Learning Disabilities Research Program

Current projects

Overview of Research Projects: From Lab to Community Classrooms

For almost 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 3000 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. Below is a description of some of the research projects in which we are currently engaged.

Multiple Component Remediation for Struggling Middle School Readers

(R. Morris, M.W. Lovett, R. Sevcik, & J.C. Friijters; 2006-2010; funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, Washington, D.C.)
This study builds on what we already know about what helps struggling readers learn to read. We are comparing two multiple component programs (PHAST Comprehension-Enhanced and PHAST Fluency-Enhanced) to see which helps students in Grades 6, 7, and 8 read better. Both programs offer 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 are asking whether specific comprehension training or intense fluency training provides a more efficient route to improving the comprehension of struggling readers. In addition, this project evaluates whether successful use of these programs in our laboratory classrooms can be generalized to special education classrooms in community schools. All students are taught in small groups of 6 to 8 and their progress in reading, reading comprehension, and spelling is measured before, during, immediately after the program, and one-year following the program.

Remediating Reading Disabilities in High School

In this study, a new research-based program for struggling readers in high school is being evaluated. This study is exploring 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, has been developed for high school students and young adults. This research project is examining whether struggling readers in high school can profit from remediation combining word reading, text reading, and reading comprehension strategy instruction. This project also explores the generalizability of program efficacy from controlled elementary-level laboratory classroom settings to secondary school classrooms. All students are taught in small groups of 6 to 8 and their progress in reading, reading comprehension, and spelling is 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 the 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 looks 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 looks at the contributions that a home-based parent tutoring program has on children’s reading achievement. Two kinds of parent tutoring programs are being studied in which children and parents are taught a way to read together. The children are in the primary grades and are reading aloud to an adult at home. These two programs are 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 examines 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 are studying how motivation changes when children are provided with opportunities to succeed in reading.

This research also examines 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 are also investigating how this can lead to change from attributions that harm learning to attributions that help children and adolescents engage fully with reading.