CU-Boulder and Australian researchers join forces to study reading in young twins

March 27, 2000

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of New England in Australia have been awarded $2.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to study early reading development in identical and fraternal twins.

The CU-Boulder portion of the project is directed by psychology Professor Richard Olson, who is working with co-investigators John DeFries, Sally Wadsworth, Erik Willcutt and Bruce Pennington of CU¹s Institute for Behavioral Genetics. The researchers hope to study about 600 pairs of twins in Colorado whose names were gleaned from the Colorado Twin Registry and whose parents have agreed to let their children participate, said Olson.

The other collaborator is Brian Byrne from the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Byrne and Olson are conducting a parallel study of twins in Sydney and Melbourne that is funded by the Australian Research Council. Byrne and Olson currently have funding to study about 200 pairs of twins in Australia and hope to add another 350 pairs to the study contingent upon an additional research grant that is pending, said Olson.

"The primary goals of the new, five-year research project are to understand the factors influencing individual differences in early reading, language and attention," Olson said. The researchers hope the project will allow them to learn more about what can be done to help preschool children who are at risk for reading difficulties.

"Identical and fraternal twins provide a unique opportunity to explore the environmental and genetic influences on individual differences in early reading, language and attention," said Olson.

Both types of twin pairs share the same home, school and community environments, but differ in their genetic similarity, he said. "Identical twins have the same genes, while fraternal twins share half of the genes that influence individual differences."

The comparison of identical and fraternal twins will provide information about average genetic influence on differences in early development, Olson said. "It also will provide information about the importance of environmental influences that are shared by the twins and environmental influences that are different for each twin."

The researchers will work with the twins in their homes and preschools beginning at age 4 and will follow them through kindergarten, first grade and second grade. "Working with preschool twins poses many challenges, but it will help in understanding how different patterns of preschool development influence their response to subsequent schooling," said Olson.

Reading problems in the early grades are highly predictive of problems in the later grades and in adulthood, he said. "Learning more about the developmental precursors that place young children at risk for failing in the early grades will help with the prediction and amelioration of early developmental problems before children begin formal schooling."

University of Colorado at Boulder

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