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University of Texas at Austin researchers get $4.5 million to study the outcomes of child language therapyUniversity of Texas at Austin researchers get $4.5 million to study the outcomes of child language therapy

Dr. Ronald B. Gillam, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a $4.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the outcomes of computerized and individual language therapies with school-age children throughout the United States.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Ronald B. Gillam, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at The University of Texas at Austin, has received a $4.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the outcomes of computerized and individual language therapies with school-age children throughout the United States.

Gillam will direct a team of investigators who will compare the language, cognitive and literacy abilities of 216 children who receive one of four intervention programs: 1) Fast ForWord-Language (FFW), which presents acoustically modified speech in its computer exercises; 2) language-based computer programs that do not use acoustically modified speech; 3) individual language intervention provided by nationally certified speech language pathologists; and 4) computer programs that teach academic skills. All four interventions will be provided during summer school programs in local school districts in Texas and Kansas. In the Austin area, the summer school program will be held in the Pflugerville Independent School District.

"Many school districts across the nation are using computer teaching modules to help children who have language impairments and learning disabilities," Gillam said. "Parents, teachers and school administrators make decisions about purchasing costly educational software. Currently, there are no large-scale comparative studies to indicate which therapy approaches are the most beneficial and the most cost effective."

The four-year randomized clinical trial was designed to test the theory that language impairments and learning disabilities are caused by inadequate brain mechanisms for processing speech sounds. If this theory is correct, then programs that target auditory processing skills should be more helpful than traditional approaches to language intervention that promote improvements in children’s vocabulary, sentence comprehension and sentence production skills.

Dr. Craig Champlin, associate professor in communication sciences and disorders at the university, will administer psychoacoustic measures that are sensitive to changes in the way children’s brains respond to sound. "It is as though these children are listening through headphones that make speech sound muffled and indistinct. Perhaps, through this study, we will be able to identify intervention programs that facilitate a sharpening of the sound image and, thus, provide clearer input to the brain’s language analyzer," Champlin said.

The study also will answer a number of secondary questions that have critical implications for special education services for millions of children who experience communication and academic difficulties. Does language therapy affect reading and writing? Are there changes in the way children process information in their brains following therapy? How long do the effects of various language therapies last? Results of language sample analyses, standardized language tests and academic testing will provide the data needed to answer these and other questions. In addition, children and their parents have the option of participating in brain imaging studies that are designed to pinpoint specific changes in brain structures and functions that result from different types of language intervention.

Gillam’s research group is working with teachers and administrators in the Pflugerville Independent School District to identify and select children who will participate in the first year of treatment. The treatment phase of the study is to begin in June 2002.