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Who Can Diagnose Dyslexia?

Let’s say one of your students is struggling terribly with reading. You know that his reading difficulties exceed the normal day-to-day bumps and potholes that most children face, and this student has not responded to your accommodations and assistance. You’re wondering if you have what it takes to teach a student with reading difficulties … Congratulations for recognizing the problem and realizing that you can’t help this child by yourself! Don’t beat yourself up, but understand that this is the nature of teaching a struggling or dyslexic reader. So what should you do next?

Three Different Plans of Attack

1. The Referral to the Student Assistance Team

The appropriate course of action consists of three avenues–all of which will lead you, the child, and the parent in the right direction. One route is to contact the team in your school that is responsible for helping needy students. Some school districts call them SAP, SCIT, SAS, or SIT teams–whatever the label–ask for them to review your student’s case.The committee usually consists of the school psychologist, supervisor of special education, school guidance counselor, speech language pathologist, principal–or any other staff designated to the committee. Once you have initiated contact, usually the school psychologist or guidance counselor will casually observe the child in his regular classroom. Before the next team meeting, you will have to gather your documentation of your observations, score reports, and examples of your student’s work as evidence of your case.

2. Assess First Approach

Another route is to confer first with a reading specialist to observe and conduct assessments on the student and see how severe the reading problem is. As you work with the reading specialist, discuss where your findings do and don’t match. Dyslexic  or struggling readers are consistently inconsistent so you’ve also found a crucial piece of information. After completing the assessments, you and the reading specialist will decide if you should refer your student to the team. The reading specialist will be at the meeting to present his or her assessment results along with your documentation.

After the information has been presented to the team, they will recommend some accommodations for you to use with your student or they will have the student work with the reading specialist for a specified length of time to see if the student makes any improvement. If your student does not improve during the specified length of time, the team will conduct tests to see if the student has a learning disability.

If your district uses the “discrepancy model”, the committee members will compare the student’s IQ with his or her achievement–if your student has a decent IQ but his academic performance doesn’t correlate with his IQ, then your student will receive special education services. On the other hand, if your student’s academic performance is “within the range of his IQ” then your student will have to struggle each year until the performance gap widens enough for him to receive special education services. So everyone literally waits and watches the child fail until he hits rock bottom before anything is done!  As I have said countless times: A STUDENT is not a MUFFLER–you don’t wait until it is in such bad shape that it compromises the ability of your car to perform before you do anything.  

I have worked with students who were clearly dyslexic and no amount of referrals, documentation, and proof would make the committee budge to provide this student with special education services. Just because they have not made a determination does NOT mean that the student is fine. Many times committee members have their own agendas–one of which is to keep special education costs to a minimum. Is this unethical? YES–but it happens all the time. But keep in mind too, not every struggling reader is dyslexic, and there are simple accommodations and interventions that can get them back on track. With a dyslexic student, you will spin your wheels until you think you’re losing your mind. This is because their basic needs are NOT being met.

Reminder: Most schools DO NOT diagnose dyslexia. They use their special education services to determine if a child has a learning disability in math, reading, or writing and then implement corrective action as necessary.

This is where the RTI model comes in–the purpose of it is not only to identify students early and remediate them (without worrying about labels), but also to reduce the enormous costs of special education services. As this approach is fully implemented in schools around the nation, and as the discrepancy model becomes defunct, the shift of the student intervention programs will change from “wait and watch” to “catch them before they fail”. The downside to this approach is that:

    1. RTI has not been validated or substantiated by much research
    2. RTI makes it even harder for students to receive special education services if they really need them.  

3. Go Rogue 

Ok, so you sent your student the student services committee who determined that your student does not need special education services, the student is working with the reading specialist who can only provide 30 minutes of specialized instruction a day for your student, and your student has completely plateaued. Sometimes there comes a time when you have to break out of the herd mentality mindset and do what is best for the child. If you’re going to bypass school services, and want to guide parents on how to get the appropriate help for their child, here is the sequence of how a student is diagnosed with dyslexia:

    1. Recommend that parents take their children to a pediatrician and have the parents tell the pediatrician their child’s symptoms.
    2. The pediatrician will complete a physical and request a comprehensive family background from you. Be honest! (dyslexia runs in families).
    3. The pediatrician will test your child’s vision, hearing, and order a brain scan. She may also refer your child to a neurologist (brain doctor), occupational therapist, or an optometrist or ophthalmologist to test your child’s vision or for further testing like vision skills, eye-hand coordination, and other psychological or neurological issues (add/adhd).
    4. Once any hearing, vision, or neurological disorders are ruled out, your pediatrician will refer your child to a psychologist. There are educational psychologists, general practice psychologists, and child psychologists–all of whom can perform such tests as:
        • Wide Range Achievement Tests (IQ)
        • Weschler Individual Assessment Test–II (IQ)
        • Woodcock Johnson III
        • Reading Fluency of the Woodcock Johnson III
        • Woodcock Johnson Reading Mastery Test
    5. Concurrently, a reading specialist (preferably one outside the school district in private practice or through another agency) can administer these tests:
        • Variety of Informal Reading Inventories
        • Decoding Tests (variety to choose from)
        • Phonological Awareness Profile
        • Gray Oral Reading Tests
        • Test of Word Reading Efficiency

Keep in mind that all of the professionals listed are covered by insurance except teachers–and it can depend on how they code the testing as well (for insurance). Another way to save costs is to go through an agency that is designed for dyslexic students and/or struggling readers, a university reading clinic, or other health care providers.

Another point to consider is that even if your child has been labeled dyslexic by an outside resource, the schools will rarely recognize this diagnosis and won’t automatically place the child in special education classes. You can probably get a 504 plan which allows for certain accommodations, which is better than nothing. So why go to all that trouble to get a diagnosis? Because there are organizations, agencies, and education facilities that DO treat dyslexia and provide targeted instruction. Some are moderately priced; while others can be quite expensive. Sometimes these agencies will find grants to assist needy families or charge on a sliding fee scale. Whatever the case, your child will be treated for dyslexia while the rest of the population waits for them to fail …..


Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz


About Ann Gavazzi

Reading specialist and English teacher with a particular interest in treatment of dyslexia. Also interested in education and education policy at large and current reading research. Owner of the Reading Innovations Center, a tutoring center that specializes in one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers and math students.


6 thoughts on “Who Can Diagnose Dyslexia?

  1. I am an ID Support Coordinator and am working with a family where the son is showing all the signs of having dyslexia, yet the school states that it is not their responsibility to have him tested…!!! I need some help in regards to how to approach this.

    Posted by Nanette | June 4, 2013, 8:36 am
  2. The WIAT-II is an achievement test, not an ability test, and it is outdated. There is now a WIAT-III, or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test-Third Edition. The WRAT is also an achievement screening instrument and has a newer edition.
    I am a school psychologist and while I do not diagnose dyslexia, I also do not engage in the unethical practice of trying to keep special education case loads to a minimum. The Response to Intervention approach does work if implemented with research-based interventions to fidelity. The concept is for students to receive intervention in the least restrictive environment. If the intervention specialist’s classroom works, why would you want them in a more restrictive environment? If that intervention is not effective, then the team has evidence that specially designed instruction (special education intervention) may be needed.

    Posted by RWagoner | September 27, 2013, 8:29 am
    • Thanks for stopping by and posting a comment. The point I was trying to make is that we don’t know if RTI works because there are no long term studies describing whether it works or not. It’s just a remedy that lawmakers chose to jump on the bandwagon with because it promises to reduce special education costs–not that it actually remediates the problems! A better question is what kinds of interventions are being done … and how can we objectively measure this.

      Posted by Ann Gavazzi | October 4, 2013, 11:31 pm


  1. Pingback: Symptoms of Dyslexia « Perceptions of Dyslexia in Children - April 9, 2012

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