We have argued that reading disabilities are best characterized as developmental language disorders. From a theoretical perspective, such a claim is well founded. Reading is first and foremost a language activity. Reading relies heavily on one's knowledge of the phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic aspects of language. As such, deficiencies in one or more of these aspects of language could significantly disrupt one's ability to read. Not only is a language-based account of reading disabilities theoretically sound, considerable evidence has accumulated over the last twenty-five years to support this view.
Longitudinal Study of Language-Impaired Children
The relationship between language deficits and reading disabilities has been examined from several different perspectives. One approach has been the longitudinal study of children with early spoken language impairments (Aram, Ekelman, & Nation, 1984; Bishop & Adams, 1990; Catts, 1993; Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang, 2002; Silva, McGree, & Williams, 1987; Stothard et al., 1996; Tallal, Curtiss, & Kaplan, 1989). In this work, children displaying significant impairments in language (generally in semantic-syntactic aspects) have been identified in preschool or kindergarten and tested for reading and academic achievement in the later grades. Evidence that children with language impairments (LI) are more likely than typically developing children to have subsequent reading disabilities indicates that language deficits precede and play a causal role in reading disabilities.
The results of longitudinal studies have consistently shown that children with LI often have reading disabilities. In general, research indicates that 50 percent or more of children with LI in preschool or kindergarten go on to have reading disabilities in primary or secondary grades. In the most comprehensive study to date, the first author and colleagues (Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang, 2002) investigated the reading outcomes of 208 kindergarten children with LI. These children were a subsample of children who participated in an epidemiological study of developmental language impairments in children (Tomblin, Records, Buckwalter, Zhang, Smith, & O'Brien, 1997).
Results indicated that the group of children with LI read well below expected levels in second and fourth grades. Approximately 50 percent of the children with LI performed one or more SDs below the mean on a composite measure of reading comprehension. Although the remaining children with LI did not meet this criterion, many were, nevertheless, poor readers. When the criterion for a reading disability was changed to below the twenty-fifth percentile, nearly 70 percent of children with LI were classified as poor readers. Furthermore, analyses showed that children with low nonverbal abilities in addition to language problems performed significantly less well in reading than those with normal nonverbal IQs. Finally, those children who continued to have language deficits in second and fourth grade were at a much higher risk for reading disabilities than those whose language abilities had improved by the early school grades.
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