Implications for dyslexia and for language learning impairments
There are a number of implications from our research both for dyslexia and for language learning impairments.
The importance of language
It is well known that reading difficulties run in families and there is some evidence that dyslexia has a genetic basis. However, aside from being at family-risk of dyslexia, there are other factors which can affect a child’s ability to learn to read. Foremost amongst these are spoken language difficulties. Indeed poor language is a significant risk factor for both dyslexia and maths problems (dyscalculia). While some children get over their early problems with speech and language, learning is difficult if language difficulties persist at the time a child goes to school.
The best way of predicting whether a child is likely to become dyslexic is via an assessment at ages 5 and 6 using tasks assessing pre-reading skills (particularly letter knowledge, phoneme awareness and early decoding ability). At this stage, poor language is an important ‘risk’ sign. Many children with language impairment have problems with attention and fine-motor skills (required for writing) as well as difficulties with phonological awareness and related pre-reading skills. Since good concentration is needed in order to learn and good motor coordination is needed for writing and other classroom activities, such children may have additional problems with the ‘three Rs’.
Our research has also revealed that some children whose language develops normally in the pre-school years can begin to experience difficulties with more complex aspects of language at around school age. These children with ‘late-emerging language impairment’ frequently go on to experience significant reading difficulties. Many of them come from families with a history of dyslexia and we have found almost 50% develop dyslexia.
The importance of literacy in the home
Regardless of a child’s cognitive abilities, it is well established that children’s experience of literacy in the home helps foster readiness to learn to read at school. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often less well prepared for learning at school; if such children are also at family risk of dyslexia, or experience pre-school language impairments, their outcomes are likely to be less than optimal.
Intervention in the early years
Intervention programmes delivered at school can be helpful for supporting the development of reading and language in children at risk of dyslexia. However, since reading is stable from about age 6 onwards, better preparation in pre-school is likely to provide a more effective intervention strategy. In addition, interventions with parents to help promote pre-school literacy could be helpful.