Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

3 New Studies to Know on Screening Students for Dyslexia

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 04, 2024 3 min read
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Early, universal screening for reading disabilities is fast gaining traction among states, with 46 states now requiring some kind of dyslexia assessment in the early grades.

An estimated 1 in 5 U.S. children has a reading disability like dyslexia, but it can be difficult for school-based assessments, or screeners, to differentiate between reading difficulties caused by academic disruptions or insufficient instruction and those related to language processing or other disorders that would qualify students for special education services.

Emerging research suggests new ways educators should think about how to identify dyslexia, particularly among vulnerable populations.

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Students in the hiking club explore during an early morning walk around the campus before the start of the school day on March 30, 2023.
Students in the hiking club explore during an early morning walk around the campus before the start of the school day on March 30, 2023.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

1. Students of color may be underidentified

Students of color and those in high-poverty schools may be significantly underidentified for reading disabilities, finds a new study in the journal Nature Science of Learning.

Researchers used a teacher-administered dyslexia assessment to screen K-2 students in New Orleans schools serving predominately Black students. The state requires every student to be assessed for dyslexia at least once before grade 3, but the screening identified nearly half of the children at risk of reading disabilities, and a majority of these were later diagnosed as having dyslexia.

“Schools don’t want to identify kids as having a problem,” said co-author Bennett Shaywitz, a child neurology researcher at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. “The hope is that studies like this will encourage schools to want to do that. “

Co-author Sally Shaywitz said the results are far from atypical at a time when the average Black 4th grader readers below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but she said many schools with low-performing readers do not target interventions for dyslexia specifically. “It means that educators teaching kids in those classrooms have to be aware of [dyslexia],” she said. “Those kids should have been identified at least as at risk and then should have fuller evaluations.”

2. Attention deficits may play a role in dyslexia

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests early attention problems could play a role in dyslexia.

A team led by researchers at the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London trained more than 100 children ages 7-12 to associate speech sounds with eight symbols, and then to use the symbols to read real and made-up words. The researchers tracked how well the students paid attention during the symbol training and how well they focused on the specific sounds during distractions.

For both regular readers and those with dyslexia, children’s auditory attention during training predicted how accurately they could match sounds with symbols and use them to read made-up words.

Phonemic awareness has long been associated with early reading development, researchers said, and “poor attentional skills may constitute a risk during the early stages of reading acquisition, when children start to learn letter–speech sound associations.”

The results suggest early screening for attention deficits, particularly in listening skills, could help identify students at risk of later reading problems.

3. Struggling readers affected well into adulthood.

Children don’t just grow out of dyslexia if it’s not treated. A longitudinal study in the journal Nature Science of Learning suggests children’s early reading proficiency can predict their literacy into their 40s.

As part of an ongoing longitudinal study, researchers tracked reading achievement over more than three decades for more than 300 children who started school in the early 1980s They found that students’ 1st grade reading performance and particularly their reading growth over the first five years of school was strongly linked with their reading ability at age 42.

That link was even stronger for children whose early reading skills would qualify them as having dyslexia. Only about a third of children in the study who were identified as dyslexic ever received interventions, and the quality of services varied significantly for those who did.

“When children are in the first few grades, kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, the slope of reading acquisition is very steep,” said Sally Shaywitz, who also co-authored that study with her husband, Bennett."That’s when you’d like to catch the kids so that they can get some intervention. But as they get older there, the slope sort of flattens out and they don’t respond to intervention as easily.”

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