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[Susan notes: Gerald Coles points to multiple flaws in reading research that gets lots of unexamined attention in the popular press.]

Published in Education Week
05/12/2004

To the editor



The brain-imaging study led by Drs. Bennett A. and Sally E. Shaywitz of Yale University and co-authored by G. Reid Lyon, purportedly demonstrating that a brain dysfunction causes reading disabilities ("dyslexia"), displays what I have called the Czechlexia error. That is, because, through new learning, brains are ever-changing, examination of these changes cannot assume to have found a dysfunction in the initial state of the brain. If a person were in the process of learning to read Czech, before-and- after brain imaging would show brain changes concomitant with the new learning and not necessarily a prior state of Czechlexia.



The deficit-driven, brain- glitch dyslexia research, by persistently ignoring this methodological issue, has continued to contribute to the misunderstanding of children’s reading problems.



Furthermore, given the researchers’ long-standing and invariable devotion to "phonologically based intervention," it is not surprising to find that the study used a manipulated experimental method that largely guaranteed a single outcome. The experimental children received "50 minutes of daily individual tutoring" by certified teachers for eight months; the control children did not (some had no tutoring; others had one day each week of an ill- defined "school intervention").



Given this gross imbalance in instructional time and individual attention, how can anyone logically conclude that it was the "alphabetic principle" training that produced a superior reading outcome? Clearly, the researchers had no trouble resolving that conundrum.



Finally, the brain-imaging results revealed nothing about brain activity and "reading" because no "reading" was used in the imaging analysis—not paragraphs, not sentences, not even words. Rather, the task involved a letter-identification task, hardly one that opens anything close to an adequate window onto brain functioning associated with actual reading or "reading disabilities."



New technological tools offer extraordinary possibilities for understanding brain activity. Like all such tools, however, they cannot overcome the predispositions researchers employ in applying them.

Gerald Coles


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