Dyslexia is linked to voice recognition

Dyslexics have trouble recognizing voices, say MIT researchers in a study published in last week’s Science. That suggests the reading problem also is a “problem with how the brain processes speech and puts together words from smaller units of sound,” reports the New York Times.

Adults listened to recorded voices speaking English or an unfamiliar language, Mandarin.  Non-dyslexics matched voices to English-speaking avatars 70 percent of the time and to Mandarian-speaking avatars half the time.  Dyslexics matched voices half the time in both English and Mandarin.

(Cogntive scientist John) Gabrieli said the findings underscored a critical problem for dyslexic children learning to read: the ability of a child hearing, say, a parent or teacher speak to connect the auditory bits that make up words, called phonemes, with the sight of written words.

If a child has trouble grasping the sounds that make up language, he said, acquiring reading skills will be harder.

The research shows that spoken language deficiencies persist even when dyslexics learn to read well. The study subjects were mostly “high-functioning, high-I.Q. young adults who had overcome their reading difficulty,” Dr. Gabrieli said. “And yet when they had to distinguish voices, they were not one iota better with the English-language voices that they’ve heard all their life.”

Reading involves a “circuit, the ability to have all of those components integrated absolutely automatically,” said Maryanne Wolf, a dyslexia expert at Tufts University. “One of the great weaknesses in dyslexia is that the system is not able to integrate these phoneme-driven systems” with other aspects of language comprehension.



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  1. Interesting. This seems to put dyslexia in the same mix as an auditory processing deficiency. This is also an area of disability for special education.

    Parents of dyslexic students have always fought for different programs, but it seems it may turn out that their problem falls more in special education than previously thought.

    Should generate some interesting points to research.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    We already KNEW that dyslexic was about being able to hear and sequence phonemes.We’ve known it for well over a decade. Dyslexics have trouble with phonological awareness, they confuse similar-sounding words, they have trouble recognizing rhymes, on and on.

    Yet the myth persists that dyslexia is about perceiving letters on the page. No, no. It’s about sounds.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    By the way, the New York Times article is remarkably poor at describing exactly what the experimental subjects were to do. English speakers, both dyslexic and non-dyslexic, were trained to match voices to cartoon figures; that is, each cartoon figure had a voice, and they were supposed to learn which voice went with which character.

    Then they were tested. Non-dyslexics could correctly match the English speakers 70% of the time. Dyslexics could match the English speakers half the time. Both groups could only match the Mandarin speakers half the time. That is, dyslexics were no better with English speakers than with Mandarin speakers.