Catherine Wright continues her series on dyslexia assessments with a look at spelling, writing and cognitive processing skills
In the previous issue of SEN Magazine (SEN97, Nov/Dec 2018), I discussed why it was important for schools and specialist providers to understand the needs of a learner in order to support them effectively. I focused on the different reading tests that are available and why you would use a range of tests to identify the areas a learner may find difficult. In this article, I will focus on assessing spelling, writing and cognitive processing skills, and how assessing these skills can inform teaching and support.
There are many different spelling tests available to teachers and psychologists. All of them follow the same format, asking the learner to spell words and gradually getting more difficult as the test continues. Shorter tests may be quicker and will provide a standard score but will often not provide you with a good analysis of spelling difficulties. In order to support a learner, it is important to understand how they are spelling. Many dyslexic learners spell phonetically; they will often struggle with high frequency irregular words and do not have a good grasp of spelling rules – for example “do” being spelt as “dow” or “few” being spelt “foow”. Many learners miss out or insert sounds or syllables, use the correct letters in the wrong order, or confuse sounds (like “th”, “f” and “v”), or words (such as homophones, like “their”, “they’re” or “there”, or confusable words like accept and except).
It is also important to look at the way that learners spell when they are writing, and are able to choose the words that they use.
“Overcoming writing problems begins with a good assessment. Many individuals with dyslexia or learning disabilities think that writing comes easily for others, but this is not the case. Writing is a complex process. Even great writers need to work at it. They draft, edit, and re-write many times until they are satisfied with the final copy” (http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/).
It is of great importance to assess a learner’s writing skill as you can gain so much knowledge from observing a piece of writing and how it is put together. Writing is often the last skill to be mastered, there is so much to process when writing and many skills are required to deliver a good piece of writing including:
•how to hold the pen
•writing on the line
•formation of letters
•what to write
•spelling of the word
•the order of the word
It is no wonder that writing is one of the most difficult skills to master for learners.
Writing can be assessed informally by asking the learner to write on a given topic for a set amount of time, usually ten minutes (if they can sustain writing for that length of time). There are also a number of standardised assessments of writing. Some of these have a variety of tasks, for example, assessing copying speed as well as free writing, while others are sentence completion tasks. Most give standardised scores only for writing speed, although there are some tests which measure additional aspects of writing, such as punctuation and grammar. Standardised tests have to be used to assess writing for exam access arrangements.
When assessing writing skills, it is important not just to look at the word count. This may provide you with a writing speed but will not give you qualitative information about spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax. Criteria for analysing writing quality may include:
There is a lot of information that can be gained from observing a learner as they write: how they grip the pen, how they form letters, and whether they have difficulty with letter and word spacing or keeping to the line. It is also useful to note whether they slow down or speed up as the writing progresses. It is best to assess at least ten minutes of free writing – though 15 minutes will be even better and higher education assessment should always be at least 15 minutes – because the first five minutes can easily be the quickest; they have fresh ideas, then they start to lose focus and their hand will often ache. It is worth observing if the learner starts to rub or shake their writing hand.
For exam access arrangements it is also worth repeating the free writing task on a computer to see if word processing is more appropriate for the learner (as long as it is their “normal way of working”). The use of technology for younger learners in primary school can be appropriate for a student with dysgraphia or dyspraxia and for longer pieces of writing, but should not replace handwriting for most learners. It is very difficult to change a handwriting style in secondary school.
As with most interventions, assessment is a key component in developing an effective writing programme to meet individual needs. Assessment can highlight specific areas of difficulty, allowing you to create a systematic and individual lesson plan.
Cognitive processing skills
“Phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed are all aspects of phonological processing and a convincing body of evidence shows that difficulties with them are reliable markers of dyslexia” (Rose, 2009).
Teachers and psychologists have a number of assessments available to them to investigate cognitive processing skills:
•phonological awareness – “phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of and access to the sound structure of his or her language (Mattingly, 1972)
•short-term and working memory – refers to coding information phonologically for temporary storage in working or short-term memory.
• processing speed.
There are a variety of assessments that can be used to screen or assess a learner's ability in these areas. There are usually several subtests that provide a composite score. These assessments are very important to provide a clearer understanding as to why a leaner is showing certain difficulties.
You can often triangulate a learner’s deficits by understanding their phonological awareness difficulties. Sometimes parents can get worried and they think it is the learner’s hearing that is the problem (sometimes it is, so do not rule this out) when really is it the learner’s ability to discriminate sounds from each other. There are a range of tests used to assess phonological awareness, including rhyming, phoneme deletion, word blending, and identifying target sounds in words (initial, final and medial). Weaknesses in literacy skills can often be linked to weaknesses in phonological awareness. An understanding of a learner’s phonological awareness provides a good platform to devise an appropriate support structure.
Short-term and working verbal memory are usually assessed by digit span tasks, where the learner is asked to repeat increasingly lengthy strings of digits (and sometimes, letters) forwards and also, in some tests, backwards. There is a wide range of other memory tests, including additional verbal subtests and visual memory subtests.
People with dyslexia often have difficulties with the rapid retrieval of information from long-term memory. Rapid naming tasks are often used to measure how efficiently an individual can retrieve and say verbal “labels” (such as names of digits, letters, colours or objects). Rapid naming tasks are straight forward and quick to administer. Versions of rapid naming tasks are found in a variety of different assessment test batteries and are accessible to a wide range of ages.
Difficulties with short-term/working memory and verbal processing are sometimes misinterpreted as behavioural issues; children may be labelled as lazy, slow or inattentive, when they are actually having to concentrate and work harder than their peers. Assessments of memory and processing speed can help parents and teachers understand a child’s difficulties better and enable them to make simple adjustments that can make a big difference to the child.
In this and the previous article, I have provided a quick overview of the commonly used assessments within the batteries of tests available to teachers and psychologists. In the next and final article, I will review assessments of underlying ability that are commonly used. Tests of underlying ability can provide a clearer view of the learner’s verbal and nonverbal skills.
Catherine Wright is a Director of the National Dyslexia Network, a group of specialist dyslexia teachers and consultant psychologists:
•Barnett, A., Henderson, S.E., Scheib, B. and Schulz, J. (2010) Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting 17+ (DASH 17+), Harlow: Pearson Education. Age range 17 to 25.
•Mattingly, I. G. (1972) Reading, the linguistic process and linguistic awareness. In Kavanagh, J. and Mattinglly, I. (Eds), Language by ear and by eye (130-137) Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
•Rose, J. (2009) Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties: An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
•Wagner, R. K., Torgeson, J. K., Rashotte, C. A. and Pearson, N.A. (2013) Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing - Second Edition (CTOPP-2). PRO-ED Inc.
It is no wonder that writing is one of the most difficult skills to master for learners
Assessment is a key component in developing an effective writing programme
Weaknesses in literacy skills can often be linked to weaknesses in phonological awareness