Spotlight: NICHD Looks Back on 50 Years of Learning Disabilities Research

Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Brett Miller headshot.

About 50 years ago, the federal government recognized learning disabilities as conditions that impeded children’s success in school and society. Understanding the cognitive, neurobiological, environmental, and other causes of learning disabilities, as well as finding effective ways to treat them, have long been a focus of NICHD’s research.

The institute’s contributions to learning disabilities research recently were highlighted in Understanding, Educating, and Supporting Children with Specific Learning Disabilities: 50 Years of Science and Practice, published in American Psychologist. The piece, written by NICHD-supported investigators, offers a history of research on the recognition, identification, and treatment of learning disabilities and includes several highlights from NICHD-funded research. 

We discussed the article with Brett Miller, Ph.D., director of NICHD’s reading, writing, and related learning disabilities program, to further understand NICHD’s role in shaping the field.

Defining learning disabilities

Congress enacted special education legislation in 1975 (Public Law 94-142) to provide free and public education for all children with disabilities, including learning disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Public Law 108-446), also known as “IDEA 2004,” was directly influenced by NICHD-supported research and affected millions of school-aged children.

“NICHD was integral to supporting the science that helped shape how we define and classify learning disabilities,” said Dr. Miller.

Until IDEA 2004, public schools used an IQ/achievement discrepancy model—classifying a child as dyslexic based on a lag between reading ability and IQ score—to identify problem readers. NICHD-supported research later confirmed that reading ability was not related to IQ and provided more thorough methods of identifying learning problems and understanding how and why students struggled with learning.

Dr. Miller explained that individuals with specific learning disabilities process information differently, whether it’s reading, writing, or math. Identifying and mapping these processes helped change how learning disabilities were defined and, later, how they were studied and treated.

Through its Child Development and Behavior Branch, NICHD created the Learning Disabilities Research Centers (LDRC) Consortium, which helped researchers better understand how learning disabilities develop over time. Better understanding of the similarities and differences between the disabilities related to reading, writing, and math allowed for more accurate and useful definitions. These definitions, in turn, helped with identification and classification efforts and to focus interventions, Miller explained.

Understanding how reading works and when it doesn’t

Key among NICHD’s contributions to the field was identifying and understanding how reading ability typically develops. Because of this work, NICHD was chosen to lead the National Reading Panel in 1997 to evaluate existing research and evidence on teaching children to read. The 14-member panel reviewed hundreds of studies and found that a combination of techniques is most effective at teaching children to read. The findings of the National Reading Panel were a major influence on the No Child Left Behind Act  (Public Law 107-110), which encouraged state-determined education standards and aimed to level the learning field for all students, including those with disabilities.

The findings also led to the Put Reading First collaboration between NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education. The collaboration translated the research findings from the National Reading Panel into practical tips for parents and teachers, such as some of the strategies noted in Helping Your Child Improve Reading Skills .

This reading research also led to revolutionary findings related to brain patterns. NICHD research uncovered changes in brain activity in people with reading disabilities. More importantly, research also showed that brain function and reading ability could improve with interventions. Additional research has also identified nine regions in the human genome that contain genes or genetic material associated with reading difficulties.

“NICHD support has been critical to building for our current understanding of the brain basis of learning disabilities,” Miller said. “Understanding the brain patterns involved in reading and reading disabilities will help us to develop better screening tools, inform future treatments, and better understand the roots of learning disabilities in general.” 

Opening new avenues for research and treatment

NICHD’s research findings on reading and reading disabilities provided fresh ways to approach understanding other learning disabilities, as well as to develop effective interventions. For example, institute-funded investigators have advanced our understanding of math learning disabilities, including how the brain processes numbers, how math disabilities may affect children’s functioning, and the timing of math-related skills and disabilities.

Although there is still no laboratory or blood test that can diagnose learning disabilities, researchers are using brain scans to track brain activity in young children to better understand reading disabilities and to improve early identification. NICHD-funded studies found that intervention before 3rd grade was critical to improving skills.

“Catching problems early and beginning interventions at a young age, before learning struggles intensify or derail achievement, makes a big difference in helping children succeed in school,” explained Miller.
Building on the importance of early intervention, NICHD has also been studying ways to improve early learning overall.

Focusing on the future

Looking ahead, Miller explained that there are several areas of interest for NICHD. The first is response to treatments, which includes not only identifying who is and is not responding to a treatment, but also measuring the response over time. “We know many of the warning signs of trouble early on. We need to do a better job of systematically monitoring for these risks and acting upon them, as appropriate, with the goal of preventing future difficulties,” he said.

NICHD also aims to put technological innovations to work in understanding, treating, and even preventing learning disabilities. In 2012, the institute established the Learning Disabilities Innovation Hubs (LD Hubs) to increase focus on under-studied aspects of learning disabilities. The LD Hubs complement the work of the LDRC Consortium to address a more comprehensive range of learning disability topics. Additional NICHD-funded work developed technology that recognizes words by analyzing brain activity and found that children who are engaged during shared reading experience a boost in the area of their brain involved in language, comprehension, memory, and problem solving. Research also seeks to address issues of children who speak different languages and dialects and ways to improve learning for those whose first language is not English.

Dr. Miller also noted a lack of research to monitor the progress of students as they advance through elementary school and beyond. “We know enough to apply preventative measures more quickly and intervene more intensely,” Miller said. “But there is more that we can fine tune to maximize success particularly for those learners that struggle the most.”

NICHD research has significantly changed our understanding of typical learning and learning problems and has helped guide changes in teaching methods and school curricula over the past 50 years. Building on this sizable research base, NICHD aims to improve outcomes and promote success in school and in life.

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