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How I Help Screen for Dyslexia: 2 Free Tools I Use in my Speech and Language Assessments

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

SLPs can often be the first professionals to spot dyslexia

I frequently get to perform speech and language assessments for the New York City Department of Education. It is one of my favorite things to do as a speech-language pathologist!

It's not an exaggeration to say that taking the subway to a random school somewhere in this big city, and meeting a student and their teachers and other staff in the school, brings me joy -- schools are such cool eco-systems and I love getting to see how different educators are doing things.

One thing I have learned over the years is that dyslexic kids often aren't on anyone's radar for even having dyslexia, especially in the earlier grades. I've seen many kids that can mask issues with written language with really good memory and inferencing skills, especially if their early literacy skills aren't being adequately assessed by teachers. But these students may still be referred for a speech and language evaluation due to language or phonological concerns.

As an SLP here in New York State, I am part of the team of professionals that can contribute to the diagnosis of dyslexia for a student (I encourage you to read up on your own state's legislation about who can diagnose dyslexia). And since there are estimates that up to 1 in 5 students has dyslexia, I think it's super important to be doing some quick screening tasks as part of my comprehensive speech and language evaluations, even when literacy issues are not the primary area of concern when they are referred for assessment.

These are two free tools that have helped me to screen for weaknesses that may uncover the possibility of dyslexia:

This free screener can be downloaded and administered quite quickly. It assesses phonological and phonemic awareness skills (here's a blog post and infographic that defines these terms if you need a refresher) at the syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme levels and will give you a rough estimate of the grade level the child is performing at.

This screener's format, where you provide feedback when the student gives an incorrect response, allows for something called dynamic assessment, which is an important element in speech and language evaluations here in NYC.

Remember that screeners are not normed tests, but can be used to determine whether more in-depth assessment is recommended.

Make sure you read through the instructions about how to administer this screener before diving in.

a child who needs to be screened for dyslexia

2. Nonsense word (aka pseudo-word or non-word) lists can tell you a lot

Nonsense words are words that aren't real, but that follow regular spelling patterns, like "blarf" or "tobe" or "rup".

As I mentioned earlier, many dyslexic kids have remarkable memories and can remember a large amount of words as whole units. While this can be a helpful skill while they're trying to read text, there's a limit to how many words a person can remember, and it doesn't provide them with any tools in the instances where they encounter a word they're not already familiar with.

Also, kids with dyslexia often do much better while reading connected text because they can rely on pictures, inferencing, background knowledge, and other strategies to infer what the words are. Nonsense word lists strip away the opportunities kids have to use other (often inefficient) strategies to read connected text, while getting to the heart of their actual word decoding skills.

Here's a link to a nonsense word list from Scholastic, as well as instructions for how to administer this task.

Observing the types of errors a student makes while decoding nonsense words can give you some very helpful information. Do they employ any strategies when they encounter an unfamiliar word (also known as word attack strategies)? Have they mastered short and long vowel sounds? Consonant blends? Digraphs? Syllabication rules? Do they reverse b and d? Do they decode quickly or slowly and laboriously? All of these observations will be helpful in contributing to the big picture for the student.

Based on my findings with these tools, I'll either state in my report that these areas were assessed and the child's skills appear to be age/grade appropriate, or I'll state that their performance on these tasks could be indicative of dyslexia and I'll recommend more in-depth testing.

I may also add some goals for phonological awareness onto their IEP if I feel it's warranted.

For some more information about dyslexia and how I work with my dyslexic students, check out this post.


Did you enjoy this blog post? Subscribe below to get the latest blog posts, which feature lots of speech therapy ideas for busy SLPs who want to provide fun, impactful, and meaningful speech-language therapy.

Have you heard? StoryWhys now offers the Speech and Spell series of resources. I am always trying to tie articulation work and spelling together in my therapy and I've never found any good resources out there to help me do this. So I made my own! Many more speech sounds and spelling rules to come. They'll be 50% off for 48 hrs when new resources are added to the StoryWhys store. Find them here.

Did you know book companions can be among the best speech therapy materials for elementary students? Explore all of the StoryWhys book companions for speech therapy in my store. You'll find comprehensive book companions that target many different language skills or Spotlight Series book companions that focus on one type of skill, all using high-quality, beloved storybooks.

And get your FREE, 71-page book companion for speech therapy on the free download page.


link to StoryWhys homepage


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