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Let’s Start Paying Attention to Reading Development

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Without delay, you might be reading these words, and by the end of this sentence, you effortlessly comprehend the text.

Given its automaticity, we often consider reading to be a naturally occurring process. This is however a misconception. In fact, reading is an evolved ability that has been found to be dependent upon an oral language skill known as phonological processing. This skill enables us to break down words into smaller parts and join sound units to form whole words. It also enables us to remember the sound of a word or list of numbers, as well as provides the ability to rapidly retrieve information from long-term memory.

Poor phonological processing often leads to a reading problem, the most common being dyslexia. Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading that is independent of intelligence, race, social background or effective instruction and exists in the absence of any known medical condition. It affects approximately 10 per cent of the population. 

Of course, decades of reading research have provided the consensus that skilled reading emerges after years of structured instruction and experience with different word types. In fact, the most supported explanation of why dyslexia emerges is the phonological deficit theory, explaining that impairment in phonological processing is detrimental to the attainment of skilled reading.

But, why do some individuals, who after being exposed to such structured phonological interventions, still find reading difficult?

Despite the wealth of well-documented research on the pronounced phonological deficit in readers with dyslexia, attempts to restrict the difficulties to problems in phonological processing, have therefore remained mixed. The phonological deficit theory of dyslexia has come under much scrutiny because it is limited in its explanation of other profiles of dyslexia, including surface dyslexia, in which there is no phonological processing difficulty, but impaired exception word (words that are not pronounced how they are spelled) reading.

The theory also fails to adequately account for the attentional problems experienced by some people with dyslexia. In fact, although, phonological processing predisposes us to learn how to read, non-language influences, such as attention, have been found to be related to reading development.

How might attention be related to reading?

People with dyslexia, comparable to those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have central executive impairments. They demonstrate slow eye movements, which are a requirement for focusing while reading.  Similarly, people with dyslexia have been found to have dysregulated fixation times, and might spend too much or too little time on information compared to people without dyslexia. Interestingly, a recent study in 2009 found that Italian children scored poorly on measures of attention. It was however interesting that after accounting for phonological processing skills, the impact of attention disappeared. In other words, attention seems to affect reading through its impact on phonological processing skills, which in turn might have deleterious effects on the attainment of skilled reading. This general finding has also been observed in other languages such as Dutch and English.

Given that poor attention may affect reading through its impact upon phonological processing skills, more research is however needed to validate this relationship. If a robust and meaningful relationship between attention and phonological processing is a consistent finding from future research, it would suggest that in addition to strengthening phonological processing skills, we also should aim to provide attention regulation strategies to improve the remediation process for children with dyslexia. 

Samantha-Kaye Johnston is a PhD researcher at Curtin University. She has been involved in human development initiatives since 2005. 

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