“Far too many children with learning and attention issues are undiagnosed until well into their elementary school years, or even later, at which point they are performing behind their peers and struggling to catch up. Screening students for learning and attention issues—beginning as early as preschool and continuing through early elementary school—can ensure that children have appropriate support and professionals have the tools to better understand and address each child’s needs.” (National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), 2017)

The importance of early screening for signs of dyslexia cannot be overstated. When dyslexia goes undetected and unaddressed, students with this neurological learning disorder are at a much greater risk for failing courses, performing poorly on tests, being retained, and dropping out of school than peers without learning disabilities.

Conversely, when students with dyslexia are identified early and receive appropriate instruction from a skilled educator, they can make significant gains in literacy skills and become fluent, independent readers. Such accomplishments strengthen students’ beliefs in what they can achieve, and help minimize or prevent negative academic and psychological consequences.

As the National Center for Learning Disabilities notes in its 2017 report, The State of Learning Disabilities, “learning disabilities do not suddenly appear in third grade. Researchers have noted that the achievement gap between typical readers and those with dyslexia is evident as early as first grade. But many students struggle for years before they are identified with a SLD [specific learning disability] and receive needed support.” (Horowitz, et al.)

In response to greater awareness about dyslexia and effective instructional methods, states are adopting laws specifically requiring districts to screen children in early primary grades to determine which students are at risk for reading failure and potentially dyslexia.

The National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), a partnership comprised of literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides information about effective approaches to screen, identify, and teach students with reading difficulties including dyslexia. In this NCIL video, dyslexia researcher Nadine Gaab, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and a member of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares important factors to consider when selecting the right screener to identify children at risk. NCIL researchers, in partnership with experts from the organization’s Dyslexia Work Group, published the 2019 white paper, Screening for Dyslexia, to provide an overview and additional insight.

Other resources include Chapter 5 of the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook and Chapter 9 of the California Dyslexia Guidelines. These provide thorough overviews of screening measures by grade level, information about selecting evidence-based screening tools, and options to consider if developmental reading disabilities are suspected. The guides, both published in 2017, also provide information on progress monitoring and next steps for a full evaluation if ascreening indicates dyslexia.

Another resource, the International Dyslexia Association’s Fact Sheet on Universal Screening: K-2 Reading, explains the purpose and importance of universal screening, screening methods and measures, and how to use the data to make informed decisions about the type of evidence-based intervention best suited for students identified as being as risk for dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education recommends this What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) Practice Guide to help educators identify struggling readers and implement evidence-based strategies within RTI and MTSS frameworks that promote reading achievement. Another resource recommended by IES is the Doing What Works presentation, Universal Screening for All Students, which outlines a recommended approach in the primary grades.

What does universal screening assess?

  • Developmental, medical, behavioral, academic, and family history
  • General intellectual functioning
  • Cognitive processing
  • Language, memory, auditory processing, visual processing, visual motor integration, reasoning abilities, and executive functioning
  • Specific oral language skills related to reading and writing success
  • Phonological processing
  • Level of functioning in basic skill areas of reading, spelling, written language, and math

When and how frequently should students be screened?

Screening can be done as early as preschool, and at least three times a year through grade 2 at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. In its Dyslexia Toolkit, the National Center for Learning Disabilities includes a checklist of common dyslexia warning signs to watch for in elementary and middle school children. To create awareness for early detection, the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University created this short video, Preventing Reading Impairments: Screening Made Easier for Educators, noting four pre-reading skills that can reliably predict who is at risk for dyslexia.

How does one obtain the results of a screening?

An important aspect of the screening process is how the data is used and shared with others. Parents should contact their child’s teacher to learn about their school’s protocol regarding the sharing of screening data. 

What is the difference between screening and an evaluation?

Screenings are conducted with all students in general education classrooms and are used to identify those students at risk for learning disabilities. This enables educators to provide early intervention targeting these reading deficits before they lead to years of reading failure.

An evaluation that can diagnose a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia, requires parental permission, and should include a full cognitive profile of a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

If a child shows signs of reading difficulty or a learning disability, parents should partner with their child’s teacher and school to determine a plan of action. If you think your child needs a full evaluation, contact your school district for more information. The nonprofit organization Understood provides additional information about the evaluation process.

  Screening Evaluation
Time Involved Brief; Administered individually or in a group Lengthy; Administered individually
Characteristics Criterion referenced; Curriculum-based measures; Arbitrary cut-off points Norm-referenced; standardized based on standard scores, percentiles, grade/average-based equivalencies
Focus Specific skill areas Extensive assessment of functioning (cognitive, academic, linguistic, motoric, behavioral)
Administrator Teachers Trained specialist (school psychologist, LDT/C, speech language therapist)
Reason Determine students who are at risk and in need of general education remediation Identify strengths and weaknesses within profile in order to determine classification for special education placement and services

Source: IDA Fact Sheet, Universal Screening: K-2 Reading

References (click to show)

California Department of Education, Special Education Division. (2017). California dyslexia guidelines. Sacramento, CA: Author.

Horowitz, S. H., Rawe, J., & Whittaker, M. C. (2017). The state of learning disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

New Jersey Department of Education. (2017). The New Jersey dyslexia handbook: A guide to early literacy development and reading struggles. Trenton, NJ: Author.

Petscher, Y., Fien, H., Stanley, C., Gearin, B., Gaab, N., Fletcher, J.M., & Johnson, E. (2019). Screening for dyslexia. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Improving Literacy. Retrieved from

Rosenberg, D., & Pankowski, A. (2017). Universal screening: K-2 reading [Fact Sheet]. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.