New educational approaches and advances in brain-based research are making it possible to detect dyslexia even in children too young to read. Though it is not a cure, stepping in early with targeted intervention could prevent reading problems from derailing a child’s education.
“People with dyslexia have trouble pulling apart the words they hear,” says Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, at Yale University. “The word ‘cat,’ for instance, has only one syllable, but it has three individual sounds—the c, the a, and the t.”
In a society becoming increasingly text-based, however, dyslexia can have serious consequences. A poor reader in first grade has a 90 percent probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75 percent probability of reading poorly in high school.
Research Suggests Effects and Causes
The Connecticut Longitudinal Study revealed that reading difficulties occur along a continuum, and children who did not meet diagnostic criteria for dyslexia might still benefit from extra help. Brain-imaging studies conducted throughout the 1990s further revealed that dyslexia carries a unique neural signature. Normally, reading involves three key brain areas, all in the left hemisphere.
Early Detection and Intervention
As dyslexia is not a developmental lag but a different mode of brain organization, it cannot be prevented or cured and does not go away over time, Shaywitz says. Recent research, however, suggests that early intervention can help forestall, or at least lessen, some of the reading difficulties that result.
A recent study of kindergarten-age children suggests that measuring this type of electrical activity may predict reading difficulty more accurately than behavioral measures alone. Reporting online in the May 7 Biological Psychiatry, Daniel Brandeis and colleagues at the University of Zurich showed a correlation between altered electrical activity when the children were in kindgergarten and their reading performance five years later. The authors concluded that brain-based measures could complement behavioral methods of dyslexia prediction, especially in children with a family history of the condition.
“These kids simply memorize lots and lots of words, and in the early years they don’t realize how hard they’re working—they just expect reading to be difficult. But then, around fourth grade, when everything—even most of the math—is text, text, text, they have too many words coming at them to keep up with. By that time, intervention is usually less effective,” Gabrieli says.
Parents can spot potential signs of trouble even earlier than preschool or kindergarten, Shaywitz says. Late speech (not saying first words until after 15 months of age and not speaking in phrases until after age 2) may indicate a future reading disability.