Dyslexia 'just a label'

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Professor claims diagnosis makes no difference to the treatment. Warwick Mansell reports

A furious row is about to break out over dyslexia after a respected educationist said the condition "does not exist in a way that is of any help to anyone".

Writing in today's TES, Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham university, says dyslexia is a "construct" that has gained currency largely for emotional, rather than scientific, reasons.

Experts have failed to agree what it is, and being diagnosed as dyslexic makes virtually no difference to the treatment that the individual requires, he writes.

Professor Elliott says it persists as a label for emotional reasons. Poor readers wanted to be called dyslexic because of a widespread, but wrong, perception that dyslexics are generally intellectually bright. After 30 years in the field, he says, he has little confidence in his ability to diagnose it.

Crucially, Professor Elliott argues, it is not important to the individual, in terms of the treatment they require, whether or not they are diagnosed with dyslexia.

He writes: "Contrary to claims of 'miracle cures', there is no sound, widely-accepted body of scientific work that has shown that there exists any particular teaching approach more appropriate for 'dyslexic' children than for other poor readers."

Professor Elliott is featured in a Channel 4 documentary on the subject on Thursday, which will highlight an intervention project in Cumbria and north Yorkshire which is making progress with poor readers without seeking to label them as dyslexic.

The claims, which are to be followed by a conference next month in London, entitled "The Death of Dyslexia?", will excite fevered debate. Government figures have estimated that one in 10 Britons is dyslexic.

Professor Elliott said his arguments follow an exhaustive review of the research literature. But Professor Susan Tresman, chief executive of the British Dyslexia Association, said: "The professor's comments seem to imagine that one can encompass what dyslexia is within reading."

In reality, she said, it embraced a wide range of conditions, including difficulties with number and sequencing and retrieval of information, as well as reading.

There was no difficulty for educational psychologists or trained teachers in spotting the condition, she said. "Dyslexia survives as a term because it is a real condition, experienced by six million people in the UK. I know of so many cases which refute what he is saying."

Professor Tresman agreed it was not true that dyslexics were typically clever people. But the BDA's website tries to link the condition to positive characteristics, including that dyslexics might be "innovative thinkers" and "creative". For years, students diagnosed as dyslexic have been given up to 25 per cent extra time in GCSEs, A-levels and vocational assessments. Some 180,000 of the 26 million papers taken in 2003-04 were awarded extra time.

Another voice 18

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