Reading & Literacy

Early Hearing Speed Gives Insight to Later Reading, Spelling Difficulties, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 30, 2013 2 min read
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Educators hoping to nip reading difficulties in the bud, listen up: A new study in the current issue of Child Development suggests early hearing speed can predict a student’s reading and spelling skills in early elementary school better than other cognitive skills like intelligence, working memory, and attention.

The speed at which a student can process sounds at the beginning of her school years can affect how well she understands and remembers basic spelling construction, particularly in languages such as German—and presumably parts of English—which have close links between phonemes and the spelling of words, found researchers at the University of Kaiserslautern, the University of Ulm, and the German Institute for International Educational Research in Frankfurt, Germany.

The researchers tested 236 primary students in 53 German schools at the beginning of 1st grade and near the end of 2nd grade, in the speeds at which they processed sounds and pictures in a simple video game. Separately, the students were tested at the end of 1st and 2nd grades in oral and silent reading speed and accuracy for words of different difficulty levels, as well as spelling tests of simple words. Visual processing speed was not significantly connected to students’ spelling and reading performance, but faster auditory processing was associated with better spelling and reading in 1st grade and an even stronger connection to students’ spelling performance in 2nd grade.

They found, as expected, that students’ 1st grade reading speed and accuracy and their spelling accuracy were closely correlated, and in 2nd grade, faster readers also had fewer spelling errors. The students identified sounds more than twice as quickly by the end of 2nd grade, 67 milliseconds, as at the beginning of 1st grade, 131 milliseconds, and they also improved in visual processing speed during that time, from 97 milliseconds to 54 milliseconds. (By contrast, other studies have found an adult typically identifies a sound in 55 milliseconds and a picture in 40 milliseconds.) To put that in perspective, differences in the phonemes used in common words may be no more than 20 to 40 milliseconds long, so the faster a student can process what he hears, the more likely he is to develop an accurate sense of the word’s spelling.

The findings suggest that educators may need to pay more attention to mild developmental delays such as auditory dyslexia, which often correct themselves as a child ages: “The rapid auditory processing deficit as such might diminish over time, but its detrimental effects on reading and spelling ability might remain, as it has disturbed the early literacy development,” they concluded.

I find this study interesting, not just for what it suggests about literacy development, but also because it points yet again to the importance of early screening and interventions for later academic skills. In the German study, these early auditory processing differences accounted for 4-10 percent of the difference in spelling ability by the end of 2nd grade, and it’s easy to see how those differences can yawn into an achievement gap during a time students are learning hundreds of new words every month. Studies of math disabilities have likewise found early, basic visual-processing problems can make students just that slight bit slower in working through a math problem in early grades, which then build to later, more severe math difficulties.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.