Audiovisual aids may lessen dyslexia

Now hear this: A short training course in matching sound sequences with visual patterns shows promise as a way to boost reading skills in children with dyslexia, a new study finds.

After such training, children with severe reading problems not only scored higher on reading tests but also displayed brain activity associated with improved detection of sound changes, reports a team led by neuroscientist Teija Kujala of the University of Helsinki in Finland.

The encouraging responses of problem readers to the training, which included neither words nor simple speech sounds, indicates that “dyslexia is at least partly based on a general auditory perceptual deficit,” the scientists conclude in the Aug. 28 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers studied 48 children, all age 7, who had been identified in their schools and through reading tests as dyslexic. Half the children completed 14 audiovisual training sessions over a 7-week period. The rest received no such instruction.

In each 10-minute training session, participants played a computer game in which sequences of 3 to 15 sounds were represented on the screen as horizontal sequences of rectangles. For instance, sounds that increase in pitch were symbolized by rectangles that ascend like steps, longer-lasting sounds appeared as longer rectangles, and louder sounds corresponded to thicker rectangles.

In one version of the game, children first saw a pair of rectangle sequences and then chose the one that matched a sound sequence they heard played. In another version, children tracked each rectangle in a visual sequence as corresponding sounds were being played and pressed a key as soon as the sequences ended.

Audiovisual training yielded substantial improvement on tests of spelling and reading speed and comprehension, the researchers say. After training, children also exhibited more facility at discerning nonlinguistic sound changes and displayed patterns of electrical brain activity that have been linked to efficient sound processing.

Other brain-training games proposed as treatments for childhood dyslexia have proven controversial (SN: 2/17/96, p. 104). Kujala’s group plans to compare their audiovisual training with other proposed treatments.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.