Reading Fluency Can Be Achieved Through Training
Around 17 percent of all children and adolescents suffer from reading difficulties in some form or another. (source: pitopia/Markus Mainka).
Children with reading difficulties benefit from targeted training programmes. As a result, their brain activity increases in the area of the brain known as the visual word form area. This was shown by a study with primary school pupils conducted by JARA-BRAIN scientist Prof. Dr. Stefan Heim and his team. The findings were recently published in the journal Brain Structure & Function.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) supported the research project “Specific vs. unspecific training effects on brain and performance in cognitive subtypes of developmental dyslexia” with funding of € 500,000. They had good reason to do so, as around 17 % of all children and adolescents suffer from reading difficulties in some form or another. Though they have one symptom in common – reproducing words and meanings slowly and incorrectly – there is no one single form of dyslexia. As Prof. Stefan Heim, who works at University Hospital Aachen’s Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics and Forschungszentrum Jülich, and his colleague Dr. Marion Grande had already demonstrated in previous studies, there are different subtypes of the disorder.
“There are many different reasons why children may be poor readers,” explains the neuropsychologist. “Some children have trouble matching letters to speech sounds, others simply have problems concentrating, while for others the writing appears to shift or dance, meaning that they cannot identify the words.”
700 primary school children from the Aachen region performed a reading test
As part of their latest research study, Stefan Heim and Marion Grande planned and organized a reading test for over 700 nine- and ten-year-old children in the Aachen Region. From this group, 60 primary school pupils with dyslexia and 15 with normal reading skills were then selected to take part in the research project. The children undertook an extensive initial evaluation in which their phonological skills, attention, reading skills, and brain activity during word recognition tasks were analysed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner.
Intensive training over weeks
Over the subsequent four weeks, each child took part in an intensive half-hour training session five days a week. For one third of the children the emphasis was on phonology, while a further third were taught attention-building exercises. The final third practised a special form of reading training focusing on the visual recognition of groups of letters (Dr. Andreas Mayer’s “Blitzschnelle Worterkennung” method for fast word recognition). At the end of the four weeks, a final evaluation was held to examine the same criteria as in the initial evaluation.
The result: “All of the children, irrespective of the type of deficit they had, benefited significantly from the training,” reports Stefan Heim. This finding was also reflected in the fMRI studies. They showed that brain activity in the visual word form area (VWFA) in the dyslexic children was higher than before the intensive training programme. Thus, all forms of training promote processing in the part of the brain that records and processes written words.
Do different subtypes of dyslexia require different training programmes?
The research study and its results are encouraging. “Practice pays off. In principle, it is possible to compensate for the deficit,” says Stefan Heim. Further research studies will now examine whether specific forms of support would have beneficial effects for the various subtypes of dyslexia. A new evidence-based “S3” medical guideline will soon be published in Germany. However, such guidelines must be supported by randomized, controlled studies. “These studies usually come from English-speaking countries, where most of the work is based on phonology,” says the JARA-BRAIN scientist. It will therefore take a lot of persuading to raise awareness among medical practitioners of the different subtypes of dyslexia and the resulting specific deficits.