When children struggle with reading, it's important that we evaluate them to determine why they are having trouble, what part of the reading process is problematic for them, where they are on the continuum of reading disabilities and what can be done to help them achieve reading success.

A qualified professional should administer a reading evaluation. You are looking for an individual with a doctorate in reading, learning disabilities, psychology or education. Make sure the professional with whom you work has expertise in reading; many evaluators specialize in certain areas.

You want a professional who understands the connection between language and reading and who is able to make specific remedial recommendations. For example, you need to know what type of reading program is best suited for your child, how frequently he needs to be seen, and whether he should be seen individually or in a small group of children.

The evaluation of a reading disability begins the same as an evaluation of any learning disability. This includes an assessment in the following areas:

  • A personal history
  • General intellectual functioning
  • Cognitive processing
  • Social/emotional functioning
  • Academic ability

Eight areas are particularly important in the evaluation of a reading disability and deserve special attention. These areas either relate directly to the development of reading proficiency or measure reading skills.

1. Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness refers to the ability to attend to and manipulate individual sounds in words. In order to be a good reader, children need to be able to hear each individual sound that makes up our language clearly.

This ability is strongly linked to the ability to acquire decoding skills. Many phonological tasks can be measured: the ability to create rhymes, delete sounds from words, integrate sounds to produce words, and pull words apart into their individual sounds.

2. Decoding

This refers to the ability to read individual words and to sound out unfamiliar words accurately and automatically. Most reading problems are related to difficulty with decoding.

Decoding should be evaluated in three ways:

  • Decoding of word lists to eliminate context clues for the reader,
  • Reading of nonsense words to eliminate memorization of words,
  • Reading in context.

A comparison of the results from these three types of tests provides important insight into the nature of the reading difficulty. For example, some children do better when reading stories because they use the context to guess at words. Other children have more difficulty reading in context because they have difficulty working with long passages of print or struggle to understand language as it becomes longer and more complex.

An expert evaluator will look closely at a child's ability to reads words in isolation as compared to his ability to read words in context. This comparison is key to a reliable diagnosis.

A good evaluator will evaluate your child's contextual reading with both a standardized test and by asking your child to read his grade-level texts from his humanities class (for example, social studies). These are nonfiction books that a student will be expected to manage independently as part of the mainstream curriculum.

It's possible to calculate the reading rate, percentage of decoding errors and comprehension of the material. It can be helpful to see how a student actually manages classroom reading material.

I frequently record a student as he reads the class text; teachers are often shocked to learn how difficult reading can be for some students. This helps teachers view the "lazy" or "uncooperative" student in a different light.

3. Rapid naming

Rapid naming refers to the ability to accurately and quickly name groups of objects, colors and numbers. There is a relationship between a child's ability to quickly name sequences of letters, objects and colors and decoding fluency.

In reading, we quickly scan letters on the page and interpret those "marks" into something that makes sense. In the same way that a child scans blocks of colors and provides a name for each one, this test reveals how quickly his brain can absorb information about a symbol, state that information and then move on.

4. Verbal memory

The ability to recall language both in context and outside of a context is important for all aspects of reading. An example of evaluating verbal memory within a context might include reading a story and asking the student to retell the story.

To determine how a child manages verbal memory devoid of context, the student may be read a list of words and asked to recall the words. Some children have trouble recalling words in isolation, while others have trouble recalling language in context.

Verbal memory is related to both decoding skills and reading comprehension. A comparison of a student's ability to recall words lists (no context) and language in context provides insight into the nature of the reading problem.

5. Fluency

Fluency refers to the ability to read accurately and automatically with appropriate speed and without undue pauses or hesitation. Fluency is measured by timing students as they read.

Unless there is a history of brain injury or stroke, most fluency problems are related to difficulty decoding.

6. Reading comprehension

The ability to understand what we read is evaluated by asking students to read several passages and answer a series of questions about the content of their reading. It's essential to determine whether a student can actually follow what he reads.

It's important to make a distinction between reading comprehension and listening comprehension. Listening comprehension requires that a child understand and recall what is said. Reading comprehension is a more complex process and requires that a child be able to accurately read the material, understand what it says, and recall the information.

While listening and reading comprehension are related, they are not the same. Children who have difficulty understanding what they hear often also have difficulty understanding what they read. Their problem is with understanding language in both written and oral form.

Accurate decoding is essential for good comprehension of what is read — this is particularly true as students advance into the upper grades where reading becomes more difficult, and it becomes harder to predict or guess at words based on the context.

Some students, particularly those with strong verbal reasoning ability, are able to use their background knowledge and the story content to piece together information even though they might have significant trouble reading the words in the text. Some students struggle so hard to sound out the words that it is not possible to reliably determine their reading comprehension. Others, particularly those with language-processing problems, have trouble understanding what they read as the sentences become longer and more complex.

It's important to sort out those issues.

Children with weak reading comprehension require a different type of help than children who struggle with decoding. Some students have trouble in both areas. They labor to sound out what they are trying to read, and they do not understand even what they are able to decode. These children will need help with both decoding and reading comprehension.

Vocabulary is an important part of reading comprehension, and vocabulary tests are also part of an evaluation of reading comprehension.

Most students who struggle with reading have difficulty with decoding. However, there are some students who decode accurately but have trouble understanding what they read. Their problem may be related to weak verbal memory, difficulty maintaining sustained attention while reading or trouble with language processing.

7. Written expression

The ability to express ideas in writing is an important part of a reading evaluation. Some students who have difficulty expressing themselves orally may also have difficulty expressing themselves in writing. This is often because of the trouble they experience organizing and formulating language.

A good evaluation of written language will take a look at a child's ability to organize paragraphs, correctly form sentences, use appropriate grammar, spell correctly and include grade-appropriate vocabulary.

The ability to create appropriately-complex sentences is important. In other words, can a child produce only simple sentences, or can he use a variety of sentence types that are appropriate for his grade level? Can he take these sentences and organize them into logical paragraphs that fit together?

A child's writing is not only an important key to understanding how he expresses himself, but also provides clues to underlying problems with reading comprehension, decoding and spelling.

8. Spelling

The ability to represent what is spoken in written form is referred to as "encoding." When we spell, or encode, we put something into a code. When we read, or decode, we take words out of a code.

Thus, spelling and reading are opposites. Spelling requires a child to translate individual sounds into letters.

Spelling should be evaluated in three different ways. First, the evaluator will want to see an example of the child's unedited written work. Second, the child will be administered a dictated spelling test. Finally, he will be asked to produce a writing sample during the evaluation. This writing sample will be evaluated for skills in both written expression as well as skills in spelling.

Many students do better on dictated spelling tests than on actual writing tasks. A good evaluator will analyze spelling errors to gain insight into both spelling and reading problems.

Spelling provides an excellent window into a student's phonological skills. Children who have difficulty with reading usually also have difficulty with spelling. Many times a student may continue to be a poor speller even after successful reading remediation.

A classroom observation should focus on whether the classroom instruction and any reading instruction outside the classroom meets the needs of the student. Is there coordination between the classroom instruction and the specialized reading instruction that takes place outside the classroom? The issue of coordination of instruction is critical to the success of any reading intervention.

A description of the reading instruction the student receives and the student's response to that instruction are an important part of the evaluation. If the student is in a small group for reading instruction, is the grouping appropriate to the needs of the student?

The written report that your evaluator provides is a critical document, and it is important that parents understand what is in the report. The report should include a review of all the areas discussed.

You should expect to see a summary of developmental, medical, behavioral, family and educational history. Physical, social-emotional and language development should be reviewed. Family history of reading problems and any contributing medical problems should be considered.

The report should provide a clear analysis of your child's intellectual and cognitive strengths and weaknesses as well as an analysis of his academic strengths and weaknesses. A discussion of his social/emotional functioning is important for a complete picture of your child.

You can expect to see a list of all tests given, along with a detailed analysis of your child's performance on those tests. Scores for all standardized tests should be provided, along with a discussion of your child's ability to manage the demands of the tests.

The report should include specific recommendations based on your child's academic, intellectual, cognitive, emotional and developmental needs. Most importantly, the test results should lead to a unique analysis of your child's underlying problem, followed by a concrete plan based on current research that will help him learn to read.

Meet with the evaluator(s) so they can explain the test results and recommendations. It is important that you, as a parent, understand your child's strengths and weaknesses so you can become an effective advocate.