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Keywords:

  • Language impairment;
  • genetic risk;
  • dyslexia;
  • Chinese children;
  • lexical tone

Background:  This study sought to identify cognitive abilities that might distinguish Hong Kong Chinese kindergarten children at risk for dyslexia through either language delay or familial history of dyslexia from children who were not at risk and to examine how these abilities were associated with Chinese word recognition. The cognitive skills of interest were syllable awareness, tone detection, rapid automatised naming, visual skill, and morphological awareness.

Method:  We recruited 36 children whose sibling had been previously diagnosed with dyslexia (familial risk group) and 36 children who were initially reported to have difficulties in preschool literacy acquisition by either teachers or parents and subsequently found to demonstrate clinical at-risk factors in aspects of language by paediatricians (language delayed group); the mean age of these groups was approximately 61 months. Thirty-six children with no such risk factors were matched by age, IQ, and parents’ education to the at-risk groups. All children were tested on cognitive skills and Chinese word recognition.

Results:  Compared to the controls, children in the language delayed group scored significantly lower on all measures, whereas children in the familial risk group performed significantly worse only on tone detection, morphological awareness, and Chinese word recognition. In regression analyses, word recognition was best explained by morphological awareness, tone detection and visual skill.

Conclusions:  Language-related measures are strongly associated with early reading development and impairment in Hong Kong Chinese children. Tests of tone detection and morphological awareness may be important clinical tools for diagnosing risk for reading problems in young Chinese children. In contrast, Chinese language delay may be associated with broader cognitive impairments as found previously in various Indo-European languages (e.g., Bishop & Snowling, 2004).