Traditionally, boys are thought to be more prone to dyslexia, but Peter Gardner says that teachers should look out for the quiet girls who hide in class
Is dyslexia really much more common in boys than in girls? It's been assumed for years that it is, chiefly because many more boys than girls are referred to dyslexia centres, reading centres or reading clinics. The ratio varies from one centre and district to another, but between three and four times as many boys as girls have been reported.
But experts have questioned for some time whether there might be some gender bias in the referral figures.
As we know, boys with dyslexia tend to express their frustration: they play up and cause trouble. Dyslexic girls are more inclined to internalise their feelings and withdraw. Parents and schools are far more likely to seek help for a disruptive child than a quiet one. So do these figures really reflect gender differences in the incidence of dyslexia?
Several important studies over the past 20 years have sought to shed light on this matter. A study by Dr Sally Shaywitz, co-director of The Center for the Study of Learning and Attention Disorders at Yale University, involved 445 children who lived in the state of Connecticut from the time they entered kindergarten until the age of nine. The researchers found that schools identified as dyslexic more than four times as many eight- year-old boys as girls. In addition, more than twice as many nine-year-old boys as girls were said to have reading problems.
However, when the researchers tested the children independently, they found equal numbers of boys and girls in both years had reading problems.
A similar picture emerged from a second study by Dr Frank Wood, a professor of neuropsychology and director of The Dyslexia Program at Bowman Gray University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He and colleagues tested 485 children in local schools in the first grade and again in the third grade and were shocked when they found no difference in the reading abilities of boys and girls at either stage.
However, a more recent, large-scale study suggests that boys are more likely to be dyslexic than girls after all. Researchers from the universities of Warwick in Coventry and King's College London examined four previous large-scale studies of reading in nearly 10,000 children aged between seven to 15 who had been given standard reading tests in Britain and New Zealand.
These studies have the advantage over others in that they did not rely on evidence from children already known to have difficulties.
They indicated that between 18 and 22 per cent of the boys were dyslexic, compared with 8 to 13 per cent of the girls. The finding that there is a higher percentage of boys than girls suffering from dyslexia is consistent with the general picture that boys show a higher incidence of learning difficulties across the board than girls. And it has been noted by Dr Shaywitz and others that girls tend to process language differently from boys, using more parts of the brain across both hemispheres.
This spreading of the workload makes them better able to cope with reading difficulties. Girls have a better memory for words than boys. So it does seem that boys are more likely to suffer from dyslexia than girls - but the difference between the sexes is much smaller than has been commonly assumed.
The recent large-scale study suggests there are perhaps twice as many dyslexic boys as girls, not three or four times as many. And this in turn suggests that dyslexic girls may not be getting a fair crack of the whip when it comes to diagnosing their condition.
All teachers need to be on the look-out so that the literacy problems of these silent, withdrawn girls are not left isolated, undiagnosed and untreated.
Dr Peter Gardner is a chartered psychologist and expert in dyslexia. He is the co-founder of Applewood, a specialist school for children with dyslexia and related conditions in Wiltshire. This piece is adapted from a free fact sheet called Dyslexia in Girls, which is available from the school www.appleford.wilts.sch.uk
SIGNS THAT A GIRL MAY HAVE UNDIAGNOSED DYSLEXIA
- Tend to "hide" in class and prefer not to answer.
- Become anxious andor depressed about her school work, either in class or at home or both.
- Copy from or swap assignments with others who do not have reading or writing problems - watch out for surprisingly good performance.
- Become phobic towards specific aspects of the curriculum, especially where a lot of reading or writing is involved, or obsessive in her approach to homework or revision.
- In extreme cases, girls may become school phobic or truant, either full- time or to avoid certain subjects or unsympathetic teachers.
Shaywitz, S.E., Fletcher, J.M., et al. (1999) Persistence of Dyslexia: The Connecticut longitudinal study at adolescence. Paediatrics, 104; 1351- 9
Rutter, M., Caspi, A., et al. (2004) Sex Differences in Developmental Reading Disability: New findings from four epidemiological studies. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 291, No16.