Reading disabilities can develop quite suddenly after the primary grades

June 22, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Early reading tests are fine for detecting problems in the primary grades (1st - 3rd grade), but these tests don't always identify students who later develop reading difficulties in the fourth and fifth grade, say researchers who examined the phenomena of late-emerging reading disabilities. Unfortunately, these children who develop late-emerging reading disabilities score well on conventional reading tests during the primary grades but now perform very poorly on reading, spelling and literacy-related skill tests, according to a new study that compares children with early- versus late-emerging reading disabilities.

In this month's Journal of Educational Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), researchers from Haskins Laboratories and Bryn Mawr College compared the literacy, language and cognitive skills of 35 fourth and fifth graders with early-identified reading disabilities (RD) with scores of 31 fourth and fifth graders with late-identified RD. Both groups were also compared to 95 normally achieving students. The authors found that late-identified reading deficits were different for subgroups of students. Some of the students were having problems with comprehending text, while others were having difficulty in identifying printed words, and others showed across-the-board deficiencies.

Although their skill deficits were clearly and consistently exhibited on tests administered by the researchers, few of these children had yet been identified by their schools as having any reading problems. Because the emergence of RD after solid achievement in earlier grades is not expected to occur, school personnel need to be more aware of the "possibility that successful early achievers may undergo rather abrupt declines in performance at this age," said Hollis S. Scarborough, one of the study's authors

Among the students identified as having late-emerging RD, 32% had poor reading comprehension but strong word recognition, a pattern that was rarely seen in children with early-emerging RD (6%). Weaknesses in listening skills, vocabulary, and organization may have contributed to declines in reading comprehension after third grade, when reading materials usually become more challenging to understand.

Other students with late-emerging RD (35%) fit the typical "dyslexic" profile: they had comprehension skills comparable to those of nondisabled readers but were slow and inaccurate on word reading, spelling, phonological awareness, and naming tasks. A similar pattern was shown by nearly half of the children whose reading problems emerged before fourth grade. The remainder of the children with early- or later-identified RD had difficulties with both word-level and comprehension skills, and many also had low math achievement.

Because these three distinct patterns of RD were observed in students beyond the third grade, the authors recommend that schools use a variety of assessments to identify individual children's strengths and weaknesses. Some children who score low on reading comprehension tests may mainly have word-level processing weaknesses and they need to be distinguished from those children who just have comprehension difficulties, according to the study. Intervention programs also need to be selected on the basis of the children's specific problems, said Dr. Scarborough, rather than the overall grade level.
Article: "Late-Emerging Reading Disabilities, " Jennifer Mirak Leach, Ph.D., Bryn Mawr College and Haskins Laboratories; Hollis S. Scarborough, Ph.D., Haskins Laboratories and Leslie Rescorla, Ph.D., Bryn Mawr College; Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

Hollis S. Scarborough, PhD can be reached by email at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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