A 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.