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Oct 05
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by Doug Goldberg

A Perplexing Problem

In some ways the very idea of a reading disorder makes little sense; particularly in light of the “all things being equal” paradigm – i.e. that reading teachers and curriculum materials are usually adequate vehicles by which to impart this skill. To some extent, this is also true with regard to neuro-developmental factors.

For example, assume a given child has average intelligence, which, according to a study conducted by the Council of Exceptional Children (2011) is typical of most students with reading disorders. The fact that intellectual tests measure many of the same skills needed to learn to read, i.e. auditory memory, visual perception, visual computation and spatial perception suggests the reading disabled child’s cognitive and perceptual faculties are functioning well enough to absorb a wide variety of inputs from various sources (school, family, the general environment). This is especially relevant in light of the fact that the evidence for a specific, neurological dysfunction is varied and questionable. For example while some MRI studies have pointed to prefrontal cortical and executive function deficiencies (Beneventi, Tonessen et al. 2010) other studies have suggested cerebellar dysfunction (Nicolson, Faucett et. al 2001) while still another implicated working memory – presumably arising from temporal left hemispheric roots (Berninger, Raskind, 2008).  These assumptions are mostly based on brain activity levels – as derived from MRI studies and do not point to pathologies per se. In fact Berninger cautioned against drawing conclusions of neuro-pathological roots to reading disorders due to the fact that unusual brain activity patterns can arise from behavioral compensations learned by the child, resulting in skewed shifts in brain blood flow rather than from neuropathy. The idea that various brain sites could be involved in producing the disorder – as it often asserted with regard to more severe learning disorders such as autism, seems somewhat specious.  Children with reading disorders are usually normal in every respect, which runs contrary to the global brain dysfunction hypothesis inferable from these various research and theoretical sources.

In that context, assume the child has normal vision, hearing and language-associative capacities. That combination of skills should enable the child to develop the visual associative capacities needed to learn letters and words, the auditory/phonetic capacities to understand sound-symbol relationships and the linguistic ability to interpret reading passages within a communicative/grammatical framework.

The fact that children with reading disorders don’t typically exhibit significant cognitive deficits (i.e. fall generally within or even above average range) does not mean all children fitting in this category will have the same level of reading proficiency. Indeed many of the cognitive and academic tests used to assess intelligence and achievement (for example the Wechsler Intellectual (WISC) and Wechsler Academic scales (WIAT) feature performance correlations as part of the measurement process. For instance a student with a full scale WISC score of 88, will not be expected to read as well as a student with a score of 115.  As an aside, one of the ostensible problems with public education in the U.S. derives from the super-egalitarian cultural premise incorporated implicitly into the public education system; that if a child tries hard enough he or she can achieve anything they want. Real life, case studies and data suggest that might be a bit fanciful, and perhaps as corollary, that one-size-fits-all models, as seen in the No Child Left Behind evaluation process and the Common Core curriculum might not be terribly realistic - some discussion of that later.

On the other hand many students with strong, above average cognitive ability have a reading disorder. While some sort of soft neuro-dysfunction might be involved, the learning aspects of a reading disorder will the primary foci of this essay.

The Reading Gestalt

An interesting parallel can be drawn between how an aspiring little leaguer learns to pitch a baseball and how he learns to read. At the risk of appearing antediluvian, this writer recalls, as a nine year old  pitcher in little league a coach’s advice on the mechanics of pitching a baseball. While a certain amount of grumpiness and protest ensued (from both sides) the lesson boiled down to a single principle… make sure your wind-up, leg kick and delivery are all in one motion. Translated, the message was; don’t breakdown the movements. Instead learn to blend them together into one continuous (holistic) movement pattern.

In these words the coach was referencing unwittingly what psychologists call a “gestalt,” which means a melding of parts into a fluid whole. By his reckoning, a competent pitcher. even at little league level, would be able to take for granted – indeed virtually disregard - the nuts and bolts of the specific sequences involved in tossing the ball toward home plate in favor of a holistic, “windup.” Once the muscles and mind were trained that way, the kid can focus on strikes and balls.

Reading involves a similar gestalt process. It isn’t long after immersion that the young reader’s focus veers toward meaning (in line with his natural sense of language) and away from individual phonic, grammatical components. Most reading teachers understand that and come to expect fluency to kick in once the child acquires the fundamentals of letter, word and sound associations.  Some also probably understand that teaching these fundamentals can also have a paradoxical effect on the learning process.

Why such an odd assertion? Because the early teaching methods are (not to the fault of the teacher) artificial, while the actual backdrop of reading (the language-based aspect) is natural – even ostensibly genetic.

Reading is obviously a language–related skill. Under normal circumstances language learning comes naturally to a child. As Lenneberg (1967) argued, a child does not have to be taught how to speak.   Certainly he or she profits from social interaction, modeling and exposure to language idioms within the environment. However the child needn’t be taught to say his first words and the virtual explosion of vocabulary in the first several years of development appears not to be a direct function of teaching (Chomsky 2012).

Conversely, the child has no inherent predisposition toward an understanding of letters, words or numbers; a fact substantiated by human evolution. While mankind has been talking for perhaps 100,000 years, letters were only invented around 10,000 years ago and when early humans did begin to symbolize their world some 30,000 years ago it was in the form of concrete pictorials rather than abstract symbols. That historical fact makes the brain dysfunction thesis seem a bit specious – it would be akin to surmising that having difficulty fixing a washing machine was the result of deficient blood flow in the prefrontal cortex.

Because reading requires the integration (and restructuring) of a natural skill with a man-made skill, the child is forced to step back and symbolize what he already knows how to do. It is analogous to teaching him to crawl after he has taken his first steps.

Reading is a Conversation

In some sense, reading is nothing more than a symbolic representation of talking and listening. However reading is obviously a more complex version of language. For example speech per se does not involve visuals. Nor does it require a cognitive pause-function, forcing the linguistic thought process to slow  down in deference to the visual and grammatical regulation inherent in a reading exercise.

A child may refer to visual stimuli before speaking; for example seeing or pointing to an object and commenting… “horsie”…”dada” etc. But he does not have to hold back once expression begins in deference to grammatical rules and visual/symbolic differentiations.

Reading, Attention and Integration

With reference to the above comments, it is possible to assume a reading disorder might be partially related to a difficulty melding fluidly the rapid speed, cadence and flow of natural language with the cognitive, perceptual and mnemonic inhibition involved in learning to read.

Does that imply that a reading disorder is actually an attention-related problem? In some cases that is probably true. For example  research conducted at the Mayo Clinic indicated that about half the children diagnosed with ADHD were also diagnosed with a reading disorder (Mann,2010). In other cases it might be that speech cadence, vocabulary and other nuances learned in the home environment differ so markedly from the content of reading passages that the integration of natural and visual language cannot occur with adequate proficiency. To wit, if the child cannot read in the same way he talks, the new (to him) academically - scripted task of learning to read could entail an awkward juxtaposition manifest as schematic confusion.

Beyond Attention

The fact that many children diagnosed with a reading disorder do not exhibit ADHD patterns suggests other factors are involved. One of which might be social. Language is tethered to social interaction but not all students are highly social. In that context, reading passages that are often descriptive and depict people or creatures interacting, might conflict with some children’s view of the world. While little research evidence research exists to confirm this, some studies have shown that some students are more adept at comprehending mechanical, factual, non-personal reading matter. For instance in a worldwide literacy survey it was discovered that the gap between girls and boys in terms of reading ability was not only significant but widened over time. Yet the study also indicated that boys were adept at reading newspapers, graphic novels, magazines and shortened texts whereas girls preferred and excelled at reading fiction. That suggests that cognitive style, social outlook and gender might play a role in terms of reading proficiency.

Necessary Basics

That does not necessarily argue for a gender specific reading curriculum – anymore than it would for a math curriculum based on gender, where boys tend to out-perform girls. Moreover, In defense of elementary school teachers, the skill of reading must begin with fundamentals regardless of gender and social orientation. Unless one can recognize letters and words and sound them out, it is difficult to develop any level of fluency. Therefore across-the-board criticism of early reading programs and instructors is unwarranted, especially since elementary level teachers are typically well-versed in child development.   That leads to another aspect of the problem, one discussed at length by developmental theorist Jean Piaget.

Schemes – Disequilibrium - Assimilation

Learning new material entails certain prerequisites. The most crucial is the existence of a priori schemata – i.e. chunks of knowledge, or points of reference to serve as fulcrum, foundation, measuring stick and criteria for comparison between stored memories and new inputs. Learning does not beginin the classroom. Instead it is initially generated from internal schemata. It is an inside-out process (As an aside, the fact that the teacher is a secondary factor in education provides another reason to abstain from blaming them solely for students’ poor academic performance).  Each new input is invariably judged as to relevance and interest in terms of those cognitive schemes. If the input (i.e. teacher’s  lesson) is completely in sync with the schemata, i.e.  is completely recognizable, it will foster boredom. Conversely, if the relationship between schemata and input is too discrepant, confusion, cognitive discomfort and task-avoidance will typically result; in which case the lesson will not be assimilated. In order to learn maximally, a certain degree of moderate conflict between schemata and input must incur. Piaget referred to this process as “disequilibrium.”

To maximize learning, input must diverge enough from the schemata so as to be somewhat but not completely recognizable, i.e. be semi-consonant with the schemata. Within that framework the lesson would optimally be some combination of sameness and newness. That juxtaposition is what foments curiosity (as opposed to avoidance and aversion), enhances attention, galvanizes neurological investment, extends memory and most effectively facilitates learning.

Common Core – Yin and Yang

As discussed earlier, such learning mechanisms automatically lead to a discussion of the much-debated Common Core curriculum. Some, such as Walker (2014) have argued that it works, while others such as Butcher, McGroarty et. al. (2012) have suggested it needs to be overhauled or replaced with something else. Both are right – neither argument is encompassing.  For students whose natural language experience coincides with the way reading is taught in school, advanced methods probably do work. For students whose natural language propensities are at odds with the language/reading format used in modern curricula teaching an advanced approach could be not only unsuccessful but counterproductive.

This writer has no ultimate solution to the problem of reading disorders, but one element that can perhaps be gleaned from research and theory on child development – as well as from the distinction between natural and visual language - is that certain questions and principles can perhaps be applied in addressing the problem. For example, educators might inquire as to…

  1. Whether students’ schemata match the content of the reading curriculum.
  2. How a teacher can evaluate the scope and particulars of those schemata – especially in large classrooms, for instance through use of a life/language experience scales (formal or informal) and interest surveys gleaned from discussion with students or submitted by parents when students cannot articulate such preferences.
  3.  How a conversational language sample from the student might help in gaining a sense of cadence and vocabulary so as to create a close match between the student’s natural language and the content of the reading language.
  4. Whether there are ways to blend the natural flow of language with the restrictive, associative aspects of early reading skills; for example by presenting letters of the alphabet in conversational form, e.g.…  A is for apple, which goes good with candy at the amusement park,  and you can also put it in pies for Thanksgiving. You all like apple pie, don’t you?..Alright then, A is for apple. Meanwhile,  B is the first letter in the word bee – and no one wants to be stung by a bee. Anyone been stung by a bee. Ouch!! B  Is it also the first letter in the word baseball, and by the way, are there any Red Sox fans in this class? Maybe one day some of you will play on a team. Maybe you have older brothers or sisters who play on a team now – anyone?  Once again, B is for baseball.
  5. If there is a way to create disequilibrium – the precious semi-recognizable discrepancy between schemata and teacher input that maximizes learning functions. Here the answer might be surprisingly simple. It can be done by adding questions to the lesson. For example. A is for apple, and you can put apples in pies, you can bob for them in a contest – anyone ever put their head in water to pull out an apple and win a prize? By the way, there must be other places where you’d find apples. Can anyone tell me if there are other foods or a drinks where you’d find apples?

The general point here is that the more student-centered the lesson the more likely it is the student will learn to his or her actual ability. Conversely as the curriculum drifts more toward a central, systematized approach, the fewer number of students will be accommodated in the achievement equation. In the final analysis, this argues for the time-honored notion that the prime variables in education are the scheme, the teacher and the student rather than data-drive curricula, methodologies or standards geared more toward homogenizing students than toward reaching and teaching as many of them as possible.


Beneventi, H. Tonnessen, F.E. Ersland, L. Hugdahl, K. (2010) Executive Working Memory Processes in Dyslexia; Behavioral and MRI Evidence. Scandanavian Journal of Psychology 51 (3) 192-202

Berninger, V. Raskind, W. Richards, T. Abbott, R. Stock, P. (2008) A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Understanding Developmental Dyslexia Within the Working Memory Architecture; Genotypes, Phenotypes, Brain and Instruction. Developmental Neuropsychology 33 (6) 707-744

Butcher, K. Manning, M.L. (2010) Gender and Reading Preference. Pearson, Allyn Bacon, Prentice Hall.

Butcher, J. Mc Groarty, E. & Finne, L. (May, 2012) Why the Common Core is Bad for America. Article in Washington Policy Center

Chomsky, N. (2012) On Nature and Language. Cambridge University Press.

Lenneberg, C.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language, New York, Wiley & Sons

Mann. D. Research Says Children with ADHD Also Have Reading Disorders. Article derived from Mayo Clinic Research Project. Retrieved Sept. 2012 from Pediatrics, May 2010.

Nicolon, R.I. Faucett, AJ Dean. Ap. (2001) Developmental Dyslexia: The Cerebellar Deficit Hypothesis. Trends in Neuroscience 24 (9) 508-511

Notes on: Intellectual Ability and Reading Disorders. Article in Council of Exceptional Children. NHI Study Confirms that IQ scores are unrelated to Reading Disorders. Nov 11, 2008

Piaget, J  (1962) The Language and Thought of the Child. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Walker. T. Article in NEA Today. Six Ways the Common Core is Good for Students. Retrieved Sept. 2, 2014


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