The war of words over dyslexia: now it's a blessing, not a curse
A charity claims dyslexic people have special skills but an academic says the term means nothing. Meanwhile, children are struggling to read
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education-a ... not-curse/
This week, a small charity made a big splash. Made By Dyslexia is an organisation supported by a host of successful celebrity dyslexics including entrepreneur Richard Branson and thespians Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Its mission? To portray dyslexia as a blessing rather than a disability.
The charity's founder, Kate Griggs, says that 'creativity, imagination and intuition' are 'skills that come naturally to dyslexics'. While Branson has declared that dyslexia has been 'a positive force in my life' and even that the condition gave him a 'dyslexic advantage' that lies behind his business success.
The charity has now released a glossy report from management consultants Ernst and Young. It claims that the specific skills of the 'dyslexic brain' will flourish as computers take over more routine jobs.
On its website, the charity defines dyslexia as a difference in 'wiring' which has many benefits. 'Dyslexic minds see the world differently,' it states. 'They think creatively, creatively, laterally, often solving problems others can't. They have the skills of the future.'
It's a powerful message that is likely to be comforting both to struggling children and their worried parents.
However, it makes Professor Julian Elliott snort in derision. 'It's unscientific nonsense,' he says. 'A myth.' Elliot is Professor and Principal of Collingwood College at Durham University. He is a former teacher in both mainstream and special schools, was previously an educational psychologist and is one of the most outspoken academics working in the field of dyslexia.
He states, firmly, 'There is no serious evidence in the scientific literature of any special creative or entrepreneurial gifts whatsoever that can be specifically linked to reading difficulties. That's not to say that dyslexia is a sign of stupidity or laziness either'.
'The idea that a condition called dyslexia can be shown by a mismatch between intelligence and reading ability on the part of an individual was debunked years ago,' he adds. 'Reading difficulties affect people right across the spectrum of intelligence. Some very intelligent people will struggle, while some children with learning disabilities will be able to read perfectly well.’
He says that when people with reading difficulties are successful, this will be despite their difficulties, rather than as a result of it. 'It’s natural that some highly motivated, highly skilled or creative people might focus on the things they are good at instead,’ he says. ‘This means they might become actors or business people rather than say, historians, librarians or archivists.'
Debbie Hepplewhite, a former headteacher and leading literacy specialist, agrees. 'All children are different. All children have their own gifts, including dyslexic children,' she says. 'But it is never a gift to be unable to read well.'
What does science say about the matter? In 2004, a review from The National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy poured cold water on the idea that dyslexics have unique gifts. It concluded, 'The belief that 'difficulty in learning to read is…. often accompanied by great talents' may seem attractive. However, systematic investigation has found little if any support for it.' In 2014, a study of reading and creativity by researchers in Chile reported: 'these findings do not support the hypothesis that specific reading disability is associated with better performance on creative tasks.' And a study at the University of Edinburgh investigating the idea of the dyslexic brain found that 'Higher reading scores' rather than lower, 'were associated with higher scores on creativity measures.'
Reading difficulties also, sadly, do not seem to generally correlate with success. According to the National Literacy Trust, 60 per cent of the prison population has problems with basic literacy skills. A quarter of young offenders have reading skills below those of the average seven-year-old and of those children excluded from school, 70 per cent struggle to read and write.
Diagnosis and prevalence
So, if dyslexia isn't a gift, what is it – and what should we do about it?
The NHS describes dyslexia as 'a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling'. That may seem an uncontroversial description, but dyslexia is a deeply controversial subject.
By law, publicly funded schools and local authorities must try to identify and help assess children suspected of having dyslexia. But according to the British Dyslexia Association, 80% of dyslexic children go undiagnosed.
So, you might be surprised to know that there are no agreed diagnostic criteria for the condition and no accurate figures on what proportion of people are dyslexic. What's more, many of the ideas previously thought to help the condition – such as coloured overlays – have been debunked. You also might not realise that some campaigners say that you can be dyslexic even if you can read and write fluently. Or that others reject the term altogether.
Last month, Professor Elliott produced a paper for the journal Reading Research Quarterly entitled It's Time to Be Scientific About Dyslexia. He argues that it’s both unscientific and unfair to divide poor readers into two categories – dyslexic and non-dyslexic. He prefers the term ‘reading disability’ and instead of seeking to diagnose ever more children, he suggests we ditch the label and simply offer extra help all children who are struggling to read. This might sound like common sense, but it is extremely controversial.
It is an accepted fact that some people will find it harder than others to learn to read. 'Reading ability is an inherited trait', says Elliott. ‘Problems with reading often run across generations.' But he points out that there is no agreed definition of exactly when those difficulties tip over into a condition that we can label 'dyslexia'. This is why estimates of prevalence range from 4 per cent to over 20 per cent.
Should we, he asks, administer tests to all children and label those in the bottom 5 per cent, 10 per cent or even 20 per cent of reading ability as dyslexic? Or should we, as other experts suggest, only count children as truly dyslexic after they've had the best possible teaching yet still struggle? Elliott says that more testing will only tell teachers what they already know – that a child has trouble reading – while the wait-to-fail approach could delay a child getting vital help.
Some dyslexia campaigners insist that dyslexia is not just a problem with reading and writing, but a 'neurodiverse' condition. They cite a host of symptoms or signs of dyslexia unconnected to reading or writing. These range from disorganisation and being socially awkward to being a ‘good orator’ or 'thinking outside the box'. Some even claim that people can be dyslexic even if they have no difficulties in reading or writing. Apple boss Steve Jobs and crime queen Agatha Christie are both widely cited as dyslexics, despite being early and avid readers.
These latter definitions are rejected by Elliott as not just unscientific, but socially divisive. 'What criteria would you use to make the diagnosis?' he says. 'And which poor readers would you exclude by it? You can't check a seven-year-old child for entrepreneurial skills. And it's almost impossible to test for creativity.' More importantly, he says, children who don't read well yet have no 'dyslexic gifts' deserve and need precisely the same help to learn to read.
One compelling argument for the value of a dyslexia diagnosis is that the label reassures a child that their difficulties are not their fault.
Multiple studies have found that feelings of failure associated with dyslexia can lead to low self-esteem, depression and even suicidal tendencies.
However, says Elliott, the self-esteem gained from a diagnosis may come at a cost to 'the much higher proportion of struggling readers who are not so labelled. Are these students any more to blame for their difficulties? Are they more likely to be stupid or lazy?' he says.
How can we help?
With so much disagreement about dyslexia, is it possible to reach a consensus about what we need to do help children read? Perhaps. Elliott and dyslexia organisations agree on the vital importance of spotting struggling readers early.
'The solution is to identify every child with reading problems by the age four at least,' says Elliott. 'Don't worry about a diagnosis. If teachers then see that children are not catching on despite skilled teaching, then those children need to be given extra support. Getting in early is key. If you don't intervene before seven or eight, it's much harder to do anything about it.'
Elliott and most dyslexia organisations also agree on the importance of teaching children using a system – phonics - which carefully teaches children the sounds associated with each letter and how to blend them together to read words. Elliott warns, 'Children with a reading disability can't pick it up as they go along. They need explicit teaching.' They also agree that some people may find reading and writing so difficult, they may eventually need assistive technology such as text-to-speech software.
Debbie Hepplewhite has created two Department of Education-approved phonics-based schemes for schools and offers courses on how to teach reading at phonicsinternational.com. She says that by teaching phonics properly, ‘around a thousand schools in the UK, even in deprived areas, consistently manage to get all or almost all of their children reading.’ Some parents, she says, believe that a diagnosis can unlock dyslexia-specific methods of teaching or treatments that aren't available in schools. But, she says, 'there is no magic 'something else'. Children who struggle need the same teaching as every other child. But they may need more of it, little and often, in small groups. And they need it as soon as possible.'