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Give Students Time to Plan and Redraft Work

Assessing pupils who find writing a barrier is complex, but we owe it to them to unlock their potential, says Jules Daulby...

  • Give Students Time to Plan and Redraft Work

There will be some pupils in your class who have ‘spiky’ profiles. What this means is that there is a discrepancy between what you know they understand when you talk to them, compared with the quality of the written work they produce.

This can be problematic for assessment because how can you evidence their knowledge and how well they understand a concept if the assessment criteria is written?

It might be that the pupil has dyslexia. In this case, their difficulties may be down to spelling or writing in coherent sentences.

Perhaps they have dyspraxia, which will not only affect their handwriting (often illegible) but also sequencing and planning skills when writing.

Furthermore, distinguishing between assessment for learning (which informs you of the progress being made) and assessment of learning (which is summative) may also show a discrepancy under the criteria schools have to use for national benchmarking.

We need to be measuring the intended skill, and for students with ‘spiky’ profiles, this can be tricky.

Is the barrier of writing getting in the way of finding out what the child knows and celebrating their strengths, rather than their weaknesses?

Helping hand

Using assistive technology is an obvious route for many pupils with specific learning difficulties.

Not only does it engender independence, but it also allows you a glimpse into the possibilities and potential of a child who would otherwise be flailing in writing.

It can help pupils to achieve more and teachers to assess realistically.

If a child is skilled in using the technology, you can sometimes see a marked difference in their work, although it’s not always quite as easy as that.

Unless training is put in place and the technology is suitable, a child, TA or teacher may not fully realise its potential.

Indeed, assessing a child’s needs and finding the most suitable technology is a skill in itself.

Much technology goes to waste and lies in cupboards collecting dust because no one is trained in how to use it correctly or support the child adequately.

However, giving pupils the opportunity to use technology (speech recognition software, for example) can result in remarkable work.

We shouldn’t underestimate how both our own and our pupils’ perceptions can change once a student who cannot write is enabled to communicate.

It doesn’t always need to be high tech, however. A spell checker can make a huge difference to some.

Without it (and this is the same exam access arrangement as having a scribe), some pupils will narrow their vocabulary so they are only using words which they can confidently spell.

If that is limited, this can be catastrophic for assessment purposes.

Some pupils may need more that a spell checker. Software such as Clicker 7 can liberate a pupil further by providing word banks.

Complex subject-specific words can be put into a writing frame at the bottom of the page and this keyboard can toggle with the usual keyboard, allowing predictive text.

Once sentences are typed, the software will read it out to the child so they can hear what it sounds like and make further changes should they need to.

Teachers often ask whether this is cheating or allowed for writing assessments. The answer comes back to the specific skill you are assessing, although I still think the DfE needs to get its head round this.

Writing is so interlinked with fluency, pencil control and spelling that it is hard to extract the specific skills or writing through speech recognition or using a laptop.

Put simply, if it were a spelling test, it would not be appropriate to use a spell checker, but if you want to find out what a child knows about a topic you’ve been studying in class such as volcanoes, then it is merely removing a literacy barrier so knowledge can be shown using alternative means.

If you want to measure skills in creative writing, removing the barrier of reading and writing by using software such as Clicker 7 would allow great formative assessment, as well as giving the child independence.

Going old school

Using technology does not need to replace handwriting. As with reading, while tech can enable pupils to achieve, it is still important to teach spelling and handwriting if a child has the potential to make progress in these areas.

The art is knowing when to trial technology and when to use handwriting. Technology can be a short-term answer until the gap has closed for pupils, so both options should be kept open.

Focusing on content

When I worked in learning support for higher education, the university had small yellow stickers which students with dyslexia would put on their essays.

It told the lecturers to ignore spelling, punctuation and grammar and to read with a sympathetic eye, focusing more on the content and knowledge of the subject.

It was a simple but effective strategy and while I understand that this can’t happen in formal literacy assessment practices in schools, the message is clear.

Again, what is it we are assessing? Can SPAG be ignored for some writing tasks? How would a pupil with dyslexia feel if they were told that this piece of writing was only going to be measured on the content, rather than SPAG?

Minimising the load

Recently I spoke to a 10-year-old pupil who told me she had begun to hate English. She told me she was ‘good at writing’, but the focus was on writing as much as possible and she never finished her work.

She felt there was little time for planning – she understood that the drafting process was useful but felt there was no time to do it properly before they were onto the next piece of writing.

This is an issue, isn’t it? We tell our pupils that they must plan and redraft their work, but do we give them the time to do this? Do we, as teachers, recognise how much time high-quality writing can take, especially for children who take longer?

Time is finite for teachers and as we try and pack more and more into the curriculum, the luxury of time for those who need more is impossible to give. There are other options, however:

  • Less is more. Can some pupils plan using bullet points and concentrate on writing just a few paragraphs really well for you to assess?
  • Can some pupils miss some writing tasks to concentrate on completing previous ones? It can be demotivating to never complete a writing project that has involved a lot of effort. In creative writing, for example, or tasks linked to a novel, could some pupils continue with one task while quicker workers move on to the next?

Assessing writing for those who find it a barrier is complex. Knowledge of the children and the criteria to assess is more important than ever if we want to find a way for children with specific difficulties to achieve, as well as evidencing these achievements.

It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. If we get it right, we can unlock the potential of pupils who would otherwise stay hidden, their talents left untapped.


Jules Daulby is an education consultant specialising in inclusion and literacy. Follow her on Twitter at @julesdaulby.

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