Dyslexia is an umbrella term often used to describe difficulty in reading and writing. Most people associate dyslexia with flipping letters (like b/d and p/q). But research from neuroscience has confirmed that flipping letters is part of normal development and that reading disorders are actually caused by the different ways our brains process the sounds of speech (this is referred to as auditory processing).
It is important to realize that while reading is not an intrinsic skill like language (it is learned), reading does begin long before children set foot in school. When babies first hear and learn sounds, they develop the essential building blocks for reading (phonemic awareness). A simple nursery rhyme can strengthen these pathways. But not all children develop these skills typically and those traditionally labeled as having “dyslexia” tend to use different, less efficient pathways. The good news is, there are early signs that can help parents detect future reading difficulties so that they can be addressed as early as possible.
Here are 6 quick questions for parents of young children to help detect early signs of language and auditory processing irregularities:
- Does/did your child have difficulty using single words by 14-16 months? All children develop at different rates and context is always key, but if a child is not able to form single words by 16 months, shows limited increase in new words, and has trouble being understood by those outside the family after age 3, they might be showing signs of a language/auditory processing delay.
- Does/did your child have noticeable hesitations or repetitions in speech? Difficulty telling a story after the age of 5, or problems telling a more detailed story after the age of 7 can be a sign of speech/language problems related to auditory processing.
- Does your child struggle with rhymes and alliterations? There is a reason that most cultures and languages focus early on nursery rhymes. Comparing and contrasting the sounds of words that are essential to later reading begins here.
- Can your child blend and segment sounds? A simple way to test phonemic awareness is to see if a child can segment and replace sounds in words. Ask for example, what is the first sound in “cat”? Now, what would the word be if we replaced “c” with “m”? A licensed professional can best assess these skills, and not every difficulty is a sign of a disorder, but those with prominent auditory processing difficulty, struggle with such tasks.
- Does/did your child struggle to say certain sounds? We cannot say what we cannot hear. Children with these struggles might not be able to detect the small differences or frequencies of different sounds. They may not be able to hear the difference between b and d for example. When they are presented with different letters for the different sounds, a whole new level of confusion sets in.
- Does your child appear to have an attention problem? Auditory processing can present as an attention problem because when kids can’t process sounds fast enough, it is as if there is a backlog in their brains. They might look as if they are not paying attention, or appear lost or stare into space. This only gets worse if there is background noise. Imagine having to follow a conversation or directions with your head underwater. This is why many kids with this kind of wiring appear inattentive.
Early signs of speech, language, auditory processing difficulties can lead to reading and writing problems once kids enter school. Parents whose children are already in school and struggling with reading can also look back to see if early signs were present. An educational therapist or licensed speech/language pathologist can help parents identify and address these problems.
Dr. Bibi Pirayesh has worked as a learning specialist and educational therapist in private practice for over a decade. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master's degree in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University. While the emphasis of her work is on remediating learning disabilities in a one-on-one setting, she is also a sought after speaker and community advocate for children and families around learning rights. She works with children grades 1-12 and covers a wide range of learning difficulties including dyslexia, ADHD, and spectrum disorders. Dr. Pirayesh completed her doctoral work at Loyola Marymount University where she is also Faculty. She is proud to be involved with a number of service organizations including The Association of Educational Therapists where her role is primarily focused on helping practitioners do research. Dr. Pirayesh is the Founder of The Learning Tree, where she provides educational therapy and consultation services.