Last week I went to an information session about the Davis Dyslexia method, held in a local library by someone who has recently set up a centre offering this method in my area.
I came away from it feeling very sad that mainstream schools and professionals are not always meeting the needs of slow progress readers, using methods for which there is scientific evidence.
Understandably, this leaves desperate parents seeking out and coughing up for “alternative” treatments like the Davis Dyslexia method.
Concerns with theory, practice and evidence
The person running the session seemed nice, and clearly she fervently believes in what she is doing, but what she said simply made no sense to me. Her theory about dyslexia was mostly about picture thinking, orientation/disorientation, eye tracking etc. There was nothing about phonemic awareness, letter/spelling knowledge, rapid automatic naming, auditory memory or other areas that we know tend to be core deficits in slow-progress readers.
Her methods seem to me unlikely to help these learners much either – making clay models to represent grammar words like “the” (as per the above picture), throwing a koosh ball, crossing the midline, eye tracking exercises, “exercises designed to take away layers of emotion associated with some letters of the alphabet” and so on. Linguistics pretty much didn’t get a look-in, in fact the presenter said, “this method is the only non-phonics method in Australia”. Well, thank goodness for that.
The session presenter seemed not to understand my question, “Why would parents choose your method which doesn’t have any proper scientific evidence over methods which do?” It’s not really possible to have a discussion about what constitutes proper scientific research in such a forum – with controls for maturation, practice effects, regression to the mean and placebo effects, use of correct statistics, replication etc. But this matters. A lot of poor-quality research gets published.
As often happens, the talk started off with a lot of pictures of brains, reminding me of Professor Dorothy Bishop’s wonderful Emanuel Miller Lecture in which she explains that pictures of brains lead to suspension of critical faculties. If it looks like high-tech neuroscience, we all tend to think it must be true. Of course pictures of brains tell us little or nothing about how to teach literacy skills well.
The session’s presenter told us that dyslexia is a difference not a difficulty, that people with dyslexia are talented 3D picture thinkers, are “actually overly intelligent in many cases”, and have enhanced performance in spatial awareness, reading people, strategic planning, mechanical arts, drama and role play, music and dancing, inventing, designing, manual skills, art, building, athletics, piloting vehicles, engineering, storytelling and architecture. Of course it’s very appealing to parents and struggling learners to hear that their difficulties are actually a sign of brilliance in other areas.
The talk also included lots of anecdotes about people who have successfully used this method, with life-changing results. These came from a couple of audience members as well as the presenter, so as a polite dissenter I was outnumbered. Anyway those attending the session had been let down by the mainstream system, so why would they care what the mainstream system thinks?
Everyone who works in this field can tell you anecdotes of successful intervention. A teacher, an aide and a parent all commented to me today at school that the children I’ve been working with are making good progress on their literacy. So what? The plural of anecdote is not evidence, and if a method is not based on sound evidence and/or evidence-based theoretical frameworks, AND (not or) you can see children are making progress, children shouldn’t be using it, and parents shouldn’t be paying for it.
Unfortunately, we all find it easier to understand narrative and sales pitches than data and evidence. Scientists and clinicians don’t always know how to do the narrative/sales pitch thing, even if they wanted to and could find a way that didn’t compromise their professional integrity. But seeing parents at the session buying into the sales pitch for the Davis dyslexia method made me think that perhaps it’s time to try.