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Dyslexia a myth?

Some ill-defined ‘experts’ have put their thinking caps on and come up with the hypothesis that dyslexia

does not exist and is no more than an emotional construct

Their full arguments will be put forward in a Channel 4 documentary next week, but there’s an outline of them in today’s Guardian. Now it’s clearly foolish to comment on their theories before hearing them in full, but heck, I’m going to do so anyway.

I am by no means an expert in dyslexia, and I have very little experience with it. So frankly, I’m quite probably spouting ill-informed rubbish. Nothing new there then. But… I don’t think dyslexia is a myth. I think it’s a genuine disorder which requires special treatment for those who suffer from it. I think there’s a wealth of neurological and genetic evidence to suggest that such a condition exists, and to say it is merely a myth doesn’t seem helpful or sensible. However, I think it’s chronically over-diagnosed, and not nearly so widespread as it appears to be. As the producer puts it:

Dyslexia persists as a construct largely because it serves an emotional, not scientific, function. Forget about letter reversals, clumsiness, inconsistent hand preference and poor memory – these are commonly found in people without reading difficulties, and in poor readers not considered to be dyslexic …

Public perceptions often link reading difficulties with intelligence and, in our culture, an attribution of low intelligence often results in feelings of shame and humiliation.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the widespread, yet wholly erroneous, belief that dyslexics are intellectually bright but poor readers would create a strong, sometimes impassioned demand to be accorded a dyslexic label.

Yes of course, some children will require special resources and dispensations, but we certainly don’t need spurious diagnoses of dyslexia to achieve such ends.

According to dyslexia teaching from CPD Bytes, the diagnosis of dyslexia essentially creates an excuse for poor reading, and can be used to garner extra support – both educational and emotional – for the child. For any child who is having difficulty at school, this diagnosis can provide the extra help they need, and so be seen as a very positive thing. It is also practically impossible to obtain an educational statement of needs – as well as the appropriate funding for the school – without some kind of medical diagnosis, and dyslexia provides the perfect solution. The statementing process largely fails to recognise that some pupils need individual support not because of a medical problem, but just because of a generalised learning difficulty – and without a statement, there’s no money, and so no additional support, which means the child’s performance is below par and hence the school’s league table position slips.

There is, therefore, a practical incentive for the child to be diagnosed, and a financial incentive for the school which is conducted the testing to make the diagnosis. In such circumstances, it would be a minor miracle if only those with the condition were labelled as having it.

Of course, all of this does not mean that those incorrectly diagnosed with dyslexia are not genuinely struggling, and do not require extra help. But surely the over-diagnosis can only have a negative impact for the help given to those with dyslexia, as the evidential base for the help given becomes muddied by successes garnered from those without the condition.

As far as I can see, what’s needed here is a greater recognition of generalised learning difficulties, so that each child can get the support they truly need without having to be wrongly burdened with a medical label for the rest of their life.

This post was filed under: News and Comment.

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Comments and responses

Comment from Bede the Scrivener

    15.26, 03/09/2005

Dyslexics and stutterers should switch to Italian, as their condition will improve dramatically.


Have you not noticed that the most important manuscripts are written in Latin and not Anglo-Saxon?

Comment from Bede the Scrivener

    15.30, 03/09/2005

Another useful reference on the challenges of inconsistent mongrel languages like English for the dyslexic.


Comment from Andrew Milner

    14.07, 05/09/2005

I first realised I was dyslexic when I showed up at a toga party partly dressed as a goat. Don’t mock the afflicted.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    16.47, 05/09/2005

I certainly don’t think I’ve mocked anybody… 😉

Comment from Lyn

    21.48, 05/09/2005

I do not think Dyslexia is a myth, and thanks for your post. I do however think that many parents who are desperate to gain more help for their child at school will, inevitably, as a last resort try to get a statement of special needs, and who would blame them, after all, if your child is struggling with schoolwork you would want to give them all the help available.

I know from personal experience that dyslexia is not just a reading difficulty, it seems to be a genuine inability to recognise certain letters or words. I also know that the majority of children who are having reading and associated problems DO NOT want to be labelled as Dyslexic.

I think there is too much scientific evidence supporting the condition to just brush it off as a “label” to be used to spare embarassment, utter rubbish.

Comment from Pete Rabjohns

    07.55, 06/09/2005

It’s really easy to make ill-informed headline grabbing statements like this, knowing that you’re putting the truth on the defensive.

These so-called experts will get what they want – fleeting fame and the knowledge that the general public view will now shift to “Dyslexia? oh yeah, I know all about that – it’s a con isn’t it?”, negating the work that the Dyslexia Associations have done over the last 30 odd years trying to raise public awareness of the issue.

Reading difficulty is just one symptom of Dyslexia, and does not affect all Dyslexics. The condition is neurological, and on a general level encompasses difficulties with short-term memory and sequencing of information.

Successful teaching methods for Dyslexics are also best-practice teaching methods for non-dyslexics. If these methods were universally adopted (which is what the dyslexia associations want)they would benefit all students, and reduce the need for dyslexic students to be treated differently.

Have a look at the BDA’s website in particular the Dyslexia-Friendly Schools information pack. They don’t want to be treated differently – they just want teaching methods to be improved so everyone can benefit.

For a national television company to produce a program which is basically saying to 10% of the population “You’re not Dyslexic, you’re just thick” is insulting and irresponsible.

I’d like to think that the program will be balanced and present the other side fairly, but in view of the advance publicity, I think this is hardly likely.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    17.47, 06/09/2005

I’d just like to reiterate that I don’t agree with the ‘experts’, and I don’t think dyslexia is a myth. I simply think it’s overdiagnosed, as there are clear practical and financial incentives for diagnosis. I don’t claim to have any idea of the extent of the problem – perhaps the vast, vast majority of those diagnosed are indeed dyslexic, perhaps the problem is more widespread. I don’t know.

As much as I agree with Pete that a TV programme saying “You’re not dyslexic, you’re just thick” is indeed insulting, irrepsonsible, and generally unhelpful, if dyslexia is indeed being overdiagnosed, then many children are being told by a seemingly authoritative source that “You don’t have learning difficulties, it’s dyslexia”, which is even less helpful, as these children may well be better off with different kinds of help.

As far as I can see, the overdiagnosis is an area which needs further investigation – but I think it’s quite clear that dyslexia as a condition does, indeed, exist.

Comment from Margaret

    23.13, 08/09/2005

My son of 21 was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 6 by a paediatrician and after that educational phsychologists, Interestingly enough the theory with regard to hearing sounds at an early age could be a factor (but the program did not give thought to hearing deficits) He had severe glue ear up to the age of 4, his hearing was severely impaired at that time and so he will have missed a lot of vital learning “sounds” during that period. His elder sisters are both bright and of fairly high IQ, there is no family history of the problem, moreover he was given no less attention by both his father and I, in fact when we realised he was not retaining visual information or learning to recognise letters he was given considerable more attention. The programme seemed to suggest a lot of problems were due to bad parenting.
Some of his education was carried out in a”remedial” class which included other children with any type/kind of learning difficulty or disability however severe,as a result he hated every minute that he was at school, his needs were not met and he was embarrassed and distressed by his “word blindness”, this was a bright young boy who could carry out many mature tasks, would help mend household items and the car! He was articulate, was popular and was friends with other children who were high achievers, but he was then sent off for other lessons in this remedial setting which was to him a nightmare. (he did have an educational statement-the only way to get any help at all)
In senior school although he was given two hours a week tuition but was forced to miss vital other activities to fit this in.
He also suffers from the other symptoms of dyslexia ie Organisation and certain difficulties with memory.
In spite of the short fallings of the education system he has turned out to be a wonderful young man. However as a result of being dyslexic he suffered terribly in school,I believe that he will carry the mental scars all his life, and I feel that a properly diagnosed dyslexic should be given the proper specific teaching he/she deserves in order to enable them to learn to live with the condition and to work around it. I fear that the new moves and this programme shown this evening will just marginalise people who really suffer from dyslexia even more than they already are. You might not believe marginalised is the correct description-then all I can say is that others have not walked in his shoes.One has to experience the problems to really appreciate what dyslexia is. May I just mention he was given an extended period of lessons at the dylexia institute after leaving school arranged by his technical college and he made more progress with thisone to one teaching than at any other time during his education. The proof is in the pudding.
Dyslexia is not an excuse for an inability to read,it is a phyical ailment, one would not tell a chap with one leg to walk,or even suggest that without help he could walk,not at all, you would give him a false leg and teach him how to use it, he could then walk. A dylexic deserves no less consideration, please people wake up! what people with dyslexia need is the correct teaching from experienced and qualified teachers in order for them to reach their full potential.

Comment from Anonymous

    07.16, 09/09/2005

Last night’s Dispatches programme on The Myth of Dyslexia was very interesting. What was more interesting was the Dyslexia Institute agreeing totally with all of the research showing that ALL poor readers are the same and that the evidence is now overwhelming that actually there is no “special” condition that we now call Dyslexia.

I applaude the Dyslexia Institute for moving with the times and research and making this announcement. All too often such associations/institutes cling on in order to survive. The Dyslexia Institute now pledge to help ALL poor readers using techniques such as the Cumbrian Intervention Programme, which is one of the DFES recommended Wave 3 Interventions for ALL poor readers. All schools have to roll out Wave 3 this year (05/06) for both literacy and mathematics.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    19.18, 09/09/2005

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch the programme in the end. It’s really quite unfortunate that I can’t follow through on one of the most-discussed pieces recently put on the site, but I guess that’s just life.

Comment from Margaret

    20.53, 09/09/2005

I think it is a shame that you didn’t see the programme too.
My final comment on this is to tell you that I once believed that dyslexia was a label given by parents to make them feel better about their offsprings inability to read, my chickens truly came home to roost in later years when I found that my child was unable to get anywhere learning to read in spite of all our efforts and we knew he was a bright child otherwise. I feel utterly ashamed of my judgemental attitude I held in those days. I have absolutely no doubt that the condition exists although I do agree that the condition is probably not always diagnosed by qualified persons and therefore over used. However I beg people not to believe everything now being bandied about, the condition is very real, it is extremely debilitating, it causes excrutiating mental pain and anxiety to what are otherwise bright normal healthy children, (at 7yrs old my son was actually punished by one elderly teacher who said he was lazy). I was often called to school to pick my boy up suffering from tummy ache brought on by stress.
Again I implore the education authorities to teach the properly diagnosed children, not just by using classroom assistants as shown last night but by qualified, experienced teachers who have had much education and specific training, again in this area. By the way, contrary to the programmes suggestions it is my families experience with our son that the condition is not “cured” in every case, but because many dyslexics are of otherwise high ability they can learn to take a paragraph as a whole and to glean sufficient information from words they can read enough to ‘get by’and they develop means of managing their difficulties, often their peers are not even able to detect the problem unless they have actually seen their handwriting!

Comment from Chris Tregenza

    09.10, 13/09/2005

It is a shame the programme took such a dreadful approach to the topic, delibratly causing contraversy which obscured one of its central messages: Dyslexia is not related to IQ or other abilities. Any child who struggles to read is dyslexic. This very important point which should have a huge impact on our approach to primary education, but it was obscured by the way the program was presented.
The program’s other conclusions, that dyslexia is purely an audiotory problem and that teaching children to read is all you need to do were both wrong. Audiotory issues play a big part in the dyslexia but visual problems and problems with short-term memory are common in dyslexics as well. There are also plenty of dyslexics who can read but can’t do basic things like tell left from right. Learning to read is a vital skill in life but just because a child can learn doesn’t mean they have no other problems.

The is a partial transcript of the program and I have got a response to the dyslexia myth on my blog Myomancy which covers dyslexia, ADHD and autism.

Comment from Victoria

    23.27, 21/10/2005

That programme was based on extremely shaky research. An A-Level psychology student could debunk it easily. In fact, that is exactly what my class proceeded to do. The participant numbers were too small for the results to be generalised, Dr Elliot completely ignored the many MRI scans that show dyslexic brains have abnormally developed language-processing areas, the researchers treated dyslexia as a reading disability alone when it actually affects a great deal more…the list goes on.

It is important to remember that dyslexia is not like the flu, so it is impossible to reach a consensus on what it actually is. The symptoms may vary from person to person, as each sufferer will develop his or her own coping strategies – often without realising what they’re doing. As part of my autistic spectrum disorder, I have great difficulty recognising faces, so I have trained myself to memorise people’s names by focusing on the kinds of clothes they wear. If anyone says to me, “Who is that?” and I correctly reply, “That’s Margaret,” does that mean we no longer have a consensus on propagnosia (face blindness) just because some sufferers appear to have circumvented it? The underlying causes of dyslexia’s most pronounced traits – poor reading and spelling – lie with weak short-term memory, weak motor memory (required for good spelling), possible auditory processing difficulties, laterality problems (which cause physical disorientation), poor concentration, and poor organisational skills. Non-dyslexic people who just happen to be bad readers will not display such a complex cocktail of other difficulties.

Let’s not forget the furore that erupted when David Mulhall, Jacqueline Stordy, and the DDAT Centre all ‘proved’ that they had a cure for the likes of dyslexia and dyspraxia. Their methods generate good results and are backed up by scientific research. But these ‘cures’ are all staggeringly disparate. And now Dr Elliot has come along with another of theory du jour. Sigh. Only one thing has not changed, and that is the concrete reality of dyslexia.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    00.26, 22/10/2005

It’s incredibly encouraging to see the quantity and quality of debate that this post has caused, as it really shows that there are people out there with the intelligence to think for themselves, and not just accept the half-truths programmes like this spoon-feed to the public. It’s also highlighted for me personally the vast differences in opinions between different people regarding dyslexia: Taking the previous two comments, for example, compare

Any child who struggles to read is dyslexic. This very important point which should have a huge impact on our approach to primary education


The underlying causes of dyslexia’s most pronounced traits – poor reading and spelling – lie with weak short-term memory, weak motor memory (required for good spelling), possible auditory processing difficulties, laterality problems (which cause physical disorientation), poor concentration, and poor organisational skills. Non-dyslexic people who just happen to be bad readers will not display such a complex cocktail of other difficulties.

Of course, in the broadest possible terms, ‘dyslexia’ undoubtedly means ‘difficulty with words’. But I think there’s confusion here between dyslexia as a linguistic term, and dyslexia as a medical syndrome. The BDA claim that

It is a difference in the brain area that deals with language. It affects the under-lying skills that are needed for learning to read, write and spell. Brain imaging techniques show that dyslexic people process information differently.

Without any shadow of a doubt, not all people currently labelled as ‘dyslexic’ will have a physiological difference in the language centre of their brain compared with the rest of the population. I say that with near certainty, and so my medicalised mind says that dyslexia must be over-diagnosed. But, of course, other people would claim that dyslexia can exist without these physiological changes.

The problem as I now see it is that there is a lack of a clear definition of dyslexia, and as with any problem, until the pathology is known, it’s very tricky to accurately diagnose. In this case, as in others, over-diagnosis is undoubtedly incentivised, and that in turn disincentivises further research into the field, and hence no real progress is made. This leaves those who genuinely have dyslexia as a medical syndrome worse off, and also leaves others with unnecessary medical labels.

Removal of the incentives for over-diagnosis would by no means be a panacea for true dyslexics, but it would be a relatively simple step forward to take through reform of statementing and special needs provisions. But nobody wants to be the parent of the child that’s just ‘slow’ – everybody craves labels as excuses, and so, for the time being at least, nothing will change.

Comment from Benjamin

    15.05, 01/01/2013

i have no reading pelmorbs before or even now. the only thing is, I find it so hard to comprehend in reading complicated matters (like reading deep books, subjects math) i also often got this short term memory loss . like when i wanted to tell something and someone interferes, then in a second i forget what i am suppose to say. it’s like my idea is fading away and I can’t control it to stop. then it’s all gone and i can’t remember anything .. am i sick or am i just dumb and stupid?? PLS HELP!

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