Bringing Equity to Dyslexia Screenings in Massachusetts

Two Tufts lecturers partnered with the Department of Education to create and establish state-wide guidelines for screening young children for dyslexia
Melissa Orkin, AG08, AG12, and Leandra Elion, both lecturers with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts.
Tisch College lecturers Melissa Orkin, AG08, AG12, and Leandra Elion wrote a large part of the evidence-based dyslexia guidelines, which were required by a 2018 law. Photo: Jenna Grace Schad / Tufts University
July 21, 2021

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Dyslexia, the general term that describes difficulty with accurate and/or fluent reading, is the most common type of learning disability. Until recently, the protocol for screening young children for dyslexia has varied between schools and districts in Massachusetts, but a new set of state-wide guidelines aim to ensure that every K-2 student is screened for dyslexia and receives appropriate intervention.

The best time to intervene when a child struggles with learning read, including those with dyslexia, is between ages 6 and 8, based on over a decade of federally supported work by Maryanne Wolf, professor emeritus in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Other research has shown that extra support and specialized instruction can bring most students up to grade-level reading ability. But for many years, some schools in Massachusetts have adopted a wait-and-see approach, watching for children to outgrow the issue and providing extra help only if that did not happen. While these late interventions still encourage literacy growth, fewer students catch up to grade-level reading than with earlier interventions.

The lack of state-wide guidance on dyslexia screenings introduced an element of inequity, as children who live in more affluent school districts or have parents with financial resources are more likely to be screened early and receive the necessary help than children in underprivileged areas.

The new Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which were written in large part by two Tufts lecturers, provide direction and support for educators and parents to ensure that all students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities receive effective support prior to experiencing any type of substantial failure.

“This changes practice across the state, for every public school, in terms of their protocols for screening students and for supporting students who are at risk for and identified with dyslexia,” said Melissa Orkin, AG08, AG12, a lecturer with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life who received both her master’s and doctorate in child development from Tufts, where she worked with Wolf.

“The evidence-based guidelines were required by a 2018 law, which took a lot of lobbying from parents to help legislators understand the need so that dyslexia screenings wouldn't occur in pockets of isolated districts across the Commonwealth,” said Leandra Elion, also a lecturer with Tisch College and Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. “One of the things we found is there are so many inconsistencies of practice. The benefit of guidance like this on a statewide level is that we can ensure equitable practice.”

The screening is not intended to diagnose children with dyslexia before formal reading instruction begins, but it is intended to give educators an idea of which students will need extra support and monitoring to make sure their literacy skills develop at an appropriate rate.

What to Expect from a Dyslexia Screening

The dyslexia guidelines recommend screening students in preschool and require screening students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. They happen three times over the course of the school year, because reading abilities are dynamic, and they change and develop rapidly as children move through the early grades.

Screenings are designed to be fast — some less than 15 minutes — and they’re administered by a teacher who will lead the child through tasks, which vary depending on age.

“The guidelines are very clear on exactly what kind of tasks teachers need to give and why, based on the research,” said Elion. “These are the tasks that have been the most predictive of difficulties with reading. One of the things we found is that there are so many inconsistencies of practice, and one of the benefits of statewide guidance like this is we can ensure there's going to be equitable practice.”

For example, a kindergartner would be asked to do three tasks:

  1. Identify the sounds they hear in a short word, such as hop, in an exercise called phoneme segmentation.
  2. Quickly name various objects in an exercise called rapid automatic naming (RAN), which Wolf created and normed.
  3. Tell the teacher the name of a letter and, if possible, the sound it makes.

In first grade, the tasks change to involve reading, and in second grade, students are asked to read and answer comprehension questions.

“The tasks are designed to provide scores so the assessment can indicate the level of a student's risk of reading difficulty. For example, some screening measures use a color-coded system in which a score in the green means that the student has little or no risk, yellow means some risk, and a score in the red means high risk and that child should receive intensive instruction,” said Orkin.

The screening is the first step in a process called a multi-tiered system of support for supporting students at-risk for or with dyslexia. After the screening, teachers evaluate the student's performance, and if the student needs additional classroom support, they decide what that support should look like. Students are given a progress-monitoring assessment every two or three weeks to make sure the intervention is working and their skills are growing.

Advancing Dyslexia Research

The Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines are the latest way that Tufts University has contributed to dyslexia research and best practices for supporting students with the disorder.

For example, the research around the most common subtypes of dyslexia, including rapid naming weaknesses and “double deficits” in phonological processing and naming speed, was largely the result of work conducted by Wolf, who is currently the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. Her research transformed the ways in which reading instruction is differentiated among students with dyslexia and moved the field away from a one-size-fits-all model of remediation.

In addition, research from neuroscientist Ola Ozernov-Palchik, AG17, who earned her Ph.D. in cognitive science and child development from Tufts, expanded on Wolf’s findings on types of dyslexia, and demonstrated that weaknesses in pre-reading skills is associated with poor reading performance later in elementary school.

“Neuroimaging technology has shown that there are markers in the language processing parts of the brain that put some students at risk for reading impairment and dyslexia, and research has found that these markers are present even before reading instruction begins,” Orkin explained.

Ozernov-Palchik’s research also showed that preschool and kindergarten students who have difficulty with pre-literacy tasks like rhyming, naming objects, or recognizing letters, are more likely to go on to have reading difficulty. This evidence helped make the case for early screening for risk of dyslexia.

Lastly, Orkin and Elion have developed courses that strive to help educators better understand dyslexia and help struggling students. They recently taught a course to educators throughout Massachusetts on dyscalculia, which is a learning disability in math, and dysgraphia, a learning disability in writing, thanks to a grant from the Department of Education for initiatives that implement the new dyslexia guidelines. They had a “tremendous response” — 1,000 applicants for 120 spots — and graduate credit was provided by Bay Path University.

Thanks to a grant from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which was designed to alleviate some of the learning loss related to the COVID-19 pandemic by allocating federal funds to schools and universities that provide literacy instruction to students. Elion and Orkin used the grant funds to instruct a course at Tisch College called Making Education Equitable, which presents an opportunity to learn about how reading happens in the brain and involves the same research that informed the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines.

Students in the course spend half their time providing tutoring to children in Somerville and Medford in grades 1-3. During the first semester, which recently ended, about 25 undergraduate students participated virtually, working with about 40 young children. The Tufts students reported that they came away with more knowledge about teaching and the power of relationships over time.

Join Melissa Orkin and Leandra Elion for a free webinar — "Screening & Supporting Students: A Tisch College Webinar on the new Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines" — on July 27 at 9 a.m. Find more information and register here.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.