Less paper, more productivity – can screens support literacy improvement for children with special needs?

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Aimee Cave promotes the use of on-screen literacy assessments as a tool to enable teachers to tailor support for SEN pupils

Learning to read is vital so that children can read to learn and fulfil their potential. But children with special needs can find reading progress even more challenging than most, especially after the educational disruption caused by Covid. 

Adults with poor literacy skills have a much higher risk of social exclusion and life-long illiteracy, and over 16% in England fall into this category. Worryingly, last year, government figures showed one in five 11-year olds were entering secondary schools without attaining the expected standard of reading.

Early and regular assessment is the key to creating targeted support for children with special needs to ensure they can make the progress we want for them. 

How can teachers most efficiently help children with special needs? 
The ideal is to do assessments as speedily as possible, to maximise the time we spend creating the necessary interventions and working with each child. Regular assessment is essential but marking and scoring paper tests is very time-consuming for teachers and SENDCos. 

This is a major challenge as we try to maximise the support for children who most need it, and especially at a time when Covid means more have gaps in their learning.  When we got back into the classroom in September the first thing we did at my school was to test to identify what interventions were needed. 

Can technology help?
We all know children love screens and technology, and the good news is that, when used the right way, they can help us to develop young readers.  For children with additional needs, making tests a fun and positive experience is particularly important. Some of the screening we do using technology is so popular, our pupils ask us if they can take the test again. It’s also popular with the teaching team, who can save hours of precious planning and classroom time by doing some literacy testing using technology.

Testing children’s reading skills, ability and comprehension isn’t easy. There are so many different cognitive and linguistic processes in action.  Each time a child reads what they already know – or don’t know – these processes are reinforced.  Reading aloud means words are transformed into speech and gain meaning by being matched to the child’s vocabulary and language knowledge. 

Paper-based tests have many strengths, but can’t always tell us everything we need to know. 

Children with dyslexia can score highly in a phonics assessment masking other issues with their reading. Phonics tests check whether children can sound out syllables and words – but not whether they can understand or infer the meaning of what they read. Auditory processing issues can interfere with some children’s ability to detect different letter sounds.

As teachers of children with special needs, we need more than what can be a meaningless test score or percentile
Assessments which focus on comprehension don’t give detail on how a child is reading, so two children with the same score – on paper – can have very different needs in practice, especially where special needs are involved. For example, does the child know the meaning of the word they’ve read?  Are their eyes struggling with where to go on the page?  Can they decode accurately, but have difficulties in recalling words quickly enough to read fluently? Are they having difficulties with morphemes?

That’s why I believe using technology to assist with assessment has a lot to offer. For example, my school has used an onscreen assessment for two years, and it’s transformed our routine reading assessments.  Artificial intelligence and the eye-tracking technology in the Lexplore Analytics assessment we use measures when, where, and how children’s eyes move as they read, giving us an analysis of their skills, attainment and possible problems seconds later. 

It helps that we can see the actual reading issue and we can support the child as we have identified it earlier.  If children can’t decode words and can’t read, they can’t do anything else. That’s different from comprehension, which the paper assessments can examine. 

It’s useful that technology takes care of the scoring process, too.  We have cut the assessment and scoring time taken from about two days for a class to about half a day, freeing up teachers to support reading. 

We do this every term, sometimes following up with more specific paper tests, so we have a better understanding of our pupils’ needs.

Now, teachers have a choice about assessment
Paper-based assessments will remain because children need to be familiar with the SATs format and because some aspects of reading are better assessed this way. 

But we can enjoy a mixed economy of technology for on-screen assessment supported by paper assessments to give us the best possible information on our children.  

Choosing a hybrid system gives us the best of both worlds: children who are used to taking paper tests plus extra hours of teacher time to support struggling readers. For example, using on-screen testing termly with practice paper SATs tests could free up nearly 90 hours a year.

Every school can choose the right approach for them, taking advantage of the huge range of ways to assess children which are now available to us.

Aimee Cave
Author: Aimee Cave

Aimee Cave
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Aimee Cave is SENDCo and assistant head at Pocklington Junior School in York.  To read Lexplore Analytics recent report comparing paper and hybrid models of reading assessment, visit the link - https://bit.ly/LexplorePaperVsTech

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