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A new tool for testing dyslexia

Neuroscientists come to the aid of children with the learning disability.

Archana Jyoti

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.118 Published online 10 September 2019

Until two years ago, the odds were stacked against Srinivasa. His parents scolded and nagged him for his inability to read and write in English or in his mother tongue Kannada. He shied away from classmates, who mocked his mistakes; and dreaded teachers, who felt he was being deliberately obtuse.

The 11-year-old, who has dyslexia, happily goes to his south Delhi school now. He can read and write with help from special educators. His teachers and psychologists used the Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India (acronymed DALI), a screening and assessment tool, to assess some of Srinivasa’s key skills, identified his problem areas and found learning solutions.

Among things they tested were his sound awareness, skill acquisition capability in reading, writing and numbers, communication, motor coordination, behaviour and memory.

A sample task in the dyslexia assessment tool.
Experts say early diagnosis is enormously beneficial in dyslexia, a condition which makes reading and writing difficult despite normal intelligence. Dyslexia occurs due to differences in brain wiring.

“If not addressed, we stand to lose out on a significant chunk of the literate population from the future productive workforce of the country,” says Nandini Chatterjee Singh from the National Brain Research Centre in Haryana. Singh and her team developed the DALI tool in 2015 under a project supported by India’s Department of Science and Technology.

Bridging the language barrier

Dyslexia assessment is often restricted to English, with an absence of tests in different languages and writing systems, leading to inappropriate and incorrect assessment. The DALI standardized test to detect dyslexia is available in four regional Indian languages – Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English.  “DALI has been standardized and validated among nearly 4,000 children from classes one to five,” Singh says. Work is underway to extend it to Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. Importantly, it is not curriculum based, thus facilitating its use across the country among bilingual children.

Children in a Delhi government school pose with the DALI kits.

© Nandini Chatterjee Singh

With DALI, teachers who have taught a child for at least six months, need to answer around 15 questions. With these questions teachers can assess things like why the student has not been able to do his homework, whether the teaching was proper or not and whether there’s a learning problem. “Once the problem has been identified, the psychologist can draw up an individual action plan,” Singh explains.

Though the Indian government is yet to sanction DALI’s use across schools as a part of a national policy, the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) has brought Singh on board to take it to neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan and Bangladesh, where dyslexia awareness is even lower, although the condition is prevalent.

Approximately 10 per cent of the global population is estimated to have dyslexia, and as many as 15 per cent of Indian children.

Various private and government schools in Delhi have found DALI useful in screening dyslexia. The schools have approached the NBRC scientists to extend the test to higher classes. “Teachers have been identifying children who are not able to read even in the eighth standard or even higher classes,” Singh notes. The Delhi government is looking to assess the number of such children with learning disabilities.

Psychologist and special-needs educator Geet Oberoi has been using DALI country-wide at Orkid centres, her special educational services company. “I find it very useful. However, since the tool is validated just for class three to five, we are waiting for tools for higher classes.” Geet points out that since most schoolchildren in India are exposed to two languages, it is necessary that they be assessed for dyslexia in all those languages.

Efficient tool

Some other tools are also available in India to assess learning disabilities. The DST (Dyslexia Screening Test) and the “NIMHANS battery” (abbreviated from the National Institute of Mental Health and Allied Neuro Sciences, where it was developed) are still used by special needs educators.

Developed in 1991, the 3-decade-old NIMHANS battery is the only test notified by India for screening and certifying children with dyslexia. This ‘battery’, consisting mostly of Western and English language-based tests, was developed as part of a small sample for a PhD thesis at NIMHANS Bengaluru, but never got tested widely. Singh argues that the NIMHANS battery is not for non-English speakers. It is also curriculum based, and results are often subjective. It is time the NIMHANS battery is modified to meet changing needs and increasing awareness about dyslexia, she feels.

Since the government has not notified DALI, psychologists cannot use it for issuing disability certificates under the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016, which brought dyslexia under the umbrella of disability.

A senior NIMHANS psychologist, who did not wish to be named, also felt the NIMHANS battery needed to be reconsidered. “For a large number of children who come to us for screening, we are able to get answers through the NIMHANS battery,” Singh says. “The problem is for the older kids. We are in a fix as to how to decide their learning issues.”

The Centre of Excellence in Mental Health at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital Delhi has now started a project comparing DALI and the NIMHANS Battery. Smita Deshpande, who heads the project, says this is part of a larger scientific project that is looking at extending the use of DALI to adults.

Lack of early detection and awareness of the condition often results in her department getting requests for dyslexia certification for people way into their twenties. “Children with dyslexia see the world differently – we must help them at the earliest,” she says.

(This article has been published with support from the Nature India/India Alliance India Science Media Fellowship.)