Good Readers May Get Perceptual Lift

Few educational topics incite as much disagreement as how best to teach grade-schoolers to read, especially considering the many children who fail to attain literacy. A new study adds to this debate by exploring two perceptual abilities that may give kids a leg up on learning to read.

The results imply that training children in these perceptual areas would provide a boost to both traditional phonics and meaning-based approaches to reading instruction, contend experimental psychologist Joel B. Talcott of University Laboratory of Physiology in Oxford, England, and his colleagues.

Among literate 10-year-olds, those best able to detect modulations, or shifts in pitch, of low-frequency sounds proved most adept at reading words and manipulating speech sounds, Talcott’s group reports. Moreover, those with the keenest eyes for spotting changes in the motion of dots across a computer screen exhibited the best spelling skills.

This combination of results indicates that primary aspects of hearing and vision separately influence children’s ability to read, the researchers contend in the March 14 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Other research suggests that brain disturbances affecting sound and visual perception may contribute to the severe reading deficits known as dyslexia (SN: 6/5/99, p. 362). If those findings and the new data hold up, they will support the theory that dyslexia falls at the disadvantageous end of a normal distribution of brain processes that underlie reading, Talcott and his coworkers say. A contrasting theory portrays dyslexia as a distinct neurological disorder.

The scientists studied 32 children, all 10 years old, who attended the same elementary-school class. None had any recognized learning disabilities.

On an acoustic task, each child indicated which tone in pairs of low-frequency and high-frequency tones contained modulations. Spoken language occurs at a low frequency. The youngsters also performed a visual task by indicating as quickly as possible when dots moving in clusters across a computer screen reversed direction.

On tests probing for understanding of speech sounds, the building blocks of reading, participants tried to pronounce nonphonetically spelled words (such as “colonel”) and nonsense words (such as “tegwop”). They also attempted to follow instructions to manipulate speech sounds in words, such as swapping the first sounds of “little” and “pup” to make “pittle, lup.”

On a spelling task, children viewed pairs of words, each containing a real word and a nonsense word that sounded the same but were spelled differently. They tried to identify real words, such as “rain” instead of “rane.”

Low-frequency, but not high-frequency, tone sensitivity tended to coincide with higher scores on speech-sound tests, and visual-motion sensitivity accompanied better spelling performance, even when the researchers accounted for the kids’ intelligence and overall reading ability.

Such findings suggest that if teachers train youngsters to detect rapidly presented acoustic and visual stimuli, reading instruction will benefit, asserts neuroscientist Paula Tallal of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., in a comment published with the new study. Tallal is cofounder of a company that produces computer programs designed to improve acoustic perception in beginning readers.

Basic visual and auditory processes undoubtedly contribute to reading skill, remarks psychologist Marilyn J. Adams of Bolt, Beranek & Newman in Cambridge, Mass., a private research and consulting firm. “But at this point, it’s a leap of faith to say that [such findings] have implications for teaching kids to read better,” Adams says.

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