Results of Texas Center for Learning Disabilities research should address the gap in knowledge of:

  • Reliable and valid classifications of learning disability (LD), with direct implications for identification of students with significant reading disabilities, including models that incorporate response to intervention (Project 1: Classification)
  • The role of executive functions and attention in reading comprehension and other academic skills (Project 2: Executive Function and Attention)
  • Effective interventions and response to intervention for students at risk for or experiencing serious reading difficulties (Project 3: Intervention)
  • The neural correlates of reading disabilities in children (Project 4: Neuroimaging)
  • Genetic factors related to inadequate instructional response (Project 5: Epigenetics)

Our project activities and results provide researchers and educators with information about effectively intervening with students with a range of reading difficulties, including students with learning disabilities and those at risk for these disabilities. In addition, we develop screening and diagnostic procedures for identifying struggling readers. Our projects integrate information from multiple perspectives, including assessment, identification, measurement, intervention, neurology, and genetics.

History of the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities

Many years ago, the legislation now known as IDEA made it possible for students with disabilities to attend public schools and receive an appropriate education. With access to public education for all individuals with disabilities now available, the next goal is to assure that students with disabilities receive an education that is reflective of enhanced instructional outcomes.

The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities has served as a multidisciplinary research center on learning disabilities since 2006, when it began to receive funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Center’s research is focused on improving our understanding of individual differences in instructional response and contextual factors that influence intervention response. This research has, for instance, shown that IQ is not a strong predictor of response to intervention (RTI) and that current methods for identification based on patterns of strengths and weaknesses lack sensitivity and have little evidence of validity when making learning disability identification decisions.

In its first 5 years, the Center addressed questions related to the implementation and effect of RTI, beginning in sixth grade and continuing for three school years. In this RTI study, students with significant reading difficulties who were low responders to previous interventions scored significantly higher than comparison students (consistently low responders who the researchers did not treat) on the Gates-Macrinite Reading Comprehension measure (ES = 1.20) following 3 years of academic intervention (Vaughn et al., 2011). This robust impact was notably a function of both decline on the part of the comparison students and growth on the part of the treatment students. Given the severity of the students’ reading problems and the significant commitment required by schools to improve students’ reading performance in the middle school grades, the research team believe the findings indicate that the students required more intensive interventions prior to middle school.

Thus, the Center’s second focus was to improve scientific knowledge and clinical practice regarding effective instruction for remediating reading comprehension difficulties for students in the upper elementary grades (grades 3–5) based on the findings from previous studies that begin in grade 6. This research project involved substantial data collection and analysis about executive functioning and its relation to academic outcomes, as well as three clinical trials designed to scientifically determine the efficacy of conceptually-designed treatments capitalizing on recent research on reading comprehension, language, and self-regulation. Findings from this set of studies suggest researcher-delivered treatments led to improvement on standardized measures of word reading and fluency relative to the business-as-usual control condition; however, there were no significant differences on standardized reading comprehension measures. In studying the business-as-usual condition, we found that schools frequently provided students in the “control” condition with an alternative supplemental reading intervention. Thus, participants in the researcher-delivered reading intervention condition and the school-delivered condition made significant standard score increases though there were no differences between conditions. These findings align with previous research yielding a pattern of small effects across large-scale randomized controlled trial studies of reading interventions for struggling students beyond the early elementary grades.

Beginning in the 2018–2019 school year, the Center will focus on English learners (ELs) with persistent reading difficulties in the middle school grades. There is relatively little research addressing ELs in middle schools at this point, despite the adverse academic and behavioral outcomes associated with reading disabilities. Using multiple methodologies from cognitive and educational science, neuroimaging, and genetics, the Center will continue to examine issues around LD classification, executive functions, interventions, and neuroimaging, while also addressing how attention interacts with academic skills and genetic factors related to inadequate instructional response via epigenetic studies. This set of studies on ELs is currently underway and reports and publications will be posted as soon as they are available.