Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources

A Brief Overview

  • Washington passed a law in 2018 requiring schools to screen young children for the indicators of weaknesses associated with dyslexia and support literacy across all grades. The law took effect in the 2021-22 school year.
  • Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Disability. Students with learning disabilities are eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if they demonstrate a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is key when a student isn’t keeping up with grade-level work and standard teaching strategies aren’t working.
  • The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 320.260) requires schools to support literacy with “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of help for all students who need it, regardless of special education eligibility.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) supports a library of screening tools and best practices. Included are handouts for families in multiple languages.
  • PAVE provides a video: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Full Article

A child who struggles to read can quickly fall behind in school. Nearly every academic area includes some reading, and children might become confused or frustrated when they don’t get help to make sense of their schoolwork. Behavior challenges can result, and sometimes schools and parents struggle to understand why the student is having a hard time.

Washington State requires dyslexia screenings and interventions. Lawmakers in 2018 passed Senate Bill 6162 to require schools to assess children from kindergarten through second grade using state-recommended literacy screening tools. The law took effect in 2021-22.

In January 2021, Superintendent Chris Reykdal called on the state to “completely overhaul early literacy and teach students using proven strategies that are grounded in the science of reading.” The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) supports a library of screening tools and best practices, with resources for families in multiple languages.

Educators, psychologists, and other professionals in related fields nationwide are participating in a movement called the Science of Reading. The goal is to share research about literacy to shift teaching strategies and improve outcomes for students.

Help with reading may be part of special education services

The federal law that provides special education eligibility and funding is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to theIDEA, Dyslexia is a reading disability—aSpecific Learning Disability. Specific Learning Disability is a category of eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Children with Specific Learning Disabilities often struggle to read, write, or do math. If the impact on school is significant enough, they have the right to Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), which is an important part of an IEP. The service minutes listed in the IEP describe the SDI, whose providing it, and when/where the SDI is provided.

Each area of SDI includes at least one IEP goal. IEP goals are built to support learning, and appropriate progress is required as an element of FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is what a student with a disability has the right to.

Here’s a review of this key information:

  • IEP Eligibility is based on a student’s needs
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) serves the identified needs
  • The IEP tracks learning progress with specific goals in each area of SDI
  • Appropriate progress is one measure of FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education

Reading supports are schoolwide

Not all students who need reading support have IEPs. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 320.260) requires schools to support literacy through “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of support for all students who need help, regardless of special education identification.

Some schools have reading programs funded by Title 1, which is part of a federal law called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Title 1 is funded to close opportunity gaps related to poverty and other measures.  

TIP: Ask about all options for reading support at your school. If a student with an IEP participates in a schoolwide reading program, then the IEP can list that program as part of the student’s services. The school is responsible to serve an identified need related to disability.

Dyslexia can be identified and supported without a diagnosis

Students do not need a diagnosis of dyslexia to be evaluated for special education eligibility. If the family has concerns, they can ask the school to evaluate the student. Requests should be in writing. PAVE provides a sample letter to help families request an educational evaluation.

Here’s a sentence to include in the evaluation request letter:

“I need my child tested for a specific learning disability. I believe there is a problem with reading that is disability related.”

Schools have tools to identify “characteristics” of dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. When those characteristics are present, the school is responsible to serve the student with appropriate interventions and instruction.

Consistent with recommendations of the Dyslexia Advisory Council and RCW 28A.320.260, qualified teachers must use best practice methods to help the student overcome the barriers of their learning disability and show meaningful progress:

“The interventions must be evidence-based multisensory structured literacy interventions and must be provided by an educator trained in instructional methods specifically targeting students’ areas of weakness.”

Structured Literacy is helping in some Washington schools

Structured Literacy comes from educational science and is a specific way of teaching the foundational skills of reading, writing, and speaking to use language effectively. Learning skills in a methodical way is especially important for children with dyslexia and for children using multiple languages.

Wenatchee School District shifted to a structured literacy approach in 2019. Many students, including those with dyslexia-type disabilities, have improved in their reading skills since the switch, according to a Seattle Times article published April 17, 2022: Fed up with lackluster reading scores, Wenatchee schools turned to science.

The article explains how Wenatchee staff got specialized training and describes the primary components of structured literacy:

  • Phonological awareness, ability to notice and distinguish different sounds in a word
  • Phonics, ability to match sounds to letters
  • Orthography, knowledge of how words and sounds are spelled
  • Morphology, knowledge of word roots, prefixes and suffixes

In a second article in its Education Lab literacy series, the Times on April 18, 2022, reported about Mercer Island, which also has trained teachers to provide structured literacy: “So far, there are signs of success: Early this year, fewer students were identified as potentially having dyslexia, an indicator that modified instruction is helping.”  

TIP: Families can ask whether their school has staff trained in structured literacy. Or ask this: What evidence-based Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is being provided to serve a student who is not learning to read with standard instructional methods?

An outside evaluation may provide additional information

If a school is unable to gather enough information to fully understand the causes and features of a student’s disability, parents have a right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for more information.

If the family is asking for an IEE because there is disagreement about the quality or conclusions of the school’s evaluation, the family can request an IEE at school district expense. PAVE provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE in this article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’. A school district must file Due Process to deny an IEE request.

In some situations, the family might pay for an IEE or seek one using medical insurance. In most cases, testing for dyslexia is done by a licensed educational psychologist. Neurologists and other medical professionals may also be qualified to provide a formal diagnosis.

Schools can call it dyslexia, but they don’t have to

Families and schools sometimes struggle with what to call a learning disability with features/characteristics of dyslexia. That topic was part of one family’s Due Process complaint against a school district in Washington State. In February 2022 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision. The court said schools are not required to name a student’s learning disability dyslexia. Schools can meet federal and state standards by identifying a student as having a Specific Learning Disability.

Some Specific Learning Disabilities that impact students are:

  • Dyslexia—a learning disability in reading
  • Dysgraphia—a learning disability in writing
  • Dyscalculia—a learning disability in math

Although not legally required, use of these terms is allowed. The US Department of Education on October 23, 2015, issued a Dear Colleague letter to encourage schools nationwide to do more to identify and serve students with Specific Learning Disabilities. The letter includes information about federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

“The purpose of this letter is to clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.”

Since 2015, nearly all states have passed laws to require schools to assess students and provide support for those who need help in reading because of dyslexia.

On April 25, 2016, the US Department of Education issued guidance about the school’s responsibility to evaluate a student who is having reading difficulties. The department’s guidance is formatted as a Letter to Kelli Unnerstall of Decoding Dyslexia of Missouri. The letter includes information about when a school district (“public agency”) might pay for assessment from a medical provider:

“If the public agency decides that a medical evaluation or any other assessment is necessary to determine whether the child has a disability and his or her educational needs, the entire evaluation must be provided at no cost to the parents.”

TIP: Families can talk about their student as having a Specific Learning Disability with characteristics/features of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or more than one. Evidence-based instruction from properly trained teachers is required, regardless of how the disability is named.

How might a student with dyslexia keep up with their class?

Schools are responsible to support students at their age, grade, and developmental level. Washington follows Common Core Standards for all students, including those who receive services through an IEP or Section 504 Plan.

OSPI’s Best Practices for Supporting Grades 3 and Above lists evidence-based classroom strategies, social-emotional supports, and how to accommodate a struggling reader at school. The top recommendations:

  • Use audiobooks to support access to grade-level curriculum.
  • Allow Assistive Technology, including audio features, voice typing/dictation software for writing, or assistive applications for spelling and notetaking.

Learning standards for literacy go beyond the skill of saying or thinking the words on the page. Here’s a way to understand what this means. While reading the Common Core standard below, consider how assistive technology might help students with reading disabilities move closer to these aspirations:

“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”

PAVE provides a video: Text-to-Speech: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities

TIP: Schools and families can talk about how children learn to think critically, problem solve and analyze information through schoolwork done by reading or listening.

A student with dyslexia might work on literacy two ways:

  1. SDI: Student can work on literacy at their level, with help from teachers using evidence-based Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). and
  2. Accommodations: Student can use audible formats and text-to-speech and/or speech-to-text to support reading in all subject areas, including literature, nearer grade level.

Here’s a way to talk about this two-part approach from a student rights perspective:

  1. SDI: A student receiving special education services has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE requires SDI in areas of need to help a student make solid progress. Federal law describes that as “progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” (Endrew F decision).
  2. Accommodations: FAPE is required in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which is general education in the neighborhood school, “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Access to the core curriculum is included. If technology helps the student access grade-level (or adapted grade-level) learning materials, then the school is responsible to accommodate those needs. Accommodations are part of an IEP or a Section 504 Plan.

TIP: Ask the school what audible book service they subscribe to (Bookshare, for example) and how the student can get audible books and curriculum materials. Make sure the student has headphones, a microphone, devices, and spaces to use text-to-speech/speech-to-text and audible books. All can be listed in an IEP or 504 Plan.

What other help can we ask for?

Other state recommended accommodations for students with reading/writing disabilities:

  • Provide extended time for reading and writing, especially for testing.
  • Provide fewer test/homework problems that work on the same skill.
  • Allow modified grading of spelling and grammar (consider the purpose of the task).
  • Print or record verbal step-by-step directions or allow student to take a picture or video.
  • Offer project-based learning options (oral presentation, multisensory experiences).
  • Provide a quiet place for studying and testing.

Students with learning disabilities have the right to accommodations and support to enable them to work successfully toward a high-school diploma. If a student chooses an alternative route through General Educational Development (GED) testing, they may be eligible for accommodations. A website called passged.com lists disability conditions that might make a person eligible for testing supports. Included are dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

What options do families have if they disagree with the school?

Special education law supports procedural safeguards for students and families. Included are dispute resolution options when there is disagreement with the school. PAVE provides guidance in a video: Procedural Safeguards: How to File a Special Education Complaint.

Families have the right to attend public meetings of their local school board to make requests and provide feedback.

A group of families in Easten Washington filed a petition with Change.org in February 2022, to ask for literacy improvements from the Richland School District (RSD). Included are statistics showing that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened already poor reading scores.

The petition asks for a more structured approach to literacy and makes this appeal: “As parents of Richland School District students, we are writing you to plead with you to improve our students’ reading proficiency. Every student deserves the opportunity to become a proficient reader! Reading is a foundational skill that affects one’s ability to function within our society.”

More detail about dyslexia

The state’s definition of dyslexia, adopted in 2018, is similar to a definition promoted by the International Dyslexia Association. According to Washington State’s definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder that is neurological in origin and that is characterized by unexpected difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities that are not consistent with the person’s intelligence, motivation, and sensory capabilities.”

Understood.org provides a video and additional materials to support understanding of dyslexia. Here’s their plain language definition: “Dyslexia is a common condition that makes it hard to work with language.”

Keep in mind that parents and schools don’t need to use the term dyslexia at all. They can talk about a student’s learning disability in reading, writing, or math in broader terms. Specific Learning Disability is defined by the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01035):

“Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance.”

The state’s definition of learning disability excludes “learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

The Child Mind Institute offers a Parent Guide to Dyslexia. Included are the following tips.

A young child with dyslexia may have:

  • Trouble learning simple rhymes
  • Speech delays
  • A hard time following directions
  • Difficulty reading short words or leave them out
  • Trouble understanding the difference between left and right

In school, children with dyslexia are likely to:

  • Struggle sounding out new words and counting syllables
  • Reverse letters and numbers after most students stop doing that, around age 8
  • Struggle taking notes and copying words from the board
  • Have a hard time rhyming, connecting sounds and letters, and putting the sounds of words in the right order
  • Misspell even familiar words (cmpt instead of camped)
  • Read much more slowly than peers
  • Avoid reading out loud
  • Show signs of fatigue from reading with great effort

National resources include comics and videos

Dyslexia awareness is promoted by the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), which provides resources designed to support parents, teachers, and policy makers. On its website, the agency includes state-specific information, recommends screening tools and interventions and provides research data about early intervention. Through social media, the agency in October promotes a hashtag campaign, #DyslexiaAwareness.

NCIL provides a unique resource in the format of an online or downloadable comic book: Adventures in Reading Comic Books stars Kayla, a girl with dyslexia.

Here are a few video resources:

Child Find: Schools Have a Legal Duty to Evaluate Children Impacted by Disability

A Brief Overview

  • School districts have an affirmative duty to locate, evaluate and potentially serve any infant, toddler or school-aged student impacted by disability under the Child Find Mandate — part of special education law.
  • The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.
  • PAVE recommends making referrals in writing and provides a sample letter.
  • Public school districts provide evaluations and special education services at no cost to the family.
  • Child Find is intact during the pandemic, as are all student rights and protections. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

Family caregivers, teachers, or anyone else can refer a child for an educational evaluation if there is reason to suspect that a disability is impacting that child’s ability to learn. The local school district provides a comprehensive evaluation, free to the family, if there is a known or suspected disability and reason to believe that appropriate early learning or school success requires intervention.

The school district’s duty to seek out, evaluate and potentially serve infants, toddlers or school-aged students is guaranteed through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), as part of the Child Find Mandate. The law says that this obligation to evaluate exists for all children ages 0-21, regardless of whether they:

  • Attend private or public school
  • Are housed in a stable way or are homeless
  • Live with a birth or adopted family or are a ward of the state

Receiving adequate marks and “passing from grade to grade” does not erase the school’s responsibility to evaluate. Impacts to all areas of school and learning are considered. Academic challenges might trigger an evaluation. So can school refusal, communication deficits, missing social skills, trouble with emotional regulation and behavior challenges.

Children in private and home-based schools are protected by Child Find

Parents have the right to request an evaluation from the public-school district regardless of whether a child attends public school. If the child is found eligible, the local district is responsible to provide services unless the family does not want them. In some cases, families arrange to have a child attend private or home-based school but receive special-education services through the public school. Private schools do not have to evaluate children or provide special education, but they are responsible to provide equitable services and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. See PAVE’s article about navigating private school.

The IDEA includes categories of disability that might qualify a student for special education services at a public school. PAVE has an article about IDEA and additional articles with information about evaluation process.

Request an evaluation in writing

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff recommend that families request evaluation formally—in writing. Specific deadlines apply in the evaluation process. Washington districts have 25 school days to decide whether to evaluate. After parents sign consent, staff have 35 school days to complete the evaluation.

sample letter to request evaluation is available on PAVE’s website. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides more detail about state requirements. A national agency called Wrightslaw has additional information about Child Find.

The Child Find Mandate requires states to implement programs to locate children who might need more support, particularly those who might need services as infants or toddlers. Child Find is written into the IDEA in “Part C,” which protects children 0-3 with known or suspected disabilities in need of early intervention. However, Child Find applies to all children who might need services—through age 21 or until high-school graduation.

Testing determines whether the child has a disability that is causing learning delays. For very young children, this includes a known or suspected disability that might delay learning. For a child younger than 3 in Washington State, early intervention is provided with an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). PAVE’s website includes an article with more information about early intervention services and the transition to school-aged services at age 3.

For a child ages 3-21, an evaluation determines whether a disability is significantly impacting access to school and whether specially designed instruction is necessary for the student to access learning at school.

Schools use data to determine whether a child is eligible for services

The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.

The referral process includes a review of existing data about a student. Existing data might include information from families, medical providers and anyone who can discuss a child’s performance at public school, preschool, private school, at home or in another setting. Based on this data, the district decides whether to evaluate. Often the decision is discussed at a “referral meeting” with school staff and parents. If a school district refuses to evaluate, family caregivers can request an explanation in writing and have the right to dispute that decision by exercising Procedural Safeguards.

Child Find requires schools to do outreach

School districts operate Child Find programs in a variety of ways. For example, a school might:

  • Train teachers to recognize signs that a student might need to be screened
  • Publish, post and distribute information for parents so they can understand how to request evaluation and why a child might benefit from services
  • Offer workshops or other trainings to parents about evaluation, early intervention and special education

When should the caregiver for a young child be concerned?

If parents do not think their child is growing or developing like other children the same age, they can request an educational evaluation, even if a pediatrician says there is no cause for concern. The national Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR website: ParentCenterHub.org) provides a list of developmental milestones to help parents recognize potential delays.

Early intervention can be critical. Parents can contact their local school district or seek more information and assistance from Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT), managed by Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).

To determine whether early intervention is needed, an evaluator considers:

  • Physical skills (reaching, crawling, walking, drawing, building)
  • Cognitive skills (thinking, learning, solving problems)
  • Communication skills (talking, listening, understanding others)
  • Self-help or adaptive skills (eating, dressing)
  • Social or emotional skills (playing, interacting with others)
  • Sensory processing skills (handling textures, tastes, sounds, smells)

The evaluator uses natural situations to look at these skills while a child stacks blocks, draws, counts, cuts with scissors, jumps, or performs other activities. Testing time varies, and parents can ask how much time was spent, which settings were reviewed, and who conducted the review.

Parents can decide whether they agree with the results and whether they believe the evaluation was appropriate. “Appropriate evaluation” is protected by special education law, the IDEA, as a primary principle. Parents who disagree with the results of an evaluation—or a school’s decision to not evaluate—have the right to dispute decisions through a variety of informal and formal processes, described in Procedural Safeguards.

Birth-3 services are provided through an IFSP

If an evaluation determines that a child requires early intervention, then those services are provided through an IFSP. Early intervention services might include speech and language therapy; physical therapy; psychological services; home visits; medical, nursing, or nutrition services; hearing or vision services.

In most cases, services are provided in the home or in a child-care setting. The goal is for services to take place in the child’s “natural environment.” Occasionally a child may visit a provider’s office for specialized services.

What does an older child’s evaluation look like?

Educational evaluations for children 3-21 are conducted in consultation with a team that includes parents, teachers, special education professionals and school district administrators and evaluation specialists who can interpret and explain the results.

The assessments can look like academic tests, questionnaires, or informal observations. There are no right or wrong answers, and the evaluators are looking for clues that might show an area of need for different or specialized instruction. A comprehensive evaluation can measure a child’s ability to:

  • Think, reason and problem-solve
  • Understand spoken language
  • Explain ideas and speak clearly
  • Understand facial expressions and body language
  • Use facial expressions and body language to express emotion
  • Remember what they hear and understand different sounds
  • See differences in pictures and designs, remember what they see, and understand those visual images
  • Use body parts with physical skill
  • Get along with other people
  • Read, write, spell, and do math
  • Hear and see

Parents can provide a health history and notes and diagnoses from medical providers that contribute outside information to be considered as part of the assessment.

The Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City provides a comprehensive list of commonly used assessments for a variety of disability conditions.

Help for children 3-5 years old

Children ages 3-5 with identified disabilities can receive free special education and related services at preschools run by the local public-school district or through federal Head Start or the state-run Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Often these preschools are specifically designed for children with disabilities, so inclusion with general education students may be limited.

Once a student enters the local public school for kindergarten, specialized instruction may be provided in general education by special educators who “push in” with support in the classroom. The IDEA requires education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the greatest extent possible with typically developing peers. Special education is a service, not a place: See PAVE’s article with that slogan as its title.

Some children do not thrive in typical classrooms. The IEP team, including the parent, may determine that a smaller classroom or “pull out” instruction is needed for the student to make meaningful progress. These decisions are documented in the IEP.

Related services can support parent training

“Related services” might include speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling or special transportation to school or extracurricular activities. Training about positive behavior interventions for family caregivers, school staff and children also could be provided as a related service. Students who are enrolled in a private or home school may be dually enrolled in public school to access related services provided through an IEP.

During the pandemic, some extra attention has been paid to parent training as a related service in order for parents to understand how to support children learning from home.

What happens if a doctor or teacher refers a child for evaluation?

Any adult knowledgeable about a child’s condition can refer that child for evaluation. If a person outside the family makes the referral, parents get a formal written notification about the referral. Parents must sign consent for an evaluation process to begin.

Parents/guardians do not have to give permission. Parents who refuse to give permission have the right to request an evaluation later.

If school staff refer a student for an evaluation and parents do not want their child evaluated, the school district may ask parents to participate in mediation to further discuss the decision. If parents still refuse to sign consent, a school district can begin a legal procedure called Due Process to have the case considered by an administrative law judge. Through this process, a district may be allowed to screen a child for special education without parent consent.

If a student does not qualify for IEP services, a Section 504 Plan might help

A student who is evaluated and determined ineligible for special education might still qualify for some support with a Section 504 Plan. Section 504 defines disability much more broadly than the IDEA, and a student can qualify for support if an identified disability significantly impacts a major life activity, such as learning or socializing with peers.

Educational evaluations identify barriers to education, so schools can figure out how to help children make meaningful progress. Sometimes special education is provided to help with access to academic learning, and sometimes it is needed for a child to build functional skills or to develop more skill in Social Emotional Learning. When requesting a full and complete evaluation, parents can ask questions and provide feedback to make sure the school evaluates in all areas of suspected disability and that the tools for evaluation are comprehensive and varied.

Sometimes a child comes to the attention of the school because of unexpected behaviors that might lead to disciplinary actions. PAVE’s article, What Parents Need to Know when Behavior Impacts Discipline at School, has additional information for families who might be requesting an educational evaluation because of behavior incidents.