Questioning the dyslexia diagnosis

We need to intervene early to help all children with literacy problems, not Just those diagnosed with dyslexia – a condition that is  not easily defined.

I was working in a secondary school recently, and was asked by a succession of parents and teachers whether the five children I was seeing had one or more of the following conditions: dyslexia; dyspraxia; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; attention deficit disorder (inattention), and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Queries like this are informed by a medical model where diagnosis should indicate the appropriate form of intervention. In education, things don’t always work like that. Too often, energy and time seems to be devoted to assessing the nature of a child’s “condition” rather than providing meaningful guidance for educational intervention.

It is human nature to seek a diagnostic label for our difficulties. For many parents, receiving a clinical diagnosis is, in itself, reassuring and offers some meaning and understanding of a puzzling phenomenon. Nowhere is this more powerful perhaps than in the particularly sensitive area of literacy. Many anxious and stressed parents breathe a sigh of relief when their child is diagnosed as dyslexic. No wonder, then, that my argument that dyslexia is a highly problematic notion was greeted by a storm of angry protest.

What was my main message? Essentially it was the following:

• Contrary to the claims of some in this field, there is little agreement about how dyslexia should be defined or what diagnostic criteria should be employed. Many symptoms like letter reversals; directional sequencing errors; clumsiness; inconsistent hand preference; and poor memory are found in people without reading difficulties, and in poor readers who are not considered to be dyslexic.

• There is no sound, widely accepted body of scientific work that shows  there is a teaching approach that is more appropriate for “dyslexic” children than for other poor readers.

• There are effective programmes for children who have literacy difficulties but these seem to be appropriate for all poor readers, not a particular sub group. The evidence suggests we should intervene as early as possible with any child who is struggling – not just because there is a clinical diagnosis.

• Difficulties in decoding print have very little to do with intelligence. So, we can’t judge a child’s intelligence on the basis of their decoding proficiency.

• It may be helpful to define as dyslexic children who fail to make adequate progress despite several years of systematic intervention. Thus, those considered to be dyslexic would prove to be a very small number with seemingly intractable problems.

Having worked with people with a variety of learning difficulties for 30 years, I was not surprised by the strength of the reactions to my views, nor the many stories I received from parents about how their children had suffered as a result of their reading difficulties. Often these reveal deep anger and frustration as these quotes from parents’ letters to me illustrate.

“Are you saying that my child is faking it?”
“Are you saying that my child doesn’t have a reading problem but, in actuality, is stupid?”
“i’ve struggled for years to get teachers to recognise my child’s problem. Now they’ll never take me seriously.”
“You are the kind of person who does untold damage to people who are dyslexic.”
“You are a dangerous man.”

In responding, I have emphasised that reading difficulties are all too real and no one should accuse those with such problems of faking anything.

Social class is irrelevant, and the suggestion that a child with reading difficulties is necessarily lacking intelligence is wholly inaccurate. 

Some teachers are insufficiently sensitive and can underestimate a child’s intellectual abilities or wrongly perceive a child as lazy. Yet, we need to tackle this problem head-on, not rely on some parents’ ability to obtain a dyslexic diagnosis, the validity of which will be questioned by many.

As the power of the label grows, increasing numbers of people are being identified as dyslexic and this, in turn, is resulting in mounting cynicism and a gradual erosion of sympathy.

Behind the feverish accusations that my claims were damaging lies the very real difficulty many parents encounter in getting additional resources and support for their children, Too often, they have felt that they need to obtain a diagnosis of dyslexia to be taken seriously and access resources.

However, there is clear evidence that all youngsters with reading difficulties should have structured intervention programmes from an early age. Now, surely that’s a proposition few could argue against?

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