Italian scientists say that children can display signs of dyslexia even before they begin to read -- a finding that could be used to steer kids into programs to help stave off the learning disability.

In a three-year study, researchers from the University of Padua tested 96 kindergartners to measure their visual spatial attention -- the ability to filter out distractions and pick out specific symbols -- and tracked the development of their reading ability up through the second grade.

The children with poorer reading ability tended to be the ones with low scores on visual spatial attention. A group of 14 subjects that performed poorly on standardized reading tests at the end of the first grade made more errors in the visual attention tests than the children reading at a normal level, the scientists reported on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

As it turns out, visual attention deficits are surprisingly way more predictive of future reading disorders than are language abilities at the prereading stage, senior author Andrea Facoetti said in a statement on Thursday.

The study doesn't say whether any of the children were later diagnosed with dyslexia.

Poor visual attention could impair a child's ability to pick out letters in order to properly pronounce the sounds associated with words, according to the authors.

Because recent studies show that specific prereading programs can improve reading abilities, children at risk for dyslexia could be treated with preventive remediation programs of visual spatial attention before they learn to read, the authors wrote.

Dyslexia is the most common type of learning disability, and affects somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population. The Current Biology paper is just the latest study identifying early signs of dyslexia before children start to read.

In January, researchers from Children's Hospital Boston reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they could pick up signs of dyslexia in four and five-year-olds using brain scans.

That study examined 36 prereading children, half of whom had a history of dyslexia in their families.

When the children performed a variety of language-related tasks -- such as identifying when pairs of words start with the same sound -- those with a family history of dyslexia showed less activity in certain areas of the brain, according to the study.

April Benasich, a Rutgers University language processing researcher unaffiliated with the brain scan study, told Reuters in January that the evidence shows the seeds of reading failure are present before children begin to fail.

The brain scan study shows the need to look for signs of dyslexia earlier, Benasich said.