Special Educational Needs - Why the dyslexia label may do more harm than good

28th February 2014 at 00:00
Tackle all reading problems, says expert, not just diagnosed ones

Children should no longer be described as "dyslexic" because the word has become meaningless to teachers and encourages educational inequality, an academic has claimed.

Joe Elliott, an educational psychologist at the University of Durham, argues in a new book that resources should be put into helping all children who struggle with literacy, rather than diagnosing and treating only a "dyslexic" group.

He said that dyslexia treatments were identical to those for a range of reading difficulties, so a diagnosis had no educational value. He also claimed that middle-class parents were more likely to seek out the label of dyslexia, meaning that their children were more likely to receive specialist attention than those from poorer backgrounds.

Professor Elliott - whose book The Dyslexia Debate, written with Yale University professor Elena Grigorenko, is published tomorrow - likened looking for signs of dyslexia in a child to "looking at a horoscope".

"One of the problems is you get these long lists of symptoms and you'll find something of yourself in all of them," he told TES. "If someone is expressing any kind of learning problem, you're going to be able to go down the list and find two or three symptoms and you're going to go, `OK, that means you're dyslexic.'

"But here's your really killer blow: even if you do manage to identify your dyslexic subgroup, there's absolutely nothing that you do in terms of intervention as a result that would be different to what you would do for the other poor readers. There are no treatment implications of this diagnosis."

Studies have shown that dyslexia affects the literacy attainment of between 5 and 8 per cent of children of school age. But Professor Elliott said that rather than seeking to diagnose dyslexia, children should be assessed against a profile of skills, such as reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension, and other elements such as the ability to self-regulate and organise.

"What we should do is channel all the money in and make sure that every kid who has a problem has it addressed," he said. "You don't have to wait until some kids are diagnosed with dyslexia and give them stuff and the other kids don't get anything.

"There are a whole load of kids who don't have this label, and they tend to be kids who are less advantaged."

Professor Elliott said the concept of dyslexia had become "powerful" because anxious parents wanted to prove that their child with a reading difficulty did not lack intelligence.

But John Rack, head of research, development and policy at UK charity Dyslexia Action, said it was wrong to claim that the term dyslexia was "without value, both scientifically and educationally".

"If the argument is `treat all struggling readers as if they were dyslexic', then that is fine with us," Dr Rack said. "But we don't accept the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle.

"For very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call `dyslexia': helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome the particular blocks that are there."

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