By Focusing On Dyslexia, We Ignore Other Struggling Readers

The needs of some children are prioritized while those of others are massively subverted.
Identifying students with severe reading difficulties is something easily undertaken by teachers through everyday observation and standardized reading tests.
Identifying students with severe reading difficulties is something easily undertaken by teachers through everyday observation and standardized reading tests.
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

When people put good-intentioned energy into helping others, they sometimes inadvertently undermine the very outcomes they seek to achieve. One example of this is how we currently identify and treat reading difficulties in schoolchildren.

Emerging policy and legislation in the U.S., which is seemingly geared toward helping poor readers improve their skills, often ends up instead serving the needs of a burgeoning dyslexia treatment industry. This means the needs of some children are prioritized while those of others are massively subverted. And in my experience, the children who lose out are often those whose life chances are already reduced by socioeconomic disadvantage.

As a result of intensive lobbying from organizations such as the International Dyslexia Association, significant U.S. state and federal funding has gone toward identifying and treating this oft-referred-to “hidden” disorder. However, identifying students with severe reading difficulties is something easily undertaken by teachers through everyday observation and standardized reading tests ― it’s hardly hidden or unrecognized.

Dyslexia advocates claim reading tests alone are insufficient to identify this condition and argue skilled clinicians and special psychological tests are needed to inform diagnosis and subsequently recommend special interventions. This perspective is illustrated in a 2016 statement from the chair of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“The quasi-medical dyslexia diagnosis approach focuses only on the few.”

The belief that special tests can reveal otherwise-hidden dyslexia has rapidly taken hold across the U.S., despite the fact there are no clear criteria to put struggling readers into dyslexic and non-dyslexic groupings. I outlined the genetic, neuroscientific, psychological, educational and sociological research confirming this point in my 2014 book with Elena Grigorenko, The Dyslexia Debate. Interestingly, the major scientific studies in each of these disciplines involved participants who were typically selected on the basis of their performance on reading tests.

Too often, scientific knowledge is ignored, and cognitive biases and distortions are fueled and sustained by emotional concerns and self-interest that cloud judgment and obscure reason. Dyslexia lobby groups and commercial organizations, often offering unfounded precision and assurance, typically provide lengthy lists of dyslexia symptoms or indicators. These are often more likely to be present in those experiencing reading (decoding) difficulty; however, they cannot be effectively employed to differentiate between so-called dyslexic and non-dyslexic poor readers. This concept can be difficult for diagnosis recipients to grasp. As in the case with horoscopes, when given a list of indicators, it is often easy to find elements that apply to oneself.

Similarly, the belief that a dyslexia diagnosis will immediately point educators and clinicians to appropriate forms of intervention is based on a wholly inaccurate understanding of current scientific knowledge. Studies have repeatedly identified interventions most likely to help struggling readers (which Grigorenko and I summarized in our book), but there is no evidence to suggest any supposed dyslexic subgroup will benefit from alternative forms of treatment. (The fact there are no controlled studies that examine this issue shows the difficulty one would encounter if trying to identify clear-cut groupings along these lines.)

As a result, a common and justified complaint of teachers is that clinicians’ recommendations for children diagnosed with dyslexia are no different from prescriptive practices already offered for poor readers. Indeed, in research my colleagues and I are currently undergoing with school psychologists, we have found almost no relationship between the psychological testing and the recommendations subsequently made for tackling the child’s reading difficulties.

The dyslexia industry has become big business, as it offers the promise of revealing a child who is struggling with reading actually has a treatable learning disorder (while failing to provide proper criteria). For many parents, such a diagnosis reduces any (often wholly unfair) stigmatization and culpability they may be experiencing. It seemingly distances their bright child from other poor readers, whose problems can be written off as a result of their low intelligence (although this, too, has no scientific basis). It portrays their child as someone who may have special gifts or talents, even though such claims are based on anecdotes and have no scientific basis. And it offers (incorrectly) the promise of treatments that will help their child overcome a highly distressing condition. Who is going to take issue with such positive outcomes?

However, many experienced teachers and school psychologists do disagree with the dyslexia juggernaut. They understand that artificially dividing poor readers into dyslexic and non-dyslexic groups has no scientific rationale. Secure criteria are non-existent, and the most effective form of intervention ― structured, systematic phonics teaching ― works equally well both for those diagnosed as dyslexic and for others who, for whatever reason, are simply considered “poor readers.” They realize those who receive a dyslexia diagnosis ― and the additional resourcing and sympathetic understanding that result from it ― are rarely found in run-down, poorly resourced inner-city schools. They see children from minority cultures in many countries around the world rarely gain access to such dyslexia services.

This problem is not unique to the U.S., however. These issues have existed in the U.K. for decades. In the U.K., the presence of the dyslexia industry, which predominantly serves affluent, socially advantaged clientele, undermines our ability to exert political pressure to ensure all children who struggle to read receive the extra help and understanding they require.

Reading disabilities are not hidden conditions. A skilled elementary or primary school teacher can accurately identify these issues; however, too many struggling readers fail to receive appropriate services. The key task for policymakers and educational systems is putting in place high-quality interventions at the needed scale. The quasi-medical dyslexia diagnosis approach focuses only on the few.

“The needs of some children are prioritized while those of others are massively subverted.”

I often hear from parents who, while they understand and accept the core points of my arguments, maintain the only way to get extra help for their struggling reader is to get a dyslexia diagnosis. Teachers and clinicians tell me this as well. Whether a diagnosis is scientifically valid is almost universally deemed less important than the fact that such a diagnosis grants access to the help they so greatly need. This is understandable, but it’s surely not the way to ensure all poor readers get the help they need.

I exhort delegates in the U.S. to examine our long-standing practices here in the U.K. ― and then take a different path. Here, many generations of well-meaning advocates have inadvertently created an expensive dyslexia industry that rarely helps those living in the most challenging circumstances ― and that too easily allows educational inequality to persist.

We need to create effective systems whereby all struggling readers are identified early and receive scientifically validated forms of educational intervention. Under such systems, there would be no need to differentiate between dyslexic readers and poor readers; appropriate help would be available to anyone who needs it.

Julian Elliott is principal of Collingwood College and professor of educational psychology at Durham University in the U.K. He is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a fellow of the British Psychological Society.

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