When families come together to discuss test scores, no group of scores surprises them as much as “Processing Speed.”
Processing Speed scores on psychometric exams might mean Coding and Symbol Search scores on the WISC intelligence exams or Visual Matching and Paired Cancellation on the Woodcock Johnson.
Processing Speed scores on these subtests are typically lower for dyslexic students, but on other tasks like Decision Making and in real life, these students may be quite quick and even quicker than their peers at various tasks such as insight-based problem solving or situational awareness (helpful for athletics, for instance).
Understanding the true significance of Processing Speed Difference in Dyslexia, then is important not only for recognizing when accommodations may be appropriate school, but also for identifying opportunities for strength development and even promising career disciplines.
Processing Speed Misconceptions
Misconception: “It means I’m just slow.”
Perhaps the most common misconception we’ve heard about Processing Speed from individuals with dyslexia is “It means that I’m just slow.” No it doesn’t. The processing speed issue are NOT global. Furthermore, there is a great deal of individual variation on why people’s speeds are slow on these subtests – and these can also change a great deal over time.
2. Misconception 2: “I’ll always be slow.”
Children speed up a great deal in Processing Speed tasks such as Coding. It is not uncommon for us to see the gap narrow significantly as children get older, but some tasks, like copying letters or novel symbols, can persist into adulthood. As mentioned previously, slower speeds don’t occur for all tasks.
Why Are Certain Tasks Slower in Dyslexia?
Visual – One of the most difficult tasks for dyslexic people on the Woodock-Johnson Cognitive Abilities task is Visual Matching…matching identical numbers in a line of visual look-alikes. For instance, find two of the same number in the following line:
113 131 311 313 113
Dyslexic people have more trouble with this task (especially when the numbers are all crowded together with little whitespace).
Developmental optometrists may be helpful in checking out the treatable issues are acontributing to the problem, but otherwise other helpful strategies could include: reducing the number of problems on a page (more whitespace), covering up lines of numbers with a piece of paper, reading glasses that are slightly magnifying, and font changes (increase size, character spacing).
If your eyes skip ‘inside’ of strings of numbers, then tapping numbers or saying them to yourself might make sure that you’ve registered or copied each number correctly, but it will also add to overall processing time needed for a given task.
Attention, Executive Function, and Working Memory –
Attention issues can definitely affect processing speed by pulling away focus, but attention can also be involved with switching between different tasks or juggling different types of information. Some people need extra time for reading because they need to re-read certain passages in order to truly comprehend them. Others may get distracted by outside information after they have read it, so they may have thought they read something, but actually it was other thoughts that were put down in their place (for instance, misread test questions – “I thought it had said this…”)
Strong visual learners may have strong associations with what they read and as a group seem to have a higher incidence of these ‘false memories’.
Extra time may also be needed to organize ideas for an essay, or break down the task of writing into smaller steps (e.g. brainstorm, sequence, organizer words, check spelling and punctuation).
Time Perception – Numerous studies have identified difficulties in time perception among dyslexic children and adults (1, 2). Difficulties in time perception can cause trouble discerning the correct pronunciation or certain words as well as difficulty estimating time to get work done, and time management on homework and tests as well as other activities.
When time perception significant impacts phonological awareness and learning, then sound perception exercises or training may be of benefit (3,4). Multisensory methods like clapping out sounds and exaggerating gaps between sounds might help some of these children perceive, then master tricky blends and complex words.
For organization, external supports like timers can help children perceive the passage of time. Visual
timers like the Time Timer sold through Amazon can help students grasp the passage of time by seeing how fast or slow the red section of the time disappears.
Emotional Overload –
This test made me feel . . .
“Nervous because I am afraid I will not finish, or make a mistake.” – 4th grader
Research studies have shown that even very young children are susceptible to test anxiety. One huge culprit is the timed test. When researchers asked what students were saying to themselves after an anxiety-provoking test, much of it was completely unhelpful negative self-talk such as (“I can’t do these” “I’m so stupid” etc. etc.). What worse is that negative self-talk during a difficult exam or assignment also compromised their working memory further making more difficult to do the task at hand. High levels of anxiety over a subject (like math, reading, or writing) can hijack student’s focus and concentration causing them to make omissions or other mistakes (read more about Math Anxiety here).
For some students, just learning that they can have extra time can reduce anxiety. Additional classroom strategies for helping students with anxiety are listed HERE.
Information Retrieval –
Another factor that can affect processing speed is the speed of information retrieval. Sometimes the slowness in calling a word to mind (‘tip of the tongue’) is due to some of the sound-filing differences related to dyslexia itself. In other cases it may be due to differences in how words are filed in brain (for instance, in multiple places and in different connotations) or because information was filed primarily nonverbally as an experience or visual image. If information was filed nonverbally from the start, it will have to be converted to words before being spoken. Individuals who primarily think in words (there are some who don’t experience visual images at all) will have an easier time retrieving verbal information than their nonverbal counterparts.
In general, the speed of information or word retrieval improves as children mature into adults. If a person is tired though or juggling lots of bits of information through working memory, the difficulty with finding words will likely return.
Writing by Hand –
Difficulty making the movements of letter writing automatic contributes significantly to the slower processing speeds of students writing by hand vs. typing. This slowness with symbol writing also impacts science and mathematics. The standard accommodation (besides extra time) is to allow keyboarding and / or software programs that to help with getting information down on paper.
What Processing Speed is Quicker for Dyslexics?
There is much less research into tests where dyslexics children and adults outperform their non-dyslexic peers, but looking at the peak patterns of peak-and-valley results of neuropsychological testing show that strengths can be seen in verbal and nonverbal problem solving and reasoning. On the Woodcock Johnson Cognitive Abilities Test, where dyslexic individuals typically score below average on Visual Matching, we often see Decision Making at or above average.
The important thing to recognize about Processing Speed and Dyslexia is that it’s more often the clerical skills that are the slowest (copying from the board, writing to dictation). The tasks that are quick or quicker for dyslexics tend to be higher order thinking tasks like complex problem solving or divergent thinking…so all good things.