Published in Developmental Science – April 2020

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Jennifer Zuk 1,2,3
Jade Dunstan 1
Elizabeth Norton 4
Xi Yu 1,2,5
Ola Ozernov-Palchik 6
Yingying Wang 7
Tiffany P. Hogan 3
John D. E. Gabrieli 6
Nadine Gaab 1,2,8

  1. Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience, Division of Developmental Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
  2. Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
  3. Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, MGH Institute of Health Professions, Boston, MA, USA
  4. Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
  5. State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China
  6. McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
  7. Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA
  8. Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, USA

Abstract – Recent efforts have focused on screening methods to identify children at risk for dyslexia as early as preschool/kindergarten. Unfortunately, while low sensitivity leads to under-identification of at-risk children, low specificity can lead to over-identification, resulting in inaccurate allocation of limited educational resources. The present study focused on children identified as at-risk in kindergarten who do not subsequently develop poor reading skills to specify factors associated with better reading outcomes among at-risk children. Early screening was conducted in kindergarten and a subset of children was tracked longitudinally until second grade. Potential protective factors were evaluated at cognitive-linguistic, environmental, and neural levels. Relative to at-risk kindergarteners with subsequent poor reading, those with typical reading outcomes were characterized by significantly higher socioeconomic status (SES), speech production accuracy, and structural organization of the posterior right-hemispheric superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF). A positive association between structural organization of the right SLF and subsequent decoding skills was found to be specific to at-risk children and not observed among typical controls. Among at-risk children, several kindergarten-age factors were found to significantly contribute to the prediction of subsequent decoding skills: white matter organization in the posterior right SLF, age, gender, SES, and phonological awareness. These findings suggest that putative compensatory mechanisms are already present by the start of kindergarten. The right SLF, in conjunction with the cognitive-linguistic and socioeconomic factors identified, may play an important role in facilitating reading development among at-risk children. This study has important implications for approaches to early screening, and assessment strategies for at-risk children.

Keywords – DTI, dyslexia, resilience, risk, screening, white matter