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Helping Students with Dyslexia: Utilizing the Data on Hand

University of Missouri, Herbert W. Schooling faculty member, professor of special education, and director of the Center for Collaborative Solutions for Kids, Practice, and Policy (SKiPP)
Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • Dyslexia

In 2016, Missouri joined the growing list of states that required school districts to screen for dyslexia and to better support students diagnosed with or at risk for developing a reading disability. I felt privileged and honored to be asked to serve on a task force to develop guidelines for schools to implement the new law. It was not the task force that made recommendations about the law, but the one that would help schools actually implement it. We met in winter 2015, before the law was passed, to meet each other, discuss our role, and receive our charge from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and I eagerly anticipated getting to work. However, that task force never met again.

In 2016, Missouri mandated sweeping reform but unfortunately provided little guidance about how to best implement it, which sent school administrators into a frenzy of purchasing anything that had the word “dyslexia” in the title and Googling words like Orton and Gillingham. Today, according to the National Center on Improving Literacy, every state and territory in the country but Hawaii and Puerto Rico have some sort of statewide mandate for screening and treating dyslexia (https://improvingliteracy.org/state-of-dyslexia), and I have to wonder how many rolled out their legislative reform with inadequate support to the schools charged with implementing it. A rush to meet a mandate often results in decisions based on fads and popular opinion, rather than science.

The Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen (SDS; 2016), purports to help teachers identify students who may have dyslexia in grades K–3. The SDS is a rating scale completed by teachers to assess phonological, linguistic, and academic performance of students (Shaywitz, 2016). The SDS was developed from the famous and groundbreaking Connecticut Longitudinal study (Ferrer et al., 2015), but the scale itself was not studied until we examined it with 115 students in grades kindergarten through third (Burns et al., 2022). Importantly, all the students in the sample scored below the 50th percentile on a group-administered measure of reading. In other words, all the children were reasonably in need of screening for dyslexia. The measure correctly identified only 35 percent of the sample who demonstrated difficulty with phonological awareness, which is the hallmark of a dyslexia diagnosis. The good news is we found that Oral Reading Fluency from Acadience® Reading (ORF) identified students with low phonological awareness 90 percent of the time (Burns et al., 2022).

Once students are identified as at risk for dyslexia, most state laws require intervention to support their needs. Some commonly used interventions for students with dyslexia are not well studied or have small effects (Ritchey & Goeke, 2006; Stevens et al., 2021), and are cost prohibitive for most schools (The Reading Center, 2022). Hall and colleagues (2022) reviewed 52 studies of reading interventions for students with dyslexia and found studies that did not use a multisensory component were more effective than those that did, and small-group interventions had larger effects than those delivered one on one. Including spelling and phonemic awareness in the interventions generally led to better effects. Fortunately, several meta-analyses have shown positive effects of reading interventions that focus on the code-based aspects of reading for students with reading disabilities (Galuschka et al., 2014; Scammacca et al., 2015; Suggate, 2016). Nell Duke, Kelly Cartwright, and I (Burns et al., in press) examined 333 reading intervention studies and found positive effects for teaching phonics to students at risk for reading difficulties, but also found large effects for vocabulary instruction (ES = 1.09), teaching text structure (ES = 1.31), and inferencing (ES = 0.92).

There are several options to help students with dyslexia, but perhaps what matters most is matching the intervention to student strengths and needs (Hall & Burns, 2017). For example, students who lack basic decoding skills need an intervention that focuses on phonics and those who can decode adequately but who do not read fluently should receive an intervention that focuses on building reading fluency skills. Thus, school personnel need to collect data to identify the most fundamental skill in which the student needs support. A student who is low in comprehension and fluency but with adequate decoding skills would require a fluency intervention. One who is low in comprehension, fluency, and decoding but with good phonemic awareness skills would require a focus on decoding. One who is low across the four fundamental skills would require intervention in phonemic awareness. Fortunately, schools routinely collect data that assess the areas of reading. Most curriculum-based measurement systems address the other areas such as ORF from Acadience as a measure of reading fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency directly measures decoding, and Phoneme Segmentation Fluency and First Sound Fluency assess phonemic awareness.

Dyslexia mandates have sent many school administrators scrambling to purchase new screeners and interventions, but the research suggests that may not be necessary. It is highly likely schools already have what they need to meet the mandates and to support the needs of students with dyslexia. Additional research is needed, but assessing reading remains the best way to screen for a reading disability, and teaching children how to read (in an explicit, structured, and targeted way) remains the best approach for them to learn it.

I have the honor of being the guest on the upcoming EDView 360 podcast, "Using the Data You Already Have to Help Students with Dyslexia" during which we discussed this topic in more detail. You can listen here.