Challenging dyslexia research

There is disturbingly little discussion and reflection around basic concepts in dyslexia research, says associate professor Per Henning Uppstad at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger.

In their article "The Notion of `Phonology` in Dyslexia Research: Cognitivism – and Beyond" Uppstad and co-author Finn Egil Tønnessen question the vague and abstract term phonology. In their article the authors conclude that wide areas of dyslexia research are based on a term that means everything and nothing.

Dyslexia and reading research have for a long time been founded on the basic concept of phonology. Research has shown that dyslectics have problems when sounds are to be transmuted into letters.

In dyslexia the concept is used about everything from speech sounds to sound waves coming into our ears. Phonology is also explained as something innate and inherent. Consequently phonology has no precise definition. When scholars use this vague concept to explain the causes of language problems, one runs into problems, Uppstad says.

Uppstad and Tønnessen's article will be published in the journal Dyslexia. An International Journal for Research and Practice No. 13 in which the authors invite discussion.

New definition
In their article Uppstad and Tønnessen advocate a more flexible theory. They believe definitions should be treated as hypotheses that should be adjusted and challenged.

We argue that phonology is used for both symptom and cause of dyslexia. The same thinking also forms the basis for the material developed to diagnose dyslexia in children, says Uppstad.

We want to move away from these much repeated basic concepts. In our research group we are curious about what possibilities can open up if we think differently. Perhaps we need another way of thinking about language, Uppstad wonders. He believes that reading and writing research in any case is facing great challenges in redefining basic concepts.

A paradox
It is paradoxical that scholars are so unanimous in stating what dyslexia and language impediments are when the concepts they build their research on are vague and fuzzy. They normally accentuate the concept area that suits their research best, he says, and continues: "The concept of phonology is being used in a variety of ways, and researchers have shown little interest in finding a more satisfactory definition."

Uppstad compares dyslexia research to an example from geometry. It is as if scholars talk about triangles, rectangles and circles as having one shape. We are never quite sure what interpretations we are being offered. When scholars use such a basic concept so differently, there is every reason to question a lot of the research that has been done, he says.

Writing as a mirror
According to Uppstad, research into language impediments in children and adults has been dominated by concepts from linguistics. Since the beginning of the 20th century linguists have believed that written language is just a reflection of spoken language.

The idea of language as a system has been adopted in dyslexia research without discussion. The linguists' concept of system has been given priority before the question of how human beings learn languages, Uppstad says. Reading and writing research rests on the same thinking. But man's linguistic competence does not always fit into such confining systems.

Facts:Dyslexia means having serious difficulties in decoding the written words and spelling them correctly. The difficulties seem to stem from phonological dysfunction.

Per Henning Uppstad