How do I help pupils with lower reading ability access maths assessments?

In this ‘Ask the expert’, Lorna Jones, Research Manager in NFER's Centre for Assessment, answers some FAQs on assessing the mathematical ability of pupils with lower reading ability.

How can I be sure my pupils with lower reading ability are able to access maths assessments?

This is one of the most crucial challenges when assessing your pupils in mathematics. In particular, reasoning and problem-solving questions can present problems for pupils with lower reading ability. Your approach will depend on each pupil’s individual need.

  1. English is not a pupil’s first language

If a translation of an assessment can be provided, particularly when you first meet the pupil, it will allow you to assess their mathematical ability rather than their skills as a translator. If their high-stakes assessments will be taken in English, then time should be taken to prepare for these, considering, for example, whether they will be allowed a dictionary, extra time or a reader. It is important that any extra support or access arrangements that will be available to them in their formal assessments become part of their normal working practice as early as possible.

If a translation or translator is provided, it is important to get the technical vocabulary right. For example, in English, when we refer to positive numbers, we mean numbers greater than zero; in French, however, “positif” refers to numbers that in English we would describe as nonnegative, so zero is “positif”. There are many examples of words that sound similar in different languages but which have subtly, or even significantly different meanings.

  1. Their reading ability lags behind their mathematical ability

Again, it is important to investigate as soon as possible whether extra time, a reader or regular breaks will be available in formal assessments to ensure that pupils’ normal working practice reflects what they will experience in formal assessments.

A common difficulty for weaker readers (as well as those with English as an additional language) is the use of words that have different meanings in different settings. There are many, many examples; here are just a few.

Word English class (possibly) Maths class (probably)
Odd Strange, unusual not divisible by 2
Factor Something that influences or contributes to a result Eg 1, 2, 5, and 10 are factors of 10.
Translation Something that is translated, or the process of translating something, from one language to another. A transformation that moves an object without altering it in any other way, so it is not rotated or reflected and its size is unchanged.


This emphasises the value in explicitly teaching specialist vocabulary as soon as the pupils encounter it.

When devising assessments for weaker readers, ensure that it is their mathematical reasoning that is being assessed. For example, consider the following question:

There are 25 beads in a bag.
12 of the beads are not red.
5 of the red beads are flowers.
How many of the red beads are not flowers?

While each piece of information in this question is simple, the whole question requires a degree of verbal reasoning that might make it inaccessible to some pupils. In this question, the pupils are required to translate the question into two subtractions, through their understanding of how “not” is used. If you want to know whether your pupils can tell when subtraction is required, this question could yield disappointing results; what proportion of incorrect answers would come from competent pupils who get tied up in knots (or nots)?

Are optional maths assessments suitable for weaker readers?

Technically sound optional assessments are expertly designed to avoid ‘construct irrelevant variance’ – something having an impact on test outcomes that is not part of the skill or knowledge being assessed. This involves a rigorous development process of question review, trial and refinement. The questions in NFER’s range of standardised assessments, for example, have been developed by a team of experienced assessment specialists (many with teaching backgrounds) and extensively trialled in schools to ensure they are accessible and generate valid outcomes. When selecting tests for your school, take account of information provided by the developer about the development process to ensure you choose those that have been robustly developed. This way you can be confident they yield reliable information about pupils’ maths ability rather than their reading ability.

Do you have a question on assessment that you’d like to put to one of our assessment team? Send it through to us at [email protected].