Research Spotlight: Treating dyslexia with Dr. Devin Kearns

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Dr. Devin Kearns, an associate professor of special education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, is studying forms of dyslexia intervention for students using technology.  Photo courtesy of    devinkearns.org   .

Dr. Devin Kearns, an associate professor of special education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, is studying forms of dyslexia intervention for students using technology. Photo courtesy of devinkearns.org.

Dr. Devin Kearns, an associate professor of special education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, is studying different forms of dyslexia intervention for students using technology.  

The research is in part for evaluation of students with dyslexia and in part for intervention for dyslexia.

Currently, Kearns’s research mostly focuses on the intervention side. Specifically, the research looks at how students respond to different kinds of intervention using brain scans. 

“We’re actually trying to understand how kids with dyslexia improve in reading as they participate in instruction and intervention. As they participate in intervention, not only do we see them getting better on tests, but we also see their brains changing,” Kearns said. 


Kearns’s current research mostly focuses on the intervention side of dyslexia. Specifically, his research looks at how students respond to different kinds of intervention using brain scans.  Photo courtesy of    devinkearns.org   .

Kearns’s current research mostly focuses on the intervention side of dyslexia. Specifically, his research looks at how students respond to different kinds of intervention using brain scans. Photo courtesy of devinkearns.org.

To do so, Kearns comes up with different curricula with his team to help students with dyslexia. 

“I write curricula with my team, and then we go into schools and test those out to see whether or not when students participate in the intervention that we designed, whether or not they perform better on reading skills than students who continue to receive the instruction that schools typically provide,” Kearns said. 

The reason all this research matters, Kearns explained, is that dyslexia can actually be prevented if treated correctly. 

“It’s actually true that you can prevent dyslexia. So you can actually stop a lot of kids from ending up with dyslexia if you give them instruction really early in school,” Kearns said. 

Being able to track progress with brain scans was integral to Kearns’s work.  

“What’s cool is that they’ve actually shown in studies of neurobiology that the brain changes after you give kids good instruction,” Kearns said. “Kids whose brains process words in the wrong way, like they didn’t use the parts of their brains that they were supposed to, when we look at them at the end they look like kids who do use their brains the right way. What’s unique about my work just to be clear is that we do the imaging throughout the intervention.” 

On the evaluation side, Kearns, along with UConn neurophysiologist Dr. Fumiko Hoeft, designed an app called AppRISE to help diagnose children with dyslexia. 


Kearns works aongside UConn neurophysiologist Dr. Fumiko Hoeft and other faculty, to design an app called AppRISE.  Image courtesy of    appriseproject.org   .

Kearns works aongside UConn neurophysiologist Dr. Fumiko Hoeft and other faculty, to design an app called AppRISE. Image courtesy of appriseproject.org.

“It’s really important to do good screening, meaning to really get clear which kids need extra support and which kids don’t. So we’re designing an app to make it easy for schools, and even eventually pediatricians, to use this app to see if kids are at risk for dyslexia,” Kearns said. 

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People think of dyslexia as reading backwards or not being able to see the letters correctly, but that’s actually not true
— Dr. Devin Kearns

Dyslexia, as Kearns explained, has a lot of misconceptions around it, the biggest one being that it’s just a problem with reading. 

“Students who have dyslexia — and it can be a lifelong challenge — have difficulty pronouncing words correctly and reading quickly. And all of this is driven by a phonological problem, or a sound processing problem. People think of dyslexia as reading backwards or not being able to see the letters correctly, but that’s actually not true,” Kearns said.

Kearns gave the example of swapping the letters “b” and “d.”

“It’s not that they see ‘b’ as ‘d’ and ‘d’ as ‘b,’  it’s that they can’t remember if the ‘b-’ sound goes with that one or the other one because of the sound processing problem,” Kearns said. 

Kearns said the best students for educational research are those interested in seeing what they learn in class applied to actually helping children. 

“If a student is interested in figuring out all the things they’ve learned in their psych classes and their cognitive science classes, and what really gets them excited is not just psychological experiments, but what you do with kids in the lab when you notice they’re changing, then it’s probably the case that you would be a great person to consider doing educational research,” Kearns said. 

Kearns even gave some examples about how students interested in education and education research can get involved at UConn. 

Kearns highlighted Ido Davidesco as one example of an education researcher that students could look forward to working with in the fall. Davidesco, who currently works at NYU, uses electroencephalogram caps to research surrounding how students’ brain waves sync with teachers’ while being taught.

Kearns also recommended that students look into UConn’s special education program. 

“Our special education program is the 12th ranked special education program in the country. I want to encourage students to think about the possibility of becoming a special educator,” Kearns said. 

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Grace McFadden is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at grace.mcfadden@uconn.edu.  

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