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Importance of Early Identification of Learning and Reading Difficulties

Jeanine Cyrwus, M.Ed., CAGS
Academic Coordinator, Reading/Language Arts

What are learning disabilities? Learning disabilities are caused by differences in brain function that affect how a person’s brain processes information. They are not an indication of a person's intelligence; people with learning disabilities are just as bright as others. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) estimates that between 12 and 20 percent of individuals have some type of learning disability, of which, Dyslexia is the most common. “One of the most compelling findings in recent reading research is that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up"; 74% of students who are poor readers in 3rd grade remain that way without intensive intervention. (Torgesen) (Institute of Multi-sensory Education). Additional consequences of this include a range of problems, from feelings of negative self-worth to adverse attitudes towards reading and learning, subsequently resulting in reduced practice in reading. This negatively impacts vocabulary growth, fluency, and comprehension. 

One solution is early identification. Educational institutions must evaluate their methods for identifying students who struggle to learn to read. Right now, many public school systems largely allow children to fall seriously behind, then use a remediation model. Why not find stronger, more reliable methods of early identification, then implement a preventative model of intervention? This approach means screening students for red flags, then providing extra support to prevent students from experiencing reading failure. There is a dangerous myth that says dyslexia and other learning disabilities cannot be identified in kindergarten. This is simply not true. Although a diagnosis doesn’t tend to be given until 3rd grade or later, intensive interventions are most effective in kindergarten or first grade. (Gaab, Nadine, 2017). Let’s consider why the diagnosis is not given until later elementary years. It is around the time of 3rd grade that education switches from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. Following the reactive approach of waiting until a child fails before recommending an educational evaluation results in losing valuable years of potential intervention before a child is diagnosed with a learning and/or reading disability. And according to the Consortium On Reaching Education Excellence, “it takes four times as long to intervene in fourth grade as it does in late kindergarten…”. 

Research indicates that one of the pillars of reading acquisition is Phonemic Awareness (PA). Instruction in PA during kindergarten can have a positive effect on reading growth once formal reading instruction begins in first grade. (Torgeson) By providing PA instruction to all students in the classroom, and not waiting for an assessment to find red-flags, will allow schools to provide necessary skill instruction to students from all socio-economic classes and varying English-speaking backgrounds. There is data that shows that students who are not struggling will benefit from this type of instruction as well as those who need it. (NICHD) But for the at-risk students, this type of instruction isn’t just helpful, it is critical. The students who are identified as at-risk for learning disabilities will not acquire these skills unless they are directly taught in a systematic way. Additionally, it’s important to identify such students because they will need a different level of intensity than those who may acquire language skills with little direct instruction. 

It is important to be knowledgeable about red-flags for learning and reading difficulties. The Orton Gillingham Academy rightfully states that rarely will a student will have all the indicators, and those that exhibit symptoms can range from mild, moderate, to severe. 

For students who are in pre-school and kindergarten: 

• Experienced a delay in talking 

• Confusion with left and right 

• Chronic ear infections 

• Mixing up words (psgetti for spaghetti) and/or baby talk 

• Not being able to recognize rhymes (cat, bat, fat,) or remember nursery rhymes 

• Late establishing a dominant hand 

• Difficulty with tying shoes 

• Having a close relative with dyslexia 

• Difficulty learning sounds and letters 

• Seems to be unable to recognize letters in their own name 

• Has a hard time retrieving words will often say “thingy” for many words 

• Hard time sounding out words 

• Letter or number reversals extended past 2nd grade 

• Improper formation and placement of letters and numbers 

A screening is a tool that “assesses a particular skill or ability that is highly predictive of a later outcome”. (International Dyslexia Association.) Not all students having these indicators have dyslexia. However, a screening tool will help identify which students will benefit from a research-based, multi-sensory, structured approach. Whether the child qualifies for the diagnosis is not the focus of early identification; rather, it is a means for identifying who should participate in preventative instruction instead of waiting to fail. If the child who receives the intervention does later receive the diagnosis of dyslexia, their remedial needs will be less than those who had no intervention until that point. As the International Dyslexia Association points out, “Psychological and clinical implications of poor reading development can be prevented/ minimized if we identify and intervene as early as possible.” 

What can you do at home if you suspect your child has a learning or reading challenge? Speak to the Special Education Coordinator at your school and discuss your concerns. If the school is not fully versed in the importance of early intervention and phonemic awareness, perhaps bring them the research which is published by the International Dyslexia Association and NICHD, among others. You can also: 

• Create a language-rich environment at home. Read with your child every day and talk to him about the stories to build his understanding and vocabulary. Make predictions and encourage him to do the same. When you read with your child, use expression and model fluency. 

*Read Dr. Seuss books with your child and listen for the rhymes and point out silly words.

• Play rhyming games. Ask your child if certain words rhyme; can he produce another rhyming word?

* Play auditory word games together, meaning there is no written word and the activity is based on the sounds 

within the word. (Let’s think of all the words we can that begin with the sound /b/…) 

• Find opportunities to point out left-to-right directionality. When you read with your child, point to the words. Show them that the sentence starts on the left and words proceed to the right. The same goes for words- where is the first letter of the word? 


For more information and resources on Dyslexia, visit the website for Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity which was founded by Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz. If you are interested in finding a learning environment for your child with learning challenges, contact Oakwood School, where all teachers are trained in the research-based, Orton-Gillingham multisensory approach.


Works Cited

IMSE, 2019 Institute of Multisensory Education, Accessed Nov. 2019.

International Dyslexia Association, 25 Mar. 2019,

International Dyslexia Association. “Universal Screening: K–2 Reading.” International Dyslexia Association, 7 Apr. 2020,

Joseph, Torgeson. “Catch Them Before They Fall.” Reading Rockets, WETA, Accessed Nov. 2019.

Lyon, G. R., & Fletcher, J. (2001, Summer). Early warning system. Education Matters 2001, 23–29. Webster, Dale. “Understanding Dyslexia: Why Early Prevention and Intervention Are Crucial.” Consortium on Reaching Education Excellence, 2020, pp. 1–9,

Nadine, Gaab. “How Can We Ensure That Every Child Will Learn to Read? The Need for a Global, Neurodevelopmental Perspective.” 

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