Screening for Reading Problems in Preschool and Kindergarten: An Overview of Select Measures

Accurate identification of children who experience delays in attaining critical early literacy skills is needed to prevent reading problems. Studies have demonstrated that reading problems become increasingly more resistant to intervention and treatment after the 3rd grade. Given this, early literacy screening of young children for potential problems with beginning literacy skills is particularly important and serves a variety of purposes. It provides a mechanism for identifying those children who are a) at risk for reading failure, b) in need of a more thorough and detailed assessment, and c) in need of targeted intervention for improving literacy skills and reading acquisition so they do not fall behind peers (Invernizzi, Justice, Landrum, & Booker, 2004/2005; Rathvon, 2004).


A positive trajectory in children’s reading is predicted by their acquisition of early core literacy skills. These needed core skills for young children are phonological awareness (ability to identify and manipulate sounds), alphabet knowledge (awareness of individual letters and letter names), concept of word (ability to segment spoken sentences/phrases into words and to match spoken words to text), and grapheme–phoneme correspondence (ability to identify correspondence between letters and sounds). Children’s abilities across these four core skills serve as important predictors of subsequent reading achievement. A screening instrument that does not comprehensively examine all core skills may be ineffective for identifying children who display limitations in a particular area of early literacy (Justice, Invernizzi, & Meier, 2002).


Designing effective early reading screening instruments is complicated by the interaction of the screening tasks with the time of year and age/grade at which they are administered. Children’s rapidly changing phonological and early literacy skills, as well as the influence of instruction on these skills, may make an instrument highly predictive at one screening and ineffective at another—even within a short time frame or same school year (O'Connor & Jenkins, 1999). The appropriate time to begin screening young children has been debated. In some cases the literature argues that for young children, screening of early literacy skills should occur before formal literacy instruction begins (Badian, 1982, 2000; Invernizzi et al., 2004/2005; Justice et al., 2002). The belief underpinning this stance is that the prevention of reading problems can only be realized if early literacy skills are assessed before children become immersed in the mechanics of formal literacy instruction (Justice et al., 2002). In other cases, researchers have stated that screening in preschool, the summer prior to entrance in kindergarten, or at the beginning of kindergarten is likely to reduce the predictive accuracy of a screening instrument for two reasons: 1) children may score poorly if they are tested too early because of a lack of language and literacy experiences, and 2) children who have not adapted to the classroom setting may have poor performance on the measure because of problems with behavior, attention, and task motivation (Rathvon, 2004; Scarborough, 1998).


However, failing to identify young children exhibiting delays in early literacy acquisition or lacking core literacy skills is a risky venture. The use of accurate, valid, and reliable screening tools several times throughout the early years can only help in the identification of those in need of monitoring, further intervention, or remediation. Information obtained from early reading screenings conducted in the preschool and kindergarten years is likely to lead to positive changes in children’s reading trajectories because prevention strategies and interventions provided have a better chance of success when started sooner rather than later.


An early literacy screening tool for preschool- and kindergarten-age children needs to meet several important criteria: 1) it must examine children’s early literacy skills across the four core skills, 2) it must be sensitive—effectively and accurately differentiating between those children who are at risk and those who are not, 3) it must be efficient and easily administered, and 4) it must meet minimum standards of technical adequacy for validity and reliability (Invernizzi et al., 2004/2005; Jenkins, Hudson, & Johnson, 2007; Justice et al., 2002).


The ability of a screening measure to accurately classify or identify students as at risk or not at risk for poor reading outcomes is a key component of the measure. As mentioned in the overview of reading screening (see Johnson, Pool, & Carter, 2009), the goal of the measure is to minimize the number of misclassified cases. Therefore, sensitivity (accuracy in identifying at risk students who in fact later perform poorly on a future measure) and specificity (accuracy in identifying not at risk students who later perform positively on a measure) are key aspects to consider in evaluating the validity and reliability of a screening measure for identifying students who are at risk for later reading problems.


Evaluating the classification accuracy of early reading measures is complicated by the fact that many examiner manuals fail to include information about predictive validity, or classification accuracy (Rathvon, 2004). This is a challenge we faced with this overview. Even when manuals and technical reports provided data from predictive validation studies, typically only correlation coefficients were presented as evidence. The issue with this is that positive correlations between scores of a sample population on a screening measure and their scores on a subsequent reading measure provide information only regarding the strength of the relationship between predictor and criterion measures for the sample, not about the accuracy of the predictor in correctly identifying individual children as at risk or not at risk (Rathvon, 2004; Satz & Fletcher, 1988).


The assessments reviewed for this overview report correlation coefficients for scores on a criterion measure or between Time 1 and Time 2 administration of the assessment. Sensitivity and specificity were not explicitly reported in the examiner manuals or technical reports reviewed. This is a limitation, in that the relationship between the screener and criterion measure does not provide the ability of the assessment to correctly classify individual children.


Table 1 provides info on a few widely used tools for preschool and kindergarten children and reports the predictive validity and criterion measure used, as well as the skills assessed. Many of the assessments that did report predictive validity for preschoolers used the kindergarten level of the same assessment for its criterion measure. This exercise of using the same assessment for predictive validity only provides information on how a student will perform on this particular assessment, not necessarily predicting future reading outcomes. Caution is suggested for using assessments without adequate predictive validity (i.e., sensitivity, specificity, and classification accuracy) when screening children for risk status.


Table 1: Early Reading Screening Assessments Characteristics Summary

Name Age range Skills assessed Administration
Administration format Predictive validity Criterion measure used
Basic Early Assessment of Reading (BEAR) K-3rd Basic reading skills; listening/reading comprehension; language arts; letter recognition fluency; passage reading fluency 90 minutes for screener; 30-40 minutes per subset Individual and classwide; paper-and-pencil or computer assisted None reported N/A
Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Pre-K-3rd Phonemic awareness; pseudoword readings; letter naming; oral reading; story retelling; word usage (all 1 minute fluency measures) 3 minutes per task; 10-20 minutes per child Individual









WJR-reading cluster

Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE) Pre-K-post-secondary Prereading; reading readiness; phonological awareness; vocabulary; reading comprehension; listening comprehension 115 minutes for Pre-K level Classwide None reported for Pre-K or K levels N/A
Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening for Preschool (PALS-PreK) Pre-K (4-5-year-olds) Name writing; alphabet knowledge; beginning sound awareness; print and word awareness; rhyme awareness; nursery rhyme awareness 10-15 minutes Individually; small group; classwide .53-.91 PALS-K
Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening K (5-6-year-olds) Rhyme awareness; beginning sound awareness; alphabet knowledge; letter sounds; spelling; concept of word; word recognition in isolation 20-25 minutes Individually; small group; classwide





Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR) K-3rd Phonemic awareness; fluency; single-word reading; vocabulary knowledge 15 minutes per student Individually; small group; classwide .90 WJBR + GM
STAR Early Literacy Pre-K-3rd General readiness; graphophonemic knowledge; phonemic awareness; phonics; comprehension; structural analysis; vocabulary 15 minutes per student; 30 minutes for entire classroom Individually (on computer)

Not reported for Pre-K;











Test of Early Reading Ability-3 (TERA-3) Ages 3-6 through 8-6 Alphabet knowledge; print conventions; print comprehension 15-30 minutes Individually







Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI) K-2nd Kindergarten screening tasks: graphophonemic knowledge and phonemic awareness 5-7 minutes for screener Individually and classwide





Note. Information contained in table is on the assessments' screeners. All data are for the kindergarten level unless otherwise noted. *Denotes prediction validity for 2nd and 3rd grade level assessment. DIBELS-PS = phoneme segmentation; DIBELS-NWF = nonsense word fluency; CBM-R = curriculum-based measurement of reading; WJR = Woodcock–Johnson; WJBR = Woodcock–Johnson Broad Reading; GM = Gates-MacGinitie; RR = Running Record; MLPP = Michigan Literacy Progress Profile; PPVT = Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.

While the review of screening instruments for preschool- and kindergarten-age children is not extensive, it is meant to provide information on several widely used tools for this age range for determining reading outcomes. A brief listing of the benefits and limitations of each assessment is included in Table 2. Practitioners should use caution and weigh the benefits and limitations of measures when screening for reading problems within an RTI framework.


Table 2: Benefits and Limitations of Reading Screening Measures
Assessment Benefits Limitations
BEAR Available as a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-assisted test

Limited psychometric properties such as skill level reliability estimates and standard scores that link components across and within grades may limit the efficacy

Lack of connection between components, across and within grade levels

No comparison of the BEAR to other well-known tests (concurrent validity)

Difficult to know whether skills tested are those that are essential for reading and language arts development


Quick to administer


Can be repeated frequently to monitor progress

Poor classification accuracy

Potential to use tool as a curriculum (teaching students to sound out nonsense words)

Technical adequacy varies considerably across measures and across grades

Complexity of administration and scoring procedures

Research has shown that the cut scores on some measures overidentify children as being at risk for early reading problems

GRADE Intended to be used in a four step process linking reading assessment to instruction

Hand scoring is very time consuming

Time consuming to administer

Instrument as a group assessment does not appear appropriate for Pre-K and K levels without considerable one-on-one help available to students

Very little info about reliability and validity is available for the youngest levels

PALS-PreK Materials available on PALS Web site include sample lesson plans and instructional activities PALS-PreK used to predict performance on later PALS-K, not on outcome measures
PALS-K High usability ratings Some studies of the PALS-K use subsequent administrations of the PALS-K to predict performance

Can be administered after a brief training

Yields immediate scores online associated with a student's current and potential reading, functioning, risk category

High specificity and sensitivity rates (above 90%)

Limited research base

Concurrent validity studies for state assessments are limited

STAR Early Literacy Useful tool for teachers who want to efficiently measure early literacy, monitor student progress, and plan instruction

Given the exclusive reliance on the computer, it seems children who have more experience with using a computer may have an advantage

Most studies use the STAR EL to predict performance on later versions of the STAR Reading, not on outcome measures


Easy to use and score

Provides data that suggest strengths/weaknesses in understanding the alphabet and conventions of print for individual children

Includes too few items to be used for instructional planning

No criterion-related validity available for Pre-K and K, other than comparison to TERA-2

TPRI Provides a wealth of high-quality resources for linking assessment results to evidence-based interventions

indergarten screening is at the midyear point, which is likely to delay the provision of interventions to some at-risk children.

Sensitivity reduced due to all-or-nothing rather than feature-specific scoring



The research on reading intervention is unequivocal—early identification and intervention are critical in the prevention of reading problems (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Screening tools support our efforts to accurately identify students who are at risk for developing reading difficulties. For these tools to be used effectively within an RTI framework, it is important for practitioners to understand the purpose, limitations, and advantages of the screening tools they use. In addition to reviews such as this, practitioners should consider other factors that may inform intervention decisions, such as the availability of resources, the severity of the risk level indicated by the screening outcome, and the risk level of the general population of students they serve.




Badian, N. A. (1982). The prediction of good and poor reading before kindergarten entry: A 4-year follow-up. The Journal of Special Education, 16, 309–318.


Badian, N. A. (2000). Do preschool orthographic skills contribute to prediction of reading? In N. Badian (Ed.), Prediction and prevention of reading failure (pp. 31–56). Timonium, MD: York Press.


Invernizzi, M., Justice, L., Landrum, T. J., & Booker, K. (2004/2005). Early literacy screening in kindergarten: Widespread implementation in Virginia. Journal of Literacy Research, 36, 479–500.


Jenkins, J. R., Hudson, R. F., & Johnson, E. S. (2007). Screening for at-risk readers in a response to intervention framework. School Psychology Review, 36, 582–600.


Johnson, E. S., Pool, J. L., & Carter, D. (2009). Implementing a screening process within an RTI framework: A review of methods and instruments K-12. National Center on Learning Disabilities RTI Action Network.


Justice, L. M., Invernizzi, M. A., & Meier, J. D. (2002). Designing and implementing an early literacy screening protocol: Suggestions for the speech-language pathologist. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 33, 84–101.


O'Connor, R. E., & Jenkins, J. R. (1999). Prediction of reading disabilities in kindergarten and first grade. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 159–197.


Rathvon, N. (2004). Early reading assessment: A practitioner’s handbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Satz, P., & Fletcher, J. M. (1988). Early identification of learning disabled children: An old problem revisited. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 824–829.


Scarborough, H. S. (1998). Early identification of children at risk for reading difficulties: Phonological awareness and some other promising predictors. In B. K. Shapiro, P. J. Accardo, & A. J. Capute (Eds.), Specific reading disability: A view of the spectrum (pp. 75–199). Timonium, MD: York Press.


Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


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