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Posted 14th August, 2011 by Melanie Knight

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Assessing EAL/ESOL students for dyslexia can be like “a stab in the dark.” It is often not possible to make a secure judgement. As well as looking for a pattern of difficulties, it is important to consider a student’s background, culture, educational experiences (or lack of them) and the impact of second language interference upon their acquisition of English.

As well as using assessment materials from “Dyslexia and the Bilingual Learner” standardised and informal tests used to assess dyslexia in adults, the Aston Index and PhAB (Phonological Assessment Battery) can provide an indication of difficulties. They can be used to test basic visual and auditory recognition and sequencing skills. They are designed and standardised for use with children, so the scores cannot be standardised if used with adults.

Aston Index

The oral instructions for the Aston Index tests are minimal and the majority of the students, that I have assessed at entry 3 ESOL or above, appeared to understand the requirements of the tests. In test 5 the student is required to name the upper and lower case graphemes and identify their corresponding phoneme.

In test 8 the student is required to match together pairs of letters and words. If the student experiences problems matching the pairs it suggests difficulties with visual discrimination.

In tests 12 and 15  the student is asked to arrange a series of pictures and symbols respectively on cards to match an array presented by the assessor. The student is shown an array for 5 seconds and then asked to select the appropriate cards which match according to item order and left right orientation. If the student experiences problems matching the array this suggests difficulties with visual sequential memory.

In test 16 the student is asked to distinguish between similar sounds. The assessor avoids facing the student, so the student has to rely on sound cues, and reads 2 words at a time (bun and bun or dog and hog). The student is required to identify if the words are the same or different. If the student is unable to distinguish between sounds that are the same or different this suggests difficulties with auditory processing. I have found this test easier to use than the “PhAB” Alliteration and Rhyme tests. The concept of rhyming and alliteration can be difficult to explain (particularly with students who are at entry 3 ESOL).

The PhAB

The “PhAB” Alliteration test and Rhyme test can also provide an indication of auditory processing difficulties.  In the alliteration test groups of 3 words are read to the student, who is asked to identify the pair of words beginning with the same sound.In the Rhyme test groups of 3 words are read to the student, who is asked to identify the pair of rhyming words. If it has been established that the student understands the requirements of these tests, then difficulties in either test can suggest auditory processing difficulties.

I have compiled a list of tests that I have found useful to assess dyslexia in EAL/ESOL adult students, working at entry 3 ESOL or above, and to apply for access arrangements (as where appropriate). It does not purport to be a comprehensive list of suitable tests for the assessment of EAL students.*see table below


Assessments Additional tests
Background information and cognitive processing Diagnostic interview form for bilingual learners or adapt standard interview form + additional tasks.Digit span, alphabet and monthsWrite alphabet in own languageIf possible use a translator Spoonerisms ( depending on student’s level of English)
Visual processing Aston index:

  • Test 8 (Visual Discrimination)
  • Test 12 Pictorial ( Visual sequential memory)


  • Test 15 Symbolic (Visual sequential memory)
Cerium Overlay Assessment
Auditory processing Aston index:

  • Test 14 (Sound blending)
  • Test 16 ( Sound discrimination)

  • Alliteration
  • Rhyme test
Attainments in Literacy
Letter names and sounds Aston Index:

  • Test 5 ( Grapheme/ phoneme correspondence)
Reading Standardised tests for access arrangements Additional tests
  • Reading accuracy ( single words)
  • Reading accuracy (passage reading)
  • WRAT 4: Word reading
  • ART
Miscue analysis, long regular words, irregular words and non words (depending on student’s level of English)
  • Reading comprehension
  • ART
  • WRAT 4:Sentence comprehension
Miscue analysis and comprehension questions of extended passage reading (Dyslexia and the Bilingual Learner)
  • Reading speed
  • ART
Extended passage reading (Dyslexia and the Bilingual Learner)
  • Spelling accuracy
  • WRAT 4:Spelling
Spelling dictation (Dyslexia and the Bilingual Learner) and spelling error analysis
  • Writing speed
  • ART:Timed piece of free writing
If literate in own language ask student to write alphabet in own language and a simple sentence

If an EAL/ESOL student’s difficulties appear to be caused solely by language issues the only access arrangements they may have are “Bilingual translation dictionaries and up to a maximum of 25% extra time. Candidates who are permitted to use bilingual translation dictionaries may also be allowed up to a maximum of 25% extra examination time, depending on need, if they have been resident in the UK for less than two years at the time of the examination. In subjects where a dictionary is not permitted, no extra time is available” (Access Arrangements, Reasonable Adjustments and Special Consideration JCQ, 2010 to 2011, p.26).

Aston Index and PhAB  suppliers’ list

  1. Aston Index can be purchased from “LDA” at
  2. Phonological Assessment Battery can be purchased online at “GL assessment” at
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  • Roswright

     Identifying whether difficulties in discriminating sounds are due to auditory processing  and/or 2nd language interference is a challenge when assessing students whose first language is not English. I find Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems (2nd Edition) (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers) Swann and Smith
    to be invaluable in identifying common difficulties of language interference. Unfortunately it doesn’t cover all the languages we see in our college, but I would recommend it as a good reference source.  My experience with the Aston Index is that the picture and Symbol Visual Discrimination tests are particularly helpful when dealing with students who have had little education in their own language, or who are moving from a right to left language such as Arabic or Urdu, to English. Their ability (or otherwise) to remember the order and orientation of the pictures / symbols can be significant, as it does not rely on any previous learning.

  • Yvonne Gateley

    We assess and diagnose dyslexia, in a multi-cultural Britain. This write up just emphasises how few tools we have that reflect our society. Melanie is focussing on ESOL students here. I work with post graduates, doctors in training, to identify whether they have been struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia.  These trainees speak and work in English, on a daily basis. However their scores in tests, including the WRAT4, miscue analysis, free writing and the WRIT are invariably compromised by vocabulary shortcomings. If they have been brought up e.g In Pakistan they may not have had specific instruction in phonemic decoding skills.  So far I have identified that working with medically based texts allows for better validity when assessing reading efficiency and now plan to ask for free writing in Urdu, as well as English. I take particular note of where vocabulary alone appears to impair comprehension and the WRIT verbal subtests.
    We diagnose, not the tests, but does anyone have any more ideas of how to better equip ourselves with meaningful results?

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