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Part II: Components of Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing – Phonological Awareness and Word Fluency Assessment

Lettere01gorgoA few days ago I posted my first installment in the comprehensive assessment of dyslexia series, discussing common dyslexia myths as well as general language testing as a starting point in the dyslexia testing battery. (You can find this post HERE).

Today I would like to discuss the next two steps in dyslexia assessment, which are phonological awareness and word fluency testing.

Let’s begin with phonological awareness (PA). Phonological awareness is a precursor to emergent reading. It allows children to understand and manipulate sounds in order to form or breakdown words. It’s one of those interesting types of knowledge, which is a prerequisite to everything and is definitive of nothing. I like to compare it to taking a statistics course in college. You need it as a prerequisite to entering a graduate speech pathology program but just because you successfully complete it does not mean that you will graduate the program.  Similarly, the children need to have phonological awareness mastery in order to move on and build upon existing skills to become emergent readers, however, simply having this mastery does not a good reader make (hence this is only one of the tests in dyslexia battery).

When a child has poor phonological awareness for his/her age it is a red flag for reading disabilities. Thus it is very important to assess the child’s ability to successfully manipulate sounds (e.g., by isolating, segmenting, blending, etc.,)  in order to produce real or nonsense words.

Why are nonsense words important?

According to Shaywitz (2003), “The ability to read nonsense words is the best measure of phonological decoding skill in children.” (p. 133-134) Being able to decode and manipulate (blend, segment, etc.) nonsense words is a good indication that the child is acquiring comprehension of the alphabetic principle (understands sound letter correspondence or what common sounds are made by specific letters). It is a very important part of a dyslexia battery since nonsense words cannot be memorized or guessed but need to be “truly decoded.”

While a number of standardized tests assess phonological awareness skills, my personal preference is the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing-2 (CTOPP-2), which assesses the following areas:

  • Phonological Segmentation
  • Blending Words
  • Sound Matching
  • Initial, Medial and Final Phoneme Isolation
  • Blending Nonwords 
  • Segmenting Nonwords 
  • Memory for Digits
  • Nonword Repetition 
  • Rapid Digit Naming 
  • Rapid Letter Naming 
  • Rapid Color Naming 
  • Rapid Object Naming 

 As you can see from above description, it not only assesses the children’s ability to manipulate real words but also their ability to manipulate nonsense words. It also assesses word fluency skills via a host of rapid naming tasks, so it’s a very convenient tool to have as part of your dyslexia testing battery.

This brings us to another integral part of the dyslexia testing battery which is word fluency testing (WF).  During word fluency tasks a child is asked to rapidly generate words on a particular topic given timed constraints (e.g., name as many animals as you can in 1 minute, etc.). We test this rapid naming ability because we want to see how quickly and accurately the child can process information. This ability is very much needed to become a fluent reader.

Poor readers can name a number of items but they may not be able to efficiently categorize these words. Furthermore, they will produce the items with a significantly decreased processing speed as compared to good readers. Decreased word fluency is a significant indicator of reading deficits. It is  frequently observable in children with reading disabilities when they encounter a text with which they lack familiarity. That is why this ability is very important to test.

Several tests can be used for this purpose including  CTOPP-2 and Rapid Automatized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus Test (RAN/RAS) just to name a few. However, since CTOPP-2 already has a number of subtests which deal with testing this skill, I prefer to use it to test both phonological awareness and word fluency.

Read part III of this series which discusses components of Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension testing HERE.

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Components of Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing: Part I- Introduction and Language Testing

Image result for dyslexia lawsWith the passing of dyslexia laws in the state of New Jersey in 2014, there has been an increased focus on reading disabilities and dyslexia particularly in the area of effective assessment and remediation. More and more parents and health related professionals are looking to understand the components of effective dyslexia testing and who is qualified to perform it. So I decided to write a multi-part series regarding the components of comprehensive dyslexia testing in order to assist parents and professionals to better understand the steps of the testing process.

In this particular post I would like to accomplish two things: dispel several common myths regarding dyslexia testing as well as discuss the first step of SLP based testing which is a language assessment.

Myth 1: Dyslexia can be diagnosed based on a single test!

DYSLEXIA CANNOT BE CONFIRMED BY THE ADMINISTRATION OF ONE SPECIFIC TEST. A comprehensive battery of tests from multiple professionals including neuropsychologists, psychologists, learning specialists, speech-language pathologists and even occupational therapists needs to actually be administered in order to confirm the presence of reading based disabilities.

Myth 2: A doctor can diagnose dyslexia!

A doctor does not have adequate training to diagnose learning disabilities, the same way as a doctor cannot diagnose speech and language problems. Both lie squarely outside of their scope of practice! A doctor can listen to parental concerns and suggest an appropriate plan of action (recommend relevant assessments)  but they couldn’t possibly diagnose dyslexia which is made on the basis of team assessments.

Myth 3: Speech Pathologists cannot perform dyslexia testing!


So what are the dyslexia battery components?

Prior to initiating an actual face to face assessment with the child, we need to take down a thorough case history (example HERE) in order to determine any pre-existing risk factors. Dyslexia risk factors may include (but are not limited to):

  • History of language and learning difficulties in the family
  • History of language delay (impaired memory,  attention, grammar, syntax, sentence repetition ability, etc) as well as
  • History of impaired phonological awareness skills (difficulty remembering children’s songs, recognizing and making rhymes, confusing words that sound alike,  etc).

After that, we need to perform language testing to determine whether the child presents with any deficits in that area. Please note that while children with language impairments are at significant risk for dyslexia not all children with dyslexia present with language impairments. In other words, the child may be cleared by language testing but still present with significant reading disability, which is why comprehensive language testing is only the first step in the dyslexia assessment battery.

Image result for language testingLANGUAGE TESTING

Here we are looking to assess the child’s listening comprehension. processing skills, and verbal expression in the form of conversational and narrative competencies. Oral language is the prerequisite to reading and writing.   So a single vocabulary test, a grammar completion task, or even a sentence formulation activity is simply not going to count as a part of a comprehensive assessment.

In children without obvious linguistic deficits such as limited vocabulary, difficulty following directions, or grammatical/syntactic errors (which of course you’ll need to test) I like to use the following tasks, which are sensitive to language impairment:

Listening Comprehension (with a verbal response component)

  • Here it is important to assess the student’s ability to listen to short passages and answer a variety of story related questions vs. passively point at 1 of 4 pictures depicting a particular sentence structure (e.g., Point to the picture which shows: “The duck was following the girl”). I personally like to use the Listening Comprehension Tests for this task but any number of subtests from other tests have similar components.

Semantic Flexibility

  • Here it is important to assess the student’s vocabulary ability via manipulation of words to create synonyms, antonyms, multiple meaning words, definitions, etc. For this task I like to use the WORD Tests (3-Elementary and 2-Adolescent).

Narrative Production:

  • A hugely important part of a language assessment is an informal spontaneously produced narrative sample, which summarizes a book or a movie.  Just one few minute narrative sample can yield information on the following:
  • Sequencing Ability
  • Working MemoryRelated image
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Pragmatics and perspective taking
  • Story grammar (Stein & Glenn, 1979)

Usually I don’t like to use any standardized testing for assessment of this skill but use the parameters from the materials I created myself based on existing narrative research (click HERE).

Social Pragmatic Language

  • Given my line of work (school in an outpatient psychiatric setting), no testing is complete without some for of social pragmatic language assessment in order to determine whether the student presents with hidden social skill deficits. It is important to note that I’ve seen time and time again students acing the general language testing only to bomb on the social pragmatic tasks which is why this should be a mandatory part of every language test in my eyes. Here, a variety of choices exists. For quick results I typically tends to use the Social Language Development Tests as well as portions of the Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment Protocol®.

Not sure what type of linguistic deficits your student is displaying? Grab a relevant checklist and ask the student’s teacher and parent fill it out (click HERE to see types of available checklists)

So there you have it! The first installment on comprehensive dyslexia testing is complete.

READ part II which discusses components of Phonological Awareness and Word Fluency testing HERE

Read part III of this series which discusses components of Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension testing HERE.

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