Why are we waiting for children to fail to read before we help?
Approximately 5 to 15 percent of children in Massachusetts have dyslexia — a neurological disability associated with struggles in decoding, reading, and spelling.
Students are typically identified with dyslexia only when they fall behind their peers in reading — starting in third grade.
But exciting new research, conducted jointly by MIT, Tufts University, and Boston Children’s Hospital, finds that it is possible to identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as kindergarten — before most children are even taught to read.
Dyslexia is complicated — it may not be so much a disability as a different way of learning.
While students may struggle in school, some of our most creative artists, athletes, journalists, and scientists are dyslexic, including Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Magic Johnson, Anderson Cooper, and Nobel Laureate in Medicine Baruj Benacerraf.
Yet, because students with dyslexia often experience successive academic failures, many suffer from severe low self-esteem and anxiety. Dyslexia is associated with higher high school dropout rates (double that of other students), higher suicide-attempt rates, and higher rates of incarceration. Consequently, it is crucial that we identify and support students with dyslexia early.
The new study screened more than 1,400 Boston-area students, measuring children’s ability to identify distinct sounds, called phonemes (example: Say “cat” without the “kuh”) and their ability to name letters and objects quickly and automatically. This 30-minute screen is highly predictive of which students will struggle with reading in second grade. Many will go on to be diagnosed with dyslexia.
Armed with this information, teachers can target support to students struggling with specific language and reading skills on day one of kindergarten. Starting early could be the difference in ensuring a dyslexic student succeeds in school. Research from Florida State University found that interventions in kindergarten and first grade led to greater reading gains than in older grades.
Why is early intervention more effective? It could be because younger students have greater brain plasticity. It could also be that, by third grade, students are discouraged by repeated academic failures.
Over the past four years, Ohio’s Department of Education has piloted an early-reading screening and intervention program in eight districts. Results from year three show significant reading gains by most students who participated in early intense intervention. The study also suggests helping students early will enable the state to avoid more costly interventions needed for older students still struggling to read.
The Massachusetts Legislature is considering bills that would recommend the development of pre-literacy screenings for all students. Such a screen would not be a diagnosis for dyslexia or other learning disabilities, but it would identify students at risk for reading difficulties. The state’s schools already screen incoming kindergarteners — testing vision, hearing, and motor skills. Drawing on successful programs in other states, schools could add a 30-minute reading screen, at an estimated cost of roughly $20 per student. In turn, this could help schools target instructional interventions, supporting the academic and long-term economic success of students with dyslexia, as well as supporting economic gains for the Commonwealth. Early preventative interventions for children at-risk for dyslexia is much less expensive than years of remediation once they fall behind their peers.
Children with dyslexia have so much to contribute to our communities; it is important we don’t fail them before they have the chance to thrive.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.