Assessing for Dyslexia: What to Know About Diagnostic Reading Assessments

Reading is the foundation for learning. When a student struggles with a reading difficulty like dyslexia, which affects as much as 17% of children, this can lead to serious foundational skill deficits that could impact student outcomes at all grade levels and across the curriculum.

The good news is that most students with reading difficulties, including dyslexia, can be taught how to be strong readers and learners when they’re provided high-quality, evidence-based instruction and interventions. In order to put those targeted supports in place, educators must identify which students are struggling, which skills those students are struggling with and why they are struggling. Assessing reading skills through formative assessment can help educators gather this insight.

In this hour-long, on-demand webinar from the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE), Dr. Michelle Hosp, associate professor of special education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, provides valuable insights into how to assess reading skills and select appropriate assessments for dyslexia and other reading difficulties. In the webinar, Dr. Hosp addresses a number of topics, including the various types of assessments available for assessing reading skills and the different situations in which to use them.

For example:

  • Outcome assessments are administered to all students to help answer the question, “Are students proficient on grade-level content?”
  • Universal screening assessments are also administered to all students and can help identify which students are at-risk for reading difficulties or failure in the future.
  • Progress monitoring assessments are given to the few students who are receiving differentiated, targeted supports to ensure they’re making adequate growth and that interventions are effective and making a difference.
  • Diagnostic reading assessments allow you to determine the specific areas of instructional need for students who are not responding to differentiated instruction, as identified through progress monitoring. These very specific assessments allow you to pinpoint exactly where students are struggling and link instruction to those needs. Diagnostic assessments are not for everyone — just those students who continue to struggle making adequate gains despite quality instruction and interventions after universal screening and progress monitoring take place.

Watch the video above and read below for a sneak peek of the webinar content around this final type of assessment, diagnostic reading assessments, and why this is one of the most important types of assessments for dyslexia.

Key Features of Diagnostic Reading Assessments

When students aren’t making adequate progress, diagnostic reading assessments can help you narrow down why and the specific areas where students are struggling. In the webinar, Dr. Hosp defines some of the key features of diagnostic reading assessments. When choosing these assessments for assessing reading skills, she recommends the following criteria:

  • Diagnostic reading assessments should align with the specific skills that need to be taught.
  • Diagnostic reading assessments should target skills necessary for reading, such as phonics skills.
  • Diagnostic reading assessments should assess a continuum of skills, from phonics skills to consonant-vowel-consonants to multisyllabic words.
  • Diagnostic reading assessments should also provide the student with multiple opportunities to respond so that you can say, with certainty, that students are struggling with a specific skill or skills.
  • For an assessment to be diagnostic, it should be scored at the error level. For example, if you’re are looking at phonics and asking a student to read word patterns, are you marking the whole word wrong or can you go in and determine if within a pattern this is where the student is making errors?

Learn More About Assessments for Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties

 Watch the full webinar to dive even deeper into how to assess reading skills and the various types of assessments you can use to do it. Throughout the hour, Dr. Hosp discusses:

  • How to identify the right assessments for the right purposes
  • How to assess along the continuum of reading skills
  • Why it is so important to focus on assessing reading skills, specifically phonics
  • What assessments are commonly used for phonics
  • How to link assessments for reading and assessments for dyslexia to reading instruction

Video Transcript

what is universal screening? We talked about it that it is a process of systematically seeking early warning signs of a later problem. So it is predictive. What we don’t want to do is we don’t want to wait until the student is in deep, dire need of health. We want to intervene early. So universal screening is something that we really recommend early educators and even early childhood centers, and people look at. So what are those things that are indicative of students having good language skills, and good pre-reading skills and reading skills?

So screening systems also must be an assessment for all students in the population. So again, we want to screen everybody. They should be efficient. One of the things we want to do is because we want to stop and take a look at all students, we don’t want to take a lot of time away from our activities and our instruction, and our engagement of working with students. But we want to be very efficient in how we do that.

We also want to make sure that they measure the right warning signs, and that they should be linked to instructional priorities. So when we talk about measuring the right warning signs, we need to understand what are the most critical components that students need to be able to do to be good readers? Those are the things that we should also be measuring and screening for. Because we know that they are necessary in reading development, but we also know that those are the things that we can teach. So we don’t want to be screening things that we can’t impact. Because while it might be useful information, we can’t do anything with it. So we want to keep that whole linking to instruction in the forefront of our mind.

So then let’s talk about what makes an assessment diagnostic. Because we talked about a great need to screen all students, right? So we can identify who are those students who are at risk. We want to monitor their progress. But when they aren’t making adequate progress, we want to go in and we want to be able to really identify what is occurring with the student. So we want to make sure that specific skills are assessed that align with specific skills that need to be taught. So again, that direct link of if I’m going to test it, is it something I can teach? That’s really important to keep in mind? So some target skills that we know are necessary for reading like phonic skills. But what are the most common patterns and words that we want to be able to evaluate?

So does it include a continuum of skills? So for example, if we are interested in word reading and phonics. And we are looking at a small unit, like a consonant vowel consonant or CVC pattern, is that the only thing it assesses? Or does it also go up and get into more complex word patterns that would be shown through testing multisyllabic works. We also want to know if it’s really diagnostic, then we have to make sure that the assessment is giving students more than one chance to respond. So the student has to have multiple opportunities to respond so that we can say with high assurance, yes, this student is having a problem. Or no we don’t.

So lots of times we use it has to be greater than chance, right? So you can’t just give them one opportunity or even two. But if they have three opportunities to do something. Based on that observation, how has the student performed?

The other thing is we want to, in order for it to be diagnostic, we want to understand how is the student, how is their performance evaluated or scored? So is it scored at an error level? So for example, if we’re looking at phonics and we’re asking them to read word patterns. Whether they’re real words or nonsense words, are we just marking that whole word wrong, or are we able to go in and say actually within this pattern, this is where they are making some errors.

So questions to ask that help us inform our instruction. Because remember, we don’t want to test anything unless we know we can influence it through our teaching. So for reading, we know that we want to look at phonological awareness, at phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. We also want to then figure out, so what data or information do we have that helps confirm this? We’re going to show you some information on the next slide. And then within that, there are some things we want to understand. So which skills does a student have mastered? Which skills are they still learning? And which skills actually need to be taught?

So I love this visual. And this comes from the HILL for Literacy, which is a consultant group here on the East Coast. Although they do work all over the country. And they have this beautiful representation that they use when they talk about assessments within the continuum of foundational skills. So they look at what are all of those skills that students need to be developing, and what are the assessments that schools can use to check in to make sure that the student is continuing on their growth to becoming a good reader?

So if you look at the blue boxes, it looks at some very basic foundational skills, but then it moves up. So it starts with letter identification, phonemic awareness, moves up to letter sounds. Then we get into blending and automaticity of putting words together, decoding beyond CVC. And then we need to start talking about our fluency, and accuracy, and our automaticity. Then we start moving into our fluency with expression, with prosody, which really starts focusing on our comprehension and building our vocabulary, and writing. So all of those things have to be occurring. And then we have to think about, so what are the assessments that we’re using to help us understand how the student is progressing across those layers of reading development? So what they have in this slide is I believe these are some of the from DIBELS or lots of other CBM measures that you might be familiar with, whether you’re using AIMSweb, or FastBridge, or easyCBM, they all have very similar features. So it shows you where those come in.

But one of the things to think about is when you think about phonics, right? So let’s go back and think about when you think about the simple view of reading and the Scarborough Rope, we know that reading words is such a necessary foundational skill. So it’s not something that just happens. Words are complex. Phonics patterns are very expansive. They start with very simple phoneme graphing representations, all the way up into very complicated multisyllabic word patterns. And students really need to have a good foundation across all of those phonics skills. So you have to think about how are we actually going to be able to assess this piece of students’ word learning development to ensure that they are well on their way to being proficient readers? And again, we know that students with dyslexia often struggle with this layer right here.