Student Dyslexia Screening Can Be Efficient, Effective, and Fair

By: , | 10/28/2020
Categories: Data Culture, Leadership

Why Early Dyslexia Screening Matters

Proficiency in literacy, writing, and arithmetic is an expectation of American citizenry. It’s no surprise that being a good reader, or a student who reads fluently and understands the content that they read, is important for all students.

Reading research stresses that it’s important that students can read at grade level by the end of third grade. Why? Because that’s the point at which they begin reading to learn. Students who haven’t mastered reading itself by the culmination of third grade fall further and further behind their peers in all subjects. They simply can’t access the information they need to read to learn.

Unfortunately, not all students are meeting this expectation by third grade due to a variety of developmental disabilities. One of these disabilities is dyslexia. Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning issue that—if not identified early—can cause difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols.

A 2010 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters, reports that as much as half of the printed fourth grade curriculum is incomprehensible to students who read below a fourth grade level. Fourth grade is when the curriculum changes into the distinct and clearly defined domain areas that will grow into the science, mathematics, and social studies content students will encounter in middle school, high school, college, and careers.

The effects of low reading achievement in the third grade have long-term and dastardly consequences for students. It is not surprising that students who cannot read on grade level tend to have behavioral and social problems as well as lower rates of retention. A 2006 Yale University longitudinal study on these long-range outcomes reports that these students often become poor middle and high school readers, which lowers the likelihood that they will graduate. Low reading achievement has long-reaching consequences on an individual’s earning potential, global competitiveness, and general ability to be a social and fiscal contributor to the nation. The plight of the struggling reader is more than an individual problem—it’s a national one.

Current State of Reading Proficiency in the US

According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, “. . . average reading scores for students at both fourth and eighth grade were lower in 2019 compared to 2017.” On the 2019 NAEP reading assessment, 65 percent of American fourth graders performed below NAEP proficiency levels. However, in comparison to NAEP 1992 scores, there was no significant score change for the lowest-performing students. Our children are struggling with reading, and the question is: Why?

What Are Some Reasons for Reading Difficulties?

The grim picture above prompts questions about the reasons why so many of our students are not reading at the levels they should be. A 1998 publication from a committee of the National Research Council, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, uncovered groups that are at risk for reading difficulties. These groups include those who attend chronically low-achieving schools and/or are members of low-income families residing in poor neighborhoods. Limited proficiency in spoken English as well as the pervasive use of nonstandard English dialect that differs substantially from academic language are also group risk factors. This report also highlights individual risk factors connected to reading difficulties, including a lower rate of literacy knowledge from preschool, lacking age-appropriate skills in literacy-related processing (especially in phonological awareness), letter naming, and sentence- and story-level recall as well as general language inabilities.

In addition to the risk factors listed above, researchers also identify curriculum and instructional content as contributing risk factors. In a 1983 Topics in Learning & Disabilities article, “Viewpoint: The Curriculum-Disabled Child,” Professor David Elkind studies the effects of curriculum on what he called the “curriculum-disabled child,” a student whose curriculum and abilities are unsuitable and inappropriately matched. These students often have learning styles that aren’t aligned with school curricula or programs. Curriculum-disabled students’ reading progress is further hindered by educators who are often ill prepared to address their individual needs.

Identifying and Addressing the Reasons for Reading Difficulties

Recognize signs of struggle.

The signs of future struggling third or fourth graders are often visible early on. The National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development identifies several early signs, including problems sounding out words, difficulty recognizing sounds and the letters that make up those sounds, poor spelling, slow reading, problems reading out loud with correct expression, and challenges with understanding what was just read.

Screen K–2 students based upon International Dyslexia Association guidance.

The difficulties listed above and their grim trajectories do not have to be our national reality. According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), it’s useful to conduct a focused student evaluation before second grade that examines the precursors of reading development. Screening of students in K–2, as recommended by the IDA, should evaluate language skills, phonological awareness, memory, and rapid naming. The absence of these skills when students are very young suggests later difficulties and potential dyslexia.

Develop a more efficient and principled approach.

Most current approaches to dyslexia screening require educators to screen all students on specific, predictive tasks that may be risk factors. This method requires a great deal of teacher time to administer. By one estimate, teachers may spend as many as 600 minutes over the course of a year administering one- to two-minute tasks to a typical class of 25 students in a one-on-one setting.

Furthermore, this screening approach often evaluates only a small subset of target domains without analyzing the broader context of student performance. This fails to address the need to differentiate between any number of competing explanations for a student’s reading difficulties.

There is a more efficient method to screening students for reading issues potentially caused by dyslexia. A more principled approach would be to administer a broad reading assessment, such as i-Ready Diagnostic, to all students and to then administer additional tasks to students whose overall score is below a certain threshold. For many students, their testing is done when they complete the initial broad Diagnostic.

Consider multiple factors.

If the screener designates students as “at risk for dyslexia,” this should be considered one factor among a broader constellation of data. Specialists in school districts can analyze and act upon such information based on district policy to determine the best plan for instructional intervention and/or referral for further evaluation. For example, results from the i-Ready Diagnostic should be considered in combination with a student’s classroom performance, classroom observations, and standardized test scores.

Distinguish dyslexia screening from a diagnosis.

It is important to note that screening is not the same as diagnosing dyslexia. According to the IDA, a dyslexia diagnosis is the amalgamation of multiple data points, including information gained from student interviews, observations, and testing collected by a team of classroom teachers, speech-language pathologists, educational assessment specialists, and (possibly) medical personnel. Interpreting the information collected should be the responsibility of a professional who is highly versed in reading difficulties, such as the school psychologist and/or a speech-language pathologist.


A good assessment that offers a complete picture of student performance and growth combined with additional tasks enables educators to screen for dyslexia and identify students at risk of poor reading outcomes.

With this method, students who don’t show signs of struggling with reading on a Diagnostic will no longer need to perform tasks that take up valuable instruction time. As for the students who do demonstrate risks for dyslexia, they’ll be identified more efficiently and connected with the specialists who can diagnose and help them.

What Next?

Interested in learning how i-Ready Diagnostic can meet your dyslexia screening needs while minimizing testing time? Please visit our Dyslexia Screening with i-Ready Assessments information site or reach out to your local Implementation Support team member for more details.



The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA). International Dyslexia Association.

National Institutes of Health. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. National Institutes of Health

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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