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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Academics & Research

UH researchers receive near $1.6 million grant to benefit dyslexic students


Five to 20 percent of students can be identified as struggling to learn to read, according to a researcher from the University. | Jiselle Santos/The Cougar

Five to 20 percent of students can be identified as struggling to learn to read, according to a researcher from the University. | Jiselle Santos/The Cougar

Researchers from the University have received a near $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help improve the early-on identification of students at risk for having dyslexia. 

The grant began in November 2019 for the researchers to work with schools, starting with one campus each in the Houston Independent School District, Harlingen ISD in the Rio Grande Valley, and the Harmony charter school network to help educators develop the best practices for early-on screenings to identify dyslexia. 

Dyslexia affects 20 percent of the population and represents 80–90 percent of all those with learning disabilities, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. In a large metropolitan area like Houston, the researchers said making early intervention a standard in schools will make a significant impact.

“And our model demonstration grant is hoping to instill systems approach change to make the early intervention approach to helping students who are at risk for dyslexia become a common practice of education of all students,” said Kristi Santi, an associate professor of special populations at the College of Education and the principal investigator on the grant.

Co-principal investigator Jacqueline Hawkins, an associate professor of special populations, said 5 to 20 percent of students can be identified at some point with having challenges with learning to read. 

Hawkins said in a proximal zone covering 75 miles from the University, there are 1.2 to 1.3 million school children, which Hawkins said means there are a quarter of a million children in the region who these strategies can benefit. 

“And this grant, since it’s a model demonstration project, it’s a model demonstration project for the nation,” Hawkins said. “But the impact that it can have in Houston, the surrounding area is pretty substantial.”

The researchers said there is over 20 years of evidence that supports early dyslexia intervention. However, Hawkins said when implementing strategies that support reading advancement, each one is not a “one size fits all.” 

The team is using an improvement science approach, which Hawkins said is a sequence of planning based on evidence-based strategies, studying their results and acting upon necessary changes to make sure all students’ needs are being met and assessed.

“You have to ask yourself, with individual children, what is going to work for them, what works, for whom and under what circumstances,” Hawkins said. 

One of the long term goals the researchers’ hope comes of the grant is that schools district-wide can have these processes for identifying students early on, said Shawn Kent, an assistant professor of special populations and co-principal investigator.

Kent said although it is a possibility to have life-long dyslexia, if a child struggles with reading now, that doesn’t mean they’ll struggle forever. The earlier their dyslexia is identified, the better.

“What we know from research is that when it comes to working with students who are at risk for dyslexia, that early intervention is the key,” Santi said. “And we can reduce the reduction of risk from 20 percent to under 5 percent, which is dependent upon the quality and intensity of the intervention.”

The team partnered with the UH research group Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics to co-write the grant and said they have a strong partnership with the institute.  After a summer-long application process, the team received the notification that they had earned the grant in September 2019.

“It’s about educating and helping identify what the schools and the districts are doing and can be doing and processes that they can be setting up to better support the students by using the evidence-based practices that are already available,” Kent said.

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