Dyslexia is all too real for sufferers

28th October 2005 at 01:00
To depict the condition as a 'myth' ignores all the evidence to the contrary, says Margaret Crombie

Julian Elliott (TESS, September 16) and Channel 4's Dispatches programme the previous evening told us that "dyslexia persists as a construct, largely because it serves an emotional, not a scientific, function". This sweeping assumption can only be an emotional response as no "scientific" rationale is cited.

Yet over recent years considerable "scientific" research funded by sponsors such as the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Novartis Foundation (to name but a few) has contributed to the body of knowledge that now exists around dyslexia. Are we to deny this scientific base?

The description of dyslexia as a myth has caused distress to a considerable number of "dyslexic" individuals, many of them children. To further compare them to sheep does nothing to add to the scientific credibility of Professor Elliott's reasoning. Why, I ask, does Professor Elliott adopt a medical model when referring to the "diagnosis" of dyslexia? "Assessment"

is the term most educationists would use. Though there is no widespread agreement as to the best assessment tools to use, assessment is helpful in planning a programme to support a pupil's learning. If we don't know where the child is at, how do we know where they should be going? The Assessment is for Learning triangle which considers assessment for learning, assessment as learning and assessment of learning is a useful model which one could well apply to dyslexia.

To bring IQ into the argument does nothing to add credibility. IQ has ceased being necessary for the assessment of dyslexia. Teachers have always known that many children can learn to read in spite of lack of points on an IQ scale and sometimes also in spite of poor social experiences or any lack of books at home. Whatever IQ is, it isn't entirely necessary in order to learn to read.

My own definition of dyslexia as "a difficulty with literacy which results in a person requiring a set of accommodations to be made to enable them to demonstrate their abilities" is entirely relevant to the practical aspects of education for children who, in spite of teaching, still struggle to come to terms with reading, writing and spelling.

Accommodations are defined as "a set of enabling arrangements which are put in place to ensure that the dyslexic person can demonstrate their strengths and abilities and show attainment."

Dyslexia affects people across a range of emotional and intellectual abilities. Just as no two people are exactly the same, so no two people with dyslexia are exactly the same. This does not mean dyslexia does not exist. What we must recognise is that there are common difficulties.

People with dyslexia generally find it difficult to process and fully understand the sound system of the language they are learning. These difficulties, which tend to cluster around phonological awareness, short-term and working memory, and sequencing, don't just make learning to read, write and spell difficult; they also make any activity which requires those skills more problematic. Hence problems with mental arithmetic and memorising multiplication tables.

It is not surprising, therefore, that with modern technology and brain scanning techniques we can actually identify the parts of the brain that are affected. And neither is it news to teachers that teaching can and does make a difference.

If one considers the range of famous dyslexic adults and suggests that they are the victims of some emotional construct, then we might all want that "emotional construct". For example, Richard Branson or Sir Jackie Stewart have the type of emotional construct that we try to encourage in our young people. They also have difficulties with literacy which none of our young people with dyslexia really want.

What is important, as the British Psychological Society stated 21 years ago, is what we do about any difficulties a child may have. The argument that children with dyslexia later get an unfair advantage when they are allowed extra time in exams is fatuous. Exams are there to test knowledge and level of attainment. If you don't know the answers, no amount of extra time will tell you. Dyslexia imposes considerable stress on the dyslexic individual, so to relieve the pressure of strict time limits gives the student the opportunity to demonstrate their attainment.

The Channel 4 programme and Professor Elliott have failed to acknowledge the benefits that people today can get from the use of technology.

Technology can read to us, write for us, check our spelling and help us produce acceptable pieces of work by ameliorating many of the difficulties people with dyslexia face.

Dyslexia does not ever go away. Often children can be taught to read, write and spell to an acceptable level. However, when introduced to new phonology, as when they try to master a new language, the old problems can re-occur, and the same strategies which helped in first language learning may have to be applied all over again.

Professor Elliott says there is no consensus about what dyslexia is.

Dyslexia Scotland would argue that there is consensus that dyslexia is a difficulty with literacy. Many would add that the difficulty cannot be explained in another way. For example, a child with a hearing impairment which is undiagnosed may have difficulties with literacy, but that can be explained because their hearing problem was undiagnosed until, for example, the child was aged six By that time, the hearing difficulty had affected the learning of phonics in school. But dyslexia can also coexist with any other condition, illness, emotional or behavioural problem, physical, sensory or cognitive difficulty.

For children and adults who struggle with literacy, dyslexia is only too real. Academic arguments over definitions and political arguments over funding do not help. We must recognise the suffering caused by ignorance, decide exactly what we mean by the term "dyslexia", find a common framework for assessment and apply this to alleviate the harmful effects of non-recognition of difficulties.

Dyslexia Scotland is committed to this end and is currently working towards achieving it. If the Channel 4 programme and Professor Elliott's article have brought this one step closer, then they have unwittingly helped dis-myth what they call the dyslexic "myth".

Dr Margaret Crombie is a director of Dyslexia Scotland.

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