Exclusive: Diagnosing dyslexia is ‘wrong’, says leading geneticist

But campaigners reject remarks from Professor Robert Plomin - who also questions phonics checks - as 'inaccurate and misleading'

Jon Severs & Caroline Henshaw

dyslexia questioned by geneticist

Diagnosing dyslexia is "wrong" because "there is nothing to diagnose", a leading geneticist has claimed.

Robert Plomin has used an exclusive Tes interview to argue that help for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities has been "held back by this medical model that starts with diagnosis".

“It assumes there is a disease or disorder, that you either have or do not have something," the professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London said.

"We now know it is a dimension, it is not one gene but many genes of small effect. Kids have reading problems: what do we have to gain by calling it dyslexia?

"It is wrong. It is a dimension, it is more or less of something. There is no dividing line where you have it or do not. There is nothing to diagnose." 

But Helen Boden, chief executive of the British Dyslexia Association, said it had been long established that dyslexia and reading problems were not the same thing.  

She also pointed out that dyslexia was often made more complex as it occurs alongside other specific learning difficulties such as dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder or dyscalculia.

“Portraying dyslexia as a reading issue alone is inaccurate and misleading, and it misses the whole picture of the challenges that dyslexia can bring,” she said.

“Mainstream experts now agree that dyslexia is a complex neurological difference that affects, yes, reading but also many other parts of a dyslexic’s brain – some of these differences have a negative impact but many are positive.

“Because reading is only one element of the things a dyslexic will need to consider, a diagnosis is crucial to starting to tailor coping strategies for the challenges dyslexia presents and to understand the advantages it brings.”

Andy Cook, chief executive of the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity added: "Academics will always bat theories backwards and forwards about all sorts of issues in life, including the relative importance of genes vs environment, nature vs nurture.

"Meanwhile as a charity we are here to help people who have – or think they may have – dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties, to achieve better understanding of how they think differently."

Speculating on why pupils were diagnosed with dyslexia, Professor Plomin said: “Maybe it helps to just recognise that kids are different and then decide what you’re going to do: roll up your sleeves and realise it is going to be harder. It does not mean you cannot change the child.”

The NHS estimates around 10 per cent of the population, or on average three children in every UK classroom, have some degree of dyslexia.

Professor Plomin’s remarks echo guidance from Warwickshire County Council saying a dyslexia diagnosis is “scientifically questionable”, which was criticised in the House of Lords.

In his recent book, Blueprint, Professor Plomin also controversially questions whether the phonics screening tests taken by all Year 1 pupils in England reflect on the quality of their teaching.

Based on data from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), he says the results of the tests are “among the most highly heritable traits ever reported at this age… at about 70 per cent”.

“This means that the test is not measuring how well children are taught reading. Instead, it is a sensitive measure of genetically driven aptitudes for learning to read,” he writes.

To read the full interview with Professor Plomin, see tomorrow's edition of Tes magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. 




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Jon Severs & Caroline Henshaw

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