Liz Bates bates at CRL.UCSD.EDU
Wed Mar 21 22:50:20 UTC 2001

Kevin Russell is right that dylexia is not a unitary disorder, and that
acquired dylexia (defined as a reading disability due to brain injury in
someone who was otherwise normal from birth) comes in several varieties.
However, it is worth pointing out that the Paulesu et al. paper cited in
the newspaper article was devoted exclusively to developmental (congenital)
dyslexia.  This is a disorder whose biological basis (assuming that there
is one) is still unknown, and a disorder that does not (at least according
to most investigators in this field) come in the same varieties that one
finds with acquired dyslexias. In fact, all that the word "dyslexia" means
right now, as it is commonly applied in school systems and clinics around
the country for congenital cases, is "has difficulty reading, by some
specified criterion on one or more standardized tests."  Because the
disorder is defined entirely on behavioral grounds, by relatively broad
criteria, it is entirely possible that some forms of developmental dyslexia
are really environmental (i.e. kids who can't read well for reasons that
have more to do with the family culture).  This is an especially important
issue these days when schools are dealing with increasing numbers of
immigrants, and other individuals who may not be proficient speakers of the
language in which they are being taught to read.  -liz bates

>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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