NICHD Reading and Reading Disorders Research Information

Reading and reading disorders are a particular area of interest for NICHD, which has a diverse research portfolio in learning, learning disabilities, brain function, and overall development. Reading disorders, such as dyslexia, refer to a spectrum of brain-based developmental difficulties in understanding the written word. NICHD’s research interests in this area include understanding the biological bases of written language processing, explaining the development of reading disorders, and evaluating methods to treat these disorders.

Some of the goals for NICHD related to reading and reading disorders include:

  • Understanding the environmental, instructional, cognitive, linguistic, genetic, and neurobiological contributions to the process of learning to read
  • Developing new knowledge about the causes of learning disabilities and of the ways they develop that affect the development of reading skills (e.g., basic reading skills, reading fluency, reading comprehension) and written expression
  • Developing reliable and valid quantitative and qualitative measurement instruments and strategies to identify children at risk for academic failure due to reading disorders and to assess growth over time and in response to reading-related interventions
  • Evaluating and improving methods for early intervention and for remediation of reading disorders that cater to diverse learners’ needs across the lifespan, from preschool into adulthood

Institute Activities and Advances

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 the following:

  • Learning techniques that offer effective instruction for at-risk beginning and struggling readers. Efforts include enhancing new and existing approaches to deliver more intensive instruction and intervention for struggling developing readers.
  • 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 brain imaging technologies to better understand the brain-based differences between children at risk and those not at risk for reading problems before formal instruction occurs and between good readers and people with reading disabilities, and what this relationship looks like over time.
  • 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 identifying more effectively 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. Reading and learning problems often do not occur in isolation. Individuals also may have other learning or attention difficulties, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a math learning disorder. Understanding the relationship between reading disorders and other conditions over the course of development may help advance more effective future interventions.
  • Developing the next generation of intensive intervention for struggling pre-adolescent and adolescent readers. Reading intervention is most effective when it happens early in reading development. However, many individuals continue to struggle past third or fourth grade. To serve the needs of these individuals, researchers are examining more intensive and long-lasting interventions with the goal of improving long-term outcomes for these learners.
  • 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.

Read more about 50 years of NICHD research on learning disabilities.

Recent advances related to reading and reading disorders include the following:

  • Understanding, educating, and supporting children with specific learning disabilities. NICHD-supported investigators offer a history of research on the recognition, identification, and treatment of learning disabilities and provide several highlights from NICHD-funded research. (PMID: 31081650)
  • Comparing treatments for children with ADHD and reading disabilities.
    • Researchers found that combining treatments—medication for ADHD and reading intervention—offered the best outcomes for children with both ADHD and a reading disorder. (PMID: 28333510)
    • An NICHD-funded randomized controlled trial studied different treatments for children with both ADHD and reading disabilities external link and found that typical ADHD treatment helped with passage comprehension while typical reading interventions combined with ADHD interventions improved fluency.
  • A particular brain region may help children pay attention while being read to. Researchers had 4-year-old girls undergo brain imaging and also analyzed video of them reading with their mothers. (PMID: 28562619)
  • Text-to-speech technology may help students with reading comprehension. Researchers analyzed 22 previous studies to explore whether listening to a text helped students understand the content. (PMID: 28112580)
  • DNA may have influenced language development. A particular regulatory element—a section of DNA that determines how often a gene is used—appears to be important for distinguishing between consonants. Change in this section of DNA could have contributed to change in languages through the millennia. (PMID: 29666269)
  • A child’s level of language skills persists into the teen years relative to his or her peers. Researchers found that children were likely to have the same level of literacy skills relative to their peers from a very young age through to the teen years. (PMID: 30474055)

Other Activities and Advances

  • Funded by CDBB, the multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Research Centers Consortium conducts studies on defining, classifying, and understanding learning disabilities and related disorders.
  • 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.
  • In 1997, Congress directed 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.
  • NICHD has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on research efforts related to reading and literacy. These include: 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; Improving Adult Literacy Instruction external link, which synthesized research on what is known about struggling adult learners and how to support their continued reading skill development; and 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.
  • Based on its research into reading and reading disabilities, NICHD has developed several resources for parents and teachers on helping children to read. These resources are available on the More Information page.
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