Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties: Why Assess? Anita Sawyer Vasan June 2015
An edited version of this article was published in the National Publication: SEN Magazine Issue 77
Because all children, regardless of their underlying difficulties, should have the opportunity to achieve.
At least 1 in 5 students have a specific learning difficulty but many go undetected because neither the student nor the teacher is aware that they have processing difficulties.
Most people assume they are ‘normal’ and it can be a complete revelation for a child, their teacher, or their parent, to find out that they cannot read or spell or write fluently because they cannot hear sounds within words; have a weak verbal or visual memory; or are slower than others at processing.
In a school assembly recently, I showed a video of auditory processing difficulties and of words moving around on the page as an indicator of underlying processing difficulties; one of the students gasped audibly: it was the first time she had realised that this wasn’t the norm.
Many schools have effective target setting to identify next steps within National Curriculum learning but these do not take account of underlying processing weaknesses, which can easily go undetected. If these difficulties are not identified and remediated, however, this can have a disastrous impact on learning and self-esteem.
Underlying difficulties which affect learning
The key indicators of Dyslexia are: weak phonological skills, poor verbal memory and slow speed of processing. Dyslexia exists on a continuum and other difficulties which can cluster around it, include poor working memory, poor visual memory, and difficulty sequencing ideas in speech and in written work, poor concentration, poor organisation and weak fine motor skills.
Weak phonological skills: The building blocks of both language and literacy are sounds. The ability to match sounds to letters and to break words down into segments and then blend them together, is a key skill required for reading and spelling unfamiliar words. The way that weak phonological skills can impact on literacy, however, can vary enormously from person to person: some students who struggle to hear the sounds, for example, may use other strategies and remember the whole words as a picture: Their phonological processing may be weak but they compensate with visual memory. It can appear that they read quite fluently, but by year 5, they are struggling because they cannot decode new words and when they get into secondary school they face major problems as there is an enormous expansion of new vocabulary to be learned.
Weak verbal memory and slow speed of processing
Other key indicators of dyslexia include weak verbal memory and slow speed of processing. These impact directly on the ability to absorb verbal information in the classroom and to complete tasks set within a given time. Both can be very distressing for the individual concerned because if they do not understand that there is a reason why they cannot remember information, or complete their work more slowly than others, they may blame themselves and feel inadequate.
Working Memory and Visual Processing Difficulties.
In addition to these key indicators, are other underlying weaknesses, such as working memory and visual processing difficulties? The table below shows some key indicators of dyslexia and how to spot them in the classroom.
In the absence of other reasons, such as poor hearing or eyesight, or other cognitive difficulties, to explain what is happening, your student may be struggling with a specific learning difficulty which will affect their learning unless it is identified and appropriate intervention put in place.
A SpLD assessment will let parents and teachers know how severe the students’ difficulties are, identify their learning strengths as well as their weaknesses and provide detailed recommendations of how best to intervene. Either a Specialist Teacher with a Level 7 Diploma in Specific Learning Difficulties (Dip. SpLD) and an Assessment Practising Certificate (APC) or an independent consulting psychologist registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), can carry out the assessment. The assessment should come with a raft of clear recommendations and suggested resources. Ask for an example of an anonymised recent report to find out if this is included. Then, most importantly of all, let all staff know what the recommendations are and ensure that these are embedded in individual education plans or provision maps and the schemes of work. Access arrangements for exams and adjustments in class may also need to be put in place.
Where a programme of intervention at 1:1 or small group level has been put in place, regular assessment and monitoring is important to make sure that the difficulties are being effectively tackled.
If you are responsible for the Special Needs provision in your school, make sure staff understand how to implement the assessment recommendations and monitor this regularly. Seek support from Senior Management and look into practises at whole school and classroom level, so that you know you have put practices in place which will enable all learners to be supported. If you are looking at whole school provision, consider whole school screening as well. In many parts of the country there is patchy provision from local authorities and many academies are just getting to grips with these issues. The Department of Education Inclusion Development (IDP) Programme also has excellent Dyslexia resources which provides excellent advice and guidance to support specialist advice.
Table of underlying processing weakness and approaches and suggested interventions
Poor phonological skills
*Small group or 1:1 multi-sensory, structured, cumulative phonics programmes which uses games and motivating work on phonics, reading, spelling and writing within a supportive student-centred approach.
*Access to audio texts or video, as this give the student a break from decoding and allows them to access books, writing and information which they could not otherwise decode.
*Peer reading programmes; these have been shown to help readers with weak decoding when the learning mentors are well trained.
Poor memory impacting on understanding and recording notes.
*Give information in manageable chunks, supported by visual or multi-sensory input where possible; assign a learning buddy whose notes can be photocopied; re-cap information frequently at whole class and within small groups - a small peer group can be less threatening than whole class discussions and much more supportive for those with weak memories; provide handouts wherever possible for those with slow writing or copying; ensure the classroom is a supportive learning environment - anxiety has a direct effect on memory.
*Do a memory training programme to boost memory: There are many memory programmes on the market.
*Meta-cognition: teaching students how to harness their main sensory modality i.e. auditory, visual or kinaesthetic has been shown to be highly effective.
Poor visual processing impacting on reading and handwriting.
*This can sometimes be supported by using cream coloured paper for handouts as this reduces glare; for some tinted backgrounds on the PC or tinted rulers or overlays for reading can be helpful; referral to behavioural optometrist if visual processing difficulties are evidenced.
*Games such as tracking letters and words; copying inside mazes.
*Games which involve moving from whole pictures to building blocks can develop visual processing.
Poor fine motor skills impacting on handwriting.
*Learning to touch type and use of a laptop.
*Games which promote grip.
*Referral to Occupational Therapist if fine motor difficulties are found to be significant.
Slow speed of processing
*Allow extra time;
*Differentiate class and homework tasks so that all can achieve within a given time frame.
The consequences of not assessing
The problem with not identifying these underlying difficulties, is that the assumption is made by the teacher and by the child, that they are either lazy or stupid or both. The child then internalises this and loses motivation as well as struggling with their learning difficulty. As a result, some dyslexics may develop low self-esteem and anger issues. Many struggle with fatigue, as processing difficulties make learning much more tiring. Conversely, however, when their learning profile has been harnessed, they can go on to do very well in the world of work. Typical of this are the many high profile entrepreneurs, who are big picture thinker: good at problem solving and thinking outside the box.
For those who have not been fortunate enough to understand their learning profile or to have effective intervention; watching the cycle of failure that they can fall into is particularly depressing. It is estimated that 70% of the prison population has a specific learning difficulty. This is particularly shocking when you know that an assessment followed by effective intervention can stop the downward spiral of failure and enable those students to learn again.
Cued learning within a student-centred approach; teaching students how to learn (meta-cognition) and providing frequent feedback about progress against clearly identified targets, is what enables students to learn. Assessment for Learning has been highly effective in improving student progress for many students: it is time that this was extended to the identification and assessment of underlying processing difficulties, so that all children can achieve their full potential.
Anita Sawyer Vasan SpLD/Dyslexia Specialist Teacher
CCET, Dip. SpLD/Dyslexia, APC. MBPsS, RQTU, Member of Patoss, Member of the Dyslexia Guild.