Studies in sensory neuroscience reveal the critical importance of accurate sensory perception for cognitive development. There is considerable debate concerning the possible sensory correlates of phonological processing, the primary cognitive risk factor for developmental dyslexia. Across languages, children with dyslexia have a specific difficulty with the neural representation of the phonological structure of speech. The identification of a robust sensory marker of phonological difficulties would enable early identification of risk for developmental dyslexia and early targeted intervention. Here, we explore whether phonological processing difficulties are associated with difficulties in processing acoustic cues to speech rhythm. Speech rhythm is used across languages by infants to segment the speech stream into words and syllables. Early difficulties in perceiving auditory sensory cues to speech rhythm and prosody could lead developmentally to impairments in phonology. We compared matched samples of children with and without dyslexia, learning three very different spoken and written languages, English, Spanish, and Chinese. The key sensory cue measured was rate of onset of the amplitude envelope (rise time), known to be critical for the rhythmic timing of speech. Despite phonological and orthographic differences, for each language, rise time sensitivity was a significant predictor of phonological awareness, and rise time was the only consistent predictor of reading acquisition. The data support a language-universal theory of the neural basis of developmental dyslexia on the basis of rhythmic perception and syllable segmentation. They also suggest that novel remediation strategies on the basis of rhythm and music may offer benefits for phonological and linguistic development.
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