Since the government announced reforms to the key stage 2 national assessments, including a new grammar, punctuation and spelling test, teachers and campaigners have warned that the tests will diminish written creativity and discriminate against pupils with dyslexia.
The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) has recently revealed that it has been flooded with anxious calls from headteachers who are alarmed by the reforms, which come into effect this summer and will require 10- and 11-year-olds to spell over 100 keywords correctly, if they are to meet the government’s ‘expected standard’.
Bowing to significant pressure from teaching unions and the education community alike, the DfE performed a partial U-turn on proposals. However, for some, the minimal changes are too little, too late. The DfE confirmed that no allowances will be made in marking practices for the thousands of pupils who have dyslexia, and specialists have suggested that they will not reach the exacting standards of the spelling element of the assessments.
General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Russell Hobby, who reportedly collaborated with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan last year to explore solutions to primary assessment issues, said: “We have significant concerns about the treatment of children with dyslexia: we are worried that there is a risk of discrimination. Schools are prevented from properly recognising the successes of dyslexic students in the way they can with other students.” (Matthew Weaver, para. 4)
Headteachers also argued that forcing intelligent pupils with dyslexia to re-sit assessments in the first year of secondary school due to poor spelling scores, regardless of passes in the remaining 17 elements of the test, will cause needless distress and damage to their self-esteem.
Discrimination or high expectations?
In February, in response to warnings from the NAHT, the BDA and campaigners from charity Dyslexia Action, the DfE issued the following statement: “Spelling and handwriting are key elements of the national curriculum in primary school. To enable all children to reach their full potential, it is essential that they develop their skills in these areas, including those with dyslexia.”
Could the DfE be right? Could making allowances for spelling mistakes prevent pupils with dyslexia from reaching “their full potential”, or has the DfE made a serious error in judgement?
Dyslexia is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 which requires organisations to ensure that people with disabilities are not treated unfavourably and are offered reasonable adjustments.
In its clarification document, issued last week, the DfE has conceded that pupils will be allowed to use dictionaries for assessed work and to submit redrafted work after discussions with teachers. Is this just a calculated move to offer a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to challenge accusations of discrimination? How useful are dictionaries to pupils who struggle to identify the individual sounds of words to locate them?
Raising the stakes
According to research carried out by Professor Merryn Hutchings of London Metropolitan University, 9 out of 10 teachers reported that many pupils become “very anxious” in the run up to SATs and three-quarters of primary teachers stated that their pupils often develop “stress-related conditions” during that time.
One teacher said: “Last year I had a Year 6 pupil turn to physical self-harming, which she attributed to the pressure she felt to achieve a level similar to that of her peers and to hit a level four in her SATs – she is severely dyslexic and an incredibly hard worker.”
It is telling that Pie Corbett, the literacy expert who collaborated with the Blair government on the National Literacy Strategy, branded the current government’s stance on spelling as “ignorant and cruel”. (Helen Ward, para. 4)
A former teacher and Ofsted inspector, Mr Corbett is “politely angry” at the content in the new spelling, grammar and punctuation test. He insisted: “It is too much and it is too complicated. It will not help children as readers and writers”.
Mr Corbett added: “Teachers hate feeling that they are sending children to secondary who have been told that they are not at the expected level, and for those children, I know how it feels.
“To build any education system on a sense of failure seems, to me, not a great idea. Perhaps it’s different at 16 years old, but a 10- or 11-year-old child is still a young child and these things last the rest of your life.” 
Mr Corbett believes that the problems associated with the new national tests will be “ironed out” in time, but this will provide little comfort to those who will need to address the realities of the tests this year.
The best way forward
We have collated the best advice offered by dyslexia support organisations to help pupils with dyslexia improve the accuracy of their spelling:
- Explain what syllables are and help pupils to break words down into separate syllables, focussing on the sound created by each phoneme (older pupils may wish to whisper the phonemes).
- Focus on spelling patterns, to aid the recognition of ‘word families’; although care should be taken not to teach too many spelling patterns within one lesson.
- Ask pupils to write down the words they need to remember how to spell (and check that they are written out correctly). The physical act of writing helps the word to be embedded in the memory.
- Help pupils to create a ‘silly sentence’ to aid their spelling of tricky words.
- Avoid teaching spelling rules, as the many exceptions to spelling rules can cause further confusion.
- Play a range of spelling games to strengthen recognition of correctly spelled/misspelled words, e.g. spot the deliberate spelling mistakes, lists of word variations to spot which one ‘looks right’.
- Work closely with parents/carers and suggest books aimed at learners with dyslexia – Dyslexia Action have a good selection. Regular reading at home in a supportive, positive environment will strengthen progress made in class.
 Matthew Weaver (2016) ‘New primary school tests discriminate against dyslexic pupils, say teachers’, para. 2 <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/11/primary-school-spelling-tests-dyslexic-pupils-teachers> [Accessed: 14 March 2016]
 Helen Ward (2016) ‘Exclusive: New writing assessments will penalise bright dyslexic pupils, heads warn’, para. 4 <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/exclusive-new-writing-assessments-will-penalise-bright-dyslexic> [Accessed: 14 March 2016]
 Hannah Richardson (2015) ‘Pupils have SATs test panic attacks, says NUT study’, paras. 5-9 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32174569> [Accessed: 14 March 2016]
 Helen Ward (2016) ‘Pie Corbett: I’m a believer in grammar, but this has gone too far’, paras. 23-24 <https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/im-a-believer-grammar-has-gone-too-far> [Accessed: 14 March 2016]