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Cincinnati Children's Develops Program To Help Spot Reading Difficulty Early In Kids

A new literacy screening tool pioneered at Cincinnati Children's Hospital helps identify reading difficulties in children as young as three years old. But the study into early childhood literacy does more than that. The research also shows young children's brains develop differently when they learn literacy fundamentals early.

Dr. John Hutton, director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, says about a quarter of children going into kindergarten are unprepared to learn how to read.

They don't know basics like rhyming words, how to spell their name, or even that books have a cover and pages. That sets them up, he says, for the difficult task of catching up to their peers and could lead to setbacks in their education.

"Fixing your reading problem later in school is much, much harder than preventing it in the first place. And that really comes back to the idea that the brain is just much more what we call 'plastic,' " he said, meaning it's easier for kids to learn new complex skills the younger they are.

Waiting to address reading difficulties until children start school is not only harder for children. It's also a more expensive endeavour.

Hutton says the estimated cost of low literacy levels in America is over $350 billion a year, and over a trillion dollars worldwide.

The Reading House (TRH) is an assessment for ages 3-5 based on a specially designed children's book, which was developed by John Hutton, MD, and his team at Cincinnati Children's.
Credit Cincinnati Children's Hospital
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The Reading House (TRH) is an assessment for ages 3-5 based on a specially designed children's book, which was developed by John Hutton, MD, and his team at Cincinnati Children's.

"So it's definitely a very expensive problem and really worth the investment to do what we can as early as possible," he said.

The assessment is called The Reading House. The accompanying 14-page book, also called The Reading House, tests children on seven skills, including vocabulary, rhyming and alphabet knowledge. Then, a pediatrician scores the child on a scale of 1-14. The higher the score, the better prepared the child is for literacy.

Hutton says the test takes about five minutes and was done in seven private practices as well as at Cincinnati Children's.

Over 300 children have been screened using the book, but some of the most innovative information derived from the study are in the MRI results of about 70 children.

"What we did is we actually compared scores on The Reading House to a measure of cortical thickness, which is how thick the gray matter surface of the brain is, in these kids," Hutton said. "And these are three- to five-year-olds. And what we found is that higher scores on The Reading House was highly correlated with thicker gray matter cortex in the left side of the brain, which is in an area that we know supports reading skills.

"And this was really the first study of its kind to show that even at this very young age, that the basic architecture of the brain is starting to form around what we call the reading network, where a lot of language areas and frontal areas and visual areas are starting to talk to each other."

Hutton says he wants to inspire a paradigm shift on the importance of identifying early reading difficulties in the same way pediatricians check up on a child's walking, language and eating skills.

The assessment is currently only available to medical practices, nonprofits and educators so it can be used as a screening process.

For information about the screening process or the book, visit the Blue Manatee Literacy Project website or the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center website.

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