.

All beginning readers transpose letters and words. Children with dyslexia are often slow to progress beyond the beginning reader phase and therefore continue to make the developmental errors of a beginning reader.

The good news is that with targeted intervention, the necessary “ink cartridges” can be filled up. Dr. Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington has demonstrated, through before-and-after MRI brain scans that a comprehensive language-based intervention can lead to improvements in reading skills and an actual change in the structure and function of the brain .Brain Changes

If Emma, Jason, or Owen remind you of a student you have in class, or your own child, an evaluation for dyslexia should be considered. Children who have had good instruction, consistent schooling, and home support should not be experiencing the types of reading imbalance portrayed in this article.

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