Kennedy Krieger Institute Awarded $9 Million To Study Learning Disabilities In Growing Ranks Of U.S. Adolescents

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November 06, 2006
N.I.H. Grant Will Establish Center to Examine Causes of Reading Disorders, Including National "Fourth Grade Slump" In Which Successful Learners Suddenly Falter

(Baltimore, MD) - The substantial number of today's adolescents struggling with weak literacy skills presents an urgent national concern, yet very little is known about reading disabilities beyond the early elementary grades. To address this critical gap in knowledge, the Kennedy Krieger Institute has been awarded a $9 million grant from the National Institute of Health (N.I.H.) to establish a Learning Disabilities Research Center. The new center is among only four centers awarded in the country. The Center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute will undertake projects to illuminate the neurobiological and behavioral underpinnings of learning disabilities in children grades three through eight. By gaining a deep understanding of learning disabilities in these children, more effective educational interventions can be developed to improve the country's literacy.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 33 percent of the nation's eighth graders read at a "proficient" level and as many as 41 percent read only at "basic" level. A basic reading level involves mainly literal understanding and limited interpretation of grade appropriate text. Drawing on the diverse talents of researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Haskins Laboratories, Educational Testing Services and University of Maryland, the Center will undertake a variety of projects to improve our understanding of what is going wrong in struggling students, and provide insights into how they can be helped through instruction. These projects will:

  • examine the word and text fluency of children and the ways in which they correlate with reading comprehension;
  • examine the effectiveness of Response-to-Intervention (RTI) as a way of identifying children with reading disabilities, and use MRI scans to determine if there are neurocognitive indicators that predict how children will respond to intervention;
  • determine how aspects of ADHD (processing speed, working memory) influence reading comprehension;
  • and, determine the prevalence of different subtypes of reading disabilities by building upon the knowledge gained from the above projects.

One particular focus of the Center will be an examination of the phenomenon known as the "fourth grade slump," whereby children who were successful learners in the primary grades begin to show achievement declines at grade four. It is widely recognized that this descent occurs at the precise time when classroom instruction shifts from teaching and practicing "bottom up" skills (basic word recognition and decoding) to "top down" skills (fluency and comprehension of content). While it is increasingly acknowledged that the leap from "bottom up" to "top down" skills is not automatic as once presumed, the roots of this problem remain largely a mystery.

"The research in this area of learning disabilities is minimal, and the need for answers is urgent," explains Laurie Cutting, Ph.D, a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute who specializes in the brain-behavior relationship in children with learning disabilities. "With this generous grant from the N.I.H., we can contribute substantially to an understanding of adolescent literacy in ways that will translate into practical applications for educators."

Dr. Martha Denckla, Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute adds that, "As a result of this research initiative, we will now also begin to better understand the causes of the academic declines seen clinically with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder."

Federal agencies, including the N.I.H. and the Department of Education, have taken heed of the grim national literacy statistics and are devoting increased attention to tackling the issue on multiple fronts. In August, the Department of Education issued new regulations for aligning the definitions of "learning disabilities" in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), underscoring the need for establishing uniform criteria as a starting point for accurate assessment. The N.I.H. grant awarded to Kennedy Krieger is further testament to the national attention being paid to learning disabilities.

About Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, the disorders are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age and can be lifelong conditions. It is crucial to recognize and treat these challenges as soon as possible to ensure long-term success in the education of the child.

About the Kennedy Krieger Institute

Internationally recognized for improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, MD serves more than 12,000 individuals each year through inpatient and outpatient clinics, home and community services and school-based programs. Kennedy Krieger provides a wide range of services for children with developmental concerns mild to severe, and is home to a team of investigators who are contributing to the understanding of how disorders develop while pioneering new interventions and earlier diagnosis. For more information about Kennedy Krieger Institute, visit

Media Inquiries:

Lauren Wilson
(202) 955-6222

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