Once more I have been dipping into Maryanne Wolf’s magnificent book, Proust and the Squid, for enlightenment on the differences inherent in identifying dyslexia in speakers of different languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ (or words in more regular languages) will take far less phonological processing than, for example, ‘phonological ’.

Wolf writes:

Readers of, say, German or Italian quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires. English and French readers appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur.

Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing.

The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very deficient – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.