October 5, 2017

Reading experts have effective strategies to help many of the youngest children who struggle to read, but that work has been less effective with older students. Those whose first language isn’t English are especially difficult to teach.

The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, a multidisciplinary research center led by the University of Houston (UH) that includes The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER), will tackle the issue with an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The competitively awarded federal grant is the third for the center since it was established in 2006 to address learning disabilities from a variety of disciplines. Jack Fletcher, chair of the UH Psychology Department and principal investigator for the grant, and some of his collaborators have spent the past 25 years addressing learning disabilities involving reading and math.

The center, which includes researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and MCPER at The University of Texas at Austin, is overseen by the UH Department of Psychology and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics, led by UH psychology professor David Francis.

Francis has long worked on issues involving minority-language speakers, known as English learners. He will work on this project along with professors Elena Grigorenko and Arturo Hernandez, associate professor Paul Cirino, and research assistant professors Jeremy Miciak and Pat Taylor, all with the UH Department of Psychology; associate professor Jenifer Juranek of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and Executive Director Sharon Vaughn, Assistant Director Greg Roberts, and assistant professor of psychology Jessica Church-Lang, all with MCPER.

The center has led some of the key breakthroughs in understanding learning disabilities, including the following:

  • A fundamental shift in how a disability is identified, making diagnostic decisions only after intervention rather than simply because a student’s achievement test score is lower than the score on an intelligence test would predict
  • Evidence that early intervention can dramatically reduce the number of students who struggle to read
  • Demonstration that learning to read prompts new neural networks in the brain

The work is the result of “team science,” Fletcher said, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the classification, early intervention, and remediation of learning disabilities. It includes the use of brain imaging, in addition to work in public school classrooms in Houston and Austin.

Grigorenko’s work spans both developmental psychology and molecular genetics. Her arrival at UH in 2015 added a genetic component to the center’s work, allowing it to delve more deeply into the epigenetic response to intervention and to address the central question the center seeks to answer: Why do some children pick up reading easily and others struggle? And when children struggle, what can help them succeed?

Working with older students is a natural evolution, Fletcher said, because researchers have established effective interventions for the early grades, although not all schools use them. Middle schoolers who are English learners often have trouble reading even when their spoken command of English is good, he said.

But it’s unclear how a variety of factors—economic disadvantage, language proficiency, and learning disabilities—interact to cause the problem.

Students in the project—English learners who meet school benchmarks for English proficiency—will receive intervention to improve reading skills, and researchers will collect information through brain imaging and genetic and cognitive testing.

“This is real team science,” Fletcher said. “Lots of people from different disciplines are working together to bring science to education.”