Published on: 06 Mar 2019

Access arrangements for learners with dyslexia taking GCSE and A Level exams

By Lia Castiglione, Professional Practice Leader, Patoss & Assessor for SpLD and access arrangements

Whilst the definition of dyslexia has long been the subject of considerable debate, it is widely accepted that weaknesses in phonological awareness, working memory and verbal processing speed are key characteristics of a dyslexic profile. These underlying weaknesses in cognitive processing can cause difficulties with learning as they impact on the acquisition and development of accurate and fluent literacy skills.

For students taking GCSE and A level exams, the characteristics associated with their dyslexic profile can be a barrier to accessing the exam and demonstrating knowledge fully. Such learners may need access arrangements, to help minimise the impact of their difficulties and perform on a level playing field.

When we consider what is involved in taking exams - reading the question paper and responding in writing under timed conditions - it’s not surprising that learners with weaknesses in processing and literacy skills can face exceptional challenges. Learners with dyslexia each have a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses and when contemplating their support requirements, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate.

A variety of access arrangements may be appropriate for learners with dyslexic-type difficulties. Some need no formal evidence and can be put in place without JCQ awarding body approval; they are ‘centre-delegated.’ For others, permission must be gained and evidence, which is subject to inspection, held on file. The results of standardised assessments in literacy and processing form part of the required evidence.

Reading difficulties

  • A learner may need to read the exam questions aloud to make sense of them. They may need to read back their own written responses to check they make sense, are grammatically correct and address the exam question appropriately. The facility to read aloud is a centre-delegated arrangement. A separate room will usually be needed to allow the learner to read aloud freely and without disturbing other candidates.
  • Another centre-delegated arrangement to support reading is the use of an exam reading pen. This is a portable device that is used to scan the question paper and listen to text being read. Earphones can be used so that the learner can be accommodated in the main exam hall.
  • For a learner who needs more extensive support, a reader or computer reader can be applied for. At the learner’s request, the reader can read the question paper and the learner’s written responses. A computer reader uses software that fulfils the same function and enables the learner to work independently. These arrangements can be useful for learners who have difficulties with reading accuracy, comprehension or speed.
  • Some learners need time to decode words, resulting in slow reading speed. Others have slow reading comprehension speed and need to re-read text several times to absorb its meaning. In either case, 25% extra time may be required.

Writing difficulties

  • A word processor can be useful for a learner who has writing difficulties. When the grammar and spell-check are switched off and it is effectively a ‘typewriter’, it can be used as a centre-delegated arrangement. This can help with legibility and writing speed and can also reduce the cognitive load for a learner who has difficulties putting their thoughts down in writing.
  • A learner whose writing is largely unreadable due to poor legibility or spelling, is grammatically incomprehensible, or is especially slow, can dictate their responses to a scribe or use speech recognition software. A word processor with grammar and spell-check switched on or with predictive text enabled can be used as an alternative to a scribe.
  • A learner whose writing speed is slow, perhaps because they take time to formulate their responses or because of motor difficulties, may require 25% extra time.

Speed of working

  • As well as the issues with reading and writing speed discussed earlier, cognitive processing weaknesses can impact on speed of working and give rise to the need for 25% extra time. Weaknesses in phonological awareness can impact on reading and spelling fluency; poor phonological processing speed can mean it takes time to get thoughts down on paper and working memory weakness can lead to a range of difficulties including processing text, performing mental calculations, formulating written responses and tackling multiple choice questions.
  • For some learners, timing and attention can be challenging. A prompter can help to refocus a learner or signal when to move on.
  • Supervised rest breaks may be needed when a learner has difficulty sustaining performance throughout the exam, perhaps due to mental overload.

In summary, for GCSE and A level exams, a learner with dyslexia may require a single access arrangement, several used simultaneously, or none at all. The key point to remember is that access arrangements are not determined by a label but by the unique profile of the individual learner.

Lia’s book, produced in association with the JCQ, ‘Assessing the need for Access Arrangements in Examinations: A Practical Guide, 5th Edition’, provides detailed information on access arrangements. It can be purchased from Patoss.