Fact and fiction about dyslexia

28th October 2005 at 01:00
A debate on the controversial condition leaves the subject shrouded in vagueness, says Warwick Mansell

It was expected to be one of the most contentious educational events for years, with two rival camps squaring up to each other over an issue which has ramifications for the lives of millions.

Protests were predicted outside the venue, and there was even talk that the organisers had been urged not to go ahead with the gathering.

But in the event, the provocatively-titled "Death of Dyslexia?" conference in London last Friday turned out to be a rather tame affair.

As to the answer to its central question, whether the term dyslexia has outlived its usefulness, I must confess, I am very confused.

Hundreds of educators converged on the Friends Meeting House in Euston for a conference convened following last month's controversial Channel 4 programme on the subject.

This had suggested that the term, as understood by most people, was a "myth". Coverage of the debate surrounding the programme prompted the largest postbag in recent TES history.

Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham university, has become dyslexics' public enemy number one after saying that dyslexia should be pensioned off as a term.

At the conference, he argued it was not clear to him how to distinguish between dyslexics and non-dyslexics, or what difference it made to the required treatment whether that person was labelled dyslexic or not.

If there was one issue this meeting made clear, it was the degree of vagueness surrounding the term. Maggie Snowling of York university, who also featured in the documentary but has been at odds with Professor Elliott, admitted it was shrouded in "conceptual confusion".

Professor Peter Tymms, director of Durham university's Curriculum Evaluation and Management Centre, the conference organisers, said the condition needed to be defined more precisely for it to have meaning.

So far, consensus. But unlike Professor Elliott, Professor Snowling contended that dyslexia can be defined as a "neuro-developmental disorder with a genetic basis".

However, not all of those born with a tendency to develop the condition go on to develop it. The picture was clouded further by the language people learn: there were few dyslexics in Italy or the Czech Republic, for example, because these languages were more logical than English.

Most confusingly of all, Professor Snowling then presented research suggesting the most effective treatment for primary pupils who struggled with reading was the same, whether or not they were termed dyslexic.

Older audience members suggested this was just a retread of a debate which raged in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was argued that it was pointless giving labels such as dyslexia to the general learning difficulties of pupils.

So should we ditch the term? Professor Snowling then showed the writing of a 24-year-old man, who had just completed a degree in psychology but struggled to spell words such as picture.

The implication was that so long as such conditions exist, there will be a need to name them. Dyslexia, it was suggested, should not be killed off as a term.

But it appears science has some way to go before it can be explained clearly to the public.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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