Rising to literacy challenges with effective universal screening

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By Denise Gibbs, EdD, RTI consultant and author

Almost two-thirds of students perform below proficiency in reading in public schools across the country (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2015). Literacy outcomes are even more dismal in large city schools, with three-fourths of all students failing to achieve reading proficiency on NAEP assessments. Such grave literacy casualties necessitate a triage system as envisioned through effectively designed and implemented multi-tiered systems of support.

Sadly, effective implementation of multi-tiered systems of literacy support is the exception rather than the rule across the country. The failure to realize the promise of effective literacy support has many root causes and varies greatly across school districts and states. A quintessential component of an effective, multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is timely, effective, and efficient identification of needed reading skills through universal screening.

For universal reading screening to be timely, it must be conducted early and frequently to prevent students from developing gaps between needed skills and acquired skills. Effective universal reading screening must target essential early literacy and literacy skills needed for success at each grade level. For universal reading screening to be efficient, it must be completed within the very least amount of time possible, resulting in only minimal loss of instructional time.

Two-step screening model: Step one for all but step two for only some

A two-step universal reading screening process in which the first step reliably eliminates those students with obvious literacy proficiency is followed by a more detailed second step to be implemented for those students without literacy proficiency could provide a foundation for a more effective multi-tiered system of support. This two-step universal screening process as described in Rising to Dyslexia Challenges Through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (Gibbs, 2017) is effective in identifying not only students who exhibit the word-level literacy skill deficits that are among the characteristics of dyslexia, but those students whose literacy struggles result from other literacy skill deficits.

The first step in the universal reading screening should be a general outcome measure that determines whether students process and comprehend print at expected levels. The second step of the literacy screening should provide insights regarding the student’s word reading accuracy, phonemic decoding skill, spelling, and ability to read words accurately and fluently within grade level passages. Many students who struggle with reading, including those with dyslexia, have deficits in these word-level and foundational literacy skills. Some students may have adequate word-level skills but may struggle due to reading comprehension and vocabulary challenges. The second step in the reading screening will equip schools to provide targeted and more effective reading interventions based upon the student’s identified challenges.

Literacy evaluation for a very few

When early tiers of literacy intervention do not result in desired outcomes and literacy proficiency is not achieved, additional information will be needed. In the case of students with word-level challenges and characteristics of dyslexia, an evaluation would need to determine the underlying cause of those characteristics. This more in-depth evaluation may provide an understanding of the causes of the student’s limited response to the targeted tier interventions and, importantly, may suggest needed direction for future interventions and supports.

Learn more in an on-demand webinar

Join Dr. Gibbs for an in-depth discussion of these points in her free webinar, “Rising to Literacy Challenges with Effective Universal Screening.” She discusses this two-step screening model in greater detail, showing you how to determine who needs support, what type of support is needed, and how to gauge the effectiveness of this support. She also explores the importance of including parents in this vital triage system.

Denise Gibbs, EdD, RTI consultant and author
Denise Gibbs, EdD, RTI consultant and author
Denise Gibbs, EdD, is a national RTI consultant and the author of four books, including Rising to Dyslexia Challenges Through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and RTI for Middle and High School. She was formerly a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and is now Director of the Alabama Scottish Rite Foundation Learning Centers.


  1. Rita Platt says:

    Sadly in those places where RTI is the norm, it is doing more harm than good. A summary of a peer reviewed summary is here: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/11/11/study-rti-practice-falls-short-of-promise.html

  2. Mr. Sanchez says:

    Very good article and great way to identify those students in need with the Rising to Dyslexia Challenges Through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. This is the first time I hear about this screening process but I am grateful as a teacher and parent that there are different tools to help identify children with dyslexia or any other literacy problems.

  3. Laura says:

    Early intervention is so crucial to filling in the gaps of a student’s learning . This will allow them to grow from where they are and reach new potentials/!

  4. Alecia Walkuski says:

    We currently only have a one-step universal screening program. A second, more detailed step, does make a lot of sense though

  5. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    The earlier and more accurate we can assess a kid the better. Triage is a great term.

  6. Andrea says:

    These early tiers of literacy intervention are so important! Especially in states that have adopted the “3rd Grade Reading Law”. Reading is a live-long skill that is vital to the education process.

  7. Jody Steinhaus says:

    Giving students what they need instead of giving all students the same. Student equity vs. student equality.

  8. Thonisha Davis says:

    I have not used this model.

  9. David Keech says:

    The more educators work together, the better off everyone is.

  10. Melissa Berry says:

    Early intervention is the key!!!

  11. Sherrilynn Bair says:

    Interesting next steps. Always important to honor developmental level of students.

  12. Nicole Erwin says:

    Early is key. I like the idea of the 2nd, deeper analysis

  13. Lisa Capon says:

    Early Intervention is so important!