Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Nature or nurture? Keenan is starting to figure it out

For decades, parents who wanted to raise brilliant readers were told to read to their children daily. Reading, many parents believed, was an entirely nurtured skill.

Psychology Professor Jan Keenan, recipient of the University of Denver’s 2006 Distinguished Scholar Award, says her research shows that nature also plays into a child’s ability to comprehend written words.

“My research is supporting the idea that genetics play a much larger role in reading comprehension than previously thought,” Keenan says.

Keenan, a cognitive psychologist, has been studying language comprehension for nearly her entire 30 years as a DU professor. In 2000, she joined an ongoing National Institutes of Health study. The study had been analyzing word reading skills in children with learning disabilities, but Keenan expanded the scope of the research project to include reading comprehension.

“We find that word identification and comprehension are separate skills,” she says. Sometimes children who can identify written words nonetheless do not understand what they are reading. Similarly, some children who struggle to identify words show good comprehension skills.”

Today, her study focuses on the cognitive and genetic components of reading comprehension in twins. Why twins? Identical twins share 100 percent of their DNA and fraternal twins share 50 percent of their DNA. Therefore, it is easier to isolate environmental and genetic influences on the participants. The study includes twins from 27 Colorado school districts and even requires blood samples, which are studied on a molecular level.

Keenan says this research will require data from thousands of people before extensive conclusions can be drawn, but her hope is that there will be an improved understanding of how genes may make reading easier for some brains than for others. She also says society may ultimately be less hasty in its blame of parents and teachers when children struggle to read.

“I have had parents come to the lab who are so relieved to hear that genetics plays a role in reading,” Keenan says. “A parent can feel guilty, like they have done something wrong, when one child does not read as well as a sibling.

“As we learn that genetics play a role, we’ll be able to take some pressure off of parents, and also provide them with better tools for helping their kids.”

Keenan also believes that, ultimately, education policy may be reformed.

“If you look at education policy today, all of the blame for a child’s inability is placed on schools, parents, teachers. It’s all blamed on environment,” she says.

Keenan says she’s flattered by the Distinguished Scholar Award, but she won’t take all the credit. She says she shares the award with all of her colleagues and students who have helped move her research forward.

Her doctoral students say that Keenan’s commitment to people is readily apparent.

“Jan is very supportive,” says Rebecca Betjemann, PhD ’05. “She is genuinely concerned with her students. She was a huge influence on my entire graduate career. She was the influence, teaching me everything about how you do research in the area of comprehension, getting me involved in conferences and giving me connections with other researchers.”

Keenan thrives on the energy in her lab, so she fosters it, encouraging her graduate students to present their research at conferences, apply for grants, publish and generally help all of them to become distinguished scholars.

This article originally appeared in The Source, September 2006.

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