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Reading & Literacy Q&A

A Reading Teacher Makes a Case for Early Dyslexia Screening

By Elizabeth Heubeck — March 26, 2023 4 min read
Doug Rich
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Only 10 states have not passed legislation requiring universal, school-based screening for dyslexia risk factors.

The issue of whether to require early screening in schools is currently up for debate in California and Colorado. Proponents say universal screening as early as kindergarten catches reading delays early, allowing for more effective intervention to help students catch up. Critics argue that there aren’t enough people in schools to screen students, that it takes away from valuable class time, and overidentifies students, especially English learners, as being at risk for dyslexia.

But what do the educators whose job it is to teach children how to read think about screening for reading delays in the early grades?

We asked Doug Rich. He’s a 27-year veteran educator, former classroom teacher of grades 1 through 4, and a current math and reading interventionist at McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District, where he works with “Tier 2” students (those identified as at risk for delays). He’s also a father of two sons with dyslexia. Rich shared his professional journey in teaching literacy—how he came to learn about the disorder, his adoption of simple screeners to identify reading delays in students, and his structured and individualized approach to teaching students how to read.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How long have you been aware of dyslexia and its impact on students’ ability to read?

Before I had two sons with dyslexia, I had a student for whom, no matter what I was doing, nothing seemed to be working. I found the term dyslexia and started educating myself. Every now and then, a kid [who fit the profile] would come along; some would stick out more than others. Every now and then, I look back and say to myself: This kid, and this kid, and this kid was probably dyslexic.

How have you become an advocate for early identification and intervention of children with reading delays?

As a teacher, I saw that there was all this attention put on 3rd, 4th, 5th grades; like 75 or 80 percent of the focus on academic support was on these grades. I went to my principal and I said: This is backwards. We’re spending a lot more money—and getting a lot less bang for our buck—waiting. What do you think if we identify kids [who are at-risk readers] earlier, and I would work with them in small groups? So we funded it via our PTA about 10 years ago, and it’s been funded that way at my site ever since.

California doesn’t require universal dyslexia screening. What’s your take on early screening to identify reading delays?

I’ve used screeners for a long time to identify which kids needed help. I use basic screeners that are free. DIBELS is free. There are other free screeners out there. If screeners were in place, it would most likely fix the issue that some kids can get to 3rd or 4th grade and are OK enough to have fooled a system like the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment Systems. I see this all the time: students who suddenly in 3rd grade are struggling because the assessment changed to an accurate one; in this case, from F&P to the Reading Inventory.

What do teachers miss by not using screeners?

Because teachers have not been trained to use quick assessment measures such as screeners like DIBELS and other quick surveys like the CORE Phonics Survey or the BPST-3 (Basic Phonics Skills Test) that identify where the breakdowns are, they don’t know specifically what the student is struggling with. Is it reading fluency, or is it vocabulary? Is it decoding words, or is it phonemic awareness?

Not all schools screen for dyslexia risk factors, but students do routinely take standardized assessments. What’s the difference?

To do all this other testing takes much longer than a screener would. [Standardized tests are] not cheap. They have to hire subs, the teachers take a whole day off from work, the assessment takes anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. And then the information they get isn’t even great. There are plenty of kids who do fine according to standardized assessments, and when I test them on the screeners I use, they’re not reading well.

Approximately 15 to 20 percent of students, depending on who you talk to, fall on the spectrum of dyslexia. And dyslexia isn’t the only reason kids struggle to read. At our school, we get this list each year, at the end of kindergarten, and at the end of every year after that, of students who, according to the district’s assessments, should be considered for Tier 2 intervention. One year there were only four kids on the list, from kindergarten through 2nd grade. Statistically, that’s just not possible; it should be more like 30 or 40.

You teach literacy skills to Tier 2 students—those identified as at risk but not in special education. What does that look like?

How I teach reading is going to depend on what a student is having difficulty with. But it’s definitely going to involve a structured approach. They’re not going to just ‘pick it up.’ My kids come out of here understanding why that “w” is in two and why that “g” is in sign and why no complete English word ends with a “v”; there’s got to be an “e” after it. Until we’re able to explain to students why things are the way they are, they’re going to struggle. But screening is so important because we need to get started right away.

Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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