It’s time to screen all students for dyslexia risks

by Carol Kocivar | February 26, 2023 | 5 Comments
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Let’s not wait for more kids to fail

It’s hard to believe, but federal prisons are ahead of California public schools when it comes to screening for reading challenges.

Under a 2018 law, federal prisoners are screened for risks of dyslexia, for good reason. In some prisons today nearly 80% of the inmates are illiterate, and almost half of the inmates are on the dyslexia spectrum. Dyslexia is a leading cause of illiteracy.

Is California connecting the dots and requiring public schools to screen for risk of dyslexia? Not yet. According to the National Center on Improving Literacy, California is way behind other states in taking action to require screening for risk of dyslexia.

Important update: At last, California passed legislation to do something about this issue. Universal screening for risk of dyslexia will begin in K-2 grades starting in the 2025-26 school year, using a new screening methodology.

Screening for the risk of dyslexia helps teachers identify the reading needs of each student, which helps them support each student in specific areas of need.

Advocates, including the California State PTA, have called for California to join other states in screening all students, but so far without success. In 2022 a bill to put the policy in place died because of opposition from the California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association. The primary concern has been that existing screening tools might over-identify students as being at risk of dyslexia if they are not yet fluent in English.

Risks of dyslexia

Dyslexia makes learning much harder. It’s a condition of varying intensity, affecting 80-90% of all students with learning disabilities. EdSource has done a great job of revealing the personal impact of dyslexia in its podcast:

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Left untreated, dyslexia may lead to low self-esteem, behavior problems, anxiety, aggression, and withdrawal from friends, parents and teachers.” Students with dyslexia are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college. The school-to-prison pipeline is well-populated with dyslexic kids who don’t get the support they need to learn to read.

In California, hundreds of thousands of children struggle every day to read at grade level, often without proper support. In third grade, for example, the CAASPP results show that nearly 60% of students are not yet proficient in reading. This is a huge problem — students can't "read to learn" until they have successfully learned to read.

Most school districts in California do not screen all students for risk of dyslexia, leaving teachers and staff without key resources necessary to help students.

Illiteracy in society is hugely expensive. In a 2022 report, UNESCO estimated that illiteracy suppresses the economy of the United States by 2% each year. This is a huge sum — for context, California’s total investment in K-12 public education amounts to about 3% of the state’s economy.

Early screening for risk of dyslexia can help identify why so many students are struggling to read. Reading proficiently requires mastery of many different skills.

Once teachers know the skills a child needs to master they can target instruction to meet those needs.

A core metric for success in school is for students to read proficiently by third grade. Students should learn to read by third grade because by that point they need to read to learn.

Common Misconceptions

Dyslexia is frequently misunderstood. It is not connected to overall intelligence. It doesn’t vary based on whether parents read to children at home. It is unaffected by laziness or whether a child has a vision problem.

Dyslexia is neurological and caused by wiring of the brain. There is no cure. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “it is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities." People with dyslexia succeed by learning coping strategies.

Some very successful people with dyslexia

Scientists and academics

Albert Einstein

Alexander Graham Bell


Gavin Newsom

Steve Jobs

Richard Branson


Tom Cruise

Keira Knightley

Nolan Ryan

Anderson Cooper

Artists and creators

Steven Spielberg

Walt Disney

Agatha Christie

Obviously, there are many other examples. Learning about successful people who struggled with dyslexia can be very motivating to students who struggle with it.

Third time a charm?

California Senator Anthony Portantino has introduced a new bill, SB 691, to add California to the list of states that provide all students with risk screening for dyslexia. The bill resembles his previous effort, which was killed in committee, with some adjustments.

To address concerns about appropriate screening for English language learners, the bill now says that a student’s English language acquisition status, home language, and language of instruction shall be considered. It also makes clear that a risk screening is not an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education or 504 services.

SB 691 requires:

Universal screening

Required annual screening for K to grade 2 students for risk of dyslexia, unless parents or guardians choose not to have their child screened.

State-approved screening instruments

The State Board of Education must establish an approved list of evidence-based culturally, linguistically, and developmentally-appropriate screening instruments for risk of dyslexia.

Support for students

For students identified as being at risk of dyslexia, school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools are required to provide evidence-based literacy instruction, progress monitoring, and early intervention in the regular general education classroom.

There are already many screening tools. The UCSF Dyslexia Center is developing a new digital screening tool, called Multitudes, that measures how well a student can recognize letters and sounds. This 20-minute digital test will be free for all California public schools to aid in the early identification of Kindergarten and first grade students who may face challenges learning to read. It will be available in several languages.

Does your elementary school screen for risk of dyslexia?

One way to help students at your school is to ask your principal whether all K-2 students are screened for risk of dyslexia.

If the answer is no, share this post with your principal! Let your school board and superintendent know you want to help more students learn to read.

You can also contact your representatives in the State Senate and Assembly to let them know this is important to you. Find your representatives here.

What do you think?

Should California require universal screening for risk of dyslexia? Add your voice to the comments below.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
enangriffin March 7, 2023 at 11:36 am
It was surprising to me that neither New York or California screen for dyslexia. My granddaughter had to go through private testing and luckily has learned some coping skills. Good article Carol.
user avatar
monie deWit February 27, 2023 at 10:27 am
Thank you for this informative article. Literacy is a human right and with over 60% of the students not reading proficiently universal testing is key to early intervention. This does not mean more english language learners will be misidentified. It means teachers will learn early what each students needs. Also intensive interventions and teaching training in the science of reading, smaller class sizes and banning the cueing system like so many states have done will turn this around. No more balanced literacy because it just teaches students how to guess from contextual clues like pictures. They vulnerable students who parents can't afford tutors, which are a lot in California are counting on school boards to follow the science of reading approach, do universal testing, reduce class size and teach teachers who were trained in the flawed approach, the science of reading. All students deserve to learn to read by end of third or we are just feeding the school to prison pipeline.
user avatar
Stephanie Simpson February 26, 2023 at 7:26 pm
Thank you for this comprehensive and data-driven blog.

After reading this piece and the details of SB 691, it’s impossible not to think “How is screening young students for risk of the most common learning disability not something California schools already do?”

Let’s go, California - support SB 691!
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 26, 2023 at 5:27 pm
Looking forward to your comments
user avatar
LBD February 26, 2023 at 5:10 pm
Thanks for an insightful blog. Forty states are already doing this. Providing teachers with data on early literacy skills through universal screening is an important component of early intervention. Brief, evidence-based screeners are a critical first step in Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Please support SB 691!
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