Report on "Literacy Development in Successful Men and Women With Dyslexia" by Rosalie P. Fink

Published in the Annals of Dyslexia, volume XLVII, 1998, pp. 311-346

Rosalie P. Fink is an associate professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She recently reported on a study she did to find out about successful adult dyslexics. Specifically, she wanted to know how well they could read and how they had learned to read.

Fink studied a sample of 60 successful adults (30 men and 30 women) with dyslexia. The sample included a winner of the Nobel Prize, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and leaders in a variety of fields where a lot of reading is required, such as medicine, law, business, and the arts and sciences. She also had a control group of ten similarly successful nondyslexics.

How Well Do the Successful Adult Dyslexics Read?

As might be expected from the fact that the group was selected from successful practitioners of occupations that require reading, all of the adult dyslexics read with good comprehension. On the Diagnostic Assessments of Reading With Trial Teaching Strategies (DARTTS), a standardized test, all of the dyslexics tested above twelfth grade level (where the test tops out) on word recognition, oral reading accuracy, and word meaning. On silent comprehension, 5% of the dyslexics (three individuals) tested below twelfth grade level. (Interestingly, 10% of the nondyslexic sample tested below twelfth grade level. But since there were only ten nondyslexic controls, that was just one individual.)

On spelling, 57% of the dyslexics tested below twelfth grade level on the DARTTS, as did 40% of the control group.

The Nelson-Denny Reading Test of Vocabulary, Reading Comprehension, and Reading Rate is a standardized test that measures reading ability through postgraduate levels. On that test, the nondyslexic controls did significantly better than the dyslexics, but all were in the postgraduate range. The Nelson-Denny is ordinarily a timed tests. All study participants were offered extra time. None of the controls needed extra time. 58% of the dyslexics did.

On various nonword (nonsense word) tests, the nondyslexics did significantly better and completed the tests faster.

In summary then, for practical purposes the dyslexic group read as well as the control group, but more slowly. Neither group tested very well in spelling.

Fink asked the dyslexics how they read -- that is, what parts guessing from context and decoding played in their reading. She reports that many of them used context clues heavily, and felt that their decoding skills were poor. That is in spite of the fact that most of them (at least, those under 50) had received explicit instruction in phonics. She quotes a successful speech pathologist as saying "To this day I can't sound out a word."

Fink makes the point, buttressed by other interview questions, that these people do most of their reading in a specialized field with which they are very familiar. That would facilitate use of context clues. Another point that occurs to me is that individuals may not be able to determine accurately the extent to which they use decoding as opposed to context; and they may have erroneous ideas about what is "normal" in that regard.

When Did They Learn to Read?

The dyslexics reported learning to read (by which they meant achieving fluency) between ten and eleven years of age. Fink says this is three to three and one half years later than nondyslexics achieve fluency.

How Did They Learn to Read?

Fink's major thesis is that all of dyslexic study participants achieved high reading skills because of interest-driven reading as children. That thesis is borne out by her interview data. She does not discount the value of instruction in phonics, but clearly believes that phonics is only one of the stepping-stones on the way to literacy, especially for dyslexics.

She reports that the dyslexics, as children, read avidly in a narrow subject area. They developed background knowledge and vocabulary that allowed them to make better use of context and thus facilitated further reading. She seems to suggest that it is important for a dyslexic child to become an expert in something at an early age.

One of the two gender differences Fink identified was in preference for childhood reading material. Of the 30 women in the study, 23 reported a preference for novels over nonfiction as children. Of the 30 men, fourteen preferred novel and sixteen nonfiction.

The other gender difference was in the importance of mentors. Men were much more likely than women to identify one or more specific individuals who had helped them learn to read.

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Everything on this web site is the personal opinion of S. W. Davison. Any of it might be incorrect or out-of-date.

Copyright 1998, 1999 Stowell W. Davison