The Role of the Practitioner in the Assessment
Overview of the Assessment Process
Thousands of adults in literacy programs fit the following description.
They are individuals who appear to be able and bright. They have worked
diligently for a year, sometimes longer, to learn to read to improve
comprehension skills, to improve their writing and spelling, or perhaps,
to improve work skills. Yet, they make little, if any, progress. Could any
of these individuals be having learning problems because of a learning
Practitioners need informal measures for determining whether or not a particular
learner may have a learning disability. Given that most participants in
literacy programs are unable to afford formal testing
administered by trained professionals, the information gathered by the
practitioner can be particularly valuable for planning a practical approach
to helping the individual meet realistic goals. In fact, the information
gathered through an informal process can be as useful in planning instruction
as scores from standardized testing.
The process of identifying an individual who may have a learning disability
begins with a simple
screening. This screening process cannot alone be used to diagnose the
individual's situation. This step of gathering relevant information can
be accomplished through observation, interviews, self-reporting, the use
of a screening tool (a brief test and/or written answers to questions), and
through a review of school, medical, or employment records. With this
information in hand, the screener - typically an individual who
does not have a specialized background in learning disabilities - plans and
executes an individualized program for the learner, often after consulting
with a qualified professional or professional organization on how to proceed.
The information gathered through the screening process can also be a valuable
introduction to the formal process of assessment.
Consulting A Qualified Professional:
If it is determined through screening that there is a strong possibility
that the individual has a learning disability, a formal assessment can
be undertaken. A formal assessment is carried out by a professionally-trained
educational diagnostician, counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist who selects,
administers, and interprets different kinds of tests (educational, vocational,
psychological, and neurological instruments) from which a diagnosis and
recommendations are made. It is through a comprehensive assessment that
an individual's current level of development is identified and a plan for
meeting the individual's needs is developed.
While the literacy practitioner may be neither prepared nor qualified to
diagnose an individual with a suspected learning disability, the practitioner
can play a valuable role in getting the assessment process set in motion.
The qualified professional may first refer to the screening in order to
plan which tests to administer. Or, if formal assessment does not follow,
the practitioner's screening results become one of the most important sources
for developing a plan to help the individual with suspected learning disabilities
achieve his/her goals.
Screening is an initial step in the process of gathering pertinent information
about the individual with a suspected learning disability. The literacy
practitioner can attain much valuable information if s/he knows what to look
for. In terms of academic performance and related behaviors, what kinds
of observations will the literacy practitioner be noting?
The following characteristics tend to be displayed in varying degrees by
individuals with learning disabilities. The lists are a good sampling, but,
of course, are not all-inclusive. Making written notes of these observed
characteristics, as well as collecting written samples of the learner's work,
is very valuable to the screening process.
Does the individual show unexpected underachievement, but demonstrates evidence of at least average ability in some intellectual or social areas?
Does the individual display signs of poor vision or hearing?
Or, are you observing the effects of auditory or visual processing
In terms of academic performance, is the individual having problems
in the following areas: Reading (oral and silent), Expressive
Language (writing, spelling, handwriting), Math?
Are you observing behaviors/psychological manifestations that
can interfere with the learning process?
To help the literacy practitioner think through the answers to these questions,
three broad areas of learning-related problems are briefly described below.
1. Vision/Hearing and/or Auditory/Visual
If vision or hearing problems are suspected, it is important that the individual
be examined by an eye (optometrist) or hearing (audiologist) specialist.
It may be determined that there is a physical problem, leading to prescribed
eye glasses or a hearing device. Many individuals with learning disabilities
have poor eye muscle coordination for focusing and refocusing at close range,
have had hearing problems since early childhood that have affected their
ability to learn, and may also have auditory and visual processing and memory
Barring a purely physical cause, the following problems
can be considered indicators of a possible learning disability:
- Eyes water and/or become red after a short time of work
- Complains of tired eyes; rubs eyes a lot
- Puts head on desk to read
- Oral reading is choppy: words skipped, endings left off, frequent repetitions
- Loses place when reading
- Talks loudly
- Often asks you to repeat yourself
- Comments about getting headaches after a short time working at reading
- Squints and peers close to see print
- Peers at work on desk from an angle
- Lifts eyes from page frequently to glance around
- Closes one eye while reading or writing
- Misunderstands you
- Turns an ear towards you when you speak
2. Academic Performance
The learner shows marked difficulty in oral and silent reading.
- Reading patterns are slow and deliberate
- Skips words, re-reads lines
in oral reading
- May substitute, delete, add or transpose letters and
- Loses place on page
- Avoids reading out loud
- Reads words
or syllables backwards; e.g., was for saw,
net for ten
- When reading silently, appears to be re-reading or reading very slowly
(this can be attributable to poor
- Cannot use basic phonics to sound out words
- Reads with an overdependence on guessing and, as such, comprehension
is compromised, evidenced in errors in answering questions related to the
- Reading style is halty and jerky
Expressive Language: (Writing,
Spelling,including Handwriting Skills)
- Problems with grammar and syntax
- Writes letters or numbers backwards or upside down, e.g., b for d, p
for q, u for n,
M for W
- Spells words differently in the same document
- Weak visual memory for spelling
- Spells phonetically, cannot remember spelling patterns, e.g.,
- Writing reveals poor organization
- Inconsistent memory for sentence mechanics
- Reverses letters in spelling, e.g., Friday becomes
Firday, girl becomes gril
- Mixes capitaland lower case letters inappropriately, e.g.,
- Poor handwriting; letter formation inconsistent
- Punctuation errors are common
- Continuously whispers to self while writing
- Trouble remembering math facts and procedures
- Demonstrates inconsistent mastery of math facts (addition/subtraction,
multiplication/division) due to problems with long-term memory
- Difficulty copying numbers and working with numbers in columns
- Trouble with left/right orientation
- Cannot remember in which direction to work in carrying out simple math
- Confuses similar numbers or transposes numbers
- Reads numbers backwards, e.g., 18 for
81, 21 for 12
- Trouble following sequential procedures and directions with multiple
In terms of academic performance, what practitioners/instructors
are looking for are patterns of errors exhibited
by the student's work. Error patterns are important in helping to
differentiate between the adult with possible learning disabilities
and the adult whose low achievement is the result of other factors.
Therefore, it is important that practitioners familiarize themselves
with typical error patterns.
3. Behaviors/Psychological Manifestations
The following behaviors may indicate the possibility of a learning disability
over a considerable period of time.
Attention: difficulty concentrating/focusing; easily
distracted; difficult sitting still/
restless; displays off-task behavior; lack of productivity; seemingly
confused at times; fidgets; impatient; talks excessively;
impulsive (acting without thinking and without seeming
concern for consequences, saying one thing and meaning another, blurts out
answers, interrupts); displays memory problems
Organization: poor organization of physical environment
and time, as well as concepts and tasks, including sequencing, prioritizing,
grouping or categorizing, grasping
similarities between items, relating parts to the whole; orientation
with directionality: left/right, up/down, and north/south/east/west
Other General Behaviors: variable or unpredictable
performance; difficulty absorbing major ideas from an oral presentations
(instructions, lectures, discussions); information must be repeated and reviewed
before understanding is achieved; problems with following directions; difficulty
retaining information without excessive rehearsal and practice; cannot recall
familiar facts on command, yet can do so at other times; visual difficulties,
auditory difficulties, poor decision-making skills; difficulty drawing
making inferences, dealing with abstractions; poor motivation and/or
extreme drive to
complete a task; most comfortable with familiar, unchanging settings;
perseveration (staying on task or using a procedure past the point of its
being appropriate); rigidity
Social: social situations difficult, noticeably out of
place in group setting; misinterprets what others say, tone of voice, facial
expressions, the subtleties in social situations; lacks awareness
of one's personal space; difficulty in establishing friendships
It is important to note that many of these observed learning characteristics
and behaviors result from problems that the individual experiences
in the areas of visual discrimination and visual
memory, as well as auditory discrimination
and auditory memory. Visual discrimination refers
to the learner's ability to detect differences in forms, letters,
and words. Visual memory is concerned with the individual's ability
to retain a full mental image of what s/he has seen. In both instances,
the central nervous system is not processing symbols correctly.
Auditory discrimination involves the ability to recognize the differences
between sounds. Auditory memory refers to the learner's ability
to store and recall what has been heard. The result of an auditory
deficit is that the individual fails to hear vowel or soft consonant
sounds in spoken words. Auditory and visual deficits
affect one's ability to develop and use language effectively; the
effects are apparent in reading, writing, and spelling skills.
Other Means of Information-Gathering
Samples of the learner's work and observations of the individual's learning
characteristics and behaviors can be recorded on an observation
checklist. In addition, the information-gathering process can include
(1) reviews of school, medical, and employment records (wherein
of problems may be evident and should be noted); (2) a screening
during which the individual can be encouraged to self-report problems in
academic, social, medical, and employment areas, including similar information
about family members to help determine possible familial factors known to
correlate with learning disabilities; (3) a screening
(4) a screening tool (an instrument for which the administrator
trained to use). For excellent examples of an observation checklist and
a screening questionnaire, see the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada
(LDAC) publication listed under"References."
For samples of screening tools, see the Tennessee Literacy Resource Center's
publication, listed in "References." Operating under a
grant from the U.S.
Department of Education and working with Tennessee educators, the Tennessee
Literacy Resource Center, University of Tennessee Knoxville, established
a research project that reviewed a variety of screening tools used for
"identifying and helping adults who find learning difficult," reporting strengths
and limitations of each tool.
Heading the list of the Tennessee Literacy Resource Center's recommendations
for screening incoming literacy participants is "Informal Observation and
Work Samples." The research group found that careful observation was so
valuable to the assessment process that it recommended training to sharpen
the practitioner's observation skills. "After careful observation, and using
a checklist or other documentation, we were able to talk with students about
how they learn, the strategies they use, and their preferences, in a much
more focused and productive manner." Obviously, the literacy practitioner
is in a position to make valuable input into the assessment process.
While formal testing provides the most accurate basis for planning an
individualized learning program, the observations noted in the informal screening
process serve a number of purposes:
- Screening sets the stage for the practitioner to help learners with suspected
learning disabilities to understand their strengths and weaknesses and
the reasons behind their struggles and difficulties.
- The informal nature of the information gathering process in screening enables
the practitioner to include the learner in determining appropriate
- Informal screening opens the door for discussion between the practitioner
and the learner regarding which strategies and/or interventions, if
any, have been tried in the past.
- Screening can help establish the foundation for discussion between the
practitioner and the learner about realistic long-range goals
translated into short-term objectives.
- Screening helps the practitioner identify special materials and strategies
to be used in setting up an individualized learning situation for the
For follow-up, the practitioner needs to be aware of local sources of testing
and other services to which the learner can be referred. The adult
education/adult literacy program/literacy council with which the practitioner
is aligned should have a list of recommended resources. Depending on the
particular locale, these resources may include (1) the State Vocational
Rehabilitation Agency, (2) community mental health agencies, (3) special
education departments, disability support services offices, counseling, and
study skills centers at universities or local community colleges, (4) educational
therapists or learning specialists in private practice, (5) Orton Dyslexia
Society, (6) the local chapter of Learning Disabilities of America (LDA),
(7) private schools or institutions specializing in learning disabilities,
and (8) university affiliated hospitals.
Literacy practitioners can be a vital link in the overall assessment process.
If the individual with suspected learning disabilities does not undergo
a complete assessment, informal screening provides the major source of
information for establishing both long-range goals and short-term objectives,
and for identifying instructional methods and materials needed to establish
an individualized program that meets the learner's needs.
Cheatham, J., Colvin, R. & Laminack, L. (1993). Tutor: A collaborative
approach to literacy instruction, 7th Edition. Syracuse, NY: Literacy
Volunteers of America, Inc. (315-445-8000)
Laubach Literacy Action (1994). Teaching adults: A literacy resource
Syracuse, NY: New Readers Press.
Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. (1991). Bringing literacy
reach: Identifying and teaching adults with learning disabilities.
National ALLD Center & HEATH Resource Center (1995). National resources
for adults with learning disabilities. Washington, DC: American Council
on Education. (800-544-3284)
Oddleifson, J. (1994). The Hull specific language disability screening
For use in adult basic education. SABES Mini-Grant. (617-482-9485)
Payne, N. & Jordan, D. (1995). Learning disabilities in workplace
Olympia, WA: Payne & Associates.
White, C. (Ed.) (1994). If only I could ...Read Write Spell: Identifying
and helping adults who find learning difficult. Knoxville, TN: Center
Literacy Studies, University of Tennessee. (615-974-4109)
This material has been prepared under a cooperative agreement between
the Academy for Educational Development (AED) and the National Institute
for Literacy (NIFL), Grant No.X257B30002. Opinions, findings, conclusions
and recommendation expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views
of AED or NIFL. This information is in the public domain, unless otherwise
indicated. Readers are encouraged to copy; please credit the National ALLD