Universal Dyslexia Screening In Depth Part 3


This is the third in series of blogs I am writing on dyslexia screening. You can view the first two here and here. 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. Universal Screening is an efficient way to determine whether or not a child is likely to succeed in the system, without waiting for him/her to be old enough to fail and be disillusioned.


Universal Dyslexia Screening In Depth Part 3


If you needed another reason why this matters, this quote says it all:

“Ninety percent of children with reading difficulties will achieve grade level in reading if they receive help by the first grade. Seventy-five percent of children whose help is delayed to age nine or later continue to struggle throughout their school careers.” —Vellutino, Scanlon, Sipay, Small, Pratt, Chen & Denckla, 1996 “



So universal screening is used to spot the students that need a closer look, but it is also one of a set of tests using in ongoing assessments. 


Before I talk about what universal screeners should include, I’ll describe the four methods used by schools to monitor how both students and school perform. 


1. Universal Screeners. These are a type of Curriculum Based Measurement (CBM) and are the result of research by Dr Stanley Deno, into combining the curriculum materials being used in the classroom, with direct observations; creating an assessment that avoids the pitfalls of teaching-to-the-test, or bias toward any particular teaching method. Over 30 years, this CBM technique has proved to provide reliable results across districts and schools. It is also straightforward to administer and score. However, it is usually limited to grades K-5. 


Universal screenings are conducted at regular intervals, typically 3-4 times a year, and can be administered by any of the teaching staff provided they have received training specific to that screener. 


2. Ongoing progress monitoring is an assessment of students’ progress, based on regular observations by teachers. The teacher should record whether or not the child is reaching district and/or school adopted benchmarks. They are typically detailed and progress can be easily charted, allowing the school to adjust their programs to benefit groups of students. 


3. Diagnostic assessments are used when students are reading below grade level. They help identify where a student’s understanding breaks down, so the teacher can target interventions specifically for that child. Diagnostic assessments should answer the question, “What are the student’s academic strengths and instructional needs?” 


4. Summative assessment is used at the end of a unit or learning period, to determine what the students have internalized and retained. They answer the question, “Has the student learned what we wanted to teach them?” 




What should be included in a Universal Screener? 


A universal screener should broadly include tests for both phonemic awareness and rapid automatic naming, as these are the best predictors of future reading success. If the child is already reading, fluency should be evaluated too. 


The mechanics of the test, and what else to include, depends on the age of the child being assessed. The checklist Selecting A Universal Screener, on page 16 of the NJ Dyslexia handbook, lists the criteria desirable in screeners for each grade level from K-2. Since few if any screeners include everything, this can be used to help select the most appropriate screening tools. 


For students in grades three and up, what is covered by a screener should focus more on verbal reasoning, vocabulary, and background knowledge, in line with the observation that: 


“Oral reading fluency explains reading comprehension test results from mid-first to end of third grade. By fifth grade, verbal reasoning, vocabulary, and background knowledge become more and more important to overall reading achievement.” – Moats and Hancock 2004


There is no single test or assessment tool that measures all the reading skills, so different assessments must be selected. This requires extra effort but has a  positive upshot; accuracy actually improves considerably, when several different assessment methods are used.




Selecting a Universal Screener


If a screener is already in use, the rubric for Selecting A Universal Screener is a good way to assess if it meets the appropriate criteria, or if decisions need to be made about selecting a different one. Parents can see what a screener should cover according to their child’s grade level. 


How well a particular screener predicts the difficulties that a student may experience in the future is a very important factor when selecting a screener. It is critical to ask the question, “If we used this screener to predict how every child will perform at some point in the future, how good will those predictions be?” 


The publishers of these screeners all produce handbooks on how reliable, valid and accurate their screening tools are, but don’t only take them at their word. I highly recommend viewing the Screening Tools Chart on the website of the Center on Response to Intervention. It provides the pros and cons of many of the universal screeners available. 


Dr Michael Hart (http://www.doctormichaelhart.com/) interviewed Gavin Haque, the representative from Red E Set Grow, that publish the universal screener, The Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR.) He has shared this recording of this interview and the accompanying slides.


The PAR is a four-part test that takes 10 to 15 minutes to administer. It analyzes children’s reading skills and predicts their success years later, assuming no intervention is provided. The test can be used with children from the spring before they enter kindergarten, through to third grade. According to the slides, it assesses the following:


● Picture vocabulary

● Letter or word calling

● Phonemic awareness

● Rapid naming


Dr. Hart mentions what he likes best about it, which is the level of support the tool provides for both educators and parents after the screening is completed. He described it as “very robust and very thorough.” I highly recommend watching this interview, as it will help you understand what one particular universal screener can provide.


  • Finally, I would like to draw your attention to page 17 of the NJ Dyslexia Handbook which shows the Screening for Dyslexia Flow Chart. You will notice that it starts with “Universal Screening & Data Review,” which has been the focus of this blog. 


  • You will also notice how this is integrated with the Response to Intervention (RTI) three tier model, which is designed to improve outcomes for all students. Here you can see clearly how the RTI model can be used to address the needs of many struggling readers. However, when a student is below benchmark on the universal screener, continues to struggle despite the additional RTI support, and shows one or more potential indicators of dyslexia, a screening for dyslexia is necessary. This will be the topic of my next blog. 


  • I would like to thank Alison Pankowski, Reading Interventionist and LDTC, and Dr Richard Selznick, for teaching me much about this process. For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend the section on Universal Screening & Early Dyslexia Identification in the NJ Dyslexia Handbook written by Alison Pankowski, as well as Dr Selznick’s book entitled “Dyslexia Screening”




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.

Become an OGOA Insider Today!
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
You will receive first dibs on webinar seats, freebies, and subscriber-only tips and tidbits.
We respect your privacy & will not share your information