UCSF developing tool to identify students who could be dyslexic in kindergarten, first grade

A new tool is being developed at University of California San Francisco to help identify early signs that a student could be dyslexic. It's a digital platform based on neuroscience called Multitudes, and it will be available for free to all kindergarten and first-graders at public schools in California come fall of 2023. 

"Usually these difficulties, dyslexia, are usually identified in 3rd and 4th grade if a child is lucky. And by that time a child has already endured three or four years of challenges that are very traumatic," said Multitudes principal investigator Marilu Gorno Tempini. 

She said even though most Kindergarten students aren't reading yet, Multitudes can recognize risks that they could struggle learning to read. 

"We know that children need to process sounds and letters before they learn to put them together," said Gorno Tempini. "Children might have trouble with those early building blocks before they even apply them."

So far 2,000 students have used the assessment across the state, including at Bay Area schools in San Francisco, Concord, Mill Valley, Tracy and Marin City.

Right now the platform is on an iPad and teachers serve as a proctor to deliver the tests to students. 

"But we are investigating speech recognition technologies to see if we can find a way to automatically score the test to make it even easier on schools and teachers," said Gorno Tempini. 

She said dyslexia, which affects at least 15 to 20% of the population, has traditionally been underfunded. 

But Governor Gavin Newsom, who has been vocal about his own struggles with dyslexia, allocated $10 million to UCSF's research in his recent budget proposal. Advocates say investing in the science of reading could bring big benefits down the line. 

"It has huge implications for our school to prison pipeline which is based in reading, it has huge implications for our social impact of adults as they grow into society," said Steve Hagler.

Hagler, the executive director of Learn Up Centers, a non-profit literacy program based in San Francisco, said it would be much easier to get kids caught up if issues were identified earlier.

"The classic family is a family that was told by the school or teachers that ‘Yea, Johnny is going to figure it out.’ At about 3rd grade they go, ‘Oh my, this child is behind.’ And now they’re starting to distract in classrooms, do what we call the three D's – distract, disrupt and then disappear," said Hagler. 

Hagler is excited about the new tool, but said it is only one piece of the puzzle.

"It’s not enough to identify and not do anything," he said.

Training teachers to know how to adjust their lessons to fit the way these students need to learn is the next piece UCSF is trying to tackle. 

Hagler said getting everyone on the same page could mean re-training current teachers and changing the graduate school curriculum for future teachers. 

"I think we have the opportunity of making a huge difference and making California an example for the rest of the country," said Gorno Tempini.

Researchers are still updating Multitudes, including creating the program in other languages so it can be inclusive for all Californians.