Dyslexia and Phonological Processsing

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is defined as a specific disability in reading. It is the common term that is used interchangeably to describe a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading, Spelling and Written Expression, as per the diagnostic criteria found in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5)”.

Scientific research suggests that a neurobiological basis for children developing dyslexia exists, with fMRI studies showing that there is some reduced neural interconnectivity in specific areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and which is related to the integration of language with the auditory domain, as well as with the visual processing areas. Dyslexia has been found to affect approximately 5% to 17% of the population as per research, suggesting that there may be dyslexic students in almost every classroom.

While neurobiology is implicated in the development of dyslexia, there are other factors that contributes to difficulties in reading, such as literacy education at school, literacy support at home, and the family’s social, educational and economic background which may restrict the exposure to the written word.

A neurobiological basis for the development of a reading deficit is considered, when environmental factors have been ruled out. Regardless of dyslexia being neurobiological in nature, reading can be improved with specific forms of structured instruction and practice, such as those given through a MultiSensory Learning (MSL) approach (see below).

Being dyslexic does not mean that the student cannot think, speak, be creative or learn. There are well known cases of famous individuals with dyslexia that have been able to become professionals in many fields such as in medicine and the sciences, engineering, education, the arts, and other professions.

What is the correlation between phonological processing deficits and dyslexia?

There is a strong body of research supporting that developmental dyslexia is characterized by difficulties in phonological processing, specifically phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness and processing is the brain’s ability to identify and manipulate the sound structure within words, specifically to recognize the subtleties of sounds (phonemes), and to process their combinations that form words and overall spoken language.

Research has also identified that children with dyslexia may experience some deficits in auditory processing abilities, further impacting phonological awareness development. Some research has estimated that up to 60% of individuals with dyslexia may have some level of auditory processing deficits.

Auditory processing is the system by which the brain recognises and interprets sounds in the environment. Individuals with dyslexia may have difficulty attending to and processing sounds when there is background noise like that which is experienced in a busy and noisy classroom environment (also known as auditory-figure ground differentiation difficulties), or when speech is presented at a rapid speed like when someone is talking at a fast pace, or, when someone is at a distance or in an unfavourable acoustic environment. These difficulties or deficits often co-exist with phonological processing, and which may impact early reading skills acquisition by influencing the sound/letter correspondence imprint at brain level, and later reading development. It is therefore important that an individual with dyslexia be also assessed for auditory processing difficulties.

In the course of learning, if a student has poor mapping of sounds (due to auditory processing difficulties) in the auditory/language centre of the brain, then this is problematic as it may affect the automaticity of sound/letter matching, thereby affecting decoding abilities and fast retrieval of words which ultimately impacts reading and spelling development.

What is MultiSensory Learning, and how can it assist an individual with dyslexia to learn?

The use of a structured and sequential approach to teaching phonemes, word sounds, letters and writing, simultaneously engaging the three senses, hearing, seeing and touch, is known as a MultiSensory Learning (MSL). 

MultiSensory Learning provides the opportunity to address learning weaknesses by recruiting the main pillars of learning, the visual, auditory and proprioceptive systems, and by integrating these domains, the multiple sensory pathways allow the brain to be engaged in a multitask process further stimulating the networks of auditory/visual/proprioceptive attention and memory networks.

Having information being presented in this way, avails more cognitive real estate to assist with the uptake and imprint of the information, and thereby enriching the learning process as there is more data to be experienced which ultimately improves the process of association.

We all know that if we are engaged in the learning process “if we see it, hear it and feel it”, we seem to learn better. It is well known that children learn differently, and thus a MultiSensory Learning approach builds on the premise that by engaging different cognitive pathways simultaneously, it allows individuals to experience the information in a format that helps its retainment, and if we also associate this with having fun as it is engaging and motivating, then we learn even more!

The MultiSensory Learning approach is based on the Orton Gillingham methodology, which is the gold standard of assisting individuals with dyslexia and learning difficulties in the US and Canada. MSL also targets mathematics. An MSL program is created specifically for a student following a detailed evaluation of the reading (decoding abilities, reading rate and reading comprehension), spelling and writing abilities of the student, to gage the sequence and type of lesson plan that the student requires. MSL is an individual learning program.

MultiSensory Learning is offered by Alexie Better (Dyslexia Specific Educator) and her associates, at the Better MultiSensory Learning Centre www.bettermsl.com.au

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