Can you hear this?
Can you rhyme? Does it take you a long time?
Name as many words as you can think of that start with the b sound: ball, bat, bench, bread, bin, boy, bike, bank, bath, bag, banana, bark, bang, big, box.
Say the word bat. Now say the word bat without saying the sound b. At.
Here is a picture of a cat. Which of these other words starts with the same sound as cat? Frog. Man. Can. Pin.
For preschoolers on their way to becoming proficient readers, these tests aren’t difficult. But for others who struggle with the sounds of language, tasks like these can be difficult, and may be among the first cues of reading disabilities.
“If we have red flags early, we can begin putting intervention measures in place before formal reading instruction begins,” says University of Maine speech-language pathologist Susan Lambrecht Smith, whose research examines the role of phonological awareness — the conscious sensitivity to the sound structure of language — in predicting reading disability in at-risk youngsters.
In the last several years, Smith has led a number of studies exploring identification and intervention in reading disabilities, and she has discovered behaviors in babies as young as 6 months that illuminate the underlying language skills in children with reading disabilities. She has looked at a variety of testing methods to identify reading disabilities in preschoolers. And she continues to use microanalysis to examine these traits in order to further refine ways of identifying and treating individual children.
While it’s not possible to determine in infancy which children will become reading disabled, Smith says, it is possible to recognize differences in language behavior that may be related to later reading difficulties.
“Babies 6 months to 18 months may use fewer canonical syllables — vowels and consonants combined — in babbling, an important development in infants’ sound systems,” says Smith, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders.