Sonia Ali outlines some of the key processes involved in identifying and diagnosing dyslexia
Dyslexia is believed by many to be one of the most commonly occurring learning differences. The British Dyslexia Association estimates that around ten per cent of the population is dyslexic. Even though the condition is relatively common, accessing effective and appropriate support is not straightforward for many students.
Ideally, traits that are symptomatic of dyslexia should be identified early in a child’s schooling. Years 2 to 5 are the optimal stage in a child’s learning to receive the phonological, word reading and spelling interventions that are generally recommended for dyslexic pupils. The right support, teaching strategies and mentoring at this age can help address a widening of the attainment gap between a pupil with dyslexia and their peers, and help mitigate feelings of low self-esteem that may develop if a student simply “struggles on”.
A formal diagnostic assessment provides a detailed and accurate profile of the student’s strengths and weaknesses and gives recommendations for a tailored, personalised approach to the student’s learning.
It is therefore invaluable for teachers to receive training and continuing professional development (CPD) to be able to recognise and identify signs of dyslexia. The school’s SEN policy should outline the steps that staff must take when a student presents with traits that may suggest dyslexia.
Identifying the first signs of dyslexia
Dyslexia can affect people in different ways and to differing degrees. “Compensatory” factors – such as the level of involvement from parents/guardians, general ability, access to resources and intervention, confidence and resilience – will also have an impact on a student’s attainment. Nevertheless, all dyslexic students will present with some challenges in word reading, spelling accuracy and language processing. Reading comprehension may be affected, but some dyslexic students can become adept at using contextual clues to understand the gist of a text.
When a teacher notices any weaknesses in these areas, they should aim to gather further evidence to determine possible underlying reasons for these challenges. This evidence can be gathered in various ways and within the context of the learning that normally takes place. For example, observing the student, quick assessments of word reading and spelling and looking at examples of the student’s written work can all provide useful insights.
What to look out for
It is widely accepted that the literacy challenges experienced by dyslexic individuals stem from cognitive processing differences in the following areas.
Phonological awareness and processing
A student with dyslexia will have weaknesses identifying, discriminating, manipulating and blending the sounds (phonemes) in language.
A child may present with the following signs:
- difficulty learning and retaining sound and letter correspondence (phonics)
- difficulty with accurate word reading
- weak auditory discrimination of rhyme
- frequent self-correction when reading or guessing words based on a string of letters
- frequent spelling errors that may include letter transposition and letter omission in words the student is familiar with.
Visual and auditory processing speed
The student may:
- need additional time to process spoken or visual information, such as text
- make errors when asked to read a sequence of numbers or letters aloud and at speed
- need additional time to formulate a written response.
Working memory refers to a person’s capacity to hold information in their short-term memory and use this information to carry out a task, such as following a sequence of instructions.
The student may:
- need instructions to be broken down into smaller units
- appear tired in class or lose focus easily
- often require instructions to be repeated.
Sometimes, dyslexic students exhibit behaviors such as disengagement from learning, anxiety or low-level disruption; by this stage, school may trigger negative emotions and/or resentment. It can be very useful when behaviour challenges arise to consider the possibility of unidentified SEN, such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and investigate further.
Using screening tests
Screening tests can be a useful way of gathering more detailed information about a student’s weaknesses, but caution should be applied when using the information obtained. A screening test does not confer a diagnosis of dyslexia and does not provide a complete and entirely accurate learning profile of the student.
The key point to remember when using screening tests is that they are one form of information gathering and do not negate the need for other evidence, such as the class teacher’s observations and examples of written work, to be gathered.
When staff have identified that a child has dyslexia-type weaknesses, the first step should be to implement targeted strategies in class and, in most cases, provide the child with small group or one-to-one literacy interventions. The rate of progress a student makes following effective and consistent interventions can be a strong indicator of dyslexia.
Generally, in primary school, the most common form of intervention aims to develop word reading skills through phonics-based teaching. Dyslexic students will often require overlearning to embed the sound/letter correspondence of the English language.
While there are 26 letters in the English language, the number of phonemes in the language is often said to be 44 (though different researchers do cite slightly different figures for phonemes). In addition, many sounds can be represented by several different letter symbols (graphemes). For example, the sound “ay” can also be written as “ai” or “ae”. This is another reason why consistent, structured, cumulative and multi-sensory overlearning of the phonological code is useful for students in the early stages of literacy learning.
Older pupils may not require phonologically based training, but will benefit from spelling based interventions to retain the learning of spelling patterns and to learn spelling strategies as well as study skills training.
After a period of intervention of six months or more, it will become apparent if weaknesses in word reading and spelling still persist. At this stage, a formal diagnosis can be carried out to provide more individualised information and recommendations based on the student’s profile of strengths and weaknesses. This can be carried out by an educational psychologist or a specialist dyslexia teacher who holds a Level 7 or equivalent qualification. In order for a student to be eligible to apply for Disability Student Allowance post-16, a dyslexia report must have been completed by a dyslexia assessor who also holds an Assessment Practicing Certificate (APC).
A formal diagnosis will provide a comprehensive learning profile of the student and should include:
- a profile of strengths and areas of weakness
- background information about the student, including developmental history
- an overview of performance following psychometric assessment in literacy attainment, phonological awareness and processing, working memory and speed of processing
- an overview of performance following psychometric assessment of verbal and non-verbal ability; dyslexia can occur across a range of ability levels, but a significant impairment in all areas of ability will indicate that a broader assessment is necessary
- detailed and personalised recommendations.
A diagnosis is not a silver bullet. As children move through school, their learning needs will alter and the recommendations on an assessment report for a Year 3 pupil will not all be relevant to the same pupil in Year 9. The student’s learning plan should be reviewed and evaluated regularly as they progress through school.
From Year 6 onwards, strategies that will have a long-term impact beyond literacy learning should also be implemented. In order to deter the “learned helplessness” that can arise from too much support, the focus should be placed on empowering the student. The following strategies will facilitate increased student independence and self-knowledge.
- Provide touch typing lessons to enable the student to develop word processing skills to complete their written responses more quickly and accurately.
- Mentor and guide the student to recognise and develop their strengths and interests.
- Teach the student to use a range of assistive technology for different tasks and ensure they can access assistive technology in class.
- Help them develop their metacognition by tutoring and supporting them to explore a range of revision and study techniques and find out what works best for them.
About the author
Sonia Ali is an Inclusion and SEND Advisory Teacher and dyslexia specialist for SENDSuccess, the SEND advisory outreach service for schools in the borough of Waltham Forest.