Evelyn Johnson, Boise State University – Reading Disorders

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An early detection test for reading disorders could help children get treatment sooner.

Evelyn Johnson, professor of special education at Boise State University, examines how the link between genetic markers for a reading disorder in children is being found.

Evelyn received her Doctor of Education degree from the University of Washington, Seattle in 1999 and holds the position of Professor of Special Education, and Executive Director of Lee Pesky Learning Center, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities.

From 2003 to 2007, Dr. Johnson worked as a research associate for the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD), examining issues related to Response to Intervention (RTI) and Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) determination. Dr. Johnson’s work with the NRCLD includes the development of numerous technical assistance products to assist state and local educational agencies on Response to Intervention (RTI) and learning disability identification-related issues. This work has led to numerous collaborative research efforts, national presentations, and publications including co-authoring, RTI: A Practitioner’s Guide to Implementation and How RTI Works in Secondary Schools.

Dr. Johnson’s current research focuses in three main areas: 1) understanding the connection between information processing, executive functioning, and academic performance, 2) supporting schools in the implementation of intervention and instructional systems for students at-risk for or with learning difficulties, and 3) special education teacher evaluation. Dr. Johnson joined Boise State University in 2007, and lives in Boise with her husband and two children.

Reading Disorders


Reading is a complex process. You have to take in the letters on the page, convert them to sounds, string the sounds into words, retrieve the word’s meaning from your mental lexicon, and finally put all of it together to understand the passage.

When you consider how many moving parts there are and how they need to be orchestrated, it’s not hard to realize why nearly 1 in 5 students struggle with some form of reading impairment.

Because we know that early intervention for reading issues is important, we’re working to develop ways to identify pre-readers who are at increased risk for developing reading disorders.

To do this, we’re examining the link between the genetic markers of a reading disorder, performance on a visual processing task, and reading ability.

Participants in our studies are young children, ages 5-6. They provide a saliva sample, for the genetic testing, complete a reading test, and also complete a virtual Hebb-Williams maze task, patterned after the mazes used with mice in animal experiments.

We’re finding evidence that children with the genetic markers for a reading disorder also struggle with visual processing, and tend to have impaired reading performance. When we follow up with these children when they are 7 or 8 years old, we find that their problems persist.

This research is in its early stages, but if the results continue in this way, we may be able to use the virtual maze as an effective early detection tool. Since the virtual maze task doesn’t require any reading or language, very young children can complete it. If we can identify children at risk for reading disorders very early, we can provide more intensive early reading instruction to promote reading success.



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