Screening for Risk of Dyslexia

Apr 24, 2021

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released one of the most important documents related to reading instruction and support, the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines. The guidelines are the result of legislation from 2018 which stipulated the need for “state-based guidance to assist districts in developing screening procedures and protocols for students that demonstrate one or more potential indicators of a neurological learning disability, including, but not limited to, dyslexia." Chapter 272 of the Acts of 2018. 

Massachusetts is not the first state to pass screening legislation, similar policies have been enacted in at least 47 states and almost all have developed guidance documents that outline best practices for supporting students with dyslexia. The MA guidelines strike an effective balance between highlighting recent research on reading development and offering practical strategies for educational professionals.

Over a series of blog posts, we will be featuring key ideas within the document, beginning the evidence and recommended protocol for screening in grades K – 2.

Why Screen for Risk of Dyslexia Prior to Reading Instruction?
The purpose of screening is to identify those students who may be at-risk for dyslexia, early in their educational experience and provide preventative support to reduce the likelihood of reading failure. Screening protocols have been widely adopted because of a robust body of research from the fields of neuroscience and education. This research demonstrates that students’ performance on pre-or early-reading measures such as phonemic awareness, object/letter naming, and sound/symbol correspondence are reliable predictors of later reading achievement.

Is Screening for Risk of Dyslexia Equivalent to “Identifying” Dyslexia?
“Screening for dyslexia risk is not the same as evaluating a student for special education eligibility, as screening tools are designed to predict the likelihood of reading challenges without the presence of targeted interventions and support.” (MA Dyslexia Guidelines, p. 19)

The document makes special note of a relatively small proportion of students, those who perform at or below the 5th percentile on screening measures, have been shown to benefit from specialized instruction otherwise referred to as Tier 3 support, and also may be referred for a comprehensive evaluation (including assessments that can identify dyslexia) (Al-Otaiba, Wagner & Miller, 2014). 

From the guidelines, “However, the fifth percentile on screening measures should not be used as the only threshold for making either of these critical decisions when the student demonstrates multiple characteristics of reading difficulties. Additionally, students in the bottom quartile should be considered for additional diagnostic assessments such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight word inventories.” (p. 19)

What Skills Should We “Screen”?
The guidelines provide a full chapter on this topic and offer a detailed description of the skills to screen by grade and time period, but these tables are a good snapshot. Districts can use the criteria to evaluate their current practices and determine if they are sufficiently robust to identify those students who are at-risk. For those districts already measuring the recommending skills, perhaps as a part of their benchmark process, it is not necessary to add additional protocols to their assessment battery.  

Can We Use Assessments Developed by Our District?
 In order to reliably determine students’ level of risk, authors of a screening tool must engage in a psychometric process that establishes the validity of their scores, sometimes referred to as “cut points” for risk. The process may involve a statical comparison between large proportions of peers (referred to as a norm-based assessment) or to a set of grade-based skills (referred to as criterion-based assessment). Therefore the guidelines clearly state that “It is highly recommended that districts use these evidence-based tools to screen for risk of dyslexia, rather than using individual tools created at the district-level.” (pg. 24)

Who Completes the Screening?
The screening process traditionally involves a team of practitioners across school roles including classroom teachers, reading specialists, special educators, administrators, ESL teachers, speech and language pathologists, and school psychologists. 

How Do We Support Students At-Risk?
The natural next question on most educators' minds, is "what happens after we screen?" Screening is the first step in a larger MTSS approach to identifying students' at-risk of dyslexia and providing targeted instruction to prevent reading failure. Our next blog post will address the evidence-based approaches for interpreting screening performance and supporting students across the "Tiers" of reading instruction.

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