Kevin Russell krussll at CC.UMANITOBA.CA
Wed Mar 21 21:25:02 UTC 2001

I found it irritating that the original newspaper article assumes without
blinking that dyslexia = surface dyslexia.  Period.  No subtleties, no
other options.  I find it odd that many of the respondents here seem to
making the same equation.  If there's one bit of knowledge that
researchers seem to have wrested from the chaos, and that we linguists can
pass on to anybody who'll listen, it's that dyslexia is not a monolithic

There are dyslexics who have problems taking apart a word into graphemes
and mapping them to phonemes and who get by, to the extent they do, by
memorizing entire words -- "phonological dyslexia" in the standard (and no
doubt simplistic) first-year-textbook typology.  There are dyslexics
who are great at grapheme-to-phoneme mapping, can read any regularly
spelled word you throw at them, but bomb on the irregular words that have
to be memorized -- "surface dyslexia" in the first-year-textbook typology.
(I'm working on a body of writing by an English-speaking developmental
dysgraphic, who despite decades of work still spells the way a surface
dyslexic reads.)  And this isn't even counting the kinds of dyslexics who
are liable to see "banana" and read "apple" or "yellow", or the doubtless
many other kinds of and combinations of dyslexias that are being worked on
outside the view of textbook writers.

I can see how a more regular orthography would make life simpler for a
person with a tendency toward surface dyslexia -- fewer exceptions to
memorize (which you're bad at), just applying the rules will get you
farther than with English.  But Italian would be much *worse* for someone
with a tendency toward phonological dyslexia -- the regularity of the
spelling does you no good and you've got to memorize a gazillion inflected
forms which you have problems taking apart on-line.  Phonological
dyslexics have a fighting chance of surviving in an English-writing
environment.  In an Italian-writing environment, I wouldn't be surprised
if most got washed out very early on as incurably stupid.

It's probably no coincidence that the study reported on looked only at
university students, or that the team had to look really closely to find
Italian university students with signs of dyslexia, or that the ones they
found all seemed to have surface dyslexia.  This is not a sign that the
Italian writing system is better for dyslexics.  It's a sign that it's
better for *some* dyslexics, and brutally worse for others.

I would imagine that Chinese would be at the opposite extreme, easier for
good-at-memorizing phonological dyslexics (but still not paradise, as the
findings pointed to by Dan and and Alex would suggest), harder for
good-at-generalizing bad-at-memorizing surface dyslexics.

I vaguely recall someone talking about reading problems in Japanese, where
you need to strike the right balance between sheer memorization (in order
to get most of the lexical items, written in kanji) and generalization (in
order to get any of the grammatical markers, written in kana), and
different people can have problems with either one.  Does this ring a bell
with anyone who can give a reference?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing the Science article later this
week.  Hopefully the "all dyslexia is the same" over-simplification is
the fault of the newspaper reporters and not the original researchers.

-- Kevin Russell

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