Collaboration between UI professors may identify new cause of reading problems in children

By Sam Johnson

How hard would – well – anything be if you couldn’t read? Woot ef it all ztarted drom tha birst sound you heerd?

For the past three years, UI professors Jont Allen and Cynthia Johnson have been looking to see if a child’s reading disability may stem from their problems with speech perception.

“Perhaps children who have reading disabilities don’t simply have problems with visualizing print, but actually have problems listening to speech sounds,” said Johnson, speech pathologist and associate professor.

Speech perception problems make it difficult for children to read because some syllables and words sound different to children with speech perception problems than to normal children.

Allen and Johnson are currently doing research to try and identify sounds in speech that children with reading disabilities have trouble hearing correctly.

Their study, which is expected to conclude in the fall, takes a group of children with reading disabilities and puts them through two tasks to assess what parts of the spoken language they have trouble hearing.

In the first task, the children listen to three syllables and choose which syllable they think sounds different. This task identifies which sounds children struggle with.

Based on the results of the first task, a second task is created for each child that is tailored to the sounds they had difficulty hearing.

So far, the data confirms the professors’ theory.

“What we are finding is that a little over half of the children with reading disabilities look like they have some (speech) perception problems,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she has found that children with reading problems tend to have trouble distinguishing between noisy consonants – sounds like “f”, “sh” and “s.” Knowing which sounds that children have trouble with can lead to programs that train children to hear these sounds better, Johnson said.

“These are relatively simple tasks, where you tell that one (sound) is different from two others,” Johnson said. “If you are having this modest degree of difficulty in relatively simple tasks, reading is much more complicated. At that point, problems start to compound.”

Allen, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said speech perception difficulties could stem from middle ear problems that some children may have when they are very young.

These middle ear problems make it difficult for young children to hear, and affect how the brain develops speech interpretation, Allen said. As the children grow up their hearing returns to normal, but their brain does not have a fully developed speech processing system.

“(These) children have normal hearing,” Allen said, “but they have abnormal central processing.”

Johnson said one goal of this study is to use the findings to launch a larger study that will develop a more complete understanding of the link between speech perception and reading.

Her most important goal, however, is to help the children with their reading problems.

“As a speech pathologist, my goal is always to offer therapy,” Johnson said.