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Alarm at talk of a dyslexia miracle

The nation's favourite anchorman has sent parents' hopes soaring, but experts are worried by the publicity given to claims yet to be properly tested. Julie Henry reports.

IN his authoritative tones, Sir Trevor McDonald announced a "groundbreaking" new treatment for dyslexia. The response was dramatic - thousands jammed the phone lines of the centre that had promised hope to the desperate.

ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald featured the Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Attention Disorder Treatment Centre (DDAT) in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. It showed three dyslexics, selected by the programme, who had significantly improved in six months. One featured was Ben Figg, 8, who, his parents said, had been transformed into a new, confident child.

The centre was established by Wynford Dore, who left school at 14 and made his fortune in fireproof paint. He says an exercise programme aimed at improving the functioning of the cerebellum - the part of the brain that controls co-ordination - could prevent a generation of dyslexic children going through the hell his daughter did. A number of studies have shown a link between poor cerebellum function and dyslexia. But Mr Dore's claims that his methods could eradicate dyslexia have alarmed dyslexia groups and academics, who worry they are premature.

Research for DDAT is being done by Professor David Reynolds, a former chair of the numeracy task force, and a government adviser.

Professor Reynolds has said: "DDAT treatment could be phenomenal - a physiological treatment changing literally millions of children's lives."

The first phase of his study involved just 25 children - seen as too small a sample to draw scientific conclusions. Professor Reynolds also did not have a "control" group of children who were not treated. The second study involved 50 youngsters. It suggested dyslexic children on DDAT programmes improved in reading, writing and spelling at a much faster rate than the average for all (including non-dyslexic) children.

But academics have questioned the value of comparing the progress of children who can read, and are therefore unlikely to progress significantly, with children who are struggling and involved in an intensive programme.

Martyn Hammersley, professor of educational and social research at the Open University, raised some key issues including the way a child's dyslexia symptoms were measured; whether like was being compared with like; and the reliability of generalisation on the basis of the samples studied. "The information currently provided is not sufficient to answer these questions," he said.

Professor Reynolds's assertion that "no (dyslexia) treatment has been evaluated as scientifically as this one" caused a stir among dyslexia groups and academics. He also says dyslexia is not a field characterised by high-quality research.

Professor Maggie Snowling, of York University, described his assertions as "outrageous".

She said: "I have been working in the field of dyslexia research for the past 20 years. Not only have we published in peer-review journals, but we have received awards.

"It is naive to think that the one cause of cerebellar immaturity and one treatment for correcting it would be effective for children with dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as the centre claims."

Professor Reynolds is conducting research involving 100 children at the centre whose improvements are being tested against national norms. An experimental trial to track a treated group against an untreated control group is also taking place.

Press releases from DDAT's public relations firm say the centre has a state-of-the-art testing machine which is used by NASA for measuring temporary space dyslexia in astronauts.

However, NASA has distanced itself from the centre's work. Acting chief medical officer Richard Williams said astronauts did not suffer temporary dyslexia and NASA had no evidence to suggest that any of its work might be effective in treating dyslexia.

But the fact remains that there is a strong body of evidence linking the cerebellum and dyslexia. Motor development programmes, brain exercises and work to correct inner-ear imbalance have long had a place in dyslexia treatment.

Dr Rod Nicolson, from Sheffield University, one of the main proponents of the cerebellar approach, said the early results from DDAT were "extremely promising".

However he issued a note of caution: "A key issue to bear in mind is that even if, as we believe, cerebellar deficit does underlie the problems of dyslexia, that does not necessarily mean that treatment aimed at the cerebellum will in itself help reading."

Mr Dore has said several scientific research studies would be made public in the next few months with significant findings. He said: "The centre is working hard to create hope for folk who need hope. People who have been absolutely cynical about this have changed their views completely when they have seen what we are achieving. Helping the millions of folk out there who are suffering is a tremendously strong driving force."

His optimism is echoed by Christina Woodroffe, a senior adviser at Bedfordshire education authority. Twelve children from two schools were treated at the centre. Ms Woodroffe said: "The results have been very exciting. We are extending our research base to a second pilot project."

Mr Dore has plans to open more DDAT centres in London, Bedford, Manchester, Glasgow, Newport and Sydney, Australia.

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