Sunday, December 13, 2009

Orthography: the relationship between written symbols and sounds

In our previous 2 blogs we discussed briefly the sounds of letters and the sounds found inside words; 'Print Awareness' and 'Phonics and Phonemics'.

Taking this a step forward, we would like to introduce you to another term that is often used in describing language and one that has a big part to play in the detection of Dyslexia and the difficulties a child may have in learning to read and spell in a specific language; Orthography.

Orthographies are writing systems, the relationship between the words we speak and how we write that down. Conversely, it is how we interpret and speak the words and letters that we see written on a page.

Orthography in Languages
It may surprise you to learn that the orthography of some languages are easier to interpret and learn than others. The complexity of a language's orthography, or writing system, can be a significant contributing factor to the difficulties experienced by readers who suffer from Dyslexia.

Symbols in Language
Languages such as Chinese have very simple orthographies because it has a pictorial languagee. Their written language is based on symbols that represent a picture of the word. Dyslexia is unknown in China.

The difference in the complexity of language and it's symbols versus sound interpretation is best described as the depth of the Orthography.

Shallow orthographies
Shallow Orthographies have a more straightforward, one-to-one relationship between sounds (graphemes) and letters (phonemes), and the spelling of words is very consistent. Italian and Finnish, which are examples of shallow orthographies and consequently, children and new readers, have very little trouble learning to decode words and match them to their sounds.

As a result, children who wish to learn to read in those languages, do so relatively quickly and with greater ease. Most readers who suffer from Dyslexia and are learning to read in a shallow orthography, learn to decode words with relative ease. Unfortunately, they can experience more difficulty with reading fluency and comprehension.

The hallmark symptom of dyslexia in a shallow orthography is the speed of rapid automatised naming (RAN - the speed of recalling and naming an object, word or letter once it is recognised).

Deep Orthographies
Unfortunately, one of the languages considered to be 'deep' is English, as well as Arabic, for example. They do not have a one-to-one correspondence between sounds (phonemes) and the letters (graphemes) that are intended to represent those sounds. As a result, children learn to read more slowly and with the potential for introducing more difficulties.

Overcoming this difficulty
Research has shown that the symptoms of Dyslexia in a deep orthography are a deficit in phonological awareness and difficulty in reading at the word level. For these readers who suffer from Dyslexia, learning to decode words may take a long time but the good news is, that once some level of decoding has been overcome, many of these readers have relatively fewer problems with fluency and comprehension. This is the opposite of the 'shallow' orthographies.

Comparative Studies
Studies between German and English have shown that the greater depth of English orthography had a "marked adverse effect on reading skills" among dyslexic children.

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