Research Frontiers: The Learning Curve

Anne
Hoffman
Kennedy Krieger awarded $9 million grant for Center for the Study of Reading Development.

Learning disabilities can be frustrating for the children who have them as well as for the parents trying to help. Not physically obvious, learning disabilities often create significant difficulties with academic and social skills when they are not properly identified or treated.

Kennedy Krieger Institute treats several thousand children with learning disabilities each year and has long been at the forefront of research and education on these disabilities. Thanks to a recent $9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Institute now has the opportunity to establish a state-of-the-art Center for the Study of Reading Development.

One of only four such centers funded in the U.S., Kennedy Krieger's new program will examine the neurobiological and behavioral underpinnings of learning disabilities in children in grades four through eight. By gaining a deeper understanding of learning disabilities in this age group, educational experts will be able to develop more effective interventions to improve the country's literacy.

"The research in this area of learning disabilities is minimal, and the need for answers is urgent," says Laurie Cutting, PhD, a research scientist at Kennedy Krieger who specializes in the brain-behavior relationship in children with learning disabilities. "With this grant from the NIH, we can contribute substantially to an understanding of adolescent literacy in ways that will translate into practical applications for educators."

The goal is for the Center's research to lead to more specifically focused teaching strategies for educators and greater success for children coping with a learning disability. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 38 percent of the nation's fourth graders and 29 percent of the nation's eighth graders read below a "basic" level. A "basic" reading level involves mainly literal understanding and limited interpretation of grade-appropriate text.

Another focus of the Center will be the "fourth-grade slump," a phenomenon where children who were successful learners in the primary grades begin to demonstrate a decline in achievement in grade four.

Research has shown this decline coincides with a shift in classroom instruction from teaching and practicing "bottom up" skills, such as basic word recognition and decoding, to "top down" skills, such as fluency and comprehension. Educators once thought that students could transition from "bottom up" to "top down" skills automatically an assumption that is no longer widely accepted. However, the root of the challenges faced in this transition remains a mystery.

The work done by the Center for the Study of Reading Development will endeavor to prevent many of the academic difficulties encountered by children with learning disabilities, enabling them to enjoy greater success at school, work, and, ultimately, in life. For more information about the Center, contact Jessie Abel at 443-923-9268 or by email, abelj@kennedykrieger.org.