Early Identification: Predicting Reading Disabilities and Dyslexia

  • 16 February, 2019

Teacher question:

Prevention of dyslexia and other reading problems should be everyone’s number one priority. Why isn’t their more emphasis on the early identification of reading problems, before they have a chance to ruin children’s lives?

Shanahan response:

In 2018. I was asked to edit an issue of Perspectives of Language and Literacy devoted to this topic. Below is the introduction to that issue and at the end I have included a link so you can follow up on any of the other articles by this impressive array of scholars who know a lot about the early identification of reading problems. This query did not come to me directly but was posted on a listserv that I follow. This question elicited lots of unsubstantiated claims (as it has ever since I first became a teacher) so I thought this more substantive response worthwhile. The idea of identifying reading problems early and then taking steps to prevent those problems from expressing themselves has long been a dream in the field. This should provide a useful update as to where we are now.


When I was a young teacher, I taught children with reading problems. Teachers would refer some of their students for evaluation, I would give them a test and decide who I could work with. One youngster that I added to my rolls was a first-grader.

I soon found myself chastised by the district school board for this particular decision.

“Why would you give special reading teaching to a 6-year-old?” I was asked.

In 2018, my decision seems more like “business as usual” than the board’s questions might suggest. These days I would have little to explain for providing extra reading tuition to a first-grader. But why was that so unusual 50 years ago?

The ideology around reading in those days held that students who struggled with beginning reading would eventually outgrow the problem. Low maturity was seen not as something that prevented learning—it simply delayed it. Intervening too early would not help, since the student would still be immature (what 6-year-old isn’t?), and my extra instruction might do harm and was certainly a waste of resources.

The idea of preventing—as opposed to remediating—reading difficulties has been around since the 1930s. However, researchers made little headway with the problem for about 30 years.

The earliest study of the issue that I’m aware of is Chester Bennett’s (1938) An Inquiry into the Genesis of Poor Reading. Bennett’s idea of early identification was to look at second- and third-graders to try to figure out their differentiating characteristics. Given that goal, the study was an abject failure. The author looked at a wide range of characteristics… birth order, speech defects, persistence, physicality, attitude toward school, incidents of crying, fear, headaches, and so on. With the exception of the ordinal birth position and, perhaps, speech defects, the whole list of features was as likely to be the results of reading problems as their cause. The author’s conclusion: researchers should go back to an earlier time in the child’s life. Indeed.

Unfortunately, it was a good long time before researchers took him up on the challenge. Oh, there were small investigations here and there showing that speech problems implicated in reading disability could be detected earlier (Hildreth, 1946), or that using more effective instructional procedures in grade 1 could “prevent” reading problems (Dunklin, 1940; Yoakam, 1943). But there was no concerted effort to develop schemes for predicting who was likely to have difficulty in learning to read—or to develop interventions aimed at disrupting these predictions (rendering the sure failures successful).

That would change with the landmark contributions of Jansky and deHirsch. Katrina deHirsch was the director of the Pediatric Language Disorder Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center from 1941 to 1972 and her colleague Jeannette Jansky was a learning disabilities specialist. Their book, Preventing Reading Failure: Prediction, Diagnosis, Intervention (1972) provided a longitudinal analysis of more than 400 kindergarten children, in an effort to try to identify—prior to the onset of formal teaching—who would likely fail at reading. (An earlier, less ambitious version of the book had been published in 1966.) Their data led them to conclude that the best approach to early identification was a quick screener to pinpoint which children would struggle, and then a more extensive battery of diagnostic tests (covering a wide range of physical, cognitive, and perceptual variables) to explore the patterns of competencies that would guide instruction.

That effort was far from the last word on the subject and today, I think it is fair to say, much of their scheme has been superseded. However, at least partly due to that work, there is now a clear mandate to figure out which children are likely to struggle—and to do so prior to the onset of that struggle. Unless reading problems can be prevented, or addressed successfully very early, there are likely to be damaging secondary problems (the students’ reactions and responses to their failures) that can only complicate eventual remediation.

These days we have many more variables available to us— variables that go well beyond anything Jansky and deHirsch could have hoped for, including genetic screenings and various kinds of brain scans. Nevertheless, we are still confronted by many of the same problems that their work uncovered more than 50 years ago: the multivariate nature of reading difficulty, the complication of poor or inadequate teaching, false-negatives in prediction, and so on.

This issue of Perspectives on Language and Literacy provides a decidedly contemporary perspective on the early identification of reading difficulties. Mads Poulsen, a psycholinguist based in Copenhagen, Denmark, provides a thoughtful analysis of the need for accuracy in any early prediction model. Any scheme sensitive enough to reveal all students who will eventually struggle inevitably will result in “false-positives”— the misclassification of students with no need of extra learning support. And, schemes that minimize such misidentification will necessarily miss some of those in need. Professor Poulsen explains why that is and what is required to optimize early identification efforts so that they will have practical value.

In the 1930s “early identification” meant revealing those who had failed to learn to read after only a year or so of instruction. These days by early we tend to mean kindergarten. But what if it were possible to figure out who was going to suffer from reading disability years earlier than this? Recent advances in brain science suggest that this possibility may be more than a science fiction dream. Ola Ozernov-Palchik and John Gabrieli are neuroscientists who use brain imaging to identify the neural structures and functions that underlie reading development. Their work is pertinent to the issue of prediction of dyslexia because they explore neuroanatomy at a variety of ages, including infancy. Most studies of the neurological correlates of reading are conducted with already-struggling readers. From such studies it is impossible to discern which differences predate the failure to learn. Since learning to read changes the brain, there is a real need for pre-instruction neural exploration.

Then we explore a couple of practical pedagogical issues in the early identification of reading difficulty. David Kilpatrick, a clinical psychologist and author of the influential Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, explores the role of causation in prediction and assessment schemes. His conclusion: once a reading problem emerges it doesn’t matter much what its etiology—since ultimately etiology cannot determine what assessments to use or which instructional interventions will work.

His discussion of the causes of reading problems made me think about the biggest gap in the prediction literature: No matter how incisively we measure those child factors that suggest future failure…such efforts cannot tell us anything about the instructional environment the student will have to learn within and respond to. Linda Siegel is the former Dorothy C. Lam Chair in Special Education and is editor-in-chief of Perspectives. In this issue, she elaborates on this conundrum, providing a case study of early identification and intervention and how it actually can work within the practicalities of a real school.

Finally, Hugh Catts and Yaacov Petscher, experts in the field of learning disabilities (the former a specialist in Speech, Language and Hearing and the latter a psychologist focused on reading), point us toward the future of early identification. They hypothesize that since reading development is undermined by multiple causal deficits, successful early identification schemes will need to be multifactorial in design and they argue for including computer assisted technology, gamification, and longitudinal models in the development of 21st century early identification efforts. This approach may seem to contradict David Kilpatrick’s claims about the current usefulness of causal explanations in the diagnosis and correction of reading difficulties; but remember, Kilpatrick is explaining the current state of the art in the field, while Catts and Petscher are imagining a future when we will surely know more. If they are correct, then it seems likely that early identification in 2030 will be as different from our 2018 concept as our current efforts are from those of the Jansky and deHirsch era.

Buckle your seat belts; it could be a bumpy—but fascinating and rewarding—ride.

Meanwhile, if I were a kindergarten teacher I’d screen my students early in the year to see what they knew about reading…particularly examining their knowledge of letter names and sounds, their phonological awareness, and awareness of print features (the kinds of skills that Kilpatrick describes). My focus would be on knowledge of literacy rather than on underlying causes or correlates. Although Ozernov-Palchik and Gabrieli and Catts and Petscher’s insights are exciting and hopeful, they are not yet user-ready. I’d implement daily lessons aimed at teaching these early literacy skills, monitoring student progress over the first semester. The screening information, although helpful, is not likely to be sufficiently predictive on its own (Poulsen), both because of the imperfections of testing and the variability evident in classroom environments (Siegel). Predictions based on children’s learning success during those early months improve prediction and are sufficiently accurate to allow for the implementation of intensive early interventions aimed at getting such children on track for success. I hope someday that the future research advances heralded in this issue will render my approach hopelessly outdated, but for now it is likely the best we can do.


Bennett, C. (1938). An inquiry into the genesis of poor reading. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dunklin, H. T. (1940). The prevention of failure in first grade reading. Teachers College Contributions to Education, 802, 1–111.

Hildreth, G. (1946). Speech defects and reading disability. The Elementary School Journal, 46, 326–332.

Jansky, J., & deHirsch, K. (1972). Preventing reading failure: Prediction, diagnosis, intervention. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Yoakam, G. A. (1943). An ounce of prevention in reading difficulties. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 9, 125–131.




See what others have to say about this topic.

Mary Kathleen Drew
Feb 16, 2019 06:36 PM

This subject resonates with me. I work with kids who have diagnosed dyslexia. They often are not evaluated until 4th grade. A large number of classroom teachers and school professionals do not know how to remediate reading and writing failure, even within the RTI model. Many schools do not use RTI or even have a explicit phonics based developmental reading program. I see a lot of "whole language based approaches" renamed "balanced literacy" in schools today. I do not see any research to prove these approaches as effective in reading acquisition.

By the time the kids come to me, they are 5th grade or later with very poor phonemic awareness, almost no letter-sound correspondence knowledge and thus, no word attack skills. They cannot write. Sight words are also limited. Nearly all of those kids have learned elaborate guessing strategies and have nearly given up on reading and writing. Schools, with good intentions but not enough knowledge, has crippled those students by giving them an instructional aide who does all the writing for them and reads to them.

The monumental task to earlier identification is changing the pre-service teacher education programs, state required proof of reading foundations before licensure, and prorfessional development in research proven literacy practices, which require an explicit, systematic phonics based approach to teaching reading. Otherwise, teachers in the classroom will continue to not be trained to see the red flag markers at an earlier time. They will continue to teach reading with approaches that so many kids will simply fail to become fluent readers. Principals also need to be trained.

Oregon now has a new state law for mandatory dyslexia screening for all kindergarteners with state approved screeners. A RAN screener, a phonemic awareness screener and a parent reading survey are all three required components to screening. This should help with earlier identification, but I am already seeing districts not complying or asking for a variance of using inappropriate screeners because of a lack of knowledge about reading instruction or reading fundamentals.

Early identification is truly the key! Remediating reading problems takes so much more time and effort than preventative measures of proper reading approaches at the critical developmental time. As Jeanne Chall pointed out in her fourth grade slump research, kids who fail to move from stage 2 to 3 of reading development will suffer a devastating impact on all their learning because all learning builds on literacy skills.

We must do better identifying kids who will struggle at an earlier time. This article is so important.

Debbie Meyer
Feb 16, 2019 11:45 PM

I might also ask if anybody in their family struggled reading or had been diagnosed with dyslexia. That will work until all kids are taught well, as then many, except the most profound dyslexics will not struggle reading, yet some of the other often co-morbid conditions may still challenge them.

Jenny Lanteigne
Feb 17, 2019 01:29 AM

Please tell me how to get achikd screened for dyslexia. Is there a free screener available?

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 17, 2019 09:14 AM

Not that I’m aware of Jenny...perhaps one of my readers is aware. At this stage however I don’t think we are very good at predicting—but we can see how kids respond to instruction early on.

Harriett Janetos
Feb 17, 2019 03:46 PM

Here's the recommendation from the International Dyslexia Association:

There is no one test or assessment tool that measures all reading skills. Different assessments measure different discrete skills. Ideally, multiple measures for screening purposes should be used to ensure that all identified skills have been assessed at the appropriate grade level. When multiple measures are used to screen students, the accuracy of identifying those at risk improves significantly.

Some examples of screening assessment tools include (but are not limited to) DIBELS Next, Aimsweb, Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR), and the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI). (Links to these examples are listed at the end of this fact sheet.)

Scott Baird
Feb 19, 2019 01:43 PM

I have always heard this, " that if we do not re-mediate students when they are younger, its 3 to 4 times harder when they are adolescents." On its surface this always made sense to me. However,from a research study, Fluency Remediation in Dyslexic Children: Does Age Make a Difference, I quote, "The answer to the question if older dyslexic children may improve less than younger ones in fluency and accuracy after a specific treatment seems to be a clear ‘No’, at least with respect to the two treatments and the chronological ages considered in the study. Even if it is not correct to generalize on other treatments and other age differences, our results seem to suggest that ‘it is never too late’ to improve fluency and accuracy." The key I believe is the quality of the instruction, no matter the age.

Tim Shanahan
Feb 19, 2019 06:05 PM

Most claims about the superiority of early learning are questionable. However, the further behind one is normatively for their age the more learning they have to do to “catch up.”

Lynn Hyshka
Feb 28, 2019 05:45 AM

Hello, I am a special education teacher in the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. Our province has gone to a play-based kindergarten curriculum where the expectation that children are exposed to letters and sounds, but mastery is not required. I have begun to see that more and more children are going into grade one not prepared for the grade one program. The grade one teachers are struggling to keep up with the needs of these children. As well, the grade one teachers have been pushed to use the Reading Workshop model, and I see many problems with it. I have recommended early screening, focusing on phonemic awareness, letter identification and letter sound knowledge to no avail. I begun presenting scientific based research to the teachers in kindergarten, grade one and to our administration. One of the documents that I have used is the National Reading Panel, which is excellent. I could not agree more with what you have said regarding early identification and I continue to champion the use of scientific research to assist in making informed decisions regarding reading instruction. Please keep up the good work Mr. Shanahan. I look to your blog as a beacon of sanity.

Mark Asenta
Mar 03, 2019 08:13 PM

Lynn (from Saskatchewan, Canada),
I am a Kindergarten teacher from Ontario Canada. It is fully Play-Based here (and the program is a bit wishy washy). However, Grade One is not. I make sure every student has well developed phonemic awareness, automatic letter/sound identification skills and can apply this to real reading and writing. Most students are reading real books independently by the end of the year (real reading not the predictable lame "books"). Last year i had no student that couldn't write multiple sentences.

You would think with results that literally blows every other Kindergarten class out of the water that people would flock to replicate it. Sad but no. However, the Grade 1 teachers request my children year after year.

Do i follow Play-Based strictly? No, because if my child was heading into grade one without the skills to maximize success i would consider that educational injustice. Lucky I work with an ECE (Early Childhood Educator) who has children and believes in more balance to students' education.

Nice to have blogs like this (i am constantly amazed that more teachers are not aware of the basic building blocks of reading & writing).
This blog is an island of sanity amidst a sea of dogma.

Regina Kaishian
Mar 05, 2019 05:00 PM

Dr. Shanahan, I read, enjoyed and agreed with all that you wrote and appreciated the different perspectives of the theorists. I am a school psychologist in a K-2 school. I have Kilpatrick's book. Our school does a fairly good job with screenings and we have a fairly well rounded reading curriculum (Fundations, Lucy Calkins writing, Readers workshop, etc.)
The problem is that once we have identified through various screenings and CBMS that a child isn't responding as we hoped, all we really have is more of the same in pull-out reading groups. The advantage is they child gets smaller group work (more attention, more targeted) and these groups can be increased in frequency. And other than Reading Recovery for a very small group of first graders, we have no choice but to refer slow responders to special education. However, they are not always found eligible as 5 and 6 year olds because they don't score low enough.
So what program(s) would you recommend as an intensive intervention (30 min 5x/week small group) for building level reading support? I realize any program would have to be differentiated and supplemented based upon an individual child's needs, but if you had to pick one that might be most comprehensive for K-2, what would you pick (knowing we do Fundations then eventually Wilson in 3rd grade)? I have read clearing house info and it is overwhelming.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Early Identification: Predicting Reading Disabilities and Dyslexia


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.