Assessing students who have limited English

Assessment of any student who has limited proficiency in spoken or written English is often problematic. In the case of LADS Plus, we first need to consider the nature of the component sub-tests. As explained in Section 1.3, the tests in LADS Plus are designed to identify students who display deficits in various aspects of phonological processing, because the principal weight of research evidence on dyslexia supports this approach. So the critical question is: Can this be carried out satisfactorily in a language other than the student’s first language? Fortunately, the answer to this question is yes. There is good evidence that phonological skills of bilingual students can be assessed in the majority language (in this case English) when no suitable test in the minority language (which would be these students’ first language) is available. Miller Guron and Lundberg (2003) found that, given sufficient exposure to the majority language, bilingual students whose mother tongue is a minority language may be expected to score comparably on tests of phonological ability and non-word reading in the majority, and thus poor scores on phonological and non-word tests can be taken as indicative cognitive deficits due to dyslexia rather than necessarily being attributed to lack of experience in the majority language. This result is consistent with findings by Bruck and Genesee (1995), Frederickson and Frith (1998) and Everatt et al (2000), which show that bilingualism does not impair (and can even enhance) phonological ability in both languages, and that non-dyslexic bilingual students can show normal phonological awareness, non-word reading and rapid naming skills. 

Hence the evidence indicates that assessment of the various aspects of phonological processing in English can reveal difficulties of a dyslexic nature even in students for whom English is an additional language, although obviously assessors have to exercise caution when interpreting the test results of such students. A certain basic knowledge of English is necessary on the student’s part, and the results should be considered in relation to the level of English knowledge of the student with conclusion being modified in the light of this. Factors that should be taken into consideration include whether or not English is one of the languages spoken in the student’s home, how long the student has been living in an English-speaking environment, and how long the student has been educated in English.

The practice items enable most students, even those with only a little English, to understand the tasks, and where there is uncertainty a teacher or assistant who speaks the student’s mother tongue can help with explaining instructions. In order to tackle the Working Memory test the student will need to know the digits 1–9 in spoken and written form. Provided they do know these it is safe to interpret high risk scores (red) on Working Memory as genuinely indicative of dyslexia.

Interpreting the results of the Word Recognition and Word Construction tests, however, is somewhat trickier. The Word Recognition test requires sufficient experience of real English words to be able to swiftly discriminate these from non-words. If the student’s spoken English vocabulary is limited, then it would be expected that their performance on the Word Recognition test will be adversely affected because if they don’t know the spoken version of a word, they are unlikely to know its written form. Similarly, the Word Construction test assumes exposure to, or tuition of, the phonic principles governing construction of English words, even though the actual examples are non-words. It must therefore be expected that while some students who have limited proficiency in written English may show some impairment of phonic skills compared with typical English first language speakers, the evidence discussed in the last paragraph suggest that this is likely to be minimal. Consequently, a LADS Plus result that shows high risk (red) for Word Recognition or moderate risk (amber) Word Construction is not necessarily indicative of dyslexia because this may simply reflect the student’s limited experience of English, and the more limited that experience is, the greater the likelihood that this is the case. On the other hand, if the student has been in the UK for several years (or has been similar exposed to spoken and written English in some other environment), it is reasonable to expect that while there may be some modest impairment of performance on Word Recognition or Word Construction compared with other students, this would not normally take results into the moderate or high risk zones. In this situation, much rests on the result of the third test, Working Memory, which is relatively independent of language effects. If this test shows moderate or high risk it is more likely that dyslexia is the cause, and if so, moderate or high risk results on Word Recognition or Word Construction would support this.

Another result that can help in interpretation of LADS Plus findings is that of the Verbal Reasoning test. Students with limited proficiency in spoken or written English will typically score much lower on Verbal Reasoning than on Nonverbal Reasoning, because their awareness of the names of verbal concepts will be less than that of a typical English first language speaker. Of course, this pattern of reasoning results is not necessarily indicative of EAL: a fair proportion of English first language speakers will also have this pattern, and many dyslexics do, too. But where the Verbal Reasoning score is average or better, it is safe to assume that the student has sufficient knowledge of English not only to be able to cope with the Word Recognition and Word Construction tests in LADS Plus, but also that any deficiencies in the results of those tests are genuinely indicative of dyslexia. 

A case study where a student for whom English is an additional language (EAL) was assessed using LADS Plus is given in Case Study J (Section 5.5). Like most students with limited English, this student responded well to the assessment and extremely valuable information was obtained. For further information on assessment of learning difficulties in literacy (including dyslexia) in EAL students and other multilingual students, see Cline (2000), Cline and Frederickson (1999), Cline and Shamsi (2000), Durkin (2000), Gunderson, D’Silva and Chen (2011), and Peer and Reid (2000).