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Reasonable Adjustment or Taught Dependency Readerscribes and ICT in National Assessment of Literacy

by Paul Nisbet

on Wed Sep 11, 2013

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As of August 2013, SQA clarified what is and is not a 'reasonable adjustment'  for learners with disabilities in assessments, and it seems that this has caused a bit of disquiet in some areas of Scottish education.

From speaking to practitioners, I believe that there is a general misunderstanding of the policy and so in this blog I will lay out the situation as I understand it. I'll be writing with some more detailed suggestions and comments over the next few weeks, but for now I want to make some initial observations.

(Disclaimer: we work with SQA as consultants advising on the the use of ICT by learners with additional support needs, but the views expressed here and elsewhere on our web sites and publications are entirely independent. You might also say that we have a vested interest in promoting the use of ICT in assessments. You'd be wrong though. The only interest we have is enabling learners with disabilities in Scotland to have every opportunity to access education and fulfil their potential.)

The policy that seems to be causing most comment concerns the use of readers and scribes in assessment of literacy. SQA say that:

“In relation to the National Literacy Units at all levels: (i) exemption from demonstrating any of the four assessed skills of reading, writing, listening or talking will not be a reasonable adjustment and (ii) using human readers and scribes will not be reasonable adjustments where reading and writing abilities are being explicitly assessed.” (Section 96(7) Equality Act 2010: Specifications on Reasonable Adjustments in National Qualifications in Scotland.

The first thing to point out is that the restriction on reader/scribes only applies to National Literacy Units (and Modern Languages or Gaelic (Learners)) where reading and/or writing are being explicitly assessed. Reader/scribes can be used in all other subjects.

SQA also state that:

“In order to minimise the disadvantage faced by some disabled learners in attaining the National Units in Literacy, the use of word processors and other assistive technologies such as screen readers, spell checkers or speech-recognition software would be acceptable as reasonable adjustments.” (Specification 3 - Literacy Units.

So essentially, the policy is that learners can use ICT but can not use readers or scribes for assessment tasks in National 3, 4, 5 Literacy Units. Is this reasonable? I believe that it is.

Human vs computer readers

In my opinion, a computer reader provides a satisfactory and effective alternative to a human reader. I also believe that the use of a computer reader provides a more consistent and ultimately fairer method of support for learners. I do not believe that pupils with disabilities are disadvantaged by the SQA policy.

With the free Scottish voices, the consistence, intelligibility and quality of the computer speech is excellent. Literacy assessment tasks are likely to be created using a word processor such as Microsoft Word (the exemplars from SQA are all Word files), and there are many free programs (including the Speak facility built in to Word 2007/2010) such as WordTalk, MiniReader, Natural Reader etc etc that can be used to read from Word, in addition to commercial products such as ClaroRead, Read and Write Gold, Penfriend, Co:Writer, etc etc.

Now it's possible that some pupils with complex disabilities might not be able to use the technology – e.g. a pupil with very severe physical disability and significant visual impairment might struggle to control the technology  - but it can be done if the school takes the trouble to organise the reading text and questions in an accessible format.

I think the experience and support offered by computer readers is comparable to human readers, but the computer of course offers the huge advantage of being independent and by teaching learners how to use the technology, it gives learners a useful life skill. Teaching them to rely on a reader doesn't.

Scribing vs writing with ICT

The actual assessment task at National 3 is to:

“3    Write simple, technically accurate texts by:

3.1    Selecting and using appropriate language

3.2    Organising writing appropriately

3.3    Using appropriate spelling, punctuation and grammar”  

(Unit Assessment Support: H23W 73 Literacy (National 3): Package 1: Unit-by-Unit approach, p. 21)

To pass the assessment, the learner has to:

  • "decide who will read your article and use words to suit them;
  • give facts, information and advice;
  • make the article clear and easy to follow (think about things like headings, the order of information, using lists or bullet points);
  • use spelling and punctuation and sentences that make sense.
  • write at least 80 words."

All learners are permitted to use ICT (including a spellchecker) for this writing task. The assessment is not time-limited and is generally expected to be done in class as part of day to day teaching and learning. Learners with disabilities can also use more specialist assistive technologies to generate their 80 words.

I do not believe that restricting the use of scribes for a assessment that is specifically intended to assess a learner’s ability to generate text independently is unreasonable. There will be some learners who will not be able to pass the assessment - for example pupils with severe learning difficulties or complex needs, but they would not be able to tackle the assessment with a scribe either.

So is  a pupil with dyslexia, say, disadvantaged by not being able to use a scribe? I say not. Is it fair that SQA are encouraging use of ICT instead? Absolutely.

I think that the widespread use of scribes for young people in secondary schools actively damages learners. There's a risk of developing 'learned helplessness' and it should be avoided. Teaching learners to rely on human scribes isn't helpful - as I said in a previous blog, it's not successful, not confident, not responsible, not effective and not what schools should be doing. Teaching learners to write independently by whatever means - whether by handwriting, or with ICT, is surely a priority for Scottish education.

Are we really saying that there are significant numbers of young people in the middle of their secondary education who are incapable of writing 80 words independently, by hand or using ICT? If so, there is something seriously amiss with Scottish education. If so, we need to know about it, and one way we'll find out it by assessing learner's writing independently and not disguising lack of ability or effective teaching by using scribes.


I've heard some staff saying that lack of computers or cost of software is a problem, but I really don’t think this is an acceptable argument in 2013. We really need to be teaching young people to use ICT and local authorities and schools must accept that and make adequate provision. As far as the specialist assistive software is concerned, the text reading tools and voices are free, as I said; spellcheckers are built in to standard word processors, and even the more specialist commercial writing support tools are a lot less expensive than paying for scribes.  (I'll look at these tools in a later blog.)

"Reliant on readers", "stuck with scribes", or "independent with ICT"? Let's go for the latter.

Tags: SQA, digital exams

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