Vienna/Salzburg (Austrian Science Fund) - A not inconsiderable number of children, particularly boys, have unexpected difficulties in learning to read and spell. It is estimated that up to 10 % of all children are affected. With the support of the Austrian Science Fund, Heinz Wimmer, Karin Landerl and Florian Hutzler from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Salzburg are investigating the neuropsychological cause of these learning difficulties. An important initial finding is that a clear distinction must be made between poor reading and poor spelling.
In a major longitudinal study in Salzburg, it was revealed that the children who were predominantly poor spellers were already showing a range of linguistic difficulties when they started school. These difficulties related particularly to phonology (e.g. rhyme and remembering new words). This finding matches the results of international Anglo-American research.
"The explanation is that the specific spellings of words are remembered effectively when multiple associative links are made between the sequence of letters and the sound components," explains Wimmer. This multiple associative linking is not found amongst children with spelling difficulties. One remarkable new finding is that one group of children are specifically poor readers, i.e. they read slowly and with great effort, but show average ability when it comes to spelling. These children showed no phonological impairment when they started school. The only problem was difficulty with the rapid naming of visual stimuli.
Several studies have particularly focussed on the reasons behind slow reading by dyslexic children. Wimmer says: "A major finding in this area is that the slower reading speed is not a result of text comprehension difficulties (longer reflection), since it is also apparent during the reading of lists of unrelated words and during the reading of completely new words." This latter observation rules out the possibility of a specific memory weakness for frequently recurring words being the reason behind reduced reading fluency. In current studies, Wimmer is investigating whether a general problem of controlling eye movements could be the reason behind this reduced reading speed, since children who are poor readers show shorter and, consequently, more frequent eye movements when they are reading. Initial findings suggest that this is not the reason, however, since, during a search experiment based on visual stimuli resembling letters and words (with no sound or speech associations), the majority of these children showed an unimpaired eye movement pattern. Patterns of electrical brain activity (electro-encephalogram - EEG) in dyslexic children are currently being examined during different reading tasks.
Wimmer says: "Surprisingly, the reading of new and difficult words produces less activity in the right brain hemisphere in areas which are responsible for controlling and distributing the resources available for cognitive processing." The aim is now to examine the role of specific regions of the brain in the case of reading impairment, using new imaging processes which have been developed in cooperation with neurologists. "This will then allow for new techniques to be developed to help such children. However, the main priority is determining the cause. At present, speculation about the cause of poor reading and spelling is rife, but is often unfounded, and is not helpful for either the children affected or their parents," says Wimmer.
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Heinz Wimmer
Institute of Psychology, University of Salzburg
T 0662 8044 5128
CLOOS + PARTNER, Public Relations Agency
T 01 710 85 99
Vienna, 20 March 2002