„Dyslexic readers face different challenges in reading of different orthographies“

Three questions too Irit Bar-Kochva, scholarship holder at DIPF. The scientiest from Haifa researches the development of successful learning and specifically lexical intervention in reading. In our interview, she explains why German and Spanish children learn reading very fast compared to English pupils and how readers who struggle with dyslexia might be helped. She makes clear: „Reading is a highly complex procedure and you have to distinguish between its components in order to know what has to be trained.“

Recent research at the University of Haifa in Israel (Breznitz, Shaul, Horowitz-Kraus, Sela, Nevat, & Karni, 2013), where you previously worked, has shown that limiting time to read has helped poor readers to make progress, just by fading out the text and inducing a quicker reading pace. Now, researchers at DIPF have proven the method’s effectivity for children who read in German. How do different languages and orthographies affect the way we learn to read?

Bar-Kochva: Different orthographies have different characteristics. For example, orthographies vary in the relations between sound and spelling. While some have transparent grapheme-phoneme correspondence like German and Spanish, others have more opaque relations between spelling and sound, like English. Research has shown that the transparency of these relations affect the pace of reading acquisition. German readers learn to read very fast compared to English readers. Due to the transparency of German, the deciphering of the orthographic code should suffice for accurate reading. In English, however, there are many irregularities in writing, which take longer to learn.

barkochva_iritApart from the degree of transparency between spelling and sound, which has been studied extensively, orthographies also differ in many other aspects, such as in their morphological structure and the visual load they may impose. Arabic, for example, has another special characteristic which is called diglossia. It means that there is a gap between spoken language and literal language. Such differences between orthographies may have different effects on reading and its underlying processes.

„Dyslexia has a common neurological basis and in this sense it is a universal phenomenon“

Differences between orthographies were also found to have an effect on the way dyslexia is manifested. On the one hand, dyslexia has a common neurological basis and in this sense it is a universal phenomenon, but on the other hand dyslexic readers face different challenges in reading of different orthographies. Dyslexic readers of transparent orthographies were found to reach good levels of accuracy in reading, while readers of opaque orthographies were found to have continuing difficulties in accurate reading. The attainment of fluency in reading is, however, a common difficulty for dyslexic readers of different orthographies. The method of time-constrained reading, which focuses on fluent reading, appears to represent a universal concept of intervention. And indeed, it has been tested in readers of Hebrew, English, Dutch – and now German. But as far as I know, this method has not yet been tested in non-alphabetic orthographies.

At the same time, other methods of training may be more effective in one orthography than in the other. Specifically in Hebrew and in Arabic, the morphological structure of a word is very important in reading. Based on studies showing that morphological decomposition of the word is a core procedure of skilled reading, I developed a program designed to impose a demand for morphological analysis in reading. This program had shown positive results in preliminary study of dyslexic readers of Hebrew, but needs further substantiation. Now, the question arises if it is also relevant for the German language which has a completely different morphological structure.

The research in this field is based on the preliminary work in Haifa, your former workplace. Why is Israel so advanced in developing trainings to help people with reading difficulties?

First and foremost, it has to do with the specific people who work and have worked there, like the late Professor Zvia Breznitz, who made great contributions in advancing research on reading and its intervention.

Example of biblical Hebrew trope.svg
(„Example of biblical Hebrew trope“ by Ezra Katz)

It may also have to do with the special characteristic of the Hebrew and Arabic languages and orthographies, which allow the testing of many interesting theoretical questions. For example, Hebrew allows the isolation of the impact of the transparency of grapheme-phoneme-connection mentioned above. When you compare the reading skills of a group of German readers to a group of English readers in order to examine effects of orthographic transparency, different sources of variations are also involved, such as the language spoken, different school curricula, different local cultures and so on. In Hebrew, however, we have an advantage because the same group of students can read two forms of orthography which transcribe the same oral language –one is highly transparent (Hebrew with diacritics) and the other one is opaque (Hebrew without diacritics). This is due to the fact that diacritics, which denote mainly the vowels of words, are added only during the first years of reading acquisition. Later on, they are simply left out. During the third and fourth grades, children are still exposed to both forms of script, so this is also the stage when the two forms of script can be compared in a within-subjects design, thereby allowing a better isolation of the aspect of transparency of spelling-sound relations.

What is still ahead?

I now plan to try to encourage dyslexic readers to use specific processes of reading that characterize skilled readers, such as the morphological decomposition of words at the very early stages of word processing. This may contribute to efficient lexical access in reading. Reading is a highly complex procedure and you have to distinguish between its components in order to know what has to be trained. So, the morphological component is just one aspect I am working on now.

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