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Finding Answers for Resilient Readers

Growing up, I noticed that some children would leave the classroom with teachers I didn’t recognize, and until I grew a little older I didn’t understand where they were going. Eventually I learned that these children had learning disabilities, some of whom were diagnosed with dyslexia. What has never crossed my mind since then, is that there are still adults who are affected by reading disabilities. Experimenters Welcome, Chiarello, Halderman, and Leonard (2008) examined a group of college students who they called “Resilient Readers” who have a rare form of reading disability that can be thought of as similar to dyslexia. The stereotype that people with dyslexia just switch letters is only one small piece of the disorder, which is caused by the brain not properly recognizing or processing symbols (letters and words). There are other symptoms for those struggling with dyslexia, including difficulties in: figuring out meanings of sentences, recognizing written words, and rhyming. Though it can be difficult for a young student with dyslexia to learn how to read, if taught specialized techniques and approaches to learning they are able to overcome or at least learn to work with their disorder (PubMed Health). Many students with dyslexia attend higher education and excel among their classmates.


Interestingly enough, many of these resilient readers were not even aware that they had any type of disability because their text comprehension skills are quite normal, but when it comes to reading pseudowords they struggle. A pseudoword is a word that is not actually a real word, but is only a letter or two off from a regular word so should be relatively simple to sound out. An example of a pseudoword would be “flid” or “meeded”, so they are words that may not actually be words, but can definitely be sounded out and read in a relatively short amount of time by adequate readers.

There is not much research out there at the moment that has been dedicated to understanding resilient readers; most of the research out there is either through case studies, or with very small sample sizes. Welcome et al. decided to test individuals who they found to be resilient readers, and they were also interested in whether resilient readers also experience differences in patterns of lateralization. Lateralization refers to how cognitive processes rely on the two hemispheres of the brain. To demonstrate, make both of your hands into fists, and then put your hands together so that your thumbs are touching with the nails facing you. See how it becomes one object, but with two equal halves? That is what your brain is like. Interestingly enough, to use the right side of our body we use the left half (hemisphere) of our brain, and when we use the left side of our body we are using the right half (right hemisphere) of our brain (See Image 1). There is a lot of criss-crossing going on if you can imagine. Previous studies have shown that when objects are presented to a person’s right side/ visual field (so information goes into the left hemisphere) then the persons reacts more quickly to a stimulus than when an object is presented to the left visual field (and into the right hemisphere). This is due to major language centers being present in the left hemisphere of the brain. The experimenters wondered if perhaps resilient readers would show differences compared to the average reader in lateralization, wondering if perhaps lateralization impacts their word recognition disabilities.

Image 1




The participants in this study were 141 college students, 16 of which when pre-tested, tested well in reading comprehension, but poorly in the Word Attack assessment (Woodcock, 1998) which tests phonological awareness and spelling by breaking down words and identifying smaller words, prefixes, and suffixes (Youtube video: Word Attack in the Classroom). These participants then were tested on seven divided visual field (DVF) exercises to test lateralization (i.e. performed the tasks with both left visual field and then right visual field to look for differences between the two). These tasks included pseudoword naming (being able to sound out a pseudoword), word naming (reading a real word), verb generation (creating verbs), and category generating (having the ability to look at a group of words and find their common category); these tasks also tested lateralization processes in the left and right visual fields.

Welcome and colleagues found that, like in previous studies on resilient readers, the resilient readers scored lower on word recognition tests, but they scored similarly to proficient (normal) readers on tasks that involved semantic access including generating verbs and deciding if a word presented to them was a naturally occurring or man-made object. When it came to lateralization, resilient readers scored no differently than the proficient readers, so they also were able to react more quickly to tasks presented to their right visual field (because language centers are in left hemisphere. Remember the hemispheres and lateralization?).

To put it simply:

  1. Welcome and colleagues did not find any differences between resilient readers’ performance on pseudoword recognition tasks and semantic accessing tasks in their study, and with resilient readers’ performance on these tasks in previous research. They are able to use their top-down processing, which means using experiences and previously known concepts, to compensate for their reading and recognition disabilities. However, this was already proved by previous research, so though Welcome et al. did not find new results in this area, their results do support past research.
  2. They also found that resilient reading is not an effect of deficiency (problems) in lateralization processes, so defects in lateralization can be ruled out as a cause. They deduced this because resilient readers performed no differently proficient readers on the lateralization tasks.

Welcome and colleagues were not able to find significant data concerning the cause of resilient reading, but they were able to back up prior research, and also to rule out lateralization as a cause of the disorder. Though some resilient readers may not even be aware that they have any kind of reading disorder, it is still a problem that affects not only children, but also young adults and my collegiate peers.


Developmental reading disorder: dyslexia. (2014, January 04). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002379/

Welcome, S. E., Chiarello, C., Halderman, L. K., & Leonard, C. M. (2009). Lexical processing skill in college-age resilient readers.Reading and Writing, 22(3), 353-371. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11145-008-9120-3


  1. chminott
    March 20th, 2014 at 23:17 | #1

    What an interesting topic! Although one of my close family members has a form of visual dyslexia, I’ve never known much about the variability and spectrum of the possible symptoms. I’m fascinated by the way dyslexic and resilient readers rely heavily on top-down processing. This shows how top-down processing is an essential yet adaptive/survival-based mechanism for humans; if humans could not comprehend semantic meaning, language would loose it’s substance and purpose. I love the way that this article connects to what I’ve learned about resiliency in my lifespan development course this semester. Looking at the case study of Genie, whose social isolation until age 13 prevented her from developing language as a child, we learn that context is tremendously important in language acquisition. In cases of dyslexia, which are biologically-based or induced by a brain injury/trauma, these brains are resilient and adaptive in order to accurately function in language comprehension tasks – in the same way the Genie lacked years of social exposure but was still adaptive and able to gain communication skills at an older age.
    Since this blog post mentions the lack of current research on resilient readers, I decided to search around PsychINFO see if there were any new findings. I found out that Welcome, Leonard and Chiarello conducted another experiment in 2010 titled “Alternate reading strategies and variable asymmetry of the planum temporale in adult resilient readers.” Since they focused on lateralization deficiencies in their 2009 study, this 2010 paper looked at whether resilient readers showed abnormal morphology of the planum temporale – a brain area associated with language that is predominantly left-asymmetric in the general population. In a trend similar to their 2009 research findings, these findings were also not conclusive in explaining the cause of the disorder.

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