A Virtual Reality Test Identifies the Visuospatial Strengths of Adolescents with Dyslexia

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  • CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIORVolume 12, Number 2, 2009 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2008.0204

    A Virtual Reality Test Identifies the Visuospatial Strengths of Adolescents with Dyslexia

    Elizabeth A. Attree, BSc., C.Psychol.,1 Mark. J. Turner, M.Sc.,1 and Naina Cowell, M.A.2


    Research suggests that the deficits characterizing dyslexia may also be associated with superior visuospatialabilities. Other research suggests that superior visuospatial abilities of people with dyslexia may not have beenso far identified because of the lack of appropriate tests of real-life spatial ability. A recent small-scale studyfound that visuospatial superiority was evident in men with dyslexia. This study assessed the visuospatial abil-ity of adolescents with dyslexia in order to determine whether these adolescents performed better on a pseudoreal-life visuospatial test than did their nondyslexic peers. Forty-two adolescents took part in the study. Therewas an equal numerical split between the experimental and control groups. The experimental group all had adiagnosis of dyslexia by an educational psychologist or specialist teacher. Visuospatial ability was assessed us-ing the Recall of Designs and the Pattern Construction subtests from the British Ability Scales (2nd edition;BAS-11) together with a computer-generated virtual environment test. The assessments were administered ina counterbalanced order. Adolescents with dyslexia tended to perform less well than their nondyslexic peerson the BAS-11 tests; however, this difference was not statistically significant. For the computer-generated vir-tual environment test (pseudo real-life measure), statistically significant higher scores were achieved by thedyslexic group. These findings suggest that adolescents with dyslexia may exhibit superior visuospatialstrengths on certain pseudo real-life tests of spatial ability. The usefulness of these findings is discussed in re-lation to possible implications for assessment and educational intervention programs for adolescents withdyslexia.



    DYSLEXIA IS A SPECIFIC LEARNING DISABILITY that is evidentwhen accurate and fluent word reading or spelling de-velops very incompletely or with great difficulty. This def-inition focuses on literacy learning at the word level, imply-ing a severe and persistent problem despite appropriatelearning opportunities.1 If taken as descriptive rather thanoperational, this definition provides a neutral starting pointfrom which different theoretical rationales and research ini-tiatives can be considered. It enables the examination of as-sociated difficulties, whether cognitive, emotional, or phys-ical, in order to specify individual educational needs.2

    The etiology of dyslexia is not fully understood. However,neurological explanations such as Nicolsons3 hypothesisthat congenital cerebellar dysfunction provides a coherentexplanation of all the symptoms of dyslexia, including thecore phonological difficulties, ties in with similar theoriesdeveloped by Frith.4

    Atypical findings in the brains of people with dyslexia haveled to speculation that they might not just lead to the condi-tion itself but to the enhancement of other cognitive functions.5

    If this speculation can be substantiated, then increased knowl-edge and understanding of enhanced cognitive functions inindividuals with dyslexia could have important implicationsfor teaching and learning.6 The specific cognitive domainwithin which these purportedly enhanced functions existshould be relatively straightforward to identify, because theauditory-verbal and the visuospatial information processingsystems are neuropsychologically partially separate and dis-tinct networks within the brain.7 For example, one cognitivefeature of dyslexia that has long been thought to be univer-sally superior is visuospatial ability. Case studies of talentedindividuals with dyslexia8 and research studies9,10 suggestthat dyslexia may be positively associated with visuospatialabilities, artistic talents, or creativity.11 Research also indicatesthat the regions of the brain associated with visuospatial abil-ities are larger in individuals with dyslexia.12

    1School of Psychology, University of East London, London, United Kingdom.2Multi-Agency and Psychology Services, Children, Schools and Families, Hertfordshire County Council, United Kingdom.

  • ATTREE ET AL.164

    Nevertheless, in terms of relative strengths in relation tospatial versus verbal abilities, strengths in the spatial areasfor individuals with dyslexia exist, but evidence for absolutestrengths compared to the general population is not consis-tent. Some suggest relative strengths in visuospatial ar-eas,13,14 while others indicate spatial skills that are neitherinferior nor superior to the rest of the population.1517 Ex-planations for such talents among people with dyslexia havebeen proposed using a compensatory argument. These dis-tributions of talents may represent compensation contribut-ing to the evolutionary resistance of dyslexic genes.11 Analternative explanation is the default and channeling hy-pothesis,18 which suggests that individuals with dyslexiawho have enhanced spatial talents are more likely to choosespatial as opposed to verbal occupations because the choiceof the latter avenue may not be open to them. This does notnecessarily suggest any difference in spatial abilities betweenthose with or without dyslexia.

    Moreover, Winner et al.18 found that individuals withdyslexia performed either equivalently to or worse than con-trol peers on a wide range of visuospatial tasks. Further re-search was suggested using more real-life tests of spatial abil-ity to determine whether dyslexia is associated with spatialability. Visuospatial ability has been given only token atten-tion as an important dimension of cognitive functioning andoften has been ignored by the psychological and educationalcommunity.8 The paucity of research in this area may be due,in part, to a widely agreed definition of visuospatial abili-ties. Indeed, they are within a somewhat complex cognitivedomain generally related to the broader field of intelli-gence. For example, Carrolls19 description of intelligenceand associated cognitive skills derive from a multifactorialtheory of intelligence. He proposed multiple dimensions ofhuman abilities, which are related in complex ways to learn-ing, achievement, and problem-solving.

    Carrolls19 factor analytical research identified five majortypes of visuospatial abilities: (a) spatial orientation (the abil-ity to imagine how an image will appear from another per-spective), (b) spatial visualization (the ability to apprehend,encode, and mentally manipulate spatial forms), (c) figuralflexibility (the ability to come up with a variety of ways toinvolve a spatial problem), (d) closure speed (the ability toinitiate an apparently disparate perceptual field into a uni-fied concept), and (e) reference memory (which assesses spa-tial memory).

    In order to investigate visuospatial abilities in individualswith dyslexia, it is important to assess a range of abilities, asidentified by Carroll.19 In summarizing their inconclusive re-search, Winner et al.18 asked whether real-world spatial tasksmight indicate more readily observable spatial talents in in-dividuals with dyslexia. Evidence has emerged from a small-scale study carried out by Brunswick and Martin20 thatfound that men with dyslexia had a greater level of accuracyon a real-life task. Hence, before dismissing an associationbetween dyslexia and visuospatial talents, more research isneeded using real-life tests of spatial ability. These ideas in-spired this research study.

    This study used a virtual real-world task alongside stan-dardized psychometric tests measuring a range of visu-ospatial abilities to explore whether the performance of ado-lescents with dyslexia was in any way superior to theirnondyslexic counterparts. If superior visuospatial abilities

    are identified, this will not only have implications for as-sessment and intervention for people with dyslexia but willalso help to bridge the gaps between pure psychological re-search with outcomes relevant to the pragmatic concerns ofdyslexic individuals themselves and those who supportthem.

    Based on the proposal that individuals with dyslexia mayexhibit enhanced visuospatial abilities on assessments thatreflect real-world tasks, we hypothesized that the dyslexicgroup would score significantly higher than controls on thecomputer-generated pseudo real-life visuospatial measure.Performance on the more traditional assessments of visu-ospatial ability is unlikely to yield differences between thedyslexic and control group, which would be consistent withprevious research.

    Materials and Methods


    This was a quasi-experimental mixed 2 3 design. Thebetween-participants factor had two levels (dyslexic andnondyslexic), and the within-participants factor had threelevels (the three tests). The dependent variable was the per-formance score on each test. Participants were presentedwith a counterbalanced within-participants design with thethree tests: (A) virtual environment (VE) test, (B) PatternConstruction test, and (C) Recall of Designs test. Tests B andC were taken from the British Ability Scales (BAS) II.21 Thetests were administered individually in sessions lasting 30to 40 minutes. All participants were seen within a 4-weekperiod.


    A total of 21 dyslexic and 21 control participants volun-teered to take part in the study. Participants attended a sec-ondary school in either Cambridgeshire or Essex.

    The dyslexic group consisted of 18 males and 3 femaleswhose ages ranged from 12 years 9 months to 14 years 6months. Ten (9 male, 1 female) participants attended adyslexia unit attached to an Essex secondary school. The stu-dents att