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Kindergarten students at Aspire Inskeep Academy in South Los Angeles work in groups during a reading lesson.

In the push to screen all California students for dyslexia, some worry English learners will be mislabeled, making it harder for them to become fluent in the language.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has set aside millions over the past two years for dyslexia research at University of California San Francisco to create screening tests in multiple languages that would signal if a child is at risk for dyslexia. A bill in the state Legislature would require all kindergartners, first graders and second-graders to be screened for dyslexia starting in the 2022-23 school year.

But the idea of a universal dyslexia screening test concerns some teachers and researchers who advocate for English learners. They say tests must be carefully designed to avoid misdiagnosing students who are learning English.

“As a reading specialist, I think we need to exercise extreme caution so as to not create a policy that is potentially detrimental to historically marginalized groups of students,” said Lillie Ruvalcaba, English learner teacher on special assignment in Mountain View School District in Los Angeles County. “As a child who was an English learner, I’m saying slow down.”

Currently, dyslexia assessments are not mandated. Schools often test students for reading disabilities only if parents or teachers believe they may have one, and often these tests don’t happen until students are in third grade or older.

Advocates for English learners say any screening must be designed with the students’ native languages and cultures in mind. Typically, students who are found to be at risk for reading disabilities are pulled out of the classroom to work with a reading specialist. Advocates say reading interventions for students who are learning English as a second language need to be specifically designed for them.

“Blanket implementation of reading programs designed for native English speakers without considering effective literacy for emergent bilinguals – it’s a recipe for once again mis-serving and leaving English learners behind,” said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of organizations focused on improving education for English learners.

There are more than 1 million English learners in California public schools. The vast majority – 82% – speak Spanish, 2% speak Vietnamese, 2% speak Mandarin, 1.5% speak Arabic, followed by at least 70 other languages, according to the California Department of Education.

Research shows that some English learners are inappropriately placed in special education classes. At the same time, many English learners who do have learning disabilities are identified later than their English-speaking peers.

Hernandez and many others opposing the screening are not yet familiar with the assessment tools being developed in English, Spanish and Mandarin by UCSF. The tools have been partially funded by the state of California, and UCSF plans to make them available to all school districts for free. If the Legislature makes it mandatory for all districts to screen students for dyslexia, this would be one tool that could be used.

Lillian Durán, associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon, is leading the team at UCSF in creating the tool in Spanish.

“What we’re trying to do overall is provide teachers with more meaningful information from these assessments. I think assessments end up getting a bad name because in the past they have provided very little data that actually helps,” Durán said.

Durán, who grew up in San Francisco, said the assessment is being designed in Spanish, not just translated from English. For example, the measure includes frequent words in Spanish-language children’s books and curriculum, not simply words translated from the English tool. It also includes a measure of how well the child reads syllables, because if a child is learning to read in Spanish, they would more often learn to read syllables, rather than individual letter sounds.

She said it is important to remember that tests like this are not used to diagnose children with dyslexia, but to flag which students may need extra reading help.

Durán says she hopes to hold focus groups with teachers, students, administrators and advocates for English learners in the spring and summer.

“I really want to make sure the measures are reviewed to make sure they are meeting the needs of the community,” Durán said.

For some educators, the concern that students who speak languages other than English could be misdiagnosed with a learning disability is based in history.

Hernandez has firsthand experience with English learners being mislabeled as dyslexic. In the late 1970s, she taught in a school in the Goleta Union School District in Santa Barbara County, where about half of the students in her combined fifth and sixth grade class had been labeled as dyslexic. All of them were English learners. Over time, she realized that most of her students did not have dyslexia, but instead were behind in reading because they had not had appropriate instruction in English language development.

A 1973 report by the California State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that Mexican-Americans were disproportionately placed in special education classes in Santa Barbara County at the time. A letter from a school psychologist included in the report justified the disproportionate diagnosis of dyslexia by saying that it had probably been inherited from the children’s parents, who must have “gravitated” toward farmworker jobs because of their reading disabilities.

Ruvalcaba said even in recent years, she has seen schools misdiagnose children with disabilities because they were learning English as a second or third language.

“We’ve seen that that mislabeling can often turn kids off to school. It delays their reclassification to ‘fluent English proficient’ because they’re not in the classroom learning the content or vocabulary they need in order to pass the ELPAC,” Ruvalcaba said. The ELPAC is the English Language Proficiency Assessment of California, a test that all English learners must take every year until they are reclassified as fluent in English.

Dozens of other states already test kindergartners and first graders for signs of dyslexia. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a bilingual speech and language pathologist and president of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas. She helped design a test used in Texas to help identify reading problems in Spanish, called Tejas Lee (Texas Reads).

“In Texas we have not witnessed an overidentification of children with special education needs, or dyslexia, because they are English learners. It just hasn’t been the case, from 1998 to today,” Cárdenas-Hagan said.

Cárdenas-Hagan said screening tools can help identify potential problems. For example, if a child who speaks Spanish at home and has been taught in Spanish at school doesn’t recognize the letter sounds in Spanish, that may be an indicator of dyslexia.

“If we don’t measure and we don’t do anything about these kids, then they’re going to go without any treatment,” Cárdenas-Hagan said.

Cárdenas-Hagan said she was recently asked to assess a 17-year-old student who had moved from California to Texas, who had dyslexia that was never identified.

“By that time the child feels really bad about themselves. They’re discouraged, right? Their confidence has been really shaken, and they’re not enjoying school and having a love of learning because they can’t read,” Cárdenas-Hagan said.

Some experts in special education for children who speak languages other than English say the solution is more complex than one screening tool.

“Some places over-identify and some under-identify. Some are hesitant to do anything, and some are too eager,” said Cristina Sánchez-López, senior associate at Paridad Education Consulting. “There are some districts that say, ‘They’re English language learners, so let’s just give them time,’” while others rely on screening tools without looking at the big picture, she said.

Sánchez-López co-authored a book with speech-language pathologist Theresa Young focused on effective teaching for multilingual learners with special education needs. They both advocate for a different approach, in which school districts bring together experts in special education and experts in teaching bilingual children. They recommend analyzing data within a larger context, including the language children speak at home, the language they are learning in and what kind of reading and English language development instruction they are receiving.

“As a speech-language pathologist, we see all the screening data, but unless I have someone at the table who has a bilingual and ESL lens and understands the data as well, we tend to interpret those screeners from a monolingual lens,” Young said.

Instead of a universal screening test, Ruvalcaba and others would prefer California invest in better education for teachers on how to teach reading, how to help students who are having trouble learning to read, and how to best teach students who are becoming bilingual in English and their native language.

“In most other states you can major in education, which means you have four or five classes on how to teach literacy,” said Allison Briceño, associate professor and coordinator of the Reading and Literacy Leadership Credential and Master’s Program in the San Jose State University Department of Teacher Education. “I taught in one of those programs, and what my pre-service teachers were able to do was much more sophisticated than here in California, where often they’ll only get one semester of literacy.”

Ruvalcaba agrees. She didn’t feel prepared to help children who were having difficulty learning to read until she participated in a program called Descubriendo la lectura, or Reading Recovery, that helped her learn effective strategies to help children learn to read in Spanish and English. She used the strategies she learned to work with first graders who had not yet learned to recognize letters, and got them to grade level within 10 to 12 weeks. She said other teachers were eager to learn the strategies from her.

“If you want to spend money, don’t give me a universal screener. I already do enough assessment in my classroom,” Ruvalcaba said. “If you want to spend money on making California’s education more valuable, more progressive, more effective, spend that money on teaching teachers how to implement effective strategies.”

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  1. Victoria Gates 3 months ago3 months ago

    Lots to consider here. Thanks for addressing the topic. Very interesting how this could play out.

  2. ann 4 months ago4 months ago

    Just ensuring teacher candidates in our public schools of education are thoroughly taught, trained and assessed in reading instruction (science of reading, no need for quotes) , with a special focus on those teaching T-K, K, and 1st would likely eliminate the need for an additional screener.

  3. Tony P. 4 months ago4 months ago

    Sánchez-López had amazing points in his book. I’m really glad you brought that up. Misdiagnosing someone for anything can have lifelong consequences and lots of care is needed while screening, especially when screening children. I’m glad you are spreading this quality information!

  4. Kelli Sandman-Hurley 4 months ago4 months ago

    No.one.gets.a.label.after.a.screening.

  5. Bailey 4 months ago4 months ago

    To label any child in kindergarten without having had the benefit of core instruction and support is ridiculous. Additionally, once labeled, schools then are required to implement pullout programs which takes students away from grade level instruction. No logic there.

  6. Robin 4 months ago4 months ago

    Shame on the bilingual educators who won’t support dyslexia screening. I have adopted 2 children who have dyslexia. Waiting for 3rd grade to hear my kids couldn’t read was tragic. I pushed early yet my now 13 yr old can’t read past a 3rd grade level. She and her brother are dyslexic. Why are educators encouraging leaving kids further behind? Why are teachers in California not taught to teach children to read? In Louisiana 50% … Read More

    Shame on the bilingual educators who won’t support dyslexia screening. I have adopted 2 children who have dyslexia. Waiting for 3rd grade to hear my kids couldn’t read was tragic. I pushed early yet my now 13 yr old can’t read past a 3rd grade level. She and her brother are dyslexic. Why are educators encouraging leaving kids further behind? Why are teachers in California not taught to teach children to read? In Louisiana 50% of inmates are dyslexic. By being identified early maybe we could also decrease the crime rate.

  7. Kelli Sandman-Hurley 4 months ago4 months ago

    This article misses the point that screening and assessment are different. If the screening is created and administered correctly, those English learners who do have dyslexia have less of a chance of being missed.

  8. Patty Marks 4 months ago4 months ago

    Did someone refer to Goleta and Santa Barbara Unified School Districts as having an "unbalanced literary approach" to the teaching of reading? If so, I agree. Simply providing computerized programs and assistive technology to students struggling with reading deficits including dyslexia because they never received an effective and multisensory approach to reading is not the answer. Any student struggling with reading issues will tell you that it does not provide the instruction … Read More

    Did someone refer to Goleta and Santa Barbara Unified School Districts as having an “unbalanced literary approach” to the teaching of reading? If so, I agree. Simply providing computerized programs and assistive technology to students struggling with reading deficits including dyslexia because they never received an effective and multisensory approach to reading is not the answer. Any student struggling with reading issues will tell you that it does not provide the instruction they need to improve their decoding, spelling, reading comprehension or writing skills.

  9. Cheri Rae 4 months ago4 months ago

    It sure would be helpful for Ms. Hernandez to provide more solid information than her own recollections about how all those students were "labeled" with dyslexia in Goleta Union in the 1970s. As a longtime dyslexia/literacy advocate for struggling students in the Santa Barbara area, I've never heard a thing about such an approach, not anecdotally in adults who were mislabeled or in any presentations or discussions with educators about such a systematic program in … Read More

    It sure would be helpful for Ms. Hernandez to provide more solid information than her own recollections about how all those students were “labeled” with dyslexia in Goleta Union in the 1970s. As a longtime dyslexia/literacy advocate for struggling students in the Santa Barbara area, I’ve never heard a thing about such an approach, not anecdotally in adults who were mislabeled or in any presentations or discussions with educators about such a systematic program in Goleta Union – ever. Or such results in effectively identifying – or addressing – dyslexia in any of the public schools in the entire county. Not then, not now.

    What we do see is inappropriate reading instruction using balanced literacy, and a wait-to-fail approach or tendency to stick struggling readers in special education without appropriate instruction that fails far too many students and limits their opportunities before they ever have a chance to succeed. These objections just seem another tack in the ongoing insistence in the education community against addressing dyslexia in California, and refusal to join the dozens of states that have implemented screening, and even banned balanced literacy.

  10. Monie de Wit 4 months ago4 months ago

    Universal screening is effective in showing who will have trouble reading and should not be used to diagnose dyslexia. Many of our most vulnerable students are years behind their peers. What makes the difference about literacy proficiency is how we teach reading. Many districts, Santa Barbara included, are still clinging to "balanced literacy" – an approach that does not work well for vulnerable students who need an explicit approach using the "science of reading." Many … Read More

    Universal screening is effective in showing who will have trouble reading and should not be used to diagnose dyslexia. Many of our most vulnerable students are years behind their peers. What makes the difference about literacy proficiency is how we teach reading.

    Many districts, Santa Barbara included, are still clinging to “balanced literacy” – an approach that does not work well for vulnerable students who need an explicit approach using the “science of reading.” Many districts are understanding that this is what needs to change. Chancellor David Banks, an educator, attorney and new superintendent of New York City public schools, understands firsthand what the barriers are for black and brown students and those with learning differences, foster youth and those with socioeconomic hardship.

    Balanced literacy hurts these students because it relies on contextual clues over a strong approach to phonics and connecting letters and sounds. Banks did a powerful interview for CBS this Jan. 2022 that is well worth hearing… https://www.cbsnews.com/newyork/news/incoming-schools-chancellor-david-banks-on-why-so-many-black-brown-students-arent-reaching-proficienc

  11. Christy Denes 4 months ago4 months ago

    I’m the parent of two children whose first language was not English and who have dyslexia. The assumptions being made by some of the teachers you interviewed are so much more discriminatory and harmful than any assessment could ever be. My children were not diagnosed for years because my concerns were chalked up to being an irrational and overzealous parent, and their reading challenges were chalked up to their status as English language learners. The … Read More

    I’m the parent of two children whose first language was not English and who have dyslexia. The assumptions being made by some of the teachers you interviewed are so much more discriminatory and harmful than any assessment could ever be. My children were not diagnosed for years because my concerns were chalked up to being an irrational and overzealous parent, and their reading challenges were chalked up to their status as English language learners. The harm that was done to them by this policy was profound and will never go away. It has permanently affected their self-esteem, their ability to do schoolwork, and their future prospects, not to mention the massive financial disaster it has been for our family because we ended up having to pay out of pocket for assessments, educational therapy, advocates, and attorneys.

    One thing to know is that failure to teach kids to read ripples out into all other educational areas. When my kids’ peers were learning how to structure a sentence or paragraph, they still couldn’t read anything. Then by the time they finally learned to read because I sold my house and used the money to get them the help they needed, they were in middle school where no one teaches those basic writing skills. They started out doing really well in math but by second grade all of math is based around “real world” uses and experiences in the form of word problems, so if a kid can’t read then they can’t do math either.

    I could go on and on. If these teachers are so concerned about ELL students they should be demanding that assessment tools be also be available in multiple languages so those students are not left behind. An English language learner with dyslexia is perhaps the most marginalized student there can possibly be, and the failure to help them is a massive civil rights violation. Right now proper diagnosis and remediation is really only available to the wealthy. A bill mandating universal screening is a step in the right direction for underprivileged students.