A recent study from Northwestern University suggests that a swift biological test might help identify children with literacy or learning difficulties long before they actually begin to read. Published in PLOS Biology, the research focused on the ability of a child to decipher speech – particularly consonants – in a noisy, chaotic environment.

Noise Interferes With Sound Development

Researchers found that the brains of preliterate children often process speech inefficiently if it is coupled with noise. This leads to future problems with reading and language development when they are enrolled in schools. Noisy environments such as loud television or classrooms, researchers suggest disrupt normal brain mechanisms associated with learning of children who are of a school going age.

Kraus, Professor of Communication Sciences, Neurobiology and Physiology in the School of Communication stated that verbal communication usually tends to occur in loud settings, and this significantly affects the brain’s ability to decipher consonants as compared to vowels, since the latter are acoustically simpler. He explained that if the brain’s response to sound is altered, it fails to keep up with advanced computations needed to process sound among noise.

“Listening experiences bootstrap language development by teaching children which sounds are meaningful. If a child can’t decipher and separate these sounds through the background noise, he or she won’t develop the linguistic resources needed when reading instruction begins”, stated Kraus.

He added that many excellent interventions were available for struggling readers during pre-school years, but the earlier the problem is identified the better. The challenge for researchers was to identify appropriate candidates for the interventions, which this study has made possible.

Designing The Study

A total of 112 children, between the ages of three and 14, were selected for the study. Researchers placed electroencephelography (EEG) wires on their scalps through which they assessed brain responses towards the sound of consonants. In the right ear, the children heard the sound ‘da’ with the chatter of six people in the background. In the left ear, they heard the soundtrack of their favourite movie (shown to prevent the children from moving around and losing focus).

Kraus explained that each time the brain responds to sound it produces electrical impulses, which can be studied to understand how speech is differentiated from sound. With EEG, this meaningful extraction of speech from noise can be studied with great granularity.

Successful And Accurate Model Prepared

Three different aspects of how the brain responded to sound were captured – stability of responsive circuits, their speed of firing off electricity and quality of timbre representation of the sound via these circuits. With the help of these factors, a statistical and predictive model was prepared for assessing early literacy and learning difficulties in children.

After various experiments, the research team found their 30-minute neurophysiological assessment design could accurately predict the performance of a three old child on pre-reading tests. The test could also predict how that child would perform in multi-language skill development a year later. Moreover, the designed model accurately predicted reading shrewdness in children who had been diagnosed with a learning problem.

Highlighting The Importance

The Northwestern study is the first to directly measure the brain’s responses to sound, and to associate the deleterious effect of background noise in preliterate children’s learning abilities.

“This newfound link between the brain’s ability to process spoken language in noise and reading skill in pre-readers provides a biological looking glass into a child’s future literacy”, stated senior author Nina Kraus, Director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

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Researchers claim that the establishment of a biological link between sound and literacy highlights the need for a uniform biological metric to assess reading and learning difficulties in children of all ages.