Skip to Content

Arnold School of Public Health

Suzanne Adlof launching two NIH R01 grant projects to learn more about children with developmental language disorder and dyslexia

September 21, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

Suzanne Adlof, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders and director of the South Carolina Research on Language and Literacy (SCROLL) Lab, recently won two R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, along with colleagues from the MGH Institute for Health Professions, University of Montana, Royal Holloway University of London, and Florida State University. The grants will support longitudinal projects (one focusing on children in grades K-2 and the other focusing on children in grades 2-4) examining how children with developmental language disorder, also known as specific language impairment, learn new words and how that relates to their reading abilities.

“The COMD department is known both nationally and internationally for its research in the area of literacy,” says COMD chair Kenn Apel. “Dr. Adlof‘s research is a foundational and essential component of that recognition.” 

Adlof will lead the grades 2-4 project as principal investigator, and she will serve as co-investigator for the grades K-2 project (learn more about the grades K-2 project and collaborators). In addition to studying developmental language disorder, Adlof’s grades 2-4 project will also follow children who have dyslexia, both conditions, or typical development. At the end of the project, Adlof and her team will measure reading comprehension and other academic outcomes among the participants.

“Children with language-based learning disabilities, including developmental language disorder and dyslexia, comprise over 57 percent of children receiving special education services in public schools—a total of more than three million children in the United States,” says Adlof, who notes that although developmental language disorder and dyslexia frequently co-occur in the same individuals, they are separate disorders that require different types of instruction. “These children are often difficult to identify, and therefore, many of them do not receive interventions that target their specific needs.”

While previous research has largely focused on groups of children who have developmental language disorder and dyslexia—many of whom likely have both disorders—Adlof’s team is the first to study these disorders as they often occur: children with developmental language disorder who have good word reading skills, children with dyslexia who have good oral language skills, children who have both development language disorder and dyslexia, and children with typical development. 

The projects will examine word learning as a way to differentiate the disorders and design targeted instruction. “Difficulty learning new words is considered a central feature of developmental language disorder, whereas for children with dyslexia, vocabulary deficits are typically viewed as a byproduct, rather than a cause, of reading problems,” explains Adlof. “Reduced vocabulary negatively impacts reading comprehension, academic progress, employment opportunities, and overall quality of life. We hope the results of our study will lead to improved assessment and instruction practices for the children who need them most.”

One of the long-term goals for the study is to develop best practices for future study designs as well as inform assessment and treatment of word-learning deficits related to literacy outcomes in clinical practice settings. Findings will also help researchers and educators predict literacy outcomes in fourth grade based on measures of word learning in second grade.

“With both of these projects, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms by which children with language impairment and dyslexia learn words and develop language and literacy skills during a critical period of reading development,” Adlof says. “We hope that these studies will help improve the lives of individuals with communication disorders and advance public health because of the importance of vocabulary, language, and literacy skills to quality of life outcomes.”


A Common Childhood Disability Hidden in Plain Sight

Adlof leads development of online tutor to accelerate vocabulary acquisition

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.