Online Dyslexia Tutoring: We Develop Cognitive Skills

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“Individuals with dyslexia can have weak working memory skills and there are many ‘brain training’ programs, with slick marketing behind them, that purport to improve or even cure dyslexia by having the student complete exercises that target working memory and brain training. The research literature is clear that these techniques do not generalize to reading, spelling, or comprehension (math).”

Pam Cook, M.Ed. presented this warning at the LDA conference in 2014.

Pam Cook is correct. Partially. Improving brain-based skills (also called cognitive skills) like working memory will not cure dyslexia. However, even the best reading program will not yield long-lasting results if the child’s cognitive skills are poor. It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Cognitive skills linked to dyslexia

The word “cognition” is defined as “the act or process of knowing.” Cognitive skills, therefore, refer to those skills that make it possible for us to know. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, rather than with any actual knowledge.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, dyslexia research has been dominated by a search for the Holy Grail: the single cognitive deficit that is necessary and sufficient to cause all behavioral characteristics of dyslexia. Until the 1950s, the belief was that dyslexia is attributable to visual processing problems. Visual processing refers to the brain’s ability to make sense of what the eyes see; visual memory is often considered to be a subset of visual processing rather than a separate skill.

In 1957 Noam Chomsky published his seminal book, Syntactic Structures, which transformed the study of language and with it, reading. Any role for visual processing was abandoned and dyslexia became a linguistic, phonological problem. In an influential book, Dyslexia: Theory and Research, Vellutino (1979) argued that many of the apparent visual problems could be attributed to language difficulties — especially to deficient phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and identify the various sounds in spoken words.

The phonological deficit theory became the most well-developed and supported of the theories of dyslexia. Unfortunately, the interventions based on this theory proved to be ineffective (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2018). Given that a single phonological deficit is not necessary or sufficient to cause reading disability (Catts & Adlof, 2011), current thinking sees phonological awareness as one of multiple cognitive deficits that are likely to interact to cause reading disability (Peterson & Pennington, 2012; Pennington, 2006). In addition to phonological awareness cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to dyslexia:

  • verbal fluency (Moura et al., 2015);
  • attention and executive functions (Menghini et al., 2010);
  • visual attention (Elliott, 2015; Valdois et al., 2004);
  • visuospatial abilities (Giovagnoli et al., 2016; Menghini et al., 2010; Helland & AsbjØrnsen, 2003);
  • processing speed (Moura et al., 2015; Stoodley & Stein, 2006);
  • short-term memory (Cowan et al., 2017; Majerus & Cowan, 2016);
  • auditory working memory (Vender, 2017; Weiss et al., 2014);
  • visual and visual sequential memory (Talepasand et al. 2018; Guthrie & Goldberg, 1972);
  • visual long-term memory (Binamé et al., 2015), especially for details (Huestegge et al., 2014);
  • verbal long-term memory (Helland & Morken, 2015); and
  • rapid naming (Brizzolara, 2006; Denckla & Rudel, 1976).

Dyslexia linked to verbal and nonverbal IQ

Researchers have also found a link between dyslexia and verbal and nonverbal IQ. Van Bergen et al. (2014) assessed four-year-olds (N = 212) with and without familial risk for dyslexia on ten IQ subtests. Reading and arithmetic skills were measured four years later, at the end of Grade 2. Relative to the controls, the at-risk group without dyslexia had subtle impairments only in the verbal domain, while the at-risk group with dyslexia lagged across IQ tasks. Nonverbal IQ was associated with both reading and arithmetic, whereas verbal IQ was uniquely related to later reading. The children who went on to develop dyslexia performed relatively poorly in both verbal and nonverbal abilities at age four, which lends credence to the multiple deficit model.

Why cognitive skills matter

Weak cognitive skills prevent a process called orthographic mapping. Every word has three forms: its sounds, spelling, and meaning. The process of orthographic mapping involves the brain linking the three forms of the word and storing them together in long-term memory. It allows for instant word recognition, fluent reading, and accurate spelling.

Unfortunately, cognitive training, popularly known as brain training, has fallen into disfavor among learning disabilities practitioners. In one study, that without a doubt contributed to the distrust of brain training, viewers of the BBC science program Bang Goes the Theory were recruited to practice a series of online tasks for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks. In one group, the tasks focused on reasoning, planning, and problem-solving abilities skills correlated with general intelligence. A second group was trained on mental functions targeted by commercial brain-training programs — short-term memory, attention, visuospatial abilities, and math. A third group, the control subjects, simply used the Internet to find answers to obscure questions. A total of 11,430 volunteers aged from 18 to 60 completed the study, and although they improved on the tasks, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related” (Owen et al., 2010).

One reason why the experiment yielded no transfer effects is simply that the training time was too short. Subjects completed an average of 24 sessions — at ten minutes a session, that’s only four hours of training. According to fitness authority Bobby Maximus (2018), getting physically fit requires at least 130 hours. The brain is no different; even ten hours would have yielded little to no results.

Edublox develops cognitive skills

A core of Edublox intervention is cognitive skills development. Edublox’s Development Tutor program aims at improving cognitive skills like focused and sustained attention; visuospatial abilities; processing speed and rapid naming; visual, auditory, sequential, iconic, short-term and working memory; while Edublox’s Live Tutor for dyslexia aims at developing skills such as phonological and phonemic awareness.

It should be noted that not all cognitive skills improve at the same speed. For example, 15 hours of Edublox training is required to significantly improve focused attention, 22.5 hours to significantly improve visual memory, 28 hours to improve auditory short-term memory, and so on.

NEXT: Page 4: We target two core brain areas

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References and sources:

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Binamé, F., Danzio, S., & Poncelet, M. (2015). Relative ease in creating detailed orthographic representations contrasted with severe difficulties to maintain them in long-term memory among dyslexic children. Dyslexia, 21(4), 361-370.

Brizzolara, D., Chilosi, A., Cipriani, P., Di Filippo, G., Gasperini, F., Mazzotti, S., … Zoccolotti, P. (2006). Do phonologic and rapid automatized naming deficits differentially affect dyslexic children with and without a history of language delay? A study of Italian dyslexic children. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology19(3), 141-149. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.wnn.0000213902.59827.19

Cowan, N., Hogan, T. P., Alt, M., Green, S., Cabbage, K. L., Brinkley, S., & Gray, S. (2017). Short‐term memory in childhood dyslexia: Deficient serial order in multiple modalities. Dyslexia, 23, 209-233. https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.1557

Denckla, M. B., & Rudel, R. G. (1976). Rapid ‘automatized’ naming (R.A.N.). Dyslexia differentiated from other learning disabilities. Neuropsychologia14, 471-479.

Elliott, J. G. (2015). The dyslexia debate: Actions, reactions, and over-reactions. Psychology of Education Review, 39(1), 6-16.

Guthrie, J. T., & Goldberg, H. K. (1972). Visual sequential memory in reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 5(1), 45-50.

Helland, T., & AsbjØrnsen, A. (2003). Visual-sequential and visuo-spatial skills in dyslexia: Variations according to language comprehension and mathematics skills. Child Neuropsychology 9(3), 208-220.

Helland, T., & Morken, F. (2015). Neurocognitive development and predictors of l1 and l2 literacy skills in dyslexia: A longitudinal study of children 5-11 years old. Dyslexia, 22(1), 3-26.

Huestegge, L., Rohrßen, J., van Ermingen-Marbach, M., Pape-Neumann, J., & Heim, S. (2014). Devil in the details? Developmental dyslexia and visual long-term memory for details. Frontiers in Psychologyhttps://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00686

Majerus, S., & Cowan, N. (2016). The nature of verbal short-term impairment in dyslexia: The importance of serial order. Frontiers in Psychologyhttps://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01522

Maximus, B. (2018, October 2). The 130 hour rule. Retrieved from https://www.bobbymaximus.com/the-130-hour-rule/

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Moura, O., Simões, M. R., & Pereira, M. (2015). Executive functioning in children with developmental dyslexia. The Clinical Neuropsychologist28(S1), 20-41. https://doi.org/10.1080/13854046.2014.964326

Nicolson, R. I., & Fawcett, A. J. (2018). Procedural learning, dyslexia and delayed neural commitment. In T. Lachmann & T. Weis (Eds.). Reading and dyslexia (pp. 229-57). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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