Here is an interesting article from The Wall Street Journal discussing how a dyslexic boy coped with his school curriculum which required Japanese. The result might surprise you.
July 5, 2011
Unlocking Dyslexia in Japanese
After her 12-year-old son spent two years at a specialized school for children with learning disabilities, Lisa Lunday decided he was ready for a more challenging, mainstream environment. The school she chose, however, required all students to study Japanese as part of its academically rigorous curriculum. Ms. Lunday was unsure how her son, who is dyslexic, would cope.
The result surprised her. The boy, now 13, excelled in his Japanese studies. His lettering of Japanese characters was sharp and distinct. That was in stark contrast to his writing in English, which appeared to be the work of a kindergartner. Sometimes his English letters were so poorly composed that they were hard to read, a common problem among dyslexics.
“I looked at his Japanese binder and was amazed at how perfectly formed everything was,” says Ms. Lunday, of San Mateo, Calif. “Just comparing two pieces of paper tells the story.”
Experiences like that of the Lundays are providing scientists and educators with clues about how people with dyslexia learn and how best to teach them. Researchers have long observed that some dyslexics have an easier time with languages like Japanese and Chinese, in which characters represent complete words or ideas, than they do with languages like English, which use separate letters and sounds to form words.
A 12-year-old dyslexic boy in San Mateo, Calif., has difficulty writing in English, his native language. But in his Japanese studies class he is able to compose characters sharply and distinctly. Scientists say Japanese symbols are more like pictures than letters, which can be easier for many dyslexics to reproduce.
A 12-year-old dyslexic boy’s English assignment, where he defines the idiom ‘an eye for an eye.’
In the English assignment, the boy defines the idiom “an eye for an eye” as: Revenge or punishment exactly like the original crime or offense. He also writes a scenario: Bob traded an eye for an eye when he took his sister’s [the next word is unreadable] and she threw it at him.
The boy’s Japanese characters are neatly formed.
The boy’s Japanese characters, left bottom, are neatly formed, as he practices symbols that represent syllable sounds, like ka and shi.
Now, recent brain-imaging studies are identifying possible reasons for the differences, and education experts say such research could point the way to improved teaching techniques.
“There are very real differences in the brain’s reading circuit for an alphabet as opposed to a language like Chinese,” says Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Dyslexics “think visually. They analyze patterns,” she says.
Character-based languages are mastered through memorization, a skill that dyslexics tend to rely on more than do typical language learners, says Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity in New Haven, Conn. And language characters are more like pictures than letters, which can be easier for many dyslexics to reproduce, she says.
Dyslexia, the most common of all learning disabilities, is a neurologically based disorder that causes difficulties in language-related tasks. It occurs regardless of a person’s intelligence or level of education. As many as one in five people have dyslexia to some degree, according to the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, a long-term study of about 450 school-age children that concluded in the early 2000s.
A study of school-age children published last year in Psychological Science compared how good readers and dyslexic readers learn language. Using brain-imaging technology, researchers at the Yale Center found that when people with dyslexia read in English they rely on the same region of the brain as do readers of kanji, a character-based language in Japan.
By contrast, a somewhat different region of the brain is used by good English readers as well as by children reading kana, another Japanese language, but one in which each character represents a sound, as in English.
“People with dyslexia have difficulty splitting words into their component sounds,” a skill known as decoding, says Claudia Koochek, the head of the Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, Calif., which specializes in teaching children with language-based disabilities.
Learning experts don’t suggest that studying Chinese or Japanese will help dyslexics learn to read English; there’s no getting around the fact that reading English well requires being able to identify and blend sounds. But improved understanding of the way dyslexics absorb character-based languages may help educators fashion curricula.
The Arrowsmith School, a Toronto-based school for children with learning disabilities, says it asks students as part of its reading program to memorize words and characters in a variety of languages, including Chinese.
Annette Goodman, Arrowsmith’s chief education officer, says the exercise is aimed at strengthening visual memory, one part of the brain dyslexics rely on for language tasks. That, in turn, can help them overcome some specific reading challenges, such as learning irregular English words that don’t follow typical letter patterns, like ‘school’ or ‘laugh,’ she says.
“The purpose is not to teach language. It is to treat dyslexia,” Ms.Goodman says.
Dr. Wolf, whose research center also teaches children with dyslexia, says that understanding the different ways in which dyslexics’ brains are wired has helped her adapt teaching programs for their needs. Repetition is important, she says, to help dyslexic kids memorize visual patterns of words and letters. Dyslexics may need 10 times as much exposure to the language patterns as do traditional learners, she says.
In dyslexics, some essential connections between the right and left sides of the brain are weaker or slower than in typical learners, Dr. Wolf says. To get around this, she says she attempts to simulate these connections by engaging the kids in a wide range of simultaneous exercises, including teaching letters, sounds, words and their meanings.
Dyslexics exhibit a wide range of problems with reading and writing language, and future research will be aimed at enabling teachers to tailor their approaches to each dyslexic learner, Dr. Wolf says. Through a combination of brain imaging, genetics, linguistics and educational know-how, she expects interventions will increasingly become early and personalized.