Early identification – the difference it makes to a young child with reading difficulties

Very often children with reading difficulty are identified rather at a late stage of their school-age years. By then, the child would have experienced a series of failures in school where his literacy learning is concerned.

Teachers, Professionals and Parents take note

Early identification is so important that the responsibility of identifying a young child with reading difficulty such as dyslexia should not be placed on the shoulders of the school and teacher alone. It has to involve parents as well, working together with professionals in providing support to the child at home and in school respectively.

Parents need to be aware

Parents must be made more aware of their role and the influence they have in securing early identification of their children and the ‘detrimental effects a delayed provision has on the child’s self-esteem, motivation and classroom behaviour’ (Crombie and Reid. 2009).

Unless parents are well-informed of the signs to look for and are opened to accepting the possibility of their children experiencing some learning difficulties, the children who are at risk of dyslexia will not be identified by parents and their teachers at early school age.

Research proves emotional difficulties

This is very sad as research has shown that children with reading difficulties who are not identified and provided with intervention generally have lower self-esteem and they often experience accompanying difficulties with emotional adjustment in later life (Burden. cited in Reid, Fawcett, Manis & Siegel, 2008).

Getting the message across on the importance of early identification becomes more challenging to parents of pre-school children as the child’s difficulty with literacy learning may not be too obvious at this stage. Parents are usually not prepared to acknowledge the issues their children have, often hoping that it is a phase that the children will someone outgrow at a later stage of their lives. Unfortunately, very often this is wishful thinking and these children will continue to suffer virtually in silence. Most children with dyslexia have endured a lifetime of humiliation from being teased, ridiculed and laughed at for the many failures they encounter (Mortimore. 2003).

Parents play a critical role in a child’s self-esteem

Parents can actually save their children from this plight and be a positive influence on the self-esteem of the children with dyslexia. Parents could either build or unwittingly destroy the child’s self-esteem.



Mortimore (2003), further points out that as much as parents will do almost anything they possibly could for their child, however, parents often exacerbate the situations for their child with dyslexia at home by their own anxieties and insecurities each time the child makes mistakes.

Dyslexia Screening Test

For children at preschool age, early identification is about identifying potential difficulties or what we call ‘at risk’. It is not a definitive diagnosis yet, due to the child’s tender age. The DAS pre-school programme screened preschoolers using the Dyslexia Early Screening Test (DEST) (Fawcett and Nicholson, 1996).

The DEST is valid for the age range between 4.5 years to 6.5 years. The DEST is effective in providing the ‘positive indicators’ for dyslexia. It presents itself as an attractive screening battery to the child as it is fun, varied and non-threatening.

Skills of rhyming and alliteration

For the perceptive parents, actually signs can be seen in a child from the earliest stages. For instance, some of the early signs are when:

  • a nursery-age child is unable to pick up the skills of rhyming and alliteration
  • demonstrates consistent jumbling of syllables, and
  • difficulty in letter recognition.

Family history of learning differences

When a pattern of difficulties is noted, and also usually coupled with a known family history of dyslexia, there is a good chance that the child probably does have some significant delay in his literacy learning (Crombie and Reid, 2009). This is a child who is probably identified as ‘at risk’.

The DAS preschool programme targets young children who are ‘at risk’. Early identification is crucial; the point of time a child is identified and the appropriate provision that follows holds significant influence on the shaping of the child’s development and also his perception of himself (Edwards, 1994, Burden cited in Glazzard, 2010).

Study shows that early identification has a positive impact on children with reading difficulties as it is not the labelling that matters but the provision of a good intervention programme (Riddick, 1996)

Longitudinal Study same as DAS Preschool

In a longitudinal study by Vellutino et.al. (2006), a group of children on entry to kindergarten were tested on phonological awareness (sensitivity to rhyme and alliteration), rapid naming, counting by ones and number identification. Based on their scores, these children were identified as ‘at risk’. The effects of early intervention for these children at kindergarten level were measured. The ‘at risk’ children were given an hour’s training each week during their kindergarten year. They went through a programme strikingly similar to what preschoolers on DAS preschool programme go through.

Results show significant improvement

Just as with DAS preschoolers, the ‘at risk’ children in the study had their classes conducted in small groups focused on activities such as concepts of print, letter recognition, letter identification, phonological awareness, letter-sound matching, sight-word learning, shared and guided reading, listening to stories. Results from the study show that early intervention made at the kindergarten stage can significantly improve early skills and prepare the children for more formal reading instruction later.

Unidentified ‘at risk’ children take longer to help

On the other hand, children ‘at risk’ of dyslexia who are not identified often go through humiliation and failures in their early years of formal education. This can in fact be avoided and a child does not need to fail to learn to read and write before difficulties are recognised, and eventually diagnosed as a confirmed case of dyslexia.

Delay in support results in emotional concerns

A delay in providing effective provisions to ‘at risk’ child will result in the child experiencing some emotional disturbances that have effects on their self-esteem. This is often translated into

bigger learning issues for parents and teachers to cope with as the child begins his formal learning later. The child will demonstrate signs of social, emotional, and developmental effects of his early frustration. With early identification, we can prevent or at least minimise the later damaging effects of reading failure on the child.

Systematic Multisensory Programme

Torgessen (2000), points out that while it is important to appreciate that reading involves a number of different skills, both decoding and comprehension of written words are vital. He elaborates that if children cannot decode, they are unlikely to be able to comprehend what has not been decoded. In other words, the child has to learn to read first in order for him to read to learn things.

For dyslexic children, Torgessen suggests a more targeted and systematic multisensory programme and introduced at an early preschool age. The later the provision is given to a child ‘at risk’, the longer the period it requires to achieve measurable success. The message on the importance of early identification has come across very clearly in this article through the findings of the study and research done. There is ample evidence for parents to note of the significant progress made by early intervention.

In conclusion, Humphrey (2002) reiterates that early identification of dyslexia of high-risk children must be followed up with appropriate provisions for their learning needs. Only with all the much-needed provision followed suit the diagnosis of dyslexia is regarded as the turning point for the pupils; realising that they had a genuine specific difficulty. It gives them closure.


Without early identification, these ‘at risk’ children will surely remain vulnerable throughout their school lives, often misunderstood by others.



Burden, R. (2008) Dyslexia and Self-Concept: A Review of Past Research with Implications for Future Action. Ch 19. p395 – 410. In Reid, G., Fawcett, A., Manis, F., & Siegel, L. (eds). The SAGE Handbook of Dyslexia. London. Sage Publications.
Crombie, M., Reid, G. (2009) The Role of Early Identification. Models from research and practice. Ch 6. pp 71 -79. In Reid, G. (ed). The Routledge Companion to Dyslexia. Routledge. London. UK
Fawcett, A. and Nicholson, R (1996) Dyslexia Early Screening Test. London. The Psychological Corporation, Harcourt Brace and Company Publishers.
Glazzard, J (2010) The impact of dyslexia on pupils’ self-esteem. Support for Learning. British Journal of Learning Support. 25:2, 63 – 69
Humphrey, N (2002) Teacher and pupil ratings of self-esteem in developmental dyslexia. British Journal of Special Education. 29:1, p29 – 36
Mortimore, T. (2003) Dyslexia: curse or blessing? Ch 4, p61 – 78 Dyslexia and Learning Style. Whurr Publishers Ltd. London. UK
Riddick, B. (1996) Living With Dyslexia. The social and emotional consequences of specific learning difficulties/disabilities. Routledge. London. UK
Torgessen, J.K. (2000) Individual differences in response to early interventions in reading: The lingering problem of treatment resisters. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15, 1, p55 – 64
Vellutino, F.R., Scanlon, D.M., Small, S. and Fanuele, D.P. (2006) Response to intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between children with and without reading disabilities: Evidence for the role of kindergarten and first-grade interventions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 2, p157 – 169

About the Author:
Roslan Saad
Lead Educational Therapist
Jurong Point Learning Centre
Learn more about Roslan

This article was first published in FACETS