'Dyslexia is not a myth'

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Academic arguments rage over controversial Channel 4 documentary. Warwick Mansell reports

The furore over dyslexia continued this week as Channel 4 broadcast a documentary claiming that most people's views about the condition are incorrect.

A dispute between academics involved in the programme intensified after one of them hit back at claims in The TES last week that there is little scientific justification for using the term.

"Dyslexia is not a myth," Maggie Snowling, professor of psychology at York university told The TES.

The dyslexia controversy started before the Dispatches broadcast with an article in The TES by a key contributor to the programme, Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham university.

Professor Elliott described dyslexia as a social construct which had gained currency for emotional, rather than scientific, reasons.

His argument provoked a massive backlash this week as The TES received its biggest ever postbag with correspondence on the website and by email and letter.

Last night's documentary began with this statement: "Dyslexia, as commonly understood, is a myth, and a myth which hides the scale and scandal of true reading disability." It then took aim at what were said to be a string of popular misconceptions.

The programme criticised a popular support scheme which links literacy problems with physical co-ordination difficulties, said that dyslexia was not a visual problem and attacked the notion that dyslexics were intelligent people who struggled with reading.

It also said that the national primary strategy was backing an expansion of projects such as one known as Reading Intervention, which Professor Snowling has been involved with.

"Those running the (national primary) strategy want to shift policy away from providing special help for those diagnosed as dyslexic and giving it instead to all children with reading problems," said the programme's narrator.

However, Kevan Collins, until last week the strategy's director, told The TES that this was not a new development. It had been the strategy's policy for five years.

Reading Intervention, which provides one-to-one support for children with reading difficulties and gives them help in making links between letters and their sounds, is already running in schools in north Yorkshire and Cumbria. (see story, below).

The documentary also highlighted differences between experts over whether it is possible to distinguish dyslexics from other poor readers. In last week's TES article, Professor Elliott said he had little confidence in his ability to diagnose dyslexia despite spending almost 30 years in the field.

The documentary also said that academics believed there was no way of distinguishing dyslexics from other poor readers.

But Professor Snowling said non-dyslexics tended to do well on the intervention course, while dyslexics fared badly.

The documentary said that after just 12 weeks, children's reading ages on Reading Intervention had improved by eight or nine months on average. But Professor Snowling said that 26 per cent of pupils had made no progress at all.

She said: "These are the children we should label as dyslexic, and we should have more intensive support for them."

David Mills, the documentary's producer, said there was no difference between Professor Snowling's position and the programme's.

He said the documentary was attacking only "the popular understanding of the condition", such as that it was a visual problem and that it was linked to high intelligence rather than her more scientific definition.

Professor Snowling's comments were made before she had seen the programme and were directed at last week's TES article by Professor Elliott.

The controversy broke after Professor Elliott told this newspaper that "dyslexia does not exist in a way that is of help to anyone".

He said this week that he had been bombarded with emails from academics, dyslexics and their parents, some from Australia and the United States. No academic had criticised his claims, but members of the public had.

He said: "I have had people saying I have sold my soul to the media, and that I'm a disgrace to the profession.

"I have a skin like a rhino, so that has not affected me. But what I have not said is that people (who have been classed as dyslexic) are 'faking it'.

"What we are saying is that their difficulties are so wide-ranging that the term dyslexia is not helpful."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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