Getting to the source of reading difficulties

Many factors influence the ease with which a child will learn to read.

Supporting the development of phonological awareness in children to help them learn to read. 

Marie-Catherine St-Pierre, a speech therapy researcher in the Department of Rehabilitation at Université Laval, sought to identify and quantify some of these factors by observing and comparing the extent to which the ability to process language sounds (phonological processing) and to perform grammatical agreements (morphological processing) helped facilitate reading in 178 first-grade students who had – or did not have – reading difficulties.

This study has significant implications for teaching and for professional and educational intervention. It confirms the importance of supporting the development of phonological awareness in children to help them learn to read. The study's findings were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading in Hong Kong and to the International Association for Study of Child Language in Montréal.This factor alone accounted for more than half of the differences observed between the children with reading difficulties and those without. When sufficiently developed, these analytical abilities strengthen the other skills necessary for learning to read, whereas poor phonological awareness leads to poor reading skills. The other skills linked to phonological processing (such as working memory) and morphological processing appear to have very little impact at this age.The children were given various tasks. For example, on hearing the sounds "k", "r" and "a", they had to combine them to say "kra" (phonological awareness), or after listening to three sentences, they had to repeat the last word of each (working memory). The children with reading difficulties performed less well in all of the tasks.However, phonological awareness – and therefore the ability to consciously manipulate language sounds – had by far the greatest impact.