Paula Tallal On Dyslexia And Why Reading Scores Are Not Rising

December 17, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

Tallal Testifies In Washington And Challenges Current Approach To Helping Dyslexia

On September 30, 2015 prominent neuroscience researcher and Fast ForWord software creator Dr. Paula Tallal testified in a hearing on the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia (READ) Act held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The READ Act, currently under consideration by Congress, would require the National Science Foundation (NSF) to spend $5M every year to research on dyslexia, especially on educational strategies to help dyslexia.

The testimony by Tallal on dyslexia aimed to shed light on why the educational system in the United States has not been significantly improving in its ability to help students with reading difficulties, even as researchers continue to make progress on understanding the science behind dyslexia.  In fact, the US is spending almost 2x per student more in real terms than it did 3 decades ago, and get reading results have barely budged.

Tallal argued that this stagnation is not the result of a lack of knowledge about dyslexia, but an inability so far to turn knowledge into action.

While researchers continue to gain insight into the neuroscience underlying dyslexia, this insight has not translated into concrete solutions that improve the educational experience of the millions of children who struggle with reading. In her testimony, Tallal underscored this point by quoting her colleague Sally Shaywitz, a Yale professor: “we do not have a knowledge gap, but an action gap.”

paula-tallal-with-brainTallal on Dyslexia: It Is A Language Problem

According to Tallal, a major reason for this action gap has to do with misconceptions many people have about dyslexia. Dyslexia is widely considered specifically a reading problem. However, several lines of research are converging on the conclusion that for many students, dyslexia is not an isolated reading difficulty but a symptom of a more general language deficit, a language processing problem.

Therefore, teachers who attempt to treat dyslexia only through intensive reading instruction may be destined to fail since they are not addressing the underlying language issues.

To explain why reading difficulties do not necessarily begin as reading difficulties, Tallal pointed out that several more general language skills constitute essential ingredients for literacy – students cannot learn to read in a language until they have already developed the ability to use that language fluently and automatically.

More specifically, research has found that skills like accurately processing sounds in a split second and distinguishing between subtly different sounds are prerequisites for literacy. Tallal’s testimony cited work by Nina Kraus and others that has shown that by testing these skills researchers can identify infants at high risk for reading difficulties years in advance.

To give a sense of how early the trajectory of atypical language learning can begin, Tallal also mentioned work by April Benasich demonstrating that researchers can predict subsequent language-based learning difficulties in otherwise non-impaired 7-month-old infants simply by looking at how the infants process auditory tones.

It Comes Down To Language Processing Speed

Therefore, Tallal emphasized that many children who learn to read only with great difficulty don’t have a problem with reading itself but rather a problem with auditory processing speed that develops into a problem with language-based learning, which in turn interferes with reading.

In Tallal’s words, “listening to and processing ongoing speech is the fastest thing the human brain has to do.” Children who parse auditory information less quickly have trouble telling apart subtly different sounds and keeping up with what they’re hearing. Tallal explains this difference between those with fast and slow auditory processing using an analogy: “when it comes to processing (listening to) auditory information, children with language-based learning problems are operating on ‘dial-up’ speed while those with good language skills are operating on ‘high speed internet.’”

Treat The Cause, Not The Symptom

Realizing that many cases of dyslexia begin not as reading problems but as listening problems that give rise to general language deficits has important implications for how to support dyslexic students in practice.

In particular, the testimony by Tallal on dyslexia and reading difficulties generally, focused on the fact that just giving students intensive reading instruction does not help with the underlying language and auditory processing difficulties. Highly developed language abilities are a prerequisite for learning to read, and Tallal suggested that asking teachers to address reading problems without giving them the tools to first make sure these language abilities are in place “is equivalent to demanding that they construct the third floor of a school without having the tools to build a sufficiently strong first and second floor, and then wondering why the school keeps collapsing.”

Although her testimony painted a picture of an educational system that is so far poorly equipped to tackle the auditory processing deficits at the root of many students’ reading impairments, Tallal also gave reason to be optimistic: by taking steps to address these auditory processing deficits with science-based educational tools, it is possible to make a profound difference in the lives of students who struggle with language-based learning.

In fact, dealing with the underlying cause of the problem (auditory processing deficits) instead of just one of the symptoms (reading difficulties) would allow affected children not only to develop their reading abilities but to improve a wide range of other skills, like expressing themselves using spoken language, that tend to be impaired in those with slower and less accurate sound perception. As Tallal explained, “in children already experiencing reading failure, it is now possible to objectively determine which specific aspects of sound processing may be the bottleneck underlying a child’s reading difficulties.

The good news is that research has shown that addressing this bottleneck with classroom listening interventions can improve a child’s reading ability and fundamentally rewire the brain for healthier learning and communication skills.”

For many students with language-based learning troubles, these interventions would remove the single biggest barrier standing in the way of academic success. Most children with these listening, speaking and reading impairments do not have any non-verbal deficits, so working on their verbal skills allows them to achieve closer to their full potential.

Investment In Tools To Tackle Dyslexia

As Congress considers the READ Act, Tallal urged members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to draft a bill that would allocate funding for dyslexia research and help bring insights from existing research into classrooms.

She suggested that the READ Act “can guide NSF’s investment portfolio in dyslexia toward the development of a roadmap for effective, ground-breaking translation of research into application.” Some of Tallal’s recommendations for this roadmap included prioritizing dyslexia research with practical educational applications, looking at ways of using new technologies to help students with language-based learning impairments, encouraging collaboration between researchers and educators and tracking how effective new educational tools prove to be in actual classroom settings.

Concluding her testimony on dyslexia, Tallal emphasized that research has uncovered new ways of taking advantage of neuroplasticity to help students improve the auditory perception skills that form the basis of language and reading proficiency, but that the insights this research has yielded have so far not been translated into real-world solutions leading to a national increase in reading scores.

Thus, the READ Act provides a chance to capitalize on this research and give teachers more modern, effective tools for helping students who struggle with learning to read. Now that testimony from Tallal and other expert witnesses has ended, it is now up to Congress to try and make that happen.