Dyslexia: New Horizons in Understanding Reading

Phonological Awareness and Rapid Automatic Naming: Two Cores of the Same Fruit

It has been known for some years now that both phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming (RAN) speed are associated with reading. But what do these tongue twisters mean? Both describe the new reader’s ability to use and understand rhymes, and detect and manipulate sounds. My preliterate 4-year-old son surprised us one day when he overheard me helping my 7-year-old sister spell the word cobbler. He jumped in with “It’s cobb then ler”, demonstrating that he had already acquired the basic principle of segmenting words into sounds.

The two children enjoyed playing the “secret codes” word game: “When I say jara, you know I am saying raja (king), when I say nira I mean rani (queen).” We also played with spoonerisms, such as learty hunch means hearty lunch, gaterwate means Watergate, and tice noy means nice toy. By the age of five, he enjoyed playing the take the sound away game: “If I was carrying a chair, and a strong wind blew the ch away, what would I be carrying?” He would say, “Nothing!” and blow a puff of air at me with a laugh!

Phonological Awareness and Reading

It is widely accepted that most children with reading difficulties have a core phonological deficit that interferes with their ability to develop phonological awareness, that is, the ability to perceive and manipulate the sounds of spoken words. Children who are learning to read differ widely in phonological awareness; some are very good at it by their second year in elementary school, while others at that age still find these simple games very difficult.

Phonological awareness has been repeatedly shown to be a strong predictor of reading ability, in both alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems. Studies have also shown that a child’s level of phonological awareness, measured when reading instruction begins, accurately predicts his/her reading performance in later years. This holds true even after such variables as print exposure, letter knowledge, and verbal intelligence have been allowed for, and can be demonstrated as early as kindergarten. However, most researchers agree that phonological awareness alone does not account for all reading problems in children. Studies have shown that several cognitive processes are also good predictors of reading, at kindergarten and even before.

RAN: The Other Core Ability for Learning to Read

Recently, RAN has been acknowledged as a second core deficit in reading disabilities (see for example, Wolf and Bowers, 1999). RAN is described as the ability to name, as fast as possible, visually presented familiar symbols, such as colors, shapes, objects, and letters. It is the foundation for the skills of letter recognition, learning the sounds of words, and translating spelling to speech. As with phonological awareness, RAN performance has been shown to distinguish average from poor readers during childhood and into adulthood. Similarly, even after statistically equating IQ, reading experience, attention deficit disorder, socioeconomic status, articulation rate, and, most importantly, phonological awareness, RAN remains a reliable predictor of reading.

We know that naming of colors, shapes, and objects can significantly predict the naming of words. A recent study by Wolf and Bovvers (1999) offered some experimental evidence, demonstrating that the perception of objects and written words share some common features. These include grammatical encoding, phonological (syntactic) encoding, and articulation demand. The difference is that object recognition involves a semantic, or conceptual, system, whereas for naming written words, a syntactic system is sufficient. This study also suggested a theoretical reason for this common ground—object recognition and naming written words must share some fundamental cognitive process.

Tests of cognitive processes show that successive processing is central to early reading. It is significantly involved in word decoding, especially for pseudo-words and words to be read aloud (that is, requiring punctuation). Tasks testing successive processing correlate strongly with these basic reading requirements, the strongest correlations being those with the Speech Rate task (the fast repetition of three simple words), the Naming Time task (naming rows of single letters, digits, color strips, or simple and familiar words), and the Short-term Memory task. Simultaneous processing also plays an important part in basic reading skills, such as blending (in word reading) and comprehension of meaning. A consistent training program to enhance successive and simultaneous processing, independent of reading, can help children who are at risk for reading difficulties.

The importance of RAN in predicting reading ability and differentiating between poor and good readers has been shown not only in English, but also in languages characterized by a transparent orthography (for example, German, Dutch, or Greek). In languages other than English, it has been found that poor readers are more likely to have deficits in RAN than in phonological processing, and even in English, some poor readers with a speed deficit have no significant impairment in accurate reading of real or nonwords. It is widely accepted that the most severe kind of reading deficiency results from deficits in both speed and accuracy, as compared to individual readers who have only a speed deficit. In support of the unique contribution of RAN in predicting reading, Wolf and Bowers in their 1999 review paper suggested the double-deficit hypothesis (Wolf and Bowers, 1999).

According to this hypothesis, four groups of children can be identified: a group with normal reading, a group with deficits only in rapid naming speed, a group with deficits only in phonological awareness, and a double-deficit group with difficulties in both RAN and phonological awareness. Children in the double-deficit group tend to have the most severe difficulties in learning to read. Several studies have found that children in the double-deficit group had the lowest scores on word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension measures, and also that children experiencing both phonological awareness and RAN deficits benefited the least from remediation.

Although RAN has been found to consistently account for variance in reading ability, the nature of the link between RAN and reading remains the focus of the ongoing debate. Various researchers have developed competing models to explain why RAN is related to reading. Some classify RAN as a type of phonological ability, maintaining that RAN tasks assess the rate of access to and retrieval of phonologically based information stored in long-term memory. Other researchers think that RAN should be considered a separate cognitive processing skill related to reading, asserting that RAN emphasizes skills like processing speed and the integration of visual processes with cognitive and linguistic processes.

Pause Time and Articulation Time

There is now ample evidence to show that successive processing difficulty is generally associated with reading difficulties in specifically reading-disabled children, but not in poor readers without such a disability. As we have seen, successive processing is important in reading, including in naming time.

Rapid automatic naming actually consists of several different tasks, and recent research shows that dyslexics perform differently from other poor readers. In a typical rapid naming time task, 40 or 50 randomly sequenced colors, pictures, numbers, or letters appear on a page in rows of 8 or 10 items. Time for rapid naming in these tasks can be divided into the time taken for the articulation of a letter (that is, searching for the name, assembling pronunciation, and actual articulation of the word) and the pause between articulating one item and the next. There may also be a significant pause between one set of items and the next. Recent research has shown that the major difference between dyslexic and nondyslexic readers exists in the pauses, rather than in the articulation time.

How can we explain pauses in terms of cognitive processes? The first component of the pause is disengagement of attention—the child has to give up what he has just said and get ready to say the name of the next color or letter. The remainder of the gap time could be broadly named encoding, which ends after finding a name for the next color, assembling the pronunciation for the color name, and forming a motor program for articulation. Each of these three different processes could contribute to the gap time. It is suggested that while repeating the stimuli over and over again (as in the typical naming time test of some 40 or 50 items), some amount of reactive inhibition may build up due to the continuous demand on fast reading.

Reactive inhibition is expected to arise during massed practice (Eysenck, 1967). When this happens, involuntary rest pauses, a temporary condition of pauses, must occur for the dissipation of reactive inhibition. Therefore, perhaps towards the middle of the naming time task, reactive inhibition would be sufficiently strong to increase the gap time. Then, the child automatically takes an involuntary rest pause, becomes refreshed when the reactive inhibition has been dissipated, and comes back rejuvenated to resume at a faster naming speed.

An experiment by Georgiou and Parrila (2004) on kindergarten children reached a very interesting conclusion. The time to articulate the name of a color remained constant as children were observed from kindergarten through Grade 1, while the pause time was reduced. Notice that in the Figure El, the two major components, articulation (the wavy and tall marks of speech) and pause time, are shown. In this case, a child is naming colors— red, yellow, green, blue. The pauses between the color naming and the articulation of the color name itself are distinctly visible in the diagram.

The children were tested three times, each time about 6 months apart—first in kindergarten, again in the fall term of Grade 1, and, finally, in the spring term of Grade 1. As the children got older, it was noticed that the articulation time hardly changes. The pause time, however, was the longest in kindergarten, decreased substantially (by about 35 percent) 6 months later, and reduced further, though not so spectacularly, by the third test. The child is, perhaps, now able to encode faster, to disengage attention more efficiently, and to prepare for articulation by assembling a pronunciation that has become easier as he has grown older.

This research emphasizes the fact that speed is not a blanket term because even within the same task, the speed of articulation is unrelated to the pause time.

There are three important parts of reading:

1. Phonology, that is, the sounds of letters, syllables, and words, when the sounds and syllables are blended. While reading a word, especially long and unfamiliar words, the sounds and syllables have to be segmented or broken apart.

2. Orthography, or the writing system that a language uses, which may give rise to confusion in reading words such as dead and bead, tough and though.

3. Semantics, or meaning of the words. The purpose of reading is not only to get sound from spelling, but also to get meaning from print.

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