The case for K–3 screening and intervention for dyslexia

I vividly remember the first student I worked with at my first job as a special education teacher. Jacob was a sixth-grader, and the road to his dyslexia diagnosis was a long one.

Despite having reading difficulties for years, he had never been tested for a learning disability. In sixth grade, it was finally discovered he had a specific learning disability, or SLD, the most detailed diagnosis available at the time. His mom was relieved to finally have a name to put to her son’s struggles. As early as first grade, she had known he was having a hard time. She’d even arranged some tutoring for him over the summer before second grade, and though he showed some improvement, it wasn’t what everyone had hoped for. A little extra help and a bit more effort would do the trick, everyone had agreed. But because no one really understood the cause of Jacob’s difficulties—including his tutor—it had been impossible to give him the support he needed to grow as a reader.

My story is similar to Jacob’s. I was in sixth grade when I was tested for a learning disability, too. My parents had attended a seminar that my school held about struggling readers. They had me tested and, after my diagnosis of dyslexia, put me into a tutoring program that specialized in learning disabilities. Their efforts made an impact. The experience of my diagnosis and specialized tutoring had a huge effect on rebuilding my confidence.

The importance of early screening—for all kids

My story and Jacob’s story are not that unusual. Countless kids struggle with reading because of dyslexia and slide under the radar, not receiving a diagnosis and adequate support until very late in their school years, if at all. Sixth grade is a long time to wait to unmask a student’s dyslexia. By then, they’ve lost many years and opportunities for teachers to intervene the most effectively. Phonics lessons aren’t readily available in a sixth-grade classroom, either. This is why research shows that identifying kids with a learning disability, including dyslexia, at an early age is so important.

Screening all children is equally important. In many schools, we screen kindergarteners for vision and hearing. If a student does not pass their screening, the school recommends that they see a doctor for further testing. The beauty of vision and hearing screenings is that they’re available to all students. Screenings for learning disabilities, on the other hand, are not. To even be recommended for a screening often means a child is likely attending school in a more affluent community. When I was growing up, I had so many resources available to me simply because of the school I was able to go to. But my story is far different from the experiences of many students who go unidentified. Screening all children early would allow teachers to identify students who may need further evaluation for dyslexia and who could benefit from a change of instruction.

Screening is the first step

In 2016, the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act (READ) became law. The READ Act secured at least $2.5 million annually for the National Science Foundation to research dyslexia, including methods for identifying students with dyslexia early. This pushed screeners forward, but there is still work to be done.

According to the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), all but three states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico have legislation related to dyslexia. Most have screening policies in place, and some go so far as requiring intervention. But beyond the READ Act, there is nothing in place at the federal level that addresses dyslexia. I recommend that educators and families becomes familiar with their state’s dyslexia policy and, if available, their intervention plan. NCIL’s website will let you see all the information that’s publicly available; just click on your state in their map of dyslexia legislation for more information. Every state that requires a dyslexia screener has their own criteria, from how many times a student is screened to what skills are included in the screener, so it’s important to know what applies where you live.

Many states that are now passing legislation for dyslexia screeners are facing another challenge: how to move beyond just completing an initial screening to giving a student a formal diagnosis and appropriate intervention. For many years, schools and districts were told not to diagnose students with dyslexia, and under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special educators and school psychologists could only say a student had an SLD, as was the case with Jacob. Even though the IDEA definition for SLD includes dyslexia, actually having that diagnosis on a child’s individualized education plan (IEP) was typically not allowed. We find ourselves in a transition as a nation, with the process of actually diagnosing students with dyslexia still fuzzy overall and even fuzzier from state to state. This can pose an especially big problem for students who are diagnosed in one state and move to another, where legislation is different.

Lasting change can start in your school or district

State and federal legislation can take a long time to catch up to the real needs of children in classrooms across the country. One thing we can likely all agree on is that we don’t want any students feeling like they’re failing. When students give their all, like Jacob did, it’s our job as adults to give them our all back. We must ensure we know enough about who they are and how they learn to provide the instruction and support they need to grow.

Identifying students as having signs of dyslexia at an early age is a step in the right direction. But we cannot stop here. We have a long way to go to ensure students across the country receive equal access to screening, diagnosis, and effective interventions. Regardless of what your state legislature mandates, I encourage your school or district to do what it can to address the needs of students with dyslexia.

Hear more from Dr. Barker on myths about dyslexia and the language we use to talk about it in her posts “Fact or fiction? The 4 myths of dyslexia” and “Why students with dyslexia aren’t ‘at risk.'” Read “5 things to know about the new MAP Reading Fluency Dyslexia Screener” to learn more about how to screen students for dyslexia.

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