UCSF dyslexia researchers develop tool to flag early reading problems

A tool developed by UC San Francisco to detect early signs of literacy weaknesses that can lead to dyslexia was bolstered in the California governor’s recent budget proposal and could be widely used in public schools across the state. 2023.

Marilu Gorno Tempini
Marilu Gorno Tempini, MD, Ph.D., co-director of the UCSF Dyslexia Center.
Credit: Maurice Ramirez

Dyslexia is a brain-based learning challenge that affects around 15% of the population and is unrelated to intelligence, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Children with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read and write and may fall behind if the condition is not treated.

UCSF’s free digital assessment, which has been tested with 2,000 students in dozens of California schools to date, is intended to spot pre-reading challenges in kindergarten or first grade, so that educators can intervene before dyslexia is usually diagnosed, said Marilu Gorno Tempini, MD, Ph.D., Charles Schwab Distinguished Professor in Dyslexia and Neurodevelopment, and co-director of the UCSF Dyslexia Center and the UCSF-UCB Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center.

“We don’t usually diagnose dyslexia in kindergarten — children aren’t supposed to read fluently yet,” Gorno Tempini said. “But we know there are risk factors and we hope that if we address these factors earlier, children won’t develop the written language difficulties associated with dyslexia.”

“By the time dyslexia is recognized in third or fourth grade, children have suffered from feeling helpless or being bullied for years,” she added. “In the worst case, these children fall even further behind and end up giving up. So we’re really creating a prevention tool here.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who struggled with dyslexia as a child, allocated $10 million to UCSF for dyslexia research in his January budget proposal. Lawmakers will debate the 2022-23 budget over the next few months, with a final budget plan expected in June.

The UCSF Dyslexia Center received $15.2 million from the current year state budget and $3.5 million from the 2019-20 state budget. Last year, a budget bill allocated $4 million for early dyslexia intervention in the school system last year as well.

Approach based on neuroscience

UCSF’s assessment tool, called Multitudes, is unique because it’s based on the latest neuroscience research and designed to be paired with interventions, said Gorno Tempini, who is affiliated with the UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience.

Side-by-side photos of school supervisors with school children using the Multitudes iPad assessment tool
Supervisors with Californian schoolchildren validate the new Multitudes reading assessment tool.
Credit: Phaedra Bell

“Dyslexia has been approached primarily as an academic issue and not as a neurological/health problem, and research typically goes through schools of education or psychology without a comprehensive brain health approach to the issue,” said Gorno Tempini. “Here, we combine brain and educational sciences, imaging, biology and technology to truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of dyslexia and bring them back to the autonomy of families, schools and children. .”

Although currently administered by invigilators on iPads, Multitudes will eventually be web-based, administered by educators, and will take approximately 20 minutes to complete. Some elements of the assessment are adapted from partner universities in other states, and UCSF validates them for the California school population — essentially by validating and revising the assessment in real time, said Phaedra Bell, Ph. .D., UCSF Program Manager and Director. school partnerships of the Multitudes project.

“It’s not a ‘done’ tool,” Bell said. “It will continue to be refined and the data we collect will continue to inform it.”

Commitment to diversity and collaboration

The Multitudes Project team prioritizes equity in the creation and use of its tool, noted Michelle Porche, Ed.D., associate director of community outreach for UCSF-UC Berkeley Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center.

The more than 30 California schools that pilot Multitudes were chosen to reflect the demographics of the state, and the scientists, clinicians, teachers, designers, and software engineers who work on the tool come from diverse communities.

“The study of dyslexia has been limited by a lack of racial, ethnic, and linguistic representation, but we are increasingly committed to addressing the structural racism that creates barriers to success for students of color in California.”
–Michelle Porche, Ed.D.

“We build inclusive partnerships with schools and communities, so we can recruit participants for our studies who reflect the racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the state,” Porche said. “The study of dyslexia has been limited by a lack of racial, ethnic, and linguistic representation, but we are increasingly committed to addressing the structural racism that creates barriers to success for students of color in California.”

The initial research for the UCSF assessment was conducted at specialist schools for dyslexia, such as Charles Armstrong and Chartwell schools, and funded by Charles Schwab and other philanthropists, noted Christa Watson Pereira, Psy. D., assistant professor of neurology at UCSF and advisor to the Multitudes Project.

“These independent schools, and the families and students who attend them, have given us the opportunity to have a cohort of 400 children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities who have given hours of their time to be tested and scanned with MRIs, and donated their DNA,” Watson Pereira said. “From these children, we collected the evidence to create the tool that we are now adapting to public schools.”

The English version of Multitudes was tested in the fall of 2021; the Spanish version will be tested in the spring of 2022 and the Mandarin version in the fall of 2022. The goal is to reach 10,000 children by the end of 2022 and to generalize the free tool for Californian schoolchildren in 2023, a said Bell.

From assessment to intervention

At the same time, Multitudes is validated and refined, UCSF researchers work with the schools of education at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles to curate the best materials, programs and interventions that educators can use during reading challenges. are detected. The Sacramento County Office of Education is also working closely with UCSF on how best to train teachers across the state in early reading instruction.

Currently, schools often use a one-size-fits-all approach to reading problems that may not work for all students, Gorno Tempini said. For example, a school may use specific “dyslexic fonts” that are supposed to make reading easier for struggling students, but these fonts may not help children whose language problems stem from hearing problems.

“The idea is to have multiple interventions available in each school that can be tailored to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than each school having a different approach,” Gorno Tempini said. “Different brains learn differently, and from a neurological perspective, precision education has the same meaning as precision medicine.”

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