Identifying Dyslexia

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Dyslexia causes individuals difficulty in reading and learning because of issues related to phonological awareness and decoding as well as processing speed and comprehension. It, along with other language-based learning disabilities affects up to 20% of the population and is the most common cause of reading writing and spelling difficulties. The most common practice for identifying children with learning disabilities is determining if a discrepancy exists between their ability and achievement. This discrepancy criterion is usually determined by comparing the student’s IQ score to an achievement test score. There are many problems with this system of identification. The following will explain and describe the problems associated with the discrepancy criterion and suggest alternative ways to effectively identify children with learning disabilities. This diagnosis process is subpar because it can only be used to identify the issue when there is a significant discrepancy between intelligence and attainment, excluding other causes of disability, limiting diagnosis parameters, and delaying the remedial process.


While the discrepancy scores are supported by some researchers, others see it as a limited and stunted paradigm for dyslexia diagnosis. Sternberg and Grigorenko (2001) advise that “We should immediately stop using discrepancy scores to identify children with learning disabilities. The method is psychologically and psychometrically indefensible. It must go” (p. 339). It is indefensible because this process only identifies significant gaps in intelligence and performance, significantly limiting its relevance and effectiveness. In addition, this stunted process results in diagnosis disparagement across economic levels, making it less likely that children with lower income families get the attention and help they need. By excluding other causes of disability, doctors leave out children who may suffer from emotional problems or the implications of disadvantaged households (Ackerman, Holloway, Youngdahl, & Dykman, 2001). This exclusion is does not apply to a small number of outliers or anomalies but omits a significant amount of people that desperately need remedial support for the issue. Without a proper diagnosis, this population suffers from an inability to recognize and properly treat dyslexia. 

The discrepancy scores do not have the ability to identify other reasons for the disability, making it difficult to get help for those with uncommon sources. As a result of the nature of the disability, teachers and learning professionals could be more effective if the testing process was more specific (Allington, 1997). This will allow them to cater the remedial process to the child’s individual needs and difficulties. By limiting diagnosis processes to the discrepancy scores, underprivileged children who need it the most will suffer. This perpetuates a vicious cycle of underprivileged children performing poorly in comparison to their advantaged peers.

Delayed Process

As the discrepancy score process requires a very significant gap in intelligence and performance, mild or early cases go unnoticed and unresolved by the referral to a special education program. Typically, the standard for diagnosis is two years behind expected literacy level. This process is structured to not recognize the problem until the child is significantly behind, halting their ability to manage and address it in early stages. This arbitrary threshold contributes to a delayed diagnosis, resulting in a delayed and more difficult remedial process (Alarcon, Pennington, Filipek, & DeFries, 2000). The fact that the foundation of this diagnosis process relies on waiting until the child’s difficulties have worsened instead of identifying early signs shows the inadequacy and insufficiency of this dated process.  When help comes in too late in the child’s educational progress, it is much more difficult to change the child’s understanding and perceptions of reading. Catching the issue early on gives teachers and parents an opportunity to address these challenges while the child is still malleable and receptive to change.


Alternatives to IQ testing and discrepancy scoring is early screening and intervention. Screening tools can be used by classroom teachers to monitor the progress of each student. Instead of waiting for the child’s performance to wane significantly, this screening process will be performed on every student. This will allow for an increased data set and provide significant information to manage a customized intervention (Alvidrez, &Weinstein, 1999). Intervention would begin as soon as slow reading skills are apparent. An “effects” based intervention approach would allow the teacher to refer children to a program in order to get additional help. The impact and effect of this early intervention will be reviewed and depending on the child’s progress, he or she will continue intervention or return to the designated curriculum. This allows a much more immediate and hands on approach to the problem and allows teachers and parents to recognize and address early signs (Kaval, n.d). In addition, as this is inclusive to all students and focuses on early intervention, the results will be less skewed than the discrepancy scoring approach. This will allow children from all economic classes to get the same diagnostic treatment and subsequent reading support.

This alternative approach addresses the problems related to the exclusions of discrepancy scoring as well as the delayed approach its results in. Children with learning disabilities will fare better when their issues are recognized and diagnosed early, rather than waiting for an arbitrary fail standard. In addition, this “effects” focused intervention provides a better way of understanding how to best approach the remediation of the student, and whether mainstreaming students with disabilities is appropriate.


In conclusion, the discrepancy score diagnosis process is an inadequate method that fails to identify the underlying reasons of dyslexia. As a result, its ability to diagnose children with varied symptoms and disability sources is very limited. In addition, the standards for this testing result in late diagnosis and remediation, impacting the child’s ability to develop better reading practices early on. The structure of this diagnostic process is skewed toward bright, middle class students, leaving out an important yet disadvantaged population.  As an alternative, it is suggested that teachers and professionals employ the screening and early intervention approach. This documents the process of the students’ performance and helps to better identify the causes and effects of the disability. By screening every student, those with a problem can be identified early, expanding the effectiveness of diagnostic process. In addition, the intervention process allows for increased documentation and developmental opportunity which can help students early on. By empowering the teacher to request intervention as a result of slow reading or consistent difficulty, the problem is identified sooner, allowing professionals to address the problem with more success. The alternative process should be the main focus for parents, teachers and professionals in attempting to identify dyslexia and manage it appropriately. While the IQ testing and discrepancy scoring may have been a fine start many years ago, increased information and studies related to the dyslexia constitute updating diagnostic and evaluation standards. By focusing on early diagnosis and evaluating each student, the screening and intervention alternative solution offers a better opportunity for effective remedial help.


Ackerman, P.T., Holloway, C.A., Youngdahl, P.L. & Dykman, R. A. (2001). The double-deficit theory of reading disability does not fit all. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16, 152–160. 

Alarcon, M., Pennington, B.F., Filipek, P.A., & DeFries, J.C. (2000). Etiology of neuroanatomical correlates of reading achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 731–746. 

Allington, R.L. (1997). Whose claims are valid? School Administrator, 54(8), 32–34. 

Alvidrez, J. &Weinstein, R. S. (1999). Early teacher perceptions and later student academic disability. Developmental Neuropsychology, 17(3), 339–360. 

Kaval, K. (n.d) Discrepancy models in the identification of learning disability. University of Iowa. Retrieved from 

Sternberg RJ, Grigorenko EL. (2001) Unified psychology. Journal of American Psychology.; 56(12): 1069-79.