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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

UC Davis develops intervention program for dyslexic children

HANNAH LEE / AGGIE
HANNAH LEE / AGGIE

Researchers, director, intervention coach discuss bettering education for dyslexic children

New research from the UC Davis Department of Psychology has revealed that when it comes to children afflicted with dyslexia, early intervention is increasingly necessary.

Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that affects nearly three million children in the United States each year, and is characterized by difficulties in memorizing, spelling, understanding language, learning words and speaking.

Dr. Emilio Ferrer, a UC Davis professor of psychology, has studied the development of certain cognitive abilities for many years with his colleagues from Yale University, Bennett and Sally Shaywitz. Their most recent longitudinal study focuses on child reading abilities from first to 12th grade, in which they found that dyslexic readers had lower reading scores which didn’t converge with the scores of typical readers.

According to Ferrer, the main finding was that the discrepancy was already apparent in first grade and serves as the reason why dyslexic readers are not able to catch up with their peers in later years.

“Our reasoning was, if […] the differences between reading proficiency were already present in first grade, then we have to intervene earlier than that [if we want to close the gap],” Ferrer said.

Ferrer’s research is the first step toward an ambitious project headed by his colleague, Dr. Emily Solari, an associate professor in the UC Davis School of Education. Solari has been interested in the reading capabilities of children since her dissertation and is in the process of implementing what she hopes will eventually become a nationwide intervention program for dyslexic children.  

“We often don’t know how to respond to those kids; we don’t know what to do with those kids,” Solari said. “We know that they’re struggling, but we don’t have the best tools to help them out.”

Through past pilot projects, Solari has found that, within small samples, individual attention and specific teaching methods have improved reading skills and comprehension, and in turn has developed a curriculum designed for dyslexic children. She is now looking to recreate her results in a larger-scale intervention program with a recent $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science.

“My goal is to get a good intervention program in the hands of teachers that is both feasible to implement and is going to benefit kids in their reading development,” Solari said. “So far, the data shows us that this particular intervention program is doing that. The real test for this study, since it’s on a much larger scale, is to see if we still get the same results.”

According to Ferrer, the program design starts with assessing the children, identifying those who are having trouble reading and then randomly selecting some of them to place into an intervention group. The remaining kids will make up the control group and follow the standard teaching curriculum.

The intervention curriculum is both code and meaning-based and focuses on the aspects that Solari believes are key to reading comprehension. Code-based means teachers will help kids learn how to put sounds together to make words, so they will be able to recognize and read them later on. Meaning-based focuses on developing higher-order language and comprehension skills.

After a period of three years, Solari and her team will analyze the reading results of each child to see whether or not the intervention program had any lasting effect, given that everything else was held equal.

“For this three-year study, the kids will be getting the intervention in first grade and we’ll follow them to second grade,” Solari said. “Hopefully we’ll get more funding to follow them more long-term.”

Although it is only a few months into their first year, Solari’s team has already brought teachers into UC Davis for training. Teachers receive the full intervention program curriculum and in-class coaching from Solari’s staff, who work with them in the classroom to make sure they are able to implement the program in the way it was intended.

One of Solari’s staff, Deanne Castaneda, is the program intervention coach and she accompanies the teachers back to their classrooms to oversee the implementation of the program into their class routine.

“The teachers attended training in the program and my job is to go in and help them in any way I can to implement the program,” Castaneda said. “I’m their support, I help them establish the routine of these activities for the kids.”

Part of the curriculum entails a series of games through which the teachers can give reading lessons. This method is much easier for the kids to become interested in the material and focuses specifically on helping them with their decoding of words and sounds, which will in turn help them with their reading.

Although optimistic about the future results, Solari acknowledges that the study has had its fair share of setbacks. Her staff has experienced resistance when working with teachers, some of whom have been teaching for 30 years or more and are unaccustomed to having their pedagogy advised.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to get teachers who are willing to change what they do,” Solari said.  “We’re asking them to change their teaching behaviors around reading because we’re trying to provide them with the tools they need to deal with the kids. For every single one of our teachers who’s new to the program, it’s the first time they’re doing this so there’s a learning curve for them too.”

Although the initial task may seem daunting, Castaneda said that most of the teachers she has worked with have been cooperative and excited about the intervention program. There is a feeling of unity among the educators and program staff, that they all strive to create a better future for children.

To bolster that feeling, the study has already shown promising results. Castaneda said she is confident that this larger study will yield the same results as the pilot projects, and is looking forward to improving education for more children with learning disabilities.

“I’m already seeing some gains with the kids and it’s really exciting,” Castaneda said.  “The program is breaking these things down step-by-step and working towards building up their reading and comprehension skills and it’s wonderful to see.”  

Written by: Lisa Wong – feaures@theaggie.org

 

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