Janet and bloody John!

When I was about 7, my primary school teacher told my parents that I would probably never learn to read. Apparently, the suspicion was that I might be mentally subnormal. My mother wasn’t having any of that. Although she had no experience of teaching reading, she took me out of school, borrowed a set of the Janet and John reading scheme and set about teaching me to read. We spent several hours a day ploughing through the mind numbingly tedious ‘adventures’ of the flaxen-haired tykes. God I hated them

Some weeks later she took me back into school and told my startled teacher that I could now read.

Although I could read, I didn’t. Reading was just too much effort. But I loved being read to. My mum started reading Enid Blyton books as bedtime stories. She was a terrible reader. She’d get a few pages into a chapter and then just trail off. She’d just go silent for ages while I squirmed, desperate to find out what happened next. This would happen every night. Eventually, I got so frustrated I grabbed the book off her and read the damn thing myself! It was only as an adult, reading to my own children, that I realised her cunning trick. It worked though; I quickly became a fluent reader and tore through the Five FInd-Outers and the Famous Five before graduating to Narnia, The Hobbit and, influenced by my father, classic 1950s science fiction.

I have no idea why I struggled to learn to read and wasn’t really aware of any of this until many years later. Whatever the reason, clearly there was no cognitive or neurological reason for my difficulties. Or if there was, the combination of Janet and John and my mother’s steely determination somehow seemed to clear it up.

Now clearly it would be a mistake to universalise from my own experience. I’m happy to accept that some children might have cognitive or neurological conditions which prevent them from learning to read fluently, but my experience makes me sceptical that this is always – or even usually – the case. A few years ago I became aware that, according to the NHS, an estimated 8 out of every 10 children suffer with undiagnosed glue ear before the ages of 4 and 10. If they’re unfortunate enough to have this condition during early reading instruction they are likely to have difficulty distinguishing between different phonemes. Additionally, there’s reason to believe as many as 20% of children may have undiagnosed visual problems which might mean they struggle to tell the various graphemes apart. Both of these conditions are fairly easy to treat but are, all too often, overlooked. When you also consider that English is a particularly opaque orthography and that children find it much harder to learn all the possible phoneme-grapheme correspondences than do children learning French or Spanish. Instead, children are far more likely to be told that their reading difficulty is caused by dyslexia.

I’ve written before about my concerns with dyslexia diagnosis. Essentially, reading difficulty and dyslexia seem to be more or less synonymous. How can we distinguish between a child with regular reading difficulty and one with dyslexia? Well, the dyslexic child has a nuero-developmental disorder. But, how do we know dyslexic children have a nuero-developmental disorder? Typically, diagnoses come not from the result of a fMRI scan but on the say-so of a dyslexia professional; someone who makes their living diagnosing and treating children with dyslexia. Some people might imagine such people might have a vested interest in making such a diagnosis. I couldn’t possibly comment.

While it may be a minority view, there’s cause to doubt that most cases of reading difficulty are caused by a brain disorder. The fact that most people in developed societies become fluent readers is cause for both celebration and wonder. The human brain is not designed for reading. We evolved to survive in the Upper Pleistocene and our brains haven’t changed much since. The earliest examples of writing are about 5000 years old and it’s only in the past 150 years that we’ve expected a majority of children to learn to read. That we are able to ‘rewire’ our brains to turn written symbols into the sounds of language at an average speed of about 300 words per minute is nothing short of miraculous. If some children find this harder than others there’s no reason to think this implies there must be something wrong with their brains.

It’s my view – and I may be wrong about this – that a great many children who are told they have a learning difficulty actually failed to automatise decoding because of early audio/visual problems that have now cleared up or been resolved. What these children need is to be given the opportunity to acquire the knowledge they were unable to learn when it was most convenient for them to have done so. But what of children who are resistant to intervention? Could it be that they’re just on the low-end of a normal distribution curve? Maybe there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with them but just as some children are better at sport or music, some are better – or worse – at reading? This is certainly something of a consensus view amongst reading researchers:

  • Margaret Snowling: “Dyslexia is just another name for poor reading… Where you put the cut off between dyslexia and normal reading has to be agreed within your education system, your school, it could be a national policy, a policy within a local authority, there isn’t any gold standard.”
  • Ahmed et al (2012): “…dyslexia represents the low end of normal variation in reading ability where word-level reading is the key weakness.”
  • Rayner et al (2012):  “…there is little research to support the common perception that the reading problems of dyslexic children are categorically different from those of other children who struggle with learning to read” and “the continuous nature of dyslexia can make it seem like a fuzzy concept, as there is no absolute list of symptoms beyond a marked difficulty with decoding and encoding written language.”
  • Elliot and Grigorenko (2014): “[the position] commonly held by reading researchers whereby dyslexia is defined by one’s position at the tail end of the distribution curve of scores on a reading test.”
  • Peterson and Pennington (2015): “Dyslexia is mainly defined as the low end of a normal distribution of word reading ability.”
  • Mark Seidenberg (2018): “Dyslexics are children (and, later, adults) whose reading is at the low end of a normal distribution.”

To conclude that some children have reading difficulties because of a neurological disorder we would need to see some evidence of a difference in the brains of dyslexics and those with vanilla reading difficulties. For a comprehensive overview, this 2018 paper from Protopapas and Parrila is worth reading. They conclude by stating, “there is at the moment no evidence to suggest that difficulty in learning to read words accurately and fluently is associated with anything having gone wrong in brain development” and that “the field has been too hasty in embracing a position that is not supported by evidence.”

So where does this leave us? Essentially, ‘dyslexia’ is not an explanation for reading difficulties, merely a label for it. If that label results in more children with reading difficulties learning to read fluently, then great. But if it’s used as an excuse or a reason for why some children cannot be taught to read then it does a great deal of harm. Our assumption should be that all children can learn to decode fluently but that some will inevitably find it harder than others. All this means is that we should work hardest with those who struggle most.