The dyslexia assessment: why I was in tears

Hélène Cohen from Please Miss is a former SENCO who now trains teachers and advises schools on their SEND provision. She also tutors for the NASCO and iSENCO Masters awards and the NPQ senior and middle leadership qualifications. Here, she discusses with Education for Everybody what happened after she made the decision to be tested for dyslexia  during her doctorate studies, as outlined in her previous blog for Education for Everybody…

The Assessment

The day of the assessment arrived. Following a journey that used the 200% extra time I had allowed for driving 2 miles away, I was by this time ready to cry. It’s hard to explain just how fearful I was of being found to be stupid, the unintelligent fraud. 

The assessor, keen to put me at ease, started with questions about me and my background, with me alternately laughing, crying and apologising for my tears. I was interested in the whole procedure. Assessing children for learning support is what I do day-to-day; this was assessing an adult, so had a new spin that fascinated me professionally. As such I was able to talk freely, sharing expertise; then the personal would intrude and tears start to flow. It seemed strange taking the proffered tissues and the appreciated drink of water when I am usually the one to offer these; now I was on the receiving end. 

The order of assessments is muddled in my mind. I do know that we started with things I love to do – puzzles. There were non-verbal reasoning tasks - continuing the sequence, copying a design using blocks. Loved those. Next, word work, defining words, explaining connections between them; all fun. As usual I talked my way through, sub-vocalising - one of my strategies, especially as there were no visuals to accompany the verbal tasks. I asked for repetitions and talked – always I talk! Somehow this fixes things more. Helene Cohen, who was found to have dyslexia at 54

The stress came once I had to face digit string recall (in tears even before I started) and working with written words: real and nonsense words, actual letters or symbols. There was ‘reading’ pictures and digits at speed – I say ‘at speed’ but that isn’t my reality; speed just doesn’t come into it when you have to mask off every picture or digit just to keep the others on the page from jumping into your head and mouth! Comprehension was easy with the passage before me; I took my time, located the correct part that I had already read (or to be honest, decoded) then asked for the question to be repeated so that I could formulate my response. 

There was a severe attack of the giggles when ‘reading’ the passage. I mentioned that I ‘decoded’ the passage; however I was not taking in meaning. I sound fluent, but I get distracted by phrases for which I have taken in no context. Thus with the passage read about the history of chocolate, the phrase ‘chocolate houses’ conjured up images little houses made of chocolate. I giggled, and giggled, giggling so much that the clock was stopped for 45 seconds. In actuality the ‘chocolate houses’ were like coffee houses, places where people would go to drink hot chocolate. That distraction kept returning as I competed the reading, again answering questions on the passage, yet again when summarising the passage with it no longer in front of me. I kept stifling my giggles, trying so hard to focus on the actual task. This is typical of how I go through life, easily distracted, especially if something strikes me as funny, creating an absurd visual in my mind. 

I tried desperately hard to get everything right. Take the first handwriting task. I had to copy the sentence ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’, one I know well, as many times as possible in the given time. Because it was to be done fast, there were crossings out and at times totally illegible writing. Afterwards I explained that I often use this sentence for giving children handwriting practice. I then, like a child, asked if I could show her how neatly I could write it, proceeding to painstakingly write in my best teacher handwriting. It was beautifully neat, in total contrast to that written at speed; however it was also a tediously slow task – as it is every time I prepare the children’s handwriting tasks. The assessor’s reaction to my slowness made me realise how much extra time I have always put in to everything – things that other people can just simply do. 

There were other writing tasks: copying an academic sentence; typing one at speed; a précis of key points from the chocolate houses passage and a free write. I was allowed time to gather my thoughts for the free write which certainly flowed better than the précis - embarrassingly difficult to write coherently, in full sentences or in any logical order!

Spoonerisms were difficult, but achievable by employing strategies: sub-vocalising, openly talking things through and requesting repetitions. These help to cement information in my mind. Other strategies I employ include using my fingers, making connections, visualising, phonic knowledge and syllabification. In the assessment I also used prior knowledge – after all, I had conducted some elements of the assessments myself on countless children over the years. When asked in the pre-assessment form about strategies I employ had written at length – over 200 words. I think I employed most of them during the assessment. I had given my ‘fidget string’ to the assessor at the start of the assessment, since she hadn’t seen one before and showed an interest. It’s my own invention of a fidget to help children to focus in class – I always have one in my bag. Instead, I used the plastic tab which I slowly destroyed in much the same way as I regularly destroy paperclips during meetings.

Even knowing that I was employing these strategies, I was still relieved to hear the words “You are dyslexic” after the assessments were completed. So relieved, that again tears flowed. 

My scores were then presented. I responded first as a SENDCO; I looked at the scores as though they belonged to someone else. I commented on the spikiness of the profile, how some scores were on the 99.8th percentile while others were as low as the 1st, a score discrepancy found in less than 0.1% of the population. Then I was reminded that these scores were telling my story; scores that indicate not the stupidity I feared but actually very high levels of comprehension and reasoning, verbal and non-verbal. At the same time they confirmed my concerns for the viva, showing a weakness in working memory and speed of processing. My reading accuracy was fine, top average; my comprehension was better, above the 95th percentile; yet my reading rate was on the 5th percentile, far slower than I had thought, even knowing that I struggled with reading. My speed of writing was very slow, on and below the 5th percentile, while my typing speed – which I had considered to be fast – was low average. This pattern kept repeating itself – high accuracy (or average when it came to spelling) but slow, slow, slow. So yes, I am dyslexic. 

This has been a lot to absorb. Whilst it confirms what I knew about having problems with processing, working memory, spelling and reading; there are surprises, in terms of my intellect and the extent of the difficulties I face. It explains feeling stupid when unable to keep up with conversations; keeping quiet when I disagree but can’t think of how to express my thinking; my successes to date, both academically and professionally. I think differently, and through hard work and creative strategies I have not only achieved all that I’ve challenged myself to do, but I’ve been able to help so many children to believe in themselves and to find strategies to face their challenges. But there’s more!

Had I been found to have dyslexia as a child, would I have achieved the same things or would I have limited my horizons? I’ll never know. What I do know is that the same parents who lovingly called me dumbbell and doughnut also believed in me. They told me repeatedly that I was loved and could do anything I set my mind to. They set the example. My father unknowingly has always used strategies: my mother checks his writing for errors; he leaves post-its everywhere with reminders; he always has a pad of lined, yellow paper for writing (Irlens maybe?) and he works hard, creatively, having run his own businesses. Likewise my mother has a super work ethic – Di will do it, is the oft heard phrase. They both believe in solutions not problems; a belief which has given me a determination to succeed. When I didn’t get the A level grades I needed, while I was busy getting upset it was my mother who busily sourced an alternate course for me.

That is the foundation of my resilience, for resilience I do have – in immense quantities. That would have been there with or without the label of dyslexia. It is surely the attitude, the resilience that makes for success when stumbling blocks exist. Everyone faces difficulties in life, it is what we do about them that matters. So I thank my supervisor for persuading me to have the assessment; I thank the assessor for her gentle approach and patience; I thank all those who have supported me over the years, but most of all I thank my parents for giving me the values and resilience, mixed with love and a belief in me that have enabled me to face the viva!

For more information on Hélène's training, consultancy and research services, see

January 31, 2019

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