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Auditory Dyslexia: What It Is and How to Treat It

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What is auditory dyslexia?

The term dyslexia was coined from the Greek words dys, meaning ill or difficult, and lexis, meaning word. It is used to refer to persons for whom reading is simply beyond their reach. Spelling and writing, due to their close relationship with reading, are usually included.

According to popular belief, dyslexia is a neurological disorder in the brain that causes information to be processed and interpreted differently, resulting in reading difficulties.

The terms auditory dyslexia and visual dyslexia are often used by scholars to describe two main types of dyslexia. Auditory dyslexia — also called dysphonetic dyslexia or phonological dyslexia — is a subtype of dyslexia that refers to children who struggle with reading because they have problems processing the basic sounds of language (phonemes), sounds of letters, and groups of letters.

Symptoms and characteristics

Among the manifestations which characterize auditory dyslexia, according to Saroj D. Sutaria (Specific Learning Disabilities: Nature and Needs), are difficulties in sound-symbol association; auditory discrimination difficulties; problems in auditory analysis and synthesis; auditory sequencing difficulties; auditory memory problems; omissions, additions and substitutions; mispronunciations; and hesitations and repetitions.

1.) Sound-symbol association problems

Johnson and Myklebust described dyslexia as a breakdown in interneurosensory processing. This means that the child is unable to make the association needed between the graphemes and their phonemes. The child’s biggest difficulty lies in comprehending that although the English alphabet consists of only 26 letters, there are 44 phonemes; that the names of the letters are different from their phonemic properties; that few letters have only one sound which remains constant; that combination of certain consonants and vowels produce entirely different sounds; that certain consonant-vowel combinations change the sound; that there are hard, soft and silent sounds depending on the positioning of the letters in the words, etc. The difficulty is compounded when the child also has a memory disorder.

2.) Auditory discrimination difficulties

The child has difficulty differentiating between similarities and differences in the sounds of letters and words. This problem is aggravated when the child is unable to sort through or ignore background noises and voices. The most apparent difficulties are seen in certain consonantal sounds, such as /b/ and /p/, /m/ and /n/ or /d/ and /t/, etc. Even more difficult are short vowel sounds, especially /e/ and /i/. Words frequently misread are three-letter words in which only the vowel sound is different, for example, /pen/, /pin/. As Critchley noted, the reading-disabled child is unable to detect the differences in the auditory properties of letters and words.

3.) Difficulties in auditory analysis and synthesis

The reading disabled is unable to read unfamiliar words because they lack a structural analytical approach so necessary to this task. Structural analysis requires the identification of morphemes which includes prefixes, suffixes, root words, and the like. Following the identification of these smaller units, they must be blended as a whole. Critchley observed the child tends to guess wildly at the word. This is usually done based on the first letter and sometimes on its length.

4.) Auditory sequencing difficulties

The temporal order of sounds in words is disturbed. The child is unable to retain in short-term memory store the sequence of sounds long enough to reproduce them in the correct order when reading out loud. Thus, while the individual letters may be associated with their sounds correctly and syllables identified accurately, when it comes time to pronounce them together the child reverts the order, for instance, /emeny/ in place of /enemy/. Senf reported evidence of this in the reading-disabled whose primary problems may be in word mixing in compound words, for example, /mindwill/ instead of /windmill/, /shoehorse/ for /horseshoe/, etc. Denckla observed that children with this type of problem tend to change with age from having problems in both reading and spelling to spelling alone, although they might continue to have difficulty with the phonetic aspects of a foreign language.

5.) Auditory memory problems

Retrieval of sounds of letters and words for spontaneous use may be difficult for the auditory dyslexic because of an inefficient system of processing in long-term memory storage. The difficulty in recalling specific sounds and names may account for certain substitutions which the reading disabled makes, for example, /dad/ for /father/ or /baby/ for /daughter/. Not only are the substituted words easier to pronounce, but their pronunciation is based on regular phonics principles while the others are not. Pronunciation of words like /father/, /daughter/ etc. requires the child to remember the irregularities in making symbol-sound associations.

6.) Omissions, additions, substitutions

The reading disabled tend to omit single phonemes or syllables in word pronunciation. Thus /walking/ may be read as /walk/, /boxes/ as /box/, /rust/ as /rut/, /bent/ as /bet/, etc. While the first two types may not significantly affect the meaning derived from the content, the remaining two would render the statement meaningless. Sometimes, whole words may be omitted. Although whole-word omissions are usually the result of visual oversight, the anticipation of difficulties in pronunciation of a particular word may cause the child to simply ignore it.

Wiig and Semel reported that words beginning with /s/ blends tend to cause some reading disabled to omit some sound units in words, for example, /spit/, /sit/ for /split/, while in others to add sounds, for example, /split/ or /slit/ for /sit/.

Some children tend to add words or sound units, for example, /the little baby/ in place of /the baby/ or /baby sister/ instead of /baby sitter/, etc. Frequently heard phrases that become automatically associated with each other tend to be added more frequently than others, such as /Once upon a time there was/ in place of /Once there was/, etc.

As for substitutions, we have already noted one type under memory problems. These may be described as meaningful substitutions in the sense that their use does not alter the meaning of the text greatly. Other substitutions, however, may change or distort the meaning. Mattis suggested that some of the substituted words may sound like the correct words but are not. For example, the child may read /hijackers/ instead of /hitchhikers/ or /optimist/ for /optometrist/, etc.

7.) Mispronunciations

A variety of mispronunciations occur in the auditory dyslexic. Critchley noted incorrect pronunciation of vowels. Already noted is the difficulty that the child has with short vowels. The child may not fully comprehend the difference between short and long vowel sounds, thus confusing for example /mat/ and /mate/, /hat/ and /hate/.

The variations in sounds that certain words produce are especially baffling for this child. For instance, words /hut/, /mut/, /put/ have, except for initial consonant sounds, identical properties, and yet the pronunciation of the last is entirely different. Similarly, in words /have/, /gave/, save/, initial consonants are different but the rest is the same in all three words, yet the pronunciation is different in the first while the other two rhyme.

Other mispronunciations may affect initial, medial or final sounds of individual consonants or consonant blends, digraphs, or diphthongs. Wiig and Semel noted special difficulties with blending when /l/, /w/, or /r/ are in second position. Insertions of extra sounds produce mispronunciations, as in /trick/ for /tick/, just as omissions do. Incorrect stress on syllables in words may also produce mispronunciation.

8.) Hesitations and repetitions

Uncertainty about the correct pronunciation of a word often causes the child to pause incorrectly between words or to exhibit perseverative tendencies, that is, the child will repeat the preceding phrase or word several times before attempting the problem word.

Causes of auditory dyslexia

To understand what causes auditory dyslexia we need to focus on the cognitive skills that underpin language-related functions. Cognitive skills of importance include phonological awareness, verbal short-term memory, and rapid automatized naming.

1.) Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of language. It is a listening skill that includes the ability to distinguish units of speech, such as rhymes, syllables in words, and individual phonemes in syllables. 

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness that focuses on recognizing and manipulating phonemes, the smallest units of sound. The two most important phonemic awareness skills are segmenting and blending. Segmenting is breaking a word apart into its individual sounds. Blending is saying a word after each of its sounds is heard. If a child can segment, he can say f-i-sh after hearing the word fish. If he can blend, he is able to say the word fish after hearing the individual sounds f-i-sh. Phonemic awareness is said to be a foundational skill for phonics, which in turn is the foundation for reading.

2.) Verbal short-term memory

Verbal memory involves recall for words or verbal items. Verbal memory is considered to be a type of short-term memory, which reflects the ability to hold information as “active” or available in one’s mind for a brief amount of time. Short-term verbal memory (STVM) involves three components: capacity, duration, and encoding. Capacity refers to the amount of information a person can hold in their STVM. Duration refers to the amount of time that a person can retain the information in their STVM. Encoding is a technique that is used to retain STVM, and may include mental or verbal rehearsal and repetition of the items (Southcountychildandfamily.com, 2015).

3.) Rapid automatized naming

Rapid naming refers to the speed with which the names of symbols (letters, numbers, colors, or pictured objects) can be retrieved from long-term memory. This process is often termed rapid automatized naming (RAN), and people with dyslexia typically score poorer on RAN assessments than normal readers.

Treatment of auditory dyslexia

The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on; it is possible to strengthen these mental skills through training and practice. Edublox aims at strengthening underlying cognitive skills, including phonemic awareness, short-term memory, and rapid naming. In addition, children’s reading and spelling deficits are addressed during live online lessons. Click here to book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.

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Auditory dyslexia – key takeaways

Auditory dyslexia

Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the learning disabilities field.