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  • Language Deficits in Dyslexic Children: Speech Perception,Phonology, and Morphology

    Marc F. Joanisse and Franklin R. Manis

    University of Southern California

    Patricia Keating

    University of California, Los Angeles


    Mark S. Seidenberg

    University of Southern California

    We investigated the relationship between dyslexia and three aspects of language: speechperception, phonology, and morphology. Reading and language tasks were administered todyslexics aged 89 years and to two normal reader groups (age-matched and reading-levelmatched). Three dyslexic groups were identified: phonological dyslexics (PD), developmen-tally language impaired (LI), and globally delayed (delay-type dyslexics). The LI and PDgroups exhibited similar patterns of reading impairment, attributed to low phonological skills.However, only the LI group showed clear speech perception deficits, suggesting that suchdeficits affect only a subset of dyslexics. Results also indicated phonological impairments inchildren whose speech perception was normal. Both the LI and the PD groups showedinflectional morphology difficulties, with the impairment being more severe in the LI group.The delay groups reading and language skills closely matched those of younger normalreaders, suggesting these children had a general delay in reading and language skills, ratherthan a specific phonological impairment. The results are discussed in terms of models of wordrecognition and dyslexia. 2000 Academic Press

    Key Words: dyslexia; language impairments; speech perception; reading acquisition.

    This research was supported by NICHD Grant HD 29891 and NIMH Grant 04756. Marc Joanisse wassupported by NSERC (Canada) postgraduate award 208931. Mark Seidenberg was supported by aResearch Scientist Development Award, NIMH KO2-01188. We are grateful to Richard Wright forassisting in developing the speech stimuli and to Michael Harm, Maryellen MacDonald, and twoanonymous reviewers for helpful discussions. We thank the students, teachers, and principals of Buffum,Burcham, Carver, Gant, Lowell, Madison, Prisk, and Tincher Elementary Schools (Long Beach, Califor-nia). We also thank Carrie Bailey, Suzanne Curtin, Laura Gonnerman, Arthur Giraco, Michael Harm,Maria Munoz, Lynne Stallings, Anne Styskal, Pauline Tam, and Lisa Woomer for assisting in testing.

    Address correspondence and reprint requests to Mark S. Seidenberg, Neuroscience Program,University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520. E-mail:

    Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 77, 3060 (2000)doi:10.1006/jecp.1999.2553, available online at on

    0022-0965/00 $35.00Copyright 2000 by Academic PressAll rights of reproduction in any form reserved.


  • Developmental dyslexia is diagnosed in children who fail to acquire age-appropriate reading skills in the absence of other cognitive dysfunctions, such aspoor vision or frank neurological deficit (Stanovich, 1988b; Vellutino, 1979).Dyslexic children typically exhibit difficulties in recognizing printed words, andperform poorly on such tasks as nonsense word reading, spelling, and readingcomprehension (Lyon, 1995; Rack, Snowling, & Olson, 1992). Dyslexia issometimes thought to be an impairment that is specific to reading; however, thereis now a considerable body of evidence linking dyslexia to impairments in otheraspects of language, memory, and perception (Adams, 1990; Snowling, 1987;Stanovich, 1988a; Vellutino, 1979; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987).

    A prominent view of dyslexia is that it derives from deficits in the represen-tation and use of phonological information (Liberman & Shankweiler, 1985;Rack et al., 1992; Stanovich, 1988b; Wagner & Torgesen, 1987). Phonologicaldeficits are thought to interfere with learning the correspondences betweenspelling and sound, an important step in reading acquisition. Several aspects ofphonological skill have been shown to be affected. Some studies have focused ondyslexics poor phonemic awareness, characterized as an inability to segmentwords into phonemes (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Bruck, 1992; Manis, Custodio,& Szeszulski, 1993). Phonemic awareness tasks typically involve counting,adding, deleting, or identifying the position of phonemes in familiar words andnonwords. Other studies have examined the effects of phonological impairmentson lexical access (Bowers & Swanson, 1991; Denckla & Rudel, 1976; Wolf,1986) and verbal working memory (Byrne & Shea, 1979; Shankweiler, Liber-man, Mark, Fowler, & Fischer, 1979). Prospective studies of phonology andreading support the hypothesis that poor phonological ability can play a causalrole in reading deficits. For example, Bradley and Bryant (1983) have shown thatprereading childrens performance on phonemic awareness tasks is a betterpredictor of a childs later reading ability than is a measure of general intelli-gence.

    The underlying cause of phonological deficits in poor readers is unclear. Onepossible source is impaired perception of speech at the phoneme level. Severalstudies have shown that poor readers as a group tend to perform abnormally ontasks involving the categorization and/or discrimination of speech sounds (God-frey, Syrdal-Lasky, Millay, & Knox, 1981; Manis et al., 1997; Masterson, Hazan,& Wijatilake, 1995; Mody, Studdert-Kennedy, & Brady, 1997; Reed, 1989;Werker & Tees, 1987). The acoustic cues for contrastive speech sounds tend tobe continuous, such as voice onset time (VOT), which is relevant to voicingcontrasts (e.g., /p/ vs /b/), and the onset frequency of formant transitions, whichis relevant to place of articulation contrasts (e.g., /b/ vs /g/). In spite of theacoustic continuity of speech cues, children and adults tend to perceive speechsounds categorically (Liberman, Harris, Hoffman, & Griffith, 1957), with sharpboundaries between phonemic categories. In some studies, dyslexics have shownweak or distorted categorization, in addition to speech discrimination that is


  • different from that of normals (Godfrey et al., 1981; Werker & Tees, 1987). Aperceptual deficit of this sort would impair the ability to process speech and couldin turn affect the development and use of phonological representations, leadingto the commonly observed problems with nonword pronunciation and phono-logical awareness in dyslexic children.

    A problem with this hypothesis is that reader group differences in speechperception tend to be small and not always statistically robust (Manis et al., 1997;Werker & Tees, 1987). For example, in some studies dyslexic children haveexhibited poor speech perception for only a subset of the phonemic contrasts onwhich they were tested (e.g., Godrey et al., 1981). In other studies, case by caseanalyses revealed abnormal speech perception in only a subset of the dyslexics.Manis et al. (1997) investigated dyslexic childrens ability to identify /b/ vs /p/on the basis of VOT. Dyslexics with low phonemic awareness were more likelyto have speech perception deficits than other dyslexics who had reading-level-appropriate phonological abilities. Similarly, Tallal (1980) reported a high cor-relation between nonword reading skill and temporal order judgments of speechsounds, such that poor nonword readers were poor at perception, while betternonword readers were not. However, the Manis et al. study also indicated thatfewer than half of the dyslexics with low phonological skill demonstrated deviantspeech categorization profiles on the VOT categorization task. A similar resultwas reported by Nittrouer (1999), who found appreciable phonological difficul-ties in a sample of poor readers, but failed to observe significant deficits in bothspeech and nonspeech perception tasks.

    It is possible that the tasks used in these studies were not sensitive enough todetect subtle speech perception difficulties in poor readers. Nevertheless, thesestudies raise the possibility that speech perception deficits may be observed inonly a subset of poor readers. Tallal and Stark (1982) suggested that difficultieson auditory-temporal processing tasks, including tests of speech perception,might be more prevalent among dyslexic children with expressive and/or recep-tive language delays than among dyslexics without language delays. However,dyslexics with and without language difficulties were not compared within asingle study by Tallal and her colleagues, nor were language deficits investigatedin the Manis et al. (1997) study.

    The goal of the present study was to obtain additional information about theoccurrence of speech perception deficits in dyslexia and how they are related toimpairments in two other aspects of linguistic knowledge, phonology and mor-phology. One question is whether dyslexics who exhibit phonological impair-ments have impaired speech perception. This would be consistent with the ideathat phonological impairments are secondary to a speech perception deficit.However, it is also possible that phonological deficits can occur without impairedspeech perception. Harm and Seidenberg (1999) simulated phonological dyslexiain a connectionist model by introducing anomalies in phonological processingthat were severe enough to affect reading acquisition but not the categorical


  • perception of phonemes. Thus, the model suggests that phonological impair-ments can have causes other than a speech perception impairment and predictsthat at least some phonological dyslexics will have normal speech perception.

    We also investigated the possibility that speech perception deficits are limitedto dyslexics who exhibit broader impairments in language. Although the evi-dence for speech perception impairments in dyslexia is mixed, there is muchstronger evidence for this type of impairm