Literacy experts answer educators’ 10 most pressing questions about dyslexia

In our webinar Dyslexia: What every educator should know about the most common learning disability, NWEA literacy experts Tiffany Peltier and Cindy Jiban took an evidence-based look at dyslexia, dismantling common myths and discussing how dyslexia screening in MAP® Reading Fluency™ helps with identification and intervention.

As host of the event, it was inspiring for me to be a part of such a robust conversation, with educators in the audience submitting dozens of thought-provoking questions. While we couldn’t get to all the raised hands during the webinar, I invited Tiffany and Cindy back for another chat—an after-show of sorts—to answer some of the most pressing questions we received. Here are their responses, edited for length and clarity.

1. I thought dyslexia had to do with phonological processing. Sounds like it’s about more than that. Can you clarify?

Tiffany: Phonological processing is the connection between sounds and symbols in a student’s mind, so it’s about making sure students can segment a word into its individual sounds. However, recent research shows a similar number of students with deficits in orthographic processing. Both phonological and orthographic processing play a part, it turns out.

We know that that sound connection to letters is important, and it’s a difficulty that a lot of students have.

2. What if my school says they don’t test for dyslexia? What do I do if I think one of my students has dyslexia?

Tiffany: Most states have some type of universal screening measure to identify students who are at risk for later being identified with reading difficulties if they don’t get appropriate intervention. If your school has a screening system in place, first look at their scores and see how they respond to any interventions.

If further testing is required and your school or system says they don’t test for dyslexiathe term researchers use to identify students who have great difficulty with word reading skills—use the terminology used in federal law when describing your students and seeking support for them: specific learning disability (SLD) in basic reading skills or reading fluency.

You can use either term in schools, and the students should be receiving the same services.

3. How are language retrieval and receptive language issues classified?

Tiffany: Researchers describe word reading difficulties as dyslexia and language impairments as development language disorder. In schools, these are typically classified in federal special education law under speech or language impairment (SLI).

Some students don’t get identified right away, so they’re classified as having a specific learning disability in reading comprehension skills because it comes out in their reading comprehension test scores.

Cindy: What Tiffany is describing ties back to the simple view of reading. Some kids have struggles with decoding, and some have struggles with language comprehension. Down the road, either challenge can drive a difficulty with reading comprehension because those two come together in reading comprehension.

4. Is dyslexia more common for English language learners?

Tiffany: I’m not as familiar with the research on this, but theoretically, it should have the same prevalence for speakers of other languages. It’s just harder to identify.

Cindy: Struggles with decoding in English can be particular to the complex orthography of English. So a student can show less decoding difficulty in another language than they experience in English. That is, there can be a difference even among bilingual students in terms of where they do or don’t have decoding difficulties.

5. What is the best way for a seventh- or eighth-grade student to practice decoding?

Tiffany: We run into this issue a lot. I can almost guarantee that there is going to be more than one student in a class who has decoding intervention needs. I would say that if you can use screening or assessment data to create small groups of students who have similar decoding needs, spending time in those groups daily would help them be able to eventually read and comprehend on their own at grade level.

Cindy: I might come at it another way. It’s important for all students to have access to grade-level, complex texts so they can build comprehension skills, background knowledge, and knowledge about the world. One way students who are struggling with decoding can access that is to do repeated readings, that is, fluency practice with the passages that are at grade level. For students for whom that is out of reach, small group intervention is certainly appropriate.

6. How could the average classroom teacher use the information found on the MAP Reading Fluency reporting dashboard? Or are those reports meant to be interpreted by a reading specialist or special needs teacher only?

Cindy: When a student is flagged on a screener—and we can see areas of relative strength and weakness—that should guide which students get more intense intervention and in what area. That’s a responsibility of the general education classroom teacher. Depending on a child’s needs and how they respond to interventions, it can become the responsibility of other interventionists, and even a team, to determine eligibility for special education.

But the place to start it is to say, “These are kids for whom I need to offer some additional interventions so they don’t end up where the prediction of the flag becomes reality, which is poor reading outcomes.”

7. Our school has moved away from MAP and has started using DIBELS. Can you discuss how these are different?

Cindy: MAP® Growth™ focuses on reading comprehension. DIBELS and MAP® Reading Fluency™ focus more on foundational skills. DIBELS is largely in the decoding space, while MAP Reading Fluency addresses decoding, language comprehension, and foundational skills.

The advantage of MAP Reading Fluency is group administration, which ends up giving teachers a lot of instructional time back because they’re not doing one-on-one assessment in the style of DIBELS.

8. Does NWEA have screener tools available for middle school students, or is this yet to be developed?

Cindy: MAP Reading Fluency includes grade-level text, appropriate through fifth grade. We have some schools who assign middle school students through eighth grade to MAP Reading Fluency, and that is not disallowed in rostering. However, when something is designed for a younger student, I advise educators use it with care with older kids. Consider how your student will feel using a product that is primarily designed for younger children.

MAP Reading Fluency is designed for use with students as early as pre-kindergarten. The dyslexia screening form is available for kindergarten through third grade.

9. Are there any free and evidence-based resources you recommend, aside from tools from the Florida Center for Reading Research included in MAP Reading Fluency reporting, for supporting decoding instruction?

Cindy: I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm right now around a new resource at the University of Florida Literacy Institute. They have a toolbox that includes great and free decoding lessons, a decodable text guide, and some slide decks. There’s also a thriving community on Facebook that the folks at UFLI are supporting, as a bunch of people are implementing these in early grades to support phonics when you may not have resources ready to go for that.

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) offers a guide called “Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade,” and the site where it’s housed includes the guide plus a video and additional supporting resources around foundational skills for primary readers. I like that they include materials for running a professional learning community to aid in implementing some of these best practices.

10. I’m a school administrator. How do I help my teachers learn more about teaching students with dyslexia?

Tiffany: One strategy is high-quality professional learning opportunities around early word recognition. NWEA recently released a new professional learning offering, “Phonological and Phonemic Awareness.”

Cindy: I would encourage you to organize the staff in your building to get together and consume some research together, perhaps the foundational skills practice guide through IES. Trying new strategies, coming back together, and talking about how things are going is always beneficial.

Looking for more on dyslexia?

Watch Dyslexia: What every educator should know about the most common learning disability on demand or dive into some research with How to support students with dyslexia, a collection of Teach. Learn. Grow. posts featuring evidence-based best practices for guiding early learners as they learn to read with confidence.


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