The Early Years Reading Project

Overview

Learning to read in the early elementary school years is part of the usual experience of young learners, but for children with reading difficulty, literacy skills are not achieved in the typical way. For these children, learning to read is an elusive goal, often achieved in very idiosyncratic ways reflecting the heterogeneity of their core reading difficulties.

It has often been assumed that core reading difficulties involve language alone; the ability to identify the basic sounds that constitute words in spoken language (as measured by tasks like phonemic segmentation: say “stake” without the “t”) and to learn their corresponding symbols in written communication. The ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly (as measured by tasks involving rapid naming of sets of pictures) is also recognized as another key component in the process of learning to read and comprehend written text.

However, it has been established that problems in learning to read for a large proportion of these children go beyond basic language and automatic naming skills. Sensory processes related to vision also seem to be affected in a sizeable number of children with reading difficulty. Brain mechanisms involved with vision are related to phonological awareness and naming speed. First, motion detection ability is correlated with phonological awareness and memory for letter combinations in words, a precursor to reading. Second, slower visual information processing indicates potential difficulty in naming speed reflecting the child’s struggle to acquire automatic word recognition skills. Although subtle differences in basic visual processes have been known to exist between groups of children with and without reading difficulty, an explanation for this difference has been elusive.

This program of research is designed to provide answers to the question of the roles that visual processes play in reading success and failure, and to examine how the relationships between visual and phonological components in early literacy change with improved reading skill. Two predictions are being tested about the roles of early predictors on beginning reading skills: First, measures of motion detection and speed of visual processing will predict early acquisition of the alphabetic principle, spelling rules, and automatic word recognition. With further learning and maturation these associations will weaken, as phonological and naming speed skills predominate and visual abilities reach adult levels. Second, rates of growth in the visual measures in the early stages will predict reading skill growth in alphabet, spelling rules, and automatic word recognition. The rates of improvement in visual abilities and reading achievement will be distinctly different for children at risk of reading difficulty: Slow rates of improvement in visual abilities will be associated with slow development in beginning reading skills.