Tests and support for dyslexia: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Tests and help for dyslexic learners: a teacher's guide to the theory and actionable classroom support.

What is a test for Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a kind of Language-Based Learning Disability that affects a person's reading skills. It is amongst the most common learning disabilities, that mostly co-occurs with other disorders like attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hypersensitivity disorder. If an adult is diagnosed with both these conditions, especially if they remain undiagnosed, they may face problems ranging from low self-esteem and poor language abilities to lifelong reading difficulties and low academic performance. After the diagnosis, children and adults with this condition can take advantage of accommodations in school, at home, and at the workplace. This could help them reframe classroom challenges and provide them with life-long learning strategies. In this article, we begin by focusing on tests for dyslexia and getting a formal diagnosis. Rob Potts then provides us with some practical advice and wisdom that he has accumulated over the years in his time teaching.

Why do we need to test for Dyslexia?

There are many adults, who remain undiagnosed but we find them asking themselves 'Am I dyslexic?', especially after spending many years of otherwise unexplained reading challenges — and subsequent educational, personal and/ or professional problems.

Although dyslexia is commonly considered a childhood disorder, it can be diagnosed at any age by a qualified psychologist, learning disability specialist or diagnostic specialist. The first step is to take a simple dyslexia test, and then explore the test results with a specialist who would see if the symptoms match with those of dyslexia.

The physician may give a referral for more dyslexia testing carried out by the specialists using a range of reading instruments and assessments including the Grey Oral Reading Test, the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Battery and the Lindamood Test (for phonetics and sound) among other tests to detect dyslexia.

an assessment timeline for learning difficulties such as dyslexia in a primary school
an assessment timeline for learning difficulties such as dyslexia in a primary school

What does a test for Dyslexia may assess?

Some tests can assess a child's ability to read rapidly and quickly. The same tests are used to detect dyslexia. A test for Dyslexia may assess the following skills in a person.

  1. Phonological awareness: Skills of phonological processing are considered the basis for reading skills. Therefore, they make a good predictor of the reading skills in young children. Some examples of the tests to assess phonological awareness of children include NEPSY-II Phonological Processing and Sound Blending subtest of the Woodcock-Johnson III (WJ III). These tests assess how a child can work with sounds in isolation. This is a kind of assessment for dyslexia in which the learning specialist asks the child to segment words and blend sounds. For instance, a child may be asked to indicate what’s left of the word 'sit' if the first sound is taken out. Or the evaluator may say po”…“man” and ask the child to say the middle sound. It is most difficult to guess the middle sounds. Younger children get much easier words on the assessment. The difficulty and number of syllables in the words increase as children get older.
  2. Decoding: Younger children may appear to be reading even when they’re not. In most cases, they memorize words rather than apply the principles of phonics. Two examples of formal dyslexia assessments, that evaluate decoding skills include Word Identification and Word Attack subtests of WJ III and Test of Word Reading Efficiency-2 (TOWRE-2). These tests assess a child’s ability to decode words accurately and rapidly. It also assesses the ability to distinguish familiar words.
  3. Comprehension and Reading Fluency Test: This is a kind of diagnostic assessment that evaluates a child's language abilities by asking him to read words in context. This test evaluates their reading skills in the “real world.” Some children may read at a young age. These tests may sometimes have picture clues to help kids recognize the words and their meaning. In everyday life, children may not have books with clues. It is not easy to capture a child's difficulty or slow speed at school. For some children, it takes so long to decode words that they seem to forget what they just read. Some examples of Comprehension and Reading Fluency Test include Reading Fluency subtest of WJ III and TOWRE-2 (to assess accuracy) or Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT-5). In these tests, the child is asked by the disability specialist to read aloud a passage and then answer open-ended or multiple-choice questions about it. In some tests, children may not refer back to the passage and in some tests, they can. These tests assess how fluently and accurately a kid can comprehend what was read and how well he/ she can read aloud a paragraph.
  4. Rapid Naming: This is a kind of diagnostic assessment that evaluate a child's learning difficulties, related to naming an object quickly after seeing it. This indicates a child's ability to retrieve phonological knowledge rapidly and automatically. A lack of rapid naming ability is a dyslexia symptom that affects their speaking, reading and writing skills. Some examples of the tests to assess rapid naming include Speeded Naming subtest of NEPSY-II and the Rapid Automatized Naming Test. The knowledgeable psychologist would use some helpful resources such as flashcards and give some to the child. Some of the cards have letters, some have pictures of common objects and others have some numbers or colours. The child tells the names of these items as quickly as possible, beginning with the top left and getting on row by row. The educational professional records how much extra time the child took to read and how accurately the child named the objects on the cards. Younger children at grade level are normally shown only colours and objects. How easily and quickly a child can name objects, common letters, colours and numbers, on the cards, shows the reading fluency in children.

Dyslexia screening materials
dyslexia screening materials

What is the next step after dyslexia testing?

After performing a battery of tests, the assessor will check the outcomes of these tests. The practitioner considers the results of all the above tests to identify a child’s explicit difficulty with reading. These tests are mostly performed alongside other types of assessments, such as intelligence tests. One may have to wait for a few weeks to receive the results. The educational psychologist will prepare a detailed report on basis of all the information gathered. If tests indicate that a child has dyslexia, there are further steps to follow to seek help from educational psychology professionals. The family of dyslexic children might be given some tips to talk to the child and teachers about dyslexic difficulties. Many families report a sense of relief once they know the root cause of the problem. Learning difficulties can go undiagnosed which can have severe problems for a childs educational outcomes. Receiving a formal dyslexia assessment can be a big relief. There are several educational interventions and programmes available for children with dyslexia. These may range from 1-to-1 lessons with a specialist teacher to regular education in small groups with a learning support assistant who delivers task set by teaching staff. The teachers may also prepare an individual education plan for the child with dyslexia and there might be a special learning environment and a variety of helpful school accommodations a child could be eligible for.

How to support learners with dyslexia

Rob Potts, the author of 'The Caring Teacher', provides us with some of his first-hand words of wisdom. You can find his new book on Amazon and follow him at @RJP_LEARNS.

How can I best support my dyslexic students? It’s a complex question, that doesn’t yield a single solution but, as with so many things in our profession, it has a simple and universal starting point: care.

I feel fortunate to have worked in schools with a high proportion of dyslexic students. Helping any student to attain heights that they may not previously have felt were within their grasp is the payback most of us crave. But when those same students include those who have previously felt like square pegs in an education system designed primarily for round holes, the rewards are even more profound. Below are some of the strategies that have served me well over the years:

1) Start by getting to know the individual child and, where necessary, focus on building their confidence/self belief. Often dyslexic children will have spent many years not having their needs adequately met and will assume (wrongly) that the difficulties they’ve experienced are their fault.

2) Don’t make assumptions. Some of your most creative, perceptive and articulate students will happen to be dyslexic. Your job is to give them the tools, support and confidence needed to work around their dyslexic difficulties and achieve their full potential.

3) Make sure your lessons are planned & differentiated to suit the needs of all learners but don’t assume that all your dyslexic students will fall into the ‘less able’ group (I hate this term anyway). Sometimes all they’ll need is the security of knowing that mistakes are ok.

4) Make sure that all the necessary resources are consistently in place (eg. if a child needs coloured overlays, they need them every lesson) but, *where appropriate*, encourage autonomy from the child in making sure they have the correct resources.

5) Identify access arrangements as early as possible. If a child is entitled to a laptop, Voice-Activated Software etc make sure this need is established as early as possible and becomes part of their day to day routine. This shouldn’t wait until KS4. The earlier this becomes ‘normal’ the better.

6) Avoid putting students in situations that are likely to exacerbate their insecurities or crush their confidence. For example, use a traffic light system for reading aloud in class. Some dyslexic kids will actually go ‘green’ every time and love it but for some it’s torture.

7) Make sure oracy is an integral part of the learning experience in your classroom. Invite the students to articulate their ideas, encourage them to expand and develop initial points, praise success and then ensure that the resources are in place to allow them to reflect this understanding in their written work. If they can say it confidently, with the right support and access arrangements they will eventually be able to write it too.

Classroom oracy sessions
Classroom oracy sessions

8) Establish a classroom culture where barriers to learning are de-stigmatised and there’s a shared growth mindset. Being dyslexic is just one facet of who the child is and should not present a glass ceiling.

9) Important one this: don’t assume that the only dyslexic kids are the ones listed on your SEN register or that it’s someone else’s job to flag up concerns. It shouldn’t happen but some kids go years without being diagnosed or having their needs met. Always look for early signs. The sooner a need can be identified, the sooner the necessary support and intervention can be put in place.

10) This one is MASSIVE too: lose the fixation with spelling (at least as far as your dyslexic students are concerned). If a child has incredible vocabulary and you can understand what they’ve, praise the positives. If it’s not legible, revisit your access arrangements

11) Be sensitive to the needs of the individual when marking books. A flood of red ink may not be legible anyway and has the potential to crush fragile confidence. Always try to prioritise verbal praise/feedback and share this with parents and other key staff where possible.

12) Establish a partnership with parents ASAP. Share your high expectations with them, notify them if a particular piece of homework may be challenging and provide them with an alternative if the wheels fall off.

13) Encourage reading as much as you can. Many dyslexic kids will have been put off reading very quickly but work with parents to encourage them to persevere, taking their needs and interests into account. Audio books are not a poor relation and can be a game-changer for some kids

14) Offer meaningful praise at every opportunity and use your encouragement to empower the child to overcome not only their difficulties but also any emotional trauma caused by past experiences.

15) If any of this feels as though it could apply to all students, rather than just those who happen to be dyslexic, that’s because it should. It’s just good teaching; the only difference for dyslexic children is that any deficiencies will have a greater negative impact.


Rob Potts - The Caring Teacher
Rob Potts - The Caring Teacher

Final thoughts on dyslexia, testing and support

We often use dyslexic ‘success stories’ to inspire children but do we ever stop for a second to consider why it’s often easier for dyslexic people to mitigate their difficulties in the workplace than it is in the classroom? More to the point? When was the last time you were forced to handwrite an important letter or report?

There are countless dyslexic people making a huge impact in the world - you might even have one or two future role models in your class. Let’s ensure that their time in education is a formative part of that journey rather than an unnecessarily difficult one.

Rob Potts is an experienced teacher and senior leader. His book ‘The Caring Teacher - How to make a positive difference in the classroom’ (John Catt Educational Ltd) is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Twitter: @RJP_LEARNS