Students diagnosed with dyslexia qualify for accommodations at most universities. As with other special needs students, they're entitled extra time for work, exams, access or licenses to spell checkers, etc.

If these accommodations are in place, and assuming good grammar/spelling is part of the evaluation of work outlined in the university course syllabus, is it reasonable for an instructor to penalize students with dyslexia for making spelling/grammar mistakes as with other students?

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    great question! Presumably, use of accommodations - or even spellcheck - should be expected; but give them a break on typos that elude spellcheck (eg technical terms). My approach is to focus on what will help the student learn and do better next time. Some disabilities can't be fixed. I also honk is is okay to be more lenien on ESL students - but I am not lenient when ESL authors submit a paper with imprecise or unclear statements; unlike class work, the author of an article should have the work revised by a competent editor or colleague. – Abe Oct 26 '12 at 3:05
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    Which particular aspects of this are you most interested in? For example, the legal requirements? Common university policies? Consensus on what to do when there isn't a set policy? The fundamental question is whether the accommodations are intended to allow dyslexic students to complete the work to the same standard expected from other students, or whether they are just partial progress in this direction. I'd say they more often function as the latter in practice, but I'll let more knowledgeable people submit official answers. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 26 '12 at 3:18
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    As both of the answers below state, I think the key factor is to have the claim established in advance of the grading event, and to decide on the "corrective measures" cooperatively with the requisite parties (student, medical staff, administration, and so on). At the same time, the grading standard should be kept as uniform as possible otherwise. If they get, say, an extra hour to work on the exam, then they should be held to the same passing mark as other students—unless otherwise negotiated. (But this would be one area where I would not want to negotiate!) – aeismail Oct 26 '12 at 16:41
  • Are we sure that dyslexia is related to spelling errors? I personally know someone that's dyslexic. He has trouble reading and has illegible hand writing but his e-mails have perfect grammar and spelling. – Jase Dec 14 '12 at 10:52
  • @Jase The official term used at my school in "dysorthographia" – Fuhrmanator Dec 15 '12 at 2:33

I’ll go for a legal answer, at least valid in my current place of employment (France): dyslexia, which must be medically characterized as a learning disability for an individual, is covered by the laws regarding disabilities. As such, students impacted can request that exam conditions be modified for their benefit: most commonly by giving them additional time to “compensate” for their disability, but it could also include changes in setup (such as having access to a dictionary, spellchecker, or even a secretary). On the other hand, no leniency should then be granted on judging the exam paper.

The operating principle in all cases should be that of equal opportunity. (See here a summary of jurisprudence by the Association lyonnaise de droit administratif.)

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    I don't understand: "if it is medically characterized as a learning disability". Is dyslexia considered a learning disability in France? Must it be medically characterized (requires a medical professional to characterize it for an individual)? A web site on debunking myths about dyslexia says it's not a medical diagnosis. – Fuhrmanator Oct 30 '12 at 15:01
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    @Fuhrmanator I’d rather believe a more official source than your link :) I must add that I have no first-hand experience with dyslexia, but combined in my answer a second-hand experience and some research into the legal framework: dyslexia, as recognized by a medical expert, is considered a disability in France – F'x Oct 30 '12 at 15:06
  • Agreed it's a more official source, but it doesn't answer my questions RE: France. I like your answer's structure, but I don't understand the conditions the way you've written them. Is it considered a medically diagnosed disability in France? – Fuhrmanator Oct 30 '12 at 15:11
  • @Fuhrmanator yes, that what the source I linked to says (quick translation) “[Dyslexia] was recognized as a disability, giving right to modifications of exam conditions.” The text it is based on is an administrative directive frmo the Education ministry, dated August 30 1985. – F'x Oct 30 '12 at 15:21
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    +1 for the legal answer. I'll also point out that France includes dysorthographie (a condition that affects the ability to acquire spelling skills) along with its ruling. The US NIH reference doesn't mention spelling at all. – Fuhrmanator Oct 30 '12 at 15:35

it is in my university (UK).

Dyslexic students are given a lot of attention and information around their case, extra time, specific conditions to undertake exams/courseworks/assignments. These include more time to complete the work, using a computer to transcribe their ideas/concepts, personal assistants and so on.

After this extra care and information, the idea is to create a plain field with non-dyslexic students, and use the same framework for marking or assessing the piece of work. So advantages in the pre-conditions of an exam, but then the marker will not use any bias in the marking. This includes also a stricter handling of extenuating circumstances: you cannot claim that "you have dyslexia" if you could not complete your work, or if it's incomplete, or has mistakes in it


Firstly, no amount of accommodations etc is going to make a dyslexic person a good speller, or not struggle with writing.

Disability rules usually say that "reasonable accommodations" should be made for people with disabilities. The spirit of this is that if a person cannot perform their role, then they can't, but if there is something that can be done to allow them to perform their role, then they should be enabled to do so.

Applying that principle to university, this should mean that a student should be assessed on the course criteria, but where something that is not in the criteria is stopping them from demonstrating that they've met the criteria, then they should be helped around this.

The upshot of that is that dyslexic students should not be assessed on the quality of their language unless that is a specific aim of the assessment, but where it is the specific aim, they should be assessed against the same criteria as everyone else.

So we teach molecular biology. In our exams we are testing the students knowledge and understanding of molecular biology. As long as your language is good enough to demonstrate an understanding of the material then you should get the marks, irrespective of typos, odd phrasing or places where the grammar is wrong, but the meaning is clear. If the writing is so bad that I can't tell if you understand the biology or not, then you shouldn't get the marks. One can imagine this would be different in an English Language exam.

On the other hand, molecular biologists need a certain level of language abilities to succeed, and so we have course work where the quality of the communication is assessed, but in these cases students are allowed to have their work proofread the same way someone in real life might have their reports proofread.

I am both dyslexic and dyspraxic. People who regularly read my posts will notice that I am not a good speller. But I have still been a good enough biologist to make a career of it, so I'm glad my university assessed me on my biology ability, not my writing ability.

On the other hand, my dyspraxia makes me clumsy in the lab and no amount of accommodations is ever going to make my experiments go well. So it was in my, and my employers/fields interests that I decided the lab wasn't for me, and became a computational biologist - Reasonable adjustments could be make for my writing ability, but not for my lack of manual dexterity.

  • I guess this is a long winded way of saying if lanuage is in the assessment criteria then you should mark all students against it, but there had better be a very good reason why it is in the criteria to start with. – Ian Sudbery May 29 '20 at 14:48
  • "no amount of accommodations etc is going to make a dyslexic person a good speller" I agree, but tools can help in the quality of communications (which is an aspect of engineering that I teach). My Chrome browser found all the errors and proposed correct alternatives for all but two of the misspelled words in your answer. Spell checkers exist now even in editors for software source code. However, the Android app I use for StackExchange doesn't support spell checking when editing posts here, so tools aren't always available in every context. – Fuhrmanator May 29 '20 at 20:49

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