Research and Application
Advancing the reading sciences to support literacy for all
To guide the transformation of literacy in California and beyond, the UC/CSU California Collaborative for Neurodiversity and Learning brings together:
Cutting-edge cognitive, developmental, and affective research in the neurosciences, education and psychology
We focus on understanding and improving teaching practices for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. When learning environments are accessible and supportive for these students, all students benefit.
Our primary areas of research are:
The Collaborative looks at reading development from infancy through young adulthood. Our research seeks to:
- identify as early as possible those children who may struggle to read
- determine the effectiveness of interventions that support struggling readers
Birth to 5 Years: Precursors
Some of the most important contributions to reading development take place from birth to 5 years. During this critical period, children develop language, cognition, and social-emotional skills.
The Collaborative places heavy emphasis on the role that parents, pediatricians, and early childhood educators play in the development of the reading brain. For example, research shows that simply reading to children every night enhances their language development.
The cumulative research on early reading development indicates the importance of foundational skills like:
- phoneme awareness
- alphabet knowledge
- letter-sound correspondence rules
- basic decoding skills
However, recent research indicates the need to:
expand these foundational skills to include connections with vocabulary, grammar, morphology, and other oral language processes
connect the components of language development with the deep reading processes (e.g., background knowledge and critical analysis) underlying comprehension
Teaching an expanded view of foundational skills and the explicit connections between them and early comprehension skills is essential for early reading. (See “Elbow Room” brief.)
Adolescent learners who are struggling to read cannot meet the academic demands of their classes. With a long history of reading and spelling difficulties, their decoding skills are often painfully slow and effortful. The less fluent their decoding skills, the fewer number of unknown words they are exposed to. Consequently, their background knowledge, vocabulary, grammar and comprehension skills all suffer. Compounding these challenges are motivational and other social-emotional issues that contribute to an avoidable cycle of learning loss.
Our work addresses these difficulties in various ways:
- In secondary schools we support a comprehensive, multi-component approach that actively engages students in the reading of grade-level texts. https://www.lainterventionproject.com/
- Rather than focusing on phonics patterns at the student’s reading level, we teach decoding strategies using technology and age-appropriate words. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/wordbuilder-intervention/id1484290594
- At the text level, instruction consists of comprehension strategies and the application of those strategies through student-led discussion. When combined with vocabulary instruction, adolescents are able to acquire the strategies and confidence needed to understand grade-level materials.
Unlike language and vision, literacy does not come naturally. There is no genetic program for its development. Rather, all learners must be taught to read and write.
Knowledgeable and skilled teachers of reading understand both what to teach and how to teach it. The content of effective reading instruction is comprehensive and includes:
- the component skills identified by the National Reading Panel Report (NICHD, 2000), including:
– phonemic awareness
- their related elements of language and cognition, including:
– Understanding alphabetic principle
The acronym POSSUM helps teachers remember that all of these elements are foundational skills that need to be connected in the early reading circuit.
Structured literacy approaches deliver this content explicitly and systematically with targeted feedback.
Early, Intensive Intervention
Our group has been conducting research on intervention for two decades, along with colleagues Robin Morris and Maureen Lovett. Our randomized control treatment studies, which were funded by NICHD, indicate two critical findings for intervention:
- First, early intervention is best, particularly when based on early assessment data that includes measures on phoneme awareness and rapid automatized naming (RAN).
- Second, explicit, systematic, multi-component interventions that address the major elements in POSSUM have the best efficacy when taught with fidelity (Morris et al., 2012; Lovett et al, 2017; Lovett et al., 2022).
Our new study, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, is investigating whether early screening data can be used as the basis for differential intervention that targets the strengths and weaknesses of individual children. The importance of early assessment and early multi-component intervention is key to ameliorating the so-called “dyslexia paradox,” where diagnosis only comes in later grades despite the evidence that early intervention works best.
Although the experience of dyslexia is uniquely individual, it most commonly manifests in difficulties with:
- accurate word recognition
- fluent reading of both words and connected text
To understand the heterogenous nature of dyslexia, it is important to note that:
- its characteristics range from mild to severe
- it can have more than one manifestation
- these forms can change over time
For example, difficulties processing spoken and written language are often, but not always, present in individuals with dyslexia. Neurobiological in origin, dyslexia is responsible for both strengths and weaknesses in human development.
Further, because individuals with dyslexia struggle with reading, they may experience secondary consequences of dyslexia, including issues in social-emotional development, vocabulary, background knowledge, and various comprehension processes.
That said, outcomes for students with dyslexia are not “fixed.” Rather, they are significantly enhanced by early identification and by the impact of teachers and families who recognize and build on students’ strengths. Early screening, therefore, is important.
The two best predictors of dyslexia across most languages are phoneme awareness and rapid naming (McWeeney et al., 2022; Norton et al., 2012; Ozernov-Palchik et al., 2017; Snowling, et al., 2019).
Dyslexia is best addressed by evidence-based, high-quality reading instruction that is early, multi-componential, comprehensive, and tailored for the individual’s needs (Lovett et al., 2017; Morris et al., 2012;).
A significant direction of work on dyslexia at the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice is an ongoing study, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, that examines the effectiveness of using early digital screening as the basis for delivering early, more differentiated intervention to children at risk for dyslexia.
The Collaborative is developing a series of E-Learning modules focused on dyslexia.
The first in this series, Introduction to Dyslexia:
- includes an overview of the International Dyslexia Association (2002) definition of dyslexia
- examines the identification of dyslexia through case studies of diverse students
- provides characteristics of students with or at risk for dyslexia
As noted in the module, the definition of dyslexia is evolving to reflect the latest research, including the multiple causes and manifestations of dyslexia. To this end, our team is working towards a more comprehensive definition.
“The most important issue in the transition from a literacy-based culture to a digital one is whether the time- and cognitive-resource-demanding requirements of the deep reading processes will be lost or atrophied in a culture whose principal mediums advantage speed, multitasking, and the continuous processing of the ever-present next piece of information.”
One of the major challenges for the next generation involves the wise use of technology as it relates to human development, beginning in the first year of a child’s life and continuing throughout adulthood.
To develop “digital wisdom” requires a concerted effort by researchers from various disciplines to understand the advantages and disadvantages of the different mediums and a deeper understanding of their uses or attributes.
One aspect of our work involves a multi-pronged approach to understanding what each medium for reading promotes, disrupts, or diminishes at various stages of development and for various populations.
- The early stages of this work suggest that young children from 0 to 5 experience changes in attention with increased exposure to digital devices with consequences for developing language (Hutton et al., 2020).
- Research on adolescents and young adults shows better comprehension for written content with print mediums, despite the youth’s perception that they read better on screens because they are faster (Delgado et al., 2018; Baron, 2022; Wolf, 2018).
A consequence of COVID-19 has been the broader use of educational technologies, yet there exists insufficient evidence regarding the impact of these media on learning at different ages and in different populations.
- For example, our own research suggests that “deep reading” processes like critical analysis and empathy can be short-circuited when skimming, scrolling, and word-spotting if reading on a screen (Wolf, 2018).
- On the other hand, the use of digital technology can provide opportunities for practice, supplementary knowledge, and different modes of learning content for struggling readers.
The implications of how we all read and process information go well beyond the classroom. To address some of the many issues involved in this area, members of the Collaborative are working to disseminate current knowledge not only for our children, but for our society.
With only about one-third of students in our country reading proficiently, there is an urgent need to use reading instructional practices that are supported by current evidence about all that the reading brain and whole child need to succeed.
Evidence from psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience research conducted by us and our colleagues reveals a critical insight for the Science of Reading: Unlike many other academic skills, reading is an inherently unnatural task without a ready-made brain system to support it.
Many areas in the brain are involved in reading. This helps explain why children must be supported in developing a full range of reading sub-skills — including skills related to phonology, prosody, pragmatics, orthography, syntax, semantics, morphology, and motivation.
An understanding of all these processes is at the heart of an evolving Science of Reading. This evolving view is in contrast with a view of the Science of Reading in which the emphasis, however important, is only on phonics.
The Case for Universal Screening
- Screening nearly all students for dyslexia (universal screening) in kindergarten and early grades is critical for preventing the “dyslexia paradox,” where students are commonly diagnosed later in the school years despite the fact that early intervention is known to be most effective (Ozernov-Palchik & Gaab, 2016).
- Early screening for dyslexia can be preventative. For example, the findings are best when linked to targeted reading interventions that can support their reading performance and thus ameliorate some of the struggles related to dyslexia, including social-emotional (Catts & Hogan, 2020).
- Importantly, screening can reduce or eliminate bias when referring students for intervention or assessment of dyslexia. This, in turn, could reduce disproportionality in special education identification based on race/ethnicity, language, and socio-economic factors.
Our studies on screening, including research funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, focus on the following research questions:
- What skills should be captured on a screener, and how do these skills vary by age/grade? (research in partnership with Multitudes)
- What forms of instruction and interventions should be linked to the assessment results?
English Learners (ELs)
Roughly 20% of American students enter schools speaking a language other than English (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018).
While some children from these households are fluent bilingual learners, other students, not already proficient in English at school entry, are often designated as English Learners (ELs) following language assessment.
Nationally, approximately 10% of American public school students are identified ELs. However, in California, the percentage of students who are ELs is around 18%, or more than 1 million students (California Department of Education, 2021).
Identification and Intervention
There are some concerns that students who are ELs are not appropriately identified for early interventions or special education services. There are multiple concerns about early identification of EL students that include issues of both under- and over-identification.
For example, there are concerns that students who are ELs may be incorrectly identified with a learning disability or reading problem, simply because they are still learning English.
Other concerns involve how teachers might fail to intervene when there are no clear policies in their schools for identifying ELs with reading challenges in English. In this case, students who are ELs may miss out on the most effective reading interventions.
An approach to assessment and instruction that honors students’ home cultures and languages, funds of knowledge, and experience can help address possible biases in identification and remediation of reading challenges.
Our research seeks to understand:
- What assessment tools are appropriate for screening students who are ELs?
- What kind of reading interventions are most helpful for ELs by capitalizing on the assets of their home culture?
- How can we promote students’ bilingual and multilingual skills so that students who enter schools as ELs, as well as their fellow students, may reap the cognitive and social benefits associated with bilingualism?
- How can we ensure that interventions based on the Science of Reading and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy are synergistic with one another for ELs’ instruction?
Literacy and social-emotional skills are among the most important skills in our knowledge-based economy and interconnected, diverse society, but we are not preparing students with these skills.
Learning and literacy are inherently cognitive, social, emotional, and cultural. Our feelings, culture, and social dynamics shape the way we think, learn, and become literate.
However, school experiences often are not designed with this in mind. This contributes to the twin crises we face in youth’s insufficient literacy and well-being.
The UC/CSU Collaborative for Neurodiversity and Learning is researching the social, affective, cognitive, and cultural processes involved in how individuals become literate.
With this research, we aim to inform the design of learning experiences that consider cultural dynamics that support key social-emotional skills in youth.
For example, in one line of work in partnership with USC’s Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education, we have shown that the more youth can respond to social stories by transcending the here-and-now to think about broad implications, the more they show healthy patterns of brain development across adolescence. Further, the ways their brains develop have implications for their identity and well-being in young adulthood.
Nearly 700,000 U.S. youth under 18 are arrested annually, with many more at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system (U.S. Department of Justice, 2019). Disproportionate numbers of youth in the juvenile justice system have reading disabilities/challenges and unmet social-emotional needs.
Youth are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system when they have faced the psychological toll of struggling with reading, as well as the impact of community violence and exposure to trauma.
Currently, California faces major policy changes leading to an overhaul of its juvenile justice system. It is timely, therefore, for a reckoning with the inadequate supports offered to our vulnerable youth, especially youth of color.
California’s Bench to School Initiative
The UC/CSU Collaborative for Neurodiversity and Learning is a key partner in California’s Bench to School Initiative.
As outlined in legislation, this initiative will:
- Provide comprehensive analysis of the overlap of science and society by expanding interdisciplinary research on the legal implications of new knowledge in neuroscience.
- Promote and conduct interdisciplinary research on socioeconomic factors, such as trauma, abuse, social exclusion, discrimination, poverty, homelessness, and neglect.
- Develop interdisciplinary research protocols and approaches to expand the capacity of specialists in different fields to work together.
- Conduct longitudinal studies related to the success of teacher preparation and development, pupil interventions, and educational outcomes.
- The UC/CSU California Collaborative for Neurodiversity and Learning will provide guidance around teacher training, professional development, classroom interventions, and curricula.
The Collaborative is focused on issues critically important to the field of teacher education:
- access to quality literacy instruction for all students
- preparation of teacher candidates in evidence-based and culturally sustaining literacy pedagogies
- the need for teacher preparation curricula to incorporate recent reading research findings, connecting the science of reading to classroom instructional practices
Literacy Program Standards
Significant to California’s teacher educators are Literacy Program Standards and Teaching Performance Expectations (CTC, 2022) that specifically require preparation programs to incorporate the following elements:
- principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion
- multi-tiered system of support
- an expanded view of foundational skills that includes not only phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency, but also, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, and morphology
- California Dyslexia Guidelines
- integrated and designated English Language Development
Efforts of the Collaborative contributed to the development of California’s new Standard 7: Effective Literacy Instruction for All Students. For example, aspects of our own work on an expanded understanding of foundational skills are incorporated into this standard.
In support of the implementation of Standard 7, the Collaborative is developing a series of E-Learning modules.
The modules are designed primarily, but not exclusively, for use in teacher preparation programs and are aligned with the California Dyslexia Guidelines.
The series addresses multiple topics related to literacy and dyslexia, including:
- past definition of dyslexia and current work to incorporate newer research
- dyslexia and the brain
- language processes and English Learners
- screening and assessment
- instruction and intervention
- early childhood
Teams of UC and CSU researchers in the neurosciences and teacher educators from general, special, and bilingual education are working together in the development of module content.