Does dyslexia exist?

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Schools are packed to the gunnels (whatever they are) with students diagnosed with dyslexia. And, of the hundreds of dyslexic students I’ve taught, many have languished helplessly in the doldrums of illiteracy while some seem suddenly to make rapid and remarkable progress. This year, two students who were presented to me as dyslexic have experienced very different trajectories.

One, let’s call him Ben, had spent Years 7 and 8 being taught English in very small groups of students identified as having ‘specific learning difficulties’. In Year 9 such students are put back into mainstream classes with the expectation that the work they’ve done in the previous 2 years will have equipped them to cope. Ben arrived in my class very worried about whether he was going to ‘look thick’ and with a very low estimation of his ability. He’s a quiet, hard-working chap, however, and wants to do well. I spent a fair bit of time working with Ben at the beginning of the year and, frankly, failed to see what the problem was: his reading was a little hesitant and his writing was inaccurate but full of good ideas and definitely showed signs of conscious crafting. One lesson, I was talking to him about his work and suggested some ways he could improve his spelling. The despondency of his response was heartbreaking; “I can’t spell, sir. I’m dyslexic.”

“Ben,” I told him. “That’s nonsense! Of course you can.” We spent some time going over doubling consonants, ‘i before e’ and a few other easy to implement gems and before we knew it, his spelling had improved! We also did some work on various reading strategies like skimming and scanning and, guess what? His reading comprehension showed similar improvements. His confidence has grown massively and he’s now consistently producing C grade work. We’re now talking about what he needs to do to get an A in Year 11. If he carries on the way he has this year, he’s a shoe in.

Then there’s Carrie. She has terrible attendance, her behaviour is awful and she produces little or no work. When I met her parents at parents’ evening, they told me that none of this was Carrie’s fault; she was dyslexic you see. I didn’t see. I pointed out that even though she might find English difficult that was no excuse for not trying. At that point we reached a bit of an impasse.

Things have got a little better because, frankly, I’m not prepared to accept the bare minimum of work that Carrie feels it’s acceptable to produce. Critique protocols have made quite an impact on her; when she knows her work will be displayed publicly and will receive feedback, she shows just what she’s capable of. And it’s not bad. Although she doesn’t work anyway near as hard as Ben, her reading and writing have improved and she’s making what we might describe as ‘steady’ progress. But her attendance is slipping, she’s regularly excluded and there’s been talk of her having a ‘fresh start’. Through it all, her parents maintain that her dyslexia isn’t being catered for. I worry that she may not make it.

But, whether the label is of benefit to children’s sense of self, it certainly gets you on to a school’s radar and often qualifies you for additional funding. This funding would be of benefit to any child who suffered with poor decoding skills. It stands to reason that educated, middle-class parents will have both the cultural capital and the cash to ensure their child receives a dyslexia diagnosis and that children who come form a more deprived background will not. How can it be fair that our system further privileges the privileged?

Professor Julian Elliott, at Durham University, struggles to find a  difference between a child labelled ‘dyslexic’ and a child labelled ‘a poor reader’. In other words, there may not be a special group of kids with a different intelligence who need special intervention to help them overcome their reading problem. Maybe there are simply too many ‘dyslexic ‘children to make the term meaningful: once you get such a high number of kids labelled with a condition such as dyslexia (that’s around 375,000 in the UK), you’ve simply got to question whether there’s any real basis to the label.

But in a world where there seems to be an unquestioning acceptance of dyslexia’s existence this is not a popular view. The problem is caused, in part, by the casual, unthinking way in which we use the term. More often than not it’s used to describe any inexplicable deficit with reading/writing/spelling in an otherwise able student. We pass off the cause as something unknowable and neurological. As such, it’s no one’s fault, and teachers, and students, can shrug and pass the buck.So do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers? All sorts of symptoms have been put forward to justify the hypothesis but it has never been proven. There doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence that the syndrome exists. And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it certainly doesn’t refer to anything which has been scientifically established.

So do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers? All sorts of symptoms have been put forward to justify the hypothesis but it has never been proven. Dyslexia is an emotionally loaded term; life tends to be worse for children who find reading difficult: compared with normal readers, they are more likely to have other problems (clumsiness, hyperactivity and poor short-term memory, for example) and having one such problem makes it more likely you’ll have another. Yet, there is no evidence that these problems actually cause reading difficulties. Maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse. Maybe the reading difficulties cause the problems?

Poor short-term memory is a case in point. It’s the symptom most often quoted as distinguishing dyslexics from other poor readers, and those who have difficulty reading are more likely to suffer from it. Yet, however disabling poor short-term memory may be, evidence suggests it neither causes reading difficulties nor predicts the outcome of intervention. A study conducted by Torgesen in 2006, showed that out of 60 children with severe reading difficulties, only eight had poor short-term memories, while almost as many – seven – had very good short-term memories. And, crucially, the children with poor short-term memories benefited from help with their reading as much as the others.

But is there any compelling evidence for Dyslexia’s existence? And do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers?  Well, it’s worth noting that diagnosing and treating dyslexia is big business, and where this kind of commercial vested interest exists it’s always worth having a careful look at who’s saying what, and why. Perhaps surprisingly there’s almost as many theories on the causes and treatment of dyslexia as there are researchers, and the only constant appears to be the sometimes staggering inconsistencies which abound.

A quick dip into the literature on dyslexia illustrates the muddle:

The construct of learning disabilities has historically been difficult to define. (Fletcher 2003)

… the history of dyslexia is littered with theories that were once widely supported but now lie abandoned on the scrap heap … it is vital that we should continue to treat everything as questionable and to regard nothing as beyond dispute. Certainty is for tele-evangelists, not scientific researchers or teachers. (Ellis et al 1997 pp. 13-14) (their emphasis)

Definitions of dyslexia are notoriously varied and no single definition of dyslexia has succeeded in gaining a scientific acceptance which even approaches unanimity… Each researcher or clinician becomes attached to his or her own definition in a manner which is reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass – ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean.’ Definitions … soon become muddied when the researcher or clinician is confronted with a variety of adult cases exhibiting highly heterogeneous profiles. (Beaton et al 1997 p.2)


The diversity of theories concerning the biological underpinnings of dyslexia is impressive… It is clear there is some way to go before any consensus is reached regarding the biological basis of dyslexia … (ibid. pp. 4 – 5)

Students had individual clusters of the cognitive weaknesses usually associated with dyslexia, alongside clear strengths in some cases…They were also accompanied by widely varying individual configurations of literacy and other difficulties, so much so that the students themselves wondered if they were experiencing the same syndrome. The identification of dyslexia could not by itself predict the individual configurations, and the question of whether or not there was one distinctive syndrome became less important than the issue of learning to describe one’s particular situation to a world largely ignorant of these matters, eg “I am dyslexic and for me this means that I literally cannot write my own name, but I can read quite well and I am now using a word processor.” (Herrington 1995 pp. 6 – 7)

…the research literature provides no support for the notion that we need a scientific concept of dyslexia separate from other, more neutral, theoretical terms such as reading disabled, poor reader, less-skilled, etc. Yes, there is such a thing as dyslexia if by dyslexia we mean poor reading. But if this is what we mean, it appears that the term dyslexia no longer does the conceptual work that we thought it did. Indeed, whatever conceptual work the term is doing appears to be misleading. (Stanovich 1994 p. 588)

Over a decade ago … there was little evidence that poor readers of high and low IQ differed importantly in the primary processing mechanisms that were the cause of their reading failure. A further decade’s worth of empirical work on this issue has still failed to produce such evidence. (Stanovich & Stanovich 1997 p.3)

One of the fascinations of dyslexia for researchers is that, whatever one’s interest in human behaviour and performance, children with dyslexia will obligingly show interesting abnormalities in precisely that behaviour. (Nicolson & Fawcett 1999 p. 156)

This collection of syndromes masquerading under the umbrella of dyslexia has something of an unscientific scope; whatever symptoms or deficits researchers find are claimed as evidence of dyslexia. Everything is subsumed. The quote from Nicolson & Fawcett above says it call. Try substituting ‘dyslexia’ with ‘spina bifida’, or any other recognisable medical condition. If it were possible to say such a thing about spina bifida it would be clear that it was either a collection of syndromes  which we were unable to distinguish from each other, or not a syndrome at all. No syndrome, however obliging, is going to show every symptom we look. for.  Although I’m no scientist, I think you’ll agree that this kind of thinking is very far from scientific. And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems, either – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it doesn’t refer to anything which has been scientifically established.

So what is it?

Dys [Greek] means difficult, abnormal, impaired, and lexikos [also Greek] means pertaining to words.  So quite literally, dyslexia means difficulty with words. But despite this, definitions are many and various; some are so broad as to be almost meaningless, some are confused and imprecise, and some say next to nothing. There is little consensus.

One of the most widely accepted definitions, and the one used by the World Health Organisation is this:

Dyslexia is a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity. It is dependent upon fundamental cognitive disabilities which are frequently of constitutional origin.

But a little bit of unpicking reveals how little this actually says:

Dyslexia is a difficulty with reading which may only be diagnosed if there are no other obvious causes to hand (such as poor schooling, poor parenting, low IQ or social disadvantage). It might sometimes be caused by there being something wrong with the brain.

You see? This uncertainty simply defines dyslexia as an odd difficulty with reading, given an otherwise apparently normal educational and social history. This would make it impossible for a child from a socially deprived background to be ‘dyslexic’ at all.

The Dyslexia Institute (2013) defines dyslexia as:

…a specific type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristics of dyslexia include difficulties in areas such as phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

They also say that dyslexia is “biological in origin” which runs counter to most of the research which admits that only “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin” (Valentino 2004).

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA Management Board 2007) says:

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counseling.

While this definition restricts itself to “literacy and language related skills”, it relates the difficulties to satisfying scientific sounding ‘processing’ problems. But what, exactly is being processed? What do our brains use as ‘information’, and just exactly what they are doing when they ‘process’ it? ‘Processing’ is too vague a concept to be of much use, and, as far as I can work out, cognitive science is in no position to assess it in a neurologically meaningful way. Basically, all this actually says is that the condition is potentially made up of a hodge-podge of characteristics, some, or all of which may, or may not, be present and repeats the comforting thought that the difficulties with literacy do not align with a sufferer’s intelligence. Which is fair enough: we’re all better than our limitations.

Elliott says the problem is that there is no uniform test for dyslexia:

Some tests look at memory, some at sounds and words, some at visual processing. The traditional route was to identify a child whose IQ was high, but whose reading level was low: that test is still being used in some places, although you could ask why look at a child’s IQ when deciding if they need special reading help? But the bottom line is that experts can’t agree precisely what set of problems make up the condition they call dyslexia: and if you can’t agree on what a condition is, how on earth can you test for it?

Maybe the problem is that diagnosis is really about trying to make students with poor literacy (and their parents) feel better about it. It’s much more convenient and comforting to blame the victim’s central nervous system. Occasionally even the internationally recognised expert lets this one out of the bag:

…the term dyslexia assists parents and the child to make sense of occurrences they know to exist. They know the child has difficulty with reading and spelling; they need explanations which remove the sense of self-blame. (Pumfrey & Reason 1991 p. 69)

This is remarkably similar to the ‘it’s my hormones’ explanation of obesity. It may absolves us from responsibility, but this explanation entirely fails to understand, or make any attempt to solve, the real problem which, as we all strongly suspect, has nothing to do with hormones.

And then sometimes researchers let another out of the bag as when Cooke says (2001 p. 49):

Miles (1995) has questioned whether there can be a single definition of dyslexia; she suggests instead that different people, and different groups, will want a definition to suit their own requirements. This is clearly correct …

This is shameless! If it’s OK to just pick our own, personal, definition to suit our own particular agenda, then we may as well give up. The  condition we call ‘dyslexia’ has been researched for over a century, and it’s astonishing that such confusion still exists and such woolly remarks are accepted in apparently serious, peer-reviewed, scientific journals.

The fact is that no one seems to have a satisfying, meaningful definition of dyslexia that everyone else accepts. But the  label continues to be slapped on to anyone with any kind of literacy problem. I’d argue that this is unhelpful, and, ultimately, fraudulent.

But really, why all the fuss? As long as students get help for their unspecified ‘specific learning difficulty’ who cares what we call it?

Well, the dyslexia diagnosis industry has its casualties. For some students, being labelled as dyslexic does them more harm than good. Often, in my experience, it can be an excuse for not trying. Teachers may start to have lower expectations. We concentrate on the mechanics of reading and writing rather than purpose and flair, rules rather than writing. This is inevitable once we’ve attributed a student’s problems to a single, conceptually simple, innate and unalterable cause; classic soil in which to grow learned helplessness – and  not just in students. Once a diagnosis is made, other, simpler (but less lucrative) potential causes for poor performance are ignored. And what about those who don’t get diagnosed? Does that mean they’re simply stupid?

There are, I contend, two types of dyslexia, acquired and developmental.

Acquired dyslexia is the result of trauma to the brain occurring after literacy has been acquired. Some accident results in damage to the part of the brain which had learned literacy skills. Depending on the degree of damage, the skills will be correspondingly lost. The same applies to speech, of course. Many stroke victims have their speech centres damaged and show varying degrees of loss of the power of speech. This is horrible but makes perfect cognitive sense – if you damage the part of the brain which has learned to be responsible for a  particular skill then that skill will be correspondingly damaged. How could it be otherwise?

Developmental dyslexia is, in contrast, an utterly different animal. Here, there is assumed to be a congenital neurological deficit of some kind. This may be genetic but may also be the result of damage to the foetus during gestation. At any rate, developmental dyslexia is presumed to be an affliction of those parts of the brain which will one day be expected to learn the skills of literacy. It’s an innate defect which is innately pre-wired to learn literacy only in a particular location or locations. Valentino acknowledges that “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin, especially phonological deficits that lie at the root of their difficulties in learning to read.” (2004 p30) But that’s it: a very small number. The rest are victims of, by and large, inadequate instruction.

Just cos I’m not happy with this idea of developmental dyslexia doesn’t mean that I fail to recognise that lots of people have literacy difficulties and that these difficulties can be ‘cured’. But diagnosing dyslexia disempowers and both students and teachers alike. To accept otherwise is to descend into the damp and foetid cellars of educational pessimism where learned helplessness grows like a fungus.

Right, I hear you cry, if it’s not dyslexia, what the hell is it? Well, there are so many other, more likely explanations for peculiar difficulty with literacy, each more likely than a highly selective mis-wiring of the brain. Basically though, I think most difficulties with language come down to the fact that “Reading and writing are not just cognitive activities – feelings run through them.” (Barton 1994 p. 48) and Valentino reports the following:

Results from recent intervention studies suggest that explanations of reading difficulties in most children must incorporate experiential and instructional deficits as possible causes of such difficulties, rather than focus exclusively on the types of cognitive and biological deficits that have predominated theory and research in this area of inquiry throughout the previous century. (2004 p3)

These points lead us, inexorably, to the Matthew effect.

The Matthew effect

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

As I’ve written before, the Matthew effect is a huge factor in students’ literacy difficulties. Stanovich says that “… a strong bootstrapping mechanism that causes major individual differences in the development of reading skill is the volume of reading experience”. Daniel Rigney tells us that, “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” The good reader may read several millions of words a year, whereas the poor reader reads only a few thousand (and probably hates every one) – as Robert MacFarlane says, “Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”, and we all know what practise makes! This is the Matthew effect; the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The simple fact that less literate people read a great deal less than more literate people makes it more difficult for them to progress. Hirsch tells us that those “who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”. It’s small wonder that this early advantage can never be overtaken.

Many of the symptoms that are said to identify dyslexics are now believed to be the consequence of reading difficulties, not their cause. Compared with children who read a lot, those who read little suffer educational and intellectual damage: their writing and spelling are poorer and they have less ability to organise themselves. And all poor readers are likely to suffer such problems whether they have been diagnosed as dyslexic or not. For instance, most poor readers suffer with sound awareness problems but beyond this, their conditions are so wide-ranging that it is impossible to identify any sub-group who, on the basis of their literacy difficulties, could usefully be called ‘dyslexic’.

Sadly, though, the more problems a students suffers, the more difficult it may be for them to resolve their literacy problems. Worse, the longer these problems remain unresolved, the further they will fall behind and the worse their plight becomes. For many, even if their reading improves, it can be next to impossible for them to catch up. Despite this there are cases of apparently odd difficulty in acquiring and using literacy but they almost always include some or all of the following steps:

  • Relatively little (sometimes no) literacy activity in the home
  • Very early failure in school, leading to general anxiety
  • Literacy is experienced as impossibly difficult and humiliating.
  • Students become highly risk-averse, further draining motivation and the ability to learn or perform.
  • Students are diagnosed as ‘special needs’ and decide they are ‘thick’

What should we do?

Elliott says, “I can understand parents wanting to get this label, because there’s a human need for labels. But what parents believe is that the label will lead to an intervention, in much the same way that a diagnosis of a broken arm leads to effective treatment. And what I’d argue is that the intervention they receive when their child is labelled dyslexic isn’t effective – and furthermore, it’s very expensive and time-consuming, and it diverts resources away from what could be being done better to help all children with reading problems. “In fact, reading isn’t something that requires a high level of intelligence. Amongst children who struggle to read, you find some with a high IQ, some in the middle and some with a low IQ.” And interestingly, researchers at York University have found that low ability students can be helped just as much with reading problems as able students, providing the right reading programme is implemented in the right way. If resources are thrown at a particular group of students suffering from a particular syndrome, what happens to students who haven’t paid the £300 quid or so needed to receive this label?

Maybe we should agree that either every child with poor reading ability is dyslexic, or none of them is.

Teachers are routinely faced with students with officially sanctioned diagnoses of dyslexia. What do you do, if you think, as I do, that’s it’s a load of old pony? You have three choices: you can challenge the diagnosis, reinforce it or ignore it. Even though I’m unconvinced, I can’t say with absolute certainty that dyslexia doesn’t exist. We all remain too ignorant as yet for dogmatism. For this reason, and also because the diagnosis may be helpful to the student (it’s certainly better than being regarded as unintelligent), I wouldn’t recommend a direct challenge to the diagnosis. Neither, though, do I recommend it be accepted – this will reinforce the disability fantasy and will lead to learned helplessness. So then, the third way; the ‘Mmmm…’ approach. When told a student is ‘dyslexic’ I say “Mmmm…” and then teach as if the diagnosis had never been made; I treat the student as completely ‘normal’. I dismiss dyslexia from my own mind and, hopefully, the student will feel it fade from theirs too. It is at this point that progress can be made.

I could be very wrong about this. Certainly lots of well-intentioned, knowledgeable people think so. But wrong or not, the best approached to dyslexia that I’ve come up with is not indulge sufferers in the belief that they are doomed, cursed or otherwise blighted by a condition over which they have no control. We all have ‘specific learning difficulties’ of one form or another and they’re never an excuse for not trying. We should always encourage students to overcome their difficulties and provide them with the tools to cope the curve balls their brains throw at them. For some having a label may be helpful, for others it’s most definitely not. My own experience suggests that patience, compassion and high expectations are the very best that a teacher can offer any student. And this seems to work, more often than not.

This post heavily references the work of Hugo Kerr in his excellent free e-book, The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching: Reading, Writing, Spelling, Dyslexia

If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating Channel 4 documentary called The Dyslexia Myth to watch as well.

And here is a fascinating unpicking of some recent research from Yale on the likelihood of children having a genetic form of dyslexia.

Update – the very latest neuroscientific research seems to suggest that my suspicion that most dyslexia doesn’t have a biological cause may be correct. See this post from Daniel Willingham.

Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? by Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling and Scanlon

Julian Elliott also has a very good chapter on dyslexia in Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education

2017-05-23T19:42:21+00:00May 26th, 2013|Featured, learning, literacy, myths|


  1. Sue Sutcliffe May 26, 2013 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    I did not hear the word dyslexic until I was 14 years old this was just over a year after I had decided that I would stop trying with my school work. I made this decision because I felt that it was going to be easier to be told that I was lazy and bad for not working hard rather than continuing to be told (on a daily basis) that I was stupid. This was the only outcome of all my hard work, all my efforts, all the hours working in the evenings all the going to school early to work in the mornings. Often this criticism was made in front of my peers and always it was made by the people who were responsible for educating me. The decision I made to deliberately stop working was the only thing I could do to salvage any self esteem. I left school with no qualifications as my peers went on to take A levels and go to university. .

    23 years later I returned to my education and was amazed to find that it was ok to find reading and writing difficult and that coloured lenses, computers (well word processors in those long off days) and spelling checkers as well as specialist teaching from the BDA were not only available but also WORKED FOR ME. This help changed my world. This year as I prepare for my MA graduation ceremony I can only thank the researchers who put forward enough of a case for people to listen and respond to me and hundreds others like me – who want to work hard and want to have an education but learn differently from others.

  2. learningspy May 26, 2013 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks for that Sue. Insensitive responses to students difficulties with reading & writing have a lot to answer for. If you’ve found the dyslexia label useful, that’s great. Many don’t.

    Thanks, David

  3. Lucie May 26, 2013 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    I come from a family with the dyslexic label (we have 5 undergraduate degrees, 4 masters degrees, 1 doctorate and one in progress and a professorial chair in the family)…. it is not the labelling that is the problem – it is how others perceive it. This is why I refuse to hide my dyslexia – I challenge the perception to the point people do not believe I have the underlying cognitive deficit, yes, writing is hard, yes, organisation is hard.. but I get over it and get on with it. So then I am asked if I am really dyslexic… yes is the answer! I have poor memory and problems with auditory processing – these may or may not have made literacy harder to acquire – but I am literate and successful….

    Pupils who say ‘I’m dyslexic’ have been faced with – ‘yes – so am i – get on with it’… I won’t let it be used as an excuse. One of my former colleagues said to a pupil who had said they couldn’t because they were dyslexic – ‘The cleverest person I know is dyslexic – she can do it – so can you’.

    I dont doubt that there are cognitive difficulties that create difficulties with learning, 50 years ago, it was just believed you were ‘stupid, lazy’ etc and you left school without any label. I think we have gone to the other extreme… that we want the label to excuse the lack of effort, or the fact that something is difficult… As teachers, perhaps we are afraid to challenge the ‘excuse’ culture that pupils and parents have created…

    Whether dyslexia exists is not the question – the way the label has been used, interpreted, misinterpreted and manipulated by others is the issue…

  4. Julia Carroll May 26, 2013 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    I find it utterly depressing that you believe that accepting a diagnosis of dyslexia will inevitably lead to learned helplessness, and that the ideal response is therefore to ‘ignore’ any previous diagnosis. Isn’t it possible to accept the diagnosis and encourage a child to overcome their difficulties and learn to compensate for them, as Sue describes above?

  5. learningspy May 26, 2013 at 10:42 pm - Reply

    Hi Julia. Why would you find my approach “utterly depressing”? Haven’t I made clear that encouraging children to “overcome their difficulties and learn to compensate for them” is precisely what I do?

  6. Ian Gilbert May 27, 2013 at 12:28 am - Reply

    The biggest myth that you seem to be focussing on, David, is that dyslexia is just about reading and writing. Issues with these two skills are a symptom of a bigger, wider issue or set of issues about how someone with dyslexia functions. And you don’t mention ‘executive functioning’ which has been shown to be an issue with people with the dyslexia label. If we let children get away with dyslexia as an excuse for laziness or not trying then that is our challenge as teachers surely, same as it is with any child hiding behind an excuse? Just because you’re unsure how to tell the difference between dyslexia and apathy doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    And if you are still convinced that it doesn’t really exist and is another term for not trying hard enough, come and see my daughter prepare for her IB mocks this week. I have never seen a young person work so hard or employ quite so many different and highly creative strategies to overcome the ‘way her brain works’ that go way beyond simply compensating for being a ‘poor reader’. But then as she said to me recently, ‘It’s not creativity, it’s survival.’

  7. learningspy May 27, 2013 at 6:47 am - Reply

    Hi Ian

    I’m well aware that dyslexia is used as a catch-all term for any kind of unspecified disability to do something. We have ’emotional dyslexia’ ( and even ‘economic dyslexia’ ( The breadth of syndromes attaching themselves to the label make it meaningless.

    But, more importantly, I think you’ve misunderstood my point. In no way do I think ‘dyslexia’ is a synonym for apathy or laziness. I think it’s an otherwise unexplained difficulty with literacy. And that being the case, I’d rather refer to it as such.

    I salute your daughter’s efforts and have helped many students overcome their own difficulties with literacy. Many, many people have tremendous difficulties coping with academia for all sorts of complex reasons, and I’m one of them. Does it help anyone if we lump it all together and call it dyslexia?

  8. Debaser May 27, 2013 at 8:58 am - Reply


    The problem, as I see it, is that these conditions are over diagnosed. A diagnosis of dyslexia should be reserved for the very worst cases.

    If a child works hard, is exposed to a lot of reading material and good teaching and is still unable to progress then there is clearly something wrong.

  9. […] Continued in Does dyslexia exist?. […]

  10. Janice May 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Some parents push for the label ‘dyslexia’ for their child. When I asked why it was usually ‘so they can get some extra help’. When I pointed out that their child was already getting extra help and that the labelling was not necessary and that either way it meant their child would have to work harder to overcome some difficulty, they took the commercial test and got the label anyway. It seemed to be the middle class excuse for a child with mild learning difficulties. I have always found it amazing that so many people do learn to read and write adequately when you consider the skills needed.

  11. John Hodgson May 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    ” When told a student is ‘dyslexic’ I say “Mmmm…” and then teach as if the diagnosis had never been made; I treat the student as completely ‘normal’. I dismiss dyslexia from my own mind and, hopefully, the student will feel it fade from theirs too. It is at this point that progress can be made.”

    This was my policy throughout my career as department head. Students would arrive with test results from various ‘batteries’ and tell me they were dyslexic. I put them in a mainstream class when permitted to do so by the Senco and made sure the learning support person spent time with them but not at the expense of the rest of the class. Like depression, dyslexia is a creature with many shapes and is a descriptive rather than medical term.

    • Justine July 17, 2013 at 8:28 am - Reply

      I couldn’t agree more. The discussion regarding the credibility of dyslexia as a label based on the notion that unlike other medical conditions there are no generic symptoms is ludicrous. If we were to classify all human conditions and disorders in this way then we could only be confident in saying that we have adopted a medical or biological model or paradigm in our outlook. Another approach in psychology is a humanistic one that is less obsessed with classifying symptoms according to their similarities amongst individuals. There are general symptoms of dyslexia that all people with dyslexia have and others that are more ‘wide ranging’ – we are human beings who bring different thoughts, experiences and expectations to the table and consequently those with dyslexia are going to have symptoms that vary as many are a byproduct of more generic symptoms. Unfortunately this discussion just highlights the much wider debate regarding whether psychology is a ‘science’ whether science should be objective and the difficulties involved in classifying and operationalising human behaviour.

  12. Fran May 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    For me, the top priority was always to identify students who were working their socks off, but who were struggling to complete work that satisfied them, under exam conditions. A diagnosis of some form of SpLD could result in up to 25% extra time in exams. This can make a substantial difference to some students.

  13. learningspy May 27, 2013 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    Fran – you’re right, 25% extra time in exams could help most candidates.

  14. Sue Sutcliffe May 27, 2013 at 10:16 pm - Reply

    If you are tested by an educational psychologists because you have or are perceived to have learning difficulties (and if anyone bothers to read the reports) what is reported is the range of difficulties that you manifest in a range of stress situations (systems that are examined include executive functioning, Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad functioning, phonological loop functioning, motor movement, and a host of other elements). Some educational psychologists will conclude from their analysis of the test results that the difficulties you display may be associated with dyslexia (that association may be labeled as strong or less so). Very rarely in my experience of working with a range of children with such specific learning difficulties does the educational psychologist label the child as dyslexic.
    What an educational psychologist does is explain the tests their purpose and the results for the individual in relation to a standardized outcome. They then describe the impact for the individual and if the outcome deviates from the standard they make a series of recommendations to address the individuals needs. This is the tool that supports teachers to address needs. I have not found a child with a specific learning need that does not want to succeed, that is not willing to work hard. I have not met children with learning difficulties who don’t want to overcome them. With respect I suggest that anyone who encounters children who are using it as a get out clause need to examine the evidence for their claims very carefully.
    I use the label dyslexic as a shorthand that saves me having to explain my own difficulties to a great many people who understandably do not care about the details and in my work I am guilty of using the label as a short hand in precisely the same way. I think that in education it is our fate and misfortune to use labels as a short hand. (I think that this is another and slightly different debate) I think that you have been misled by a misused and (yes you are right about this) abused label. However I find it is helpful to use this label sometimes – but I repeat that I will be forever grateful to the researchers who established that some of us learn differently. If a label helps others to accept or even think they understand that; then the label is worth having.
    I will always have to work longer and harder than my colleagues and peers in order to achieve what is widely perceived as a normal or standard outcome. If the dyslexia label allows others to let me get on with things and take my place in society – then I win and that is ok.

  15. Sue Sutcliffe May 27, 2013 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    By the way 25% extra time is more of a punishment than a help – most people are tired after a normal exam period. Specific learning difficulties are generally taxing if not exhausting the lets do a normal exam and then make it 25% longer approach has never helped me and I think that beyond GCSE and A Level it is utterly useless for the majority of those labeled as dyslexic.

  16. […] case you missed it, I published a post on the dubious existence of dyslexia this weekend. A few people have been in touch via Twitter to tell me about the remarkable effect of […]

  17. Sue Gerrard May 28, 2013 at 10:04 am - Reply

    The term dyslexia was, as the blog points out, originally used as a shorthand label for a difficulty – acquired or developmental – with reading or spelling – exactly how Sue Sutcliffe says she uses it. The origin of those reading difficulties is another matter. If all other likely explanations for a child having difficulty learning to read have been eliminated, then biological causes are in the frame.

    But it doesn’t follow that all children have the same reading difficulties, or the same biological causes for their difficulties. Many people see reading as a simple skill; after all most 5-6 year-olds can master the basics. To the human brain, however, reading is a pretty complex task. It requires efficient frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes and efficient connections between them. In order to read, auditory and visual working memory, speech and language, visual tracking and the ability to discriminate between auditorily similar speech sounds and visually similar graphemes, all need to be adequate. Because each of these skills takes time to develop, and children develop at different rates, and each child is biologically unique, what would be surprising is if all children learned to read at the same age or with the same proficiency.

    Two children might each have difficulty learning to read, but not necessarily the same kind of difficulty; even if they have the same kind of difficulty it could have different causes. Saying they both have ‘dyslexia’ essentially means they have ‘reading difficulties (unspecified) with likely biological origins’ – not an especially helpful diagnosis. What has happened over time is that a useful descriptive umbrella term denoting a range of different reading difficulties has been reified – made into a ‘thing’ – in this case a single but complex ‘disorder’. It’s this reification that, in my opinion, has caused the muddle.

    It’s very clear that in many cases, explicit, intensive teaching has improved children’s reading skills. In these cases, it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a biological cause for the original reading difficulty. Auditory and visual discrimination skills and working memory improve with use, so children with underdevelopment in these areas are likely to improve with intensive practice. Nor does it follow that intensive teaching will overcome all reading difficulties; if reading problems are caused by undetected brain damage or a biochemical issue with the connectivity between neurons, then a different approach might be required.

    It’s worth noting that whether or not biological causes have been found for reading difficulties will depend on what’s been looked for. Most standard auditory and visual screening tests don’t look for all the factors that can impact on reading skills, nor for combined interactions between subtle auditory and visual impairments.

    As Sue Sutcliffe points out, in assessments most educational psychologists do not ‘diagnose dyslexia’, but highlight areas of cognitive difficulty that might cause problems with a range of different skills. But it is often easier to use the label ‘dyslexia’ because it’s widely (even if wrongly) understood.

    (Incidentally, regarding the gunnels – if you google ‘gunwales’ you’ll find out what they are.)

  18. learningspy May 28, 2013 at 11:07 am - Reply


    Thank you both for taking the time to comment so extensively.

    I guess my problem is that I have grave doubts about the validity of biological causes, but let’s agree for a moment that they do exist. But they are rare.

    The Dyslexia Institute would have us believe that upwards of 10% of all people suffer with dyslexia, and this just is not true. As long as these guys perpetuate this myth it will be incumbent on me to point out that they’re at best mistaken and at worst deceitfully nefarious.

    Also, pretending not to know what gunnels are was a rhetorical device 🙂

    Thanks, David

  19. Sue Gerrard May 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    What’s your definition of ‘rare’ David, and which biological causes are you referring to?

    To measure the extent to which the 10% + figure is likely to reflect reality, I’ve done a very rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of the prevalence of biological factors that are potential contributors to reading difficulties. I’ve ruled out children attending special schools (2-3% of the population), and taken into account the first problems with the components of the reading process that sprang to mind – which means I will have omitted some. I’ve included impairments of auditory and visual processing, working memory and attention.

    auditory processing disorders – 7%
    convergence insufficiency – 3-5%
    the ability to focus on targets close to the eyes)
    ADHD + reading difficulties – 1%
    Autism – 1%

    Not all of these conditions are necessarily associated with reading difficulties and some children will have more than one condition, which will lower the overall prevalence rate. Let’s say that only half the children with the above conditions have a reading difficulty; that still comes to 6.5% of the population, not counting children in special schools (some of whom have reading difficulties not attributable to their other disabilities) or children with other impairments that I haven’t included.

    It looks to me that the Dyslexia Institute’s estimation (using a different model of dyslexia) might be a bit high, but it’s not way out.

    Also, when reading the original research papers, what emerges is that a good deal of the disagreement about results is due to variations in methodology. In other words the conclusions drawn in literature reviews aren’t always as clear-cut as they appear.

    Reviews also sometimes omit details when summarising findings. One paper cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics Report on “Learning disabilities, dyslexia and vision” (2nd link above) found no significant differences in eye movements between a dyslexic group and a control group – but that related only to the poor readers in the control group. Eye movement differences were significant when compared with the good readers – but that wasn’t reported in the review.

    Another study was cited as finding no differences in visual perception between normal and learning disabled children. True. But the researchers did find visuo-spatial differences – which the review didn’t mention. Another finding turned out to be based on a sample of two children.

    I can’t see any evidence for reading difficulties forming a single disorder that we call dyslexia. Nor can I see any evidence suggesting biological causes for reading difficulties can be eliminated from the equaition – or referred to as ‘rare’.

  20. learningspy May 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Sue, I guess I’m going from this report quoted in my post: Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? by Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling and Scanlon. Seems pretty clear.

  21. Claudette May 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    From reading all the comments I have come to the conclusion that there is no real consensus as what are the difficulties that make up the label which is commonly known as dyslexic. I write as person assessed with diffuculites in line with dyslexia that’s a parprharse of what my report said 20 years ago when I was a student.
    I have many strengths and some weakness. My issues are with processing and a memory and fatigue from visual stress but ion the other hand i am a great problem solver ( thats what I have been told by former managers and colleagues) however in spite have two degrees I find it very difficult to get a job because of processing of information required on an application form.
    It is the 21st century employers and education institutes need to change their attitude and support students and employees. It is complex learning difference but it shouldn’t cause the anxiety stress and under achieving that is an injustice just because one has difference in processing cognitively.

  22. Sue Gerrard May 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    David, I can see why, on the basis of the Vellutino et al paper, you would be sceptical about the Dyslexia Institute’s estimate, and about dyslexia as a construct. However, I can’t see why you would have ‘grave doubts about the validity of biological causes’.

    At the end of their paper, Vellutino et al conclude;

    “Finally, recent intervention studies have clearly demonstrated that reading difficulties in most
    beginning readers are not invariably caused by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin, from which it can be concluded that current estimates of the incidence of true reading disabilities are greatly inflated. However, recent studies of neurological and genetic correlates of dyslexia, along with recent life-span development and intervention studies, provide strong reason to believe that a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin, especially phonological deficits that lie at the root of their difficulties in learning to read.”

    To be sure, the authors found that the model of biological factors and their relationship to reading difficulties was tenuous, but that doesn’t tell you anything except that our model of the biological factors in 2003 was tenuous. Also, they wisely don’t put a number on the ‘very small percentage’. 0.5% is a very small percentage, but that’s around 50,000 children in the UK.

    We know that there’s a significant genetic component to reading difficulties, so why would there be any doubt about biological factors playing a significant role? Why not conclude that the jury’s still out on what those factors are? Remediation for reading difficulties is still required, whatever the causes.

  23. learningspy May 28, 2013 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    OK, I’ll concede that “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin” means that the jury is still out.

    But do we really know that ” there’s a significant genetic component to reading difficulties”?

  24. Sue Gerrard May 29, 2013 at 4:53 am - Reply

    Vellutino et al cite Olson & Gayan’s summary without criticism, so I assume they can’t see any reason for it being wrong.

    “For example, word recognition shows a genetic influence of .45 and a shared environmental influence of .15. Related subskills, however, have higher genetic influences (e.g., phonological awareness – .56; orthographic awareness -.58), lower shared environmental influences (phonological awareness – .24; orthographic awareness – .20) and higher nonshared
    environmental influences (phonological awareness – .20; orthographic awareness – .22).
    Thus, individual differences in reading are partly due to shared genetic influences and partly due to shared and non-shared environmental influences.”

    Vellutino et al point out that a heritable tendency will have an environmental impact – parents who have reading difficulties are not likely to read a lot of books – but they quite clearly accept the evidence that demonstrates a genetic influence. I’m not saying the authors’ conclusions are correct (though I’m not aware of any subsequent evidence that suggests they’re not) – I just couldn’t see how you’d arrived at your conclusion about biological factors.

  25. Peter Blenkinsop May 29, 2013 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I have reread the material above and the comments. What it seems to be is that despite the evidence, which you claim supports your sceptical view, but which everyone else reads in a different way, you don’t want there to be a biological cause for dyslexia. Is that correct?

    Despite there being significant evidence for a genetic link to dyslexia you don’t want to accept this data. Despite our quite good understanding that both nature and nurture, acting in concert, impact on development you don’t want to recognise the genetic component of familial dyslexia. Is this correct?

    The fact that some parents will attach the label to their child to gain additional support does not mean that the condition does not exist.

    Why you think it is helpful to deny the existence of dyslexia and be so cautious about its validity, I cannot see. Sure, there will be other reasons why children struggle with reading and other processes that are also features of dyslexia. So?

    What is your main point?

    Dyslexia does not exist?
    Dyslexia does not have a biological cause?
    The label dyslexic can be used to excuse low expectations?
    Dyslexia is a name for too large a group of issues?

    or something else?

    • learningspy May 31, 2013 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      Which evidence do I claim supports my ‘sceptical view’? I included the link to the Valentino review to show that even the best advocates for dyslexia don’t think biological cause account for much. This means then that most (according to Valentino’s study) cases of dyslexia are attributed to phonological problems. The main issue is this:

      “Results from current intervention studies suggest that the most informative and most effective approach to distinguishing between cognitive/biological and experiential/instructional causes of early reading difficulties would be to implement an initial period of remedial intervention, in lieu of assessment of reading-related cognitive abilities as a Ôfirst cutÕ approach to diagnosis. Accordingly, psychometric assessment of strengths and weaknesses in a child’s reading subskills would not be used to classify that child as Ôreading-disabledÕ at this stage of the dia- gnostic process, but, rather to provide the educator with guidance for purposes of initiating remedial instruction.”

      This means (as I understand it) that the best thing to do is to teach ALL children as if the problems were experiential/instructional. Snowling and others others assert that dyslexia can be sorted out with 100 hours of intensive phonics. If this is the case, what is dyslexia? Clearly, Elliott’s research goes much further down this road in attacking what he calls the ‘myth’ of dyslexia but I figured those who are challenged by my points might be more troubled by this.

      You says that there is “significant evidence for a genetic link to dyslexia”. What is it? I’ve read through the evidence I’ve found and am unconvinced because of the vagueness of its terms. I’m not saying that there is NO genetic link, just that it is unhelpful, for the vast majority of children labelled as dyslexic to act as if there is. Does this explain why I think it’s helpful to question the existence of dyslexia as a medical problem?

      My main point is that the term ‘dyslexia’ is unhelpful. If there are biological conditions for reading disabilities we should either reserve the term just for them, or cal them something else. So, yes: dyslexia IS used to descrive too large a group of issues. And, yes: dyslexia IS all too often an excuse for low expectations.

  26. Sue Sutcliffe May 30, 2013 at 9:50 am - Reply

    I like your analysis Peter and your questions.

  27. Sue Gerrard June 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    1. David, I’m not clear who you mean when you refer to the ‘best advocates for dyslexia’. I don’t think Vellutino et al fit that description because they go into some detail about their terminology and define clearly what evidence they are evaluating. And in a review paper, they wouldn’t be concerned with the views of other authors about the nature of dyslexia, just the evidence they present relating to reading difficulties and the conclusions they draw.
    2. Vellutino et al’s conclusion regarding biological causes isn’t that they (or anyone else they cite) ‘don’t think biological cause account for much’. What they do say is that the evidence provides ‘strong reason to believe that a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin, especially phonological deficits that lie at the root of their difficulties in learning to read’. What you read into that conclusion depends on how you define ‘a very small percentage’. This is somewhat at odds with their conclusion on p.25 that genetic and lifespan studies suggest ‘reading difficulties in otherwise normal individuals, in many cases, are caused primarily by biologically based cognitive deficits that can be identified quite early in life and that persist well into adulthood.’ I *think* what they mean is that if those cognitive deficits are identified early and appropriate interventions are applied, there will be a very small residual percentage of children, whose reading difficulties aren’t addressed.
    3. You question the evidence for a genetic link to dyslexia because of the ‘vagueness of its terms’. I assume you mean the vagueness of the definition of dyslexia. Geneticists are quite familiar with vague and ambiguous definitions and in any case would be looking at the broader phenotype – factors that are components of reading or related to it. The section on genetic studies in the Vellutino paper addresses several of these issues quite explicitly. If you’ve come across research showing that genes aren’t implicated in reading difficulties I’d be interested to see it.
    It might seem odd that Vellutino et al acknowledge that reading difficulties can be strongly heritable, but conclude that links to biological factors are weak; after all, genes are expressed biologically. These aren’t contradictory conclusions, however. If the genes in question are active early in development or are involved in many biological functions, cumulatively they would have a large effect, but the effect of any individual biological factor might well be very small.
    4. Where do Snowling and others others ‘assert that dyslexia can be sorted out with 100 hours of intensive phonics?’ There’s no doubt that intensive phonological training can improve children’s decoding abilities, but that’s not quite the same thing.
    5. You say ‘I’m not saying that there is NO genetic link, just that it is unhelpful, for the vast majority of children labelled as dyslexic to act as if there is’.
    Firstly, no one is *acting* as if there’s a genetic link to persistent reading difficulties – there is substantial evidence for a genetic link.
    Secondly, labelling children as ‘dyslexic’ is a different issue from identifying the cause of their reading difficulties. I agree that *if* intensive phonological training sorts out their reading problems, it doesn’t matter very much to anyone teaching a child to read what’s causing the problem. However, teachers aren’t the only people who have an interest in reading difficulties. Geneticists, biochemists, molecular biologists, physiologists, cognitive neurologists, developmental biologists, pharmacologists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, linguists, and people working with patients who’ve had brain damage or have a range of developmental disorders, might well have an interest in the biological mechanisms of reading and what can go wrong with them.
    Thirdly, a group of children (2-3% of the population) who are frequently overlooked in discussions like this are those with known developmental problems who also have reading difficulties, and who would struggle with 100 hours of intensive phonics and/or simply raising expectations. Figuring out what causes reading difficulties, whether or not other learning difficulties are involved, is important for them too.

    Incidentally, I have no problem with Julian Elliott’s views on the myth of dyslexia, but, as I say, that’s a separate issue from identifying the causes of reading difficulties.

  28. […] Dyslexic-Homeless-Man-39042-1x3qp1h Schools are packed to the gunnels (whatever they are) with students diagnosed with dyslexia. And, of the hundreds of dyslexic students I've taught, many have languished helplessly …  […]

  29. xristiana sophia July 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm - Reply

    Great article… hope to see more of these.

    Dyslexia in the way it has been described and “treated” does not of course exist… what exists are the profits (financial, psychological and egoic) gained from this whole “syndrome” business.

    I am “dyslexic” myself but honestly, NO ONE especially the “experts”, know anything about what it really means. By the way, my reading is perfect, my spelling too…

  30. […] There are simply too many 'dyslexic 'children to make the term meaningful: once you get such a high number of kids labelled with a condition such as dyslexia (that's around 375,000 in the UK), you've simply got to question whether there's any real…  […]

  31. […] Does dyslexia exist? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  32. jason Smith August 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    I think some parents just want a label. Just because you have Dyslexia it doesn’t mean you are not thick.

  33. John Wootton August 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    Many students have problems reading and writing. Like anything in life, practising the skill with expert support, helps you perform the skill better. Some of the symptoms of the dyslexic, just to use the term for a moment, are easy to spot when they read or write. Generally we would need to spend a lot of time with the individual to work on their individualised problems. You are right though, hard work by the student is a prerequisite and parents friends and teachers shouldn’t provide an easy way out. One of the principles I have stuck by is that they should not be placed in withdrawal groups of generalised SEN students unless they have other problems too. Learning isn’t the issue for many and so they need the correct input and ways to ‘output’: difficult in our exams and testing system. Always a hot topic David! Good luck at your new school too … I am at Holyhead on the other side of the city.

  34. […] Does dyslexia exist? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  35. […] then I thought about who find things difficult in spelling. Now Dyslexia can be debated. I know David Didau has doubted it. BUT, it is something seemingly ‘testable’ to which a ‘diagnosis’ can be […]

  36. Mary D October 17, 2013 at 12:30 am - Reply

    I came across this thread by chance while looking for some support as the parent of a clever, hardworking girl who sets standards way above her peers but who struggles continually to achieve them. I knew nothing about dyslexia was until I finally took my daughter to an independent ed psych to try to find out why despite being bright as a button, she just couldn’t or wouldn’t (?) read and write. Why, despite my reading to her every night of her life, providing a host of pre school educational materials and playing endless games with her, she just couldn’t understand that c a t spelt cat. Not a problem with my other children. The day of her assessment at age 9 changed all of our lives for the better. Far from using it as an excuse to give up, she felt empowered knowing that despite endless comments from insensitive teachers and classmates, she was not stupid. She is now in year 13 and I can honestly say that if it had not been for endlessly knocking up against teachers like you, her life and mine would have been a great deal easier. There has in fact been important neurological research showing that the brain reacts completely differently in people diagnosed with dyslexia based on standardised testing…which is the best thing we have so far…even if it is not perfect. Having the label of dyslexia has not damaged her self esteem. Coming across teachers like you has. How I wish you had a dyslexic child of your own before writing this kind of misguided and unhelpful post which thankfully many others have challenged with great insight and intelligence. By the way, my husband is also dyslexic, something which only really became clear at the time our daughter was diagnosed. I had no idea it was genetic either until after the assessment. He left school at 16 with nothing to show for it but scars from the beatings he took for his laziness and unwillingness to learn. He is now running his own successful business and is one of the cleverest people I know, though he still struggles on a daily basis with writing simple emails or texts. Having two dyslexics in my home has been an incredible learning experience as they are not the same as those of us who are lucky to find reading, writing etc easy; They have specific strengths as well as specific weaknesses. Mossbourne, one of the most successful state schools in the country, has invested widely in finding teaching strategies that work for dyslexics offering them an individual programme. They have a dyslexic staircase with pictures of famous dyslexics. They don’t seem to have a problem with this label, and the majority of their children are not from the middle classes. Their results are on a par with many selective or private schools. Us middle class parents may shout louder, we may be less afraid of the system, and we may be able to scrape together the money to pay for private assessments which no one on a low income would ever be able to afford and which most schools just dont offer, but if this trickles down to those who are less able to speak up then thank heavens for us and our demanding middle class ways. What most parents want is for their child to reach their potential, whatever that may be. There is absolutely nothing more frustrating for the parent and the child, than to be faced with a system where the only thing they can think of offering as a ‘bonus’ is even more time to sit and look over the questions and answers until the words jumble and make less and less sense. This is so far from a level playing field that its laughable, but again, it’s all we’ve got. It really amazes me that there is this absolute resistance and fear of accepting that our brains are not the same, that we do not learn in the same ways and that there is a pretty specific group of symptoms that point to an official diagnosis, even if character, personality and family background may influence the way they manifest. I will be so glad when she finally gets to university and her only battle will be with her dyslexia and the lifelong challenges that it presents, but we will finally be shot of a school system that is discriminatory, ignorant and unfair. What are you so afraid of?

    • David Didau October 17, 2013 at 9:03 am - Reply

      I think you may have missed several important points.

      The only children I have ‘run up against’ with diagnoses for dyslexia have improved greatly as a result of my teaching. My (fairly substantial) experience suggests that treating ‘dyslexic’ children as if they as capable as anyone else is a good thing. Why would this have been a bad thing for your daughter?

      I’m a bit stunned that you feel able to summarise my position as thinking people with dyslexia are thick. I can only assume that you didn’t bother reading the post.

      Why would you assume that I don’t have children of my own with reading difficulties? And how does that affect my ability to have an opinion or make an argument?

      You may be interested to read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David & Goliath, in which he suggests that dyslexia could perhaps be viewed as a ‘desirable difficulty’ which spurs some suffers on to a greatness they might otherwise never have achieved. My view, just in case it wasn’t clear, is that there are many thousands of people who suffer with reading difficulties.

      Anyway, I wish you and your family the best of luck.

      • Mary D October 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm - Reply

        First, the comment about being stupid was in response to the comment left above by Jason Smith and not by you. Second, I do not assume that you do not have family members with what you term as ‘reading difficulties’, which in my experience has very little to do with a diagnosis of dyslexia, which is a far more complex and far reaching neurological, ofen inherited disorder which comprises several complex learning difficulties, as well as many interesting and positive symptoms of which I am well aware. It is certainly not simply a ‘reading difficulty’. Perhaps you do indeed have a family member with a ‘reading difficulty’. If you lived with a dyslexic on a day to day basis you would know exactly why I make that comment, albeit personal rather than academic. Seeing a child in a classroom for an hour at a time is not the context within which you are able to make a full assessment of the wide ranging symptoms associated with dyslexia, and clearly has not given you the insight to understand the level of frustration and suffering experienced by these children – despite the best efforts of their families.

        I would also argue that far from the situation being that too many children are diagnosed with this, the reality is that there are many thousands of dyslexic children whose families do not have the resources to pursue a proper assessment and who are never diagnosed and whose quality of school life and long term outcomes suffer greatly as a result. Out of the 80% of illiterate people in our prisons, I’d wager that a high proportion of them suffer from this disability alongside other known factors such as social deprivation. Reading difficulties can be helped with good, appropriate, individual teaching plans. Dyslexics can often learn to read and write. They will never, however, be able to operate at the same processing level as non dyslexics or people who are merely late or slow readers. There is a huge distinction between the two.

        You do not comment on my reference to the Mossbourne Academy whose outstanding academic results have been achieved by embracing the term dyslexia and putting into place key strategies for dealing with it, but which seems to me to be the way forward, rather than wasting time and energy trying to disprove and discredit what is now a clearly recognised condition – albeit invisible. I am one of many many parents who have faced comments such as these while trying to guide our dyslexic children through school and it is unhelpful and simply wrong. These children need the understanding and support of their teachers, who can implement a range of classroom strategies to help them achieve some, if not all of their potential. I do not need to read a book to find that there is a positive side to the condition. Cliche though it may seem to you, dyslexics have markedly good spatial awareness, are often extremely creative, mathematical and high functioning on a number of levels. They see the world differently, and their problems with reading are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Which again, as you rightly say, explains why so many of them go on to do great things. They have grown up in the face of adversity which can be a good mental preparation for life, given the right home and school environment. I also know that one of the biggest problems for dyslexics is dealing with their low self esteem and anxiety under pressure, and that the best way to help them with this is to continue to set high goals for them and to reassure them that they are intelligent, capable people. Having a teacher who believes that their disability is a mere reading difficulty is unhelpful and passes on a negative message to the child and to his or her peers. I am very glad to hear that you have helped many children with reading difficulties and agree that this is entirely possible – I too have helped many children in this way – but I have not reduced their complex neurological disorder into just this – but understood that it has an impact on the way in which they respond to the world, the way in which they perceive it and the way in which they are perceived, that goes way beyond giving them the skills to decipher letters on a page.

        The examples you give of two students who both in my view are suffering from extremely low self esteem and perhaps a family background where an understanding of what is needed in these cases may be lacking or misinterpreted. They may or may not be dyslexic, they may indeed have a ‘reading difficulty’ due to lack of appropriate teaching at a younger age. They may also be children who are not lucky enough to have parents equipped with the tools to make sense of this diagnosis. A true diagnosis looks not just at reading and spelling (which, by the way, a true dyslexic will never ever be able to fully learn to do, or to remember all the rules that work for most of us, however much intervention they receive) but also a range of tests looking at the way in which they process information in general. I know many children who have been for an assessment because of poor reading to be told that they need to read out loud every day and to go back to basics – because they are not dyslexic, they have a reading difficulty. And this is absolutely the right way to approach it.Ed Psyhs are not in the business of dishing out fake assessments but in getting to the real root of the difficulty.

        Having a proper diagnosis of this misunderstood disability is the first step to rebuilding self esteem and to finding strategies to deal with them. It is frustrating teaching dyslexics. They often appear to be distracted, they seem to have learnt or absorbed something one day, only to appear to have deliberately forgotten it the next. They can be jokers, or be aggressive, or use a number of tactics to draw attention away from the work they are struggling with. They very often believe themselves to be stupid and don’t understand why what seems so easy for others is so insurmountable for them. As the years go by the gap widens and the problem is often exacerbated. A true dyslexic who learns to read and write regularly will continue to make the same old mistakes and to be inconsistent in their spelling, grammar and use of words. They will choose words they know they can spell rather than try new ones. They will often confound the spell checker on their computer as they cannot get the first two or three letters in the right order, even after years of using the same vocabulary. They will have excellent content and creative ideas for essays and reports but struggle to express them coherently and if they are motivated will need to spend many hours reading and rereading their work or having it checked by others. The very fact that their innate intelligence often masks the severity of their symptoms is something that many teachers simply do not understand. It is far easier to believe that the child is somehow underperforming deliberately or not paying attention. After all, this is a bright, enquiring, creative individual in front of you – why wouldn’t they be able to turn in that essay on time and in a clear, well written format? Why would they not turn up to classes? Why would their handwriting in exams turn into something a much younger child would have written? Why are they so messy, so disorganised – it’s just a question of teaching them to read more, to become more organised, to listen, to concentrate and to focus. And this is where the child starts to question him or herself, and to ask him or herself the same questions. If there is not strong support at this point, the child, perhaps like the two you mention in your opening, simply find it easier to give up than to risk any more criticism. They have gone too far down the road to be able to get back without enormous input from the people around them. Apparently you have in some cases been able to offer hope to these children and to show them that they are in fact quite able – but still you don’t seem to really understand the depth of this disorder and if your success with a few students with what may have been a reading difficulty has led you to question the existence of dyslexia, I wish that you would take a sabbatical in one of the schools around the country dealing entirely with this, where children are referred after bullying, depression and even suicide attempts while their dyslexia was misdiagnosed or left untreated. We desperately need more help, more support and more understanding of this condition rather than just questioning its validity.

      • jason smith February 26, 2014 at 11:16 am - Reply

        Latest research. Strangely not reported on the BBC. But extensively on Sky and elsewhere

  37. Mary D October 17, 2013 at 12:41 am - Reply

    And to add to the man who posted that just because you have dyslexia doesn’t mean you’re not thick, I suppose he is right. The two are not connected. As it happens the two dyslexics i know well are highly intelligent, not just in IQ testing, but also in their quick grasp at complex problems, their incredible mathematic ability (although processing errors often lead to wrong answers as numbers are inverted or reversed) and their deep and insightful understanding of plays, books and poetry. The man’s facetious comment though is a perfect example of this prevailing ignorance that does nothing to help a group of people who are struggling along in a world where we are consistently judged by our literary skills, despite what they may, or may not, have to offer. I know a lot of very dull people who are great at filling in forms.

    • jason smith October 17, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply

      The point I was trying to make is. the ability of children to read follows a normal bell curve distribution, just like any other attribute. i.e. Some are good at reading , some are not so good at reading. Just like some are good at sport and others not so. Parents can not believe their child can possibly be bad at reading and therefore think they must have some disability, that is preventing them from reading as well as others. So by “diagnosing” as dyslexic they can be more comfortable that their child is not so good at reading. Why not just accept they are a poor reader and need extra help.

  38. […] This blog post might be the most controversial one that I have ever read.  The author discusses so many things in it, spanning from Dyslexia VS Poor Reading Skills to the history of the disorder.  However, what I found most intriguing was when he discussed his experience with two separate students who were diagnosed as dyslexic. The first student, Ben, was the definition of hard worker and had a true desire to succeed.  The second student, Carrie, however skipped school, barely tried, and had parents who used her dyslexia as an excuse for her lack of effort in class.  The main difference between the two students was that Ben learned to succeed in spite of his dyslexia whereas Carrie learned to fail because of it. […]

  39. Tom January 2, 2014 at 5:49 am - Reply

    I’m dyslexic ……..and was too lazy too read the entire article ? You don’t half waffle on ! One thing I can vouch for however are the learning methods provided for dyslexics. If delivered by someone that doesn’t suggest, just plowing ahead like normal . No that makes you an arrogant ….anyway …I went from not being able to spell my own name at 8….to being able to spell my own name at 9. Ok that last bit was a joke, but by age 10 I’d made huge progress. You see I always knew I was smart and yet stupid, I could grasp ideas and concepts but when it came to turn to page 3 I’d often end up completing the wrong section in page 5, anyway I’m waffling now.
    You seem to be against the idea of a biological reason and also point to over diagnosis .If we look at it not as a disability but simply as a variation as to how an individuals brain works then 10% doesn’t seem that high a number, and given that we know many artists, actors and inventors are /were dyslexic It seems to me that dyslexia is simply a part of the human condition tied to bigger more beautiful ideas, its seems …..evolutionarily advantageous . So you non Dyslexics please keep filling out your forms nice and neatly, you’ll need your documentation when we take over . Thats not a joke a expect documentation . SCHNELL!

    • Martin Oak January 28, 2014 at 3:21 pm - Reply

      Nice one far better worded than my’n. My dyslexia has caused me a lot problems over the last 3 years, as symptoms of it have been used against me in UK Child law courts by social services and a psychologist any ideas on how we can unite to fight the oppression we face a minority?

  40. Martin Oak January 28, 2014 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    Dyslexia dose exist I was not diagnosed until I was in my forties and in the UK the only people who can really understand the affect are those you have it, those who do not have no right to denounce its existence, try living in my world I have to live in your.

    • David Didau January 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm - Reply

      Hi Martin, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the symptoms associated with dyslexia don’t exist, just that the causes might not be biological. As far as i can make out, this is good news because maybe some people with dyslexia may be able to be cured. Who wouldn’t want that?

      • Martin Oak January 28, 2014 at 4:00 pm - Reply

        Recent research shows that dyslexics may have differences in the brain itself it can not be cured it is not a disease. How it affects individuals can depend on how they are treated by the literates they are in contact with, problems with reading and writing is only one of the symptoms, the English language is in part responsible for that dyslexics in country’s using the Cyrillic alphabet tend not to show the same symptom. Another symptom is being very good at solving visual puzzles.
        Hear in the UK the government employ dyslexics as code beakers.
        “Dyslexics can see the hole picture with just a couple of pieces of the puzzle”
        We are a minority on society we are different we do not need curing we need acceptance and respect and we need to be excepted as different and treating accordingly.
        Do some more research and maybe even get to know a couple of dyslexic then you may be able to empathize with some the problems we face, apart from our difficulties with the English language.

  41. davidneal February 27, 2014 at 8:06 am - Reply

    I have produced films for several dyslexia agencies and this has involved interviewing countless parents and children. The gap in this discussion is about the child’s wellbeing and confidence. ALL the children with profound dyslexia that I interviewed talked about the relief and weight lifted from their shoulders when they were told they were not stupid – instead they had dyslexia. This is the point in the interviews when most children and parents would cry with happiness. So here is the problem: Diagnosis = a paradigm shift in the child’s perception of how they ‘fit in’ = increased confidence when appropriate provision is implemented. Take away the diagnosis and you have yet more stories of children contemplating taking their own lives (as early as 11 years old). I’m not sure how we can take Professor Elliott’s research seriously anyway. If he admits he cannot effectively diagnose dyslexia, or implement any provision that is meaningful, then who did he use as his case studies? Besides, he has a book to launch and several conferences to publicise. Another argument for the dyslexic debate to move over to the medical world where both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies are used rather than educationalists using arbitrary techniques.

    • David Didau February 27, 2014 at 9:02 am - Reply

      Yes of course it comes as a profound relief to all the children from advantaged backgrounds who are fortunate enough to get dyslexia labels to hear that they’re not stupid. My concern is for poor readers from less advantaged backgrounds whose parents are less able to fight for the children. These kids get to keep the ‘thick’ label. The research that you seem to want to dismiss shows that there is no difference between weak readers and dyslexics and that both respond to the same interventions. As long as one group is privileged over the other we are institutionalising unfairness. And as always the middle classes get the better deal.

      Using ad hominem arguments against academics just cos they’ve a book to publicise is extremely weak logic.

      • Mary Domange February 27, 2014 at 11:38 am - Reply

        It seems that you haven’t read my comments above re middle class parents in an earlier comment. See above.

        • David Didau February 27, 2014 at 11:48 am - Reply

          What, this?

          “The examples you give of two students who both in my view are suffering from extremely low self esteem and perhaps a family background where an understanding of what is needed in these cases may be lacking or misinterpreted. They may or may not be dyslexic, they may indeed have a ‘reading difficulty’ due to lack of appropriate teaching at a younger age. They may also be children who are not lucky enough to have parents equipped with the tools to make sense of this diagnosis. ”

          That’s rather patronising, isn’t it? Seeing as you don’t anything about these individuals other than what I’ve told you, you’re jumping to a lot of conclusions.

          Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I haven’t read your comments. Obviously you feel passionately about this and want only the best for those that suffer with dyslexia. So do I. But the issue is wider. I want the best for all children with reading difficulties and ‘dyslexia’ seems to work to prevent that.

          I realise I’m not going to persuade you, and that’s fine. But suggesting that we should question something’s validity seems close to religious fundamentalism.

          And btw, having visited Mossbourne on a number of occasions I can tell you that their success has not “been achieved by embracing the term dyslexia and putting into place key strategies for dealing with it” but by consistent, rigorous high expectations and standards in all areas.

          • Mary Domange February 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm

            Religious fundamentalist? Patronising? Middle class concerns? Seems I have touched a nerve. I agree that the rigorous standards at Mossbourne are a large part of their success, but it is not by applying only this that all students are able to benefit. As I think I have made perfectly clear, what dyslexics need is more people fighting their corner and not more people questioning their condition and adding to their low self esteem. If I am able to help not just my own child, but others in the process, then I feel that is an absolute obligation on my part. There are many many parents who, because of their own poor experiences within the school system, perhaps because of their own dyslexia, feel unable to offer the support needed. If you find this patronising then it only confirms everything I have already said. Your views are discriminatory, in common with a large proportion of the teaching profession and the popular press. If a child came to school with a visual impairment, no one would dream of questioning the validity of his or her condition. The problem is that ‘dyslexia’ – I am sure we will find a better definition in years to come – is invisible and therefore it is easy to dismiss and enjoyable to define it as a middle class problem. It is not because ‘middle class’ parents tend to have the resources to seek extra help and to pay for expensive testing – which should, of course, be free to all who need it – that they have invented the problem. It is deeply unfair that many, many children are not receiving the diagnosis they actually need in order to achieve the recognition they deserve. I find your continual refusal to see it as any different from a ‘reading difficulty’ as beyond patronising and certainly no help to families in which it has a long genetic history, about which you are in complete denial. I wonder have you ever visited one of the few dedicated schools for dyslexic students? They are prohibitively expensive for all but the super wealthy, or the few lucky enough to get local authority funding. I am sure they would be delighted to experience the benefit of your teaching methods and to see how very quickly their students start to read and write. Perhaps you could write a book?

          • David Didau February 27, 2014 at 1:11 pm

            I have written a book: in fact two. Feel free to read them 🙂

      • Mary Domange February 27, 2014 at 1:23 pm - Reply

        ‘My concern is for poor readers from less advantaged backgrounds whose parents are less able to fight for the children. ‘ In my comment above, I mention the fact that some parents may not have the specific tools needed – not that the fact that they are less advantaged making them less able to fight. But this is interesting in that a) you agree that a fight is necessary and b) you seem to be happy to make judgements yourself regarding the parents of children who you identify as less advantaged but that when I made an almost identical point you labelled it as ‘patronising.’

  42. Mary Domange February 27, 2014 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Thank you David Neal for saying what every single one of us parents of a dyslexic child (for want of a better word) lives every single day. When our bright 7 year old daughter came home from school telling us she wanted to put a gun to her head, we were horrified. She had gone from being a happy, clever, sociable, highly motivated little girl to being depressed, unhappy and withdrawn. the change took place slowly over around 3 years, during which time she was given a great deal of individual help with her ‘reading difficulties’ both by the school and by me. She was read to and read with. She was taught in phonetics and also by looking at words globally. Nothing worked. She loved her story books and remembered them all off by heart, she could do maths sums in seconds, but she could not read. I discovered at this time that her father, whose difficulties I had put down to having English as a second (feeble) language, had never been diagnosed but had huge problems with reading and writing and things started to become clear. He was continually punished at his school for being stupid and left with no qualifications. As I have said previously, he finally found his way through it all by moving to the UK and setting up his own business – hiding behind the language barrier as a way of managing his dyslexia.

    The day of our daughter’s ‘dyslexia diagnosis’ aged 9 is still a day that she remembers with great joy. She felt as though someone had finally explained to her that the fact she couldn’t grasp this seemingly straightforward business of reading and writing was not in fact because she was stupid – as so many commentators like to imply. She had an identifiable disorder. It took us two years of changing her school, drafting in extra help and finally taking her to the Ed Psych to get that diagnosis. She is 18 now and has struggled all along the way but is determined to get to university – possibly taking 3 years to complete 6th form in order to get the grades she needs. Her understanding and logic in many complex subjects are phenomenal. Her ability to write fluently and to express herself on paper is still weak, and she still faces daily discrimination from teachers and fellow pupils, despite her efforts, extra help, extra time, special glasses, kindle reader, laptop, spell check etc etc. I don’t know another person of her intelligence who would struggle in this way if they did not have some sort of disorder – something that is clear from reading the contributions of other intelligent dyslexics in this forum. It is not curable and there is a clear genetic link. Why would anyone want to refute that? (Unless it was, of course, to create unnecessary controversy and to self publicise rather than to genuinely try to help the sufferers.) This doesn’t mean that some people with reading difficulties do not have dyslexia – of course that is true – but that a genetic disorder which makes processing text, speech and affects concentration, focus etc does not exist is just plain stupid.

    What we need is more research, greater definition and and end to this discrimination which newspapers and people such as Professor Elliot dearly love to publicise.

    • David Didau February 27, 2014 at 11:29 am - Reply

      Your daughter’s story is sobering. But consider this, many thousands of children with the same reading difficulties don’t get dyslexia diagnoses because of the backgrounds. They are often consigned to the scrapheap of education. What if instead of funnelling all our resources at the few fortunate enough to get the diagnosis, we treated all children with reading difficulties as if they were capable and as if their problems were solvable? What if we decided to make a concerted effort to do away with the stigma bought about by not being able to decode?

      What we actually need is for all children to have the same advantages as your daughter.

  43. Mary Domange February 27, 2014 at 11:48 am - Reply

    I totally agree as I have commented in great depth previously in this forum. Please re read my detailed statement on this above. The system is inherently unfair to the less advantaged children in our society. Every child deserves the same input from school, and more so if they are not receiving this at home. When my daughter’s Senco teacher in primary school told me that dyslexia didn’t exist and said that the problem was that middle class parents were using it as an excuse for children who were not meeting their expectations of them, I realised that this discrimination works both ways. I was happily in the situation where I could prove her entirely wrong – but so many disadvantage families are not. They are treated appallingly and on that point we are in agreement. This is the sort of ignorance that is rife throughout the system and backs up my point that your comments only feed that particularly unhelpful school of thought. Far from it empowering the disadvantaged student, it actually contributes to their poor experience in many schools.

    You didn’t comment earlier, however, on my point about the highly successful Mossbourne Academy in Hackney whose focus on dyslexia has helped them to achieve great things in an area of great social deprivation. They embrace the term, have different strategies in place to help those who have a diagnosis, have a staircase celebrating successful dyslexics etc – as well as strategies for poor readers.

    This is the way forward, and not a rejection of the disorder.

  44. […] in May last year I wrote a post which asked whether dyslexia actually exists. Some people really liked it and others (particularly those with children who have been diagnosed […]

  45. David cardew November 2, 2014 at 10:57 am - Reply

    I love the bit about being miss wired the side affects seems to make the brain run twice as fast. Generally it seems to be a problem with spelling but that is not really a problem you just need to change the dictionary and teacher to solve that problem. People are under the impression that reading, and spelling is a normal thing to do but it is not, it dose not exist in nature so there is no scientific right or wrong to do it it just a conversation.

    I’m starting to suspect that it is like collecting sustistics, some people are good at collecting detailed information others are good at putting the big picture together. I suspect nature/God is much more clever than humans, it’s had longer to figure it out.

    • Steve Ryan September 21, 2015 at 3:38 pm - Reply

      “reading, and spelling is a normal thing to do but it is not, it dose not exist in nature so there is no scientific right or wrong to do it it just a conversation. ”

      Well, reading and writing are ‘normal’ for humans, as the fact that you wrote your comment and I read it would seem to prove. Humans are part of nature too. In that sense it is much more than ‘just a conversation’ (which, by your terms, wouldn’t be ‘normal’ either).

  46. MaryD September 22, 2015 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Having not commented on this post for some time, I thought an update may be helpful. It took her three years but my daughter is now at Manchester university. Unlike within the school system, she has been given a detailed assessment of her needs and funding to provide a laptop, software and training as well as free photocopying and extended use of library books. The software includes voice recognition and reading programmes which carefully highlight sentences on at a time. They also include a spell check programme which is far superior to the standard ones we have come across thus far and rely on phonetics as well as initial letters. The university have been incredible – not only in accepting that she has a special need, but in supplying the means to help her to learn. They have reassured us that many dyslexic students go on to achieve high marks at this level, when the bias against them is removed and they are allowed to pursue their critical thinking and analytic tools and not judged purely on their reading and writing. I had no idea that this level of support existed. It seems to me to be unbelievably cruel that dyslexic children are not able to access any of this support until they have managed to get through 6th form – and that during their whole school career their problems are reduced to nothing more than reading difficulties.

  47. SteveR September 27, 2015 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    In the course of 30+ years as an English teacher/lecturer in schools, FE colleges and universities I’ve watched the debate about literacy difficulties/dyslexia (and the industry that profits hugely from it) develop. I’ve come across hundreds of students like Ben and Carrie and am proud of the fact that I’ve managed to help many of them overcome their difficulties. My own experience supports David’s (and Prof Elliott’s) view that the label ‘dyslexia’ covers such a huge range of literacy and other deficits that it is essentially meaningless.
    If I am sceptical about the idea of dyslexia as an identifiable condition separate from other types of reading/writing problems it is not because I hold an entrenched ideological view that cannot be swayed by research, but rather because of my experiences with students (and sometimes their parents), tutors and dyslexia professionals. I could cite dozens of stories to illustrate this, but I’ll content myself with two.

    1. I taught Alice A level English Language. She had arrived at the college where I worked with an impressive raft of GCSEs, almost all at top grades. She soon established herself as the most able student in a high-achieving group and nobody was surprised when she left with the highest grades possible in 3 x A levels and went off to a Russell Group university. I bumped into her by chance when she was in her final year at university and asked how she was getting on. She told me that she was doing really well and was on target to achieve a First in her degree. Alice also told me that her personal tutor had told her that because of her rather scruffy handwriting she suspected Alice was, like her, dyslexic, and had sent her for an assessment. To Alice’s surprise, she was diagnosed accordingly and informed that she was entitled to 25% extra time in exams and given the use of a laptop. Alice went on to get her First. I met her again a couple of years after she graduated; during our conversation I asked her about her dyslexia and if it had caused her any problems since university. She laughed and told me there’d been no problems of any kind, then or now. She also confided that almost everybody in her tutor group had been sent for a dyslexia assessment and over half had been diagnosed as being dyslexic to a greater or lesser extent.

    2. At a university where I worked for a number of years a former Ed Psych – who ran his own assessment company as a private concern and was contracted to the institution – was known universally by the students simply as ‘the laptop man’. He received a standard fee for an initial assessment, then additional fees for any follow-up sessions. When I examined the accounts for the department in which I worked (I was in an administrative post at the time) I discovered that every single student referred to him over a period of two years had received both an initial assessment and at least one follow-up appointment and that almost 85% of students referred had been identified as dyslexic. I’m sure there are lots of Ed Psychs out there who will be horrified to read of this kind of practice, but colleagues at other universities have assured me that similar rates of diagnosis have occurred in their institutions.

  48. MaryD October 4, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Well these two rather bizarre accounts neither prove nor disprove all the previous comments. I am absolutely sure that there are dishonest professionals operating across the field just as there are dishonest policemen, dishonest politicians and dishonest medical professionals. This is the sort of Daily Mail argument that cheapens the whole debate. Of course Dyslexia is used to cover a wide range of symptoms and is not ideal – how marvellous it would be to have serious research and serious funding put into providing a more detailed understanding of how the condition manifests and varies – but to point out a couple of cases where the system has potentially been misused as an argument to say that the condition does not exist is unhelpful and misguided.

    • SteveR October 5, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

      Hi Mary. Thanks for your comment. Although you may think that the two illustrative examples I used were ‘bizarre’ – with the implication that they are atypical – I can assure you that I’ve personally come across many, many similar instances, as have significant numbers of friends and colleagues in education over the years, so such cases are probably not as rare as you would like to think. I hate to disturb any preconceptions you may have, but I wouldn’t touch the Daily Mail even with protective rubber gloves on: I am what would be described as an educational progressive, and my left-wing sympathies have led to me being involved in a host of initiatives designed to address the inequalities inherent in the education system and to maximise opportunities for those groups and individuals who are most disadvantaged by them. Amongst other things, I’ve worked in adult literacy, SEN, with school refusers, young offenders and Access to HE, etc so I think my credentials are fairly sound.
      Your comment about ‘how marvellous it would be to have serious research and serious funding put into providing a more detailed understanding of how the condition manifests and varies’ really overlooks the fact that over the years there has been a wealth of serious research and a huge amount of funding aimed at providing such a detailed understanding. David’s article gives links to some of this work; Julian Elliott has similarly devoted a large chunk of his career to the same issue. The problem is that despite this, there is as yet no hard evidence to distinguish between what is classed as dyslexia and other literacy difficulties which have not received that label (and thus do not attract the same level of resources).
      I don’t say – or even imply – in my post that ‘the condition does not exist’ – if you read it again you’ll discover that what I actually said was that ‘I am sceptical about the idea of dyslexia as an identifiable condition separate from other types of reading/writing problems.’ The fact that intensive intervention methods appear to work equally well with children who have literacy problems, whether the children have been identified as dyslexic or not, would seem to lend at least some weight to this view.
      I thus can’t agree that my comments and the examples I identified are ‘unhelpful and misguided’; although one of the examples points up the possibility of a dishonest professional, the other (Alice’s tutor) is an example of a well-meaning individual who did not stand to make any personal gain from her actions, but who had uncritically accepted the prevailing orthodoxy. I would add that what is deeply unhelpful and misguided is the attempt to portray anybody who poses questions about the usefulness of the term dyslexia as the educational equivalent of a climate change denier – or even worse, a Daily Mail reader.

  49. JonnyQuest October 5, 2015 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    I have never understood the opposition to Prof Elliott’s work. All he has ever said is that those identified as being poor readers should be given the same early intervention as those diagnosed with dyslexia. As seen above, any challenge is thrown down and deemed unhelpful and misguided, which in itself is unhelpful and misguided in the whole debate.

  50. what is ADHD dot xyz November 12, 2015 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    […] Does dyslexia exist? | David Didau: The Learning Spy – This post heavily references the work of Hugo Kerr in his excellent free ebook, The Cognitive Psychology of Literacy Teaching: Reading, Writing, Spelling, Dyslexia […]

  51. […] Dyslexia […]

  52. […] 2013 Does dyslexia exist? and Magic glasses and the Meares-Irlen […]

  53. […] case you missed it, I published a post on the dubious existence of dyslexia this weekend. A few people have been in touch via Twitter to tell me about the remarkable effect of […]

  54. traycie April 26, 2017 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    It’s not an excuse but sometimes it’s a reason. My youngest daughter failed to get any kind of help and support beyond the family home prior to year 9 because of people who thought dyslexia was a myth. Apparently she was just naughty. Trust me, she was horribly behaved at school (and never once allowed to think it was ok) but following a frustrating meeting and a bit of tenacity someone finally looked into helping her. She has Irlens (the thing that needs the coloured lenses) and, as you so delicately put it, the labels of dyslexia and discalculia. The Ed support at Uni says that’s a ‘full house’ (she’s in year 2 of a dance and performing arts degree and fighting every essay like an SAS veteran) I’m an English teacher, I read to all my children at night, helped with home work and sat and diligently listened to the Magic Key books three times.

    David, my question to you is where do we fit into your picture? My daughter had pretty much the same stimulus and encouragement as the other two, in fact she had an older sister busting to read with her, she had an excellent attendance record and was allowed to choose whatever she wanted to read from the local library once a fortnight throughout primary school.
    How has her ‘difficulty’ been a product of the environment around her? We have never had lowered expectations of her, or unreasonably high ones, we didn’t force her to apply to uni, she wanted to. (secretly astounded at her tenacity at Uni and in everything she does).
    I can see why you’ve formed your opinion, and how thoroughly you’ve thought it through but I think much of what you say is dangerously generalised.
    I agree that there are parents out there desperate for a diagnosis that excuses them from any blame when their child gets tricky to handle but I utterly refute your suggestion that laziness or poor attitude to learning is at the root of many diagnosed dyslexics problems.

    • David Didau April 26, 2017 at 9:25 pm - Reply

      Obviously, without knowing anything about your daughter beyond your brief description I can’t possibly guess as to reasons for her difficulties. As she only shares 50% of the genes with her siblings there’s no reason to think she would respond the same to environmental stimuli. The fact that she’s been given Irlens glasses is no different from being given a sugar pill. There’s absolutely no empirical validation for them, but if they make her feel better then that’s fine.

      My starting point in investigating all this would be to find out if she suffered with lots of colds as a young child. Was her early speech indistinct? Did she have any hearing difficulties. Its estimated that 80% of children have undiagnosed glue ear between ages 4-10 and this might well account for reading difficulties. It’s certainly more likely than a biological cause. All generalisation *can* be dangerous but I remain convinced that false diagnoses and pseudoscientific cures are far more dangerous.

      You say you “utterly refute [my] suggestion that laziness or poor attitude to learning is at the root of many diagnosed dyslexics problems.” I’m not saying that. Not at all. I’m saying that “laziness or poor attitude to learning” can – and sometimes does – *result* from dyslexia diagnoses. I think that the root of very many diagnoses is the result of children not having automatised phoneme/grapheme correspondences for a variety of reasons. The best strategy in these cases is to make sure they master decoding.

      None of this is a comment on you or your daughter.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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