intellectual vanities… about close to everything

What Is Dyslexia?

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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 new article, Uppstad and co-author Finn Egil Tønnessen question the vague and abstract term phonology. 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 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.


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


Dyslexia. 2007 Aug;13(3):154-74.

The notion of ‘phonology’ in dyslexia research: cognitivism–and beyond.

Uppstad PH, Tønnessen FE.

National Center for Reading Education and research, University of Stavanger, 4036 Stavanger, Norway.

Phonology has been a central concept in the scientific study of dyslexia over the past decades. Despite its central position, however, it is a concept with no precise definition or status. The present article investigates the notion of ‘phonology’ in the tradition of cognitive psychology. An attempt is made to characterize the basic assumptions of the phonological approach to dyslexia and to evaluate these assumptions on the basis of commonly accepted standards of empirical science. First, the core assumptions of phonological awareness are outlined and discussed. Second, the position of Paula Tallal is presented and discussed in order to shed light on an attempt to stretch the cognitive-psychological notion of ‘phonology’ towards auditory and perceptual aspects. Both the core assumptions and Tallal’s position are rejected as unfortunate, albeit for different reasons. Third, the outcome of this discussion is a search for what is referred to as a ‘vulnerable theory’ within this field. The present article claims that phonological descriptions must be based on observable linguistic behaviour, so that hypotheses can be falsified by data. Consequently, definitions of ‘dyslexia’ must be based on symptoms; causal aspects should not be included. In fact, we claim that causal aspects, such as ‘phonological deficit’, both exclude other causal hypotheses and lead to circular reasoning. If we are to use terms such as ‘phonology’ and ‘phoneme’ in dyslexia research, we must have more precise operationalizations of them. Copyright (c) 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


Written by huehueteotl

October 22, 2007 at 3:25 pm

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  1. […] What Is Dyslexia? Tagged with: diffusion tensor imaging, dyslexia, heterotopia, periventricular nodular heterotopia, PNH, reading fluency, white matter […]

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