The role of dynamic assessment in identifying and supporting dyslexia.
Dynamic assessment is an interactive method of assessment that is used within education to test for language-based skills, and considers the learning potential of a child. It involves the teacher or assessor (normally an educational psychologist or specialist teacher) measuring the effect of an intervention or lesson on a learner’s performance. The idea behind dynamic assessment is to support the learner to acquire the skills and knowledge being tested after being exposed to instruction.
Alternative assessments such as dynamic assessment can offer less bias than norm-referenced standardised assessments. This is especially true for individuals who come from a deprived socio-economic background, as well as those with SEN, or who are from racially diverse backgrounds and who are English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) learners.
The usual way to identify if an individual has a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, would be to carry out standardised testing. This involves a variety of assessments which are specific to analysing the child’s phonological ability, single word reading and spelling. These tests would also look at their cognitive abilities, speed of processing information and working memory skills. The results of the specific assessments (along with observational information from parents and teachers) then provide evidence that is used to determine whether or not the child or young person has dyslexia.
To measure reading accuracy, for example, you can use a test that looks at the word reading processes of the individual, to identify reading difficulties connected to written word recognition. Another standardised assessment used to test for reading comprehension skills measures the decoding (reading accuracy), fluency (reading rate) and comprehension of text (literal and inferential meaning) skills of the learner. These types of tests are administered on a one-to-one basis and are instruction lead. The assessor does not play an interactive role in the administration of the tests.
In a dynamic assessment such as fast word mapping, you may introduce non-words for real objects to evaluate whether a child can learn new words, for example by substituting “gawa” for “lychee”, that no learner has more or less experience with, and therefore there is less chance of bias because of socio-economic differences.
What is especially helpful with young learners is the interactive role the assessor plays in dynamic assessments and we can gather a much greater range of information about a child’s skills, rather than simply finding out whether the learner can identify the “lychee” or not.
The case for dynamic assessment
There is an argument that suggests that dynamic assessment is far more useful in obtaining information regarding a child’s acquired skills and learning potential than standardised assessment. This is because dynamic assessments are focussed on the process of learning and what an individual learner brings to the assessment, including what they can achieve through the assessment process. Moreover, the assessor is involved in the process, rather than just giving out instructions and observing the child whilst they complete a range of tests.
Some key differences between standardised and dynamic assessments
- passive learner
- assessor observes
- identifies areas of weakness
- active learner
- assessor participates
- describes changes in learning
- fluid and open to response.
Looking at the above characteristics of both types of assessments, and bearing in mind the wide variety of backgrounds children in the UK come from, it is important that our assessment criteria address both the identification of reading difficulties and learning needs of an individual in a manner that will allow the best possible outcomes for that child. Assessing a child for literacy difficulties or a developmental language disorder can be a difficult task; the assessor needs to think carefully about the type of assessments that will be used, as well as accurately reporting the results of assessments to show areas of strength and deficit in a positive manner. At the end of the day, the assessor, teachers and parents should all be considering how the child will benefit from the information gained through the assessment process.
Perhaps the most important reason that a child is assessed for a learning difficulty such as dyslexia is to help them receive the support they require to achieve the best possible learning outcomes. In addition, assessments help the child, and those who support them, by enabling them to gain a better understanding of their individual way of learning and their learning potential. The type of assessments we use will have a direct impact on the interventions that are applied to support a child’s learning. So it is crucial that we use the right method of assessment, whether that be static or dynamic. The assessment procedure should allow the assessor to feel confident they have provided the child with an opportunity to express the learning skills that they have acquired (with and without prompting), as well as distinguish if there is an area of concern, such as a potential learning difficulty.
From a specialist teacher’s perspective who can assess for literacy difficulties such as dyslexia, both methods of assessment have a place in our education system. I feel that standardised testing should continue to be used to identify specific concerns related to identifying learning difficulties and for the recommendation of “next steps” to support a child’s education. However, there is also a place for dynamic assessment, especially where we are not sure if a child has a developmental language disorder or a literacy difficulty or a language difference because of their cultural and/or linguistic background. We should also consider children who come from a disadvantaged socio-economic background who may have a language difference due to a lack of exposure to a vocabulary-rich environment, rather than a language impairment. In this case, dynamic assessments could prove more useful than static ones in the identification of a learning need. Here, the assessor can play an active role in identifying the barriers a child is facing in their learning and can apply an appropriate strategy through informed teaching and specific intervention work. This can help to support the learner to manage their difficulties. Dynamic assessment allows for a combination of intervention and assessment to offer direct support to the learner and it can be a useful addition to an assessor’s toolkit.
A former teacher and deputy head, Talat Khan is an SEN and disabilities consultant: