Researchers estimate that dyslexia affects one in five individuals. Yet, it is often misdiagnosed or missed entirely. Even more common than a misdiagnosis is the likelihood that a student with dyslexia will find themself in a classroom without the resources to become a successful reader. In fact, according to the International Dyslexia Association, only about 5 percent of students who have dyslexia are properly identified and given support.
Fortunately, we already have the tools to change these realities. For the last 18 years, I have trained teachers and paraprofessionals to effectively administer screening tools. I have walked teachers and administrators through how to use the screening data to inform their instruction. In addition to screening support, I have trained thousands of teachers across multiple states and districts to use structured literacy, an approach rooted in the science of reading. And I have seen the impact of this work firsthand, from boosting student confidence in the classroom to improving lackluster reading scores.
If states and districts commit to properly training teachers in the science of reading and leverage effective and efficient screening tools, we can help ensure all students with dyslexia learn how to read.
Screening Mandates Are Not Enough
In recent months, more states across the country have begun to mandate universal dyslexia screening for children in kindergarten through second grade. Last month, California joined the list of 40 other states that have legislation requiring dyslexia screenings in early education. But of these states, only 30 legally require an intervention for students with this extremely common learning disability. These universal screeners, mostly for students in kindergarten through second grade, also exclude a crucial group — students in third through fifth grade who have not been properly identified in a timely manner.
According to the National Center for Improving Literacy, a partnership between literacy experts, researchers and technical assistance providers focused on increasing evidence-based approaches to serving students with literacy-related disabilities, the term screening refers to a brief evaluation — no more than five minutes — to identify the risk of performing below a benchmark on a specified literacy outcome, such as segmenting words. These screenings serve as a risk indicator and not a formal diagnosis. They are just the first step in a process that prompts educators to do further diagnostic assessments to determine foundational skill gaps for students. Then if gaps are identified, students should receive a research-based reading intervention that is systematic and explicit in targeting the identified skill gaps.
The rise in legislation surrounding dyslexia screeners for students in kindergarten through second grade is a wonderful step in the right direction. Still, without training, support and resources to effectively provide interventions for these students, the impact of these screeners will end at that initial red flag. As students continue to struggle with reading nationally and dyslexia remains prevalent, the importance of research-based literacy training for all teachers should become a top priority.
How the Science of Reading Supports Students with Dyslexia
The National Reading Panel, a national panel formed to assess the effectiveness of different approaches to literacy instruction, has identified five pillars of literacy essential to every effective reading instruction program:
- Phonemic Awareness — The ability to identify the different sounds that make up speech
- Phonics — The ability to decode new words by matching sounds to letters
- Fluency — The ability to read accurately and quickly
- Vocabulary — The ability to recognize words and understand them
- Comprehension — The ability to construct meaning from text
Programs with these foundational skills at their core are proven to support all students, including struggling readers and those with dyslexia. Research from the International Dyslexia Association, a nonprofit focused on professionals, advocates, individuals and families impacted by dyslexia, is clear that systematic, explicit instruction that is part of the science of reading is an approach that helps not only students with dyslexia, but all readers. As of July 2023, 32 states and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation mandating evidence-based literacy instruction — and this number continues to grow.
We Need to Prepare Teachers to Address Dyslexia
Unfortunately, a majority of teacher preparation programs do not include research-based literacy instruction. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), only 25 percent of teacher preparation programs cover all five of the essential components of reading. Even more alarming is that these programs provide minimal instruction on how to teach students with diverse needs, such as those with dyslexia. Even with a high prevalence of struggling readers nationwide, NCTQ found that nearly 60 percent of teacher preparation programs spend less than two hours of instructional time teaching candidates to support struggling readers, and 81 percent of programs do not require a practice opportunity focused on this group of students.
Research shows that 90 percent of students could learn to read with teachers who employ scientifically-based approaches to literacy instruction. In order to give teachers all the resources they need to support struggling readers, states can’t stop with universal screeners. We need to train teachers in the best practices of literacy instruction. We know the science of how students learn to read. Our pre-service teachers deserve to learn that science in their teacher preparation programs.
A change of this size may seem daunting. And in order for it to succeed, we must also help educators who are already in the classroom. That’s why states must allocate time and resources to train teachers in the science of reading. Once teachers have the necessary knowledge to serve their students with dyslexia, they must be given the resources and support to implement effective interventions.
Over the last three years, our students and teachers have been through immense challenges. If they are going to succeed, they need a higher level of support from their administrators, districts and states to access tools, resources and training.
Districts Don’t Need to Wait for Mandates to Make an Impact
School districts don’t need to wait for state mandates to take the first step toward supporting struggling readers. They can respond to low reading scores by implementing dyslexia screeners and training teachers without mandates in place — and many districts have. I applaud those districts taking a proactive approach.
The most important thing educators, administrators and legislators everywhere can do is to stay in tune with the needs of their students. If one in five of our students struggle to learn to read, we must act with urgency. If we want all students to learn how to read, educators need more than screeners. And once teachers identify students with dyslexia, they need training to provide the most efficient and effective instruction possible. Our students can’t wait!