DIY disorders

I recently stumbled upon a website that claimed that 80% of people who can’t read have a problem the website’s authors call “optilexia”, or sight-reading, characterised by:

  • Lots of guessing, particularly of short words,
  • Being able to read a word on one page, but not the next,
  • Transposing one word for another word with the same first letter,
  • Very poor spelling,
  • Poor comprehension,
  • Very weak word attack skills for new words.

If you google “optilexia”, you’ll find 6440 entries, and I guess this post makes that 6441. However, I think the term “optilexia” is very much surplus to requirements.

We already have a medical-sounding word for this common cluster of difficulties: “dyslexia”, and even that term is slightly problematic.

Is optilexia a real Thing?

The definition of dyslexia has always been somewhat contested – basically it is a failure to learn to read despite adequate vision, hearing and intelligence, and having been taught in the same way as everyone else (more on this in a minute).

You can’t take a blood test or have a CAT scan to check whether you have dyslexia, it is diagnosed from your behaviour and by eliminating other possible causes.

This is a very common way to get a medical diagnosis – for example, Autism Spectrum Disorders and most mental illnesses are diagnosed from behaviour.

The ground rules most commonly used in Australia for this sort of diagnosis are set down in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, currently in its fourth edition. DSM-IV includes dyslexia as a diagnosis, and so does the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases.

However, DSM-V comes out in May this year, and although we won’t know precisely what’s in it till then, it seems likely that dyslexia won’t appear as a distinct disorder.

The people who write the DSM don’t just get together one weekend and scribble it on the back of an envelope – there is a long and complicated process involving examination of years of scientific research, a huge number of experts, public consultation etc.

So it’s not really kosher for self-designated experts on the internet to make up new, medical-sounding disorders like “optilexia”.

Sight reading (the key behaviour exhibited by “optilexics”) is taught in schools

Schools routinely teach children in their first years of schooling, including children with poor phonemic awareness, to memorise frequently-used words, and to tackle unfamiliar words by looking at the first letter, looking at the picture and guessing from context.
In many or perhaps most schools, words are not routinely broken down into digestible sounds and spelling patterns for the many children who are unable to do this for themselves.
If schools actively taught children with lactose intolerance to drink lots of milk, then when they got sick, said they had “dyslactia”, there’d be an outcry, and probably lots of litigation.
Given what scientific research has resoundingly shown about how to teach reading and spelling well, I think there are some parallels here.

Let’s label the source of the problem, not its victim

Terms like dyslexia and optilexia feed into the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with a learner, but often the learner’s unhelpful behaviours have been actively taught and conscientiously learnt, while more helpful behaviours and strategies have not been taught.
Sorry for repeating myself on this topic if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, but in West Dunbartonshire in Scotland, they were able to stamp out illiteracy by high school entry, using a combination of fast-and-first synthetic phonics, followed by intensive group work for those not catching on, followed by 1:1 intervention for those still struggling in the later years of primary school (you can read the research report here).
This study supports the view that dyslexia, optilexia, problexia and any other reading problems you care to make up may be either preventable or respond well to quality intervention, and that often the problem lies with the teaching system, not the learner.
It is not OK to know you’re doing something that causes a lot of preventable misery, and not stop doing it.
If we need a medical-sounding word for the problem described by “optilexia”, I think the best one is “dyspedagogia”, applied to the system that fails to equip all literacy teachers to teach all students effectively, in accordance with the proper, scientific research.
No, I didn’t make the term “dyspedagogia” up, and I’m not sure who originally did, but I wish I had. I just googled it and got 586 results. Sadly, not as many as optilexia, but with a concerted effort perhaps we can change that.

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