Study to Investigate Causes, Remediation of Reading Difficulties in Adolescents

March 26, 2004
Nearly 70 percent of adolescent students score below proficient on national tests, but no effective reading interventions currently exist to help them improve

Baltimore - Tens of thousands of adolescent students in the United States today struggle to read, with few to no interventions available to help them improve. Despite a wealth of scientific study of reading ability and interventions in children through the third grade, very little is known about the causes or characteristics of reading difficulties in their older counterparts.

The need is clear. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2003 National Reading Report Card, 68 percent of eighth-graders could not read at a proficient level, and were unable to demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter, apply knowledge to real-world situations, or use appropriate analytical skills for the subject matter. Of those students, 26 percent scored below a basic level, indicating that they were unable to demonstrate even partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge that is fundamental for proficient work at their grade.

In an effort to learn more about the characteristics associated with reading difficulties in adolescents, and offer teachers instructional approaches scientifically demonstrated to help adolescents improve reading skills, divisions of two federal institutions - the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health - have jointly funded a major new research project that will largely take place at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

The project builds on an existing collaboration between Haskins Laboratories and the Educational Testing Service that has been evaluating the effects of three reading intervention programs on adults with low literacy skills. The $5 million, five-year adolescent literacy study will employ extensive cognitive assessments as well as one of neuroscience's most high-tech tools - powerful functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at Kennedy Krieger's F.M. Kirby Research Center - in an effort to show if improved reading skills are accompanied by changes in neurological patterns similar to those seen in younger children.

"By building on what we've learned about the psychology and neuroscience of reading, we'll be able to understand better what's going on with these older struggling readers, and get closer to figuring out how best to help them," said Dr. Rebecca Sandak, who along with other colleagues, is heading up the project at Haskins.

The grant is one of five awarded as part of the Adolescent Literacy Research Network, a unique collaboration by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Offices of Vocational and Adult Education and Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The goal of this new network, directed by Dr. Peggy McCardle, associate chief of the Child Development and Behavior branch of the NICHD, is to understand the causes of reading failure in adolescents and to help determine effective interventions.

"Ideally, we would prevent adolescent reading difficulties with targeted, high-quality instruction in the earlier years," McCardle says. "But for many teens, it's too late for that, so we have to know how to intervene and help them. This will also enable us to intervene with those who, even with excellent instruction in the early grades, have for some reason not achieved reading success. And, no trivial matter, we believe that more effective reading instruction is needed even for adolescents who read well."

The study will target students in grades seven through 12 who have not been responsive to traditional reading instruction. Two hundred forty students from public and non-public schools across Maryland, including the Kennedy Krieger School, will participate in the study. Participants will receive treatment in one of three instructional programs over the course of ten weeks and will be scanned in the Institute's fMRI scanner while they perform simple reading tasks immediately before and after that instruction.

Investigators hope to determine whether adolescents who are struggling readers show organization of brain activity to left hemisphere regions, and to see if those responses accompany reading improvements - as is the case in younger children. The study also hopes to determine which reading programs work best for different learner profiles.

"We've always known that teachers influence children's development, but this study will actually show it," says Dr. Gary W. Goldstein, president of Kennedy Krieger. "We'll be able to see how the instruction that students receive in the classroom actually changes the circuitry of their brains. With the use of fMRI technology, we can demonstrate, with scientific accuracy, if a curriculum demonstrates quantitative results."

The project has important implications for the thousands of adolescents in the United States who struggle to read, particularly as adolescence is the only part of the lifespan that has not benefited from major reading research or investigation. "We are excited that this crucial research is taking place in Maryland," says Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools. "The results will help our students as well as adolescent struggling readers throughout the nation."

"This study will contribute significantly to our understanding of reading development and how the adolescent mind works," says Troy Justesen, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. "Although the problems of some struggling adolescent readers are long-standing, in many cases, a decline in achievement is seen in students who were successful learners in the primary grades."

Future educational and occupational opportunities are very limited for youth who have weak literacy skills, says Susan Sclafani, assistant secretary of the Office of Adult and Vocational Education. "This situation has clear implications for the social and economic well-being of the nation as adolescents move into adulthood."

Media Inquiries:

Allison Loritz, (443) 923-7330
Julie Lincoln, (443) 923-7334