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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology


Janice Keenan

Areas of expertise/research interests

  • reading and language comprehension
  • cognitive and genetic basis of individual differences in language and language deficits
  • assessment of language comprehension

Current research and projects

I am a cognitive scientist whose current research is focused on individual differences in reading and language skills, particularly comprehension. The goal is to understand both the cognitive mechanisms of language processing as well as the genetic etiology of language deficits.

With support from the National Institutes of Health, we have been conducting a twin study that assesses how genes and poor learning environments contribute to language problems associated with learning disabilities, such as reading disability, comprehension disorders and attention deficit disorders. We take a developmental perspective (e.g., Elwér, Keenan, et al., 2013), and examine a broad range of component language skills—from low-level lexical priming (e.g., Betjemann & Keenan, 2008) to high-level inferential processes in discourse processing (e.g., Hua & Keenan, 2014).

By studying twins, we are in a unique position to determine how different language skills might be related to each other at a genetic level. For example, one question we have studied is the extent to which genes underlying the kinds of word-reading problems seen in dyslexia might also be involved in higher-order language deficits. Our results have provided a biological basis for a separation between dyslexia and comprehension deficits (Keenan, et al., 2006).

Our studies of language behavior have revealed limitations in standardized tests of reading comprehension (Keenan, et al., 2008). Thus, another focus of our work is to better understand the instruments that are used in language assessment (see Keenan, 2014, 2016 for reviews). The goal is to improve how we identify children with reading and language difficulties (Keenan & Meenan, 2014; Keenan, et al., 2014) and to provide guidelines for remediation (Hua & Keenan, in press).

Our work on the cognitive and genetic components of language has been a collaborative effort with the Colorado Learning Disabilities Research Center (CLDRC), based at the University of Colorado's Institute for Behavioral Genetics, and we share in its mission of advancing the differential diagnosis, comorbidity, and etiology of learning difficulties in the belief that understanding how and why people differ in the ease with which they use and understand language can lead to better and earlier detection and remediation of learning problems.


  • PhD, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • BA, St. Louis University

In the news

Interview, Synergy, 2008 (PDF)

Selected Publications 

• Keenan, J.M. (2016). Assessing the assessments: Reading comprehension tests. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42(2), 17 – 21.

• Christopher, M.E., Keenan, J.M., ... Olson, R.K. (2016). Exploring the genetic and environmental etiologies underlying the relations between cognitive skills and components of reading ability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 451 – 466.

• Hua, A.N., & Keenan, J.M. (in press). Interpreting reading comprehension test results: Quantile regression shows that explanatory factors can vary with performance level. Scientific Studies of Reading

• Keenan, J. M., & Meenan, C. E. (2014). Test differences in diagnosing reading comprehension deficits. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47, 125-135.

• Keenan, J.M. (2014). Assessment of reading comprehension. In C. A. Stone, E. R. Silliman, B. J. Ehren, & G. P. Wallach (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders (2nd Edition). New York: Guilford Press.

• Olson, R. K., Keenan, J.M., Byrne, B., Samuelsson, S. (2014). Why do children differ in their development of reading and related skills? Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 38-54.

• Keenan, J.M., Hua, A.N., Meenan, C.E., Olson, R.K., Pennington, B.F., & Willcutt, E.G. (2014). Issues in identifying poor comprehenders. L'année Psychologique/Topics in Cognitive Psychology,114, 753-777.

• Hua, A.N., & Keenan, J.M. (2014). The role of text memory in inferencing and in comprehension deficits. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 415-431.

• Miller, A.C., Keenan, J.M., Betjemann, R.S., Pennington, B.F. Willcutt, E., & Olson, R.K. (2013). Reading comprehension in children with ADHD: cognitive underpinnings of the centrality deficit. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41, 473-483.

• Elwér, Å., Keenan, J.M., Olson, R.K., Byrne, B., Samuelsson, S. (2013). Longitudinal stability and predictors of poor oral comprehenders and poor decoders. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 497–516.

• Keenan, J. M., Betjemann, R. S., & Olson, R.K. (2008). Reading comprehension tests vary in the skills they assess: Differential dependence on decoding and oral comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12, 281 – 300.

• Keenan, J. M., & Betjemann, R. S. (2006). "Comprehending the Gray Oral Reading Test without reading it: Why comprehension tests should not include passage-independent items." Scientific Studies of Reading, 10, 363 – 380.

• Keenan, J. M., Betjemann, R. S., Wadsworth, S. J., DeFries, J. C., & Olson, R.K. (2006). Genetic and environmental influences on reading and listening comprehension. Journal of Research in Reading, 29, 79 – 91.