The Dyslexia Myth -
in response to an article on the Guardian which can be viewed here:
Firstly let me declare my background and interests. I have worked in the ‘Dyslexia Industry’ for 15 years. I have advised businesses, military and educational establishments on their Dyslexia policy and have coached many adults and children. I was ‘diagnosed’ with severe Dyslexia aged 12 and struggled at school in many areas despite both state and private education. I have very few GCSE’s and next to no A-levels, but stumbled on to find my feet at university. I now run 4 businesses and work with trainers, teachers and educational psychologists.
Like many misunderstandings, the debate is fogged by semantics. The word Dyslexia comes from two Greek words: dys, which means impaired, and lexis, which refers to language or words. Simply put, Dyslexia simply means ‘a difficulty with words‘
I would like to suggest the thinking error is to continue to use this term in Greek. The debate becomes incredibly transparent when you simply swap the term Dyslexia with ‘a difficulty with words’. Using the Greek term changes what is a description of the symptoms or observations into a bizarre monolithic concept where students, educators and professionals view (or unknowingly suggest to the public) that having ‘a difficulty with words’ is something you either have or don’t have, despite attempts to portray it as ‘a spectrum’ or ‘an umbrella term’.
It’s like describing blind, short sighted, long sighted and people with cataracts as suffering from Dysaspectia or ‘a difficulty with looking’.
The term Dyslexia has been of great benefit as a transitional concept (but then again, so was a flat earth). It forced us to reconsider when judging a child stupid or lazy when they struggled to acquire basic literacy skills even though they may have a good command of language verbally or demonstrate surprising capacity in other areas.
Educational psychologists until recently were employed to diagnose Dyslexia with concluding statements such as - ‘I can confirm xxx has dyslexia’, roughly translated as ‘I can confirm xxx has a difficulty with words’. If you read educational and occupational psychologist’s reports now, they all conclude with statements like ‘I can confirm that xxx displays Dyslexic type tendencies’ roughly translated as ‘I can confirm xxx displays a tendency to have a difficulty with words’. This is ridiculous. Psychologists have abandoned diagnosis because there is no evidence it can be diagnosed. At best, many tests classify adults and children as ‘at risk’ (of having dyslexic tendencies) or just measure disparities between various observed abilities.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) still maintains "The tests reflect the theoretical stance of the authors. Independent validation by other researchers is not yet available."
In reality, Psychologists are trying to diagnose a weather system of environmental, social, neurological and chronological factors that the term ‘Dyslexia’ binds into a big ball of string. Good educational and occupational psychologists are now at the heart of this revolution in unpicking the string but I predict that the Dyslexia machine (including establishments with Dyslexia and Dyslexic in their title) will take another decade or two to let go of their beliefs and self-interests.
The weather system
There are many reasons why someone might develop a difficulty with words. To name but a few:
- Visual Impairments such as scotopic sensitivity, visual stress and eye tracking abnormalities. These issues are physical, diagnosable and often treatable; they are not cognitive learning difficulties. Unfortunately until recently, opticians have been reluctant to support or understand such conditions, leading to a wild west of non-medically trained, unregulated testers such as those trained by irlen. The UK is still years behind some European countries and the USA, but Opticians such as www.orrissandlow.co.uk are leading the way.
- A Specific Learning Difference that requires a more thorough or logical/tactile/visual or deeper teaching method. Some learners may have a weakness in successive processing (doing things in an order or learning things that rely on linear processes); but may excel at simultaneous processing (doing things concurrently). Many of these learners may need to understand why before it sticks, could be better at divergent or creative activities, see many answers to a problems or struggle to grasp concepts that are fragmented or removed from their context. 'Big picture thinkers' certainly fall into this category. This is a common reason that children and adults are falsely labeled with a learning difficulty such as Dyslexia. A learning difference only becomes a difficulty if it is not met with rich and experiential learning and teaching methods or where learning takes place naturally whilst learning on the job and trial and error. To tell people who learn differently to the average person that they have a learning difficulty is quite frankly, absurd. Only recently are educational psychologists using tests that take this into account. Tests such as the Cognitive Assessment System (CAS), are designed to look for this and are far more proactive and solution focused if used instead of, or to compliment the components of ability/IQ tests. This broad category may explain why so many successful entrepreneurs have been diagnosed with ‘a learning difficulty’ when measured against activities that do not align to their particular strengths and abilities. It also may explain the vast amounts of ‘Dyslexics’ or ‘people who have a difficulty with words’, that write books, articles, publish papers and are generally incredibly good with words.
- Hearing impairments such as Otitis media may impede differentiation of certain sounds, especially in the early years. Although the impairment may have been cleared up many years ago, key building blocks of literacy may have been missed.
- Behavioral / Social / Emotional issues that lead to lack of engagement / learning resilience / attention issues. Big Topic!
- Away/Toward. Most people I have met over the years don’t read because they can’t read and can’t read because they don’t read and they don’t read because they can’t read.... This circular reasoning turns tiny disadvantages into fundamental skills shortages when left unchecked. We all have strengths in different areas and the paradigm of standardised testing has in effect created the concept of behind and ahead.
- Coordination impairments such Dyspraxia or issues with inner ear balance, can affect handwriting, eye tracking and other things that can affect the acquisition of reading and writing.
- Auditory Processing Disorder. Auditory processing disorder (APD), also known as central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). Children with APD find it difficult to process the information they hear in the same way as others because their ears and brain don't fully coordinate. Something adversely affects the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, most notably the sounds composing speech. Children with APD often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words, even when the sounds are loud and clear enough to be heard. These kinds of problems usually occur in background noise, which is a natural listening environment. Children with APD have difficulty of understanding any speech signal presented under less than optimal conditions.
The Dyslexia Industry and 'The Gift of Dyslexia'
Since the term Dyslexia has been used, a massive industry driven by very well meaning people has sprung into action. They campaign for fairer treatment and understanding of Dyslexics and promote mixed messages that often maintain that people with learning difficulties such as Dyslexia are somehow gifted or special in someway. They are not. I am not. Adults with a specific learning difference become Dyslexic because language was not taught in way that suited the way they acquire new information. This does not add up to having a ‘specific learning difficulty’ or ‘having the gift of Dyslexia’ - an oxymoron if ever I heard one. In many cases, the ‘difficulty’ is simply a reflection of the gap between the explanatory and the learning method. Change one or both, but do not initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy by telling them they have a learning difficulty. Maybe you have a dysexplicare? (a difficulty explaining things)
The medicalisation of neuro-diversity
When we find an anomaly, the human condition drives us to find out what is ‘wrong’. We assume there is a ‘right’. The head of engineering at my local university is well known for his incredible understanding of fluid dynamics - one of the most complex topics in maths, yet I caught him trying to scratch bird-poo from his new car with a Stanley knife. People with strengths, often have weaknesses. Of the thousands of artisan stone carvers that contributed towards St Paul’s cathedral, I’m sure many of them would have come out as Dyslexic in modern assessments as either ‘at risk’ or ‘displaying dyslexic type tendencies’ or 'having learning difficulties'.
It is far easier to label the child or adult than to unwrap the ball of string. Many parents, teachers and psychologists are also suspicious of the vocabulary we use to understand what's going on, but they have made a Faustian pact, pointing out that without the label they will not be able to draw extra resource or funding to help with the problem. Dyslexics covet their label as a shield to defend themselves against criticism or to moderate expectation, more deluded types actively promote their Dyslexia as something that marks them out from the crowd. I came across a Dyslexic recruitment agency once that told companies that they should hire a Dyslexic for their unique problem solving capacities.
So are Dyslexics just lazy then? What we can say is some children who have a difficulty with words are unmotivated, and for many different reasons; the question is why? Some became unmotivated since efforts to understand literacy repeatedly drew blanks and some retained their motivation regardless; that is the complexity of human nature.
Dyslexia as an identity is better than being termed an idiot or ‘academically stunted’ (as I read in a psychologist’s report only last week), but it excuses the real reasons which maybe diverse, but in many cases lie with the teaching method and/or lack or resources at key stages in their education. When I did my initial training in Dyslexia at the London Language & Literacy unit at Southbank University, I was asked to confirm that I was not a Dyslexic. When I asked why this was, I was told "you can't have the blind leading the blind can you..?"
Extra time and a laptop
It is far easier, cheaper/more lucrative to conduct an assessment, generate generic recommendations, issue a laptop and request extra time than it is to sit down and ascertain and work through the barriers to learning or to assign the appropriate resources to an individual. Extra time to not understand the question, struggle to plan your answer or trip over your spellings is not the answer; grappling specifically with their barriers, is.
The biggest casualties of the Dyslexia myth are those who are struggling to learn, who are not given a label. We believe learners should be helped regardless of a pseudo-scientific diagnosis. In higher education and the workplace, the Dyslexia industry promotes generic “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” methods which are both over simplistic and support the deployment of gadgets, technology, overlays and juggling programs that are all deemed as solutions for ‘Dyslexia’ where in fact they may be genuine long term solutions or merely sticking plasters to particular contributors to their difficulty with words. You won't find a shortage of testimonials from adults that have received help from the current system, for them it's a relief that anything has happened at all, a recognition that they are not lazy or stupid; the term Dyslexia is understandably vindication for years of struggling at school and work.
I urge you to re-read the Guardian article (and many of the subsequent comments) and simply swap ‘Dyslexia’ with ‘a difficulty with words’ and see what happens. It will uncover the binary argument, it’s cynics, champions and self-licking lollipops the Dyslexia industry has created in the last 20 years. Recently when discussing my views at a conference, a follow-up email described my take on Dyslexia as ‘akin to holocaust denial’. Binary thinkers in the industry assume if I am suspicious of Dyslexia, I must be reviving the assumption that they must all be thick or lazy.
For many people involved in the Dyslexia world, moving on from the Dyslexia paradigm seems unthinkable as they have spent their whole lives campaigning on its behalf. They are, on the whole, good people who mean well but who are attached to a transitional concept which is now outdated (though many business models rely on it’s existence). A Dyslexia assessment with Dyslexia Action currently costs around £500.
If you would like to quote me to agree or disagree with me, you could start with this..
“Conceiving of a semi-diagnosable condition to re-route resources is not reason enough to allow the child or adult to take on the identity of the symptoms for the rest of their life.”
Even the The British Psychological Society define Dyslexia as “evident when accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops incompletely or with great difficulty, despite appropriate learning opportunities."
I've never met a Dyslexic that knew the difference between a short and a long vowel sound and understands their impact on spelling. It's not that they had difficulty learning this, they were never shown it. The 'appropriate learning opportunities' were never given.
As with ADHD, the quest continues to find the gene, the thing, the switch that can account for a subsection’s non-standard output. The categorisation of those at either end of the bell curve, measurement against peers and the inability for the machine to understand the individual serves only keep people marginalised and achieving despite and not because of their education.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ― Albert Einstein
Dyslexia - prevents us from exhausting appropriate learning opportunities for fish to climb trees, stops fish trying to climb trees, suggests indirectly to fish that climbing trees is more important than other aptitudes, gives fish extra time to climb trees without assistance with tree climbing technique, sells fish tree climbing pills when not required, suggests that not being able to climb a tree is a gift and worse still labels fish as ‘non climbers’ when some were never taught to climb properly in the first place.
Thank you for all your emails. As to be expected, the response has been broadly supportive with some very strong negative reaction from both Dyslexics and Dyslexia teachers and organisations. I appreciate your honesty and passion. It is of course your right to disagree, however I would ask that you comment on specific points that I have made, or provide evidence / arguments to the contrary. Many thanks.
Here, I will build a list of some of the most common questions I am being asked as a result of this article. Please check that your question is not answered here, if not please do get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
Q. Are you against all labels?
A. No, I just don't think labels that can't be clearly defined are unhelpful. For instance, Dyspraxia and Aspergers are very helpful for all parties. I'd like to comment on ADHD, but I'm not qualified to.
Q. If we are to abandon the term Dyslexia, then what language should we use?
A. I would suggest that we should use language or a label that better describes the individuals issue / cause. A single label hides the detail, blocks further inquisition, and contributes to the belief that diagnosis is the cure. As we move away from the transitional concept of Dyslexia we need a debate and further contribution from experts in all the fields listed in the section titled ‘The Weather System’.
Q. I was relieved to find out that I had Dyslexia, are you saying that I don't have it?
A. No, what I'm saying is that the label tells me you have struggled with either reading, writing or learning in some way but it doesn't tell me why specifically and more importantly, may remove responsibility from you, the teaching method, lack of more specific diagnosis or a host of other factors. I do very much understand that the word provides you with much comfort and partial understanding but the bigger picture is much more insidious.
Q. Are you saying that Dyslexia is caused by bad teaching?
A. In some cases but not in all. Again, the label makes this question impossible to answer succinctly.
Q. We are currently getting our child assessed for Dyslexia, without this diagnosis we will not get extra support. What do you suggest we do?
A. Firstly, I am sympathetic with your situation. It does outline however the double bind we are in; the diagnosis will divert resource to your child at the risk of suggesting that he/she has 'a learning difficulty' but in the bigger picture, the people who design, deliver and assign resource to the education machine are left thinking that it is your child's brain that requires remediation, not the machine that developed it. My advice in this situation is to use a educational psychologist that looks all the contributors to the difficulty with words, looks at the processes behind the difficulties using tools such as the CAS and also shows teachers and parents how to move forward to deeper understanding and not avoid the issue with cut and paste recommendations, gimmicks, extra time and excuses. This page is a good resource for people in your position : http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/should_I_have.htm
Q. What about Dyscalulia?
A. My views on Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers) are very similar. Where screening has taken place to prove that only numeracy is affected, reading and writing is fine and visual impairments such as eye tracking abnormalities have been ruled out, the difficulty is relating the symbol to the concept. It's what's happening in their imagination that needs to be tackled, not what's happening on the paper. In these cases, making a distinction between a 'genuine Dyscalculic' and someone else that doesn't understand maths is a grave error for all the same reasons. I was told recently by someone selling an expensive online Dyscalculia assessment to the military that 'the difference with Dyscalculics is that they will struggle to learn numeracy regardless of the teaching method'. This is nonsense and has no scientific evidence that I have ever seen. Although many people vehemently disagree with me, no one has yet found the time to forward me the evidence to the contrary. All of the definitions of Dyscalculia mentioned here : tinyurl.com/dycj3ha simply describe it in terms of their performance in numeracy against children of the same age / intellect. In my experience, 'Certified Dyscalculics' require practice in abstract visualisation, assistance in bringing mathematics into the real world, making it relevant to them and a delicate unpicking of the anxiety that has been attached to previous failures to understand. There is much more to be said for the effect of anxiety in ones ability to learn and the circular reasoning pattern I mentioned earlier in this article.
Q. I think you are splitting hairs, does it really matter what we call it?
A. Firstly, there is no 'it'. This questions demonstrates how far the concept has sunk into out psyche. By giving something that doesn't exist a name, it structures the whole debate. Attempts to provide updated definitions of Dyslexia do not reach the front line and has not stopped children and adults saying things like: 'I have got Dyslexia', 'I am Dyslexic', 'I think I might be Dyslexic', 'I think you should get tested for Dyslexia', ‘I have Dyslexia so I guess one of my children is going to get it’, ‘…no, it’s because she is Dyslexic’, ‘You have Visual Dyslexia’,
- I find this view just makes things more confusing for us teachers! We are not psychologists! All we want to know is what teaching strategies to use with our Dyslexic students.
A. Asking which teaching strategies work for Dyslexic students is like asking which strategies work for people who can’t see very well. If the problem is that he/she has a paper bag on their head, the strategy should be - remove the paper bag; however this is not going to work for people that can’t see, even without a paper bag on their head.