DYSLEXIA AND THE PHONOLOGICAL MODEL Essay

This essay has a total of 1706 words and 7 pages.

DYSLEXIA AND THE PHONOLOGICAL MODEL

Over one hundred years ago, in November 1896, a doctor in Sussex, England, published the
first description of the learning disorder that would come to be known as developmental
dyslexia. "Percy F.,... aged 14,... has always been a bright and intelligent boy," wrote
W. Pringle Morgan in the "British Medical Journal," "quick at games, and in no way
inferior to others of his age. His great difficulty has been--and is now--his inability to
learn to read.” (Sec 3)

In that brief introduction, Morgan captured the illness that has intrigued and frustrated
scientists for a century. In 2000 as in 1896, reading ability is taken as a substitute
for intelligence; most people assume that if someone is smart, motivated and schooled, he
or she will learn to read. But the experience of millions of dyslexics, like Percy F., has
shown that assumption to be false. In dyslexia, the relation between intelligence and
reading ability breaks down.

Early explanations of dyslexia in the 1920s, held that defects in the visual system were
to blame for the reversals of letters and words thought to typify dyslexic reading. Eye
training was often prescribed to overcome these alleged visual defects. Later research has
shown, however, that children with dyslexia are not unusually prone to reversing letters
or words and that the deficit responsible for the disorder is related to the language
system. In particular, dyslexia reflects a deficiency in the processing of the
distinctive linguistic units, called phonemes that make up all spoken and written words.
Current linguistic models of reading and dyslexia now provide an explanation of why some
very intelligent people have trouble learning to read and performing other
language-related tasks.

Over the past twenty years, a consistent model of dyslexia has emerged that is based on
phonological processing. The phonological model is consistent both with the clinical
symptoms of dyslexia and with what neuroscientists know about brain organization and
function. To understand how the phonological model works, one first has to consider the
way in which language is processed in the brain. Researchers theorize the language system
as a hierarchical series of modules or components, each devoted to a particular aspect of
language. At the upper levels of the hierarchy are components involved with semantics
(vocabulary or word meaning), syntax (grammatical structure) and discourse (connected
sentences). At the lowest level of the hierarchy is the phonological module, which is
dedicated to processing the distinctive sound elements that constitute language.

The phoneme, defined as the smallest meaningful segment of language, is the fundamental
element of the linguistic system. Different combinations of just 44 phonemes produce every
word in the English language. The word "cat," for example, consists of three phonemes:
"kuh," "aah," and "tuh." (Linguists indicate these sounds as |k|, |ae| and |t|.) Before
words can be identified, understood, stored in memory or retrieved from it, they must
first be broken down, or parsed, into their phonetic units by the phonological module of
the brain.

In spoken language, this process occurs automatically, at a preconscious level. As Steven
Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has argued, “language is
instinctive--all that is necessary is for humans to be exposed to it”(Sec 6). A
genetically determined phonological module automatically assembles the phonemes into words
for the speaker and translates the spoken word back into its underlying phonological
components for the listener.

In producing a word, the human speech mechanism--the larynx, palate, tongue and lips--
automatically compresses and merges the phonemes. As a result, information from several
phonemes is combined into a single unit of sound. Because there is no obvious clue to the
underlying nature of speech, spoken language appears to be seamless. Therefore, an
oscilloscope would register the word "cat" as a single burst of sound; only the human
language system is capable of distinguishing the three phonemes embedded in the word.

“Reading reflects spoken language”, as Alvin M. Liberman of Haskins Laboratories in New
Haven, Conn., points out, “but it is a much harder skill to master”(Sec 3). Although both
speaking and reading rely on phonological processing, there is a significant difference:
speaking is natural, and reading is not. Reading is an invention and must be learned at a
conscious level. The task of the reader is to transform the visual percepts of alphabetic
script into linguistic ones, that is, to recode graphemes (letters) into their
corresponding phonemes. To accomplish this, the beginning reader must first come to a
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