• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 23rd December, 2014

Dyslexia: is a study finding bad news or good news?

strong>A study of a new reading and language intervention for six-year-olds found a few small improvements, but no effect on reading. In fact, targeted interventions before the start of formal reading instruction usually make little long-term difference to children at risk of dyslexia. Understanding results like these poses particular challenges. In this case, the UK-based research team developed a new program based on the best ideas from prior research, but children in the program did no better on reading than those in the regular school curriculum. Why didn’t the program produce notable effects on higher-level literacy skills? On the one hand, this finding could be bad news. Maybe dyslexia is particularly tough to prevent. Perhaps even well-designed programs make few inroads. Perhaps longer, more intensive programs are required. On the other hand, it could be good news. If the control group is already benefiting from good support, targeted programs may make little additional difference. So do these study findings mean that programs for kids at risk of dyslexia don’t work – or that, in this case, regular school teaching and parent assistance are already doing as well as they can?In a recent study of the Reading and Language Intervention (RALI) delivered in the UK to six-year-olds, the authors argue that the apparent lack of effect may be both good news and bad news. The bad news is that literacy is probably not much affected by relatively short-term programs, so interventions to prevent and combat dyslexia may need to be longer than the 18 weeks of the RALI program. The good news is that the comparison group was already receiving a great deal of literacy instruction “in and beyond the classroom,” so there was less room for improvement from the RALI intervention.RALI: Targeting children at risk of dyslexiaThis study evaluated a program called RALI, the Reading and Language Intervention, which was devised by a UK-based research team. RALI consists of two major components – the Reading Strand and the Language Strand. Both are based on other interventions and use storybooks. The content of the intervention is adapted for children at family risk of dyslexia or with preschool language impairment. The intervention takes place over nine or 18 weeks and is delivered to children in the first or second year of school (around age six) by teaching assistants. The Reading Strand focuses on phonological awareness and is conducted in individual sessions. These take place three times a week for 20 minutes. The Language Strand addresses vocabulary and narrative skills and is delivered to groups of two to four children. The sessions last 30 minutes each and occur twice a week. The Wellcome studyIn a recent evaluation, RALI did not improve reading in children at risk of dyslexia. Though there were some small effects in letter knowledge, early word reading, phoneme awareness and taught vocabulary, these did not transfer to longer-term, higher-order literacy skills. The study was conducted as part of the Wellcome Language and Reading Project, which is a longitudinal study with children at risk of dyslexia. For this study, children were identified as being at risk if they had either an immediate relative with dyslexia, or a language impairment in preschool. About 170 children were initially recruited to the project and tested on their word recognition. Of these, the 61 with the lowest scores on the reading test were randomly allocated to either a control or experimental group. The children in the experimental group received 18 weeks of daily intervention. The children in the control group received nine weeks of their usual classroom instruction, followed by nine weeks of the RALI intervention. The 61 selected children came from 44 schools. For each child identified by the research team, schools were invited to nominate two additional children who would benefit from a reading intervention. Schools nominated an additional 97 children to participate in the study. Overall, only 8% of the children dropped out of the study before the nine-week mark.On average, there was no major impact of the intervention. This was true for the overall group of participant children as well as the subgroup of children at risk of dyslexia. The intervention children gained skills during the nine weeks, but there was an improvement in the control group as well. Understanding the resultIt is possible that reading interventions do have potential benefits for children at risk of dyslexia, despite the result in this study. The authors suggest that nine weeks may be “simply too short” to make a notable impact on language skills. Other, longer-term interventions have shown somewhat better results. However, in this case, the length of the program is probably not the whole story. In the past, interventions have typically had small and short-lived effects on reading among children at risk of dyslexia. Though this study was robust and the findings are consistent with previous research, it is important to consider the instruction received by the comparison group students. The control group – that is, the group of children who received the intervention after nine weeks – received systematic phonics instruction as part of their normal instruction in the first nine weeks. Additionally, more than half the children in the study received some additional literacy support at home. This might explain why the children not receiving the intervention also showed progress in reading scores at nine weeks, and thus may have reduced the apparent benefit of the intervention. ************ReferenceDuff, F. J., Hulme, C., Grainger, K., Hardwick, S. J., Miles, J. N., & Snowling, M. J. (2014). Reading and language intervention for children at risk of dyslexia: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12257

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