01:02am Wednesday 26 February 2020

SickKids program helps children with reading disabilities

Based on 30 years of research by Dr. Maureen Lovett, Director of the Learning Disabilities Research Program and Senior Scientist in Neurosciences and Mental Health, Empower™ uses a scientific approach that teaches children strategies for decoding and understanding words.  Children who successfully finish the program move on to reading for meaning, information, and pleasure.

While the program was initially confined to laboratory classrooms, it is now commercially available to schools.  The primary level of the decoding and spelling program was launched by five school boards in 2006. Three years later, the high school level rolled out, consisting of a decoding and spelling program and a comprehension and fluency program.

Revenue from sale of the program flows back into SickKids and helps to fund Lovett’s research on the causes and treatment of reading disabilities in children, youth, and adults. As well, the funds are used to develop, refine, and evaluate new interventions to allow struggling learners of all ages and circumstances to develop literacy skills.

This research into learning disabilities was championed by Dr. Bette Stephenson, a former education minister of Ontario. “She recognized the strong relationship between health and literacy, and offered support to the Hospital by providing two special education teachers from local school boards,” Lovett says.  

“She encouraged us to develop a new program in learning disabilities, and Drs. John Stobo Prichard and Bill Logan, outgoing and incoming division heads of Neurology, decided that the greatest contributions we could make ultimately to better treatments for kids with learning disabilities would be through developing rigourous research in the area.”

Dr. Lovett was hired to start such a program with the hope that it would result in better understanding of what would work for children with learning disabilities.

Today, Empower™ has reached 19 school boards and benefitted more than 6,500 students at nearly 500 schools across Canada. Independent evaluations by these school boards have reported very positive results.

“We are delighted to see these outcomes in schools as it tells us that we have been able to successfully translate research into practice,” said Karen Steinbach, Program Coordinator, Learning Disabilities Research Program. “The LDRP has embodied SickKids’ commitment to be a hospital without walls.”

Quick Facts

  • Reading disability is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder of childhood, affecting 10 to 15 per cent of otherwise normally developing children.
  • The specific research precursor to Empower™ Reading is Phonological and Strategy Training (PHAST). It has been used in research since 1996.
  • The lead authors of the program are Dr. Lovett and Léa Lacerenza, Senior Curriculum Developer at the LDRP and a special education teacher for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
  • Drs.  Cathy Barr, Lovett and Elizabeth Kerr are conducting ongoing research to understand the genetic basis of reading disabilities.
  • More levels of Empower™ Reading will be sent to schools following further research. Improvements are made to existing programs based on feedback and review.

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