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New center to develop interventions for writing, reading disabilities

By Molly McElroy, UW News and Information

The University of Washington College of Education has been awarded an $8.1 million, five-year federal grant to study how best to teach writing and reading to both learning-disabled and typically achieving children.

virginia berninger

Virginia Berninger

The grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development will fund the new Center for Defining and Treating Specific Learning Disabilities in Written Language at the University of Washington.

The cross-campus research collaborations of this center are expected to lead to better diagnosis of specific learning disabilities in children whose development is otherwise normal, and to create new ways of teaching writing and reading to help all students in upper elementary and middle school (grades four through nine) meet state and common core standards in literacy.

Virginia Berninger, UW professor of educational psychology, will lead the center, which will investigate how people learn to write and read, and the best ways to teach writing and reading comprehension to both learning disabled and typically achieving children.

She said that across socioeconomic levels one in five children struggle to write or read, and emphasized that the research at the center will focus on teaching language skills that help all students as well as special approaches for children who struggle with specific writing or reading skills.

nichd“There are some children who have problems with just handwriting or just reading words or spelling, and others have trouble with understanding written or oral language, or both, and some have difficulty learning to put words together in writing,” Berninger said. “The investigators at the center are committed to helping all students improve their writing and reading. We need to meet the needs of kids who are typically developing as well as those with specific disabilities.”

Other goals include professional development for teachers of adolescent literacy and dissemination of computerized interventions to groups targeted for narrowing the achievement gap, including Native Americans and Spanish-speaking English language learners.

The award, announced Jan. 17 in a National Institutes of Health news release, will support three projects involving faculty from the College of Education’s educational psychology division and Health Sciences’ departments of radiology, medicine and medical genetics.

Project 1, headed by Berninger, will identify students who have dysgraphia, dyslexia, or oral or written language learning disability or those whose writing and reading are developing normally.

Researchers at the center will also study students’ response to computerized instruction developed by Steve Tanimoto, UW professor of computer science and engineering. Sue Nolen of the College of Education will study how instruction may change students’ motivation to write and read.

Berninger said that kids can become discouraged when learning to write and read, and then they can be mistakenly judged as lazy or unmotivated. “It’s important for them to get pleasure from writing and reading as a way to get them to want to write and read,” she said. “Nolen has found after special instruction kids’ motivation improves and they stop avoiding learning and they’re willing to try.”

Project 2, headed by Deborah McCutchen, associate dean of research in the College of Education, will investigate effective ways to teach students in grades four to nine to read and spell the content-specific vocabulary of academic language encountered in those grades, and to comprehend and compose text across content areas.

McCutchen’s project will be with normally developing children and those who struggle for reasons other than specific learning disabilities. “We want to help all students and see if the special teaching tools that work with those who are struggling to write and read will help normally developing children learn to read and write,” Berninger said. “We’re going to try to bridge that world of specialized clinical approaches and regular classes.”

Investigators in Project 3 will look into biological aspects of learning. Todd Richards, professor of radiology, will investigate the brain's response to instruction, and Wendy Raskind, of Medicine and Medical Genetics, will investigate how candidate genes predict response to instruction. Tom Grabowski, head of UW’s Integrated Brain Imaging Center, will be part of the team exploring the biological basis of written language learning, which past UW research shows responds to appropriate instruction.

Other key investigators include Robert Abbott, UW professor and chair of educational psychology; Elizabeth Sanders, UW assistant professor of educational psychology; and William Nagy and Scott Beers at Seattle Pacific University, who prepare educators to teach written language and have special expertise in writing technology and educational linguistics, respectively. Both Sanders and Beers earned their doctorates in the UW College of the Education.

The center is now in start-up phase. Berninger said that recruitment of participants will probably begin sometime this spring. Check this website for an announcement of the start of participant recruitment, which in year 1 will include sixth and ninth graders.

For more information, contact Berninger at 206-616-6372 or vwb@uw.edu.

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