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Graham Stringer MP is right: dyslexia doesn’t exist and never has done

January 15, 2009

This is a guest post by Letters From A Tory. It was originally published on his blog, Letters From A Tory, today in response to Unity’s post below. It is part of the Is Dyslexia A DisAbility? debate at Same Difference. Thanks to Letters From A Tory.

Dear Unity,

For someone who prides themselves on well-researched and weighty blog posts on different topics, you really have let yourself down this time.  In response to Labour backbench MP Graham Stringer declaring that dyslexia was a “cruel fiction” that should be consigned to the “dustbin of history”, your post over at Liberap Conspiracy simply wittered on about a fairly irrelevant part of his comments and completely sidestepped the issue of the research evidence on the matter.  In this post (which I apologise to my regular readers for being a bit longer than usual), I will try to squeeze in as much information as possible to hopefully explain to you and everyone else why dyslexia in indeed a cruel fiction and never existed in the first place.

Let’s begin with Graham Stringer’s remarks.  In addition to the comments above, he believes that the reason many children cannot read and write properly is that the wrong teaching methods are used and that children should be taught to read and write by using a system called synthetic phonics.  Mr Stringer also highlighted the fact that millions of pounds were being wasted on specialist teaching for what he called a “false” condition: “The education establishment, rather than admit that their eclectic and incomplete methods for instruction are at fault, have invented a brain disorder called dyslexia.  To label children as dyslexic because they’re confused by poor teaching methods is wicked.” He then made reference to the 100% literacy rates in South Korea and Nicaragua, which you spent the vast majority of your post criticising instead of dealing with the evidence behind his claims.  I’m happy to assume that your criticisms, despite being superficial, are correct.

The root of Graham Stringer’s assertions are probably based in part on the now infamous Dispatches programme back in 2005, in which Professor Julian Elliott made a remarkable claim: dyslexia is impossible to define and test as a discrete condition, and it is therefore impossible to diagnose dyslexia at all.  After spending 30 years in this field, he pointed out that “nobody has been able to demonstrate scientifically that there is this subgroup of poor readers that should be termed dyslexic [and] dyslexia, as a term, is becoming meaningless.”  Professor Elliott thinks that dyslexia is simply another way of expressing reading difficulty.  I’ve read quite a bit of his primary research (which I’m guessing from your post that you haven’t) and it is fascinating work.  When analysing the mistakes that ‘dyslexics’ make, some crucial patterns emerge.  If, for example, you looked at the reading and writing errors made by a 7-year-old ‘dyslexic’ child, you would see that they bear a striking similarity to the reading and writing ability of a child one or two years younger than them who has no learning difficulties.  In effect, children who supposedly have dyslexia are simply working at a lower reading age than their peers.  This does not class as a learning difficulty and goes some way to supporting Graham Stringer’s remarks.

However, what I think needs to be looked at further are your comments on dyslexia.  You said: “Dyslexia is one of a number of related conditions, including dyspraxia, disgraphia, discalculia, for which there is a solid body of research evidence supporting their existence – PubMed list over 6,000 research papers and journal articles on dyslexia alone, with almost 600 more currently in review.”  Lots of research papers on a condition says NOTHING about whether a condition exists and I’m surprised that you think it does.  Professor Elliott’s point about dyslexia is that it cannot be defined in its own right, it merely describes a cluster of symptoms that essentially describe a poor reader.  This is no “solid body of research evidence” saying dyslexia exists because no-one knows how to define it.  As Professor Elliott points out, he has found around 20 to 30 different definitions of dyslexia.  As an example, the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) defines it thus:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be lifelong in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effects can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counselling.” 

This is completely meaningless wishy-washy nonsense.  There is nothing discrete or testable in this definition, which is a direct result of the fact that no-one knows what dyslexia is.  At best, dyslexia merely refers to a cluster of symptoms that the vast majority of, if not all poor readers demonstrate – speech problems, writing problems, slow processing etc.  The astonishing thing is that the BDA websites then goes on to list “possible difficulties” that those with dyslexia might show: “reading hesitantly, misreading (making understanding difficult), difficulty with sequences (e.g. getting dates in order), poor organisation or time management, difficulty organising thoughts clearly, erratic spelling.”  What is this?  Hmmm?  Look at how absurd this is.  Even the BDA are completely unable to pin down what makes dyslexia different from other conditions, which speaks volumes.  The diagnostic tests that are used to catch dyslexia are even more comical.  They use a whole battery of cognitive tests, reading tests, writing tests etc, none of which are able to clearly identify dyslexia as a separate condition. 

The BDA and other organisations who support dyslexia as a condition say that it has a genetic basis which has been repeatedly identified and therefore dyslexia must exist.  Rubbish.  It has been known for years that reading difficulties can be passed on from parents to children and while children who have dyslexia may well have parents with dyslexia, this is simply the result of underlying reading problems being passed between generations and does nothing to confirm the existence of the condition itself.  There may be also neurological problems associated with dyslexia, but again this is widespread among children and adults with reading difficulties.  The use of coloured paper, coloured overlays and all the other accessories that go along with dyslexia have no scientific evidence supporting their use that I’m aware of and are merely another part of the dyslexia myth that people have created.  They may anecdotally help some children but nothing more.  The fact that, once diagnosed, children with dyslexia can get laptops, extra time in exams, extra help from teachers and all the rest of the package is an outrageous waste of taxpayers money and should be rechannelled into helping everyone learn to read properly in the first place.

On the subject of Graham Stringer’s claims that literacy problems can be eradicated by good teaching, he is absolutely correct.  The BDA’s suggestion that dyslexia is ”resistant to conventional teaching methods” is unbelievably crass and ignorant.  In Scotland, they have been running pilot studies using synthetic phonics for over ten years and the results are incredible.  You, the BDA and anyone else can jump to the defence of dyslexia all you want but the Scottish studies in several areas including West Dunbartonshire make you all look rather naive.  Through using synthetic phonics as a baseline in addition to catching reading problems very early in school and having a range of support mechanisms such as parental assistance, they have eradicated illiterary – it has effectively disappeared.  After a ten year research programme, the number of children leaving school at age 16 who were unable to read and write in one of the most deprived areas of Scotland was….  three.  Yes, three, and all of them got the extra help they needed after leaving school in any case.  Now if dyslexia really did affect the millions of people that the BDA claim it does, how is this possible?  In England where synthetic phonics is still lagging behind despite tacit government support, we have hundreds if not thousands of children leaving school in each LEA unable to read and write because the teaching is substandard, just like Graham Stringer said.  

The indisputable fact of the matter is this: it is impossible to define dyslexia as a discrete condition, no-one knows how to separate dyslexic children from other poor readers, no-one has designed a test to diagnose dyslexia, and if you cannot accurately define or diagnose something then it cannot be said to exist.  Graham Stringer’s remarks will surprise many people and to you they represent nothing more than a backbencher desperate for some publicity.  How very sad.  If you understood the research evidence on the subject, the conclusion that he reached is the only possible conclusion to reach.

Yours sincerely,

A.Tory

P.S. If you want to play the ‘my qualifications mean i know more than you’ game as you did in the comments section of your Liberal Conspiracy article, your Psychology degree looks a little weak relative to my Psychology degree plus Masters in Developmental Psychology plus spending months researching synthetic phonics and reading intervention programmes plus reading some of Professor Elliott’s research.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2009 1:18 am

    Interesting post. I agree with you totally. On another aspect, my take is that child development during the early stages is extremely important and no parent should ever forget that.

  2. Mike Ryden permalink
    March 11, 2009 5:28 pm

    Dear A Troy, I am aware of you possition on the subject of deslixia, and I agree that poor teashing is partly to blame, but at 49 this year and still strugerling to read and wright. You have proposed an idear of “synthic phonics” that I am unare of. Do you have any information on this, or source information?

    Have you read “Dyslexia, How would I cope.” If not I would be happy to send you a coppy.

  3. May 7, 2009 11:07 am

    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: http://rodduncan.blogspot.com/2009/02/labour-party-policy-on-dyslexia.html )

    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.

  4. July 27, 2009 9:35 pm

    Purported differences between neurological scans of good and poor readers are often presented as the neurological proof of the existence of dyslexia.

    However, the cause in the differences of those scans has not, until recently, been investigated; they’ve simply been accepted as proof of the existence of dyslexia for those with a vested interest in such “proof”.

    When “dyslexic” children are taught correctly, that is, using synthetic phonics, the neurological condition disappears.

    The cause, then, of differences in brain scans between “dyslexics” and good readers is how they have been taught. Dyslexia is an inculcated condition wrought by improper instruction that results in a temporal, neurological condition.

    There is no such thing as dyslexia; it is dysteachia.

  5. July 28, 2009 10:25 am

    Hi Vic,

    The fact remains that we have an observable phenomina: the existance of a group of people posessing a recognisable cluster of anomalous attributes – some strengths, some weaknesses. This group have been termed dyslexic because one of those attributes is a problem dealing with text.

    The fact that good teaching (which will probably include phonics, synthetic or otherwise) can help these people overcome many of their difficulties in learning to read and write, does not remove the fact that they are a statistically identifiable population. Nor does learning to read and write remove the range of other issues that dyslexics face when trying to intigrate with a non-dyslexic world.

    Happily the recently published report by Sir Jim Rose concludes that dyslexia does exist and makes many sensible recommendations.

  6. Isobel Appleton permalink
    December 6, 2009 3:18 pm

    I have just read an online book called Restoring Reading Deficits which tackles this question head on. The author is currently focused on Blakeney Pimary School in Glouces (among others) The school predicts that about half of their current Year 6 children will achieve the below average level in reading and the project now claims controversially that they will now achieve the above average level in the UK Key Stage 2 tests next summer(2010)

    Isobel Appleton

  7. May 27, 2010 11:06 am

    There certainly is a dyslexic condition. Those who have it have absolutely no doubt. It is equally certain however that the dyslexic condition does not prevent children from learning to read – it only means that they require a different teaching strategy. Since most non-English speaking countries routinely achieve virtually 100% literacy for their populations, why isn’t the dyslexia condition preventing them from becoming readers?
    The clue is in the English language. Most languages have a single grapheme for each of the 44 phonemes (or sound units) Not only do we have a number of different graphemes for some phonemes but these same graphemes can also represent different phonemes. WE have more than a dozen ways of representign the ‘oo’ sound for example. This of the ‘oe’ in shoe, the ‘ui’ in fruit, the ‘ew’ in threw, the ‘ough’ in through, the ‘wo’ in two, the sing ‘o’ in to, the ‘ue’ in blue etc etc.
    Check out Restoring Reading Deficits from my website.

    Eddie Carron

  8. May 27, 2010 1:20 pm

    Hi Eddie

    You state that “most non-English speaking countries routinely achieve virtually 100% literacy for their populations”. I feel this carries the misleading implication that English speaking countries tend to have lower literacy rates.

    Certainly, on pursuing Graham Stringer’s claims of 100% literacy in various countries, I found them to be contradicted by most sources.

    Wikipedia’s list of literacy rates makes interesting reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_literacy_rate

    Personally, I’d take any comparison based on that with a pinch of salt. Are we to place the same level of confidence on North Korea’s and Canada’s claims to have achieved 99% literacy?

    However, the point you make is a good one – English spelling is particularly irregular and difficult for dyslexics like me.

  9. Deborah permalink
    June 11, 2012 11:27 pm

    What a load of rubbish! There are several forms of Dyslexia, that have NOTHING to do with reading and writing. I love to read, have been an avid reader since my childhood. I have an intelligence level that is above average and I have a form of Dyslexia. Unless you have it you will NEVER be an expert on this. I would discuss this with American experts. They, at least know what they are talking, writing and researching regarding this VERY REAL CONDITION!

  10. Ava permalink
    January 25, 2013 1:31 pm

    I am trilingual and can say with certainty that ‘dyslexia’ does not exist in people who speak phonetic languages.
    English language is not phonetic so it needs to be taught in a certain way. That does not mean there can only be one way of teaching it as people have different learning styles.
    The current way of teaching is not flexible enough to cover those who naturally learn in a phonetic way.
    Dyslexia is certainly not a disability of an individual. It is a learning style that does not fit in with the current teaching style of English language. The same individual might not struggle with another language.

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