Turning a page: Meet Rehab Med’s newest Canada Research Chair

Jacqueline Cummine recognized for research on the neuroscience of literacy

16 December 2020

Cummine holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC), which awards $500,000 over five years to researchers acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field. Click here to meet all 16 University of Alberta CRCs anounced in the 2020 cycle.

Between 25 and 40% of adult Albertans have difficulties reading and writing. Most of us don’t stop to think about it, but literacy skills have a profound impact on our well-being and social life, especially in today’s digital society. Rehab Med’s Jacqueline Cummine is diving deep into the study of adult literacy challenges as the faculty’s newest Canada Research Chair. Her work with neurodevelopmental reading disorders such as dyslexia inspired her to examine everyday obstacles faced by Canadians with low literacy, including academic challenges, employment barriers, and physical and mental health concerns.

Congratulations on being appointed a Canada Research Chair! What is the problem your research has identified? 
I often ask people to consider the article they are reading right now. What goes into your ability to decode and derive meaning from the words on this page? How much effort does it take you to read each sentence? Now imagine the last email you sent. How did you go about taking a thought and encoding it into letters and words for a colleague or friend to read? 

For some adults, these skills are relatively automatic and their self-efficacy – the belief in our abilities to complete these tasks – is high. For others, the thought of composing an email or writing a paper for a class causes overwhelming anxiety, social withdrawal and low self-efficacy. These individuals have avoided the act of reading and interacting with written stimuli their entire lives, because it’s uncomfortable and there’s often a lot of associated stigma.

What is the 'neuroscience of literacy’?
We’re applying brain-behaviour based science to look at literacy via spelling, writing and reading to better understand the profiles of individuals with and without reading impairments. What are the consequences of reading impairment on everyday functioning? We use a variety of methodological approaches to probe these questions, including brain imaging techniques (e.g. fMRI, DTI, rsMRI, tDCS) and behavioural performances (e.g. response times, accuracy, error types).

How will your research in this area help adults with literacy impairments?
The dyslexia diagnosis rate in adults can be as low as 5%, because adults with a reading disability are often reluctant to seek assistance or have their reading tested. It feels uncomfortable, understandably.  One of our main focuses is on rehabilitation through skill-based and self-efficacy (confidence)-based training. But as researchers we can only rely on those individuals who are willing to self-report. We’re working with individuals and community organizations to allow more self-reporting paths to be available. 

What are the results of your work so far?
We’re collaborating with community organizations, including Project Adult Literacy Society, to develop research questions, training programs and ways to share our findings about adult literacy challenges. We’ve also been working with several individuals with reading disabilities to generate new research questions and assessments. Holding the Canada Research Chair will provide more opportunities to collaborate with community partners, individuals and families directly impacted by reading challenges.


Jacqueline Cummine is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.