Dyslexia Screening Overview Part 1




Dyslexia Screening Overview Part 1



Universal Screening


I often see questions about dyslexia screening on forums and Facebook pages, and there is never the time to address them in the detail I would like. I’m hoping I can do justice to the topic here in a series of five blogs. 

We know that about 80% of the school population is able to learn successfully from general education instruction, which leaves 20% for whom regular public or private school is not working. How do we determine whether or not a child is likely to succeed in the system, without waiting for them to be old enough to fail and be disillusioned? One answer is universal screening. Universal screening measures are designed to quickly divide students into one of two groups.


Dyslexia Screening 1


Figure 1: Proportion of Students Requiring Intervention. 

It might sound like a tall order but these kinds of screenings are actually quick, easy and surprisingly accurate. If all children aged four to six are evaluated we can figure out which of them is showing signs of problematic early reading development. 

The chosen universal screener should include tests for both phonemic awareness and rapid automatic naming, which are the best predictors of future reading success. If the child is already along in the reading process, fluency should be evaluated too. The mechanics of the test, and what else to include, depends on the age of the child being assessed. For example, a kindergartener would be assessed for letter naming fluency, whereas a first grader would be assessed for this and letter sound fluency, and children in second and third grade would be assessed for oral reading fluency. 


Dyslexia Screening 2


Figure 2. Why is it important to intervene early with struggling readers? 

As my blogs (here and here) on dyslexia explained dyslexia is a neurobiological disorder and research has shown that brain plasticity decreases through childhood. 

“It takes four times as long to intervene in fourth grade as it does in late kindergarten because of brain development and because of the increased content for students as they get older.” (NICHD)

“The best solution to the problem of reading failure is to allocate resources for early identification and prevention”
(Torgesen, 1998 in “Catch Them Before They Fall.”)

Sally Shaywitz in her book, “Overcoming Dyslexia”, and Dr Richard Selznick in “Dyslexia Screening” both mention Countering the Matthew Effects, a phrase coined by Dr. Keith Stanovich to describe what happens when children don’t receive the help they need to develop their reading and writing skills. “Matthew Effects” are where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If a child in the early grades finds it easy to read, she wants to do more of it, and the the more she does, the better she becomes. This is the rich getting richer. Struggling readers do not enjoy reading and they do their best to avoid it, and over time read less. With less practice, they stagnate and miss out on the automaticity and vocabulary development that comes with frequent reading. I can attest to the truth of this shocking statistic from my own experiences:

“75% of children who were poor readers in the 3rd grade remained poor readers in the 9th grade and could not read well when they became adults.” (Joseph Torgeson in Catch Them Before They Fall.)


Extensive evidence exists to support the assertion that early intervention is critical. The psychological and clinical implications of poor reading development can be prevented or at least minimized if we identify and intervene as early as possible. Children can then avoid the “wait and fail” approach that leads to frustration, pain, and a loss of self-esteem. 


In a future blog I will get into the details of what comprises a universal screener:

● How often it should be administered

● By whom and 

● What to include for each grade.


I’ll also list the most common screeners and analyze their pros and cons, along with where you can discover more about each one. 


Dyslexia Screening 3


Figure 3: Dyslexia Screening


In 2014, New Jersey passed a law requiring all schools to screen for dyslexia, and many grassroot organizations, such as Decoding Dyslexia, are pressuring other states to do the same. The screening law in New Jersey describes the reasons a student would be screened for dyslexia.


“A board of education shall ensure that each student enrolled in the school district who has exhibited one or more potential indicators of dyslexia or other reading disabilities is screened for dyslexia and other reading disabilities using a screening instrument selected pursuant to section 2 of this act no later than the student’s completion of the first semester of the second grade.


As well as a teacher’s informal assessment of his or her students on a daily basis, a universal screener provides measurable evidence of potential indicators of dyslexia. This list of potential indicators includes, but is not limited to the following:

● Difficulty in acquiring language skills;

● Difficulty comprehending oral and written language;

● Difficulty in rhyming words;

● Difficulty in naming letters, recognizing letters and matching letters to sounds;

● Difficulty blending sounds when speaking and reading words;

● Difficulty recognizing and remembering sight words;

● Problems with letter and number reversals, inversions, number sequencing, letter sequencing within words and letter and word substitutions


A universal screener won’t specifically diagnose dyslexia, but it will indicate when it is important for parents and teachers to intervene. At this stage intervention or, for older students, remediation should begin. Additionally, any student that has shown evidence of these potential indicators must, by law, then be screened for dyslexia.


Universal Screening Tweetable 


A dyslexia screening would screen for age appropriate skills in the following areas. 


❖ Phonological/Phonemic Awareness 

❖ Rapid Automatic Naming 

❖ Sound-Letter Identification 

❖ Phonological Memory 

❖ Word Recognition Fluency (Real Word Reading) 

❖ Word Recognition Fluency/Decoding (Nonsense Word Reading) 

❖ Encoding (Spelling) 

❖ Oral Reading Fluency 

❖ Oral Vocabulary vs Written Vocabulary 

❖ Listening Comprehension vs Reading Comprehension


A future blog will include a more detailed list of potential indicators of dyslexia as well as detailing the components of screening, and I will make recommendations of tests that can be used to assess these areas. 


My next blog will continue this overview by discussing what is included in a comprehensive dyslexia assessment. 



Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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