Researcher Drs. Tiffany Hogan and Maura Curran from MGH Institute of Health Professions will use a $3.6 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to investigate if providing intensive small-group oral language intervention can improve the reading comprehension of at-risk students. 

The five-year project, Translating research into school-based practice via small-group, language focused comprehension intervention, will provide first-grade students with intensive intervention sessions in small groups four times a week. The researchers will then follow students with low language through the third grade, monitoring how much their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and oral language skills have improved. Students with low language are at risk for language difficulties but don’t necessarily have a disability. 

“We are asking if this type of early small-group intervention is enough to make a difference in how well a student can succeed over time?” said Hogan, a professor of communication sciences and disorders and director of the MGH Institute’s Speech and Language Literacy (SAiL) Lab. 

“That’s what we want to find out because if it does, it will be a game changer for so many children who don’t have formal individualized education plans [known as IEPs] but might be falling through the cracks because they aren’t severe enough to qualify for individualized service but they still need some support so they don’t fall behind their classmates in the long run.” 

The grant is the largest ever received by the MGH Institute. 

The IHP researchers will collaborate with Dr. Shayne Piasta of Ohio State University, Dr. Mindy Bridges at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Dr. Kandace Fleming of the University of Kansas. This work is an extension of what Hogan and the three other researchers started over a decade ago with the Language and Reading Research Consortium, funded by the Department of Education. 

Hogan pointed to three primary concerns that spurred the researchers to pursue the project: systematic teaching of language and comprehension skills is weak or missing in most U.S. schools, which is especially problematic for children most vulnerable to failure; implementing an evidence-based effective language intervention at the whole school level is needed to determine how to best implement research in practice; and testing both clinical and theoretical implications for comprehension processes and interventions. 

Over the past two years, Hogan and her lab team have implemented a pilot program called Raising Educational Achievement in Charlestown, or REACH, at the Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown which was funded by a seed grant from the local office of accounting firm RSM. What they learned through testing the effect of intervention with the local students will now be applied on a multi-district, multi-state level through this NIH grant. 

The researchers will follow the progress of 480 school children in multiple school systems in Massachusetts and Ohio from 1st through 3rd grades, a critical period for early comprehension development.