Is dyslexia a myth?

Imagine how sad, confused and worried you would feel if your child was diagnosed with dyslexia. How would you go about finding the best possible help? You might start to see your child in a different light, and consciously or subconsciously, perhaps even lower your expectations for their future literacy.

But should this happen or have happened to you, it is only sensible to take a good look at exactly what is meant by dyslexia, why it is a relatively recent term and what helps children to overcome this condition.

The birth of the term ‘dyslexia

It is generally accepted that there is a group of children who have persistent literacy difficulties despite apparently appropriate learning opportunities.

The use of the term ‘dyslexia’ in officially describing this group is relatively recent, however, and many authors and educationalists continue to have reservations about its use as a one-size-fits-all description.

The phrase ‘specific learning difficulty’ was frequently used in official descriptions of this group of children up until the 90s. Government documents appeared to begin giving official endorsement of the term ‘dyslexia’ around this time. Even so, these documents continued to reflect some reluctance to accept the concept of dyslexia as distinct from other difficulties, and they continued to refer to ‘specific learning difficulties’, with dyslexia being cited as just one example.

Milestones in research

Dyslexia was always considered to be some sort of deficit up until the early 80s, with research centering around various cognitive and neurological weaknesses. However, an alternative view then began to emerge, likely sparked by Howard Gardner’s work in 1983 on his theory of multiple intelligences. He proposed that intelligence is expressed in several different ways, linguistic ability being only one of them. Practically speaking, this would indicate that traditional pen and paper approaches are likely to be less effective in teaching those children who express their intelligence differently. Gardner’s theory appeared to spark a significant shift away from the deficit thinking about dyslexia, suggesting instead that dyslexia might be a difference rather than a deficit.

Galaburda’s work with adults in 1989 supported Gardner’s theory. While performing autopsies, he noticed that the right hemisphere of the brain often seemed to be larger than the left hemisphere in people who had been diagnosed with dyslexia. The right hemisphere is said to be concerned more with creativity and visual processing, and Galaburda concluded that dyslexic people were likely to be more creative and to use a more visual approach to learning. His view was that perhaps dyslexia was a normal variation of the development of the brain and not a disorder.

Later, in 1996, another view of dyslexia emerged from Solity. Rather than entering the debate on whether dyslexia was a deficit or a difference, Solity took the view that children with literacy difficulties had likely been deprived of appropriate early learning experiences and that the origins of their difficulties were more likely to be found in the children’s environment than in the children themselves.  He believed that a disadvantaged social environment and poor early language experiences resulted in literacy difficulties, and that these difficulties could be overcome with appropriate learning experiences.

In 1996, Kavale and Forness studied 152 students with literacy difficulties, and found that 75 per cent of them had poor social skills. This appeared to support Solity’s view to some degree.

Do dyslexics have problems that are different from those suffered by other poor readers?

Solity’s work reminds us that whatever the origins of dyslexia, or indeed whether dyslexia is a difference or a deficit, children with learning difficulties still require expert teaching.

David Mills of The Telegraph writes:

So do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers? Numerous symptoms have been put forward to justify the hypothesis but it has never been proven. So, there is no scientific evidence that the syndrome exists. And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems, either – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it doesn’t refer to any condition which has been scientifically established.

Although dyslexia is commonly accepted today as an official category of specific learning difficulty, there is continuing debate among some educationalists over whether any kind of label is necessary or advisable to describe this category of children. Labelling has the potential to be counter-productive, for example, by implying that everyone has the same problem and therefore the same needs. It can even at times become an excuse, and as such, limit expectations of progress year after year.

Having worked with many children who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, I find that there is no difference between them and other children who just haven’t learned to read yet or have other literacy difficulties. I agree with both Gardner’s and Solity’s views. Children are individuals who have different needs, and those I have worked with all appear to have had either poor early speaking and listening experiences or one-size-fits-all learning experiences that didn’t suit them…or both.

Poor early language experiences are very common, and becoming more so. Recent research shows, for example, that only about 20% of families regularly sit down and converse over dinner. I have seen an increasing number of children starting kindergarten without the ability to speak in sentences or listen to other people. Many early childhood teachers worldwide would concur.

I’ve found children improve quickly, even drastically, when best practice teaching strategies are employed. Best practice teachers are attuned to recognise and acknowledge individual differences and cater for individual needs. They know through experience that every child is capable of learning. In my work, I share with you the strategies I have found to be the most effective in helping children with literacy complexities.



Is dyslexia a myth? — 2 Comments

  1. Kerr offers other important reasons to avoid the ‘dyslexia’ label: ‘Firstly, much thinking about dyslexia is almost wilfully sloppy and sloppy science never did anyone any good, very particularly the subjects of it… Many diagnoses stand on small, highly controversial and rather subjectively assessed, evidence. And then, people given a diagnosis of a neurological deficit may find such a label at the least disconcerting, at worst devastating… And then, what about those who don’t achieve the label? Are they simply (and publicly) to be designated as stupid? And then, we don’t appear able to see over or around dyslexia; once the diagnosis has been invoked we seek no other explanations for presenting phenomena. Simpler alternative, much more everyday, scientifically duller, less sexy (and much less lucrative) explanations are very much less assiduously sought once a diagnosis of ‘dyslexia’ has been made’ (Kerr.p93) Don’t expect a ‘Dyslexia Friendly’ school to provide anything more than various accommodations (adjustments to the learning environment), coping strategies (Rose 2009 p22), technological workarounds or curriculum modifications (Rose 2009. p187), with the aim of circumventing children’s reading and spelling difficulties rather than fixing them. If the school does provide remedial reading tuition , parents should ask for details so they can check the CONTENT (see What Not to do ) and the TIME FRAME of the remedial programme for themselves, carefully: 18-35 hours one-to-one, with equal parent/TA back-up, is usually all that is necessary.

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