When it comes to literacy and language, the earliest interventions are the most effective. One of the barriers to early interventions is identifying the children who need them at a young age. A new study has discovered a method for recognizing children who will struggle with literacy even before they have learned to read. Researchers at Northwestern University have created a biological test that predicts which children will struggle with literacy and language when they reach school. The findings could lead to earlier interventions for children who need them.
The researchers investigated how the brain reacted to the sound of a consonant in a noisy environment. Using electroencephalography (EEG), they observed the brain’s reaction in 112 children aged 3 to 14. The researchers placed EEG wires on the children’s scalps and played different sounds in each ear. In one ear, the children heard the sound ‘da’ over the babble of multiple voices. In the other ear, the children heard their favorite movie, which helped the children stay still during the experiment. Based on the speed, quality, and stability of the brain’s electrical response, the researchers developed a statistical model to predict children’s literacy skills.
The model accurately predicted:
- The reading abilities of school aged children.
- Whether a child had a learning disability.
- How a three-year-old would perform on reading tests.
- How a four-year-old would perform on reading-related language skills.
The key to the model involved the efficiency with which the brain processed speech sounds. Preliterate children whose brain’s inefficiently processed speech sounds were more likely to struggle with reading and language development when they reached school age. This suggests that the brain’s ability to distinguish language sounds amid noise is critical for language and literacy development.
“There are excellent interventions we can give to struggling readers during crucial pre-school years, but the earlier the better. The challenge has been to identify which children are candidates for these interventions, and now we have discovered a way,” stated senior study author Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.
The findings provide a biological basis for determining future literacy. They also indicate that noisy home environments could negatively impact literacy development.
This research is published in the journal PLOS Biology.
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