Can AI improve the way we test literacy rates?

If we don’t want struggling readers to lose confidence, we need to radically change how and when we pick up on literacy issues, says Bernadette McLean.

Imagine being a child who’s given a school note to take home and realising all your friends can read it, but you can’t. Or being asked to complete an assignment in class that has been written on the whiteboard but having no idea what it says. Or opening up a book and seeing all the letters jump around.

For the one in 10 children in the UK who are dyslexic, this may well simply be part of their everyday life.

Around 148,000 pupils still leave primary school every year unable to read well and then fail to catch up at secondary school, despite it being widely known that a lack of literacy skills is a barrier to life-long success.

We know that early identification of reading issues can make an enormous difference to a child’s whole experience of education and also his or her future, so it all rests on effective and accurate diagnosis. Unfortunately, when the signs of reading difficulties aren’t always clear cut, this can be more easily said than done.

Having an impact

Specific reading issues can be to do with phonological awareness, verbal memory, processing speeds or even motor co-ordination. Added to this, it’s important that we remember English is a particularly difficult language to learn as we have so many combinations of letters that go with the same sound. For example, the sound ‘sh’ can be formed in many different ways – as well as the word ‘sheep’, the sound can be found in words like mission, sugar, lotion and ocean.

If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will learn to remember these nuances, recognising the sounds and patterns by sight. But for a great number of other children, it is not so easy. Sequences need to be directly learnt and explicitly taught, both of which can be complicated.

When it’s this hard for some children to learn to read, imagine how hard it is to properly assess literacy skills. Multifaceted cognitive and linguistic processes come into play, yet our most widely used reading tests are one-dimensional and give simple scores that often reveal little in the way of personalised strategies.

New vision

Teachers are already under a huge amount of pressure in the classroom, so it’s imperative to get as much information into their hands as possible about children’s literacy. New developments in AI technology by Lexplore are paving the way for exactly this. By using AI technology to monitor how a child’s eye moves when reading – in a way that’s quick, easy and fun for the child – it’s possible to gain incredibly detailed insight into how his or her brain is processing text at different levels.

One of the strengths of AI is that it’s objective. But the real value lies in the huge amount of information that can be gleaned from assessing a child’s reading in this way. Not only can this type of assessment identify the risk of dyslexia, but it can also detect the often missed ‘hyperlexics’, children who can decode text, but experience significant difficulties in comprehension and inference.

Different strokes

While the symptoms of neurodiversity can present very differently from one child to the next, it is not unusual for children to start secondary school undiagnosed.By this time, there can be an unspoken expectation that students will intuitively know how to read and will continue to pick it up, just like they pick up language.

The thing is, human beings are hard-wired to pick-up language. Our brain is adapted to process speech, whereas reading is a skill that needs to be learnt and requires a very specific set of cognitive processes. In fact, dyslexic children and adults may always need to use different neural pathways than neuro-typical learners in order to read.

In my experience, catering for the diversity of linguistic ability in a classroom can be one of the greatest challenges for teachers, who work so hard to give their pupils the support they need. Effective assessment is at the heart of this. Being able to flag issues early is key to putting the right support in place to address a child’s specific requirements. But importantly, we can only address the issues a child is experiencing with reading if we know precisely what they are in the first place.

Bernadette McLean is an independent literacy consultant for Lexplore and ex-principal of The Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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