If you are an early years practitioner and think "I don't deal with dyslexia, my kids are far too young for me to be worrying about that malarky" you'll still want to read to the bottom of this post. Even if you just skip the important link between language and reading and jump to the conclusion (though I did spent quite a bit of time on this post scouring the internet so you don't have to!)
I remember being asked to assess a 12 year old lad's language skills a few years back. As a generalist speech and language therapist, I do assess all ages of children, however, I don't hide the fact that early years is my thang. Especially early intervention. Tim (not his real name) had been identified by the school as having dyslexia and it had been recommended that he should have a language assessment "though we are not worried about his language at all."
Tim was a lovely chatty, sociable young lad. And since the majority of my children I assess are non-verbal, I was just pleased that I could have a conversation with him. However, I know never to assume that a child's language skills are age-appropriate just because you can have a conversation with them. You can have a fairly good convo with a 3 year old, after all.
I assessed Tim's receptive (i.e. understanding of spoken language) and expressive (use of spoken language) language skills thoroughly.
He scored on the 2nd centile. This means that out of 100 children, 98 children would have scored more highly than Tim. So, how can it be that a popular, sporty 12 year old had reached the top end of primary school with no one being worried about his language skills? Tim had been identified as having difficulties with his reading but he had always just kept his head down when it came to talking. When I asked him if he ever found it difficult to understand what the teacher was asking the class to do, he replied "every day." And then he cried.
I was going to write a blog all about the link between Dylexia and Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). And then I saw this blog on twitter and realised that it was far more coherent than anything I could ever write. Professor Maggie Snowling is President of St. John’s College at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on children’s language and learning and she is specifically interested in the nature and causes of children’s reading difficulties and how best to ameliorate them.
Her blog post "Dyslexia and developmental language disorder: same or different?" is the best summary of the link between Dyslexia and Developmental Language Disorder I have found to date. As you know, I make it my job to scour the internet so you don't have to!
The British Dyslexia Association have heaps of information on their site too. This is the target of their past week for raising awareness:
So, going back to Maggie Snowling's blog, she asks the question of dyslexia and Developmental Language Disorder: Are these two fairly common childhood disorders really separate? Is one an earlier version of the other? Is one a more severe version of the other? Do they co-occur?
Professor Snowling tells us it's important to consider two aspects of spoken language.
"First, phonological language skills, as measured by tasks such as non-word repetition. The core of learning to read is phonology and children with dyslexia and most children with DLD have phonological difficulties.
Second, broader oral language skills, including vocabulary and grammar, which are components of reading comprehension."
She stresses that the pre-cursor to acquiring literacy is a child's early language skills. Hurrah!! It means that all our early language intervention work is further validated. Children need to talk before they can read. Some children's language skills will improve with early intervention and they literally catch up to their expected language skills. However you'll remember (yes??!!) that 6-8% of children have persistent language difficulties.
Now the next it is tricky, so pay attention!
"For children with persistent language difficulties, reading problems are highly likely to ensue."
Some children can decode print but not understand what they have read. These are the children who do OK with a phonic approach in the first 1 or 2 years of formal education, but it all tends to come apart at the seams in the third year. This picture, in Professor Snowling's blog sums up the x and y axis of reading difficulties.
You can see that reading is a combination of being able to de-code and also understanding/process what you have just read. So a child with language difficulties may very well do on to have reading difficulties, especially if they have a language disorder. We're told that 3 children in every class may have dylexia. We're also told that 2 children in every class may have DLD. The diagram above suggests that those children with DLD will also have reading difficulties.
But I'm an early years practitioner, I can't do anything about them possibly going on to have dyslexia, right?
Oral language is crucial. And that starts in the baby room.
If we want to raise attainment in children, it is crucial that we have an in-depth knowledge of the communication skills of every single one of our pre-schoolers. Each child should have a communication profile, which can pin-point what we, as their keyworkers, can support in order to bring them through the necessary stages of development. At a local nursery I've been in, we've just introduced small attention and listening groups - initially I was concerned that this wasn't 'child-led learning' however, when children ask if they can come into the next group, even though they've just had a turn in a group, you know you're on the right track. Seeing children in groups of 4 or 5 (for no longer than 15-20 minutes) has allowed us to get to know every child's level of language. There are so many advantanges of small targeted language groups for children:
- It gives them opportunities to hear language at the appropriate level for them.
- You can allow more time for the children to think about what they are going to say because you create an unhurried space where they feel safe.
- Activities are repetitive, so the children can predict what is going to happen (important for children with language difficulties.)
- It allows the practitioner to get to know each child - and maybe get a few surprises along the way. One child we included as a good role model actually found the whole listening thing quite difficult.
Just to be clear, I'm not in the sit-them-down-and-make-them-learn camp at all. However, when you consider that up to 50% of children may not have adequate language skills when starting school, then targeting language development should be at the top of all pre-schools' priorities list. For some children, this requires opportunities to hear language in a quiet, un-hurried environment, where language and vocabulary is being specifically taught.
If you are interested in reading more about dyslexia, this hashtag will take you to all the important information currently out there: #positivedyslexia2017
This helpline is also available for more information about dyslexia: firstname.lastname@example.org
Given I know someone who has an MSc in Dyslexia, Shobha Coutinho who assesses for dyslexia down South, I knew that she would be the perfect person to ask for relevant research documents, so I've linked them just below if you would like to do some further reading.
Snowling, M. J., & Hulme, C. (2011). Evidence-based interventions for reading and language difficulties: Creating a virtuous circle. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 1–23.
Catts, Hugh & Adlof, Suzanne & Hogan, Tiffany & Ellis Weismer, Susan. (2006). Are Specific Language Impairment and Dyslexia Distinct Disorders? Journal of speech, language, and hearing research: JSLHR. 48. 1378-96. 10.1044/1092-4388(2005/096).
Wagner, R.K., Torgesen, J.K. and Rashotte. C. A. (2013) Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, 2nd Ed. (CTOPP 2), Austin, Texas: Pro-ed.