Reading is the primary focus of instruction from kindergarten to grade 3 and arguably the most fundamental skill necessary for academic achievement in all content areas. Year after year, however, reading scores indicate that many U.S. children are reading below grade level, and the achievement gap remains wide for children of color and students with disabilities. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for 2015 indicate that only 36% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders performed at or above reading proficiency levels.
Understanding and Addressing Dyslexia
Of all children enrolled in U.S. schools, approximately 7% are classified as having a learning disability, and 85% of these students have a primary disability in reading and language processing. Although many children have never been tested for a reading disability or identified as having one, dyslexia is believed to affect one out of every six children—approximately 8.5 million American students.
The difficulties caused by dyslexia extend beyond the years that students are in school. Studies indicate that as many as 15–20% of the general population may have some characteristics of dyslexia, the most common reason for reading, writing, and spelling problems.
Research is providing important information regarding early identification of dyslexia and best practices for improving the achievement outcomes for children with reading disabilities. Recent brain imaging studies are generating extremely valuable data that has never before been available, and the work of Shaywitz, Norton, Torgesen, and many others has established the need for early intervention to support struggling readers and those identified with dyslexia.
The Causes and Characteristics of Dyslexia
What research has revealed is that dyslexia is neurobiological in nature and influenced by heredity. Studies indicate that 60% of children with a family member who has dyslexia will also develop dyslexia. A number of characteristics are often observable in very young children, such as a delayed onset for talking, poor receptive or expressive vocabulary, difficulty learning the alphabet or counting, and problems recognizing or producing rhymes. As children are introduced to print, the primary difficulties may manifest in sound-letter associations, basic reading skills and automaticity, and spelling. In the upper grades, children with dyslexia may exhibit problems with vocabulary, reading comprehension, and written expression.
Identifying Students Who Have Dyslexia
Assessments of children with dyslexia have shown a pattern of deficits that can be useful in identifying those at risk. These patterns include:
- Difficulty with letter-sound knowledge and phonological awareness—an inability to identify letters and their sounds and manipulate the individual units of speech such as the initial, middle, or ending sounds in a word;
- Difficulty with Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN)—an inability to rapidly recall and name familiar items such as letters, numbers, and colors;
- Difficulty with processing speed and working memory—an inability to focus attention to complete tasks and hold new information in short-term memory while manipulating it to achieve a result.
Early Screening and Intervention
Fortunately, research using functional MRI scans has led to an important finding. Because of the plasticity of the brain, children with dyslexia who were screened early and received appropriate interventions showed brain scans that resembled those of children without reading difficulties. This means that identifying dyslexia in young children and providing the right kinds of targeted instruction may actually prevent reading failure and the need for later intervention.
Misconceptions and Facts about Dyslexia
Because dyslexia does not look the same in every person, and because there may be misconceptions about how to accurately screen children, dyslexia can be missed or mistaken for another disability. Here are the facts. Dyslexia occurs in people of all intellectual levels. Many people with dyslexia are gifted, making them twice exceptional and their abilities more easily overlooked. Dyslexia can also coexist with ADD/ADHD, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and executive functioning difficulties. For some people with dyslexia, spoken language is also impacted. Each of these factors makes valid and reliable screening all the more necessary.
Screening, Training, and Intervention
Dyslexia research has provided the data to help guide early screening, enabling parents and teachers to provide support even before children begin reading instruction.
Screening does not constitute diagnosis and is generally conducted as part of a two-step process that begins with an initial universal screening. Universal screenings, using research-supported and valid measures, can take as little as 10 minutes to administer to an individual or group and have shown promising predictability outcomes. Students who meet the criteria for being at risk can then receive a more comprehensive evaluation and targeted intervention.
Research has also focused attention on the outcomes of dyslexic children not receiving early intervention. 74% of children who are reading disabled at the end of 3rd grade will remain disabled at the end of high school unless they receive effective instruction to help them overcome their difficulties. Educators who work with children can generally attest to the cascading effects of reading failure—low self-esteem, lower than expected achievement, and higher dropout rates—but often feel unprepared to recognize dyslexia and provide appropriate support. Teacher training that is based on methods shown to be effective will ensure that children with dyslexia are receiving the right kinds of instruction at the earliest possible point.
Early universal screening of children and additional training for educators offer the potential for reducing years of school failure and the eventual need for more special education placements and costly interventions.
Research and Resources of Support
The Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act (READ Act), signed into law on February 18, 2016, is designed to increase dyslexia research in a number of areas, including identifying better methods for early detection and effective approaches to teacher training. Additionally, many states have already passed legislation that will increase efforts to identify and support students with dyslexia, and more states are expected to do the same.
Dyslexia research provides the greatest opportunity for collaboration between those in the lab and those in the classroom to create the resources needed to support millions of struggling readers and those who could be prevented from ever entering that category.