ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Children with severe reading problems usually struggle for years before getting the help they need. But a growing number of neurologists and educators say that with the latest diagnostic tests, children at high risk for these problems can be identified in preschool and treated before they ever begin to read.
The newer tests, available in computerized versions, measure a child’s fluency with the skills that are the foundation of reading: the ability to recognize differences between sounds, the knowledge of letters and the accumulation of basic vocabulary and language skills. The National Early Literacy Panel, a committee of experts convened by a consortium of federal agencies, has found that these tests, when given to 3- and 4-year-olds, predict later reading problems as effectively as they do when they are given to kindergartners and first graders, said the panel’s chairman, Dr. Timothy Shanahan of the University of Illinois in Chicago. The committee plans to recommend increased preschool screening when it publishes its findings later this year.
The panel also will recommend some shifts in teaching techniques, said a panel member, Dr. Susan Landry of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. These include having at-risk children spend more time in small groups that address their specific weaknesses; emphasizing skills like blending sounds (C + AT = CAT), which have been found to be good performance predictors; and training parents to reinforce school lessons.
The point is to identify and attack the problems early, when they are easiest to correct.
“Once a child falls behind, it’s very difficult to catch up,” said Dr. Angela Fawcett of the University of Sheffield in England.
Article from New York Times by By JOHN O’NEIL, published: October 4, 2006
In the Head Start program here, screening and teaching are increasingly tied together, and a detailed skills assessment is part of the new school year routine. Last month, Karen Gischlar, a reading consultant, sat down with a 4-year-old, Destiny Freer, with a set of blocks, a book of pictures and a handheld computer loaded with M-Class: Circle, one of several formal screening tests on the market.
M-Class: Circle, which was developed by Dr. Landry, measures the skills linked to reading success. Its manufacturer, Wireless Generation, said the test was used to screen 45,000 preschoolers last year; paper versions were used to screen a similar number.
Destiny breezed through the first rounds of a series of one-minute tests, on naming letters and simple objects. She also aced the first rhyming exercise, on whether pairs of words sounded the “same or different.”
But her answers became hesitant on the next round, when she was asked to find a rhyme to a word given by Ms. Gischlar. And she had more trouble with higher-level skills, like using the blocks to show the number of words in a short sentence and clapping out the syllables in words like cowboy, big or wagon.
When the test was done, there on the computer screen were Destiny’s scores, color coded in red, green and yellow, and a comparison to her scores from earlier this year, both of which showed Destiny to be developmentally on track, despite some of her faltering.
Another tap of Ms. Gischlar’s stylus brought up a list of suggestions for her specific weaknesses — building awareness of word sounds, for instance, by telling a story in rhyme and letting her guess how some sentences end.
Destiny’s teacher, Eliza Commareri, said the test helped plan how to individualize instruction and in arranging small groups because the program provides a database showing children with similar needs. The other benefit, she said, was the close link between the screening and a step-by-step curriculum of suggested activities. For teaching syllables, for instance, Ms. Commareri said she might ask the whole class to clap out “play-ground” when they’re headed out to recess, or get a few children together to bang out words on a drum.
“It’s very helpful because it gives results in all different areas, and activities in all different areas,” she said.
Head Start programs have been taking the lead in preschool screening, in large part because low-income children have high rates of language delay; most of the children in the center here arrive more than a year behind.
Reading failure is linked to two different causes. Children with dyslexia tend to have inherited abnormalities in the brain’s sound-processing mechanism. But insufficient early exposure to what neurologists call “rich language,” a situation more common in poor families, can also undermine the processing abilities that are reading’s foundation.
Screening can uncover both kinds of problems, but poor children are the ones who can benefit the most from preschool intervention, said Dr. Peggy McCardle, the chief of the child development branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
School policy has traditionally been that children qualify for significant extra help only after they’ve fallen behind. In 2004, according to federal data, fewer than 10 percent of students getting special education services under the category of specific learning disability — most of whom have reading as their primary problem — were younger than 9.
In August, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced new regulations meant to make it easier for elementary schools to offer extra help as soon as students start to struggle.
Dr. Fawcett, who is also the editor of the journal Dyslexia, said making students wait for help was costly, both for schools and students.
A study she led found that a small amount of extra tutoring given to preschoolers with language delays — an hour a week of small-group work for 10 weeks — boosted their skills in comparison with similar children in a control group. The gain exceeded what a year’s worth of remediation at age 7 or 8 would produce, she said.
Marj Jones, who runs Head Start programs in Phoenix as the executive director of the Arizona Literacy and Learning Center, is an enthusiastic user of another screening test, Get Ready to Read, developed by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The center’s executive director, James H. Wendorf, estimated that the test was used to screen about 70,000 preschoolers each year by teachers or by parents using the interactive version available at getreadytoread.org. But Ms. Jones said that even the best testing produces only a limited gain unless it is part of a larger effort.
“You can go in and screen a child, but if you don’t have continuous support from teachers and parents, you’ve only accomplished a short-term goal,” she said.