Predicting Early Literacy

There are many reasons why a child may be a poor reader, both genetic and environmental. What if there was a test that could predict if a child is at risk for being a poor reader even before the child has any reading experience?

The intimate link between hearing and learning to talk continues to inspire research across a vast array of science: child development, social and cognitive development, literacy, education, hearing and communication sciences, and neurobiology. If you are the parent of a child who can hear, listen, talk, sound out words and read without much problem or delay, the link between hearing and language development may have never crossed your mind. The link between hearing and learning to read may seem even more obscure.

But we know from research in hearing and communication sciences that when a child’s auditory system is compromised, whether through hearing loss or slow auditory processing, then the child will struggle to perceive consonants, phonemes, syllables and differences in the pitch and rhythm of speech. As a consequence, the brain will be less likely to use this input efficiently to make sense of speech coming at a rapid pace, to discriminate between sounds like “buh” and “duh” and to listen to speech in the midst of other noise in the environment. Put simply, if you cannot hear spoken language and process auditory information, the brain is missing critical input needed to learn spoken language, and ultimately the tools needed to learn to read. This explains why children with hearing loss and auditory processing difficulties often experience delays in speech and reading.

Using what they know about the link between the brain’s ability to process auditory information and the toolkit of skills needed for learning to read, a group of researchers at Northwestern University have identified a neuropsychological test that can be administered to pre-readers (4 year olds) to predict their reading ability one year later.

Children sit comfortably in a chair and watch a movie. They listen to the movie soundtrack in one ear and in the other ear they hear the syllable “da” presented against a background of babble (six people talking at once). Researchers place electrodes on the child’s scalp to measure the brain’s ability to pick out the “da” in the midst of all the noisy background babble. This response is called neural coding. Children are also given several well-known tests of early literacy skills.

It turns out that the faster and more precise the neural coding (the brain’s ability to pick out the syllable “da” in background noise) the higher the child’s scores on tests of early literacy. Furthermore, children with stronger neural coding were stronger emerging readers when they returned for testing one year later at age five. These results stress the link between auditory processing and learning to read; children who struggle to listen in noisy environments, even those without compromised hearing, may struggle to make meaning of the language they hear on a daily basis for purposes of learning to read.

Although this test is not likely to appear in your physician’s office anytime soon it is promising to think that a non-invasive and objective measure of the brain may some day be used to identify children at risk for poor literacy before they enter kindergarten, and before a parent or teacher would have any indication of difficulty. This has incredible implications for getting children access to effective early intervention programs as pre-readers.


Developmental psychologist Jessica Beer combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life. Jessica is also a co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, and welcomes questions and feedback from readers at [email protected].

Indy's Child
Indy's Child
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