Chapter 1

Reading Disabilities

Reading disabilities come in different forms and in different degrees. Carl evidences features of a particularly common subtype referred to as auditory or dysphonetic dyslexia. Individuals who present with this subtype experience poor phonemic or phonological awareness. Specifically, they have difficulty detecting subtle differences in phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. There are 44 of them in the English language. These phonemes are represented by 26 letters of our alphabet. In order to read and spell words, a person has to learn how to automatically connect the 44 sounds to the 26 visual letters. It’s called phonology, the actual mapping of sounds to letters (Moore, 1999). The ability to detect subtle differences in phonemes turns out to be an extremely critical function in learning to read and spell in the English language. During his years in school, Carl had great difficulty performing this function and to some degree still struggles with it today. A number of neuroscientists believe that phonological awareness problems may represent the core deficit for many people with dyslexia. And researchers Sally and Bennett Shaywitz (et al., 1998), a husband and wife pediatric team from Yale, discovered they can actually pinpoint disruptions in specific neural systems in the brains of persons experiencing this core deficit. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a procedure that can measure blood oxygenation in different brain regions while a person engages in a task, they had dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers each perform a specific reading activity that made increasingly greater demands upon their phonological skills. Results showed different brain activation patterns between the two groups. Dyslexic readers showed relative underactivation in posterior regions of the brain (Wernicke’s area, the angular gyrus, and striate cortex), and relative overactivation in the anterior region (inferior frontal gyrus in particular). It appears that good readers use both the front and back parts of the brain when performing phonological processing functions, while dyslexic readers rely more on the front part of the brain. And not only do they rely more on this brain region, but they’re also using it more intensively than their non-dyslexic counterparts (Moore, 1999; Richards & Berninger, 2008; University of Washington, 2000). Researchers have also discovered that when dyslexic readers learn ways to read more fluently – when their phonological awareness skills improve, for example – they show a corresponding shift in the neural systems used for reading. Carl actually participated in an intensive reading remediation program a couple of years back and eventually strengthened the skills necessary to read more fluently. He’s likely now using brain regions similar to those used by lifelong fluent readers.

  •  Moore, D. (1999). Brain research and reading. Retrieved from
  • Richards, T. L., & Berninger, V. W. (2008). Abnormal fMRI connectivity in children with dyslexia during a phoneme task: Before but not after treatment. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 21(4), 294-304.
  • Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B. A., Pugh, K. R., Fulbright, R. K., Constable, R. T., Mencl, W. E.,… Gore, J. C. (1998). Functional disruption in the organization of the brain for reading in dyslexia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, USA, 95, 2636-2641. 
  • University of Washington. (2000, May 25). Treatment helps dyslexics significantly improve reading, shows brain changes as children learn. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from­ /releases/2000/05/000525072407.htm

Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and Colleagues' Early Experiments on the Effects of Inescapable Stress

As noted, dogs not exposed to inescapable shock usually learned to escape to the other side quickly after only a single shock. And they learned to escape even faster on successive trials, eventually learning to nonchalantly jump over to the other side as soon as they saw the signal. But dogs initially exposed to inescapable shock ran around frantically, then a few seconds later just gave up. Surprisingly, they let themselves be shocked rather than try to escape (Overmier & Seligman, 1967; Seligman, 1992).

Experiments were then modified to better isolate the role of control. Dogs were divided into three groups. Dogs in group one were placed in the Pavlovian harness, then taught to push a panel with their nose soon after being shocked. Pushing successfully terminated the shock thereby providing the dog with control. Dogs in group two were also placed in the harness and also taught to press the panel with their nose following a shock, however, the behavior produced no effect. Shocks remained inescapable and uncontrollable. Dogs in group three served as controls and were spared the harness altogether. The following day all three groups were exposed to the shuttle box. Dogs in the control group and dogs provided with a sense of control performed well. Each quickly learned how to prevent being shocked. But six of the eight dogs exposed to inescapable and uncontrollable shock failed to escape. Each was rendered helpless. As noted, in Seligman’s early experiments, dogs exposed to single sessions of inescapable stress, though rendered helpless initially, would eventually learn to escape if researchers waited 72 hours before placing the dog in the shuttle box a second time. Time restored the dog’s sense of personal control. But when researchers exposed dogs to four separate sessions in the Pavlovian harness within the course of a week - four separate exposures to uncontrollable and inescapable stress - dogs remained helpless weeks later. The consequences of prolonged, inescapable, and uncontrollable stress were chronic, not temporary (Seligman, 1992; Seligman & Maier, 1967).

  • Overmier, J. B., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance learning. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63, 23-33.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology,74, 1-9.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of performance as a life insurance agent.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 832-838.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness: On development, depression and death. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Self Efficacy Theory

First described in 1977 by Albert Bandura (1997; 1977; Maddux, 2005), self-efficacy theory is based on a simple premise: If a person believes that their actions can produce a desired effect, this belief will be the most important factor in determining the behavior the person chooses to engage in, and the most important factor in determining how much the person will persevere when confronted with obstacles and challenges. To truly understand what self-efficacy means, it’s important to distinguish it from what it is not (Maddux, 2005). It’s not self-esteem. Self-esteem is about how we feel about ourselves. Self-efficacy is about what we believe about our ability to orchestrate our efforts under challenging situations. Self-efficacy is not about how we perceive our overall skills. It’s about believing that our actions can alter our outcomes. It’s not a genetically endowed personality trait we’re born with, but rather is learned over time in response to life experiences. And it’s not a belief that arises automatically as a result of exposure to repeated success experiences. It requires learning that our successes and accomplishments in the face of obstacles and challenges didn’t just occur by chance or circumstance. They came about as a result of our efforts and abilities. Research shows that by enhancing self-efficacy beliefs we can also improve our health. Studies link self-efficacy beliefs to smoking cessation, exercise, diet, safe sex, disease detection behaviors such as breast self-examinations, and our ability to comply with treatment and prevention recommendations. Strong self-efficacy beliefs play an important role in overcoming substance abuse problems, eating disorders, and a range of other difficulties. Low self-efficacy beliefs, on the other hand, have been linked to depression, disabling levels of anxiety, and problems in managing difficult and threatening situations (Bandura, 1997; Maddux, 2005). In children, self-efficacy beliefs begin with an understanding of cause-effect relationships, and more specifically, the ability to establish a connection between behavior and the successful attainment of a desired goal. Experiences providing opportunities for these connections to be learned increase the likelihood of strong self-efficacy beliefs. Experiences depriving children of these opportunities can weaken self-efficacy beliefs (Maddux, 2005). 

  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.
  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavior change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
  • Maddux, J. E. (2005). Self efficacy: The power of believing you can. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 277-287). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.