Food and Behaviour Research

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23 December 2014 - Prevention Action - Dyslexia: is a null study finding bad news or good news?

A study of a new reading and language intervention for six-year-olds found a few small improvements, but no effect on reading. In fact, targeted interventions before the start of formal reading instruction usually make little long-term difference to children at risk of dyslexia.

Understanding null results like these poses particular challenges. In this case, the UK-based research team developed a new program based on the best ideas from prior research, but children in the program did no better on reading than those in the regular school curriculum.

Why didn’t the program produce notable effects on higher-level literacy skills?

On the one hand, this null finding could be bad news. Maybe dyslexia is particularly tough to prevent. Perhaps even well-designed programs make few inroads. Perhaps longer, more intensive programs are required. On the other hand, it could be good news. If the control group is already benefiting from good support, targeted programs may make little additional difference.

So do these study findings mean that programs for kids at risk of dyslexia don’t work – or that, in this case, regular school teaching and parent assistance are already doing as well as they can?

In a recent study of the Reading and Language Intervention (RALI) delivered in the UK to six-year-olds, the authors argue that the apparent lack of effect may be both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that literacy is probably not much affected by relatively short-term programs, so interventions to prevent and combat dyslexia may need to be longer than the 18 weeks of the RALI program. The good news is that the comparison group was already receiving a great deal of literacy instruction “in and beyond the classroom,” so there was less room for improvement from the RALI intervention.