Dyslexia and the Visual Brain

Dyslexia and the Visual Brain

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If you ask me, life is too full of acronyms as it is. And today we’re discussing yet another one. But this one refers to an important area of the brain to understand, especially as it relates to dyslexia and the visual brain. So let’s begin! And as always, the links to the studies referred to below are at the end of the article if you’d like to dig deeper.

The Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) of the brain is considered to be the brain’s “letterbox.” It’s job? Processing written letters and words and transmitting this information to higher-order language regions of the brain for linguistic processing. Translation: it learns to distinguish between different sounds of each letter, and then helps connect those various sounds to the words on a page. Those are already pretty complex processes, and yet there appears to be even more to this part of the brain than we once thought.

A man in a gray shirt against a gray background waves his hand at some white three-dimensional letters that are floating in front of him in a random cloud of letters. Dyslexia and the visual brain.

A 2019 study on the workings of the VWFA done at Stanford University points to a number of interesting possibilities. What the scientists discovered is that not only does the VWFA connect speech sounds with written language, but it is also a key player in attention (focus) in both vision and spatial perception. What does this mean when translated? That the VWFA helps us orthographically (it recognizes words), but it is also consistently activated by faces and numerical symbols. In fact, the data show that it is actually much more active in deciding where the brain’s attention goes than its work towards word recognition.

The scientists conclude:

“We adopted a network connectivity approach to understand the properties of distributed circuits in a putatively functionally-specialized region. We examined structural and functional connectivity with high-resolution imaging in a large cohort to test competing models of VWFA function with a strong theory-driven approach.

“Converging results indicate that VWFA is tightly coupled to both language and attention networks in the brain, and that language and attentional abilities are reflected in connectivity patterns between VWFA and their respective networks. Results strongly suggest that VWFA is not specialized just for reading and language function, but rather plays a broader role in integrating language and attention. Taken together, our study highlights the multiplexed VWFA circuits underlying reading, a highly demanding visual decoding task that requires rapid online visual perception, attention, eye movement coordination, and conversion to language representations.

“Finally, our approach is very much in resonance with the broader framework of ‘connectivity fingerprints’ or ‘connectivity constrained cognition.’ Consistent with this framework, we demonstrated that the specific functions of VWFA are very likely to depend on its functional and structural connectivity patterns with other brain networks. This organizational principle may also be useful for elucidating the functions of other brain regions.”

A series of diagrams, graphs, and flowcharts depicting the brain and brain functions. The highlight is a diagram of the brain depicting activity in the visual word form area of the brain and the correlations between language and attention in those areas. Dyslexia and the visual brain.

Could this be why so many of us dyslexics have such an epic struggle to focus on reading tasks, and why our recall of what we’ve read is also problematic? It certainly seems likely that the two are related.

The second study referenced below addresses another aspect of VWFA function. Since the VWFA starts interpreting sounds even before a child is exposed to very much written language, and since the activity of the VWFA appears to be less robust in children who later develop dyslexia, focusing on phonemic awareness can be a point of action.

A toddler examines a chart showing the sign language alphabet and seems to be trying to make shapes with her hands. Dyslexia and the visual brain.

I am reminded of all I’ve learned from Faith Borkowsky, reading teacher and dyslexia expert, about the power of using a multisensory learning environment to help struggling readers. Since decoding sounds can be problematic, and visual decoding and attention are also at issue, the addition of kinesthetic techniques can help children with VWFA impairments to add another sensory category to their learning toolbox.

If you’d like to learn more about adding kinesthetic learning opportunities in your home, please refer to my blog, Dyslexia and Kinesthetic Learning.

If you would like to learn more about dyslexia and the visual brain, here are the links to the studies and articles mentioned in this blog:

A banner that reads October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. The multiple deficit model of dyslexia means looking for potential multiple contributing factors to dyslexia.

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month! For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.

Cover of Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn. Cover shows the silhouetted heads of a parent and child facing each other. Instead the brain area of each silhouette is an outline of a maze. The two mazes are connected by a white line leading to the center of the brain maze of the parent and child.

And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award nominee Faith Borkowsky.

Cover of the book Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent's Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky. Cover depicts a large stack of books and a boy sitting on the floor, hiding his face in his arms with a despondent attitude.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.