Catching Dyslexia Before Reading Begins
April 6, 2012

Catching Dyslexia Before Reading Begins

New research published in the journal Current Biology finds that signs of dyslexia begin well before children learn to read and for reasons that do not necessarily reflect other language skills, giving researchers an insight into a causal connection between early visual attention problems and a later diagnosis of dyslexia.

“Visual attention deficits are surprisingly way more predictive of future reading disorders than are language abilities at the pre-reading stage,” said study coauthor Andrea Facoetti of the University of Padua in Italy.

Facoetti said dyslexia cannot just be considered a language problem anymore as it affects comprehension and visual understanding of symbols and patterns. Reading disorders are commonly only attributed to spoken language problems, but results of the new research “demonstrate the critical role played by visual attention in learning to read,” Facoetti explained.

Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading and writing difficulties in the US, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say that up to 15 percent of the population could have the debilitating reading disorder.

To investigate the cause and effect, researchers followed 96 Italian children for three years, from kindergarten to second grade. The team, which included Facoetti, Sandro Franceschini, Simone Gori, Milena Ruffino, and Katia Pedrolli, all of Padua University, assessed pre-readers for visual attention span -- the ability to filter relevant versus irrelevant information -- using tests asking them to pick out specific symbols with ongoing distractions. The children also took tests on syllable identification, verbal short-term memory, and rapid color naming, followed over the next two years by measures of reading.

The test results showed that kids who initially had trouble with visual attention were also the ones who struggled with reading later on.

“This is a radical change to the theoretical framework explaining dyslexia,” Facoetti said. “It forces us to rewrite what is known about the disorder and to change rehabilitation treatments in order to reduce its impact.”

Facoetti noted that the ability to filter out and identify such information is crucial in isolating single letters or syllables before the written words are translated in corresponding speech sound. She and her colleagues believe treatment for dyslexia should be changed to take into account such visual information.

“The possibility to dramatically reduce the reading disorder would have a great impact in improving the children´s quality of life and in decreasing governmental costs,” said Facoetti. “Because recent studies show that specific pre-reading programs can improve reading abilities, children at risk for dyslexia could be treated with preventive remediation programs of visual spatial attention before they learn to read.”

Dr. Stephanie Hines, director of the Center for Human Development at Beaumont Children's Hospital in Michigan, told ABC News that the findings are interesting, yet they may not translate easily to US children, because the relationship between sounds and spelling is more complicated in English than in Italian.

“I would caution that the study was conducted on Italian children,” said Hines. “The prevalence of dyslexia in Italy is lower than in the US.”