Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “The Role of Emoticons in the Comprehension of Emotional and Non-emotional Messages in Dyslexic Youth: a Preliminary Study”, by Lesniak, E. and Grzybowski, S. J. (2021) in which authors carry out a preliminary study to evaluate the comprehension of messages with emoticons within young people with dyslexia. 

Of all learning disabilities, dyslexia is the most common one, with a prevalence rate of up to 17% of the world’s population, with many undiagnosed school-age children and young people.

In addition to being a learning disability, it is also a source of behavioral, emotional, and psychosocial complications, plus, it can even become so in the long term.

Dyslexia is characterized by poor reading precision and/or poor fluency, which, together with poor spelling and decoding, have a full impact on reading comprehension.

These deficits have been shown to negatively affect executive functions, such as selective attention. There is some data that even indicates that dyslexia could be related to more serious problems in cognitive mechanisms, such as executive attention and working memory.

Dyslexia causes problems at school, but also in the personal and social sphere, where adolescents can be a more vulnerable group, given that the vast majority of their social contact consist of writing and reading messages online (social networks).

It is important to investigate how dyslexic young people carry out tasks of daily life, such as reading messages of different types, and how the factors that online messaging systems possess place them.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of online messaging systems is the presence of non-verbal aids for verbal communication. These aids are emoticons.

They perform non-verbal functions in online communication and are used to express not only emotions and humor, but also to strengthen the verbal content of the message, while respecting its interpretation. In addition, it conveys specific aspects of speech acts, such as the user’s intentions. Its purpose is to make the message as understandable as possible.

Furthermore, the majority of young people born after 1980 (so-called millennials) are well aware of the use of emoticons and rely heavily on them in their daily exchanges of written messages.

Therefore, authors consider that it is worth examining the role and benefits (if there is any) of emoticons in the reading comprehension of young dyslexics, because they depend on the online messaging applications in their daily life, especially with the situation pandemic and post-pandemic, which forces to maintain social isolation.

For the experiment, authors gathered a total of 32 primary and secondary school students, aged 11-15 years. 16 of them were classified in the team of young people with dyslexia, and the other 16 were the control group.

They were shown a series of short messages, with emoticons, emulating the messaging platform “Messenger”.

Authors compared the comprehension of the written messages with or without emoticons with the reaction times and the precision of the answers given in both the experimental and the control groups.

The longest response times were in the experimental group, with young people with dyslexia. This could reflect the problems they may have getting the right information. In addition, it could be considered as a plus to provide more time during the educational process for young people with dyslexia, including written tests.

The fastest responses were given in both groups when there were emoticons present in the messages. Conversely, messages lacking non-verbal cues and lacking emotional content appeared to be the most difficult to process.

The analyzes and verification that the responses to the messages with no emoticons (that is, those that do not represent emotions) were the most accurate. Possibly, these emoticons are the ones that most benefit people with this disability, since they are purely non-verbal signs that serve as graphic transcriptions of the verbal content and help in the understanding of the message.

As such, they could be implemented in educational programs and online studies as aids in reading comprehension tasks.

On the other hand, traditional emoticons (which represent basic emotional states, such as happiness, sadness, or surprise), could be seen as more complex in nature, as they add an interpretation, or an intention, to the message.

However, this last point should be approached with caution because there were no significant differences between the accuracy of the responses to messages with traditional emoticons and to messages with non-traditional emoticons.

A limitation of this study is that, due to its exploratory and preliminary nature, the sample size is small, which limits the interpretation of the data and the results obtained and is a point on which future investigations should focus. 


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