BACKGROUND: Abnormal functioning of the transient visual pathway (the M-pathway) has been implicated in specific reading disability (SRD). The aim of this study is to examine the contrast thresholds for flicker-defined form discrimination in primary school children, and to compare its development with reading and mentation development as a means of identifying children at risk of SRD. METHODS: One hundred eighty-seven children (aged 4 to 13 years) and 22 adults (aged 18 to 45 years) were assessed for contrast sensitivity to an illusory, flicker contrast-defined form (the letter 'E')--a task which was designed to rely to a large extent on magnocellular pathway function. Reading age (Neale Analysis of Reading) and mental age (Raven's Coloured Progressive Matrices) were assessed in the children, who had been previously screened for clinically normal binocular vision and refractive anomalies. RESULTS: The ability of primary school-age children to discriminate the orientation of the low contrast flickered letters (from a choice of 4) showed a significant improvement from kindergarten (ages 4 to 6 years) to grade 3 (ages 8 to 10 years) and older age groups. No significant difference was found between good and disabled readers (at least 1-year lag in reading readiness for the kindergarten group and 2-year lag in reading performance for 8 to 10 and 10 to 12-year-olds). CONCLUSIONS: It appears that there is a developmental improvement in perceptual capacity for tasks attributed to magnocellular function, which plateaus at the age of about 8 to 10 years. However, despite the reported reduction of magnocellular function in specific reading disabled children, no significant difference in contrast threshold for flicker-defined letter discrimination was found between good and poor readers.