The Dyslexia Debate

Professor Joe Elliott of Durham University in the UK is one of the authors of a soon-to-be-published book arguing that the diagnosis "dyslexia" is poorly-defined and not useful.

Pre-publicity for this book says that he and co-author Elena Grigorenko examine how reading difficulties are conceptualised and tackled, and discuss the latest research in cognitive science, genetics and neuroscience.

They argue that the interpretation of the term "dyslexia" often does a disservice to children, and that resources and effort currently put into diagnosing dyslexia would be much better put into improving early teaching, and making sure that all strugglers get the extra help they need.

This makes a lot of sense if you're thinking at a population level about how to improve all children's literacy skills in future. But what about current learners who have already tried to learn to read, and failed?

Who gets a dyslexia diagnosis?

Sometimes it seems like the main thing children diagnosed with dyslexia have that other strugglers don't have is articulate, determined, capable, middle-class parents.

These parents keep searching for the reason their children are failing to thrive, and a program that will help them, long enough for someone to say the D-word.

This has the immediate positive effect of making the problem seem medical and serious. Once you have a diagnosis, there's no more "wait and see". Action is required.

Once you type the D-word into a search engine, you find plenty of good programs that will help (as well as a few snake oil vendors, but most capable middle-class parents can soon spot them).

However, a dyslexia diagnosis has the negative effect of firmly locating the problem within the child, and thus absolving the educational system of its contribution.

Reducing the failure rate

The main educational contribution is our universities' and Education departments' failure to train and equip teachers to teach 95-97% of children to read in their first year of school, not just 80-85% of them.

Teachers repeatedly tell me they learnt very little about our language's sounds and complex spelling system at university, and nothing at all about Synthetic Phonics. This is consistent with the findings of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading.

Children who still can't read after a year of trying are usually either very down-in-the-mouth or highly stressed little people.

Having such unhappy and unsettled little people in one's classroom day after day, and trying but being unable to help them, is very bad for teachers' job satisfaction.

Teachers' smiles are a mile wide when these kids get the right sort of help, and start to catch up. The ones I know bail me up in the hallway or staffroom with the news that Chloe just read a Level 26 book, Mohammed got 10/10 for his spelling test or Jayden was so stuck in his book that he was still sitting in the classroom reading five minutes after everyone else had gone out to play (names have been changed to protect the ratbags).

They want to know how to provide this sort of help in the classroom too, and it's time they were trained and equipped to provide it.

Who doesn't get a dyslexia diagnosis?

Meanwhile, the children of less well-resourced, articulate parents tend not to be dragged off to Psychologists, Speech Pathologists, Special Educators and others for assessment and intervention, or given tutoring outside school.

Their families often can't afford it, might have language and/or literacy difficulties themselves, or may not speak much English, for starters.

Inside the school system, if they're unlucky, these children can be sentenced to years endlessly and pointlessly studying the 100 most frequent words list, till their self-esteem and willingness to keep trying deteriorates, and often so does their behaviour.

Many end up in the Principal's office, labelled with behaviour problems, and set on a path that leads to the juvenile justice system.

For these kids, having the middle-class kids diagnosed with "dyslexia" is actually a negative, because it helps schools maintain the view that most reading problems are due to child factors, not teaching factors.

This in turn prevents the critical analysis of how the teaching system – teaching literacy in big, indigestible lumps rather than in a fine-grained, digestible form – has helped cause these kids' misery.

One day, early years teachers will teach in a way that prevents most reading failure, and the 3-5% who have persistent problems won't need a dyslexia diagnosis. Schools will routinely target their difficulties as soon as they appear, first in small groups, and then if problems persist, individually.

In the meantime middle-class parents will probably keep seeking dyslexia diagnoses, and some professionals will keep providing them, as a way of having reading and spelling problems taken more seriously, and locating effective programs.

Who can blame them? Not being able to read or spell is a serious, serious problem, whether it's called dyslexia or not.

Anyway, here's Professor Elliott talking about his perspective on YouTube:

The book won't be available till next month, but if you want to pre-order one now, click here, then type "the dyslexia debate" into the search field. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy.

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