Dyslexia is a gift? Please take it back

16th September 2005 at 01:00
As director of a charity which has taught more than 1,000 "dyslexic" children during the past decade, I welcome Julian Elliott's debunking of the mythology which surrounds this emotive topic (TES, September 2).

I spend several hours each week explaining to distressed parents that their children will just fall even further behind while they are chasing a diagnosis of dyslexia - time which would be much better spent teaching them to read and spell. Although there is no doubt that many children have genetically-determined problems which make it more difficult for them to learn to read, there is no such thing as a dyslexic "type".

The notion that dyslexia is a gift is pernicious nonsense: as one of our pupils said: "If dyslexia is a gift, they can have it back."

However, the most interesting comment Professor Elliott makes is that "decoding text is, in reality, a low-level cognitive activity..."

Implicitly, he is challenging another myth which is perhaps even more deep-seated - the notion that "reading is understanding". In fact, reading comprehension is nothing but comprehension: if you don't understand what you read, you will not understand it if someone reads it to you. Whether you understand something - written or oral - depends almost entirely upon your knowledge of it.

This myth has had disastrous consequences. Synthetic phonics, by far the most efficient means of teaching decoding, is attacked because it doesn't teach "reading comprehension". There is no evidence that any beginning reading programme improves reading comprehension, other than by virtue of increasing decoding skill. In any case, it is absurd to think that learning to decode accurately in the first few months of school could make it harder to understand text. Synthetic phonics works because it focuses exclusively on teaching the lower-order skills, thus allowing even "dyslexics" to master the code very rapidly - and once this early pattern of success is established, all teaching and learning becomes much easier.

Tom Burkard. Director, the Promethean Trust. Riverside Farm. Easton, Norwich

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