Malcolm Litten, BDA New Technologies Committee

Supporting students with dyslexia in an increasingly tough GCSE playing field

This week’s guest blog comes from Malcolm Litten, a member of the British Dyslexia Association New Technologies Committee. Malcolm continues to teach English to individuals who experience literacy difficulties, having enjoyed over 40 years as an English teacher.  He spent over half of that time working with pupils affected by dyslexia. Here, Malcolm discusses the latest set of GCSE results and what the implications could be for students with dyslexia.

A new set of GCSE results has just been announced and among the headlines you may have read was the depressing fact that GCSE English pass rates at C grade or above have fallen.  The AQA board’s statistics make stark reading:  in 2015 71.2% got a C grade or better;  in 2016 that figure dropped to 62%!

While we all know pass rates are manipulated, rather than represent the natural fluctuations that might occur year on year, there are other factors this year.  Any pupil who failed to reach the magic C level last year has been required to re-enter this year.  ‘Pass’ rates for them are predictably much lower:  over all subjects less than 40% of retakes achieve the C grade.

2017 and beyond

The prospects for 2017 look even worse.  One third of GCSE candidates took their English exam through the Cambridge iGCSE system this year.  This is because it is a much better exam as well as being much more user-friendly for candidates.  However, schools will effectively be prevented from using this exam next year, as government statistics will no longer recognise this version of English at GCSE.  So if they continued to take this exam, it would look as if a school’s pupils had not achieved any grade in English.

The required GCSE English exam has been made more demanding in ways that almost look deliberately designed to make the achievement of the magic C grade near-impossible for dyslexics. (Though next year it will be expressed as a number – a grade 4 will be the new essential ‘pass’ to progress to an apprenticeship, A levels or other higher level courses.)  As well as oral skills not being included, the assessment will be exclusively through an exam and 20% of the final grade will be for spelling, punctuation and grammar. 

Supporting learners with dyslexia

Sorry if I have succeeded in depressing you so far!  The point of outlining this future is to emphasise as strongly as possible the importance of anyone affected by dyslexia being supported in the best possible way. That unquestionably includes providing access to appropriate assistive technology.

Not everyone is aware that this technology can be used in GCSE exams if an assessment proves the individual falls outside the normal range of attainment in reading or writing.  (This is usually reported in an assessment as a standardised score that falls below 85.)  

Assistive Technology for exams

There is clear evidence that schools are often failing their dyslexic candidates by not providing the necessary access to assistive technology including dyslexia software for children.  Use of the technology has to be part of a candidate’s “normal way of working” in school in order for them to be allowed to use it in an exam.  All this actually means is that the technology is used for some particular purpose.  It does not mean the technology is the principal way in which the individual reads or writes.

Text-to-speech software can be used by appropriately assessed candidates in questions designed to test their reading skills.  Unlike a human reader, who will inevitably interpret text, a computer simply accurately decodes so is not deemed to give unfair help.  JCQ regulations describe a candidate using text-to-speech as working “independently.”

This is one of the great virtues of assistive technology.  It restores the user’s sense of working independently and thus helps to build self-confidence and self-belief.

In the same way, speech recognition software frees a candidate from dependence on a scribe.  While it is a more demanding piece of software, requiring a skilled trainer, its impact can be transformative.

If we are not to see an increasing proportion of dyslexic 16-year-olds condemned as unsuitable for most forms of further education, this vital form of support needs to become the routine provision in schools long before GCSE arrives.  As success can only boost a school’s performance and reputation, it is to be hoped many more of them will wake up to the importance of providing assistive technology.  It should be viewed as the normal thing schools do, not the exception.


Baccalaureate Academy 11/03/2020 05:58:07
Hi, nice article thanks for sharingnice information

Amy 09/01/2020 18:52:57
I have dyslexic and I am really struggling. It seems that every time I try with my GCSE’s I go further away from my actual goal. And it hurts, because all of my non-dyslexic friends go further to there goal, and it’s just me here who is struggling to the point where I can’t even get a level 3 In language. I don’t understand why the GCSE’s have to be harder each year, why do they give us questions about boats and expect us to write a whole SA about it. It doesn’t make sense. Why not give me a question which I will be able to write about passionately? Why can’t I write a SA without thinking so hard about it? Why do words have to be so hard to spell? Why can’t I get higher grades? No matter how much I revise I can’t get higher then a grade 4. It like as if the GCSE’s weren’t made for people like me. I am lost and don’t know what I am suppose to do.

Deena Kimmel 09/01/2020 19:56:40
Hi Amy! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We're sorry to hear about your frustrations with the GCSE's. Have you installed Read&Write on your computer? We offer a free 30-day trial for you to explore the tool to see if it's a good fit. It may be able to provide you with some of the support you're looking for. Here's a link to learn more:

Sharon J. Bainbridge 01/02/2018 11:26:05
Thank you for this amazing article. There are a lot of Home Educating parents that are paying out for iGCSE Classes and Exams. Thanks to this article I have been able to question our Education Board and Government about this, and I'm awaiting a reply! We do not want to waste money on a qualification that is worthless. Dyslexia is a GIFT! Sadly, our Education System does not see it that way. Most teachers have no understanding of Dyslexia, and expect children to perform the same as those gifted with sponge like memories. If you get time, please check out my Blog. I came up with a special technique to help my daughter to read. She could not read in school. Funny enough Einstein could not read until he was nine years old, so this is probably the norm for Dyslexic Children. Education can be a brick wall. We need more Apprenticeship Jobs. I taught myself to type, and made it all the way to Managing Directors PA. So anything is possible!

Melanie McMillan 23/01/2018 10:02:53
My son's dyslexia did not get detected until year 8. When he started secondary school year 7, he could not cope and we ended up using CAMHS to try and help his mental health as he completely refused to attend school. School reported us for his not attendance and it was the investigating officer that suggested a learning assessment. School damaged his mental health so much I took him out and now home school, it was not a decision that was easy to make but school was completely useless, I felt I had no choice.

It has now been a year and he is now going to use IGCSE's as a means of achieving qualifications, thank you for this alternative way of learning.

Sally Watkins 18/09/2017 10:41:26
Hi, can you tell me why IGCSE's are considered the better exam and more user friendly? We are home educating and I'm looking for the best curriculum to suit my child's dyslexia needs.
Thank you.

adrian 22/08/2017 22:37:40
My son unfortunately takes after me. He can read and speak very well, but has short term memory recall issues. You cannot read his writing as it looks like scribble. The more they hurry him the worse it gets. The slower neater he tries, he then misses half of what was being taught and then loses interest. He was predicted a E or F in the the 2016 GSCE in exams. However, the shining light was that Norwich City Football Club saw that he was very good at football in a trial. He had, 4 or 5 month before exam, was aloud to use a computer in classes . They suddenly realised that he wasn't that lazy and that his work improved dramatically. There was one set back though. He needed a 5 x C's to get into the football course. He worked his socks off. We often worked late on trying revise each exam. He did great, but only got a D in English. Only...... He has Dyslexia. The spelling and the grammar let him down. He did fantastic in my opinion. He was however excepted onto his course with encouragement from NCFC. Two weeks into his full time course, and after turning down another college, the college moved him into a general sports class because he had to resit English. His college never let him try a retake exam. His heart was broken. In 2016-17 he ended up having to do 3 blocks of lessons. 1 was English for retake which ended up being a IGSCE. So all the hard work learning the two books the previous year where wasted with regards trying to absorb the information. He was also put on a general sports programme which was not what he signed up for and thirdly he had to choose one other subject. He had no interest in any of the other subjects, but was forced to pick. He ended up picking PC gaming probably taking the place of someone who actually wanted to do PC gaming. My son had not interest as the next year, 2017 he had provisionally been accepted on the Elite football course. Guess what. He got another D in English. The college had predicted a C and thought he was capable, but under the IGCSE exam paper and again with the grammar and spelling checks I believe he failed. I now think the college will refuse him onto level 3 although he did pass his level 2 in sport. He is devastated by this new exam criteria of having to get C's to get onto the next course. He is far from stupid. Just struggles to put down on paper what he thinks is correct. I am at a loss. There is a strong possability that the college will refuse him because I had a go at them asking how the hell did he finish his course work a month early leaving him a target of around 27 points to get in the exam, yet his none dyslexic mate had done more course work and only needed 15 points to get a C grade. I got a feeling they will reject him because I was so angry I told them what I thought of them. Not wise, but it was how I felt with a son who had managed to get 2 x D grades on the trot and be treated like this. The football club has been fantastic and say as far as they are concerned they want him studying and the college set targets that are slightly to far off for my son. I argued the point that my son doesn't want to write a novel, become a journalist or teacher. He is a athlete who was up to the age of 32 to perform. The college stole a year of him last year. I asked them do you English and Maths students have to run the 100m sub 12's before they are allowed to continue in their chosen careers, because you are making my son perform in English before he is aloud to kick a ball. So angry by the system. All you get from the college is that many students in my sons position have the same issue. We didn't make the rules etc, etc. I'm hoping they will see reason this Thursday and allow him to continue on with level 3 sport as he has passed level 2, but I still find this a very unfair way to treat children with dyslexia. Good luck everyone. I hope it all goes well for you all.

David Earl 02/06/2017 14:10:06
It's so hard for dyslexic children and you have to push the school so hard to get any help. Some of my son's teachers are still not aware he's struggling because he's dyslexic!

Janette Jacquest 22/04/2017 21:05:06
I feel for you. I am currently trying to support my child who is a high functioning dyslexic with other issues for his GCSE's this summer. The maths exam is now all about reading and trying to work out the maths you need to do! I have had to fight so hard in getting him help with his exams. He did not have any for this usual lessons. Shout loud. Don't give in. Don't accept brush offs. You need to be his voice. My son has a reader and uses a computer as opposed to having a scribe (his preference). The only issue I have is that he cannot have a reader for English Language and reading the source will be so difficult for him. Exams are not set up for dyslexic children. As you say they are not 'thick' but cannot process the same as others. Don't give up and don't let him be cast aside. He is as good as everyone else.

Clare 20/02/2019 10:07:14
I am a specialist dyslexia teacher and I am dumfounded by how the exams are getting harder, not easier, for dyslexics.
Janette - You ARE allowed a computer reader in the English exam, (you are NOT allowed a HUMAN reader as they might interpret the text - see the article above). It makes a huge difference in their confidence and I find that often they only need to hear it read through once and then they have 'got it'.
I really question whether the skills that are being tested (language analysis etc,) are appropriate as a life skills for people who want to be creative and practical. One of my students (who is extremely gifted in equestrian eventing and motorcross) is studying agriculture and his comprehension is great, so he can read reports and manuals and understand what to do. but I cant really see why he has to be so good at similes and metaphors, and the effect on the reader. These are great skills, but not essential to life, and if his weakness in this areas stops him from becoming a farm manager or progressing in his agriculture course, his amazing talents will be wasted.

Sharon Swallow 29/03/2017 22:38:34
My 12 year old has just had his options evening. He is dyslexic and maybe dyspraxia and ASD.
The evening was devastating,
He's dyslexic not thick. He had a scribe in primary school but I'm secondary school it was suggested he chooses cooking as an option subject because of his poor writing .




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