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Topics in Language Disorders:
doi: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000014
Original Articles

Developmental Reading Disorders in Japan—Prevalence, Profiles, and Possible Mechanisms

Welty, Yumiko Tanaka; Menn, Lise; Oishi, Noriko

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Abstract

Japan has been considered dyslexia-free because of the nature of the orthography, which consists of the visually simple kana syllabary and some thousands of visually complex, logographic kanji characters. It is true that few children struggle with learning kana, which provide consistent mappings between symbols and their pronunciation. Indeed, most children can read most of the kana by age 6. However, many Japanese children struggle with reading the kanji, which represent most of the content words in a text; in addition to their visual complexity and impoverished or nonexistent phonological information, kanji are difficult because they typically have several pronunciations and multiple meanings, depending on the context. Because kanji must be learned semantically rather than phonologically, many people believe that Japanese dyslexia is due to visuospatial rather than phonological processing impairments. We sketch the complex psycholinguistic demands of retrieving the correct pronunciations for kanji, especially in kanji compound words. Some individuals have extreme difficulty in learning the correspondences between these symbols and their sounds; whether these difficulties are visual, phonological, or both is an urgent topic for further research. After introducing Japanese orthography, we present 2 case studies. The first is a profile of a boy we observed from ages 7 to 20 years with difficulties in learning both kana and kanji. The second is a case study of using an interactive reading intervention for a fifth-grade boy with dyslexia. This program was designed to reduce decoding and fluency problems by teaching the meanings and pronunciations in phrasal context rather than in vocabulary lists. We propose that some of the dyslexias in Japanese may not be the same as any type of dyslexia that has been reported for learners of alphabetic writing systems. In addition, we emphasize the need for SLPs in Japan to establish new policies that support collaborative relationships with teachers and other professionals so that they can work in schools to identify and help children with spoken and written language problems.

© 2014 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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