By Susan Hall, Ed.D.
Often parents who are concerned about their child's reading difficulties jump to a full evaluation. While a complete assessment is the right step for some children, there are other less expensive alternatives that provide needed information. There are many different levels of assessment — from an informal screening to full psycho-educational or neuropsychological testing. Knowing which level to choose requires clarity about why parents are having their child tested — what they want to know, and what they plan to do with the information.
Before parents decide what type of evaluation is right for their child, they need to know what kinds of screening or testing their child may already have had at school. New assessment tools that help kindergarten through second grade teachers evaluate reading readiness and early reading skills are now used in many schools. These tools differ from those used to test children for potential learning problems. The purpose of these new tools is to screen all students to identify children who are "at risk" for reading difficulties. Then specialized instruction can be delivered to those whose skills are weak.
Screening tools enable teachers to predict which children are at risk of reading difficulty before they even begin learning to read. These screenings usually take less than 15 minutes to administer and typically are given three times a year, starting no later than mid-kindergarten. Kindergarteners are screened for knowledge of letter names and sounds, language comprehension, familiarity with the way books are read, and, most importantly, phonemic awareness. In first grade, other skills are assessed, including a child's ability to recognize common words, sound out unknown words, and understand text.
Phonemic awareness, which is critical to being able to read, is the ability to focus on and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in words. There are 40-44 phonemes in the English language, depending on the classification system used. Some sounds are represented by two letters, such as sh and ng. A child who can recognize that the word "cat" has 3 speech sounds, or who can change the /m/ sound at the beginning of "man" to the /r/ sound and know the word is now "ran," is demonstrating phonemic awareness. The ability to hear separate sounds in a word is an auditory skill that underlies the ability to use an alphabet to read and write.
Schools have been screening children for letter knowledge for a long time, but this addition of screening for phonemic awareness is important. Recently, researchers who study reading concluded the two best predictors of how well a child will learn to read in first grade are phonemic awareness and letter knowledge.
With appropriate, early, explicit instruction, most children will learn to read. Only those who have severe reading disabilities may need more specialized help. For most children, phonemic awareness can be developed with a limited amount of instruction in kindergarten or first grade using activities and games that call the child's attention to the sounds in words. This preventive model, rather than the "wait to fail" model, is strongly advocated by The National Institutes of Health and leading reading researchers.
In addition to determining if the school has performed adequate screening, it is important to know what method of reading instruction is being used. Many children simply need a more explicit and systematic approach to recognizing the sounds in words, the correspondence of letters to sounds, and how to blend sounds in words. Frequently, once a child receives appropriate instruction, he catches up quickly. Only after a child has received explicit and systematic instruction, and is still not successful, is it possible to conclude that the child should be tested for a learning disability.
Some parents choose to have their child evaluated privately. It's important that parents determine what they want from the evaluation before deciding who will conduct it. If parents simply want an independent opinion about whether their child is reading on grade level, hiring a knowledgeable reading tutor to assess the child's skills will generally accomplish this. The key is to find a tutor who is trained and experienced in reading instruction.
Another resource for a private evaluation is a specialized reading clinic that typically works with children with reading problems. This type of clinic is not the same as a commercial learning center that provides after-school tutoring but is uninformed about reading disabilities.
If parents find their child is behind grade level despite appropriate instruction, they may want a full psycho-educational evaluation to identify whether problems are due to a learning disability. If parents have their child tested privately for reading difficulties, it is important to choose a psychologist who is knowledgeable about all aspects of reading. Parents should interview the evaluator to determine his qualifications and experience and find out if a written report with specific recommendations for appropriate instructional approaches will be provided. It is well worth spending some extra time up front to find the right person to assess your child.
Parents who feel their child has a disability and is not receiving educational benefit can request an assessment through the public school. Rights and responsibilities for evaluation are defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).