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Diagnosing deafness early will help teenagers' reading development

( Deaf teenagers have better reading skills if they were identified as deaf by the time they were nine months old, research from the University of Southampton has shown.

The Southampton team has been studying the development of a group of children who were identified with permanent childhood hearing impairment (PCHI) at a very early age in a pilot screening programme conducted in Southampton and London in the 1990s.

Follow up assessments when the children were aged eight showed those who were screened at birth had better language skills than those children who were not screened. This new study, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, has now shown that longer term benefits of early detection also occur following assessments at aged 17.

The study assessed the teenagers' level of reading development and compared them to deaf teenagers who were not screened as newborn babies. The gap between the early and late confirmed groups had doubled between the two assessments.

Colin Kennedy, professor of neurology and paediatrics at the University of Southampton and a consultant paediatric neurologist at Southampton General Hospital, led the study. He comments: "Our previous work has shown that children exposed to newborn hearing screening had, on average, better language and reading abilities at age eight years. We are now able to show that this screening programme can benefit these children into their teenage years.

"We believe that the early superiority in the reading skills of the children who were screened may have enabled them to read more demanding material more frequently than their peers with later confirmed hearing difficulties, thus increasing the skill gap between the two groups.

"Screening all babies for hearing impairment at birth enables families to have the information they need to support their baby's development, leads to benefits of practical importance at primary school and now, secondary school and further education."

The Southampton team believes these new results support the case for national governments to fund universal newborn hearing screening programmes that increase the rates of early confirmation of hearing difficulties in the many developed and developing countries where screening programmes for deafness are currently under discussion, but not yet adopted as national policy.


Notes to editors

1. A copy of the paper entitled: The impact of universal newborn hearing screening on long-term literacy outcomes: a prospective cohort study is available from Media Relations upon request. It can also be viewed at

2. Affecting over one in 1,400 babies born in England each year PCHI can have adverse effects on a child's neuronal development, language skills and educational outcomes. However if PCHI is detected at an early age, children can be provided with educational support, hearing aids and cochlear implants. Prior to 2001 the standard test for PCHI in the UK was the health visitor distraction test undertaken about eight months after birth. In the 1980s, research established that, in response to a sound in the outer ear, the inner ear sends a soft sound back to the outer ear sometimes known as the 'cochlear echo'. If there is any problem with hearing, this echo is not detectable. In the 1990s Southampton research teams demonstrated that combining detection of this cochlear echo with automated auditory brain stem testing was effective as a universal newborn screening test for hearing impairment and that newborn screening increased the odds of PCHI case referral prior to six months 19 fold in that population of newborns. A following trial compared the rates of early confirmation of deafness in four districts in Wessex over a three year period during half of which newborn hearing screening was offered to all newborn babies. This showed that newborn screening more than doubled the proportion of all true cases referred before age six months. These cases and an additional cohort of cases from Greater London, half of whom had been born in areas offering newborn screening, when studied again at aged eight years, showed that deaf children that had been born in periods of newborn screening had higher receptive language skills and incurred lower educational costs. Following this work a programme to screen all newborn babies was introduced into every district in the UK by the NHS and the case for doing so was also accepted by policy makers in the USA. Over the five years to 2013, five million babies in England were screened in the newborn period and, as a result, over 5,000 identified with PCHI in the UK.

3. Through world-leading research and enterprise activities, the University of Southampton connects with businesses to create real-world solutions to global issues. Through its educational offering, it works with partners around the world to offer relevant, flexible education, which trains students for jobs not even thought of. This connectivity is what sets Southampton apart from the rest; we make connections and change the world.


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[] Diagnosing deafness early will help teenagers' reading development