Dyslexia does not exist
Start discussing dyslexia with people who have not really studied the subject very much and the chances are that before long you will come across someone who tells you that dyslexia doesn’t exist.
One of the reasons for the resurgence of this view is the work of Peter Hitchens, a notable journalist and winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing. Originally very much a political left winger, he now writes for the Daily Mail.
His essay on dyslexia in that paper is perhaps typical of his most recent writings and has been seized upon by those who argue that there is no such thing as dyslexia.
As such I think it can be worth considering it in a little detail – not particularly because I have an argument with the esteemed writer, but rather because his approach is one that many who argue against the existence of dyslexia and other special needs, utilise. And it is an approach that I feel is fundamentally flawed.
I doubt there has ever been a society so easily fooled by pseudo-science and quackery as ours is. Millions of healthy people take happy pills that do them obvious harm, and are increasingly correlated with inexplicable suicide and worse.
Legions of healthy children are drugged into numbness because they fidget during boring lessons, and countless people are persuaded that they or their children suffer from a supposed disease called ‘dyslexia’, even though there is no evidence at all that it exists.
The first thing to note is that there is no connection between the first paragraph and the second. Nor indeed have I ever seen evidence of “legions” of healthy children in our schools being drugged because they fidget.
But perhaps these are details we should not take too seriously. They are maybe just scene setters. And now the scene is set, for the article in the Mail continues,
Now comes The Dyslexia Debate, published yesterday, a rigorous study of this alleged ailment by two distinguished academics – Professor Julian Elliott of Durham University, and Professor Elena Grigorenko of Yale University.
Their book makes several points. There is no clear definition of what ‘dyslexia’ is. There is no objective diagnosis of it. Nobody can agree on how many people suffer from it. The widespread belief that it is linked with high intelligence does not stand up to analysis.
Although these points are indeed made in the book, they do not show that dyslexia, as a genetic issue, does not exist. Indeed there is much evidence to show that for about 4% of the population, unexpected difficulties in learning to read, given the learners' intelligence, has a genetic base. And that is what we call dyslexia. An difficulty in learning to read which is unexpected, given the individual’s intelligence and lack of other obvious causal factors.
Articles denouncing the existence of dyslexia are often to be found, and are often like this – they take the complexity of the issue as a basis for suggesting that the whole concept is an invented tale. Whereas in fact it is simply a sign that along with so much in genetics, it is complex and difficult to understand.
The key thing here is that no evidence is presented to support Mr Hitchens' view, and his quick summary of the book does it no justice at all.
But also, one may argue that probably the most important thing to know about Peter Hitchens' take on this, and the many other subjects on which he writes, comes from the Wikipedia article about him which says,
Peter Hitchens is an outspoken opponent of British Summer Time and describes the practice as "fanatical and dictatorial" and says the system amounts to "lying about the time."
It is perhaps fair to say that Mr Hitchens likes causes that have no evidential base, as well as enjoying knocking the hard work of others who seek to find evidence.
But in the end, on the issue of dyslexia, we perhaps might consider one other point. There clearly are people who find learning the rules of spelling far more difficult than we might expect, given their intellectual level. And if we find a way of helping to overcome such problems, surely that is all to the good.
On the other hand, what the benefit is in Mr Hitchens' article, is harder to ascertain.
Is it worth getting young people tested for dylexia?
You may suspect that a young person has dyslexia – but does that mean he/she should be tested?
Under the Equalities Act 2010 (which applies to all schools across the UK) schools are required to provide education suitable for the child's particular needs. But of course it is up to each school and its staff to decide what the needs of each child are – taking into account any professional reports that are available. There are some details of the Equalities Act and its provisions here.
In terms of professional reports as to a child or teenager’s likelihood of having dyslexia the only people who can say definitively if this is the case are educational psychologists who specialise in dyslexia.
Such professionals are invariably registered with the British Psychological Society or the Association of Educational Psychologists who can supply details of their members who specialise in this field of work. The cost of a diagnosis will vary but may be around £300.
After such a test being undertaken a report will be issued and this is as close as possible to being a definitive statement on dyslexia; however it is important to realise that this is a diagnosis – it is not a prescription for what to do to help the individual.
An alternative, less definitive but also less expensive approach is to use an on-line test such as that run by the Dyslexia Centre. Because this is taken on-line and thus is not personally overseen by an educational psychologist this is not as accurate as a one-to-one test but it still can be helpful. And because it is conducted on line it is much less expensive than a one-to-one test and full professional diagnosis.
What's more, if the test finds that dyslexia is present, the Dyslexia Centre provides teaching materials that can be used either by the school or the parent or indeed by any adult who can work with the child and who has a normal grasp of maths.
If you work in a school and wish to use the test there are details here.
If you are a parent concerned about a child, or an adult who wishes to know if you perhaps have dyslexia there are details here.
What is the multi-sensory approach to learning spellings?
The theory behind a multi-sensory approach to learning suggests that by giving pupils information via different senses, the learning becomes more deeply imbedded in the brain and is then easier to access and use.
So we might contrast learning by reading an instruction book, with learning which involves reading, speaking, touching, hearing, and (less commonly) smelling and taste. In addition, in some situations movement can be used to help learn the spelling of the word.
Pupils might therefore say a word, read the word, write the word, and then take wooden or plastic letters and spell out the word. And because of this approach of using different senses together, the learning is more likely to remain in the brain.
There is limited scientific evidence to back up this claim, but this is largely because children who fail to learn at the speed anticipated, given their age and their intellectual ability, are not normally available for experimentation!
Instead much of our understanding of the effectiveness of a multi-sensory approach comes from reports of children who have not been able to read and who make much more rapid progress once they are exposed to a multi-sensory system of teaching and learning.
However, it should also be recognised that in using a multi-sensory system there is an inevitable side effect; that is that the teaching process is slowed down. This too might be having a major impact on the child’s learning ability.
If, for example, one is teaching the spelling of words in a way that involves the pupil spelling out a word using plastic letters, this will take the child time and involve a certain amount of thinking. If on the other hand the child is asked to write a word down, the child will probably go straight for the task and write the letters.
That is not to say that the child thinks more about the spelling of the word when using plastic letters, but that the whole process takes longer and gives the child more chance to assimilate the knowledge. What’s more, if the child has got the spelling wrong, the letters can be rearranged physically to give the correct spelling.
It may therefore be the fact that in a multi-sensory approach an activity such as spelling is slowed down and the child is forced to think more about the spelling, that can bring about an improvement in spelling.
What’s more, if one is teaching spellings using physical letters, far fewer words are going to be attempted in one lesson – which again can help the child.
Certainly the addition of saying and hearing the word once it is written down also appears to help in the process of remembering the word.
We might also note that because this type of teaching generally takes place in a small group, each child gets more attention and again this generally improves teaching.
The act of playing
It has also been found that with some children the mere fact of playing with words can help them overcome their dislike of spelling tests and encourage them to see words as something to be used.
Thus although this may seem against common sense, getting a child to spell out a troublesome word with plastic or wooden letters, and then getting the child to play with those letters and put them in a different order to make up a nonsense word, can heighten a child’s understanding of the correct spelling.
Likewise taking a word and then writing it or setting out the letters backwards, and then saying the resultant nonsense word can engage the child, and enhance the memory of the word when written normally.
Thus one might take the word “foot” and set it out in wooden letters, and say it. Then the letters might be reversed and the child says “toof” – a nonsense word of course. Curiously that seems to enhance the chance of the child remembering how “foot” is spelled. Some argue that this is a poor approach in that it exposes children to wrongly spelled words; but others find the creation of nonsense words engages the children much more deeply in the whole process of spelling.
In short, there is no single multi-sensory approach, nor one correct way to use a multi-sensory approach, and experimentation which the child finds amusing can lead to enhanced memory of the spelling of words.
The only constant in all this is that the process is slow, but it can be successful, and does enable to the child to develop her or his own approach to remembering correct spellings.
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond), F.Inst.A.M.
The symptoms of dyslexia
All people with dyslexia have more difficulty with reading and spelling than would be expected, given their level of intelligence.
But beyond that there are many other symptoms that are commonly associated with dyslexia. A person having these symptoms does not necessarily have dyslexia – but if they would be expected to be better at reading and spelling, given their intelligence level, than they actually are, these added symptoms can be additional pointers to dyslexia being the central issue.
Thus if you see an individual whose reading and writing ability is below that which you would expect given that person’s intelligence, that suggests dyslexia might be present. If you then see any of these additional symptoms that can be additional evidence that dyslexia is at the heart of the issue.
These additional issues can particularly include difficulty with written work and taking longer than you might expect to complete a written exercise.
We can often find that dyslexic people find reading problematic and they can read more slowly than others, find reading aloud particularly troublesome, and may want to have a card or ruler placed under the line being read, long after others of the same age have stopped needing this.
Because dyslexia is not associated with intelligence, we can also often notice that when these people are told a story or given instructions they can answer questions and engage in discussion on the topic to a much greater degree than they can when asked to answer in writing.
Indeed this one point – being able to discuss matters verbally while having greater difficulty in writing things down – is often used as a key indicator that dyslexia might be present. It is not enough by itself for anyone to say “this person is dyslexic” but it is a starting point.
Another suggestion of dyslexia can be seen with people of all ages who have difficulties with sequences. Thus as a preliminary test we might ask a group of people of a similar age and educational background to explain a sequence whether it be the days of the week (as with questions such as “what day comes before Thursday?) or how one would make a cup of tea, or prepare for a bath.
A person who has greater problems than others in completing such tasks, and who has poor reading skills for his/her age and intelligence level, is again giving an indication of being dyslexic.
Of course the only definitive way of knowing if an individual is dyslexic is through having the individual examined by an educational psychologist. However this can be very expensive, and it does not of itself help the individual overcome her or his difficulties; it merely confirms dyslexia is the cause of the reading problems.
An alternative is to take a dyslexia test which is indicative rather than definitive – meaning it will suggest if dyslexia is present rather than say that it absolutely is the cause of the problem.
From there it is possible to use materials at home and in the classroom which can help the individual with reading and writing tasks.
There are details of one such test here It can be taken on-line in any suitable location, and a detailed set of results are provided afterwards, along with suggestions of materials that can be used to help the individual who has taken the test.
There are further details about dyslexia and the dyslexia test that the Dyslexia Centre operates which can be found here.
Does a dyslexic child need to be taught to spell in a different way from other children?
Most people have a “reading age” and “spelling age” that is related roughly to their chronological age and their intelligence level.
It is important to understand the notion of a “reading and spelling age”, because getting this definition clear is central to understanding why dyslexic people need to be taught spelling (and often other educational matters as well) in a different way from the majority.
A person’s spelling age tells us roughly how that person’s spelling ability compares to the spelling ability of others of the same age.
Since we know how well the average 10 year old in the country can spell, just as we know this for six year olds, seven year olds, eight year olds and so on, we can then immediately see if a child has a spelling age that is unusual for the child’s age.
To give an example, we might have a spelling test that has been given to many 10 year olds in England. Now the results of this test might show that 68% of ten year olds who have been brought up speaking English and attending an English school get between 38 and 45 spellings out of 50 correct on this test.
We might also have a similar test for nine year olds, 11 year olds and so on, and we will know what sort of results we get across the country.
So if we have a ten year old taking the test who gets all the spelling questions right we might be able to say (for example) that this child has the spelling ability of the average 13 year old. If the child gets 20 spellings right, that child might be said to have the spelling ability of a seven year old.
This sort of variation in the ability to spell is normal – but most of the time it is related to age and intelligence. Up to a certain level, the older the child, and the more intelligent the child, the better the spelling.
But sometimes we do get very strange results. For example what would we make of an 11 year old child who on other tests might be getting results that we would expect from the average 14 year old, and yet who in the spelling test gets the sort of score we might associate with an average eight year old.
In such a case the is not just an issue of being poor at spelling, this is something stranger than that, and this is where we might start to suspect that there is something in the child’s brain that is causing particular difficulty learning to spell. It is quite often what is known as dyslexia.
Now clearly the child in the example above is quite bright, but has very poor spelling, and is also almost certainly going to have very poor reading skills.
We see this effect in about 4% of the population – and these are the people generally known as “dyslexic”.
Such people can be taught to spell, at least up to the level of the average person for that age group, but the teaching has to be conducted in a very different way from the norm. Indeed the fact that dyslexic people do struggle with their spellings when educated in the standard way does show that a different approach is needed.
Certainly for myself, all the evidence I have seen shows me that teaching such a child in the standard way, but more slowly (an approach that some people advocate) does not work, and indeed can cause considerable distress to the child – especially the very bright child.
There are of course alternative approaches that can be tried, but I think it is fair to say that most children who appear to be dyslexic respond best of all to a multi-sensory approach.