There’s an App for That

Catching reading challenges before it’s too late

November 21, 2018
Nadine Gaab App

A research team at Boston Children’s Hospital is preparing to release an app that could help identify students at risk for reading disabilities early, putting them on a pathway to reaching their full reading potential, rather than languishing for years without proper support.

To get help with dyslexia or other significant reading disabilities, a child often has to try and fail to read for several years before receiving an official diagnosis. Only then, after missed opportunities for effective intervention, do they get the support needed for their specific challenges.

The consequences of this lost time are serious: Students who read below grade-level may struggle with issues like low self-esteem and a lack of academic motivation that can continue to plague them into adulthood, among other challenges.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Schools can screen young children before they are even able to read, to see who may be at risk for reading disabilities including dyslexia. Armed with that information, educators can begin to help at-risk students in prekindergarten and kindergarten, rather than waiting for them to struggle. That’s why the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law last month that requires the state to develop screening protocols for dyslexia.

With the new app, screening for the risk of developing reading disabilities can be quick, easy, and fun for children, says Nadine Gaab, a researcher and faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gaab created the app with the Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“The goal is to identify, with a high degree of specificity, all children who struggle with reading, regardless of why they will struggle, as early as possible, and provide support for educators, parents, and health professionals through an easy-to-use, accessible platform,” says Gaab.

How the App Works

Guided by a friendly bird, children undergo a variety of challenges as they travel through a virtual park, meeting other whimsical animals along the way, like an alligator bus driver and an ice-cream-selling polar bear. All the while, they’re being assessed on six early literacy milestones that Gaab’s research shows are critical to early reading success:

  • Phonological awareness (the ability to manipulate the sounds of language)
  • Phonological short-term memory
  • Rapid automatized naming
  • Knowledge of letter names and the sounds they make
  • Vocabulary
  • Oral listening comprehension

A score report tells educators, parents, or other health care professionals, such as pediatricians or speech and language pathologists, which of the components a child is at risk of struggling with once they do learn how to read. If children play the game again during the school year, adults can see where they’ve made progress, and if new challenges present themselves as their pre-reading and reading skills develop.

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“The goal is to identify, with a high degree of specificity, all children who struggle with reading, regardless of why they will struggle, as early as possible, and provide support for educators, parents, and health professionals through an easy-to-use, accessible platform,” says Gaab.

More Than a Screener

But the app doesn’t stop with detecting challenges. It also directs adults to research-vetted resources, or what researchers call “evidence-based responses to screening,” to help address children’s reading-related weaknesses before reading instruction even begins.

“We are trying to empower teachers,” says Gaab. “I do a lot of professional development in schools, and a lot of teachers in general education tell me ‘I’m critical of screening because we don’t have easy-to-use, accessible tools for screening, and I also don’t know how to respond to the results of screening. I don’t feel well-trained to deliver evidence-based responses to the screener’s results.’”

The app will provide links to curricula, lesson plans, professional development videos, and vetted intervention techniques, so teachers can start supporting students immediately. It will also link parents and clinicians to books and other apps that can support evidence-based responses to pre-reading challenges outside the classroom.

On the district level, administrators will be able to look at data in the aggregate — and the responses to screening most often recommended — to see where the areas of highest risk are for their young students and allocate funds for professional development and curricular supports accordingly.

The right responses to screening, Gaab says, will lead to lower rates of dyslexia and reading disability diagnoses, in turn leading to fewer students getting tracked into special education. Even children who are later diagnosed with a reading disability might exhibit less severe symptoms, since they have been receiving the help they need since preschool or early kindergarten. Most importantly, this approach will ensure that more students experience the joy of learning to read, reaching their full academic potential, and avoiding the social and psychological implications that come with years of struggle.

The app will be at educators’ finger tips soon. Gaab and her team at Boston Children’s Hospital are currently validating it nationwide, in various school districts. Schools will pilot the app starting in the fall 2019, and it will be widely available the following year.

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More from the Gaab Lab on reading differences and dyslexia

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Early Childhood Language and Literacy Learning and Teaching Students with Disabilities