Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 1
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Dyslexia: the ethics of assessment
Sean MacBlain Ph.D., is senior lecturer in education
Kate Hassard is a postgraduate student
Fiona MacBlain is studying public relations
The United Nations considers an entitlement to literacy to be one of our basic human rights. Moreover, there is broad agreement amongst most parents that the world in which we now live is, more than ever, dependent upon communication through the written word (British Psychological Society 2003). Children who experience difficulties with reading and writing are seriously disadvantaged and may miss out on important life chances. One such group that can be identified are those children who have dyslexia. This is not an insignificant group. Riddick (1996), for example, has suggested that around four percent of the population are severely dyslexic, with a further six percent having mild or moderate dyslexia. The extent of this problem, therefore, has major implications for primary school teachers, especially in terms of their responsibility for the early identification and assessment of this condition since it is only through proper identification and assessment that many children with dyslexia will receive appropriate remedial provision (Ott, 1997).
To receive additional support from literacy
specialists employed by the Education and Library Boards (ELB’s)
of which there are five in Northern.
Alternatively, a child may record a low IQ score and have been well taught in the area of literacy thus yielding a small discrepancy, or the child may record a high reading comprehension score, which can mask processing difficulties and raise the mean average composite score on the WORD sub-tests again reducing the discrepancy. Similarly, if the child is dyslexic and achieves an IQ score below 85 or 90 (average range 85 to 115) then he or she may well not receive additional support, as they do not meet the essential criteria. Each of the five ELB’s have, in the past, stated different IQ cut-off points. An example serves to illustrate this last case.
Angela was nine when she was referred to the educational psychologist because of persistent problems with reading and spelling. Assessment found Angela to have a high average Intelligent Quotient. However, Angela performed very poorly on three of the eleven WISC III sub-tests offering evidence of difficulties with processing and short-term memory. Whilst Angela’s reading comprehension score fell within the upper half of the average range, her word recognition and spelling scores fell below the average range. When computed, the discrepancy between Angela’s Full-scale IQ score and her standardised literacy score, derived from the reading comprehension, word recognition and spelling sub-tests of the WORD was not large enough for her to receive additional support from the literacy specialists employed by the ELB. Angela had scored better on the reading comprehension sub-test but very poorly on the word recognition and spelling sub-tests. What was apparent, however, was that Angela had severe problems in the areas of phonological processing, organisation and automatization. Though these problems were identified by the educational psychologist and brought to the attention of her teachers, Angela was not eligible for additional external support. When assessed two years later by the educational psychologist Angela’s IQ score was calculated to fall at around the same level as previously. However, her spelling and word recognition sub-test standardised scores had barely improved. The result was that she now demonstrated a very large discrepancy and was eligible for additional external support. Sadly, Angela was due to transfer to secondary school where additional external support with literacy is generally not provided.
Dilemmas facing teachers
In addition to employing the discrepancy model, many teachers
The primary aim in assessing children with literacy problems who are suspected of being dyslexic ought to be full clarification of the child’s strengths, as well as the weaknesses (Miles and Miles, 1999). If a discrepancy model is employed then, in some situations, children who do not demonstrate a large enough discrepancy may fail to be diagnosed and may not receive additional remediation and support from professionals outside of the school who have particular expertise. Diagnosis, however, must not rely solely upon an assessment by an educational psychologist but ought to be made through observation and the careful collecting of appropriate information by teachers working in partnership with parents. This poses important questions for teacher trainers in initial teacher training and for school principals planning their staff’s continuing professional development.
Teachers are increasingly faced with new and proposed legislation in
the field of disability. Current legislation (Education – Northern Ireland –
Order, 1996) in the field of special educational needs in the
The Code of Practice had some major implications for the whole area of dyslexia. One particular problem has emerged from the Code’s classification of dyslexia as one of a subset of specific learning difficulties, which include, for example: dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder. This has meant that many practitioners have come to use the terms “specific learning difficulty” and “dyslexia” interchangeably. The result has been increased confusion amongst parents, as well as teachers and related professional groups such as School Social Workers, Speech and Language Therapists and Medical Practitioners. A further problem has been that some practitioners such as educational psychologists involved in conducting assessments of children have, on occasions, been reluctant to use the term dyslexia, preferring instead to use the term specific learning difficulty. These terms have resulted in much confusion amongst many practitioners due mainly to the large number of definitions (Pumfrey and Reason, 1991). Use of the former term can lead to problems relating to provision. A child diagnosed as being dyslexic is likely to have a stronger case for receiving additional resources than a child assessed as having specific learning difficulties. The former suggests that the child has a condition. The latter implies that the child’s difficulties are specific to the acquisition of reading or writing.
An additional problem is that the Code of
Practice appears to embrace a particular model for the assessment of dyslexia.
The Code differentiates between children who have dyslexia and children who are
poor readers through its apparent acceptance of a discrepancy model for
explaining dyslexia. This model differs from others such as the phonological
deficit hypothesis (British Psychological Society, 1999, p. 30) in that it
includes the measurement of intelligence as a core aspect. Such a model can,
however, be considered against the World Federation of Neurology definition of
dyslexia (1968), which differs from the definition of dyslexia offered by the
British Psychological Society (1999). The former group have defined dyslexia
as, “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience,
fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling
commensurate with their intellectual abilities”. The British Psychological
Society, however, stated that, “Dyslexia is evident when accurate and fluent
word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great
difficulty” (p.18). This view, now accepted by many practitioners as a working
definition, focuses on literacy learning at the word level and suggests that
the problem is severe and persistent, despite appropriate learning
opportunities. Its main contribution to the field of dyslexia, we would argue,
is that it provides the basis for a staged process of identification and
assessment through teaching. Yet, because the discrepancy model is stated in
the Code of Practice, many educational psychologists in
Fawcett (2003) highlights a particular
limitation of the discrepancy model, which has implications for teachers in
Prior to the introduction of the Code of
Practice, many children with dyslexia were not given provision appropriate to
their needs. This was because they were frequently not perceived as forming
part of the continuum of children with special educational needs. Schools in
Whilst the Code offers guidance to schools, it was never meant to offer specific information on what is appropriate provision for individual children. Whilst it can be argued that it might be unrealistic to give specific guidance on appropriate provision for dyslexic children, it nonetheless raises two important points, namely the promotion of greater consistency in approach to provision and greater accountability.
The current situation poses an important
ethical dilemma for many teachers in
(1999). Special Educational Needs in Schools.
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Department of Education for
Department of Education
and Employment (1997) Excellence for all children – Meeting Special
Education and Training Inspectorate (2002) A
Survey of the Provision for Pupils with Special Educational Needs in
Fawcett, A. (2003). Definitions of Dyslexia,
Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (2003) Education negligence cases. http://www.ipsea.org.uk/phelps.htm
(Accessed 27th November, 2003).
Miles, T. R. and Miles, E. (1999) Dyslexia 100 Years On, Open University Press.
Ott, P. (1997) How to Detect and Manage
Pumfrey, P. D., and Reason, R. (1991) Specific Learning Difficulties (Dyslexia) Challenges and Responses, NFER-Nelson.
Riddick, B. (1996) Living with Dyslexia,