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Towards a comprehensive account of rhythm processing issues in developmental dyslexia
Developmental dyslexia is typically defined as a difficulty with an individual’s command of written language, arising from deficits in phonological awareness. Rhythm processing – specifically the encoding of metrical relations between strong and weak syllables – has sometimes been reported as impaired, though its role in phonological awareness has remained unclear, and its acoustic-prosodic underpinnings have not been fully understood. In the present study, adult dyslexic and age-matched control participants with variable levels of previous music training completed a series of experimental tasks aimed at testing rhythm perception and motor entrainment, and phoneme processing. In the rhythmic task, participants tapped along to the beat of natural spoken sentences. In the phonemic task, participants monitored for sonorant and obstruent phonemes embedded in nonsense strings. Individual sensorimotor skills were assessed using a number of screening tests. The results showed that participants’ performance in the phonemic task was predictive of their performance in the rhythmic task, but not vice versa, suggesting that atypical rhythm processing in dyslexia may be the consequence, but not the cause, of dyslexic deficits in phoneme-level encoding. No evidence for syllable timing deficits was found in dyslexic participants’ rhythm processing. Rather, metrically weak syllables were significantly less often at the centre of rhythmic attention in dyslexic adults as compared to neurotypical controls, with an increased tendency in musically trained participants. This finding could not be explained by an auditory deficit in processing of acoustic-prosodic cues to the rhythm structure. Instead, it is likely to be related to the well-documented auditory short-term memory issue in dyslexia.