A 30-minute screening test for dyslexia?

dyslexia screening test
A dyslexia screening app in development could flag children at risk as early as age 4, when interventions are most effective.

Ten to 12 percent of school-aged children have dyslexia. It’s typically diagnosed in second or third grade, only after a child has struggled unsuccessfully at reading. As Nadine Gaab, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital puts it, diagnosis is primarily based upon a “wait-to-fail-approach.” And that comes along with considerable psychological damage and stigma.

“Late diagnosis of dyslexia very often leads to low self-esteem, depression and antisocial behavior,” she says. A much better time to look for early signs of dyslexia would be kindergarten or first grade. With early intervention, many children can attain an average reading ability.

Over the past decade, Gaab has shown that an increased risk for dyslexia can be identified in kids as young as 4. “Several behavioral measures show great promise in predicting which children will develop dyslexia even before reading onset,” she says. “But this is not routinely done at well-visits or schools.”

Making dyslexia “checkups” routine

A number of barriers and myths currently prevent young children at risk from being screened. But Gaab envisions a time when every child receives a dyslexia-risk “checkup,” at their 4- or 5-year-old well visit with their pediatrician. To that end, she’s working with Boston Children’s Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) to create a 30-minute mobile screening app for clinicians, teachers and parents.

dyslexia screening
Gaab presenting the Lexosaurus concept at the Innovators’ Showcase (photo: Greg Weintraub)

She presented her work-in-progress, currently named Lexosaurus, at IDHA’s 2017 Innovators’ Showcase April 12. It will include research-based assessments of such parameters as phonological awareness (being able to map letters to the sounds they make), short-term verbal/phonological memory, oral comprehension and vocabulary.

The tool is meant to be quick and easy enough for professionals to use at preschools, pre-kindergarten information sessions, summer camps and other venues. Or even for parents at home. If a risk is detected, the app would offer a list of tools for educators, parents and social workers, such as websites with teaching resources  and intervention programs.

“Children at risk should be monitored more closely by the school,” says Gaab. “Most importantly, they should receive specific in-classroom interventions. If teachers are adequately trained, there is no need to send them to special education. That is another hurdle to tackle, since most teachers receive minimal or no training in addressing the needs of children at risk for dyslexia.”

Gaab is continuing to develop the app with funding from IDHA. She then plans to test it against “paper and pencil” dyslexia screening tools in a group of young children. “We’re hoping this app will allow their intellectual potential to be maximized,” she says.

Potential investors or companies wanting more information can email accelerator@childrens.harvard.edu.