Early Reading: Screening, Diagnosis, And Prevention

This is an updated excerpt from a publication I developed in 2000 while working for the AFT Educational Issues Department, “Putting Reading Front and Center: A Resource Guide for Union Advocacy.” By tapping the expertise of teachers of reading among members, local unions can use their collective voice to strengthen reading instruction.

The best form of reading remediation is to prevent children from falling behind in the first place. To many educators, this statement seems so obvious that its an education truism. Yet its one thing to agree on a basic truth and quite another to figure out how to implement it as part of a comprehensive school improvement effort.

The importance of assessing early reading skills

The first essential step in building an effective support system for struggling readers is to identify difficulties quickly, before an achievement gap can develop. The second is to implement effective prevention and early intervention strategies—i.e., stepping in while students are so young that reading failure never occurs, or early enough that it is relatively easy for students to catch up. For reading, its particularly important that this support begin at the earliest possible grade level.

For example, researchers are able to predict what childrens reading levels will be in late elementary and middle school grades, with the fair degree of accuracy, just by looking at their reading skills in kindergarten and first grade. Oral reading fluency measured in the spring of first grade predicted both initial levels and growth of reading and math achievement from third through eighth grade (Herbers et al. 2012). In other words, without intervention, students who are behind in reading when they begin school generally dont catch up (Juel 1988). This is not an area where a belief the children will learn to read when they are developmentally ready is appropriate; children who are having trouble keeping up (to expected grade levels) need immediate assistance.

What happens when effective intervention is provided? For 85 percent to 90 percent of struggling readers between the ages of 5 and 7, 30 minutes a day of prevention and early intervention instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, vocabulary development and reading comprehension provided by a well-trained teacher can help to increase reading skills to average reading levels (Lyon 1997). However, if intervention is delayed, the research suggests that at least two hours a day of special instruction could be needed (Hudson et al. 2007). Few schools can provide such assistance at that point without taking away other learning experiences from students. Thus, approximately 75 percent of these children continue to have reading difficulties into adulthood.

Screening and diagnosis

So how can you implement an early identification system that is both effective and efficient?

First its important to note that the terms “screening” and “diagnostic assessment” are not interchangeable. Screening is a process for determining which students may be at risk for reading problems. Because screenings are intended for use with all children, they should be quick, inexpensive, easy to administer, and simple to interpret. These characteristics of screening also allow for screening to be conducted frequently, targeted when needed, and recognize the expertise of the classroom teacher as the primary reading instructor (American Educator 2004). Diagnostic assessment, on the other hand, is a process to help figure out what is causing a particular student’s reading difficulties and what to do about it. Because such tests must try to pinpoint causes and suggest solutions for students’ reading problems, they need to be more comprehensive and more precise than a typical screening. And, because only a select number of students need to be served, assessments that are meant to function as a diagnostic instrument can be fairly time and labor-intensive. To be most useful, an early identification system should include both an initial screening and a diagnostic component.

Second, any screening and diagnostic assessment measures that are used should be developmentally appropriate, technically sound, and must include measures of the skills and knowledge that have the highest predictive value—i.e., are the most closely correlated with students’ future performance levels. According to the research, the best predictions a future reading achievement in kindergarten and first grade students can be obtained by measuring (1) childrens phonemic awareness, and (2) their knowledge of letter names and sounds (Torgesen 1998; Torgesen 2004).

Third, its crucial that the assessment system be well-designed and contain safeguards against practices that label or stigmatize young children. Young children are notoriously poor test takers. They squirm; their attention wanders; they ask meandering questions; and sometimes forget what they were asked to do—in other words, the same things that make them delightful to be around. According to some researchers, the younger the student, the greater the risk of incidental errors. One researcher, Joseph Torgesen, estimates that some tests of very young students may have a “false positive” error rate of up to 60 percent. That is, more than half of all kindergarten students identified as at risk for reading failure will be found not to have a reading problem by the end of first grade, even without intervention. Conversely, some tests may have false negative errors of up to 50 percent. That is, some assessments failed to identify half of the students who will eventually be identified as having serious reading difficulties. Although both are problematic, a high “false negative” rate is clearly more serious. It wont hurt any student if instructors give them extra attention. But it will hurt a struggling student if his or her problems remain unaddressed. Thus, it is important that screening and diagnostic tests are designed for accuracy and technical soundness. It is even more important to ensure that any assessment for very young students is designed to inform instruction and target intervention services and not and that it not be used for tracking or accountability.

Fourth, the research on the early emergence of reading problems notwithstanding, childrens social, emotional, and academic development occur at somewhat different rates. As mentioned above, schools should expect that reading difficulties wont be immediately evident for a significant proportion of students. For others, adjustments in instructional methods, targeting interventions (such as tutoring), or (for a few) just the passage of time will act to dissipate problems. In order to accommodate these differences, an effective screening and diagnostic assessment system should include plans for periodic re-screening.

And finally, no screening and diagnostic assessment system will be useful, much less effective, if the results arent used to provide students with the help they need to succeed.

Prevention/Early Intervention

Once screening has identified the students who are at risk for developing reading problems and diagnosis as focused attention on the area(s) of probable difficulty, then what?

For most students, extra attention from their classroom instructor will suffice. As an integral part of teacher preparation and professional development, teachers of reading should receive training that will allow them to administer simple screening and diagnostic assessments—as well as to interpret and use the data gained from such assessments. Expert classroom practitioners should be able to design and execute a modified instructional plan for most students who have been identified as in danger of reading failure.

According to the research, most reading difficulties in young beginning readers are rooted in inefficient word recognition skills (Torgesen 1998; Torgesen 2004). Thus, in the early grades, this differentiated classroom instruction will usually entail more intensive and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics-related activities.

It is vital that attention also be paid to instructional activities that help build students vocabulary, content knowledge, and comprehension skills—especially when working with students who dont have the benefit of a literacy-rich home environment (that is, families that have few books in the home and/or have little or no access to local libraries). Oral language and vocabulary development are arguably the most crucial areas of academic focus during the early grades. Vocabulary size in pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st grade can predict children’s ability to comprehend texts throughout late elementary school and into middle and high school (Dickinson et al. 2003NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 2003). In the early grades, children must develop as both listeners and speakers. Receptive (listening) language grows as children are exposed to completely new words or to words they already know that are used in new and different ways. Children can learn some word meanings after only one or two exposures if the word is paired with a concrete object, an action, or a brief explanation. This type of word learning, called “fast-mapping,” explains young children’s rapid acquisition of vocabulary when they are in a language-rich environment (Berninger et al. 2006).

Young children gain a more nuanced understanding of vocabulary with each exposure. Most children will need to hear a new word several times in different contexts before fully incorporating it into their receptive (listening) vocabulary, and probably many more times before using it in their expressive (speaking) language (Biemiller 2006). This is because children generally learn words in relation to the specific meanings—objects, concepts, relationships, actions, emotions—they were meant to convey. Children will not understand the words they encounter in text or the meanings conveyed by them unless these words are already part of their receptive vocabulary. As a result, children with large vocabularies and a relatively broad range of knowledge are in a better position to comprehend, learn from, and enjoy the books they read (Wright and Neuman 2009).

In conclusion, every classroom teacher should be able to draw on a system that provides a full range of specialized services to students, as needed. This should include referrals for additional diagnostic assessments by trained reading specialists, psychologists, and speech and language pathologists, or other professionals who make up the school’s and district’s team of interventionists. This should also include providing extra instructional time to students—through one-on-one tutorials or working in small groups with a reading specialist or a well-trained and supervised paraprofessional, depending on the type and severity of the student’s difficulty. When necessary, the services of a special education, medical, or developmental specialist should also be provided.

The funding for these types of interventions are well worth the price. For example, it is estimated that every student who leaves school without graduating costs society $260,000 in lost earning, taxes, and productivity (Hernandez 2012). And, according to a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, society could save as much as $18.5 billion in annual crime costs if the high school male dropout rate decreased by only 5 percentage points (DeBaun and Roc 2013). One study found that students who struggled with reading in early elementary grades comprised 88 percent of those who never received a diploma when they grew up, making low reading skills the strongest predictor of the reason that students drop out (Hernandez 2012). Although school district budgets are extremely tight, the investment in helping students learn to read—and read well—are well worth the cost.