Helping teachers recognize the primary characteristics of dyslexia

All but seven states have now adopted some form of dyslexia legislation, and often, these laws have included a provision requires screening. It shouldn’t be a game of chicken or the egg; every student, whether they are exhibiting symptoms of dyslexia or not, should be screened. The problem is that finding the right screener and factoring in the cost of screening every single student can make the process seem daunting.

One in five students has a language-based learning disability, the most common of those being dyslexia. Fortunately, there is a window of opportunity to identify and remediate dyslexia at an early age. Research shows that when appropriate intervention happens as early as 1st grade, underactive language centers in the brain can be activated and connected. When the brain is rewired in this way, the impact of dyslexia can be virtually eliminated. The key is identifying these students as early as possible.

Recognizing dyslexia characteristics
Because dyslexia is brain-based, most states require that a diagnosis of dyslexia come from a doctor or neuropsychologist. The characteristics of dyslexia, however, have been widely recognized for over a decade, and when a teacher knows what to look for, schools can provide appropriate intervention without waiting for a diagnosis. Several of these characteristics can only be obtained by requesting information from parents, so parental input is an essential part of the screening process.

Three of the primary universal characteristics of dyslexia are:

1. Genetics: Dyslexia and other related learning problems run in families. A child with an affected parent has a 40-60% risk of developing dyslexia, and reading difficulties can often be traced to grandparents or other members of the extended family.
2. Difficulty rapidly and automatically naming known letters and letter sounds: Students with dyslexia generally have slower results on rapid automatized naming (RAN) tests than peers who do not have print-based disabilities.
3. Difficulty with phonemic awareness (the ability to notice and identify the individual sounds of speech): A student who is unable to segment and sound out a word or routinely makes errors in producing accurate consonant and vowel sounds may have problems with phonemic awareness.

With a combination of parental and classroom information, teachers are more able to determine the difference between what is developmental and what are likely indicators of dyslexia. To help gather this information, I have worked with a team of reading specialists to develop a free dyslexia screener.

Different screeners for different ages
The online screener is available in four versions, three for children and one for adults. Each of the three screeners for children asks questions about specific characteristics of dyslexia based on research.

Four- and five-year-olds: We ask for family and early speech and language history. A strong indicator at this age is difficulty learning or remembering letter names and letter sounds or difficulty recognizing or producing rhymes. Since children at this age generally have limited experience with print, getting their family and early history can be imperative.

Six- and seven-year-olds: This screener asks about the three primary characteristics, but this age group has been exposed to enough print that recognizing and remembering simple sight words such as “the” and “that” is expected, Students in first and second grades would also be expected to apply basic decoding skills to sound out and write simple words like “bat” and “slip.”

Eight-years-old and above: Obtaining family history and early language development is still important. This is the age group where the screener asks about ongoing letter and word reversals and spelling mistakes on simple words. Developmentally, students over the age of seven have generally corrected these types of errors. Research indicates that unusual letter formations, difficulty remembering words after repetition, and greater comprehension when a student hears information rather than reads it are all indicators of print-based learning differences.

When a parent or teacher fills out the screener for a student, a response is generated that lists which primary and secondary characteristics the child exhibits. This provides an opportunity for educators to have conversations with parents to ensure that the child receives the right support and remediation.

Promising results
During the summer, we tested the screener with children and adults around the country, including a pilot at two schools. Parents at the schools received a letter or phone call asking them to complete a reading screener that would help the school determine factors that might impact their child’s reading.

At one school, five out of nine students whose parents completed the screener exhibited characteristics that match the profile for dyslexia. Those students, in grades 5, 6, and 7, then participated in a six-week summer reading program where I was able to provide 90 minutes of daily intervention and make instructional recommendations for the upcoming school year. At another school, parents of nine students in 1st to 5th grades were asked to complete the screener. The results were so beneficial to the reading interventionist that the school will be asking all parents of incoming 1st graders to complete the screener, and all teachers will participate in professional development about dyslexia.

Teacher training to support students with dyslexia
After a student is screened, it’s up to the school or district to determine next steps. Having information about students’ language, reading, and writing abilities is useful in determining which children may need further assessment. An added benefit of the screener is that it provides the research-based characteristics of dyslexia to parents and educators. Making the characteristics of dyslexia easier to identify eliminates guessing or waiting for lack of responsiveness to instruction.

Without dyslexia-specific training at the classroom level, there is no way educators can prepare to identify, teach, or provide appropriate intervention and support to students with dyslexia.

It’s all of our jobs in education to make sure that this information is getting to teachers. From there, early remediation can dramatically improve students’ reading and educational experience.

For more education on dyslexia, explore the International Dyslexia Association website.

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