Reading Comprehension and the Hyperlexic Child
Reading Comprehension and Hyperlexia
- Reading comprehension - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- American Hyperlexia Association
Syndrome of Hyperlexia, Education, Information and support
- Hyperlexia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Some children start reading before they are able to hold a conversation. In a sense, they start to read before they can even talk. How is that possible? Reading can be broken down into two separate processes: (1) decoding the written symbols into words pronounced by the vocal apparatus and (2) making out the meaning of the discourse through an interpretation of the content in view of the context.
Children with dyslexia have trouble with the the first process. Children with hyperlexia have trouble with the second. In the most extreme cases, a hyperlexic child can read any text, of whatever level of difficulty, with perfect fluency but no comprehension.
This hub will deal with the essence of hyperlexia, and will discuss strategies to improve reading comprehension when the problem isn't reading -- it's comprehension.
The word hyperlexia is a bit of a misnomer, because it seems to imply
that the problem is that the child reads too well. If a child is hyperactive, therapists might want to reduce the level of activity. If a child suffers from hyperthermia, you might want to reduce his fever. But if a child suffers from hyperlexia, you do not want his ability to read to be diminished. One can never read too well!
In hyperlexia, a child's fluency in reading stands in stark contrast to the inability to understand. If the ability to read and to understand were balanced, then we would have a normal developmental pattern. If the child understands better than he can read, then the child is dyslexic. If a child reads better than he understands, he is termed hyperlexic. It is not that any particular degree of fluency in reading is undesirable. It is the way fluency contrasts with comprehension that makes it hyperlexia. Some educators may reason that one way to arrive at a normal developmental pattern is to downplay reading ability. However, it would not be in the child's best interest to try to solve this problem by reducing the ability to read. A better strategy would be to improve comprehension.
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Improving Comprehension versus learning to define words
Most parents and educators agree that the pedagogical goal with a hyperlexic child should be to improve comprehension. But there are diverging opinions about how this should be done. One particularly naïve take on the problem is that hyperlexic children should memorize definitions of written words so that if they have trouble understanding what they read, they will always have a definition of each word in mind.
For example, if we are studying a list of four letter English words of Anglo-Saxon origin, the child might be asked to memorize these two definitions:
- deck -- 1) the floor of a ship or boat; 2) a raised patio attached to a house 3) a pack of playing cards.
- luck -- chance, accident or fortune.
One problem with this method is that it assumes that a child who doesn't know the meaning of each word being defined will be able to understand it by means of other words that are no less difficult.
Consider this: if a native speaker of English does not understand the concept of "luck", or what the word luck refers to, is he more likely to understand "chance", "accident" or "fortune"? It so happens that "chance" "accident" and "fortune" are of latinate origin, and that "chance" is the French word for luck, but unless the hyperlexic child speaks French, or some other latinate language, how could this possibly help?
- Nebiyan Turkish-Turkish Dictionary - Babylon
Download Nebiyan Turkish-Turkish, one of many Encyclopedias dictionaries offered by Babylon - get it now for free
Imagine yourself trying to learn a foreign language by memorizing for each new word a definition of that word which is written entirely in the foreign language you are trying to master. For purposes of this mental exercise, choose a language that uses an alphabet you are already familiar with but that is not related to any language you know. For instance, if you are a monolingual speaker of English, don't choose Farsi, because it is written in a different alphabet, but is in fact Indo-European. Don't choose French, German or Spanish, because you're going to be able to recognize some cognates. Instead, choose something like Turkish or Tagalog.
Here is a definition in Turkish of the Turkish word bahtiser:bahtiser (afi.) ka. - talihli, şanslı, iyi yazgılı. işleri başından beri iyi giden.
Having read the definition, do you now know what bahtiser means? Well, if you don't, then how is a hyperlexic child who doesn't know what it means to be lucky supposed to learn the meaning of luck from the definition "chance, accident or fortune"?
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The Meaning of Words in Context
When fieldworkers trek through the jungle to discover a new people whose language nobody knows but themselves, they can't refer to a dictionary, and they can't ask the natives to translate. So what do they do?They pick up an object. They show it to the native people. They point at it. They establish a shared point of reference. And then they gesture, indicating that they don't know what to call it. The natives understand the question, even though it wasn't phrased in language. They will tell the fieldworker what to call the thing they're all looking at.
The meaning of language is learned through its association with the extralinguistic context. You can't use language to teach language, at least not at the elementary stages.
Each of us went through this process when we acquired our first language. We were alone inside our own skulls, and we were surrounded by very big people who controlled everything, while we controlled nothing. We had no clue as to what they were saying, but they were talking all the time. It was our job to pierce the veil and discover the secret to the mysterious sounds that they were making and how those sounds related to what they were doing, what they thought and what they wanted.
How did we do it? How did we decipher the meaning of language? We looked to extralinguistic cues. We studied the facial expressions of the people around us. We listened to the pattern of the sounds they made. We learned to distinguish same from different, both in the external world, and in the formal system of language. We associated same external stimulus with same linguistic label. And as we learned to predict the behavior of others, we also learned to make sense of what they said. The trick to language comprehension is mind-reading. If you can understand what somebody else is thinking, then you can learn to understand what he says.
Language comprehension usually precedes the production of language. But in a hyperlexic child, comprehension is delayed, and sometimes production by far outpaces comprehension. The result is echolalia, the rote repetition of phrases, and the production of complicated and sometimes linguistically perfect forms, without any relation to their meaning.
Hyperlexic children are actually rather good at language. They pick out formal regularities amazingly well. They understand perfectly well how language works, as an abstract system of contrasts -- often better than the average person. What they don't understand is what people use it for! They have a people problem.
In order to help a hyperlexic child, you have to first put yourself in his shoes and find out what he experiences. In many cases, the problem is not with the mechanics of language, or even with the meaning of individual words. The problem is paying attention to the context.
Shifting Reference and Perpective
Because it's much harder to learn language without access to the contextual cues, many hyperlexic children experience delays in acquiring language. However, once they do learn to speak, they often speak surprisingly well. Many idiosynracies in their speech are directly attributable to problems with joint attention, perspective taking and reference that changes with context.They are not so much language problems, as problems of seeing the other person's point of view.
For instance, some hyperlexic children, (though by no means all), have difficulty learning to use first and second person correctly. If the caretaker says: "You want a sandwich?" The child may reply: "Yes, you want a sandwich," referring to himself as "you". The problem is not that the child doesn't understand what the caretaker means by "you". The caretaker uses "you" to refer to the child. The child doesn't see why "you" should mean something else when he is speaking. He doesn't understand that it's a matter of perspective taking -- that "you" means something different depending on who is speaking.
A hyperlexic child who does not have this problem with pronouns might manifest it in other ways. He might have difficulty understanding that words such as "mother" and "father" are relational and not absolute, and therefore the meaning of "Mommy" might depend on who is speaking.
The word "home" may be unproblematic to a child, when speaking to his parents, but he may be puzzled to hear other people use it in reference to a place where he does not live.
By the same token, a child may be perfectly familiar with the word "luck" as it refers to his own affairs, and may use it correctly as in: "Isn't it lucky that I found this penny?" This does not mean that he understands the concept of luck as it applies to other people. He might not see, for instance, that same event might be unlucky for the person who lost the penny.
This inability to switch perspectives has far reaching implications for reading comprehension, because a very big part of deciphering a text involves drawing inferences from cues about the context.
There is a kind of boot-strapping going on when we read a text, or listen to someone else speaking. We draw inferences about the person's circumstances from what he says, and then we use this inferred context in order to interpret other things that he says. For instance, take the following sentence from Tales of the Sea:
"'But I want to go home to England!" I exclaimed."
Ask a reader who is not hyperlexic, where does the narrator come from? The reader will answer: England. Ask a hyperlexic, and even though he knows every one of the words in this sentence and can use them properly in reference to himself, he may have no idea what the answer is. How did the normal reader know? He drew an inference from the juxtaposition of the word "home" with the words "to England."
Now, consider the following exchange:
"How much are the d--n sheep gonna cost?"
"You're outta luck. The price has gone up!" (From Wedding by the Sea).
If you ask the average reader whether the person who inquired about the price of sheep wants to buy sheep or sell sheep, the answer you'll get is: "He wants to buy them." But the hyperlexic child might not be able to draw this inference, even though he knows all the words in the passage and can use them properly as applied to his own life.
How does the average reader know? He can put himself in the shoes of a buyer or a seller, and he realizes that when the price goes up, this is lucky for the seller, but not for the buyer.
If we want to help a hyperlexic child to understand the meaning of "luck" as it appears in the average reading passage, we need to teach him more about people and what motivates them. It's a social problem, not a reading problem. If we manage to resolve it, the child will benefit in all areas of life, not just reading.
Reading Comprehension Tests: A Mind Reading Game
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Inferring the meaning of a word
Even determining which of several possible meanings of a known word is intended depends on the context. A child may have memorized the three definitions of "deck" that were listed in an earlier section above, but how does he know which one applies in a particular reading passage? If he doesn't understand the context, he won't know which definition to choose.
"But during the most violent shocks of the Typhoon, the man at the Pequod's jaw-bone tiller had several times been reelingly hurled to the deck..." (from Moby Dick).
Ask an average reader this question:
In the passage above, which of the following definitions is most accurate for the word "deck":
- The floor of a ship or boat.
- A raised patio attached to a house.
- A pack of playing cards.
Most readers, even if they are unfamiliar with Moby Dick would choose (1). They would do so based on the meaning of "tiller". They would do so with the understanding that the text is supposed to be semantically coherent and to paint a consistent picture. They know this because they instinctively understand the Gricean maxims that speakers are not to provide unnecessary information to convey their message. If there was a tiller and a deck and a typhoon, there's a good chance this is a sea-faring tale. Of course, it doesn't have to be. The tiller could be an agricultural device. The deck could be a patio. And the typhoon could be striking land. The inferences could be wrong. But here's where, on a mutliple choice test, the typical child has another advantage. He knows that it really doesn't matter what the original author wanted to say. It's the person who wrote the test he has to worry about, And the person who wrote the test probably wanted the test-taker to rely on a maritime inference.
In multiple choice questions such as the one above, the hyperlexic child is doubly at a disadvantage. Not only can he not infer the context from the passage, he also knows nothing about the motives of the person who wrote the test. He actually believes that he's to answer what he thinks, because he doesn't understand the rules of the game. What he himself believes is not important. The game is to guess what the person who wrote the test thought the answer was.
TheGambler by Kenny Rogers
Working on Language in Context
If memorizing definitions is not a good way to help a hyperlexic child with reading comprehension, what would be a better way? To improve performance, we need to consider the reason for the hyperlexia.
In his early developmental history, the hyperlexic child is not as alert to social cues as the average child. His gaze following, his ability to establish joint attention and his interpretation of posture, tone of voice, facial expression and other non-verbal cues lag behind his contemporaries. He's not a good psychologist, and he spends most of his time learning about abstract concepts. He has good memory for spatial as well as auditory patterns, and like a little scientist, he sets about investigating his world, and in the process discovers a lot of linguistic patterns, including the relationship between written language and the spoken word.
By the time the average hyperlexic arrives in first grade, he has been reading fluently for nearly three years, but he has only had about two years of conversational practice, because he started speaking late. This means he is ahead of his contemporaries in decoding written text and recognizing the relationship between written and spoken words. But he is years behind in drawing social inferences.
To help him, we need to give him practice in recognizing social cues and engaging in spontaneous conversations. One way to help with mind reading is to give lots of practice and to offer situations where the normal cues are exaggerated, so he has less trouble recognizing them. As the child's mind-reading and perspective taking improve, the cues can become more subtle.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, for instance, if you want to make sure the child understands the words "deck" and "luck", one way to do it is to take him out on the deck, bring out a deck of cards, and play a game of chance such as, for instance, poker. Every time you get a lucky hand, you can exclaim: "I'm in luck", smiling broadly and displaying other signs of great glee. As the child's poker playing improves, you can relax and stop exaggerating your emotional reactions. Given enough practice, the child will learn to pick up on more sublte, involuntary cues. This will be a great benefit for him in almost every aspect of life, including, but not limited to, reading comprehension.
The Subjective Elements of Language
One of the greatest difficulties in understanding a word such as "luck" is not so much that it's abstract, but rather that it's subjective. Whether something that happens is lucky or not depends entirely on where you are standing and who you are.
The problem with modern pedagogical methods is that they fail to take into consideration how subjective most language use really is. In order to teach a child how to read for comprehension, you have to teach him first how to read minds. Perspective taking may come naturally to many, but it's a skill that can be taught.
Many hyperlexic children are good at chess, because it draws on their analytical skills. But to improve reading comprehension, poker is the game they should be playing.
(c) 2009 Aya Katz
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