Signs of Dyslexia Are Evident in the Early Years, Are Remediable with Intervention

[Editor's Note: Dr. Victoria Molfese, Chancellor Professor in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska, testified before the Nebraska Legislature's Education Committee in support of LB645, which will define dyslexia as a specific learning disability in Nebraska statute. Dyslexia is neurobiological in origin and is characterized by difficulties in decoding sounds and recognizing words, which leads to difficulty with spelling, reading and writing. This blog post is adapted from Dr. Molfese’s written testimony.]

For over 40 years I have researched the origins and development of dyslexia in children beginning with newborn infants and following them through age 13.  Our work has shown the clear impacts of speech discrimination skills at birth on the development of language at ages 3 and 5, and the subsequent impacts on reading skills at age 8.

We and others in the field have shown that while the skills that are identifiable as deficits in children with dyslexia are evident early in life, dyslexia is remediable with intervention.

Starting intervention early—before school age or at school entry—is important so that children learn to use effective strategies for accurately reading words, reading for comprehension and for expressing their thoughts orally and in print.

Screening can identify children at risk for dyslexia who will benefit from intervention. Ideally, screening occurs at birth, but universal screening in pre-kindergarten and/or kindergarten is the next best approach.

Many skills have been linked to dyslexia but the critical skill areas are:

  • Phonological sensitivity—hearing differences between speech sounds, and between sounds in words like Bat – Pat – Cat – Mat, and sounds that distinguish one word from another.
  • Alphabetic skills—not just letter names, but the sounds associated with each letter. English is a difficult language for acquiring associations between letter sounds and letter names.
  • Oral language skills—children need vocabulary skills to know the meaning of words they read or hear.

Young children not responding to preschool or elementary classroom literacy instruction need to receive intervention to strengthen critical skills. Small group intervention may help target skills needing to be stronger, resulting in children becoming able to read at grade level. If small group instruction is not effective, individual instruction is called for to achieve grade-level reading. 

It’s important to understand that evidence-based, structured literacy intervention with proven effectiveness can help children at risk for dyslexia to become grade-level readers. Without structured literacy intervention with proven effectiveness, this will not happen. Children will not suddenly “catch up”; they will not outgrow dyslexia.

Interventions provided by dyslexia specialists are key because their training enables them to deliver all of the components of effective interventions in their work with children and to use effective progress monitoring of children’s acquisition of skills.

Teacher preparation is also key—teachers must be trained to meet professional education standards so children with dyslexia get the help they need in the classroom to support the skills they are learning through intervention that will enable them to learn to read.

Key points to remember:

  • Children at risk for dyslexia can be identified early through screening.
  • Interventions for children at risk for dyslexia work best if begun early, preferably before the child begins kindergarten.
  • Evidence-based, structured intervention can help children learn effective strategies for reading, writing and spelling rather than inventing their own strategies such as skipping hard words, using pictures in text to look for meaning clues and relying on classroom discussions for understanding when reading text is too hard or inaccurate.
  • It’s important for parents and teachers to understand that interventions will help children at risk for dyslexia to become skilled, grade-level readers.
  • It’s important for parents and teachers to understand that children may need additional intervention in later grades to maintain their grade-level reading skills when the text they need to read includes more complex words and becomes dense and lengthy.

Dr. Victoria Molfese
College of Education and Human Sciences
University of Nebraska

Posted February 08, 2017 in Legislation
lb645, dyslexia, victoria molfese,
Nikki Hoyer
March 07, 2017

My four year old used to write his name with relative consistently. Within 2 months, he suddenly started making letters backwards, sideways, and starting from random starting points. Bribing with rewards has not gotten me anywhere. I wonder if this is a control test or if I should seek an evaluation.

March 14, 2017

Hi Nikki, your pediatrician likely can tell you if this is something to look at more closely.

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