Science

Wim Tops develops new test

Dyslexia doesn’t just disappear

While dyslexia is common among students in elementary schools, the problem seems to have all but disappeared by university. But has it really? Many students are in denial about their issues with reading.

By Tamara Uildriks / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

It’s almost like I’m back in elementary school and my teacher is trying to determine my reading level. At Wim Tops’ office, I am given a list of words. I read out as many as I can in under a minute. Next, I do a dictation exercise. Then a third exercise tests my ability to recognise words that have been written backwards.

But instead assessing my reading skills, this test assesses whether I might have dyslexia. RUG linguist and psychologist Wim Tops developed several quick, reliable tests to determine whether someone actually has this reading impairment.

A one percent chance of dyslexia

The RUG allows dyslexic students extra time to take their exams. Some students pretend to have dyslexia so they can get extra time.

How easy is it to fake dyslexia? I subjected myself to the new testing method for adults. There are three simple tests that take just fifteen minutes. Soon I have my result: I have less than a one percent chance of being dyslexic.

Cheating on the test is basically impossible and results is 99 percent reliable. Even if you do manage to cheat your way through this first testing phase, you will have to go in for further testing. It’s a lot of work and you have very little chance of gaming the system.

Unlike existing tests for dyslexia, these were designed specifically for adults. ‘Older tests didn’t present enough of a challenge, and the results weren’t reliably accurate. The dictation text in my tests is read out so fast that keeping up is quite difficult.’

Less awareness

There are always several students in elementary school who are dyslexic, but in university almost no one talks about having reading issues. Do they just grow out of it?

Liselot Bakker, a student of biology and medical research, is dyslexic herself. ‘I’ve noticed that people aren’t aware of the issue as much in higher education. Maybe that’s because it isn’t as small-scale as elementary school.’

Wim Tops and his colleagues noticed this as well. They turned their adult dyslexia research into a book: Slagen met dyslexie in het hoger onderwijs (How to succeed in higher education when you’re dyslexic). It should help students become more aware of their reading and spelling issues. Because even when adults think they’ve outgrown their dyslexia, the problems persist. It’s just that the symptoms are less visible.

I don’t know what it’s like to not be dyslexic

Many students are in denial about their issues with reading and spelling. Even students who know they are dyslexic will sometimes insist they don’t notice it anymore. ‘But I don’t know what it’s like to not be dyslexic’, says Bakker. ‘So I don’t know how much it influences my test scores.’

Even so, she realised in the very first exam week that she would need more time for her exams. ‘I got such poor grades that I immediately formally requested more time.’

Low marks

Many students don’t think to do this. ‘But when they get low marks on their test they’re shocked’, says Tops.

The main problem is reading speed. ‘People who read at a rate 30 percent lower than most people will get into trouble during exams’, says Tops. But a little more time is all it takes to remedy this issue. ‘It’s an impairment, like any other. People with bad eyesight are allowed to wear glasses during exams, so dyslexic students should be given extra time.’

People who read at a rate 30 percent lower than most people will get into trouble during exams

When students’ dyslexia isn’t accommodated, it doesn’t only influence their grades. It often leads them to believe they choose the wrong study programme altogether. Tops says that dyslexic students tend to switch programmes much more often than non-dyslexic students. ‘It’s probably because they don’t really know where their strong or weak points lie.’

Accommodate

Lecturers don’t always have a proper understanding of their students’ reading issues. ‘The RUG offers plenty of amenities, but not all lecturers are willing to accommodate students. They feel that people who study at a university should be able to make their exams in the same time frame as everyone else’, says Tops.

Some lectures think that allowing certain students more time gives them an unfair advantage. But Tops says that’s wrong. ‘While it leads to better results for the dyslexic students, there’s no difference in grades when you give non-dyslexic students more time. Lecturers tend not to understand what dyslexia is, or they don’t take it seriously. If we make sure they’re better informed we can change their attitude.’

Bakker comes up against prevailing attitudes about her impairment all the time. ‘Whenever I spell a word wrong in the class app, people laugh at me. It’s annoying, but there’s not much I can do about it.’

She doesn’t think many lecturers know that she’s dyslexic. But she would love some extra guidance on writing reports. ‘I have difficulty writing a good text.’

Help for dyslexics

Tops’ book should help dyslexic students. It contains tips on writing essays, presentations, and studying techniques.

The book is also aimed at parents, counsellors, and lecturers who might have misconceptions. ‘People often think there are typical mistakes dyslexics make, such as mixing up letters that look like each other. But that’s a misconception: dyslexics make the same spelling mistakes as other students, just twice as many.’

The Groningen Expertise Centre for Language and Communication Disorders wants people to be more aware of these issues, and offers students the opportunity to get tested for dyslexia. In just fifteen minutes you can find out whether you have a chance of being dyslexic, allowing you to decide whether you need a follow-up test. Tops: ‘We hope dyslexic students will make use of the opportunity. They don’t have to get bad grades.’

Tops wants to encourage people who think they might be dyslexic to get tested. For more information: W.Tops@rug.nl

Nederlands

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