Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities. As a psychologist, I use the DSM-5 to reference criteria for learning disorders. The DSM-5 refers to disordered problems with reading as Specific Learning Disorder, with impairment in reading. This encompasses the criteria of dyslexia, but also includes problems with word reading accuracy, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. I prefer this more comprehensive definition of a learning disorder in reading because it accounts for other factors that can contribute to reading problems, and in my opinion helps to identify more children with reading problems.
How do you know if your child has a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading? The first line of evidence generally occurs when you notice your child struggles with reading and spelling at home or at school. Despite adequate opportunities to learn and practice these skills, your child struggles with reading. Once you notice your child struggles with reading, you can communicate with your child’s school to explore the possibility of a response to intervention plan. This is a strategy that offers various levels of instruction and research-based interventions that occur in the classroom. Often, a child can be diagnosed with a reading disorder based on their performance within the response to intervention context.
However, formal assessment can also diagnose specific learning disorders. In my opinion, the advantage of formal assessment is that it can more adeptly identify the cognitive factors that contribute to a specific learning disability in reading, and a diagnosis can be obtained without having to wait for your child to pass through the stages of response to intervention. In addition, formal assessment not only identifies the factors that contribute to difficulties with reading, it can also offer research-based interventions to address difficulties with these different factors.
There are different ways to assess for a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading. The Individuals with Disabilities Act identifies three methods: discrepancy between cognitive ability and academic performance, the response to intervention classroom strategy, and other research-based methods such as the strengths and weakness model. Based on your professional of choice, compelling arguments can be made for many different assessment models. Thus, I am always slightly wary of the expert that claims to have the “right way” to assess for a specific learning disorder and discredits other research-based approaches. The bottom line is that the field of assessment for specific learning disorders is still emerging and learning, and we don’t have the perfect assessment model yet. However, a lot of research has been conducted and has identified different areas of cognitive ability that are associated with reading performance. Thus, if we are looking for the same underlying deficits, our different assessment models should still lead us to the same goal. At the end of the day, our job is to do the best evaluation we can perform-given the current research at our disposal and evidence-based assessment tools-in order to help your child succeed in the academic arena.