Taking a Dive into Identifying Reading Disabilities

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway

The process of identifying reading disabilities and the interpretation of data around the identification of reading disabilities can be inconsistent and conflicting, as they will depend on who is in charge of the process and their training. Since there is considerable variation in the process of identifying reading disabilities, learning support teachers need to not only use current evidence-based and comprehensive assessments to identify and diagnose reading disabilities in a timely manner, but they also need to administer the appropriate interventions for learners to achieve educational success. —Michael Ho

“An estimated 10% to 15% of U.S. school-age children are identified with reading disabilities. Without consistent identification approaches, practitioners may lack a shared understanding of what constitutes RDs and, consequently, how to address areas of challenge in education plans.” On the other hand, a shared understanding of what leads to RDs can lead to effective instruction.

Al Dahhan, Mesite, Feller, Christodoulou (2021) administered a survey across the United States to identify current practices associated with the identification of reading disabilities (RDs). They specifically examined three areas: (a) who identifies and/or diagnoses RDs and what their roles are in this process, (b) the training that these practitioners have received relevant to this process, and (c) the current processes used by practitioners in educational and clinical settings to identify/diagnose RDs.

965 practitioners, including classroom teachers, special educators, reading specialists, school psychologists, and speech-language pathologists were invited to participate in the Reading Diagnostics Survey, and their responses were analyzed.

Variations in Approaches to Identifying RDs

Across school districts and states, there is a range of different definitions, eligibility criteria, diagnostic processes, guidelines, and policies for identifying RDs in both school settings. There are also differences among these features between school and clinical settings. 

Dahhan et al. (2021) refer to Mellard et al. (2009)1 and Scruggs and Mastropieri (2002)2—“Few studies reported on the variability in choice of reading assessments, cutoff points for test scores, pre-referral and/or progress monitoring approaches, magnitude of discrepancies between scores (when applicable), definition of adequate progress, and use of professional judgments.”

Additionally, there are inconsistencies among school districts and states on the use of the IQ/Achievement discrepancy criteria, use of Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) models, and use of Personal Support Worker (PSW).

Practitioner Roles in Identifying RDs

In response to the first area of ‘Practitioner Roles in Identifying RDs’, participation reported the following practitioners, from most to least, directly assessing students for suspected RDs: school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, special educators, reading specialists, and classroom teachers. 

Multiple professionals conduct reading and writing assessments to identify RDs, while cognitive and language assessments tend to be conducted by school psychologists and speech and language pathologists.

Practitioner Training

In response to the second area of ‘Practitioner Training’, speech and language pathologists generally reported receiving less graduate training, while school psychologists frequently reported more graduate training on identifying RDs than those in other professions.

Practitioners in clinical settings and those with more training on this topic report higher levels of confidence compared to practitioners in school settings.

Measures and Procedures used to Identify RDs

In response to the third area of ‘Measures and Procedures used to Identify RDs”, more than 75% of participants indicated that they always evaluate word reading, reading comprehension, and reading fluency.

Practitioners in clinical settings less frequently indicated that they select measures based on accessibility and more frequently indicated that they select measures based on their validity and reliability. On the other hand, school-based practitioners primarily use measures available in their setting that they have been trained to use. 

The most commonly reported criteria included: failure to respond to intervention, an IQ/Achievement Discrepancy, and scoring a standard deviation or more below the population mean. 

The differences show that the criteria used to identify specific learning disabilities in reading vary across, and sometimes within, school settings.


The limitations in this study are mainly related to the recruitment process.

Given the nonrandom sampling approach, these results cannot be expected to generalize to all practitioners across school and clinical settings in the United States. Moreover, participants from Massachusetts were oversampled and

medical professionals with roles in diagnosing RDs were underrepresented.

It is recommended in future studies to recruit more representative samples of practitioners, conduct qualitative evaluations that include practitioner

Interviews, and explore the role of student-level characteristics and contextual factors.

Summarized Article:

Al Dahhan, N. Z., Mesite, L., Feller, M. J., & Christodoulou, J. A. (2021). Identifying Reading Disabilities: A Survey of Practitioners. Learning Disability Quarterly, 44(4), 235–247. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731948721998707

Summary by: Michael Ho—Michael supports the MARIO Framework because it empowers learners to take full control of their personalized learning journey, ensuring an impactful and meaningful experience.

Additional References:

  1. Mellard, D. F., McKnight, M., & Woods, K. (2009). Response to Intervention screening and progress-monitoring practices in 41 local schools. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24(4), 186–195. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5826.2009.00292.x
  2. Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (2002). On babies and bath-water: Addressing the problems of identification of learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 25(3), 155–168. https://doi.org/10.2307/1511299

You May Also Like
Observation Studies in Special Education
The purpose of the study is to understand the extent to which research based on observation provide...
Preventing School Shootings
School shootings within the United States are an ongoing and national issue without current resolut...
The roles of Transition coordinators
Though transition coordinators are critical in improving post-high school outcomes for students wit...