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Durham University

Durham University News


The term ‘dyslexia’ is unscientific and misleading and should be abandoned, according to new book

(26 February 2014)

The Dyslexia Debate - Professor Joe Elliott

The term ‘dyslexia’ should be abandoned as it lacks scientific rigour and educational value, according to a new book called The Dyslexia Debate.

The authors of the book, from Durham and Yale universities, say that valuable resources are poured into expensive and time-consuming diagnostic tests which are often highly questionable and a diagnosis of dyslexia does not point to distinctive treatment.

They suggest the key task for professionals is to spot reading difficulties early in any child and intervene as quickly as possible rather than search for a questionable diagnosis. 

The book, which is due to be published on 1 March 2014, shows that teaching approaches to help children who are deemed to be poor readers are no different from those who have been labelled dyslexic.

Although the researchers do not question the existence of the very real underlying problems that those with complex reading difficulties typically experience, they are critical of dyslexia as a term often used to describe a wide range of problems, of varying degrees of severity, in a haphazard and imprecise fashion.

The prevalence of dyslexia is unknown but it is often estimated that around 5-10 percent of a given population is classed as dyslexic.

The research reviewed in the book shows that it has proven impossible to identify a dyslexic sub-group that is scientifically justifiable and which has value for practitioners. The authors suggest that the term as it is widely used by teachers, clinicians and the lay public, has become meaningless.

Symptoms found in one person leading to a diagnosis of dyslexia may well be absent in another person similarly diagnosed, they say. The book points out that the historical, yet incorrect, belief that dyslexics are poor readers with high IQs is now widely understood to be wrong. However, they suggest there remain many practitioners and clinicians who wholly inappropriately continue to use a discrepancy between reading performance and IQ as a key criterion for judging someone as dyslexic.

Book author, Julian Elliott, a former teacher of children with learning difficulties and educational psychologist, and currently Professor of Education at Durham University, said: “Parents are being woefully misled about the value of a dyslexia diagnosis.

“In every country, and in every language, a significant proportion of children struggle to master the skill of reading and some will continue to find it difficult throughout their childhood and into adulthood. It is very easy for teachers to identify such children. The hardship and difficulties that typically result are often incapacitating, undermining and distressing.

"Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.

“Research in this field clearly demonstrates that this is a grave misunderstanding."

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, is the result of a five year examination by the authors of current knowledge of reading difficulties, across the fields of education, genetics, neuroscience and psychology, combined with the authors’ extensive experience as teachers and clinicians.

Dr Gay Keegan, District Senior Educational Psychologist in Hampshire, said: “As an applied educational psychologist I do not find the term ‘dyslexia’ helpful since there appears to be no unifying aetiology, identifying characteristics, prognosis or response to interventions which all people with ‘dyslexia’ share.

“So, rather than considering a single entity, I find it helpful to consider different reasons for reading difficulties, using a functional analysis rather than looking for a label.

“My approach involves assessing what the child can do and what they find difficult, assessing and enhancing their learning opportunities and measuring their response to well-delivered, evidenced-based interventions over time.”

The book concludes by calling for an end to the use of the term dyslexia. In its place it advocates the use of an alternative approach that ties more closely to children's educational needs. This would not be directed only to those who have the means to get a (questionable) diagnosis but, rather, to help all children who struggle to learn to read.