Unless every player in an orchestra is in tune, in synch, and equally adept at their instruments, the result may be a mishmash of noise — not music. A similar process happens in the brain as it tries to orchestrate the complex systems involved in reading and writing, say College of Education researchers.
One impaired brain area, one missed connection, can spoil the symphony.
“These multiple brain components that underlie normal reading and writing have to be orchestrated in time for the process to work,” says educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger, who is working with a cross-campus team of UW educational psychologists, geneticists, and brain-scan experts on what she calls a “big picture of language learning” at the new UW Center for Oral and Written Language Learners (OWLS for short).
It is one of the few language centers in the country to incorporate both genetics and brain imaging in its team research. Complementing the biomedical science is the College of Education’s expertise in reading and writing research. “The strength of the center is its interdisciplinary approach,” says Berninger, director of the new center.
Funded with a five-year, $8.1 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the center addresses an ambitious set of questions, among them: How do students with and without specific learning disabilities learn to read and write beyond basic levels? Why do some have trouble translating ideas into language? What role does motivation play? Which genetic variations are linked to language disabilities? Can these be mediated with instruction?
"The important question is not what works, but what works for whom."
Virginia Berninger, College of Education professor
“There is a general consensus that genetic risk factors play a role in the development of dyslexia and many other neurodevelopmental disorders,” says UW geneticist Wendy Raskind, professor of medicine and long-time collaborator with Berninger. “A number of genes have been proposed as candidate genes for dyslexia, but the work to prove how they are involved is ongoing.”
Goals of the interdisciplinary center, housed at the College of Education, include developing a more sophisticated definition of language-based learning disabilities and creating effective new evidence-based strategies for teaching reading and writing to individual students who struggle as well as those whose literacy skills are developing typically. “The question is not what works, but what works for whom,” says Berninger.
Studies indicate that about one in every five students now struggles with some sort of language-based learning disability. “Language is not a single skill. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all language skills relevant to school success,” says the researcher.
Mastery of those skills varies widely. Students with dysgraphia – impaired letter writing by hand — may have unusual difficulty with handwriting and even keyboarding. Students with dyslexia — impaired word learning — have difficulty learning to read and spell words. Students with oral and written language learning disabilities may struggle with oral language in preschool and with reading comprehension and writing composition during school years.
“Some students have problems specifically related to writing, but not to reading. Some just have trouble with reading and word spelling. And a large number, who are not identified and not well served in our schools, have oral language problems from preschool on that affect reading comprehension,” says the researcher. “We want to learn how these students differ from each other and from students with no reading difficulties, and we want to understand the differences in terms of behavior, brain function, and genetics.”
Researchers at the new center will concentrate on students in Grades 4-9, the time when texts grow more academic and language becomes more complex. “We found this is a time when many students encounter difficulties. Some, even with intervention, have persisting problems — or problems emerge that weren’t there before,” says Berninger. “Even very bright children can struggle with reading and writing in the upper grades.”
The National Center for Education Statistics has estimated that there are more than eight million struggling readers and writers between Grades 4 and 12 in the U.S. But the complex array of learning disabilities behind those struggles often goes undiagnosed and untreated. That can lead to long-term problems, including mental health issues, says Berninger. “Identifying and treating problems at this stage is likely to increase the chance that students will stay in school, get passing grades, pass high-stakes test, graduate from high school, and attend higher education.”
The OWLS center is tackling multiple projects over the five years. Berninger is principal investigator on the initial project that examines, defines, and differentiates among three specific learning disabilities affecting written language: letter writing; word reading and spelling; and reading comprehension and composition. Definitions for those disabilities are needed to direct scientific progress in the field, says Berninger. They’re also needed in the classroom, where children with problems that remain undiagnosed may miss out on the free and appropriate education guaranteed to students with disabilities.
“The United States does not currently have evidence-based definitions of different kinds of specific learning disabilities that are consistent across states, schools, and clinics,” says the researcher. “And because we don’t have the definitions, some of the students who clearly have biologically based learning disabilities are not getting served.”
The center will evaluate instructional strategies for four groups of language learners: students who learn written language easily; students with dysgraphia; students with dyslexia; and students with other oral and writing language disabilities.
Berninger’s interdisciplinary team will include UW professor of radiology Todd Richards, Seattle Pacific University professor William Nagy, and SPU associate professor Scott Beers. Together, the researchers will study how the brain’s functional connectivity differs among disabilities and examine whether specialized instruction, delivered by computer interfaces developed by Steve Tanimoto, UW professor of computer science and engineering, normalizes those connections. Follow-up studies will assess whether the interventions have long-term benefits for students in the study.
Additionally, College of Education professor Sue Nolen will examine the role of motivation in students’ reading and writing success. After interventions, will motivation and perseverance increase? “We want to know if we can not only help them get better with skills but get them more motivated to stick at it,” says Berninger. A related project, headed by Deborah McCutchen, examines the range of reading and writing skills present in typical classrooms.
In a subsequent project, a UW team will further investigate the biological aspects of reading and writing learning, studying brain connectivity before and after instructional interventions and investigating whether brain measures can predict a student’s response to instruction. This team includes Richards and Tom Grabowski, a professor of radiology and neurology who directs the UW Integrated Brain Imaging Center.
The project builds on more than two decades of collaborative UW research documenting nature-nurture interactions in language disabilities. UW researchers have studied children with and without multi-generation histories of language-learning disabilities and found significant differences between affected brain regions as children engaged in language tasks. Remarkably, after children with disabilities received targeted language instruction, follow-up scans revealed those brain regions had normalized.
“We have seen that instruction can overcome brain differences,” says Berninger. “This is an important concept for parents and educators. It means that if a child has a genetic or brain problem, there is still hope. It may be harder for some students, but there is hope.”
Through the new OWLS Center, researchers will focus on the complicated circuitry between brain regions that “orchestrates” language comprehension and composition. How do the systems work together? How are they wired? What are the emerging patterns? “We’ll examine which white fiber tracts are talking to which white fiber tracts, and whether teaching can also normalize these structural connections,” says Berninger. “We’ll also be recording eye movement, to show us where the mind’s attention is directed.”
A major strength of the center, says Berninger, is its commitment to translating the research into evidence-based teacher practice. While teachers are held accountable for reading and writing success, they’re not always given guidance in how to achieve that in a large classroom with a variety of language abilities and disabilities. “We want to provide them with some road maps,” she says.
From their research, Berninger and Nagy will develop language lessons to be computerized by Tanimoto and doctoral student Rob Thompson. These transportable interventions will go out into communities serving diverse student populations. The interventions, aimed at narrowing the achievement gap, will include instruction for students and professional development for teachers.
The aim, says Berninger, is to develop research-based teaching strategies that lead to more personalized reading and writing instruction. “We hope that our focus on students’ individual differences can help educators understand the importance of adapting instruction to fit each child’s needs. ”
The OWLS UW center is one of four chosen earlier this year by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to conduct research on the causes and treatment of language learning disabilities. The UW’s multidisciplinary researchers will not only be working cross-campus and cross-town, but cross-center, cross-country, and across international borders.
“Science has to be collaborative now to have an impact on education, so all the centers will be working together,” says Berninger. “There will also be a big focus on mentoring the next generation. All four centers are committed to training junior faculty so that there are enough people to carry on this work.”
Berninger, V. W., & Fayol, M. (2008, January 22).
Why spelling is important and how to teach it effectively. Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development.
Understanding Dysgraphia (Berninger & Wolf, 2012)
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