Published on: 04 Jun 2015

Diagnosing dyslexia and recovering its consequences with the use of phonologics

Laying the right foundations for reading

By Beverley Williams for the Spring 2015 edition of Dyslexia Review, the journal of the Dyslexia Guild 


Beverley Williams, head of professional training at the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, has been working with dyslexic children since 1998. Here she discusses how to discover more about a child’s phonological strengths and weaknesses using PhAB2 Primary.

The earlier we can identify the reasons for any learning difficulties in children, the better. Without a correct diagnosis, dyslexic children can feel as though they are ‘stupid’ – as our own Helen Arkell did – leading to both short and long-term consequences such as a loss of confidence, behavioral difficulties, or missing learning opportunities.

As you’ll  be well aware, dyslexia isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ learning difficulty. It covers a very broad spectrum of issues and manifests itself differently in different people. This means diagnosis isn’t always straightforward.

One of the key areas we explore when children come for an assessment at the Helen Arkell Centre is phonological awareness. This refers to the understanding of the smallest units of sound in a word and is a critical first step in learning how to read. Children use this knowledge to decode new words they see.

To put it in technical language we need to find out as much as we can about their underpinning skills, for example their phoneme segmentation, deletion and blending skills.  It is really important to investigate their phonological memory too.  With these new subtests, the PhAB 2 Primary allows for an even wider range of information to be gathered about a child’s phonological processing skills and abilities.

It goes without saying that any tests we use in our assessment process must be comprehensive, robust, reliable and carefully designed for the task in hand.

The need to update assessments

Researchers, however, are continually discovering more and more about what is important when it comes to phonological awareness and how any weaknesses in these skills will impact on learning. So the fantastic assessment you designed or bought in five years ago may not be the best one to use today.

As leaders in our field, we are obviously keen to make use of any latest developments so when we heard GL Assessment’s Phonological Assessment Battery (PhAB), had been re-standardised and updated we were keen to try the latest version.

Accurate assessment

During an assessment we start by looking at general ability, attainment in reading, spelling and writing, and then at cognitive processing skills such as memory, phonological awareness and speed of processing. Let’s take Child M, a boy aged 8 years and 4 months, as an example. He came for assessment having not made the expected progress at school. He had issues with spelling, retaining information and reading. Recently he had begun to get frustrated as he was unable to complete tasks.

His general ability was sound, so we looked at what was going on cognitively using the assessment.

Using the naming speed test, we discovered that his speed of processing phonological information was slower than expected and he needed more time to retrieve the right words. He also found the phoneme substitution task very difficult, struggling to take away and add the sounds needed to change ‘go’ into ‘so’, for example, and the new phoneme deletion test even more so. We also discovered he found the phonological (alliteration and rhyme) fluency tests tricky, but could do the semantic fluency task easily.  These subtest results highlighted his particular difficulty in retrieving information automatically from his long term memory when there was a phonological element involved.  From this information we can now recommend that extra time is given so that he can access and retrieve the information from his long-term memory and demonstrate his understanding and knowledge.

It is always important to use a range of assessments in my view so we brought this information together with results from other tests, which revealed Child M also had issues with his short-term and working memory and visual motor integration (the way his eyes and hands work together). Overall, his difficulties were impacting on his acquisition of literacy and he had below average scores. With this information together, we were confident in diagnosing the boy with dyslexia.


A diagnosis of dyslexia isn’t an end point, of course, more a beginning. We speak to parents directly afterwards, explaining what we’ve found and also discussing a programme of support taking into consideration the child’s underlying ability and current attainment. 

In our subsequent written report, we detail reasonable adjustments that could be made in the classroom, ways in which parents can help at home, as well as access arrangements in exams and specialist teacher support, if appropriate.

For those with phonological issues, the interventions don’t always need to be heavy-handed. It could simply be playing more family games at home such as I Spy or rhyming games. The child doesn’t even need to know they are being helped. On the other hand, a child with slow processing skills might need a little more think time when being asked about a spelling or when reading.

Essential Toolkit

One of the things I really like about the assessment is that it can be administered by teachers in schools as well as by educational psychologists. As a specialist assessor, I might be able to delve more deeply into the information yielded, but there is no doubt it has also been well designed for use in a school setting. In fact, it’s an ideal follow-up assessment for pupils with low scores in any phonics screening or literacy test which will mean that the children that need it can get help quickly.

The bottom line is that there is no cure for dyslexia. However, early diagnosis helps children develop strategies to cope with their challenges and encourages them to find their strengths. And in my view that is something we should all be working towards.

This article was published in the Spring 2015 edition of Dyslexia Review, the journal of the Dyslexia Guild, pages 15 – 16.

Click here to download the article. 

Working with families

Educational Psychologist Poppy Ionides discusses how we work with families to improve outcomes for at risk children and fragile learners.

Girls with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties

John Galloway discusses how we can identify and support girls with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Using computerised assessment with SEND children

Jo Horne explores the advantages and disadvantages of using computerised assessments with special educational needs (SEND) children.

Assessing students with EAL

Sue Thompson talks about the different approaches to assessing students with EAL.