Chinese lexical tones determine word meaning and are crucial in reading development. Reduced tone awareness is widely reported in children with reading difficulties (RD). Lexical-tone processing requires sensitivity to frequency-modulated sound changes. The present study investigates whether reduced tone awareness in children with RD is reflected in basic auditory processing and the level at which the breakdown occurs. Magnetoencephalographic techniques and an oddball paradigm were used to elicit auditory-related neural responses. Five frequency sweep conditions were established to mirror the frequency fluctuation in Chinese lexical tones, including one standard (level) sweep and four deviant sweeps (fast-up, fast-down, slow-up, and slow-down). A total of 14 Chinese-speaking children aged 9–12 years with RD and 13 age-matched typically developing children were recruited. The participants completed a magnetoencephalographic data acquisition session, during which they watched a silent cartoon and the auditory stimuli were presented in a pseudorandomized order. The results revealed that the significant between-group difference was caused by differences in the level of auditory sensory processing, reflected by the P1m component elicited by the slow-up frequency sweep. This finding indicated that auditory sensory processing was affected by both the duration and the direction of a frequency sweep. Sensitivity to changes in duration and frequency is crucial for the processing of suprasegmental features. Therefore, this sensory deficit might be associated with difficulties discriminating two tones with an upward frequency contour in Chinese.
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