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WMU wins $2 million for four-year literacy project

Oct. 22, 2010

KALAMAZOO--A nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will help Western Michigan University researchers and partners at institutions in three other states develop a new test to identify language and literacy problems in children, leading to earlier treatment and better outcomes.

The grant is from the National Center for Special Education Research in the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences and has been awarded to Dr. Nickola Wolf Nelson, professor of speech pathology and audiology and director of WMU's doctoral program in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Applegate, professor of educational leadership, research and technology.

The four-year project will let researchers at WMU and partner institutions in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona design a test based on recent advances in understanding how the brain processes language, while using a model that teachers, parents and students will understand, Nelson says.

Called the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy Skills--or TILLS for short--it will determine whether school-age children are having trouble listening, speaking, reading, writing or some combination of all of those. The grant will pay for validation and standardization of the test.

"We will go out and test thousands of kids, both typically learning kids and children with language and learning difficulties," Nelson says. "Part of the grant will also cover some children with autism spectrum disorders and hearing impairment and cognitive problems. So we're very excited about this opportunity. We've been working on this tool for a long time."

Also from WMU, Dr. Michele Anderson, a research associate and recent graduate of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences program, will serve as project coordinator. Barbara Howes, a doctoral student in the program and an instructor with the School of Social Work, co-wrote the language and literacy questionnaire to be used in the research.

Project co-investigators and co-authors are Dr. Nancy Helm-Estabrooks, the Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Disorders and Sciences at Western Carolina University; Dr. Gillian A. Hotz, associate research professor, director of neurotrauma outcome research and co-director of the pediatric neurotrauma program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; and Dr. Elena Plante, professor and chair of the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona.

When completed, the test will be a valuable tool for speech-language pathologists and other professionals to use in identifying complex linguistic strengths and disabilities in children and adolescents. It also will help general education teachers, special educators, speech-language pathologists and school psychologists decide what steps to take next if a child has a problem.

A companion student rating scale developed as part of the project is showing promise in its screening capability, helping to identify problems earlier, Nelson says.

"We're seeing some initial results from our research that suggest we're going to be able to pick up the students who are at risk of having difficulties that will really affect their ability to learn later," Nelson says. "So, we're very excited about that."

The project dovetails well with new U.S. Department of Education initiatives, Nelson adds. Federal funds of $1,921,743 will pay for about 40 percent of the project's cost, while 60 percent of funds will come from non-governmental sources. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Inc. has contributed to development of the test in the past and is committed to publishing it if it continues to meet high scientific standards.

"Dr. Applegate's role as independent research consultant with no financial interest in the test is an important part of WMU's contribution to the scientific rigor of this research," Nelson adds. "And the Department of Education is working very hard to develop the evidence base for best practices in public schools. So this is one part of their goal, to develop new assessment tools. We are delighted to be part of this national agenda."

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Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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