Diagnosis: Uneasy Reader

Image: Book with scrambled letters off the pages
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Dyslexia's formal name is developmental reading disorder, but that might soon change. Psychologists report in Current Biology that the common learning disability—which affects up to one in ten adults—appears to be a problem with visual attention that is not specific to reading at all. Dyslexic children find it hard to filter out unnecessary cues, whether they are trying to read a book or decipher a picture.

University of Padua psychologist Andrea Facoetti and colleagues followed a group of children from age 4 (pre-reading) to 7, testing not only their reading abilities, but also how well they could name colors, remember a list of objects, and complete a Where's Waldo-like visual attention test. The children who had the most trouble with the Waldo task at age 4, Facoetti found, were the ones diagnosed with dyslexia at age 7.

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Reading is a complex behavior, notes psychologist Theodore Wasserman of Lynn University in Florida, and a dyslexia diagnosis indicates a broad range of visual-spatial attention problems that make it challenging. Instead of targeting only reading-specific tasks, dyslexia treatment might better serve children by honing their abilities to identify and pay attention to the relevant parts of a text or an illustration, Facoetti suggests. Addressing the root problems that are interfering with reading may be a more effective intervention than traditional phonics training, and identifying symptoms early could help preschoolers improve their visual attention skills before they start falling behind.

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