Predicting reading problems before children can even read

Predicting reading problems before children can even read

Vici winner does not want to add another label to children

28-03-2023 · Interview

More and more children in the Netherlands have a problem with reading. How can this be detected as early as possible? That is what Maastricht neuroscientist Milene Bonte is trying to find out. Recently, she was the only UM researcher who managed to score a Vici grant, worth one and a half million euro.

Let’s first start by eliminating a misconception: it is not true that the number of children that are diagnosed as dyslexic in primary school, is increasing. That percentage remains stable at 6 to 7 per cent, says Milene Bonte, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience of Language and Reading Development. "These are children who read very slowly and with stammering. If nothing is done about this, it could damage their socioemotional development, their self-confidence and eventually also their career perspectives." 

What is increasing, however, is the number of children in the Netherlands with reading difficulties. At secondary school, the figure – including children with dyslexia – is 14 to as much as 24 per cent. "The fact that children read less today, is certainly related. The government is trying to make reading more enticing, among others, by offering more interesting books."

The focus is often on reading comprehension, says Bonte. "But if you already have a lot of trouble making sense of letters, you won’t easily understand a text. You have only a limited capacity to process information. Here too, you would like to know at an early age whether children will encounter problems." 

The problem is that dyslexia can only be diagnosed reliably at around the age of eight and so treatment only starts after that.

Knowing letters

Those who suffer from reading difficulties or dyslexia, find it difficult to link symbols (letters) to sounds. "It has nothing to do with intelligence or laziness, but everything to do with the fact that our brain is not naturally equipped for reading. It takes at least two to five years to automatically connect letters and sounds. And that process is smoother for some than for others."

The focus on "early detection" is not something new. The idea to detect children with reading difficulties as early as possible dates back to the nineteen-seventies. "Not too early, because the brain wouldn’t be ready, but not too late either. Preferably just before they start learning to read."

How can you test whether reading problems will develop later on? "To this day, it is done by using tasks that show what a child already knows, for example, how many letters they already recognise or how much feeling they have for speech sounds, such as rhyme. "We now know that these tasks are not reliable enough. Because 'knowing letters' depends on things such as the environment in which you grow up, where it makes a difference whether or not a child came across books at home."

MRI scans

Bonte is going to use a different approach. Partly because of the idea that reading difficulties don’t just have a single cause, but that a whole range of issues play a role. In addition to the environment in which a child grows up, hereditary aspects play an important role, but also the degree of flexibility of the auditory and visual areas of the brain. That latter also differs per person.

"In our research, we are not going to count how many letters children know, but we will try to discover how well five- and six-year-olds can link letters and sounds. To make sure nobody has a head start, we will give the children a series of new symbols, and let them hear an accompanying sound. How quickly can they make the connection? Do they learn from their mistakes? How quickly do they progress?"

Then Bonte is going to use EEG and MRI scans to try and link the progress that the children make, to the changes that are visible in the brain. “What happens in the auditory, visual and other areas? How active is the brain there? Does the activity increase or does it maybe decrease in some areas? The latter could mean that a child is progressing, that reading is costing less effort."

Game designers

After the learning tasks have been completed and brain activity has been mapped out, the researchers will follow one hundred and fifty children for two years. This is in order to see if their predictions about reading difficulties were correct. "But we also want to know the exact nature of this predictable value. Is it the activity in the auditory brain area? Or can you maybe measure it by looking at the learning process? The speed at which a child progresses, to mention but a few."

All this should eventually result in a digital learning task, which the researchers intend to develop together with the children, teachers and game designers. This should give a good indication of how well a child will learn to read. "An assignment that can be carried out in class, which is interesting and fun for children to complete, and which provides a clear result. It will show which children need additional support. For this purpose, three hundred children will be followed at school.”

2-0 disadvantage

The study can also contribute towards reducing the inequality of opportunity, says Bonte. "You see that children are quickly categorised in the Dutch education system, only based on the environment in which they grow up. So, if someone then scores poorly in a letter test, then it is: there you have it! It is all done unconsciously, but still."

That is also partly why Bonte wants to make teachers aware of the fact that the brain is very flexible at that age, that a child can catch up and overturn their disadvantage. "If these children are given extra support early on, you will prevent them from continually failing and because of that losing their motivation and self-confidence."

But should children be given a label at such a young age? She does indeed hear such criticism occasionally. But no, it is not her intention that children are labelled. "Early reading support will result in a reduced number of children in need of a dyslexia diagnosis.”

The criticism about labelling is part of the social argument for neurodiversity, in which the individual differences are celebrated and it is emphasised that everyone makes a unique contribution to the whole. "At the same time, children with dyslexia are often referred to as creative. But you have to be careful when you do that too, because this differs from child to child. Before you know it, some children will find themselves with a 2-0 disadvantage. Reading difficulties as well as not being creative."


Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: Bonte, dyslexia, vici,instagram

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