Thursday, May 07, 2009

Does Dyslexia Exist?

I came across this blog article today and felt moved to write a response. In brief, the article states that 'dyslexia does not exist'. Regular readers will know I disagree. My response to the article is below:

To begin with Graham Stringer's remarks: he seems to have based his article on the astounding assumption that if someone can be taught to read and write then they cannot be dyslexic. He added to that with literacy statistics from different countries for which I can find no basis in fact. If his article was intended as a means of self-publicity, it has certainly worked. I did pursue the Labour party about it and they confirmed that he was not reflecting party policy (their response to my questions on the issue can be found here.)



In contrast to Graham Stringer's risible article, Julian Elliott's work is coherent and based on facts. The popular presentations of his work, however, take a similarly narrow definition of the problem. The argument seems to be that once a child has been taught to read and write, the question of dyslexia has no more meaning.

This is at odds with my experience.

I have known many adults who struggled through the education system, eventually managing to learn to read and write, but in adult life always felt out of step with the world around them - sensing that other people were doing things differently but not quite being able to put their finger on what the difference was. Then at some point (typically when they re-entered education) it was pointed out to them that they were probably dyslexic.

Suddenly their many strange quirks fell into a pattern. The fact that they could not easily remember left from right or track the flow of time or retrace their steps out of a big building. Their anomalous abilities were also pointed out to them. It was a moment of huge relief for many. A psychological burden being removed. A puzzle explained.

I am quite prepared to look at arguments that say the funding structures in education are distorted by the idea of a single one-size-fits-all diagnosis of 'dyslexia'. And synthetic phonics – wonderful. If it works, let its use be expanded. (It seems to be extremely similar to the system that was used to teach me after I was diagnosed with dyslexia back in the 1970s.) But to say: because we can now teach all children to read and write 'dyslexia doesn’t exist' is to miss the point entirely.


Dyslexia is a physical difference in the brain that gives rise to a fairly well established cluster of differences in functioning - positive and negative. It is not - as its name implies, and Stringer clearly believes - a synonym for illiteracy.

As to the assertion that: "if you cannot accurately define or diagnose something then it cannot be said to exist" - science progresses by making observations of phenomena that are imperfectly understood, forming hypotheses and then testing them.

Dyslexia was a term coined to described a perplexing phenomenon. Since that time understanding has increased. But no one would say that it is yet fully understood. Far from it. Perhaps, when the science of the brain has progressed further it will turn out to be more than one condition. I would think that is highly likely.


Early medicine might have described many different illnesses with the same words - “a fever” perhaps, or a “congestion of the lungs”. It took developments in medicine before the specific causes could be identified - different varieties of flu, which can only now be defined genetically. H1N1 flu existed before it could be properly defined or diagnosed.

Dyslexia exists also.

7 comments:

hayesatlbch said...

Of more concern to me, is that all the bad reporting and misinformation about dyslexia has the end result of confusing people.

The definition of dyslexia is a moving target and often seems to have one cause the is always changing.

I have seen 2 sources in the last week that say some dyslexics are very good readers.

My reply to that is that every dyslexic in every dyslexic group that has been studied has required the dyslexics to Not be good readers. As far as I know very good readers are not dyslexic by definition . Until very good reading dyslexics are studied as dyslexics I don't see how they can be considered dyslexic.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks for the comment. Bad reporting and misinformation seem rife, unfortunately.

One of the things that can confuse the situation is that given a problem people can react in different ways to it. So, for example, I am disfunctionally untidy. Other dyslexics I know have become extremely tidy - presumably as a compensation method.

Being a novelist, I go out and give public readings. People might well say that I am a gifted reader. The truth is, I have compensated for my poor reading by practicing the passages I read out until I almost know them by heart.

Niki M said...

Of course dylexia exists. Anyone who says it doesn't is being foolish and clearly doesn't understand that learning 'difficulty' does not mean a complete block. I think, as you say, one issue comes because it's somewhat a general terms for a variety of conditions. Another that parents are too quick to grab at it as a label for their child if he/she is not excelling at school, and that's not always helpful either. I know teachers who now groan at the very sound of the word, which can't be good.

Enjoyed hearing about your experiences and feelings about this Rod.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks Niki,

I do sometimes get carried away when writing about this subject. This article started as a couple of lines in the comment box on another blog! They have reprinted it as an article, though, so I am pleased.

John Kerins said...

Rob

if you want to see scentific evidence about dyslexia take a look at this link in my blog

http://neuron.typepad.com/neuron/2008/11/learn-to-read-through-sound.html

Nadine Gaab in The Childrens Hospital highlights one of the prevalent difficulties that some people have with language and reading.

John Kerins

Rod Duncan said...

Having been reading around the blogosphere on this subject, I have been shocked to find the degree of confusion there is between 'dyslexia' and 'illiteracy'

I'm really surprised. I thought we had got past that.

Permission to Mother said...

Thanks for your encouraging comments on my blog. I am excited to see that as a dyslexic you have become a novelist.

Recognizing that my son learns differently has been like a load off my shoulders (not just for me, but for him). Now we have learned how to approach reading, spelling, and writing lessons. I have a plan for incorporating more math and keyboarding later on.

Just because he will eventually learn these topics, he will still have to approach some subjects differently. Which is OK, we were approaching them differently with our homeschooling. Now, I just understand why I intuitively knew he would never do well in a local public school.

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