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Dr. Tiffany Hogan: Making the Grade With Struggling Students

July 25, 2016

No child should be left behind in the classroom, and Dr. Tiffany Hogan is researching ways to make that a reality.

Hogan, director of the Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab and professor in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders, has spent years studying dyslexia, a condition that prevents a person from reading words accurately. While there are methods to help students overcome this barrier, there’s another learning disability she is studying that has flown under the radar.

“Some children have difficulty comprehending what they read, even though they have accurate word reading. We call them poor comprehenders,” she explains. “Both children with dyslexia and poor comprehenders have difficulty understanding text, but for different reasons. We’re focusing on finding ways to identify and help these two groups of poor readers as early as possible.”

Poor comprehenders can have hidden language impairment, because it’s easy for a child who can decode words accurately to mask the problem, she says. These students can often get lost in the educational system because the assumption is that if they can read words they should be able to understand them unless the subject matter is really difficult. To combat that, she has developed an early language curriculum to stimulate the underlying language skills at the same time children are learning to read words.

“If the issue isn’t caught until third or fourth grade, we’ve missed a critical window to stimulate their language skills,” says Hogan. One in 13 children has dyslexia or some sort of comprehension impairment, including one in four who have difficulty learning new words. These children, who can learn but have challenges forming their thoughts, are mislabeled both by teachers and parents as being shy or not as smart as they really are. “Children can have problems in word reading or comprehension, and many have both issues,” she says. “We’re trying to isolate the word-reading piece from the language comprehension piece.”

Hogan and her team have been working with hundreds of grade-school children in more than 20 Boston-area schools since coming to the MGH Institute in 2013. Her studies include focusing on assessing students for dyslexia using an innovative, child-friendly computer game that measures a youngster’s ability to remember new information they’ve learned, and how their responses might be related to comprehension difficulties. The long-range plan is to develop custom interventions that will target and address specific learning deficits.

A long-time misconception is that a child with dyslexia has difficulty understanding language. Not necessarily, she cautions. “Some children can understand a story when it is read to them, since their word reading problem has been eliminated when they hear a story instead of read it,” she says. “There is a very powerful difference in how the spoken word is processed from the written word.’’

One factor Hogan’s research is starting to identify revolves around a child’s working short-term memory. “We are assessing children's strengths and weaknesses to determine the best ways to teach them to learn the many new words they encounter every day, which has never been done before,” she says. “If we can correct that problem it should lead to improved lifelong learning.”