Evaluation for Specific Learning Disorders in Reading

Since we have covered basic information about Specific Learning Disability in Reading and Dyslexia, now we can talk about key components in diagnosing these disorders. There is no one assessment battery to diagnose dyslexia. When choosing your examiner, make sure to go with someone who specializes in learning disabilities. While there is no one test that can diagnose a learning disorder in reading, there are several specific assessment areas that should be examined, and an experienced examiner will be able to choose quality tools to gain information about those areas. The following areas should be considered in all evaluations if you or your child has difficulties with reading.

Phonemic/Phonological Awareness

Phonemic/Phonological Awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the sound structure of oral language. This skill is measured by examining the client’s ability to manipulate sound. For example, assessments may require clients to identify sounds in words, rhyme, delete sounds from words, etc. While this may seem like a basic skill, it is foundational to reading, and many people who have deficits in phonological awareness have subsequent reading difficulties.

Rapid Automatic Naming

Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN) measures how fast a student can scan an array of visual symbols and encode a phonological response. This is usually measured by clients naming letters, numbers, colors, or other symbols as quickly as possible. This type of task measures the efficient retrieval of phonological information and executing a sequence of operations quickly and repeatedly, which is required when decoding unfamiliar words.

Alphabetic Knowledge

It is also import to assess a client’s sound-symbol correspondence skills. This can be accomplished by measuring the ability to associate sounds (phonemes) with specific letters (graphemes).

Word Identification

Word reading automaticity and decoding accuracy are both important components of word identification. Not only is it important that a client can identify real words, but it is important that they can decode nonsense words as well. Assessing nonsense word reading can be a more accurate measure of decoding words since it is unlikely that the client would have had opportunity to memorize these words. In addition to being able to read phonetically decodable words, an assessment for a specific learning disorder in reading should also evaluate a client’s ability to identify irregular words (sight words).

Reading Fluency

Reading fluency is a measure of how quickly and accurately a client can read. Timed tests are given to see how many words an individual can read within a specific time. Often assessments use word lists, sentences, and/or paragraphs to measure reading fluency.

Reading Vocabulary

Reading vocabulary measures a client’s ability to know what individually read words mean. This is an important task that contributes to overall reading understanding.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a person’s ability to understand what they have read. Appropriate reading comprehension assessments will look at how students are able to read a variety of text types and answer both literal and inferential questions about the text.

Listening Comprehension

Gathering information about a client’s listening comprehension skills is important so we can compare scores from listening comprehension and reading comprehension subtests. If reading comprehension is weak while listening comprehension average, it gives us a clue that reading comprehension is likely the issue as opposed to broader comprehension concerns.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are directly related to an individual’s ability to regulate their behavior in order to achieve a goal or complete a task. Working memory, inhibition, and attention all play a part in our ability to read well and should be evaluated if there are concerns related to any of these areas.

An appropriate evaluation will provide insight into an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Once you are able to identify a student’s area of need, you can plan how to address it. Next time, we will discuss how to match what is found in an evaluation to appropriate intervention services.

Myths About Dyslexia

In our last blog, we shared an overview about what dyslexia is. This week, we will talk about what dyslexia is not. There are many myths and misconceptions about dyslexia and reading disabilities in our society. If we are able to identify those myths and educate others about them, we will move towards being able to provide better services to our students with dyslexia. In our school psychology practice, we commonly hear the following misconceptions about students with dyslexia.

Visual Issues

We often hear people express that students with dyslexia have a visual processing issue that causes reading difficulties. However, we now know that dyslexia is a language-based disability. This means that things related to language processing, such as phonological awareness and sound-symbol skills, are impacted by this disability.

Letter and Word Reversals

Related to vision, many people also believe that dyslexia causes people to reverse letters and/or numbers. While some individuals do reverse their letters, it is only a small percentage. The primary issue is not that an individual with dyslexia sees or writes letters and words backwards, it is that they have language-based difficulties.

Cognitive Deficits

Another myth is that dyslexia means that individuals have cognitive deficits. In fact, many bright, even gifted, students can have dyslexia. Cognitive skills are usually not negatively impacted by dyslexia. Instead, specific skills related to language processing negatively impact reading and spelling skills.

Can’t Learn to Read

Another major misconception is that people with dyslexia can’t learn how to read. It is important to know that with proper intervention services, accommodations, and assistive technology, many students are able to make great strides in learning how to read.

In our following blog, we will address various components that go into conducting a thorough assessments for specific reading disorders.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a term used to describe a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading that expresses itself in a specific way. Dyslexia has been defined by the International Dyslexia Association as:

“a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Unlike oral communication, reading and writing are not natural processes. Over time, humans have created symbols that correspond with sounds as a way to communicate through writing. A variety of areas of the brain are affected by dyslexia, and we can see brain-based differences between those with and without dyslexia. As we see in the definition above, dyslexia is neurobiological in origin, which essentially means that individuals with dyslexia have brains that function in a way that causes difficulty with these skills.

Dyslexia occurs in people from all backgrounds and is not indicative of cognitive deficits. In fact, many bright students are diagnosed with dyslexia. However, certain skills such as phonological awareness, identifying letter sounds, decoding words, and spelling are often impacted.

Dyslexia is a fairly common diagnosis. According the International Dyslexia Association, around 6-7% of school-aged students qualify for special education services under the category of specific learning disability. Of those students who qualify with a learning disability, 85% have primary disabilities in reading and language processing. Of course, people experience differences in severity of dyslexia, and not everyone who has dyslexia qualifies for special education. The International Dyslexia Association has estimated that up to 15-20% of people in the United States exhibits some symptoms of dyslexia.

Our understanding of dyslexia and other reading disorders is constantly evolving as more research is being done in the area. While we have come a long way in our understanding of dyslexia, there are still many common misconceptions about it. Next week, we will address common misconceptions we hear about dyslexia in our school psychology practice.

Specific Learning Disability in Reading

If you and your child’s educational team suspect that they have a reading disability, the team will conduct an Evaluation Team Report (ETR) to determine if the student meets the definition of a student with a disability, as outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). In this step, the team will also have to decide which disability category is most appropriate based on the results of the ETR. Should the data support that your child has a reading disability, they would qualify under the category of Specific Learning Disability.

Specific Learning Disability has been defined by the Ohio Department of Education as:

“a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

The Specific Learning Disability category is further broken into more detailed parts based on which exact skills the evaluation shows as an area of need. In the case of reading, your child may qualify under basic reading skills, reading fluency, and/or reading comprehension.

When we look back at our last blog about the five main areas of reading, we can see that they all fit within the ETR categories.

Basic Reading Skills

Both phonemic/phonological awareness and phonics can be considered basic reading skills. If your child has qualified under basic reading skills, this means that they have difficulty understanding and manipulating sounds in our oral language and/or have difficulty recognizing sound-symbols and common letter patterns when reading. This leads to issues with learning basic reading skills, such as accurately identifying words.

Reading Fluency

If your child has qualified for special education services in the area of reading fluency, this means that they have difficulty reading quickly and accurately with appropriate expression.

Reading Comprehension

Both reading vocabulary and comprehension skills falls under the reading comprehension category. If your child qualifies for special education in this area, it means that they have difficulty deriving meaning from text.

Next week, we will continue our discussion about reading disabilities by discussing dyslexia and its unique characteristics.