Editorial: Does early identification focus on the wrong variables?

What's the matter with screening for dyslexia?

Reading disorders like dyslexia cost our society dearly. What is more, they cost individuals who have those problems anguish, time, learning, and lots more. So it is understandable that people would want to prevent dyslexia.

Efforts to prevent problems often lead to recommendations to identify those who may experience the problems early in the course of the problem, before the problem can lead to the costs in anguish, time, etc.

In education, and especially with dyslexia, there are many calls for early identification of children who may be likely to develop the problems. The thinking is obvious: If educators, psychologists, and others can identify the precursors of dyslexia before full-blown reading problems begin, these experts can provide early training that will prevent the problems from becoming full-blown.

So, one sees recommendations for screening for dyslexia. In fact, many states in the United States have adopted legislation promoting screening for dyslexia. These well-intentioned laws, often the result of intense lobbying by groups of parents and professionals, recommend widespread administration of tests designed to locate those children who may develop dyslexia.

What's the matter with early screening for dyslexia? Wouldn't we want to prevent the reading problems that are associated with thousands--perhaps even millions--of children not finishing high school, being stuck in jobs where even simple reading skills are needed, unable to enjoy reading engrossing books?

Screening for dyslexia includes testing to determine whether children have already developed some important precursors of literacy. Do they know how to break spoken English into the little pieces that listeners compose into words, sentences, and stories? Can they take words apart to identify the individual sounds of the language? Can they take individual sounds and collapse them into words?

When students learn how to manipulate the spoken language, they are on their way to literacy. Coupled with a strong foundation in phonemic awareness and other early literacy skills (e.g., learning the sounds represented by individual letters and groups of letters such as "-ng" and "ch") and plenty of practice in sounding out words, kids can learn to decode print.

And there is extensive evidence that youngsters can learn phonemic awareness, sound-symbol relationships, and fundamental decoding. These are not the only requirements for becoming a skillful, happy, competent reader. But they are the foundation. And there is extensive evidence that teachers can teach these competencies.

Screening for dyslexia identifies the students who most need the instruction that will lead to becoming competent, engaged readers. Once identified, those students who need that necessary instruction must get the instruction from somewhere.

The problem with screening for dyslexia is that screening focuses on the nexus of reading problems being a property of the child. The thinking goes that there's something wrong with the learner and we must discover which learners have these faults so that we can fix them. Once educators identify those learners, they will need skillful, competent instruction.

The sort of necessary instruction in early literacy has been identified. Reasonable educators know what it takes to teach early decoding effectively. The question is not so much about the learners but about whether schools can deliver the instruction.

Some schools deliver early decoding instruction well, others not so well. Educators need to identify those schools that have deficits in early reading instruction. That is, we need to screen schools for dyslexia, not children.

What might be on a measure for screening schools to determine which early literacy programs are prepared to prevent dyslexia? Here are some broad, guiding questions:

  • Does the school have policies establishing at least 90 minutes per day of literacy instruction beginning in kindergarten and continuing through the grades?

  • Does the curriculum for literacy instruction progress systematically from the earliest phonemic skills through phoneme-grapheme association to decoding simple words and multi-syllable words and on to decoding connected text composed of engaging content (both stories and information)?

  • Is the instruction differentiated so that children who have already acquired foundational skills can quickly move on to higher order skills while those who need additional practice with the foundational skills get what they need?

  • Is literacy taught in engaging ways?

  • Does the school have a consistent system for frequently assessing whether students are making progress that will lead to mastery on schedule?

  • Does the school have plans for what to do (i.e., how to change instruction) for students who are not progressing adequately?

This catalog of questions is actually quite superficial. There are many other much more technical questions. For example, sequences of instruction in segmenting and blending should progress from easier to more difficult tasks in a systematic way; it is simpler to hear "sssaaat" and blend it into "sat" than it is to hear "baaat" and blend it into "bat." For a second example, the curriculum employed for teaching phoneme-grapheme relationships should introduce those letter-sound connections in ways that make it easy for students to progress to reading meaningful text very quickly; it is much smarter to teach common and consistent letter sounds first and save the irregular and infrequent ones for later, when students are already becoming fluent decoders.

The critical concern, however, is to switch the focus from asking questions about what is wrong with the children to assessing whether schools are delivering instruction that helps learners to learn to read--regardless of whether they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have low phonemic awareness, or have three eyes.

Said another way, we should be less concerned with the idea of “all kids ready for school” and more concerned about “all schools ready for kids.” Let’s stop blaming the victim and get going with fixing literacy instruction.