Reading research from BDA 2011

All the big shots in reading research were at Harrogate for the BDA International conference in 2011.  On Day 1 I heard Professors Maggie Snowling, Charles Hulme (both of York University) and Marketa Caravolas from Bangor University give key note speeches, and attended workshops with short papers (including one by yours truly, which was well received).

Professor Snowling introduced the concept of  “endophenotypes” which are factors that fall between a genotype (genetically based) and phenotype (a manifestation in behaviour) and may be thought of as cognitive risk factor.  For reading, she proposes that language ability and phonological awareness are 2 different endophenotypes.  This goes some of the way to explain her view that poor comprehension and poor decoding are different.

Professor Carrevolas set out to explore why some people think that reading research is too Anglo-centric and that the concentration on phonological deficits characterises English more than other European languages which are less opaque in form.  I wasn’t really sure whether she was surprised and/or pleased that the cross-lingual studies she described showed little difference between different languages in  this respect.  Phonological awareness difficulties remained a good predictor of reading difficulty at least in the early stages.  Of interest for me research, she put in a little hint at the end of her speech to say this may not be true of later development.

Rather frustratingly Professor Hulme spent the majority of his speech going over relatively old research.  He did end with some new findings on reading comprehension.

ON Day 2 I was particularly stimulated by Laura Shapiro (Aston University) talking about the factors that predict a child’s level of competence with word recognition and reading comprehension at the very beginning of their school careers and then up to 4 years down the line.

Briefly, she found one of the best predictors of early success with both word recognition and comprehension is print knowledge (including letters, digits and high frequency words). Also important at the early stages are phonological awareness, verbal short term memory and rapid naming ability. A couple of years later, phonological awareness become less of a factor for word recognition, though is still has an effect for comprehension, along with other factors including the extent of a child’s vocabulary.

I would love to know if there are similar factors governing the reading attainment of an adult struggling with reading. It would be really good if we could get some funding to do the large scale quantitative research that Laura does, but with adults… what a dream…

I also came across a young researcher from LSE (Sebastian Boo) who has been doing some work evaluating memory strategies to enhance adult dyslexic learners’ range of vocabulary (concentrating on word meanings). It struck me that there are some parallels here with my work on vocabulary development.

On the final day of the BDA conference, Kate Cain (University of Lancaster) spoke very engagingly about her insights into reading comprehension.  She covered the fact that good comprehension is an integrative process that allows the reader to draw information and make inferences when linking different sentences within a text.  It is also a constructive process, as the reader brings in knowledge about the world from long term memory.  Her research is all about children (what a shame we can’t persuade more people to apply these sort of insights to adults).  She has really added to our knowledge of what it means to be a poor comprehender.

Incidentally, she, like many theoreticians, says that poor comprehension is not the same as dyslexia, which  applies primarily to word recognition difficulties.  What do we think about that, adult dyslexia practitioners?
David Saldana (University of Seville) gave one insight  which rather troubled me, in distinguishing poor comprehension from hyperlexia.  Hyperlexia, according to his thinking is when “the surprise” is that a child who has low intellectual capacity can nevertheless decode words easily but doesn’t comprehend the messages in them.  Poor comprehension is where “the surprise” is that despite good intellectual ability the reader has problems with comprehension.

Whereas I like the concept of  reacting to surprises diagnostically, I was left with the sour thought that if we now reject the deficit model of dyslexia (spurious comparisons with IQ), why would we still do the same with comprehension?  I wonder what anyone else thinks?  The rest of David’s talk waas rather confusing, I found, as he tried to explain how his research into autism did not seem to quite match other people’s findings.