Lecturer's Précis - Nation (2001)
"Reading and Language in Children - Exposing Hidden Deficits"
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First published online 11:35 GMT 17th November 2003, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010
Although this paper is reasonably self-contained, it is designed to be read as a subordinate file to our e-paper on "Dyslexia and the Cognitive Science of Reading and Writing".
Nation's (2001) "Reading and Language in Children - Exposing Hidden Deficits"
This paper was a follow-up to the Spearman Medal Lecture given by St. John's College, Oxford's, Kate Nation at the London Conference of the British Psychological Society, December 2000.
The author begins with a description of the frequently irregular relationship between orthography and phonology during learning to read, and describes as "cracking the code" the process by which skilled readers convert text to understanding. The majority of schoolchildren succeed in this task, but in the 3-10 per cent of children who are destined to be classified as "dyslexic", this decoding is "slow, effortful, and error prone" (p238).
But that is not the only possible problem area .....
"In contrast to children with dyslexia, approximately 10 per cent of children in mid-childhood [ie. aged 7 to 10 years] are poor comprehenders: despite having well-developed decoding skills, they are poor at understanding what they have read [citations]." (Nation, 2001, p238)
Nation has studied these poor comprehenders and notes first of all that they frequently go unnoticed in the classroom and receive little professional support. As a population, they are also quite difficult to research, being frequently mixed in with dyslexic subjects. Her own research uses the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (NARA-II) to select appropriate subjects, by thoroughly assessing understanding - both literal and inferential - after reading sample texts. Here are some findings .....
"Consistent with Yuill and Oakhill's (1991) observations, the vast majority of children in our studies are never identified as having any reading difficulties; many are considered to be among the better readers in their class. Yet their difficulties are wide-ranging: they have particular problems with aspects of text processing, such as integrating information gleaned in one sentence with information learned earlier or later in the passage, and with 'filling out' text by incorporating information from general knowledge (eg. inferring that a parcel was posted abroad as it had strange and unfamiliar stamps). They also show a range of metacognitive difficulties, including problems with comprehension monitoring (ie. recognising that their comprehension has broken down and taking corrective action, such as re-reading part of the text) [citations]. Neither are their difficulties transient: in our longitudinal sample 78 per cent of poor comprehenders originally tested at age 8-9 years still had significant comprehension impairments when tested later at age 13-14 years ....." (p239)
Some interesting data relate to poor comprehenders' responses to semantic priming. Normal readers typically process a stimulus word some 50 msec. faster if they have recently processed a semantically related word (eg. the word nurse following the word doctor). The first word is said to have "primed" the second, and the suspicion is that a categorical area of the overall semantic lexicon has been pre-activated, so to speak. Nation therefore carried out such testing on normal and poor comprehenders, and found that the latter "showed no semantic priming whatsoever" (p239)! Here is her explanation .....
"We suggest that as poor comprehenders have relative weaknesses with the broader meaning-based aspects of language processing, this may constrain the development of the semantic pathway. Consequently, poor comprehenders develop a reading system that relies less heavily on the semantic pathway than children whose reading systems are underpinned by good meaning-based language skills. [Unfortunately] we know very little about poor comprehenders' early language development. Were they late to talk? Were they ever referred for speech and language therapy? [And] similarly, we know very little about the later development of poor comprehenders. [.....] At all ages, research needs to be directed at specifying in more precise psycholinguistic terms the nature of language processing in these children, and how this impacts developmentally." (p242)
And as to why poor comprehenders regularly go undetected, she goes on to suggest .....
"Perhaps the most obvious index of a child's language proficiency is his or her speech. Most children with specific language impairment have obvious speech difficulties at some point during development [citation], and many dyslexic children have subtle weaknesses with aspects of speech perception and production [citation]. In contrast, poor comprehenders are equivalent to normally developing children in terms of phonological skill." (p240)