Why do verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills matter?

You may often hear professionals talk about verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills in students with dyslexia. So what are these, and why are they important? 


Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning refers to our ability to understand concepts expressed through language. It is our ability to extract meaning and information from text, and our ability to think constructively and apply logic. It is not about vocabulary recognition, rather it is about how we engage with language (either verbal or written). 


Non-Verbal Reasoning

Non-verbal reasoning refers to our ability to understand and analyze non-verbal (i.e. visual) information such as diagrams, graphs and maps. It requires more abstract thinking and refers to how well we can solve problems using our visual reasoning. There is no language involved, and it relies only on our ability to use and process visual information


How does this relate to dyslexia?

Despite common misconceptions, dyslexia is not characterized purely by difficulties with reading and spelling. The brain differences that are apparent in people with dyslexia will make a number of tasks challenging. However, many problems do occur due to fundamental difficulties with reading


The Problem with Reading

Reading involves several core components: 

  • phonological awareness
  • decoding and word recognition
  • vocabulary knowledge
  • reading fluency
  • reading comprehension

The ability to recognize words (which requires phonological awareness and decoding) along with the ability to comprehend language (which requires knowledge of language structure, vocabulary, and verbal reasoning) will lead to accurate, fluent reading and text comprehension. 

Deficits in any of these requirements will interfere with the process and impact on the student’s comprehension and learning. The difficulties students with dyslexia experience with learning and understanding information often stem from weak phonological awareness, inaccurate word reading, and poor decoding; if the information being processed is not accurate then their understanding of the material and overall comprehension will be compromised. 


Language and Cognition

Language functions are primarily located in the left hemisphere of the brain, and three areas in particular are involved in reading:

  1. Broca’s area (the inferior frontal gyrus), responsible for speech production and expressive speech
  2. Parieto – temporal region (the middle of the brain, towards the back), responsible for word analysis, turning print into sound, and helping us to understand words and concepts
  3. Occipito – temporal region (located at the back of the brain), responsible for automatically recognising word forms, and the storage and retrieval of whole words. 

When functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to scan the brains of dyslexic and non-dyslexic people, results show that Broca’s area is overactive in dyslexics, and parieto – temporal and occipito – temporal areas are both underactive. These underactive areas are those responsible for helping us to understand words and concepts, and to recognize word forms.

This helps us to appreciate why students with dyslexia may struggle with verbal reasoning, as it is linked to language comprehension (understanding words and concepts); a function processed in an area of the brain that is underactive in people with dyslexia

Students with dyslexia often score more highly on visual (non-verbal) reasoning tests than they do on verbal reasoning tests; this is due to the reduced reliance on phonological awareness and decoding.  They tend to be better at processing visual material (diagrams, images, etc.) than verbal material (including written language). 


How does this impact on students in the learning environment?

Although verbal and non-verbal reasoning involves manipulation and understanding of language (verbal) and visual (non-verbal) information, they are both cognitive skills that are necessary for many aspects of learning. 

With reduced verbal reasoning skills, students may:

  • struggle to process verbal instructions that may be given in seminars or lab sessions
  • have difficulty understanding written text, e.g. assignment briefs and exam questions
  • have reduced understanding of spoken information, e.g. in lectures and seminars
  • Experience difficulties communicating ideas in writing and when speaking (linked with retrieval of words)
  • have difficulties forming concepts that involve new information
  • struggle to make inferences and generalize 

With reduced non-verbal reasoning skills, students may:

  • have difficulty with the recognition and analysis of visual information
  • struggle when assigning meaning to visual information
  • have reduced ability to solve problems that require understanding concepts
  • experience difficulties identifying similarities and differences in shapes or patterns 
  • experience difficulties copying from the board/slides during lectures
  • have a reduced ability to organize visual information

We have established that the ability to understand and extract meaning from information presented verbally and visually (i.e. verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills), is important for effective and successful learning. 

If we cannot make sense of information, we will struggle with basic literacy skills such as reading, writing, and verbal communication. Students with dyslexia tend to have stronger non-verbal reasoning skills than verbal reasoning skills, but both are necessary for efficient learning (including fluent reading, knowledge acquisition, comprehension, problem solving). The difficulties with phonological awareness, decoding, and word recognition that are present for many dyslexics have an impact not only on their reading speed and accuracy, but also on their comprehension and understanding of written materials. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills are an important factor in this equation.


How Assistive Technology Can Help

Sonocent has been developing assistive technology for the past 12 years. In that time, we’ve had cognitive issues like those outlined above at the forefront of our design process.

Learn more about how Sonocent Audio Notetaker addresses these problems (and others like them) by following the link below.

Looking into AT? It's important to make sure the solutions you choose are suitable for users of all cognitive abilities. Read our blog to find out more.


Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and Director at NeuroDigital Consulting Ltd. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

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