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Gavin Reid and Jennie Guise discuss barriers to learning facing people with dyslexia and how these can be overcome.

For many years now, there has been considerable debate on the nature of an assessment for dyslexia. This has resulted in a polarisation of assessment procedures, particularly noted within the UK. These range from the practice of a full and comprehensive psychometric and standardised assessment, with a traditional report containing a diagnosis and recommendations, to, at the other extreme, a “we don’t assess for dyslexia” approach or a “wait and see” policy.

We propose here that what is required is a mid-way point and a balance between these perspectives. This can be achieved through sensitive and collaborative approaches, utilising a range of assessment sources (Reid and Guise, 2017). These include standardised testing as well observation, classroom-based curricular assessment and information from teachers, parents and other professionals who may be involved.

A lynchpin of this process is how the child deals with everyday class work, and how this is reflected in current attainments and curricular progression. We have been involved in assessment for many years, and we are of the opinion that information from all sources is necessary for a full picture of the child’s challenges as this can inform any potential diagnosis. We also acknowledge the importance of teacher reports and parents’ or carers’ views and test results as well as the role of early identification (Reid, 2017).  

Central to this approach is an understanding of the nature and description of the barriers to learning experienced by the learner. Taking this perspective, it is also essential to emphasise the broad nature of dyslexia, indicating that it involves more than difficulties with literacy, but also cognitive issues, as well as social and emotional issues – all of which can impact on the learner’s progression and highlight his/her difficulties (and strengths). This means that we do not primarily assess for dyslexia, but assess to obtain a learning profile of the child that may – or may not – point to the presence of dyslexia.  

Barriers to learning

It is useful, therefore, to incorporate a “barriers to learning” perspective in the assessment process. This can also help with early identification and intervention; we can look at barriers, how these can be overcome, what has already been tried and what can still be done. With this type of perspective, the emphasis is on the barriers that prevent the child from meeting classroom targets, rather than focusing too heavily on what the child cannot do. It can also lend itself to consistency throughout the school, and a common understanding of the factors that may represent a dyslexic-type difficulty. This is represented in the table below.

Barriers to learning

Type of barrier Barrier Possible Reasons Intervention
Memory Difficulty remembering auditory instructions and lists. Difficulties with short-term and working memory. Present information visually.
Give verbal instructions one at a time, and/or provide written lists of instructions.
Memory Difficulty taking notes. Difficulties with short-term and working memory, processing speed or handwriting. Allow pupil to photograph blackboard, or give electronic access to whiteboard notes.
Provide bullet point notes.
Organisation Difficulty remembering timetable, materials and equipment. Difficulties with short-term or working memory, and lack of strategies. Structured support – provide checklists, repeat information, encourage routines, use visual reminders and IT supports. 
Movement/ coordination Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as tying shoelaces, and writing; also, poor coordination. Possibly dyspraxia or dysgraphia – mixed laterality, lack of opportunity. Use a buddy to assist.
Use visual cues for directions.
Touch-typing programs.
Reading development Difficulty keeping up with class in reading, speed of reading, and reading comprehension. Confusing similar sounds, poor awareness of rhythm. Support in phonics. Paired reading.
Use of audio books.
Spelling Difficulty learning phonics, or remembering spelling rules. Spelling errors, inconsistencies, unexpected mistakes, for example with high-frequency words. Support in phonics. Overlearning.
Spelling games
Writing Difficulty in starting, forming sentences, or in overall structure of written work. Working memory or processing speed difficulties. Structured support to break tasks into steps, for example, by using checklists, writing frames and mind maps.
Extra time.
Use of computer to help with editing.
Voice recognition software/scribe.
Processing speed Difficulty keeping up with class work, and completing assessments in allocated time. Processing speed or working memory difficulties; lack of automaticity in key skills. Extra time, use of technologies, such as computer, voice recognition software.
Fewer examples so that student can work thoroughly at their own pace.
Support in key skills.
Numeracy Difficulty in learning and/or remembering number facts. Working memory and/or processing speed difficulties. Use of manipulatives, overlearning, extra time.

 

Different types of assessment

There are a number of types of assessment, each with considerable value. 


Observational assessment

This involves observing the child in the learning situation and noting strengths and weaknesses in relation to attention, handwriting, problem solving on own, working with others, listening, verbal expression and motivation. These areas can all help to provide a fuller picture of the learner’s profile.

Curriculum assessment

This would involve assessing how the child performs in different areas of class work, including writing, reading, spelling and maths, and this information would be readily available from the class teacher. This is the information that parents and carers would usually receive on parents’ evenings and on report cards.

Standardised assessment

This is essentially testing and it involves comparing the child’s current level of attainments with others. Usually, standardised tests (sometimes called norm-based assessment) are standardised in the UK as a whole, and the results can provide an indication of the child’s level compared to others in the UK of the same age in years and months. This would provide a standard score and a percentile.  

Psychological assessment

Registered practitioner psychologists would conduct this, and they can provide a comprehensive and detailed view of the child’s cognitive processing as well as analyses of progress in attainments. Cognitive processing refers to how the child (or adult) processes information – that is receives it, understands it, and is able to use the information appropriately. Some of the tests used by psychologists are closed tests. This means you have to be a currently registered and appropriately qualified psychologist to access them.

Psychological assessments are expected and sought after in many countries. In the UK, they can be useful to supplement data that the school has accumulated on the child, and can be seen as time-saving for the school because they can provide a comprehensive report, with recommendations for learning and teaching. A psychological assessment can provide a framework for intervention. It goes without saying that this type of report would also be extremely useful for parents, and particularly when the child is transitioning – for example, to secondary school, college/university, or if he or she is changing schools.

The assessment process: some key points 

It is crucial to recognise that, while testing is important, an assessment needs to be seen as more than using tests:
many of the characteristics that can contribute to a diagnosis can be noted in the classroom situation; it is therefore vital that the class teacher’s comments and views are taken into account
teachers should have an understanding of the range and breadth of characteristics associated with dyslexia, and acknowledge that these characteristics can be identified in the classroom
it is also important that appropriate materials and teaching programmes are developed from the results of the assessment; assessment needs to link to intervention.

Moving forward

An assessment strategy needs to be developed. The starting point can be observation, or through the results of routine baseline or screening assessments. This information needs to be put into the child’s learning profile and learning context, so that an overall profile of the child can be seen. This can then be matched against the characteristics and criteria for dyslexia. It is helpful if this is done in relation to the curriculum, and that the barriers to learning are considered, as well as standardised and diagnostic tests.  

The assessment can provide an illustration of the learner’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as an indication of the child’s current level of performance in attainments. Some form of an explanation for the learner’s lack of progress can be suggested, as this can connect with intervention. An understanding of the child’s learning preferences should be indicated, as well as a note on his/her emotional needs, self-esteem and social development.

Further information

Dr Gavin Reid is an international practitioner psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in assessment and in the field of dyslexia. Previously a classroom teacher and university lecturer, he is widely published in the field of dyslexia and learning, and currently lectures worldwide. Dr Reid is Chair of the British Dyslexia Association Accreditation Board:

www.drgavinreid.com

Dr Jennie Guise is a practitioner psychologist with extensive experience of assessing for dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. She is highly qualified in the areas of psychology and education, and has worked in research, and is now in applied practice as Director of Dysguise Ltd:

www.dysguise.com

References

Reid, G. and Guise, J., The Dyslexia Assessment, (2017) Bloomsbury, London.
Reid, G., Dyslexia in the Early Years: A Handbook for Practice, (2017) Jessica Kingsley Publications.


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