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Fluency in Dyslexic and Non-dyslexic University Students’ EFL Reading (Daniela Mattsson, English Language and Literature, Åbo Akademi)

Reading is an essential part of academic studies, and university students are expected to have a high level of reading fluency. In their studies, they must be able to read for comprehension. However, studies have shown that dyslexia can negatively affect fluency (e.g. Høien & Lundberg 2000), and today an estimated 2% of university students are dyslexic. Recently more attention has been directed to dyslexia, its connections to foreign language skills and its manifestations at higher levels of education (e.g. Lindgrén 2012). The present study serves as a contribution to our understanding of EFL fluency, and more specifically, decoding in read-aloud in young adults with dyslexia.

In this study, fluency was investigated in the oral production of an EFL (English as a foreign language) read-aloud task in two groups: a dyslexia group comprising 15 dyslexic university students matched on age, gender, and field of study with a control group consisting of 15 non-dyslexic university students. Their mother tongue was Finland-Swedish and they had studied English as a foreign language since primary school but did not major in English at university level. These data were part of a material collected by Dr. Signe-Anita Lindgrén, who also supervised the study.

The frequencies of five various pause and hesitation phenomena found in the two participant groups were investigated. The measures comprised unfilled pauses, filled pauses, prolongations of sounds, self-corrections, and repeats. The placement of pauses was analysed with regard to phrase structures, as previous studies have highlighted that detailed information about fluency can be attained by scrutinizing readers’ ability to read in phrases (e.g. Rasinski 1989). Reading rate was also investigated. In order to detect pause and hesitation phenomena and to measure time, the sound analysing software Praat was used. All quantitative analyses were performed in SPSS.

The main findings demonstrate statistically significant group differences between the dyslexic and the non-dyslexic readers regarding fluency patterns and reading rate. The dyslexics produced more pause and hesitation phenomena than the controls with regard to unfilled pauses, filled pauses, and prolongations of sounds. They also read the text at a slower pace. Previous research has shown that more fluent speakers often pause at strong syntactic boundaries, whereas less fluent speakers often produce pauses within phrases. This was also observed in the present study: the dyslexia group placed more pauses inside noun phrases than their non-dyslexic peers. A tendency to produce more pauses inside verb phrases was also seen in the dyslexia group. A further study should focus on the pause and hesitation phenomena in relation to the grapheme-phoneme context where they appear.

The study provides evidence for the dyslexics’ struggle to process information in reading. In line with Schneider and Evers (2009), the findings suggest a need for paying attention to pause and hesitation phenomena in EFL teaching. It could be beneficial to help students build up a systematic awareness of not only phonological features but also phrase structures, focusing on how to observe and distinguish between phrase structures. A further study would ideally test to what extent reading strategy instruction and raising metalinguistic awareness help students develop their EFL fluency.  In a wider context, fluency is needed for successful reading comprehension, and comprehending reading is essential for university students.  

Key words: dyslexia, EFL oral reading fluency, university students, Finland-Swedish as mother tongue, hesitation phenomena, pauses, pause placement

References (selection):

Høien, Torleiv and Ingvar Lundberg. 2000. Dyslexia: From Theory to Intervention. Dordrecht: Springer.

Lindgrén, Signe-Anita. 2012. Mild Developmental Dyslexia in University Students: Diagnosis and Performance Features in L1, L2, and L3. English Department Publications 6. Turku: Åbo Akademi University. 

Rasinski, Timothy V. 1989. “Fluency for Everyone: Incorporating Fluency Instruction in the Classroom”.  In The Reading Teacher 42: 690–693.

Schneider, Elke and Tsila Evers. 2009. “Linguistic Intervention Techniques for At-Risk English Language Learners”. In Foreign Language Annals 42 (1): 55–76.