Can Musical Training Help Overcome Dyslexia?

Perhaps, but unsticking the “dyslexia” label may be more important

Posted Aug 19, 2015

Did you hear the one about the dyslexic agnostic who lay awake nights wondering if there was a dog? I first encountered this joke in a biological psychology textbook I used more than a decade ago. Yet the author’s attempt at comic relief reflects a prevailing misunderstanding about the nature of dyslexia.

Developmental dyslexia is a reading disability that cannot be accounted for by visual or cognitive deficit nor by a lack of opportunity to learn. It affects an estimated 5%-17% of schoolchildren, depending on the cutoff reading score used to diagnose the disorder.

It’s important to keep in mind that dyslexia isn’t a specific condition that you either have or don’t have. Rather, reading skills are normally distributed across the educated population. Most people have average reading skills, some are above average, and others are below. It’s this last group that gets the “dyslexia” label, even though the dividing line between “average” and “below” is arbitrary.

Dyslexia is not, as commonly thought, a visual processing disorder. Unlike our dyslexic agnostic who spelled “god” as “dog,” mixing up the order of letters in words isn’t a typical symptom of dyslexia. Rather, children who will later get the “dyslexia” label have difficulty relating letters to the speech sounds they represent.

In the first years of life, children learn words holistically, that is, without any sense of their internal structure. If you ask a three-year which word is longer, bus or motorcycle, the answer is obvious. Of course buses are longer than motorcycles.

During the preschool years, children gradually learn that words are made up of parts. First they learn to tap out the syllables, one tap for bus, four for mo-tor-cy-cle. As they play alliteration and rhyming games in kindergarten, they learn that even syllables have smaller parts.

This growing knowledge that words have structure is known as phonological awareness, and it must be mastered before the child can learn to read. This is because the alphabetic principle links written symbols—letters—with individual speech sounds, known as phonemes. In other words, to sound out letters in a written word like dog or god, you have to be able to hear the phonemes d-o-g and g-o-d.

By first grade, most children have acquired phonological awareness, but some still can’t distinguish the individual speech sounds in words. This is because phonemes are very short auditory events, coming at a rate of ten or more per second. These children can clearly hear and produce dog and god as distinct words, but they can’t say why they’re different.

When children still haven’t achieved phonological awareness by first grade, we deem them to have an auditory processing disorder. Sometimes intense training in the auditory discrimination of speech sounds can help children gain the phonological awareness they need to learn how to read. And this is where musical training comes in.

Both speech and music involve rapid manipulations of sound qualities like pitch, rhythm, and duration. Musically trained adults have superior abilities in auditory perception compared to their non-musical peers. So it’s long been conjectured that musical training may give children with dyslexia a boost in the auditory perception skills they need to learn how to read. Recently, a team of British researchers put this hypothesis to the test, taking advantage of a “natural experiment.”

The team recruited two groups from a music conservatory in Britain. One group had been diagnosed with dyslexia in childhood while the other group had not. As a control, they used a group of equivalent-aged college students with dyslexia. If intense musical training can help children overcome their auditory processing disorder, then the “dyslexic” musicians should have reading skills comparable to their “normal” peers.

All three groups were given a battery of tests that measured auditory processing and reading ability. The “dyslexic” musicians performed similarly to the “normal” musicians on the auditory processing tasks. This result supports previous findings—and common sense—that intense musical training leads to improvements in auditory perception.

However, the “dyslexic” musicians had reading scores similar to the “dyslexic” non-musicians. In other words, the “dyslexic” musicians still couldn’t read very well even though they had overcome the auditory processing disorder that had kept them from learning to read in their early school years.

The researchers speculated that intense musical training alone is not enough. Rather, explicit instruction linking the auditory skills in music to speech processing may be necessary. While this argument is reasonable, I think we need to look deeper to understand why the “dyslexic” musicians never caught up with their “normal” peers.

When a child is given a label, it tends to stick for life. By the time a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, he or she is already reading one or two grade levels below his or her peers. They’ve already learned they can’t read, and the “dyslexia” label tells them why. Thoughts like “I have dyslexia so I can’t read” become part of the child’s self-concept extending into adulthood.

The same is true for other labels we casually attach to kids. The music teacher calls the student singing off key “tone deaf,” and as an adult she still insists, “I can’t sing.” Or the P.E. instructor calls the awkward student a klutz, and he then grows up believing, “I’m no good at sports.”

Until the digital age, there were plenty of careers for people who weren’t good at reading. Even business and government leaders didn’t need to read or write well, since they could always dictate a letter to their secretary or have her read over the “fine print” for them. Music is another safe haven for poor readers.

Having settled on music as a career, these musical “dyslexics” have probably given up on reading. After all, learning to read well requires as much intensive effort and training as does learning a musical instrument. Even though these young adults now have the auditory prerequisites for learning to read, they probably just don’t see the need to put in effort. What’s the payoff at this point?

No study is perfect, and it’s always easy to think of the right questions after the research is done. In hindsight, it would have been interesting to look at the reading habits of the “normal” and “dyslexic” musicians. I suspect the “normals” do a lot more reading than the “dyslexics.” But that’s a topic for future research.

Reference

Bishop-Liebler, P., Welch, G., Huss, M., Thomson, J. M., & Goswami, U. (2014). Auditory temporal processing skills in musicians with dyslexia. Dyslexia, 20, 261-274.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).