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Early Literacy Screenings Can Identify Reading Difficulties in Young Students

Each school year, Friends Academy screens all Kindergarten and first grade students for reading difficulties such as dyslexia – to spot potential language-based learning differences and provide the right literacy instruction before students learn how to read.

“There is a strong push at the state level for the early identification of reading challenges,” said Kendal Martes, director of the Sally Borden Program at Friends Academy. The Sally Borden Program offers classes for students in grades 3-8 with language-based learning differences including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, as well as the Bridge Program for students in second grade and earlier.

Dyslexia is the most common of all specific learning disabilities (SLDs), according to the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines. It affects an estimated 5-17% of children in the general population. In 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released dyslexia screening criteria in response to a 2018 state law aiming to mandate early screenings for all public school students in grades K-3.

The number of students identified as having SLDs (including dyslexia) nearly triples between second and third grade. That’s because dyslexia is typically diagnosed at this age – even though dyslexic students usually struggle to learn to read well before then.

Ms. Martes explains the “dyslexia paradox”: “The myth is that you can’t diagnose dyslexia until children learn how to read – so a child has to try and fail. By third grade, those kids feel so defeated that you have to remediate their reading skills and rebuild their self-esteem as learners.”

Instead of this wait-to-fail model, Friends is working to identify reading challenges and intervene as early as Kindergarten, when research shows intervention is most effective. “If we catch potential reading difficulties early, we can shrink the gap between a child who is struggling and their peers. It also prevents those children from feeling like failures.”

Catching potential reading difficulties starts with oral language skills, which are the foundation for reading and writing. “We can screen for those skills before children actually begin to read.” Because dyslexia is a brain-based difference, Ms. Martes says, early intervention “can shape their neurological patterns to learn how to read.”

Friends Academy uses EarlyBird, which was developed at Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research. Students take the assessment on an iPad using a game-based format. This screening process brings the expertise of the Sally Borden Program to first grade, Kindergarten, and even Early Childhood, as students are screened in the spring before starting Kindergarten.

“Reading difficulties such as dyslexia are generally diagnosed in second or third grade, after repeated failure to learn to read and after the most effective intervention window,” said Carla Small, co-founder and CEO of EarlyBird Education. “This can change the learning trajectory of children who could potentially be overlooked for months or even years.”

After the first round of screenings, Sally Borden Program learning specialists spend extra time on literacy instruction with at-risk students. Near the end of the year, students are screened again to see how well they improved as a result of these interventions.

“We know this will be good for all students, even those not deemed at risk,” said Ms. Martes.

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