New Insights on Memory, Processing, and Creativity
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and we’re excited to present our 7th annual webinar, “2021 Dyslexia Research and Evidence-Based Best Practices” with neuroscientist and Northwestern University Adjunct Associate Professor Dr. Martha Burns on Thursday, October 28th.
If you can’t wait to glimpse the latest and greatest dyslexia research that came out this year, keep reading! We’ve put together a quick overview of three articles published in 2021 that expand our understanding of dyslexia, the most common and often misunderstood learning difference. We hope this new information will shine a brighter light on dyslexia and provide actionable best practices for you to implement with your students.
As many educators already know, working memory is an essential component of learning how to read. New research published in September 2021 supports existing research that students with dyslexia have less developed working memory as it relates to phonological awareness and executive function.
Phonological working memory involves both storing phonemes (sounds) in a temporary, short-term memory cache where they can be readily accessed and using that content. One reason students with dyslexia struggle with reading might be because it’s hard to hold all the phonemes they’re sounding out in their heads and then blend those sounds. For example, it’s hard to decode the word "basket" if, by the time you finish sounding out [ b][æ][s][k][e][t], you’ve forgotten what the first few phonemes were and can’t blend them.
Since phonological working memory is essential for phonics and decoding (which, in turn, are essential for reading), students with dyslexia likely have trouble processing, storing, and recalling what sounds correspond to which letters.
Students with dyslexia also need extra support on their working memory that initiates central executive function, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time. Executive function enables us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as a taxi dispatcher in a busy city manages the arrivals and departures of many cabs on multiple routes, the brain needs executive function to remember information, filter distractions, prioritize tasks, achieve goals, and regulate impulses—all required when reading.
Teachers should continue the good work they’re already doing by strengthening the phonological working memories of their students with dyslexia, and for those students who need extra support, technology can help. Fast ForWord is a unique, evidence-based intervention that goes deeper than other reading programs by intentionally strengthening cognitive skills like phonological working memory.
Teachers can also place added emphasis on developing their students’ executive functions.
After a recent deep dive into data collected from MRI brain scans, researchers discovered a neurological difference in students with dyslexia that impairs phonological decoding, or the ability to sound words out. Teachers who often encourage struggling readers to “sound it out” need to try a different approach with students with dyslexia.
We already knew that dyslexia is primarily an auditory disorder that arises from an inability to respond to speech sounds in a consistent manner. As one example, a student with dyslexia might have difficulty distinguishing between similar sounds, for instance a “b” and a “d.” So, take a word like “bed” and a dyslexic student might struggle to truly hear the word, let alone read, write, or spell it.
What this new research emphasizes is that explicit training in phonological decoding is critical for reading development in learners with dyslexia. The thing is, phonological decoding is the very thing learners with dyslexia often struggle with the most.
Luckily, there is technology available that can train dyslexic brains to recognize and process phonics more effectively. Specifically, the use of acoustically modified speech, in which the rate of speech is slowed and specific sounds are emphasized, allows students with dyslexia to develop accurate phonological representations. Repeated exposure to acoustically modified speech strengthens the brain’s ability to process sounds quickly and accurately, and, from there, other skills, such as decoding, fluency, and comprehension, become easier for students to acquire.
Even though it is often challenging, educators should continue working on phonological decoding with their learners with dyslexia, not by asking them to “sound it out,” but by exposing them to acoustically modified speech that is specifically designed to strengthen auditory processing.
Educators might want to consider employing learning programs such as Carnegie Learning’s Fast ForWord®, which uses patented technology to acoustically modify speech so that it is particularly suited to dyslexic learners. Fast ForWord provides individualized attention to students with dyslexia, responding in real time, and adapting delivery speed and pronunciation as a student’s reading improves.
If we approach dyslexia through a deficit model, we only see what our students can’t do. As educators, we, of course, want to celebrate our students’ strengths and successes, while also pushing them to tackle challenges.
As every teacher of learners with dyslexia has probably already realized, it turns out that there is plenty to celebrate about our dyslexic students. New research supports what some of us may have already noticed in our classrooms: children with dyslexia often exhibit higher nonverbal creativity than their neurotypical peers. What’s more, this is true regardless of age or grade, and creativity isn’t significantly related to nonverbal intelligence or literacy skills.
While it’s important for dyslexic learners to continue working on reading skills, consider creating opportunities for their creativity to flourish in your classroom. You can have students create art or perform skits or music about assigned readings instead of always requiring written tests or essays.
You can create group projects that require both reading and art/design, performance, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. You can also facilitate multisensory learning by writing with putty, sand, pipe cleaners, or beads.
You know your students best, and you can create assignments, activities, and assessments that will honor their talents and showcase their creativity, while also encouraging them to grow as readers and writers.
As we take a moment to acknowledge Dyslexia Awareness Month 2021, we thank you for all the amazing and innovative work you do with your students on a daily basis. We also applaud you for joining us in increasing our awareness of what dyslexia is, how it affects our students and children, and what we can do to support them and their unique strengths and challenges. We invite you to continue learning with us by watching our on-demand webinar, "2021 Dyslexia Research and Evidence-Based Best Practices” with neuroscientist and Northwestern University Professor Dr. Martha Burns.
Carnegie Learning is helping students learn why, not just what. Born from more than 30 years of learning science research at Carnegie Mellon University, the company has become a recognized leader in the ed tech space, using artificial intelligence, formative assessment, and adaptive learning to deliver groundbreaking solutions to education’s toughest challenges. With the highest quality offerings for K-12 math, ELA, literacy, world languages, professional learning and more, Carnegie Learning is changing the way we think about education, fostering learning that lasts.Explore more related to this author