Are dyslexia assessments really necessary?


Catherine Wright argues that a detailed understanding of a learner’s abilities and attainment is essential for effective intervention

Statistics show that one in ten people have dyslexia to some degree. Of these, approximately two to three have more severe difficulties. Generally, in a class of thirty children, three will be dyslexic, with one of them being more severely affected. If you start to look at other specific learning difficulties as well, a teacher would typically have at least four students in their class who need support of a more specific type. To really understand and support a student it is essential that you know their strengths and have a clear idea of areas in need of improvement; it is also helpful if you know how they learn best. An in-depth assessment of strengths and weaknesses can support a teacher’s understanding of their learners in many ways and help them put in place the appropriate support. This does not always mean there is a need for extra funding, as there are ways of supporting learners that are subtle and yet very effective. Gaining the trust of parents and keeping the communication channels open is also a big help.

In this article, I will be looking at the elements of a diagnostic assessment and discussing why these areas are being assessed and what they mean for the learner and teacher, and focusing on reading activities. In subsequent articles for SEN Magazine, I will move on to look at spelling, writing and cognitive processing. These are the main areas investigated within a full diagnostic assessment by a specialist teacher or a psychologist. There are additional assessments, such as those for mathematics and for motor coordination difficulties, that may also be carried out. We will not be addressing these in the articles at this time.

Understanding needs

It is important to gain a full understanding of a learner’s requirements and how they are able to gather and retain knowledge. It is often the maintenance of knowledge that is a key area of difficulty for a dyslexic learner; they can seem to have absorbed the knowledge in class but the next day it could be lost and you feel as if you are back to square one again. The difficultly in the classroom is that you do have to move on to the next lesson. This then becomes a problem for the dyslexic learner because they are struggling with the follow-on of knowledge. You could use the analogy of a brick wall with poor foundations: you can only build the wall so far until it falls over when the foundations give way. If a student is to maintain their learning, it has to be built on solid foundations. Understanding the learner through a detailed assessment enables the teacher to build their learning more effectively.

A child could fail to read at the level of his or her peers due to problems with any component of the reading system; for example, they might have problems recognising letters or in storing the representations of words (Jackson and Coltheart, 2001). In order to know how best to help a child who is struggling to learn to read, it is necessary to determine which component reading skills are sources of difficulty for the child (Hempenstall, 2009; Kame’enui et al., 2006).

Usually, within most assessments the assessor will test single word reading, non-word reading and reading comprehension. Reading accuracy and rate and timed comprehension are also areas that are assessed, but usually for slightly older students and for exam access arrangements. 

Single word reading

Single word reading tends to be the “go-to” test for schools. This gives you a good idea of a child’s ability to read out of context and, if performance is analysed, can give information about sight reading and decoding skills. Some students can perform well in these tests, yet will still struggle with comprehension and non-word reading, whilst other students could be poor at single word reading but good with comprehension, because they use context and knowledge to work round any words they struggle with. When words are taken out of context there are no clues for the learner to use. There are quite a few tests used for single word reading by teacher assessors and consultant psychologists, but fundamentally, all tend to be similar, with words getting progressively more difficult. You can observe a student’s ability to decode and break words down within a single word reading test, so it is always important that this is assessed, but not in isolation. 

Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension not only assesses a learner’s ability to understand text, but also their ability to take in and remember what they read. Using a comprehension test is probably the next most important way of assessing reading abilities. There are quite a number of different tests that assess the learner’s comprehension. It can be tested in a number of different ways, such as:

  • reading a statement and saying whether it is true or false
  • reading a question and filling in the missing word, cloze tasks (with or without pictures)
  • reading a passage out loud or silently and answering the questions with or without access to the text
  • reading a passage and adding in the appropriate punctuation.

Many learners can be very daunted by reading passages, so it is important to ease them into the task, starting with relatively easy tasks to build their confidence, even if they are staring lower than their age-appropriate level, as assessing their absolute understanding of the text is important.

An example of a “non-word” reading list.Non-word reading

Assessing non-word reading is an area that is commonplace in Year 1 but is often not assessed much after that point. Assessing non-word reading (reading words that are made up or “alien” words) provides us with a good understanding as to whether a learner can break a word down into their phonetic parts (syllables, blends, phonemes, graphemes and digraphs) and understand phonics and sounds as opposed to sight-reading words. If students struggle with non-word reading, they will potentially struggle to read words that they do not recognise and their reading and vocabulary will suffer. 

Children often only have a certain number of sight word that can be memorised at once (dyslexic learners also are recognised as having a weaker short-term and working memory so recognising sight words and memorising words is not usually a forte). The older we get, the better we tend to get at transferring words into our long-term memory, which is why many adults do not have to decode words. But whatever your age, if you see a word that is alien to you, you need to be able to decode effectively. Lower than average non-word reading ability and a weak understanding of phonics are recognised as pre-cursers for dyslexia; research has shown that most individuals with developmental reading disabilities present with a phonologically based deficit (Rack, Snowling and Olson, 1992). Weaknesses in these skills can be identified by the phonics assessment in Year 1. If we could get some good supportive targeted intervention in Year 2 and Year 3, we would save a lot of time and money in later years. 

Organising support

Using all three of the base-line reading assessments with a learner will enable teachers to gain a much deeper understanding of the difficulties a learner is facing and enable them to provide a more targeted intervention strategy, rather that a “shot gun” approach. All support should be coordinated, structured and cumulative. If an intervention is being delivered within withdrawal sessions, it is vitally important that this is reinforced and followed up in class. Intervention, whether in small group or on a one-to-one basis, should be using a structured scheme that enables the learner to cross from non-words and phonics to reading full words. Then the word reading needs to cross over to spelling and using the words in context. All the reading should then link to comprehension. There are quite a few reading interventions as well as spelling interventions but it is important that the systems teachers use enable the learner to cross over their skills. It is also important for all lessons to be recapped as many times as is required, and if one approach isn’t working, alternative methods of teaching and intervention should be tried. As the popular saying goes, “if a student does not learn the way we are teaching them, teach them the way they learn”.

Teachers and support staff need to have detailed knowledge of interventions in order to teach effectively and not just work in a specific system in rote fashion. Every learner is different, so every learner will require a slightly different approach and programmes should be reviewed and modified as necessary. As well as adapting and refining systems and interventions, teachers and support staff need to work to improve the learner’s self-esteem and motivation, if learning is to be effective. 

Making sense of assessments

A detailed assessment is central to being able to teach a dyslexic learner effectively. There are some quite detailed screening assessments on the market that teachers and support staff can use but it is important to understand why we are using them, what the results mean, and what to do with the results. Similarly, if a parent has gained a report from elsewhere and produces it to help a teacher support their child, it is important to read it thoroughly in order to make your already good interventions even better and ensure they are tailored to the individual. A parent who is conscientious enough and worried enough to pay for a sometimes-expensive assessment will usually welcome an open communication channel and will support the school in any way they can.

Further information

Catherine Wright is one of the founders of the National Dyslexia Network, a group of specialist dyslexia teachers and consultant psychologists:


  • Hempenstall, K. (2009). Research-driven reading assessment: Drilling to the core. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 14, 17–52. doi:10.1080/19404150902783419.
  • Jackson, N. E., and Coltheart, M. (2001). Routes to reading success and failure: Toward an integrated cognitive psychology of atypical reading. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  • Kame’enui, E. J., Fuchs, L., Francis, D. J., Good, R., III, O’Connor, R. E., Simmons, D. C., …Torgesen, J.K. (2006). The adequacy of tools for assessing reading competence: A framework and review. Educational Researcher, 35, 3–11. doi:10.3102/0013189X035004003
  • Rack, J. P., Snowling, M. J., and Olson, R. K. (1992). The nonword reading deficit in developmental dyslexia: A review. Reading Research Quarterly, 27, 29–53.
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