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Reading and Reading Disorders: Research Activities and Scientific Advances

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Institute Activities and Advances

The NICHD's primary organizational unit that supports research relevant to reading and related disabilities is the Reading, Writing, and Related Learning Disabilities Program of the Child Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB). The program focuses on research and training initiatives to increase understanding of both normal and atypical development of reading and written language skills throughout the life course.

The program includes a focus on the development of prevention, remediation, and instructional approaches and methods to enhance these abilities. The program also consists of both longitudinal and cross-sectional work on reading and writing development, from preschool into adulthood, and includes multidisciplinary studies that integrate genetic, neurobiological, cognitive/behavioral, and intervention studies. In addition, the program encourages the development and validation of measurement tools to support such studies across diverse participant groups and age ranges.

Among other topics related to reading and reading disorders, NICHD-funded studies are investigating:

  • Learning techniques that offer effective instruction for beginning readers. Their efforts to assess new and existing approaches include evaluating response-to-intervention (RTI) models for kindergarteners, older children, adolescents, and bilingual groups.
  • How brain regions associated with reading ability work together to process text. Current topics of research include how these brain networks develop and change over time and how they are impaired in individuals who have difficulty reading.
  • How brain regions associated with reading ability may differ for those with a reading disability. Researchers are using many different types of brain imaging technology to more fully understand the brain-based differences between good readers and people with reading disabilities.
  • Genetic clues into the basis of reading development. An understanding of how genes interact with other genes and with the environment to influence reading ability may contribute to more effectively identifying individuals at risk and developing the means to improve their reading ability or prevent reading problems.
  • The relationships between reading disabilities and other learning disabilities or disorders. For example, people with a reading disability frequently also have trouble developing writing skills, and many have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  • Factors that influence the late development of reading difficulties. Correcting reading problems after third grade is more difficult. However, some reading problems emerge "late"—in fourth grade or later. Studies focus on identifying early risk factors and evaluating how reading interventions for these students differ from interventions for struggling readers at earlier ages.
  • Relationships among reading, spoken language, and writing. Researchers are investigating the learning processes underlying the acquisition of basic writing skills, spelling ability, and complex processes, such as composing lengthy manuscripts. They are also focusing on the connection between reading and writing and how these two learning processes complement and enhance one another.

Other Activities and Advances

  • Funded by the CDBB, the multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Research Centers Consortium conducts studies on defining, classifying, and understanding learning disabilities and related disorders. Currently, researchers at four centers are actively engaged in investigating various aspects of reading disabilities. In addition, these centers continue to examine the effectiveness of RTI as a means of identifying and teaching students with reading difficulties.
  • Also funded by CDBB, the Learning Disabilities Innovation Hubs (LD Hubs) support studies on the causes, symptoms, and treatments of learning disabilities that affect reading, writing, and mathematics, with special focus on understudied topics and populations. Among the current four Hubs, one studies math learning disabilities, two expressly investigate factors related to both reading and math learning disabilities, and the fourth focuses on the under-represented population of African-American children learning to read who speak a non-mainstream English dialect.
  • In 1997, Congress directed the NICHD to review the scientific evidence on reading and identify the most effective ways to teach children to read. In response, the Institute established the National Reading Panel. Along with explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, the panel outlined other effective approaches for teaching children to read. The panel's findings have contributed to nationwide standards in education.
  • The NICHD often partners with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on research efforts related to reading and literacy.
    • For example, the NICHD, former National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), and the ED Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) funded the Adult Literacy Research Network, from 2002 to 2007, with the goal of creating and studying the effectiveness of adult literacy interventions for low-literate adults.
    • Recently, the OVAE convened a committee of experts through the National Academies of Science to review adult learning and literacy. This resulting report, Improving Adult Literacy Support, External Web Site Policy synthesized research on what is known about struggling adult learners and how to support their continued reading skill development.
    • The Institute also partnered with ED and NIFL on the "Partnership for Reading," an outreach effort intended to get the findings from the National Reading Panel to educators and parents to help improve reading instruction and practice in the United States.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary federal program authorizing state and local aid for educating children with learning disabilities and other special educational needs. The IDEA was revised, in part, as a result of NICHD-funded research, which discovered that the standard criterion for providing special educational services—a discrepancy between IQ and achievement scores—failed to identify many children with reading difficulty or disability and was a barrier to early intervention services External Web Site Policy (PDF - 465 KB). This reauthorization drew from information documented in A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families, a report by the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, published in 2002.
  • Based on its research into reading and reading disabilities, the NICHD has developed several resources for parents and teachers on helping children to read. These resources are available on the Resources and Publications page.
Last Updated Date: 04/02/2014
Last Reviewed Date: 02/28/2014
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