There were some really big names at the BDA conference in 2016, many of them world experts on reading (though still no one who talks specifically about adults). Here are a few highlights, one “so-what” and one lowlight for me:
- In a recent study, Susan Gathercole had been looking at underlying factors that might explain difficulties with reading, vocabulary and maths, concentrating on executive function, working memory and inattention. Perhaps surprisingly she found that poor working memory is not a good predictor of reading difficulty. However, good working memory may be a protective factor for problems with reading and maths.
- Karin Landerl, researching German speaking children was surprised to find a link between problems with reading and maths but not between reading and spelling. She was still not sure of the reason for this. Relevant to my work with adults, a longitudinal study showed that reading difficulties are persistent through childhood, despite support. Even more reason for us to find new approaches for adults!
- Tom Nicholson was speaking to the converted in urging us to combine phonics with real reading. He did however drop in a controversial point. Phonological awareness may be a consequence of reading acquisition, rather than a requirement for reading. His keynote address gave a historical overview about the impact on phonological awareness training on success in acquiring reading skills, with little input from more recent studies. He comes from the point of view of “liking phonics and enjoying giving phonics instruction.” However, in his last but one slide he cited research from Castles and Coltheart (2004), Ehri (1998), Johnston and Watson (2005) to say that this could be an issue of chicken and egg. Maybe we see good phonemic awareness in successful readers, not because they have been specifically trained in this, but because the process of learning to read itself gives a degree of phonemic awareness. He reminded us of studies denying the effect of phonemic awareness training, though these are well outweighed by the studies that show a positive effect. Finally, he made the remark (without a formal reference) that phonemic awareness training should be combined with reading of text to help improve letter-sound awareness.
- Don Compton has investigated more about comprehension and found a positive link between reading/listening comprehension and prior knowledge. Is this surprising?
- A new version of the Adult Reading Test (ART) was due out soon, with improvements. Rob Fidler pleased me by mentioning not just their extensive validation data, but also case study findings that highlight the strength of a diagnostic problem solving approach to reading support, using qualitative observations from testing.
- I have to confess to having been very excited at the prospect of hearing Elena Grigorenko speak for the first time (having heard her co-author on the Dyslexia Debate, Joe Elliott previously). I was less excited at the prospect of Maggie Snowling, as I have heard her many times and been disappointed in her narrow stance on reading and dyslexia. At the BDA international conference in March 2016, however, I was proved wrong. Grigorenko was boring and uninspiring, spending far too long on the historical context and then whizzing through some rather difficult information from her latest research about mapping the phenotype of reading difficulty to specific points in the genome. We were told of exciting news coming out in a journal soon… (too hush, hush for her to share it)
- By contrast, Maggie Snowling brought well-reasoned insights into her now more balanced view of dyslexia, as broader phenotype that includes underlying language difficulties and possible co-occurring difficulties in motor and executive function (including attention and concentration). Her account of longitudinal studies (so far from age 3.5 to age 9) was fascinating. I do hope she and her group carry on to see those children into early adulthood!.
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