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Health & Nutrition - Sound Check

Early warning signs of reading disabilities found in preschoolers’ language skills

by Aimee Dolloff

sound-symbol correspondence

In a sound-symbol correspondence program that UMaine researchers are piloting in an area school, children learn to map sounds onto letters during two 20-minute sessions each week. The goal is to discriminate sounds. One of those researchers is first-year communication sciences and disorders graduate student Susanne Mallon of Springvale, Maine.

Can you hear this?

Can you rhyme? Does it take you a long time?

Name as many words as you can think of that start with the b sound: ball, bat, bench, bread, bin, boy, bike, bank, bath, bag, banana, bark, bang, big, box.

Say the word bat. Now say the word bat without saying the sound b. At.

Here is a picture of a cat. Which of these other words starts with the same sound as cat? Frog. Man. Can. Pin.

For preschoolers on their way to becoming proficient readers, these tests aren’t difficult. But for others who struggle with the sounds of language, tasks like these can be difficult, and may be among the first cues of reading disabilities.

“If we have red flags early, we can begin putting intervention measures in place before formal reading instruction begins,” says University of Maine speech-language pathologist Susan Lambrecht Smith, whose research examines the role of phonological awareness — the conscious sensitivity to the sound structure of language — in predicting reading disability in at-risk youngsters.

In the last several years, Smith has led a number of studies exploring identification and intervention in reading disabilities, and she has discovered behaviors in babies as young as 6 months that illuminate the underlying language skills in children with reading disabilities. She has looked at a variety of testing methods to identify reading disabilities in preschoolers. And she continues to use microanalysis to examine these traits in order to further refine ways of identifying and treating individual children.

While it’s not possible to determine in infancy which children will become reading disabled, Smith says, it is possible to recognize differences in language behavior that may be related to later reading difficulties.

“Babies 6 months to 18 months may use fewer canonical syllables — vowels and consonants combined — in babbling, an important development in infants’ sound systems,” says Smith, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders.

One of the challenges is that children with reading disabilities are not a homogeneous group. That’s why it takes a combination of tests to recognize a reading disability. For instance, in a group of seven children with reading disabilities who have been followed since infancy, Smith says she has seen at least three different profiles.

“What I’m seeing in these profiles is a combination of language strengths and weaknesses,” she says. However, all have problems with phonology (the sound system of language) at some point.

For example, some toddlers do not have overt signs of language weaknesses until they hit preschool age. Then it is discovered that they have difficulty with the deletion test (the “cat” to “at” example), Smith says. While some children have difficulty with other language skills such as vocabulary or syntax as early as toddlerhood, others only show weakness in phonological skills. In spite of normal language comprehension skills, children with this weakness may be diagnosed with a specific reading deficit known as dyslexia.

Dyslexia is one of the most commonly recognized reading disabilities, but Smith says not all children and adults with reading disabilities are dyslexic. Many with reading disabilities have trouble with reading comprehension, not with decoding words.

Youngsters with dyslexia often slip through the cracks because they can memorize whole written words, says Smith. However, the strategy will only work up to a certain reading level before beginning to break down, often at fourth or fifth grade when the complexity of reading material in school greatly increases.

Two indicators of reading disabilities are children who have a positive family history and are late to talk. If one or both parents have a reading disability, children are nearly 50 percent more likely to also have a reading disability.

“But many children don’t have these signs, so it is vitally important to have early assessment as a part of preschool and kindergarten screenings,” she says. “We need to use a combination of tests to find children at the preschool and kindergarten levels,” including tests of phonological awareness such as sound deletion, and later reading tasks that will capture children’s ability to read words accurately and quickly. If one can identify these children in preschool or kindergarten, then it is possible to teach some of these phonological skills that are so important for early reading.

And even if children don’t have an identified reading disability, some will need extra training to help develop their language skills, precluding their ability to “slide by until about middle school” without notice or intervention.

“I think it’s more harmful for a child, especially a child who’s very capable, to go through school thinking that he or she is not as competent as her or his peers,” says Smith. “Letting (these) children languish without recognizing them for their strengths is doing them a disservice.”

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