Reading Between the Lines

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In a First-of-Its-Kind Study, Researchers Will Learn Why So Many Adolescent Students Struggle to Read and How to Effectively Intervene.

The Importance of Effective Reading SkillsMost adults cannot recall exactly how they learned to read, or even remember a time when they couldn't. Reading is so integral to our lives that most of us take it for granted. It's fundamental to a quality education, essential to our jobs and an escape from mundane day-to-day rituals into worlds of adventure, glamour and intrigue.

Because of the crucial role that literacy plays in an individual's academic, social and professional success, education experts and researchers have devoted great energy and resources to teaching children to read. Most efforts have focused on reading programs and interventions for young children through the third grade. But despite this work, statistics show that an extraordinary number of readers those who struggled as young children as well as those who did not go on to have serious difficulty with reading as adolescents. According to a 2003 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 70 percent of eighth-grade students in the United States are unable to read at a proficient level, and more than a quarter lack even basic literacy skills.

Astonishingly little research has been done to identify the causes and characteristics of reading difficulties in adolescents, so what few interventions are in place to help have not been scientifically proven to be successful. It's a tremendous problem one that has clear implications for the social and economic well-being of the nation as adolescents move into adulthood. To better understand why adolescents struggle to read, and to develop instructional methods to improve reading skills, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Yale University's Haskins Laboratories and the Educational Testing Service have partnered in a major research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.

"We know reading difficulties persist beyond childhood, even into adulthood," says Robin Church, Ed.D., assistant vice president of special education at Kennedy Krieger. "There is a whole population of people who continue to struggle, and we don't know why. In children, we assume it's difficulty with phonics, but older students and adults who struggle with reading also seem to have trouble with the mechanics of language and how to decode words."

Haskins Laboratories and ETS (the organization that administers the SAT) have been studying the effects of three reading intervention programs on adults with low literacy skills. The new study, funded by a five-year, $5 million grant, takes these reading models and applies them to adolescents then uses one of neuroscience's most high-tech tools, powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging at Kennedy Krieger's F.M. Kirby Research Center, to show whether improvements in reading are accompanied by changes in neurological patterns.

In studies of younger readers, fMRI technology has shown that children who struggle to read tend to show neurological activity in different areas of the brain than skilled readers but, with reading improvements, neurological activity centralizes itself to left hemisphere regions. However, because plasticity in the brain declines as children grow older, it isn't clear that the same changes will occur in adolescents or adults. "In younger children, after successful reading intervention we see both a big improvement in their reading skills and a big change in the way their brain works during reading," says Rebecca Sandak, Ph.D. Dr. Sandak is one of the leading researchers on this project for Haskins Laboratories, the primary institution responsible for this study. "After receiving instruction, their brains look similar to those of unimpaired children. Older readers might show the same types of changes with improved reading, or their brains might come up with different strategies for compensating for their difficulties."

Two hundred forty Maryland students in grades seven through 12 who have not responded to traditional instructional methods will be in enrolled in the study at Kennedy Krieger. Participants will receive 10 weeks of instruction in one of the three reading programs. Immediately before and after instruction, the students will receive fMRIs while performing simple reading tasks, such as deciding whether a word rhymes with others or whether a short sentence makes sense.

Unlike typical secondary school English programs, which focus on the study of literature, reading comprehension, writing and speaking, the instructional methods used in this study emphasize more fundamental literacy skills, such as word recognition and fluency. One program focuses on phonics and decoding, another on fluency, while the third combines the two approaches. Researchers expect the different instructional strategies will be most effective for students with distinct neurobiological profiles.

"There is some evidence that some readers may demonstrate very similar behavior and results," says Laurie Cutting, Ph.D., the project's principal investigator at Kennedy Krieger. "But the ways they go about the tasks, the ways they process information, are very different. We know that these interventions work, so this isn't a competition between interventions we're giving. What we are aiming for in this study is to try to determine which method works best for which type of reader."

Students who do not respond to the first round of tutoring will be invited back for another 10-week session. Some will receive additional instruction in the same program, while others will receive tutoring in one of the other two methods. This well help researchers determine whether students with especially serious reading difficulties can benefit from either prolonged, or a different kind of, instruction. This study stands out in its focus on a reading investigation with a special education population. "None of the kids in this study fit into neat little boxes where the only challenge they face is in reading," Dr. Church says. "They all have other issues to address."

According to Dr. Cutting, confirming the efficacy of these interventions in students whose reading difficulties are complicated by a variety of developmental disorders bolsters the case for using them to help a variety of children who struggle with reading. "If we can determine which interventions help with kids who have complex situations and really hardcore reading problems," she says, "it follows that they will be effective in helping children with less severe difficulties."

All students will return for a six-month follow-up evaluation and fMRI scan to help determine the long-term effects of the tutoring. "Other intervention studies have found that when students who appear to have the same response immediately after tutoring (e.g., similar reading scores) come back, some students' skills have continued to improve, some have stayed the same and others have decreased," Dr. Cutting says. "We'd like to be able to identify a pattern of brain activation that will serve as a predictor for long-term continued improvement."

Because all three of the instructional methods used in this study have successful histories of helping younger children improve their reading abilities, nearly all of the students who participate in the tutoring sessions are expected to show gains in reading skills. But the real payoff will come as educators nationwide use the findings from studies like these to fine-tune their approaches to helping students with reading difficulties.

"In the past five years, there has been a tremendous amount of pressure from policymakers for educators to really spell out the essential components of an effective reading program," Dr. Church says. "Studies like these help educators recognize when students fit certain learning profiles, as well as how to offer students the best tools possible for working past their reading challenges."

For more information on this study, call 443-923-7800.

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