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Dyslexia is not a disease to be cured

Peter Tymms on why official policies are failing children with reading difficulties

The Channel 4 documentary on dyslexia raised many issues as well as hackles. It generated fulsome praise from many in the field of dyslexia and beyond, but it struck a nerve with others.

Why? One problem is that the word "dyslexia" has taken on a variety of interpretations over the years, and it has provided a vehicle for people who want to make a quick buck from distraught parents. The now-discredited position that dyslexia should be identified by a discrepancy between reading and IQ is still held by some.

The idea that dyslexia is somehow different from severe reading problems is also discredited. But the real messages to come out from the programme and from the conference entitled "The Death of Dyslexia?", are threefold:

* There are some people who have extreme problems learning to read.

* Such people can be helped.

* Official policies in England have, so far, not helped.

These are clear messages and should offend no one except perhaps those responsible for policies designed to shift the reading standards in England. But even there the literacy strategy is now on board with new ways of working. Take each of these three points in turn.

There are clearly children who have difficulty learning to read, and in the final analysis the key identifier of someone with a condition that we might call dyslexia is that they fail to make satisfactory progress in reading.

It is not that they are behind in their reading compared with their maths, or talking, or IQ, but that they do not progress in reading as expected.

The proper route to identification is to have regular reading assessments throughout primary schooling to check that pupils are staying on track.

For most children there will not be a problem although there is bound to be variation with some learning to read rapidly and others more slowly. But those who do not progress adequately as they move through primary school and who fall behind their peers need to be taken seriously. It is a precursor to long-term problems and, for the children, a pretty depressing experience.

There are many reading assessments available, but recent work at the CEM Centre in Durham University has resulted in Incas (interactive computer adaptive assessment system), which provides a modern approach. It enables teachers not just to assess reading yearly, but also to diagnose the specific areas where there are problems.

Having identified children who have problems there are definite research-based ways to help that do not involve wearing special glasses, or playing with bean-bags, or other gimmicks. There are some children who have benefited from wearing coloured glasses and some who are dyspraxic for whom focused physical activity is helpful, but for the vast majority who fail to thrive in reading (dyslexics), the problem must be tackled directly.

For many children the difficulty has its origin in phonological awareness: an ability to discriminate and manipulate the sounds they hear and ultimately to link them to the marks on the page. That is the bit that needs to be tackled. There are other children, who are slow at processing, and others with working-memory problems, and these too can be helped. It is important to state that the problems can be tackled, the children helped, but that deep-seated problems can't be solved. People do not have a disease called dyslexia that can be cured; they have reading difficulties that can be helped.

The Channel 4 programme and the follow-up conference "The Death of Dyslexia?" highlighted the work in Cumbria set up by Peter Hatcher.

Further, the Incas project is accompanied by a booklet giving evidence-based advice for tackling issues associated with particular diagnostic profiles. Key researchers in this area include Professor Maggie Snowling from York university and Professor Keith Stanovich from the United States. Nor should we forget New Zealander Dame Marie Clay, who created Reading Recovery, which paved the way.

Despite our knowing more about reading than any other aspect of education as a result of solid research, reading standards in England have not progressed in a generation. That is despite massive rises in the official results of children in the end of key stage 2 assessment in English.

Independent analysis of several longitudinal datasets by myself and confirmed by the Statistics Commission shows that the English results (reading and writing) have shifted upward just a little in the last decade: so small as to be almost non-existent.

Neither the impact of Ofsted, nor the national curriculum, nor target setting, nor homework clubs, nor the national literacy strategy, nor the plethora of other initiatives, which together have cost hundreds of millions of pounds have had an impact. To use the word from Qualification and Curriculum Authority's own evaluation, the apparent rises in reading scores seen in national tests were largely "illusory".

I believe that the reason for this is that policies were introduced without sufficient attention paid to the evidence-base for what works. And changes were not properly trialled before introduction or properly monitored when they were in place. It is a combination of those three things, the evidence base, the trialling, and continuous monitoring that must be fundamental to successful ways forward.

We are now well-placed. We can learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. We can make progress with new ways of working, with new methods of assessment, with new ways of intervening. We can make a difference to those children who have severe reading problems whom we might call dyslexic.

Professor Peter Tymms is director of the CEM Centre, Durham university Further details on diagnostic reading assessment at www.cemcentre.orgincas

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