Complex phonological tests are useful for diagnosing reading dysfunction

September 18, 2020

HSE University researchers have confirmed that the level of phonological processing skills in children can impact their ability to master reading. Complex phonological tests are best suited to detect phonological impairment. The study was published on September 6, 2020, in the Journal of Research in Reading.

Phonological processing is the ability to distinguish phonemes (minimal distinctive linguistic sounds), analyse sound sequences, and perform various operations with phonemes. These are the skills children master at an early age. Numerous international studies have proven that there is a correlation between phonological processing and reading abilities, and this is true not only for the English language. Meanwhile, the correlation between phonological skills and reading in Russian remains an under-researched area. In addition, it has remained elusive which phonological tests are the most predictive for people's reading skills.

To find this out, researchers from HSE University's Center for Language and Brain developed seven phonological tests of varying complexity. The complexity of a given test wasmeasured as the number of linguistic processes involved for an individual's successful performance on a particular task. In the simplest test, the participants answered whether the sound consequences they hear are different or the same, after listening to recording with, for example, the sound of 'bom/pom' or 'eva/eva'. This only requires decoding input sounds and minimum involvement of one's working memory. For the most complex tests, children were asked to count phonemes in a word pronounced by a speaker, or replace one of the sounds in a pseudoword. This task requires the ability to decode input sounds, recognize words (i.e., involve lexical access), and involve one's working memory, as well as perform sound analysis and other operations with phonemes.

The researchers invited 90 typically developing children aged seven to eleven from three schools in Moscow and Volgograd to participate in the experiment. All of them had confirmed normal hearing and vision, and had earlier successfully passed a screening for nonverbal intelligence. Each child took part in all seven phonological tests, followed by an assignment to evaluate their reading skills. For that, children had to read two short texts aloud, followed by questions on their contents. This allowed the researchers to assess children's reading fluency (i.e., the number of words read accurately in the first minute) and reading comprehension (i.e., the number of correct responses to the questions).

It was shown that the more errors the participants made as the complexity of the phonological tests increased, the fewer words they were able to read in a single minute. More complex phonological tests were better in predicting an individual's reading fluency, with less school students being able to pass them successfully. A specially developed statistical model demonstrated that the individual costs of adding one more linguistic process to a phonological test are significantly correlated with reading performance. Nevertheless, the question remains: how does reading comprehension correlate with phonological skills? This issue requires further investigation.

'Stand-alone tasks are insufficient, since children without any phonological deficit can also make singular errors. Simple phonological tests may be not discriminative enough, as they do not help to distinguish typically developing children from those disposed to reading disorders,' commented Svetlana Dorofeeva, one of the paper authors, who added: 'On the other hand, the completion of the whole set of seven tests for detecting phonological deficits can help to determine the extent of a certain problem, and choose the most effective assignments to develop phonological skills in a specific child.'

The results of this study can help improve the methods for diagnosing and dealing with reading problems, such as dyslexia. The researchers' conclusions confirm that in order to manage the phonological deficit, which may lead to reading disorders, it makes sense to use complex phonological tests.
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National Research University Higher School of Economics

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