Most children begin kindergarten excited by the prospect of finally learning how to read. The idea of reading excites them because it opens the door into a world they only had access to when someone else would read to them. They are excited to be able to read for pleasure independently.
Young children want to read the ‘big kid’ books they have always heard older children and adults talk about, like the Harry Potter Series or the Chronicles of Narnia.
However, pleasure reading is not the only reasons children need to know how to read. Reading becomes an essential component for any school-based learning past the primary grades. Once students are in grade four, they are now expected to read to learn. This means they are supposed to be able to independently read, understand what they have read, and learn from what they have read.
Unfortunately, not every child goes to school beginning with the skills they need to become a reader. There are several different reasons someone may have difficulty learning to read including:
- coming from a low socio-economic background
- coming from a family of English language learners with parents who cannot read English
- having a familial history of learning disabilities
- an individual with special needs.
Regardless of the reason why an individual is likely to have difficulty learning how to read, there are ways young children can be identified as being at risk for reading failure through literacy screening.
What if I told you that after spending about 15 minutes conducting a literacy screen with a child, when they are just beginning their educational journey, that I could predict with reasonable certainty whether they would succeed in learning to read?
From that short time with the child, I would also be able to tell you what skills they needed to work on in order for them to become competent readers.
If this child did not receive the interventions based on the recommendations that were made, not only would they be at risk for becoming poor readers, they would also be considered at-risk for developing depression, anxiety and several other mental health problems. Poor literacy skills can lead to individuals dropping out of high school, showing anti-social behaviour and even an increased risk for entering the juvenile justice system.
Several research studies conducted in countries around the world have all come to the same conclusion: that educators can identify children as at-risk for becoming struggling readers by using screening measures with children. This can be done with children even when they are in preschool (e.g. Gaab, 2019).
Research has also shown that between 70-95% of reading disabilities can be prevented or alleviated with the use of early identification and the use of research-based interventions (Barnes, 2007; Greenwood & Abbot, 2007).
This has been shown in school districts that have a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and with students from various first language backgrounds in the same classroom (e.g. Lipka & Siegel, 2007; Partanen & Siegel, 2014).
Classroom teachers can be taught how to do literacy screening with their students. They can also be taught how to provide the appropriately targeted interventions in the different skill areas their students require help. The teachers can monitor each child in their classroom for progress throughout the year and adjust their teaching to meet the child’s needs.
There are some individuals who are opposed to screening young children to identify them for future reading problems. They are worried that this screening will provide the students with a label and that they would carry that label for life. However, this is not the case, the point of giving these early literacy screens is NOT to provide a diagnosis, and they cannot provide a diagnosis.
The purpose of literacy screening is to give teachers a clear picture of what skills a student has and what skills they don’t have. From this information, they can create a targeted intervention plan for students who need it. This allows the students to receive the appropriate instruction in the skills they are missing. Once they have these skills, they will be able to learn to read at the same time as their peers.
The main reason we need to identify these children as being at risk for reading failure at a young age is that this is the critical period when interventions are most effective. These naysayers need to be reminded that it is much better for educators to intervene early before a problem exists than to have a child experience the humiliation of struggling with learning how to read when their friends seem to be able to do it with minimal effort. Once this damage to their self-esteem has been done, it can never fully be taken away.
Reading interventions are most effective when they are done during the first two years of school. This is a time when children’s brains are designed to be learning a language, and so they are thought to be more receptive to interventions at this time (Gaab, 2019).
Again, numerous research studies from around the world have shown us that most children identified before the second grade as having trouble learning to read can become proficient readers when taught with an appropriate program. Tragically, when students are identified later, the chances that they will catch up to an acceptable reading level drastically decreases (Moats, 2007).
The education system needs to look to research to find out what the best practices are for early identification of children at risk for reading failure.
Every primary school teacher MUST know how to spot children who are struggling with reading. These teachers need to understand how they can intervene so that these children can learn how to read at the same time as their peers. These skills are vital because statistically, every year, there will be at least one student in their class that needs extra help so they can become a competent reader.
Gaab, N. (2019). How can we ensure that every child will learn to read? The need for a global, neurodevelopmental perspective. International Dyslexia Association.
Lipka, O. & Siegel, L. S. (2007). The development of reading skills in children with English as a second language.Scientific Studies of Reading, 11(2), 105-131.
Moats, L. M. (2007). Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When “Scientifically-based reading Instruction” Isn’t. Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Partanen, M. & Siegel, L. S. (2014). Long-term outcomes of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities. Reading and Writing, 27, 665-684.