If you don’t have one, you almost certainly know someone with a reading disability. For instance, five of the key people who attended my wedding have one. The best-known reading disability is, of course, dyslexia and in keeping with this four of my five loved ones are dyslexic. My wife, best man, sister-in-law, and a good friend were all formally diagnosed and struggled deeply with reading at primary school. My younger brother, also at my wedding, wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia but with something that sounded less precise: speech and language difficulties. He also struggled deeply with reading at primary school.
I was luckier than my loved ones. At primary school I read above my “reading age” and the only problems I’ve experienced were in foreign languages. It’s therefore arguably impossible for me to understand how it feels to have a reading disability, but the texts below give something of an impression. Read them aloud and notice the challenges they present:
Ai hop ddat yw can ryd ddys and ddat yt meiks sens tw yw. Iff yw can ryd ddys, dden yw sawnd ryt and ar redi tw gow hycing in wals…Gwd lwc and haf ffyn.
When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!
Text A illustrates Welsh spelling conventions by applying them to English. Although the vocabulary is high-frequency, unless you’re a Welsh speaker the text is difficult because the unfamiliar orthography demands attention be paid to each word, mapping the written graphemes to phonemes. Reading is effortful because of the bottom-up decoding required.
Text B, an example given in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” is different. It is many decades old, with dated, if not archaic, language and some culturally and historically specific references. The problems here are top-down, relating to the meaning of the language and the relationships between ideas.
A compass in a storm
I’ve spent months exploring the science of reading disabilities, and its implications for language teaching. My goal was to identify specific practices that teachers can use to support students who have these disabilities. Things didn’t go exactly to plan, but we’ll come to that soon enough.
It was easy to get a little lost. While this is a fascinating topic in itself, language teachers can lose their way in a storm of data and discourse. Fortunately, there is a compass for navigation. The texts above are its north and south poles. While imperfect, it guides thinking and practice to help students. It is Gough and Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading (1986):
D (Decoding) x C (Comprehension) = R (Reading)
Do the arithmetic and you’ll find reading is a “weak link” skill, only as good as the weakest subskill. Based on their formula, Gough and Tunmer suggest four outcomes for readers:
- typical: average-high ability in both D and C
- dyslexic: low ability in D but average-high C
- hyperlexic: average-high ability in D but low C
- “garden-variety” poor: low ability in both D and C
Some notes on terminology: “garden-variety poor readers” is mildly dehumanizing but was used in academic articles into the 2000s. “Hyperlexia” can be confusing, as some writers use it to denote prodigious decoding abilities. Gough and Tunmer use it to mean readers without decoding deficits but with weaknesses in understanding. Today, it’s more commonly labelled specific reading comprehension deficit (S-RCD).
Jargon aside, the model is immediately accessible, doing students and teachers a service by foregrounding both decoding difficulties and other consequential problems. This matters because decoding difficulties, or dyslexia, generally receive far greater mainstream and academic attention. Another advantage is the formula’s remarkable coherence with recent, high-tech neuroscience studies of the reading brain.
The switchboard operator
As Kathy Rastle puts it in this excellent talk, “reading is not a skill that we are born to have”. It is an invention, involving the makeshift use of parts of the brain which evolved for other purposes, long before humans invented written language.
With that in mind, the brain’s left and right hemispheres are traditionally divided into four lobes. The left hemisphere’s occipital lobe is at the back of the brain and houses the visual cortex, which receives visual information.
According to Stanislas Dehaene in Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, inside the visual cortex, visual processing is remarkably specialized in the brain, with neuroimaging showing different areas in the same general region activated when an image is, for example, a number, a face, an object, or text. In the case of text, the stimuli activate a small area on the border between the occipital and temporal lobes. This occipito-temporal, or letterbox area, is like a switchboard operator, tasked with putting an inbound call through to the best department. Once the letterbox recognizes text in a visual stimulus, the information is directed along one of two routes.
The phonological route passes through the superior temporal lobe and activity here relates to auditory processing. This is D in Gough and Tunmer’s equation. The lexical route passes through the middle temporal lobe and activity here relates to meaning. This is the equation’s C. The phonological route is activated when words need sounding out before comprehension. When words are well-known and don’t require sounding out, the phonological route is bypassed in favor of the lexical route. Whichever route is taken, this process happens extremely quickly.
Reading, therefore, involves visual, auditory, and semantic-related brain activity, and efficient connections between various areas, from the brain’s back to its front, are required for its smooth functioning. Without these efficient connections, reading disabilities arise. Depending on the nature of the underlying brain circuitry, difficulties occur in bottom-up phonological decoding (dyslexia) or top-down comprehension (S-RCD).
In Dyslexia: A Very Short Introduction, Margaret Snowling summarizes neuroscientific research findings that the letterbox region in the brains of dyslexic readers is less active than that of typical readers. Meanwhile, there is more activity in the frontal lobe, areas of which are associated with speech production (e.g., Broca’s area). This suggests compensatory activity in dyslexic readers’ brains. Such compensation, Snowling states, also occurs in the right hemisphere.
Brain architecture largely, but not exclusively, results from genes. Snowling points to studies comparing identical and fraternal twins, who share 100% and 50% of their genes respectively. She estimates dyslexia’s heritability at about 0.7 (where 0 is no genetic influence and 1 is total genetic influence). Combinations of genes, rather than one “dyslexia gene” are predicted to cause this, but as Snowling notes, genetic dyslexia research is in its infancy.
Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit
While dyslexia is a serious reading disabilitiy, as the title of Cutting et al.’s (2013) article bluntly puts it, “Not All Reading Disabilities Are Dyslexia”. This paper is a model for reading disability research in comparing typical readers, dyslexic readers, and other poor readers. The authors replicated previous neuroscientific findings related to dyslexia and found that in these areas, S-RCD and typical readers were alike. Where they differed was in areas of the brain associated with memory. After reviewing the admittedly sparse S-RCD literature, Landi and Rherd (2017) describe unpublished findings hinting at further differences in regions of the brain associated with semantic processing. Moreover, they suggest that comprehension difficulties in S-RCD aren’t exclusive to reading, but also emerge in listening.
Our understanding of S-RCD lags far behind our knowledge of dyslexia in part because researchers have tended to only compare dylexic readers with typical readers and ignore other poor readers. Although the ‘three cohort’ approach taken by Cutting et al. was identified as good practice in 2004, it remains dispiritingly rare; Lopes et al. (2020) reviewed 800 studies and found only seven that follow this approach.
However, these findings are only preliminary clues; more work in this area is long overdue. Still, so far the Simple View of Reading seems to hold up well for both S-RDC and dyslexia.
Language teaching: a rebalancing act
Returning to Gough and Tunmer’s equation, in their focus on dyslexia researchers and policymakers have tended to emphasise decoding (D) at the expense of comprehension (C), sometimes even mistaking C for D. In L1 reading research and policy a rebalancing is required, with more weight placed on C. But what about L2 reading?
Earlier, I noted that my original aim in this article was to provide suggestions to help second language students with reading disabilities. My goal changed as I reflected on where, as an English teacher, I’d placed the weight.
Looking back, I’ve spent most of my career working on C. After all, language knowledge—grammar and vocabulary—is the foundation of language teaching. Knowing some grammar and vocabulary gets us further in L2 environment than sounding out phonemes and we teach accordingly. Does this disadvantage students with L1 decoding difficulties? Probably. But there are two good reasons to believe that placing more weight on decoding will improve outcomes for all students.
First, languages differ in the strength of the connection, or transparency, between spelling and pronunciation. Consider the sound that “o” makes in the English words “fowl,”, “women,” “woman,” “toy,” “out,” “know,”, and “now.” A study by Marjou (2021) used AI to quantify the transparency of 16 languages with a score out of 100. In terms of absolute transparency, English (a lowly 31.1 for reading transparency in the study) clearly poses particular problems, but relative transparency is worth considering too. Once familiar with the writing system of the target language, L1 speakers of Arabic (99.4) will probably find similarly transparent Korean (97.5) less troublesome than French (79.6), German (78) or Dutch (55.7). Decoding should therefore be a consideration for all language teachers and learners and should be taught and practised as an integral part of reading.
Second, pronunciation benefits when more emphasis is given to decoding. In formal language learning, the written form is usually the peg on which the spoken form is hung, because language is often introduced or recorded in writing before being practiced. Better decoding, then, means better pronunciation. As noted in this article from The Economist, there is much to explore, with different clusters of sounds permissible in different languages, leading to L1 interference in pronunciation. A vivid demonstration of this is provided in the niche genre of YouTube videos where L1 speakers of languages like English, French and German are presented with written words from unfamiliar languages and struggle heroically to pronounce them.
To be clear, language knowledge and comprehension remain profoundly important, so rather than over-correction, I’m arguing for a rebalancing between decoding and linguistic comprehension and an increase the in the level of explicit instruction related to decoding, which has been found to have very positives results (see Rastle et al. 2021).
Our students face two challenges simultaneously: the comprehension challenges intrinsic to learning any foreign language and the decoding difficulties caused by the target language’s transparency (or lack of it), which in English are considerable. Learners with reading difficulties in their first language may be particularly susceptible to these challenges, but all learners face this double jeopardy. Rather than seeking to diagnose our learners, we should do what we do best: create an environment in which students can explore and practice language, with an encouraging teacher and supportive peers.
What to do? My overarching suggestion is to keep decoding in mind while teaching. This can be achieved in numerous ways, depending on context. Given my background, English is my focus but parts of what follows are certainly applicable more broadly. Some ideas:
Teach and use the IPA
I favor Adrian Underhill’s layout, available here. With consistent, one-to-one matching between sound and symbol, the IPA helps the written system fully support listening and pronunciation. Baffling British place names like “Leicestershire” suddenly become straightforward to decode – /lestə∫ə/.
Yes, it’s an additional code. But it’s very teachable, as demonstrated in this playlist and workshop. I duplicated Underhill’s session weekly with different young learners around Europe and found a 45-minute Monday lesson with regular review created confident young phoneticians by Friday afternoon.
The IPA can then be used to explore spelling patterns and has a plethora of other uses, like correcting pronunciation errors, recording the pronunciation of new vocabulary, and comparing accents. If you detect an almost romantic admiration of the IPA on my part, you’re right.
For years of my teaching career, I either treated discussion of English spelling with the enthusiasm I’d have for a wasps’ nest discovered under my desk, or I’d give puzzled students a hard-luck smile and mutter something about “just having to learn it.” Once I understood the IPA this situation improved, but I know I could have done more to raise awareness of grapheme-phoneme mapping. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and say “English spelling is crazy” but there are regularities and patterns to explore. Rosane Silveira’s 2021 talk for the IATEFL Pronunciation SIG is a good starting-point.
Use reading circles
While, as its name suggests, Tyson Seberg’s Academic Reading Circles were intended for use in English for Academic Purposes classrooms, with a little adaptation they provide a useful framework for reading skill development in general. Students work in groups on a reading text, with each taking a different role. Some roles have a comprehension focus (e.g., the visualiser, who might be asked to draw a diagram or find images related to a text), while others have a decoding focus (e.g., the highlighter, who might be asked to identify words with a particular stress pattern). The students then share their findings in bouts of peer teaching. It’s a communicative way of encouraging close reading and is hugely flexible, with students taking on different roles within or between lessons, and the tasks for the roles changing too. For example:
- The speller looks for irregular spellings
- The sounder looks for schwa sounds
- The artist draws a comic strip of the text
- The grammarian draws a timeline of the text’s events
- The connector finds similarities between the text and other media
I’ve adapted this approach for one-to-one teaching, with “circles” replaced by “lenses” and the individual student switching between different task types. I found it a very productive framework for creating a variety of tasks for reading texts.
Jamie Emerson (MA, DELTA) has taught, designed, and managed English courses since 2012 in the UK, Europe, South America, and Asia. He has written for a variety of academic and trade publications and spoken at numerous conferences. He works for Advance HE, a member-led charity for the Higher Education sector.