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Learning Disabilities Research Program

Current and recent research

Overview of research projects: from lab to community classrooms

For over three decades, the Learning Disabilities Research Program (LDRP) at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) has been creating and testing out research-based programs to help students with reading disabilities in our laboratory classrooms. Children with reading difficulties are one of the largest groups of students receiving special education services in elementary schools. 

Much has been learned in the last 20 years about the core learning problems underlying significant reading difficulties, and it is known that these core learning difficulties frequently persist throughout adolescence and into adulthood. The LDRP has completed a series of studies with over 5000 struggling readers as participants. These studies have measured these children’s progress during and following specific intervention programs. This research has identified what features make a remedial program effective for this very common form of learning disability. 

More recently, the LDRP, in collaboration with three other research sites (Georgia State University, University of Memphis, and Brock University) has been focusing on developing an intervention program that will address the needs of struggling adult readers as part of the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL).  Below is a description of some of the research projects in which we are currently, or were recently, engaged.

Research currently in progress

Center for the Study of Adult Literacy: Developing instructional approaches suited to the cognitive and motivational needs of struggling adult readers.

(D. Greenberg, M.W. Lovett, A. Graesser, J.C. Frijters, L. Branum-Martin; 2012-2016; funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, Washington, D.C.)

The Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL) launched its ambitious program of work on September 1, 2012. CSAL is the first IES-sponsored research and development center focused on adult cognition and basic literacy. Housed at Georgia State University (GSU), CSAL will conduct a range of research projects all centered on improving literacy instruction of low skill adults. Its specific goals are to build a richer understanding of the underlying cognitive and motivational processes that contribute to or impede struggling adult readers' development, to examine the adequacy of measurement instruments and assessments for them, and to develop and evaluate a multiple-component reading intervention for this population.

CSAL links four research sites across two countries (Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Toronto and St. Catharines, Canada) and brings together researchers with expertise in adult and child literacy, education technology, statistics and psychometrics. Working together, this team will spend the next five years conducting research and developing tools that will inform adult education researchers and aid adult education students, practitioners and policymakers.

Through a series of exploratory studies using a wide array of reading, motivation and cognition assessments, CSAL will collect data to study the appropriateness of assessments commonly used with the struggling adult readers. What they discover will help inform the development of a reading intervention for these adults. This intervention builds from an instructional framework first developed and evaluated with adolescents reading at the 3rd- to 8th-grade level and will be adapted for adult learners. The final product will be a comprehensive, flexible, web-based program with animated tutors designed to engage readers and allow for greater individualization for students. Following this development work, CSAL will conduct a pilot study with approximately 300 adults in adult education settings in Georgia and Toronto to determine the intervention's promise and feasibility.

During Year 1, we will conduct assessments (four to five hours in duration) with 250 adults to measure their cognitive and language abilities and their level of motivation for reading.  Later in Year 1 we will analyze the results of the data collected in partnership with GSU. We will also begin development of the literacy intervention and pilot a first prototype with a small group of five to eight adult students; brief pre-, mid- and post-program assessment (mostly in the form of questions/discussions) will be conducted. This first prototype will then be modified, refined and retested with other small groups of adult students (there will be multiple cycles of this iterative process of program development and refinement during Years 1 and 2 of the study). The program will be taught by one of our research team members.

During Year 2, we will continue the iterative process of program development and refinement, until we have developed a complete prototype of the literacy program; throughout this year additional small groups of five to eight adult students will participate in program modules, for further curriculum development and refinement and adaptation to different needs. The program will be taught by one of our research team members.

During Year 3, we will conduct a feasibility study using the final version of the 100-hour literacy intervention developed during Years 1 and 2 of the study. Two groups of students will participate, with approximately ten students in each. One of our research team members will teach the program. Two to three hours of pre-, mid- and post-program testing will be conducted with participating adults to evaluate their reading response. Analyses of the feasibility study data will be conducted later in Year 3 by all three sites.  

During Year 4, a total of 146 adults will participate in the pilot phase of the study, where we will undertake a comprehensive evaluation of how the intervention works for a broader range of adult readers. Groups of 10-15 adults will participate in either the literacy intervention program we have developed (about 96 adults) OR the “Business as Usual” instruction (control condition) typically offered in that setting (about 48 adults). All instruction will be offered by instructors employed at community adult literacy settings following training and extensive mentoring by our research team. Pretest, midpoint1, midpoint2, posttest, and follow-up assessment will be conducted with participants by our research team.

During Year 5, the pilot phase will be completed and together with our partners at GSU and University of Memphis, we will analyze the results of the pilot phase of the study.

Throughout the duration of the 5-year study, Dr. Lovett, the PI at the Toronto site (The Hospital for Sick Children) will participate in several advisory board meetings, expert panel meetings, and webinars, and offer content and expertise to the development of the Center website.  

Multiple component remediation for struggling middle school readers

(R. Morris, M.W. Lovett, R. Sevcik, & J.C. Friijters; 2006-2011; funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, Washington, D.C.)

This study built on what we already knew about what helps struggling readers learn to read. We compared two multiple component programs (PHAST Comprehension-Enhanced and PHAST Fluency-Enhanced) to see which helped students in Grades 6, 7, and 8 read better. Both programs offered 125 hours of instruction in our carefully-designed and well-tested program, known as PHAST Reading (Phonological and Strategy Training Program).

The PHAST Reading program teaches the students a set of word identification skills and decoding strategies. The PHAST Comprehension-Enhanced Program also teaches the students specific reading comprehension strategies and gives them an understanding of how text is structured. The PHAST Fluency-Enhanced Program provides students with intense fluency training.

In this project, we asked whether specific comprehension training or intense fluency training provides a more efficient route to improving the comprehension of struggling readers. In addition, this project evaluated whether successful use of these programs in our laboratory classrooms could be generalized to special education classrooms in community schools. All students were taught in small groups of 6 to 8 and their progress in reading, reading comprehension, and spelling was measured before, during, immediately after the program, and one-year following the program.  Analyses of the data collected is ongoing.

Remediating reading disabilities in high school

(Lovett, M. W., Lacerenza, L., De Palma, M., & Frijters, J. C. (2012). Evaluating the efficacy of remediation for struggling readers in high school. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(2), 151-169. doi: 10.1177/0022219410371678;  This paper was awarded the International Reading Association’s Albert J Harris Research Award in 2014.

Lovett, M.W., Lacerenza, L., De Palma, M., Steinbach, K.A., & Frijters, J.C. Preparing teachers to remediate reading disabilities in high school: What is needed for effective professional development? Teaching and Teacher Education, 2008, 24(4), 1083-1097)

In this study, a new research-based program for struggling readers in high school was evaluated. This study explored the effectiveness of a remedial program for students who enter high school with severe problems in reading, spelling and writing. The PHAST Reading program was originally developed for younger students; a combined decoding and comprehension program, called PHAST PACES, was developed for high school students. 

This research project examined whether struggling readers in high school can profit from remediation combining word reading, text reading, and reading comprehension strategy instruction. This project also explored the generalizability of program efficacy from controlled elementary-level laboratory classroom settings to secondary school classrooms. All students were taught in small groups of 6 to 8 and their progress in reading, reading comprehension, and spelling was measured before, during, immediately after the program, and one-year following the program. The PHAST PACES program offers 70 hours of instruction over one semester.

Preventing reading acquisition failures through whole-class early intervention

This project evaluated the effectiveness of our PHAST Reading Program in helping the reading development of children in Grades 1 and 2 in high-risk community schools. In this study, we evaluated whether our PHAST Reading program, if taught to entire classes in Grade 1 and Grade 2, gave all of the students an advantage in learning to read and prevents reading problems in Grade 3. In addition, we asked if the PHAST Reading program accelerates the reading development of children without reading problems and results in greater reading achievement at the end of Grade 1 or Grade 2 relative to those in the regular curriculum program.

Exploring the causes of reading disabilities

C.L. Barr, E. Kerr, & M.W. Lovett; 2007-2012; funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research)

The overall aim of this research program is to identify genes that contribute to the development of reading disabilities (RD) and determine how genetic variation contributes to the risk of the development of RD. Twin and family studies have produced evidence for a strong genetic component, prompting investigations by several groups into the molecular genetic basis of this disorder. Linkage studies have pointed to ten different chromosomal regions and fine mapping in these regions have provided association to specific genes. In the current project, we are continuing to study the genes that we have previously identified as associated with risk for reading problems and will attempt to determine how they function. We are also beginning fine mapping for gene identification in 5 additional linkage regions. The finding of genetic susceptibility factors for RD will be an invaluable step forward in understanding the molecular mechanisms of this disorder.

Parent Involvement and reading development in the early grades

This research project looked at the relationship between parent involvement and children’s reading development, with a focus on parents helping their children to read at home. Many parents are happy to help their children with their reading, but would like more ideas about what they can do at home. This project looked at the contributions that a home-based parent tutoring program might have on children’s reading achievement. Two kinds of parent tutoring programs were studied in which children and parents were taught a way to read together. The children were in the primary grades and reading aloud to an adult at home. These two programs were compared with what parents typically do at home to support their children’s reading. The findings of this study may offer clearer understanding as to which parent practices have the greatest impact on improving their children’s reading.

Understanding the motivational aspects of children’s response to instruction

This research examined the full range of motivational factors that may influence both engagement with reading in general and children and adolescent's response to reading instruction. Children who have a long history of challenges in reading may be less motivated to read than children who have had ample opportunity to succeed in reading. The LDRP intervention programs have been constructed with motivational principles in mind and we studied how motivation changes when children are provided with opportunities to succeed in reading.

This research also examined if children and adolescents’ beliefs about their successes or failures may either foster or prohibit further engagement with reading or even whether a child can benefit from instruction. Children's reasons for success or failure may be internal (e.g., "I succeeded because I tried hard") or external (e.g., "I made mistakes because the teacher gave me a book that was too hard"). Children may also attribute success or failure to controllable (e.g., effort) or uncontrollable (e.g., luck or chance) factors. The combination of these two dimensions leads to adaptive or maladaptive attribution patterns. The interventions in this program have built-in attributional retraining aspects and we investigated how this can lead to change from attributions that harm learning to attributions that help children and adolescents engage fully with reading.