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Teacher’s view: Why universal screening for reading difficulties without the science of reading is futile

Darla O'Leary | April 9, 2024

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I remember the sting like it was yesterday; the moment a school psychologist sat across from me during my daughter’s IEP, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Mrs. O’Leary, you might as well accept the fact that your daughter will never be a rocket scientist.” 

As I sat motionless and fearful, she pointed to data, trying to convince me of something I already knew … my daughter couldn’t read. My fear soon turned to frustration as this veteran school psychologist implied that my daughter’s intellect was to blame. It wasn’t until several years later that we got the correct diagnosis – dyslexia. Today, my daughter is a successful Adapted Physical Education (APE) teacher, with two masters degrees.

Admittedly, our approach to recognizing and addressing the needs of struggling readers in California has come a long way since that fateful day almost 30 years ago, when educators were not even permitted to say the “D-word.” Today, dyslexia is being recognized more often as a common cause of reading difficulty

The data remains dismal, however, as illustrated by the fact that only 31% of our 4th graders in California are reading at or above the proficient level. (NAEP, 2022). 

The reasons for these grim statistics are multi-faceted. No matter what your stance is about “the reading wars,” what remains undeniably true is that we have failed to focus on building teacher efficacy and understanding about how children learn to read. We must be more deliberate and intentional when only 2 out of 10 third-grade students with disabilities are reading on grade level. What our teachers need is top-notch training on “how” to recognize signs of dyslexia and “what” is the most effective pedagogy to ensure our students become proficient readers. 

The district in which I teach, Capistrano Unified, is one of the 10 largest districts in California. About six years ago, we began to have courageous conversations about inadequate literacy data and growing achievement gaps. A district wide implementation of ‘Multi-Tiered System of Support’ (MTSS), professional learning communities, and a universal screener brought positive changes. Although the road has been a bit bumpy, we have experienced steady growth in our data (from 56% at benchmark in DIBELS in 2018 to 82% proficient in 2023). 

Along the way, we have supported teachers with professional learning about the science of reading, the importance of foundational skills, how to work in teams to analyze data to plan for effective instruction and intervention, and how to recognize issues related to dyslexia and provide targeted intervention to address these issues. 

Today, many of our educators are becoming more familiar with the signs of dyslexia, but are often confused as to what to do when dyslexia is suspected. This is concerning since dyslexia affects approximately 20% of our population. 

California recently passed legislation requiring mandatory screening for dyslexia (K-2). However, without proper training regarding the “why” behind implementing a universal screener, it will be an exercise in futility. In preparation for this new requirement, districts across California are looking for ways to provide comprehensive professional learning on best practices for teaching reading. 

AB 2222, introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio in February, provides a professional development roadmap for elementary teachers in “evidence-based literacy instruction that adheres to the science of reading.” The benefits would surely outweigh the costs of intervening later, as the “school to prison pipeline” for struggling readers is a legitimate concern. 

This new legislation promises greater support for our educators and a brighter future for our students in California. So, why would we not want this for our teachers and children?

Darla O’Leary is a teacher on special assignment in the Capistrano Unified School District. She supports teachers and ‘Multi-Tiered System of Support’ specialists, and provides professional learning in the areas of literacy, foundational skills, universal screeners, and diagnostic assessments. She was a member of the initial California Comprehensive Statewide Literacy Needs Assessment team and is also an adjunct professor at Vanguard University.

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