Research Frontiers: Beyond the ABCs

Annie
Iles
NIH-funded study examines causes of poor reading comprehension

Morgan and Michael GreeneLearning to read can be a long and difficult process. The promise of first reading single words, then sentences, and then entire books waits like a light at the end of the tunnel. For a child with poor reading comprehension, however, the light never comes. Sentences are meaningless as the young reader struggles to understand the connection between different words.

Research has shown that reading comprehension relies heavily on the ability to accurately read, or "sound out," individual words. Deficits in sounding out words are a well-established cause of reading failure, with approximately 15 percent of children struggling with this aspect of reading.

Nevertheless, about three percent of children, often age ten or older, are able to accurately sound out words, but still struggle with comprehension, which suggests other, less well-understood sources of comprehension failure. Because children with single-word accuracy appear to read normally at a young age, reading comprehension problems are often not discovered until after the first few years of school.

"In the first and second grades, reading ability is typically judged when the students read out loud, and the comprehension demands are minimal. They're not expected to learn information until later," explains Laurie Cutting, Ph.D, a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute who specializes in the brain-behavior relationship among children with learning disabilities.

Dr. Cutting is leading a study funded by the National Institutes of Health to investigate this type of comprehension failure as well as other comprehension difficulties.

For two years, Dr. Cutting and her colleagues have been observing the behavioral and neurological characteristics of 160 children with various profiles and levels of reading ability. Functional neuroimaging allows the researchers to examine patterns of brain activation during simple language and reading tasks to establish which neurological circuits may be associated with comprehension. Additionally, the young readers' fluency, language and executive function are tested to determine behavioral characteristics of poor comprehension.

"The goal is to look at their brain activation and see how or whether it varies across different reading profiles," Dr. Cutting points out. Dr. Cutting says she and her colleagues have completed observations of over one-third of the children and are preparing to analyze the results. She hopes the study will help both researchers and educators develop methods of intervention to target different causes of students' poor comprehension.

"Reading is a building block for the rest of a child's education," she says. "Not being able to comprehend for whatever reason could have enormous effects on later schooling, in college, in life."