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The impact of orthographic consistency on dyslexia: a German-English comparison
Cognition. 1997 Jun;63(3):315-34.
Landerl K, Wimmer H, Frith U.
We examined reading and phonological processing abilities in English and German dyslexic children, each compared with two control groups matched for reading level (8 years) and age (10-12 years). We hypothesised that the same underlying phonological processing deficit would exist in both language groups, but that there would be differences in the severity of written language impairments, due to differences in orthographic consistency. We also hypothesized that systematic differences due to orthographic consistency should be found equally for normal and dyslexic readers. All cross-language comparisons were based on a set of stimuli matched for meaning, pronunciation and spelling. The results supported both hypotheses: On a task challenging phonological processing skills (spoonerisms) both English and German dyslexics were significantly impaired compared to their age and reading age controls. However, there were extremely large differences in reading performance when English and German dyslexic children were compared. The evidence for systematic differences in reading performance due to differences in orthographic consistency was similar for normal and for dyslexic children, with English showing marked adverse effect on acquisition of reading skills.
The main finding of the present cross-orthography comparison of developmental dyslexia was that the English dyslexic children suffered from much more severe impairments in reading than the German dyslexic children. The extent of the impairment varied according to the stimuli. For words of high frequency there was relatively little difference. However, for words of low frequency, the percentage of correct readings by English dyslexic children dropped to about 50% and remained as low for the long, three-syllable words, which tended to be also of low frequency. Nonwords posed even more severe problems for the English dyslexic children, despite lenient scoring. Here, the error rate for the three-syllable nonwords climbed to about 70%. In contrast, the German dyslexic children showed very few reading errors. Even for the long, three-syllable words their error rate was only about 10%, and for the three-syllable nonwords their error rate was only about 20%.The enormous difficulties of the English dyslexic children with word and nonword reading were also reflected in very slow reading speed, for items which were correctly identified. The exceptions were highly familiar words which they presumably were able to recognize without having to rely on piecemeal phonological recoding. Thus, the differences between the English and the German dyslexic children were comparatively small for the short, high-frequency words (1.1 s vs. 0.7 s). For all other conditions, however, the differences were enormous. Even recoding of short one-syllable nonwords was twice as slow for the English dyslexic children (3.5 s vs. 1.4 s). For the few correctly read three-syllable nonwords the English dyslexic children needed as much as 6 s per item, compared to about 3 s for the German dyslexic children. This is not to say that German dyslexic children showed little if any deficits. Both the German and the English dyslexic children were significantly slower than age level control children not only
for nonwords, but also for words that could be considered as over-learned, such as short high-frequency words.
The present study applied the pseudoword/number word/numeral reading procedure originally introduced by Wimmer and Goswami (1994) for comparing reading development of English and German children to several additional orthographies. The present results extend the original findings, the English–German replication of Landerl (2000), and the Spanish–Portuguese replication of Defior et al. (2002). They also provide additional important information on reading development in different orthographic contexts.A key question was whether the minimal difficulty in pseudoword reading found for the young German and Spanish readers in the foregoing studies extends to other orthographies. This question is provided with a definite affirmative answer. Dutch, Swedish, French, and Finnish readers at the end of Grade 1 read the presented pseudowords with the same high accuracy as the German and Spanish children (between 80 and 90% correct), and some of these samples tended to improve further in the following grade levels. To evaluate these results, it has to be remembered that the pseudowords were presented in list format and the instructions stressed speed as well as accuracy. Therefore, some of the few errors may have resulted from reading too hastily. The conclusion is that the translation of new letter strings into acceptable pronunciations is easily acquired in all alphabetic orthographies involved in this study, with the exception of English. Other studies provide converging evidence on highly accurate pseudoword reading in more regular orthographies than English (Coenen, van Bon, & Schreuder, 1997; Cossu, Gugliotta, & Marshall, 1995; Holopainen, Ahonen, & Lyytinen, 2001; O ¨ ney & Durgunoglu, 1997; Pinheiro, 1995; Porpodas, 1989; Wimmer & Hummer, 1990). Similar results have also been shown by a number of studies where reading development in English and other orthographies have been compared (Ellis & Hooper, 2001; Frith, Wimmer, & Landerl,1998; Goswami et al., 1998; Goswami, Ziegler, Dalton, & Schneider, 2001;Landerl, 2000; Landerl et al., 1997; O ¨ ney & Goldman, 1984; Seymour et al.,2003; Wimmer & Goswami, 1994).
To date, there have been no comprehensive attempts to quantify and compare the transparency of different orthographies, although some orthographies have been subjected to a computational linguistic analysis. For the English language, 31% of all monosyllabic words have been found to be feedforward inconsistent (in the direction of spelling to pronunciation; Ziegler, Stone, & Jacobs, 1997). The corresponding inconsistency is reported to be 12% in French monosyllabic words (Ziegler, Jacobs, & Stone, 1996), and 16% in German monosyllabic words (J. Ziegler, personal communication, February 20, 2001). It is worthy of note that the above-mentioned consistency calculations are based on spelling body–rime correspondences and not grapheme–phoneme correspondences. Seymour, Aro, and Erskine (2003) have presented a hypothetical classification of European languages according to their orthographic depth at the level of grapheme–phoneme correspondences. Based on the expert opinions of COST A81 representatives, they suggest that, of the orthographies included in the current study, English is the most inconsistent when placed on the continuum of orthographic depth. In degrees of increasing consistency, it is followed by French, Dutch and Swedish, German and Spanish, and Finnish as the most consistent orthography that displays regular and symmetrical grapheme–phoneme correspondences.
The effect of the regularity of orthography on the acquisition of literacy skills was studied by comparing the reading and spelling of 70 Italian children aged 6-11 years with that of 90 English children learning traditional orthography (t.o.) and 33 children aged 6-7 years learning the initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.), using an Italian passage for adults which was also translated into English. The Italian children learned to read at an earlier age than the English t.o. children, but not than the English i.t.a. children. The English t.o. and i.t.a. children could read more words than they could spell, whereas the Italian children could spell most of the words they could read and even some they could not read. The English children read fast and inaccurately, whereas the Italian children read slowly and accurately using a systematic, phonological strategy until 10 years, when they read fast and accurately. All the children used a phonological strategy in spelling, but only the Italians were mostly successful. Thus the results suggest that, if the orthography is predictable and invariant, the children use a systematic, phonological strategy and learn to read and spell more quickly and accurately.
Spelling of cross-linguistically very similar nonwords was compared in 115 Danish and 77 Icelandic children (primarily 3rd and 4th graders). Danish children made more errors than Icelandic children on word medial consonant doublets and on word initial consonant clusters, even when the groups compared were matched on simpler spelling tasks. These results suggest that the acquisition of phonemic encoding skills is slower in “deep” orthographies such as Danish than in more “transparent” orthographies such as Icelandic. The effect of orthography was expected for consonant doublets because of the relatively more complex sound-letter correspondences in Danish. For consonant clusters, however, sound-letter correspondences are perfectly regular in both languages. The study thus points to the conclusion that even the mastery of regular sound-letter correspondences may be delayed in deep orthographies.
Several previous studies have suggested that basic decoding skills may develop less effectively in English than in some other European orthographies. The origins of this effect in the early (foundation) phase of reading acquisition are investigated through assessments of letter knowledge, familiar word reading, and simple nonword reading in English and 12 other orthographies. The results con rm that children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. There are some exceptions, notably in French, Portuguese,
Danish, and, particularly, in English. The effects appear not to be attributable to differences in age of starting or letter knowledge. It is argued that fundamental linguistic
differences in syllabic complexity and orthographic depth are responsible. Syllabic complexity selectively affects decoding, whereas orthographic depth affects both word reading and nonword reading. The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow as in the shallow orthographies. It is hypothesized that the deeper orthographies induce the implementation of a dual (logographic + alphabetic) foundation which takes more than twice as long to establish as the single foundation required for the learning of a shallow orthography.
The tests for effects of orthographic depth in the complex syllable series identied Danish and English as the two languages which differed sharply from the others. Again, both the logographic process (word reading) and the alphabetic process (nonword reading) were affected. The Danish Grade 1 results displayed enormous variability , extending from non-readers up to fully competent readers (Fig. 7), and included refusal and word substitution errors. The Grade 1 and 2 groups both showed enlarged lexicality effects, indicating a special difculty in developing effective nonword decoding. These outcomes were all present in a much more extreme form in the Scottish results. Mean accuracyin the P1 sample fell below 50% . Some children were unable to read and others had dissociated patterns of word and nonword reading analogous to those reported by Seymour and Evans (1999)—alphabetic dyslexia, in which nonword reading is massively inferior to word reading, and logographic dyslexia in which good nonword reading is combined with poor word reading.The delayed acquisition of foundation literacy acquisition in Danish and English can be interpreted as a combined effect of syllabic complexity and of orthographic depth. Both languages have a complex syllabic structure and an inconsistent system of
grapheme–phoneme correspondences. The more extreme effects observed in the Scottish sample could be a product of the relative immaturity of the children (the difference in starting at 5 vs. 7 years) or of the greater inconsistency of the English
orthography.The use of the regressionmethod made it possible to estimate the amount of reading experience readers of English needed to match European mastery and uency levels. For familiar words (study 2), a BAS reading age in excess of 7 years was necessary . This was also true of simple nonwords (study 3) where reading ages above 7.5 years were needed. The results closelyparallel the earlier ndings bySeymour and Evans (1999) and Duncan and Seymour (2000). These studies found a strong correlation (> + 0.8) between familiar word reading and BAS reading age, and a slightly weaker one (> + 0.6) between nonword reading and reading age. They also pointed to 7 years as the reading age at which foundation literacy acquisition was normally complete. Given that the BAS scale starts at 5 years, this suggests that readers of English require 2½ or more years of literacy learning to achieve a mastery of familiar word recognition and simple decoding which is approached within the rst year of learning in a majority of European languages. Thus, the rate of foundation literacy acquisition is slower by a ratio of about 2.5:1 in English than it is in most European orthographies. We were not able tomake a similar estimate for French or Portuguese. However , the results for Danish suggested that two years may normally be required to achieve mastery of simple decoding (study 3).
A second, more substantial point to be made here is that from the perspective of psycholinguistics, “the optimal orthography for a beginning reader is not the same as for a fluent reader” (Dawson 1989: 1). This general statement derives from the finding that advanced readers heavily rely on what is called a “sight vocabulary”, i.e. written words are recognized as entire units and processed as such, without breaking them down into units of the sound structure. For that reason, advanced readers benefit from orthographies that preserve the graphic identity of morphemes. A sight vocabulary allows readers to quickly recognize words in written messages without much specification of phonetic details. A high reading competence also allows to make full use of contextual cues, which may require some going back and forth in a written message to disambiguate homographs. Because of the relative importance of a sight vocabulary and the relative unimportance of phonetic detail, advanced readers benefit from deep orthographies rather than shallow ones.For beginning readers, however, things are different. The acquisition of a deep orthography at first exposure is relatively difficult because the written form may differ significantly from the actual pronunciation and may have to be memorized in a first phase. Compared to these, shallow orthographies, i.e. orthographies that represent linguistic forms in a way that is close to their actual pronunciation in each context, are considerably easier to learn for a beginning reader (and writer), including second language learners. Wherever languages display heavy morphophonological processes, orthography developers face the problem of either choosing a shallow orthography for the beginning reader or a deep orthography for the advanced one.