Special Education

Universal Screening for Dyslexia Isn’t Enough

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 27, 2023 7 min read
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Dyslexia screening is getting a lot of attention right now. As of last October, 46 states had enacted dyslexia-related legislation, much of it in the past few years, according to dyslegia, a website that tracks state laws related to dyslexia.

Most such laws center around mandatory school-based “universal screening” for all students as early as kindergarten for the disability, which impairs one’s ability to read.

But dyslexia advocates say it’s far too early to emit a collective sigh of relief that these new screening mandates will ensure that the estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of children who suffer from dyslexia (or 20 percent, according to some experts) will be identified early enough to get the interventions they need to become successful readers.

There are lots of reasons why screening isn’t the magic bullet that necessarily leads to “fixing” dyslexic students’ struggles with reading. Literacy experts and advocates for children with dyslexia explain some of the multiple factors that can impede both the screening process and what happens next.

School screening for dyslexia doesn’t necessarily lead to a diagnosis

The dyslexia screening that takes place within a school setting is not intended to actually diagnose dyslexia. Most states’ public schools are screening for risk indicators of dyslexia and other reading problems, explains Mary Wennersten, the accreditation chair of the International Dyslexia Association.

She added that most public school systems do not employ personnel qualified to diagnose dyslexia; typically, an educational psychologist will provide the diagnosis after an extensive evaluation process.

Many schools adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach in the earliest grades

Even when a kindergartner’s dyslexia screening results indicate “red flags,” some experts say it’s common for schools to wait for further evidence of problems with reading before acting. Wennersten said schools opt to wait in part because children enter kindergarten with various skill sets and exposure to print. They may have been exposed to trauma, or have had illnesses that affected their development. Even ear infections can result in delays, she said.

“In kindergarten, this is often the biggest growth a child can make. They are just learning this sound system,” Wennersten said. “So teachers monitor them.”

It used to be common for educators to wait until 3rd grade before taking steps beyond monitoring a struggling students’ progress, Wennersten explained.

“Now researchers are telling us that we cannot wait,” she said. “We must look at risk indicators.”

Schools’ approach to reading instruction can seriously skew screening results

How schools teach reading can also complicate the screening process. Heather Knight, the director of literacy for Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that among public schools that aren’t using evidence-based reading instruction, dyslexia screenings are likely to find risk indicators of dyslexia in about 50 percent of students—not because that many children have reading problems, but because they aren’t being taught to read using methods proven by science to work.

Knight did not provide data on the number or percentage of Missouri schools that are using science-based reading instruction. She did say, however, that about 9,000 of the state’s public school teachers have completed or are participating in LETRS training, which gives teachers a knowledge base for teaching phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and language.

This training is part of the Missouri Read, Lead, Exceed initiative, a comprehensive statewide plan to support student literacy. “Our hope is that all of our schools move toward EBRI [evidence-based reading instruction],” Knight said.

School personnel have insufficient training to provide interventions

Despite nationwide momentum, the push to implementing evidence-based reading instruction in general education classrooms has only recently begun in many districts. Many schools are not yet prepared to execute the even more nuanced and time-intensive reading instruction required for students with dyslexia to learn how to read effectively.

Those students need an explicit, systematic method of teaching foundational skills, including decoding and spelling skills and other components of literacy, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Plus, some advocates and families suggest that many schools already have a poor track record when it comes to meeting the needs of students with reading disorders. Laura Schultz, co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a statewide advocacy network of parents, students, and educators, describes her experience with public schools as a parent of a child with dyslexia.

“By the time my daughter was in 7th grade, her teachers were like: ‘We like her a lot, but she’s not going to amount to much,’” said Schultz, who ended up hiring private tutors to support her daughter’s reading needs. “These are well- meaning people, they just didn’t know what to do.”

Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Kate Medley for Education Week

Wennersten said this is not an uncommon sentiment. “Unless it’s a small community that has lots of funding and support, in general, there’s not enough support [in the public schools] for students,” she said.

“You need to have your leadership understand the system that has to be in place to make all kids successful,” Wennersten added. This includes teacher preparation that readies elementary school educators to teach evidence-based reading to all students, as well as professional development that teaches effective strategies for early identification of students struggling to gain reading skills, she explained.

Even in states that have made strides toward implementing evidence-based reading instruction, screening mandates, and interventions, the pandemic has presented new setbacks.

“I feel like COVID took the wind out of everyone’s sails,” said Karleen Spitulnik, a representative of the state leadership team for Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and a parent of a child with dyslexia.With teacher shortages, and the fact that so many kids are behind, it makes it even harder to pay attention to the kids with dyslexia.”

The chasm between screening and diagnosis

Knight, the Missouri state literacy official, noted that school systems, for the most part, do not diagnose dyslexia, although a school psychologist or speech pathologist may have the training and the ability to assess and identify for dyslexia. Oftentimes, families will seek an evaluation from an educational psychologist or a neuropsychologist, most of whom work in private practices.

Such evaluations involve educational assessments; eye, ear, and neurological tests; and input from teachers, parents, and primary care providers. In addition to possessing knowledge and background in psychology, reading, language, education, evaluators must be able to administer assessments, interpret evaluation data, and provide input on appropriate reading interventions, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Obtaining these evaluations is not simple. They can cost up to several thousand dollars and are rarely covered by health insurance, according to DyslexiaHelp, a resource center within the University of Michigan School of Education. Many areas, especially rural or otherwise remote locales, generally have few if any professionals who can make a definitive diagnosis of dyslexia. Even when parents get a diagnosis from a private evaluator, the child’s public school system can determine whether to accept the assessment, Wennersten said.

If a school team does accept a report by an outside private evaluator and determines that the student qualifies for special education services, Wennersten said, it will then create an individualized education plan, or IEP, which specifies the interventions the school must provide to that student.
And a strong diagnosis is important, Knight said, “to identify what difficulties students are having, to really pinpoint specific skills they’re lacking, and then identify further what interventions will help support them.”

Pockets of promise

“I think there are pockets of promise—some teachers who know what they’re doing, some principals who know what they’re doing. I think some kids are probably getting what they need,” said Spitulnik, who eventually decided to send her son to a private school for children with dyslexia the summer before 3rd grade, after he asked her how to spell “sit.”

Schultz, who co-founded Decoding Dyslexia Maryland in 2012, said the organization still gets about the same number of inquiries from frustrated parents as it did when it started 11 years ago. She’s hopeful for change given recent legislation such as Maryland’s Ready to Read Act of 2019 which, among other things, requires local education agencies to screen “all kindergarten students and identified 1st grade, 2nd grade, and 3rd grade students who may be at risk for reading difficulties.”

“It’s actually a big victory,” Schultz said. “Our state had no requirements for anybody for anything to do with reading.”

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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