The universal screener is a quick and easy test to run on every student. When a student is below par on the universal screener, then s/he should start receiving intensive instruction as part of a small group. If s/he continues to struggle and additionally shows one or more potential indicators of dyslexia, it is time to screen specifically for dyslexia.
It is worth mentioning that no assessment is perfect. Inevitably there will be some students who fall in the average range on the universal screener, but they continue to struggle and fall behind their peers. If these students display some of the indicators of dyslexia, they too should be screened for dyslexia.
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.”
If you are wondering where to find the potential indicators of dyslexia, there are several go-to sources. First, here are some of the main warning signs:
● Late learning to speak.
● Struggles to understand instructions.
● Does not enjoy experimenting with or listening to rhymes.
● Slow or forgetful when naming letters, or matching letters to sounds.
● Has problems blending sounds when reading words, or in response to questions such as, “What word does /t/ /ǒ/ /p/ make?”
● Continues to reverse letters and numbers beyond first grade.
● Struggles with sequencing letters within words, such as writing “hte” for “the”, or reading “top” for “pot.”
For detailed lists, please check-out these links:
★ Pages 18 and 19 of the NJ Dyslexia Handbook.
★ Learning Ally checklists for Pre-K to Grade 2, and Grades 3-8.
Dyslexia screening assessments need to be administered by qualified professionals; reading specialists; educational psychologists; and so on. They can also be administered by classroom teachers, provided they have been trained to use the tools, how to spot children that fall short of the expected literacy goals, and how to identify the signs of dyslexia.
If you have looked at the above lists, you will see that some of the signs are only reliable indicators after a certain age. All young children reverse letters for example, but most intuitively learn the difference by 2nd grade.
With that in mind, let’s look at the details of dyslexia screening at different ages. If you encounter terms with which you are not familiar, you can find a list of the skill areas tested, such as phonological processing, at the end of this blog.
Screening in Grades K-2
Two of the best early predictors of whether a student is dyslexic, are the phonemic awareness and rapid automatized naming (RAN) skills. Since these tests are included in most universal screeners, it should be easy to identify those at risk. For these children, a thorough assessment of phonological awareness skills can be performed as part of the dyslexia screening process. The following table, reproduced from the NJ Dyslexia Handbook, lists the skills to be assessed in order of difficulty, and the age at which children typically develop each one.
For students who are not experiencing issues with phonological skills, but who are still struggling with reading, the dyslexia screener can focus on other skills, such as, real-word recognition, nonsense word decoding, and encoding (spelling.) This level of screening could be handled using an informal phonics survey and spelling inventory, such as the coding assessment created by the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy.
Oral reading fluency should also be tested after the middle of first grade to assess a student’s accuracy and fluency when reading connected text. The results are normally expressed as an accuracy percentage and correct-words-read-per-minute number, and compared to the expected, age-adjusted, norms. The MASI-R Oral Reading Fluency Measures is an easy way to perform this test. It is available in the book Assessing Reading Multiple Measures.
The same book also includes a Core Vocabulary Screener based on choosing synonyms for given words. Other vocabulary knowledge testers may use pictures of objects instead of written words, which can be easier for beginning readers, or they might test expressive vocabulary. Where possible, vocabulary knowledge should be compared with a student’s written vocabulary, because difficulty with spelling can lead students with dyslexia to limit the vocabulary in their writing.
Word retrieval deficits can also hinder reading. This deficit is defined as the difficulty recalling a word when the concept or meaning is known. The assessment used to measure the severity of retrieval problems is RAN/RAS, an acronym for Rapid Automatized Naming/Rapid Alternating Stimulus.
Screening for Grades 3+
At third grade, schools and districts administer a yearly reading assessment for all students. These can identify readers that are still struggling, who can then be screened for dyslexia. There are always a few students that won’t be flagged by these assessments, but still perform below their potential and may show indicators for dyslexia; they should also be screened.
One of the most influential investigations into the persistence of dyslexia through adolescence, the 1999 Connecticut Longitudinal Study, by Dr. Sally Shaywitz et al., highlights that phonological deficits are not outgrown, and will persist unless the student has access to remediation. Phonological deficits are the most likely cause of reading problems in students from third grade through adolescence.
For screening purposes the most useful take-away from the study is the metrics that differentiate students with dyslexia. These are reading accuracy, real-word and nonsense-word fluency, and spelling ability.
Another measure that is effective for this age range is a comparison of oral comprehension with the student’s comprehension when reading. A large discrepancy between the two is another potential indicator for dyslexia.
Choosing Between Screening Assessments
I have mentioned some of the standardized and informal assessments that could be incorporated into a dyslexia screening. Standardized tests have the advantage of comparing the student’s scores with a norm, to provide percentile rankings and age or grade equivalents. Informal assessments do not have this objectivity, but can nevertheless give you additional information about a child’s development.
You will probably not be able to administer all of these assessments, so your choice will be influenced by your desire for objective and subjective information on each child, and by time available and the number of children you need to screen.
For further reading on this subject I recommend three sources:
● Dr Selznick’s book, Dyslexia Screening.
● The section on Screening for Dyslexia in the NJ Dyslexia Handbook written by Alison Pankowski.
● The Dyslexia Training Institute offers a course on this subject, titled Overview of Dyslexia Screening.
My final blog on dyslexia screening will discuss the comprehensive and diagnostic assessment of those students indicated by the screenings as likely to have dyslexia.
Skill Area Definitions
❖ Phonological Processing/Phonemic Awareness. Phonological processing is the skill to manipulate words, syllables and rimes. Phonemic awareness is the ability to focus on and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. There are numerous phonological sub-tests that can be administered. The CTOPP-2 (Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing) includes 10 such sub-tests. The Elision on the CTOPP-2 is a test of phonemic awareness that is often used for screening.
❖ Rapid Automatic Naming/Phonological Memory. In Rapid Automatic Naming, children are asked to look at a page of objects, colors, or letters, and name them as quickly as they can. Phonological memory is used when a child decodes an unfamiliar word, and needs to remember each phonological unit for later reassembly. Deficits in this area often lead to difficulties with reading fluency.
❖ Sound-Letter Identification. Naming letters is an important early indicator of how a child is progressing in their reading development, but s/he also needs to know the sounds associated with each letter.
❖ Real-Word Recognition Fluency. This is a measure of how well individual words are identified. An example of one such assessment is the San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Ability.
❖ Nonsense-Word Recognition Fluency/Decoding. Using nonsense words, such as “dup” and “flim,” checks whether children are learning to decode words that are unfamiliar. These tests are used with children in first grade and older. One warning sign for dyslexia is indicated if they are guessing these words.
❖ Encoding (Spelling). The coding assessment devised by the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy includes a spelling component.
❖ Oral Reading Fluency. This is a measure of how a child reads a set text. In addition to words-per-minute, the assessor will notice whether the child reads with a smooth or choppy style. It is only practical to present this test to children that demonstrate the ability to read words in isolation. (See Real Word Recognition Fluency, above.)
❖ Oral Vocabulary versus Written Vocabulary. Oral Vocabulary means the words used when speaking or recognized when listening, and Written Vocabulary means the words used when writing.
❖ Listening Comprehension versus Reading Comprehension. Children who struggle with decoding words, for any of the previously tested reasons, will probably find it easier to comprehend text read to them, over text they read themselves. I usually assess comprehension by asking a series questions after a child reads a passage. These should be crafted to test literal understanding first, and then the ability to reorganize and infer information, evaluate a situation or problem, and explain the meaning of one or two words. The Core Reading Maze Comprehension Test can also be used with students beyond first grades. It is available in the book Assessing Reading Multiple Measures, published by Arena Press.
❖ Paper and Pencil Fine Motor Development. Children that struggle with fine motor skills, such as handwriting, frequently show weaknesses in other areas, such as written expression.
❖ Writing Sample Review. I recommend the book, Writing Assessment and Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by Nancy Mather, Barbara J. Wendling and Rhia Roberts. This book explains how to review and interpret a student’s writing sample effectively. Many of the suggestions in the book could also be used to assess Paper and Pencil Fine Motor Development.
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.