Research Debriefed: Miao Li - University of Houston
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Research Debriefed: Miao Li A series highlighting articles published by University of Houston College of Education faculty

Posted May 7, 2019


“A Molecular-Genetic and Imaging-Genetic Approach to Specific Comprehension Difficulties in Children”

Author: Miao Li, assistant professor
Department: Curriculum & Instruction 
Co-author: Jeffrey Gruen, Jan Frijters, Jeff Malins
Journal: Nature Partner Journal - Science of Learning
Publication date: November 21, 2018  
Topic: reading comprehension

Overview: Trying to understand why some children have good word-reading abilities yet struggle with reading comprehension


Q: What was the main question you were trying to answer?

A: We were trying to look at a specific group of students known as “poor comprehenders.” Those students have average or above average word-reading skills. However, they struggle with comprehension.

Q: What group of students did you focus on for this study?

A: We focused on minority children, between the ages of 8 and 15, because previous research has mainly been focused on Caucasian students.

Miao Li, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction

Q: Why these students?

A: These students are often neglected in the classroom.

Q: How did you go about conducting the research?

A: We tried our best to recruit students across North America. We applied a strong triangle framework and analyzed the students from a behavioral-genetic-neuroimaging perspective.

Q: Were there any surprising or interesting findings?

A: From the behavioral standpoint, we tested students with assessments and we identified those who have difficulty with reading comprehension, although they don’t have any problems in word reading.

Genetically, we looked at their genes and based on previous research, we know there were a few genes associated with reading and language difficulties. We found one specific gene called READ1 (Regulatory Element Associated with Dyslexia 1). For poor comprehenders, it is more likely that they carry this gene.

From the neuroimaging, we found that poor comprehenders had more activity in the right hemisphere of the brain.

We found one specific gene called READ1 (Regulatory Element Associated with Dyslexia 1). For poor comprehenders, it is more likely that they carry this gene.” — Miao Li

Q: How can we better detect these poor comprehenders?

A: It is hard to detect these reading difficulties until they are in the third or fourth grade, when it becomes more evident. However, with the genetic and neuroimaging data, we can detect earlier which students will have difficulty with reading comprehension.

Yet, it will still take a long time because genetic and neuroimaging data are difficult and expensive to get.

Q: How do you see your work tying into practice?

A: We can inform educators and practitioners about these early identifiers and detect these poor comprehenders to provide earlier intervention. The earlier, the better.

Q: What was your initial interest in this topic?

A: Before this paper, I had previously published another one that only focused on the behavioral data and student performance in reading assessment.

Q: What made you branch out to genetic and neuroimaging data?

A: I had amazing collaborators from Yale School of Medicine: Jeffrey Gruen is a pioneer in genetic reading disability – he actually founded the READ1 gene, and Jeff Malins, an expert in neuroimaging. Jan Frijters is from Canada, and he specializes in intervention studies of children with reading difficulties.

Q: What do you hope to research next?

A: My main research focus is on how to early identify students who have reading problems. I’m interested in English language learners. These students come from families where English isn’t their primary language. When they start schooling, they may have lower performance in English because they have low exposures to English. I want to design some early assessment to find the children with true reading problems so we can give them intervention in a timely manner.

—By Alberto Huichapa