When I was growing up, there was nothing I loved more than a good book. In elementary school, I would spend whole weekends holed up with my newest library finds. In middle school, I would be found sitting in the shade of the classroom building with a tattered paperback. And most tellingly—in sixth grade, I won a speech contest with a three-minute tribute to my favorite novels. On top of that, my love of reading proved to be a useful skill as I moved through high school and on to college.
So, I was immediately interested when I read that the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University conducted a study that suggests it may be possible to predict which preschoolers will struggle to read as they grow. The study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, analyzed the brainwaves of children as young as three to see how well they recognized certain sounds. The researchers played a variety of chaotic noises (the dialogue of a movie, a chattering crowd, and the consonant-vowel combination "da"), then tracked how well the kids were able to recognize the "da" sound. Those who had a harder time distinguishing the speech amongst the background noise were more likely than their peers to have trouble with reading and language development when they reached school age. The group also analyzed older students, and using the same test, were able to accurately determine which students had been diagnosed with a learning disability, as well as the student's reading level.
Study author Nina Kraus, who is the director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, says this link "provides a biological looking glass into a child's future literacy." She also says the results provide a uniform biological metric for literacy, which can be applied across all ages. This metric means it may be easier to identify potential candidates for literacy help in the pre-school years, which is a crucial time for struggling readers.
While these tests aren't readily available—the process is complicated and expensive—and more research is needed, it is a small step towards understanding childhood literacy delays.
Riyana Straetker is an editorial assistant for Parents; you can follow her on Twitter.