Reading Disabilities: Fatigue and the Internal Routings of the Brain
Children who suffer from reading disabilities often feel frustrated, get fatigued easily, and avoid reading altogether. Many of these learners resort to other, more immediate yet less practical methods of getting through a reading exercise, such as straight-up memorization. They often cannot recognize the letter shapes. The connection between word components, known as phonemic awareness, just does not kick in automatically. This is a serious challenge for young children, especially when their classroom peers become aware of the problem.
Teachers, tutors, and parents have struggled to understand the turmoil that goes on inside a learning-disabled student. Bernice Wong, in her substantive text, Learning About Learning Disabilities (1991), highlights a range of techniques that can help decoding and word reading a fluent and largely unconscious process.
Students with a reading disability exert great mental effort to decode (sound out) word forms and develop phonemic awareness. Researchers LaBerge and Samuels (1991), point out that “poor decoders expend cognitive resources in decoding and have reduced capacity available to facilitate comprehension” (page 265). Dr. Hempenstall’s (2011) research further confirms the physical effort required of struggling readers, suggesting they use “up to five times as much energy while reading as do fluent readers.”
Under such circumstances, reading is tiring as well as frustrating. This creates a no-win situation for a child with a reading disability. Figuring out word shapes and making sense of them remains a conscious and mentally draining task. This reinforces a negative perception of reading which further stifles the desire to read.
How Reading is Routed Through the Brain
Any study of the physicality of the reading process inevitably involves an understanding of brain physiology. Hempenstall (2011), a senior researcher at the School of Education at RMIT University, points out that the brain, when observed through functional MRI brain imaging, uses different areas within the left hemisphere (not just one) to convert letters into sounds.
Dr. Hempenstall points out that for students with normal reading ability, the parieto-temporal area of the left hemisphere sounds out the words, while another area, the occipitotemporal area, builds a visual model of that word. These two areas work together to build meaning and usage of each word, which, with some repetition, eventually allows for instant word recognition.
He adds that although some educators might advise against “sounding out” words as part of the learning process, the act of sounding out helps stimulate and build up the information stored in the first (the parieto-temporal) area of the brain, making it easier to access this second, fast-acting occipitotemporal region.
When not given adequate and consistent instruction in phonic skills, students with reading disabilities create a different neural pathway, using the visual centers of the right hemisphere to perceive and recall words as if they were pictures. This results in reduced blood flow to the brain’s left-hemisphere language centers.
In league with many of the prominent researchers in the field, the consensus seems to demand “a renewed emphasis on the phonological approach to beginning reading, in which children take their first steps toward skilled reading by breaking words into sounds and syllables.” (Hempenstall, K. 2011).
Combining Phonological with Morphological Instruction
Other experts, including Dr. Berrill (2018), Professor Emeritus at the School of Education & Professional Learning at the Trent University recommend blending the awareness of phonemes with that of morphemes. She explains that morphemes are word parts that convey meaning.
For example, the word unzipped has three morphemes: the prefix un- which means “not” or “opposite;” the root or base word zip, and the suffix –ed which indicates an action done in the past. “Understanding morphology helps a reader determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word by enabling the reader to segment, or break down, a word into its root word and its affixes. This also helps readers better understand meaning and spelling”. (Berrill, 2018).
She proposes that a morphological approach thus “not only complements a phonemic approach to decoding but it is of tremendous help for students who have difficulty with the phonics approach as it does not rely on the ability to hear the sounds in words. Rather, a morphological approach relies on recognizing and understanding the meanings of root words and affixes”. (Berril, 2018)
The study of learning disabilities, including reading, continues in earnest, and the systematic study of the brain using functional MRI is starting to reveal the secrets of the brain’s distinct areas of learning and memory as well as its surprising degree of plasticity. Brain plasticity is evidenced in patients who have lost significant portions of their brain to accident, illness, or trauma yet they seem to be able to rebuild their abilities by consistent application of cognitive rehabilitation techniques.
With children who suffer from reading disability, the common intervention is consistent and systematic instruction in phonics skills that help build and consolidate the brain’s left hemisphere language pathways, and ultimately make the recognition of word sounds a less strenuous – and more automatic process.
Wong, Bernice. (1991). Learning About Learning Disabilities, Academic Press
Hempenstall, Kerry. (2011). Use your brain and teach children to read properly. https://theconversation.com/use-your-brain-and-teach-children-to-read-properly-3579
Berrill, Deborah. (2018). Learning to Read: The Importance of Both Phonological and Morphological Approaches, https://www.ldatschool.ca/phonological-morphological-approaches/