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How to find a dyslexia screener

What educators should look for in a dyslexia screener -- and what these devices can and can't do.

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

Donell Part 2 image

This is part two of a four-part series about what educators can do to identify, assess, and accommodate students with dyslexia. You can also read Part One: Identifying students with dyslexia and Part Three: Supporting students with dyslexia. Part Four: “4 ways to lead a dyslexia initiative” will be available November 1.

Around the same time I was desperately trying to figure out why my otherwise bright son was unable to make any progress in reading despite plenty of exposure to the concepts, I came across an article with the headline, “Dyslexia is not a real condition, expert says.”

In the article, Professor Julian Elliott from the Department of Education at Durham University is quoted as saying, “Dyslexia persists as a construct largely because it serves an emotional, not a scientific, function.” Needless to say, dyslexia support groups and teachers around the world disagree, but there are still states that don’t allow dyslexia to be classified as its own learning difference. As a result, some schools and districts don’t offer teachers training for identifying dyslexia — which, to be clear, is the number one reason students struggle to read. If we as educators are to provide the support that struggling readers need, we first need to identify these students and determine the severity of their challenges.

For educators seeking a basic understanding of dyslexia, the video “Dyslexia: What Every Educator Should Know” is a good start. When it comes to the specifics of screening for reading difficulties, Richard Selznick’s book “Dyslexia Screening: Essential Concepts for Schools & Parents” is one of the most approachable and concise texts. He writes that screening allows educators to look at various assessments that are already being used in the classroom to identify students who are at risk of reading difficulties.

Who should conduct screenings?

Selznick points out that, although it might be nice to have someone “specialized” in learning disabilities conduct the screening, any teacher can administer a screening and work with other professionals to interpret the results. It’s important to have individuals on the screening team who are versed in appropriate reading readiness milestones.

What does a screening assess?

It’s also important for educators to know the difference between a screening and a diagnosis. Screening focuses on a specific set of skills that indicate reading readiness or skills that can predict future reading success, such as phonemic awareness and letter-naming fluency, both of which are measured by DIBELS. Diagnosis, on the other hand, focuses on gathering clinical evidence to make a clinical determination. Diagnostic tests of reading examine more complex skills, such as comprehension and cognitive processes.

Should parents pay?

Parents who opt to pay for an expensive diagnosis are often left with a costly piece of paper, yet they are still at the mercy of a school with no formal training in the appropriate interventions. Even though an online screener is not an official document, it can be a good place to start when a parent doesn’t have a lot of options. Until there is a more universal understanding of what should be part of an online dyslexia screener and how it will be used to drive instruction, it doesn’t make much sense to pay for one. Schools will not offer services based on the results of an online screener, but they may be useful as part of a larger process of examination.

When looking for an online screener, I recommend consulting established websites such as the International Dyslexia Association, Bright Solutions for Dyslexia and the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. I would avoid online screeners that have no association with reading research, that come attached to reading programs or that offer services as part of the screener. Avoid websites with claims that are too good to be true, such as, “Cure dyslexia today by taking this online screener.” Dyslexia does not have a cure.

If a screener shows ‘yes,’ what next?

Parents and guardians are used to receiving test results and scores measuring school performance. The more sophisticated the screening process, the more information parents will receive, but if the school only has resources to level students in green, yellow and red to indicate their need for reading remediation, then this is enough to usher students into appropriate levels of intervention.

Schools need to be sure they are not only prepared to screen, but ready to provide appropriate remediation and ongoing reports to parents. It’s not acceptable to have students in the same level of remediation for the entire year, therefore not making acceptable progress.

If screening results indicate that a student is highly likely to have dyslexia, the conversation with parents will be handled according to the state laws governing dyslexia screening and diagnosis. In Texas, for example, there are dyslexia specialists in schools who are trained to handle all aspects of screening, diagnosing and remediation. In Utah, a school would need to be sure it’s compliant with not diagnosing dyslexia. This doesn’t mean a school shouldn’t provide appropriate instruction for reading difficulties.

Whether or not an online screener is free doesn’t appear to make a significant difference. What does matter is that educators use an effective screener that will show beneficial results. Schools don’t have the authority to diagnose, but they’re still required to provide the screening to get students with reading difficulties the help they need.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah. Pons started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She has a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. Connect with her at [email protected].


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