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It’s all Chinese to me: Dyslexia has big differences in English and Chinese

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chinese dyslexia english visualChinese dyslexia may be much more complex than the English variety, according to a new paper published online today in Current Biology. English speakers who have developmental dyslexia usually don’t have trouble recognizing letters visually, but rather just have a hard time connecting them to their sounds.

What about languages based on full-word characters rather than sound-carrying letters? Researchers looking at the brains of dyslexic Chinese children have discovered that the disorder in that language often stems from two separate, independent problems: sound and visual perception.

The pronunciation of detailed and complex Chinese characters must be memorized, rather than sounded out like words in alphabet-based languages. That requirement led researchers to suspect that disabilities in the visual realm might come into play in dyslexia in that language. "A fine-grained visuospatial analysis must be preformed by the visual system in order to activate the characters’ phonological and semantic information," said lead author Wai Ting Siok of the University of Hong Kong,  in a prepared statement.

To see whether Chinese dyslexics had trouble comprehending visual details, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 12 Chinese children with dyslexia. When asked to complete a task that involved visually judging size, the dyslexic children had less activation in an area of the brain that is charged with visual-spatial processing (the left intraparietal sulcus) than did Chinese children with normal reading levels. Previous research had also shown that the dyslexic group had weak activation in areas that process phonological information (the left middle frontal gyrus) when tested with a rhyming task.

Because of the two processes—aural and visual—that must come together for Chinese literacy, Siok concluded in the statement: "Disordered phonological processing may commonly coexist with abnormal visuospatial processing in Chinese dyslexia."

The new confirmation may eventually have ramifications for the way Chinese students with dyslexia are helped. But in the meantime, more research and investigation into the field of character-based language dyslexia must be completed. As she added: "Our results strongly indicate the need for a unifying theory of a sufficient scope to accommodate the full complexity of the observed dysfunctions and interactions of the brain systems underlying reading impairments."

Image of child with Chinese writing (unrelated to study) courtesy of Catsper via Flickr


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  1. 1. hayesatlbch 6:13 pm 10/12/2009

    The problem as much as anything has resulted from trying to come up with a single cause for dyslexia. That approach neglects to account for the fact that a minority of dyslexics ,even English speakers, suffer from visual problems that makes seeing text in order to read it difficult.

    The tendency seems to be in dyslexia research that every new fact that is shown somehow negates all of the previous research. This happens without the necessary research to prove the previous data wrong.

    Some of the first MRI studies with dyslexics were done on the visual centers of the brain and resulted in the conclusion that dyslexics see differently than non-dyslexics at least when groups of dyslexics and non-dyslexics are considered.Dr. G. Eden, now president of the IDA, reported in her MRI dyslexia and vision studies about one of the participants, a little girl, who said that she could read if only the words would stop walking. No one has ever said that that little girl’s problem was phonological rather than visual.

    Just because the truth seems to be that only a minority of dyslexics have visual problems that make reading difficult there is no reason that they should be ignored and forced into the phonological box.

    It is not the Chinese dyslexics are any different but rather that reading their language is more visual and so visual dyslexics seem to be in the majority for Chinese. I don’t understand why it should be surprising that they have coexisting phonological problems just as some English-speaking visual dyslexics have coexisting phonological problems.

    Dyslexia would be easier to understand if everyone would have a paradigm shift away from the single cause of dyslexia to one of dyslexia being a syndrome. This would allow the understanding that each dyslexics may or may not have any particular problem associated with dyslexia including visual problems.

    I submit that that paradigm of dyslexia being a syndrome or accurately reflects reality than the idea that dyslexia is only phonological.

    While not ideal, there is one criteria that seems to identify a high percentage of visual dyslexics. That criteria is simply this; can the visual dyslexics describe visual problems that make seeing the text difficult and result in reading problems due to those visual problems.

    It seems reasonable that people that can describe visual problems that make reading difficult need visual intervention. They can find that visual intervention at .

    Link to this
  2. 2. mkhall7475 10:21 pm 10/12/2009

    What is interesting here to me is that I grew up with problems reading out loud and spelling. My teachers thought I was being stubborn and told my parents that I refused to read out loud, but that they knew that I could read. My reading retention gave no hint that there was a problem. However, when I read out loud I could not pronounce the words and/or would mix up the word order (these were after all very short words), although I new what they meant. .

    As my vocabulary got bigger, my spelling got worse. When I was in the 7th grade, I spelled on a 3rd grade level. I scored in a high school level for everything else, several things on the 12th grade level. When I was in the 11th grade, I still struggled with spelling. In an English class where I excelled on every other front, one of my teachers paused long enough to notice that I had every letter in the words. I just had them in the wrong order.

    I did not learn to read by sounding out my words. I memorized them. My mom says that I started reading about three or four. I remember teaching my friends and my little brother to read. A friend who is a teacher once told me that memorizing words was probably why dyslexia was not discovered while I was young. I believe that I memorized them as I saw them.

    Isn’t Dyslexia clearly a matter of degree? If mine had been more severe I might not have excelled to the point that I reached the 11th grade before someone noticed what was going on. Indeed, I might not have been able to read at all or write. When I read this article, I immediately thought – wow, I probably would not have had dyslexia in Chinese.

    And one more point, I fail miserably at spatial math problems. I don’t mean I score like a girl. (Research shows that girls score lower than boys on this) I mean that I score in the idiot range. Yet my IQ has tested over 125. And I have a miserable time remembering faces. I am soooo bad at this it scares me. And lets not even talk about being able to visualize something or describe something that I have seen. I feel like a fraud when I try. I actually do exercises on this, but it is like something is missing for me.

    It feels strange that these would not go together. Do they test Dyslexics with spatial math problems? Is anyone researching Dyslexics ability to visualize or retain visual memories?

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  3. 3. Choice Lee 10:23 pm 10/12/2009

    It would be useful for those who have dyslexia, especially Chinese children. Since I am a research from China, I also wonder how the use of computer has influenced Chinese people’s ability to memorize and write down Chinese characters.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Rosco 5:18 am 10/14/2009

    Yes, most definitely. Read "The Gift of Dyslexia" by Ron Davis – a book that transformed my understanding of my son’s dyslexia and helped me recognise my own. Interestingly what you write of your symptoms is almost the exact opposite of my son’s. Ron’s work may still shed some light on your situation though. Prompted by your question I’ve googled Ron Davis and find there’s loads of material including videos.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Roseann 12:12 pm 10/14/2009

    "You are not smart enough to go to collage" my eighth grade teacher told me so you will take general subjectes not college prep cources. I was told this in front of my classmates. She didn’t reconize my Dyslexia problem.
    It made me mad enough to prove her wrong. Now with a Ph.D. a B+ grade average. A I Q of 126 I can say it was a chalange to over come.
    My employer thought I had sight problem and sent me to a eye doctor. He spotted my problem right away and told me why I was such a poro speller. He also recomended I read "The Gift of Dyslexia"

    Link to this
  6. 6. Kalypso1981 2:08 am 04/5/2010

    My oldest brother has dyslexia and a stuttering problem. He runs his own business and takes care of his wife and children. My other brother and I misspelled about 50% of the time. but we can pronounce and understand everything that we read. And math is not a problem for either of us. Is it possible that my brother and I are just bad at spelling? Is it Genetic? I avoid writing because its so embarrassing. Why cant I just write as well as I read? Its so weird. I have taken 2 learning test, one in elementary and one in collage. My test results were above average.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Kalypso1981 2:09 am 04/5/2010

    My oldest brother has dyslexia and a stuttering problem. He runs his own business and takes care of his wife and children. My other brother and I misspelled about 50% of the time. but we can pronounce and understand everything that we read. And math is not a problem for either of us. Is it possible that my brother and I are just bad at spelling? Is it Genetic? I avoid writing because its so embarrassing. Why cant I just write as well as I read? Its so weird. I have taken 2 learning test, one in elementary and one in collage. My test results were above average.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Kalypso1981 2:17 am 04/5/2010

    Sorry I pressed the send button twice! lol

    Link to this
  9. 9. Angelemfrbl 2:16 pm 12/3/2010

    It took until university to find my dyslexica, and I did art, I only found it because a dyslexic talk was given at the start of my university that made me realise that I might have it. Now it been identified, I feel like theres no end in sight to the suffering it causes me trying to cope. My father won’t accept it as "I’m too smart to be Dyslexic" (he has an old fashioned opinion).

    They can explain all they WANT about how dyslexica is caused – its not going to change my dad’s opinion on Dyslexica nor help my case. I’m suffering through lack of aid and its bringing me down – the day they make idiots like my dad accept that theres many ways it can manifester then ALL their research will have come to something. In the meanwhile, those it doesn’t reach have to put up with misconceptions Dyslexica causes.

    And you don’t want to know the struggle how I coped with this much text in one hit.

    Link to this

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