Standardised tests and Dyslexia

Following on from yesterday’s post, here I discuss the place of standardised tests in the identification of learners with dyslexia:

Once teachers notice a dissonance between expectations of a learner and the actual attainment in reading and writing, they begin a thorough investigation of the child’s learning needs. Frequently, a referral is made to the Dyslexia Support Service: that’s me. We work together to find out as much as we can.

To investigate unexpected delay in acquiring literacy for a learner who has acquired the rudiments of reading, we analyse the miscues when listening to the child read. This is a relatively quick way of ascertaining whether the errors tend to be phonological or semantic. We note whether the child understands the vocabulary of print (front, top, word, sentence, author, illustrator, etc.), whether and how the child uses context and picture cues, what strategies s/he employs when faced with an unfamiliar word.

Also of immense importance is looking at a piece of unsupported writing to compare it with work that has been produced with help. A child once gave me as succinct a definition of dyslexia as I have seen: I can speak 3 pages but only write 3 sentences.This helps us locate the zone of proximal development: enabling us to put supports in place to ensure success. But it also alerts us to potential sources of difficulty by highlighting syntactic and spelling errors. Sometimes we undertake a more formal examination of spelling strategies by using dictations and a diagnostic spelling analysis grid  (Margaret Peters). The more irregular and unconventional the spelling the greater the likelihood of specific difficulties This, perhaps erroneously, assumes the child has developed phonological awareness and been taught phonics, spelling patterns and letter strings effectively of course. To find out more about a child’s phonologial awareness many of us use the Phonological Assessment Battery (PhAB).


We also think about how the child learns, her or his attitude and approach to learning  and early language experience. Any history of input from Speech and Language Therapists is highly significant in any identification of dyslexia or specific language difficulties.

At times we bring standardised tests into the equation. I favour the British Picture Vocabulary Scale to find out how a child’s receptive language compares to others of her or his age. This is by no means an intelligence test but it is a reasonable measure of school success and as such provides useful information. If the vocabulary level is considerably higher than the reading attainment then it is likely the child’s ability is greater than her or his attainments might suggest.


At times we decide to carry out a computerised assessment: we use Lucid software.  This provides evidence of formal literacy skills, visual and auditory sequential memory, phonological awareness and logical analytical thinking. As part of a holistic process of assessment it is a most useful addition, being relatively quick to administer and stress free. Interpreting the results – seen in graph form – takes time but is a worthwhile complement to the battery of assessments already carried out.

                                        lass1lass2  lass3


But even this is not sufficient. Today I gave most of the test to a highly achieving 12 year old.  Her teacher recognised her as an able child; full of sophisticated questions and thoughtful ideas with a significant discrepancy between her oral and written ability. The test indicates that she reads and spells as well as others of her age. Her visual memory is good and her auditory sequential memory excellent. The bald test results show a learner who will cope well with high school and who does not require literacy support. However, it is clear from her classroom performance that she has a specific difficulty, probably of a dyslexic nature, without which she would be achieving a great deal more. Even the Reasoning score is average: a direct contradiction to what we know about her as a learner. Only after furtjher examination of the data is it clear that she took a disproprotionate amount of time to complete all the tests.


Thus, the test does not immediately show that the pressure of time causes her some stress and hence some delay in processing information. She does not lack literacy, phonological or sequential memory skills, mainly because she has worked very hard to find strategies to circumvent her difficulties. It is her speed of processing that hinders her fluent encoding and may delay her reading as she is faced with more complex texts with specialised language. Fluency is not just about speed but about integrating new information into one’s extant knowledge to create depth of understanding.

It would be easy to dismiss her mild spelling errors and slow reading and writing speed. After all, there are plenty of youngsters with considerably more challenges in accessing the curriculum than her. However, she is under some stress and she is becoming increasingly weary, despite the efficacy of her coping mechanisms. It is thanks to her sensitive, conscientious and concerned class teacher that she has been identified as a learner with dyslexia.

What is most important, of course, is what we do about it. But that’s for another day.