Could a DNA Test Help Students with Dyslexia? Researchers Want to Know

Could a DNA Test Help Students with Dyslexia? Researchers Want to Know

A 2018 post on the online education news site Education Week recently posed an intriguing question: “What if a DNA test could show how to teach a student with dyslexia?” This is a theory currently being tested in New Haven, Connecticut, in conjunction with Yale University and its robust research capabilities. Written by Sarah D. Sparks, the Education Week post described the Connecticut study as a “controversial $20 million project” funded by the Manton Foundation, a local nonprofit, and undertaken by a wide-ranging team from Yale that included not only education researchers but those with expertise in neuroscience and genetics.

According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, individuals with dyslexia—who compose an estimated 20 percent of the population—often “struggle to read fluently, spell words correctly and learn a second language, among other challenges.” Typically, people with dyslexia experience these challenges despite having average or above-average intelligence, meaning their difficulty learning to read is, in the words of Yale researchers, “unexpected.” Although dyslexia has been a known disorder for over 100 years, comprehensive approaches to both diagnose and address it have been slow to follow.


Mad science or prelude to a sea change?

Around 25 percent of students who have either been diagnosed with dyslexia or show signs of having the disorder do not respond to intensive reading intervention programs, according to Yale pediatric geneticist Jeffrey Gruen. In light of these findings, Gruen and his colleagues want to know more about why some interventions work and some do not; thus, they are working with New Haven elementary schools to first offer reading interventions of up to five hours per week for two years, then test students’ DNA once the intervention period has ended. What happens next might sound like mad science to some: Researchers “sequence the students’ full genome to look for differences between the students who responded to the intervention over the years, and those who continued to struggle in reading,” as described in Education Week.

Much of the hope associated with this study relates to the idea that early intervention for dyslexia is considered highly beneficial. According to Gruen, DNA tests can show which students have a proclivity for dyslexia, and this information can be used to help identify children in need of support when they are very young. This early identification would, theoretically, bring about earlier interventions, which would amount to a sea change in how dyslexia is handled in most states and school districts. Currently, fewer than half of all states require dyslexia screening for students who struggle with reading, and most offer a mixed bag of legislative guidelines and minimal enforcement standards. In fact, some states still have zero dyslexia intervention legislation. This is important to note because, as researchers from Yale and other entities have pointed out, intervention often becomes more difficult as students move out of the early primary years, meaning reading problems should be taken seriously as soon as they're detected.

Uncharted waters

Not only is the Yale study an emerging one, meaning its outcomes are unclear as yet, it is also moving through uncharted—or at least unclear—waters in terms of collecting DNA samples from participants. This, according to the Education Week piece, has raised a host of 21st-century questions for New Haven residents. Parents and school board members alike have questioned the wisdom and security of collecting DNA from children and then using it to draw conclusions about whether or not they have “genetic limitations.” Still, some parents who agreed to have their children participate in the Yale study expressed gratitude for the extra attention and intervention, which at least one parent said her son really enjoyed. (Students are also paid around $10 per reading intervention session.)

What all of this may tap into is a growing emphasis on the need for evidence-based intervention programs focused on literacy. In another example of applying cutting-edge research to this age-old problem, a 2018 radio documentary called “Hard Words” examined whether students are being taught to read using the latest brain-based research. In the documentary, reporter Emily Hanford presented the hard-charging premise that poverty, which is cited by many as a risk factor for reading problems, is often used to “explain America’s poor performance in reading.” Over the course of her piece, Hanford sought to show that many teachers simply never learned how to teach children to read; instead, she asserted, many schools and classrooms operate on the idea that “learning to read is a natural process.” According to Hanford, this is in direct contrast to what science tells us about how unnatural reading actually is, and most students actually need or would greatly benefit from explicit instruction (in phonics, for example) that tends to help students with dyslexia master essential skills.

Another aspect of this argument is that because reading is such an important, foundational academic skill, it should not be assumed that all or most students will learn how to read—and read well—with minimal instruction. This urgent message undergirds the work of the Barksdale Reading Institute, a Mississippi-based group that emphasizes using research to improve reading instruction in public schools. The organization’s website states that provided they are “given the right tools,” all children can learn how to read. Of course, it remains to be seen whether those tools involve a DNA analysis, per the Yale study, or strong guidance provided by teachers and school leaders who received science-based instruction on how to teach students to read.


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