"Dyslexia does not exist."
I hear this statement far too often. As with much relating to special educational needs and disability, dyslexia has been questioned and debated no end. And the arguments are often binary.
Does it exist? Is it a helpful term in the classroom? Are all dyslexics the same?
As a psychologist, I am frustrated that the debate has not progressed to something more useful and I want to unpick why this is.
Does dyslexia exist?
Let's tackle this first. The clinical diagnostic criteria for dyslexia are well established. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is the authoritative guide to diagnosing disorders for psychologists. The document, originally published in 1952 and now in its fifth edition, contains hundreds of entries that cover all manner of disorders from depression to neurodevelopmental, such as dyslexia. The DSM is used for clinical purposes and is well established by research evidence.
So why do people think it doesn’t exist?
It could be a problem of definition/understanding beyond the realms of academia.
Academics, including Professor Joe Elliot, of Durham University, have questioned the definitions of dyslexia and called for a change of name to "reading disability". I think he is right to pursue a better definition of persistent difficulties with reading because discrepancies in the current definition give weight to the idea that dyslexia does not exist.
However, Elliot doesn’t question the existence of reading problems and has said that they clearly have biological bases and cannot be ascribed merely to inefficient classroom practice.
The understanding of dyslexia and its characteristics within education – whatever name we apply to it – must be challenged, tested and modified, but the existence of it cannot denied. Dyslexia is recognised in public policy and legislation; for example, in the SEND Code of Practice and the Equality Act 2010. Dyslexia’s existence is enshrined in clinical and administrative codes, which bestow rights and responsibilities on children, their families and schools.
Clearly, some think that this isn’t enough, that somehow dyslexia and the "industry" that goes with it have infiltrated these codes to explain away children, who somehow ought to be doing better, and absolve ourselves of any responsibility.
This is not happening.
Let's put it to rest: yes, dyslexia does exist.
What causes dyslexia?
The DSM makes it clear that dyslexia, under the umbrella term Specific Learning Disorder, is most likely caused by an interaction between genetic and environmental factors, which affect the brain’s ability to perceive and process verbal and nonverbal information efficiently and accurately.
How does dyslexia manifest?
The key indicators of dyslexia are word retrieval difficulties; poor phonemic awareness; difficulties with word reading, especially under time constraints; and poor spelling.
There are multiple working definitions of dyslexia, such as that proposed in the Rose Review (2009), which emphasises phonological awareness, verbal memory and speed of processing. These attempt to bridge the gap between what is needed for diagnosis and what is practical to know in relation to school support.
There are clearly discrepancies between the two, which I believe muddies the waters and creates room for debates as to whether dyslexia exists or not and what, if any, impact this has on children and schools.
What does this mean for teachers?
A diagnosis of dyslexia is insufficient in understanding what to do in the classroom. It may not help a teacher understand the precise needs of a child with dyslexia. So do not roll out a universal dyslexia intervention. Rather, adopt a graduated approach (of assess, plan, do, review) unpicking what works, what doesn’t and where additional support – from a Sendco or other professional – might be needed. Such an approach benefits all children struggling with reading, writing, speaking and listening, and we can go beyond this debate and to a more nuanced discussion about how best to support them.
Dyslexic learners, like those with other forms of SEND, have common difficulties, although these will not necessarily be at the same level of severity, occur at the same time or be expressed in the same way.
It is undoubtedly the case that there are some very prominent examples of highly successful adults with dyslexia. However, the idea that dyslexia bestows advantages, over and above those we have as individuals, is of concern. For every success story, where a dyslexic person has beaten the odds, there are many who find that dyslexia means that school life for them is hard and frustrating, with a knock-on effect to their self-esteem.
Broad brush assumptions, while tempting, are rarely helpful.