Home » Dyslexia Myths and the Scientific Facts

Dyslexia Myths and the Scientific Facts

Myth 1: In English-speaking countries, those with dyslexia form a distinct and identifiable (diagnosable) subgroup of all those who have severe and persistent difficulty with word decoding accuracy.
Facts:
What was for a great length of time the most commonly used definition of dyslexia (‘IQ discrepancy’ where reading age is considerably lower than IQ would predict) was discredited a long time ago. No universally agreed operational definition has appeared to take its place. Without an operational definition, there is no scientifically valid way of separating the ‘dyslexics’ out as a special group. This means that all who have severe and persistent difficulty with word decoding accuracy could be correctly described as dyslexic. In short, dyslexia is a descriptive, not a diagnostic term.

Myth 2: This is the BIG one: those professionally diagnosed with dyslexia have inherited a brain defect. As a result of this ‘neurodevelopmental flaw’, they lack explicit phonemic awareness and manipulation ability (explicit PA), having failed to progress normally through what is believed to be the biologically-dictated development of speech-sound awareness: beginning with whole words, progressing down in size through syllables, then rhymes to the smallest discernible units of sound: the phonemes. This final stage is supposed to occur naturally in all children without the brain glitch around the age of 6-7.
Skipping over the earlier developing speech-sound awareness stages by teaching decoding using phoneme-grapheme correspondences from the very beginning of instruction, as happens in high-quality phonics programmes, especially if children are younger than 6-7, is widely believed to be potentially damaging to children’s ‘natural’ development of explicit PA, likely to exacerbate the difficulties of those who harbour the faulty brain wiring and could harm children’s love of reading.
Facts:
The ability to identify and process the individual phonemes in the speech streams of the people talking to and around them on their journey to develop speech is innate and universal in babies, but they are not consciously aware of this in-born aptitude.
”Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney [2008] showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech (D.McGuinness. RRF forum).”
Conscious awareness of phonemes (explicit PA) develops largely as a consequence of being taught an alphabetic (graphophonemic) writing system using high-quality phonics.
– ”PA is the result of becoming a skilled reader, not a precursor” (Seidenberg. Yale talk 2023)
– ”Much evidence suggests that children do not in fact develop phoneme awareness skills until they possess quite a high level of letter-sound knowledge” (B. Macmillan. RRF Newsletter 49. 2002. p13).
– ”In fact, no one needs to be explicitly aware of phonemes unless they have to learn an alphabetic writing system.” (McGuinness. LDLR 2005. p36).
In countries that use a syllabic or a consonant-vowel diphone writing system, children neither acquire explicit PA through natural development nor as a result of being taught how to read and write. Studies ”show the strong impact of the type of writing system and type of instruction on the development of phonemic awareness – an environmental effect, and restates the point that you do not acquire this aptitude unless you need it.” (McGuinness. WCCR 1997. p151).
Because of the great complexity of the English writing code, the majority of children need an extended period of high-quality phonics instruction in order to become fluent and accurate decoders and spellers.
Even when taught by expertly trained teachers, using high-quality phonics instruction, children will not learn to decode at the same rate for a multitude of reasons, not least that ”the ability to access the phoneme level of speech is heritable…on a continuum of innate ability.” (McGuinness. WCCR. p151). 
A child’s position on the lower end of the normal distribution curve for explicit PA acquisition is unlikely to be apparent (IQ, vocabulary size and rhyming ability are poor indicators) when they begin school, so providing all children with expertly-taught, high-quality phonics instruction, along with ‘keep-up’ tutoring for some from the start of Tier/Wave1 teaching, is essential to prevent decoding difficulties appearing.
”Dyslexia does not develop when children begin with a good SSP programme and when children who fall behind are identified early and given extra practice and teaching with SSP in order to keep up. Not a single child in the studies developed severe literacy difficulties.” (Dr. Marlynne Grant. 2014 report).
Individuals who fall on the lower end of the normal distribution curve for explicit PA acquisition do not have a neurodevelopmental flaw. All children, apart from around 2-3% with profound and multiple learning disabilities, can be taught to identify and manipulate the individual phonemes of the English language, using high-quality phonics instruction which includes the graphemes:
– ”Phoneme analysis sufficient to be able to decode is acquired much more rapidly in the context of print than in isolation.” (McGuinness. Response to Hulme) 
– ”Lots of studies show kids do better when phonemic awareness tasks are tied to print. Phonemes emerge in part from exposure to print.” (Prof Mark Seidenberg) 
Further reading: D. McGuinness’s book: Language Development & Learning to Read. 2005 p21-> The Origin of the Theory of Phonological Development & p37-> A Theory Becomes Dogma.

Myth 3: The prevalence of dyslexia is estimated to be somewhere between 4%- 8% of the UK population (Rose 2009 p11) and up to 20% in the USA.
Facts:
”Any attempt to determine the prevalence of dyslexia should be treated with caution.” (Miles p27).
”In the absence of a definition that provides unequivocal identification criteria, all statements about prevalence are guesses; they are value judgements, not scientific facts…The British Dyslexia Association’s prevalence estimates of either 4 per cent for severe dyslexia or 10 per cent to include mild dyslexia have been described as both theoretically and technically contentious.” (Rice & Brooks. 2004)
All that can be said with any certainty is that in every English-speaking country, a significant percentage of the population has word decoding and spelling difficulties varying from mild to severe.

Myth 4: Those who have been professionally diagnosed as having ”specific learning difficulties consistent with dyslexia” need a special type of intervention* that is different from that deemed suitable for ‘common-or-garden’ struggling decoders and spellers. Furthermore, this special intervention should only be delivered by qualified teachers who have undertaken a long and expensive training course approved and accredited (and often provided) by one of the powerful dyslexia lobby groups**.
*Go to https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/resources-and-further-reading-room-101/ and scroll down to the heading ‘Orton-Gillingham (O-G) / Structured Literacy Programs / Specialist Dyslexia Programmes (UK)’.
**BDA: ”Specialist dyslexia teaching: an umbrella term for approaches that are used by teachers who have attained accredited specialist qualifications in the teaching of children and adults with dyslexia. Training courses are accredited by the British Dyslexia Association” (Rose 2009 p199)
Patoss: The Professional Association of Teachers of Students with SpLD. ”(O)nly those who have passed a BDA accredited course can become specialist members of this professional association” (Rose 2009 p95)
Facts:
Having thoroughly checked the government’s use of evidence in policy-making on dyslexia, the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee concluded, ”The government should stop talking about specialist dyslexia teaching. Children diagnosed with dyslexia and children who struggle with reading for other reasons, are taught how to read in exactly the same way.” The committee also said that ”(T)he Government should be more independently minded in the formulation of dyslexia policy: priorities appear to be based on pressures from lobby groups rather than on research.” (S&T Committee press notice 18/12/09).
Elliott and Grigorenko (2024) recommend that ”The notion that those hitherto diagnosed as dyslexic require an instructional approach that is different from that appropriate for other struggling readers should be actively dispelled” (Elliott & Grigorenko. 2024).
Whatever their age or IQ, students who have severe difficulties with word decoding accuracy need high-quality phonics tutoring, not ”something different (from phonics)”.

Myth 5: Individuals professionally diagnosed with dyslexia have other difficulties such as poor short-term memory and rapid automatic naming (RAN) deficits in addition to their very slow and inaccurate word decoding and spelling. These other difficulties are used to confirm the diagnosis of dyslexia  The number and type of co-occurring difficulties vary from one dyslexic person to another, as does the severity.
Facts:
Descriptions of dyslexia usually include many soft signs, i.e. they are not based on data that is readily quantifiable or amenable to experimental verification. Soft signs ”are found in some people without learning problems and absent in others who experience learning difficulties.”(Rice/Brooks 2004 p22). Furthermore, ”Soft signs are not additive in the traditional sense: (T)he presence of more than one soft sign does not make a hard sign.” (Encyclopedia of Special Education. Vol 3 p1887).
– ”Forget about letter reversals, clumsiness, inconsistent hand preference and poor memory – these are commonly found in people without reading difficulties, and in poor readers not considered to be dyslexic.” (Prof Elliott. TES) 
– ”(D)yslexia has been linked erroneously to left-handedness, balance deficits, the persistence of infant reflexes, visual perceptual abnormalities and nutritional deficiencies.” (Prof Snowling. BDA)
– Poor rhyming skills (Rose 2009 p32) ”Sensitivity to rhyme has not been shown to be a strong predictor of reading skill.” (McGuinness. WCCR. p148)
– ”The fact that RAN (rapid automatic naming) tasks using digits and letters predict reading so much better than RAN colours and objects do, means that naming speed per se is not a factor in learning to read.” (McGuinness. LDLR p388) ”Naming objects and colours is a truer reflection of natural or biological based ability.” (McGuinness. WCCR p131). ”Rapid naming, phonological awareness, and reading. A meta-analysis of the correlational evidence. The results suggested that the importance of RAN and PA measures in accounting for reading performance has been overstated.” (Swanson/Trainin/Necoechea/Hammill. Review of Educational Research.73. 2003) For more research on RAN, see Prof Elliott’s The Dyslexia Debate. 2014 pp49->56
Distinguishing cause from effect – many deficits associated with developmental dyslexia may be a consequence of reduced and suboptimal reading experience.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23273798.2017.1348528

Myth 6: Dyslexia is caused by inherited, faulty genes with evidence coming from studies of twins.
Facts:
‘’The twin studies leave a lot to be desired, starting with the identification of their subject ‘dyslexics’. Most such work is done with the University of Colorado and their Prof. Olsen has recently (after the IQ-achievement criterion died) stated that the bottom x% of the bell curve of reading ability can be considered ‘dyslexic’ and this is great because ”if we deploy the bell curve of normal distribution we can bring the big guns of statistics to bear”. This is outrageous, of course. The bottom x% are not to be presumed all to have the same neurological deficit (or any at all) with no demonstration of same.” (Kerr. RRF forum 09/09).
”[Rutter and Yule] point out that if dyslexia was a true genetic ‘syndrome’, then the heritability should be identical in different geographic regions. Yet the poor readers scoring in the bottom range were four times greater in London than on the Isle of Wight, evidence for an environmental effect.”
(McGuinness. WCCR p135. Rutter&Yule. 1975 p194).
Rutter and Yule. 1975 paper ‘The Concept of Specific Reading Retardation’
https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1975.tb01269.x
‘‘The idea that people are born with dyslexia because they have bad genes and bad brains is an outmoded notion that should be replaced with concepts of risk and malleability that are dependent on instruction and early intervention’’ (Miciak & Fletcher. 2020 p7) Quoted in Elliott & Grigorenko. 2024.
”Thus, contrary to what practitioners may sometimes suppose, family relationship (familiarity) alone is not a reliable indicator of genetic heritability.” (Rice & Brooks 2004 p32).

Myth 7: Dyslexia is a visual problem – dyslexics sometimes see letters reversed, words transposed or moving around; this movement can make the words go in and out of focus, float on the page or drift up and down or sideways.
Facts:
Prof. Vellutino showed this was incorrect when he ”asked dyslexic and non-dyslexic American children to re-produce Hebrew letters none of them had seen before… the poor readers performed as well as the normal readers in reproducing Hebrew letters from memory…Absolutely no differences between the two groups. If anything the normal readers made more errors than the poor readers, so the poor readers could see the materials as well as the normal readers.” (Mills. UK TV documentary. The Dyslexia Myth)
”Teams from Bristol and Newcastle universities carried out eye tests on more than 5,800 children and did not find any differences in the vision of those with dyslexia…Where there were dyslexic children with eye problems, the occurrence was no more likely than for non-dyslexics, the study found. And a large majority of dyslexic children were defined as having “perfect vision.” 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32836733
A subset of this myth is that dyslexics can be helped to overcome their decoding difficulties by providing them with reading materials printed using a special font or altered text (Comic Sans, Dyslexie, Bionic Reading…), preferably on colour tinted paper:
Does Comic Sans really help dyslexic learners?
https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/general/does-comic-sans-really-help-dyslexic-learners
“I think teachers should mostly focus on appropriate teaching of reading, not too much on how the materials are presented.” (Dr. Eva Marinus). “The research says, though, that what really works is doing the long-term, everyday grind work of a high-quality, systematic phonics programme.” (Dr. Holly Joseph).
Dyslexie font https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/dys.1527
See Room 101 for full information on ‘Visual Therapies’, including the use of coloured lenses and overlays and colour-tinted paper.

Myth 8: Brain scan studies show that dyslexics’ brains work differently from non-dyslexics’ brains.
Facts:
In addition to the impossibility of identifying true-dyslexics as subjects for a scientifically valid study, ”The recent studies using fMRI, convincingly show what everybody who knows anything about the brain can tell you, that when someone can’t read, images of his brain taken while he is trying to read will look different to someone who can read. Furthermore, when the poor reader is taught to read, the patterns of his brain metabolism will look identical to someone who can!” (McGuinness. Response to Hulme)
”(T)here is a mistaken belief that current knowledge in [genetics and neuroscience] is sufficient to justify a category of dyslexia as a subset of those who encounter reading difficulties.” (Elliott & Gibbs p475)

Myth 9: The planum temporale area of the brain is ‘abnormally symmetrical’ in dyslexics.
Facts:
This claim is based on the dissection of just a small number of brains taken from people previously diagnosed as ‘dyslexic’. The lack of an operational definition for dyslexia, along with the tiny number of research subjects, makes this study’s conclusions scientifically invalid. Furthermore, ”35 percent of the population have symmetrical brains. Symmetry is not pathology.” (McGuinness. WCCR p118)

Myth 10: Short-term memory deficit is a hallmark of dyslexia. 
Facts:
Poor short-term memory ”is the symptom most often quoted as distinguishing dyslexics from other poor readers, and those who have difficulty reading are more likely to suffer from it. Yet, however disabling poor short-term memory may be, evidence suggests it neither causes reading difficulties nor predicts the outcome of intervention. In a highly regarded study conducted by Joseph Torgesen, a psychologist at the University of Florida, out of 60 children with severe reading difficulties, only eight had poor short-term memories, while almost as many – seven – had very good short-term memories.” 
(David Mills. The Telegraph. Dyslexia: A big, expensive myth.)

Myth 11: Dyslexia is an incurable brain defect. It ”will not go away with tuition, practice, hard work etc.” (Klein quoted in Kerr. Dyslexia chapter. 2008)
Facts:
”Shaywitz and others in the Connecticut Longitudinal Study followed children to see if the discrepancy diagnosis of dyslexia was constant from one grade to another. 25 children were diagnosed dyslexic in first grade and 31 in grade 3, but only 7 were classified as dyslexic in both grades. Of the 24 children classified as dyslexic at fifth grade, only 14 were also dyslexic in third grade.” 
(McGuinness. WCCR. p136-7)
James and Dianne Murphy illustrated the power of instruction with ”a well-known paper by Vellutino, Fletcher and Snowling (2004). All the Year 1 children in a US school district were assessed for reading, and 9% were found to fit a dyslexic profile. These children were taught with an explicit, systematic approach, with high attention to fidelity of delivery. After one semester, 95% were no longer deemed ‘dyslexic’.”
(J & D. Murphy. The Bridge Over The Reading Gap revisited part 6. 2020
https://www.thinkingreading.com/the-bridge-over-the-reading-gap-revisited-part-6/)
The majority of children who are still slow and struggling decoders on entry to KS2 have almost always received inadequate phonics instruction and/or instruction through the balanced word reading approach. Sadly, unless high-quality phonics tutoring is put into place rapidly, along with the elimination of any reading materials that would require the use of multi-cue word guessing, the negative side effects of early mal-instruction, such as the taught habit of guessing and a dislike of reading and writing, are likely to persist and fluency is unlikely to ever be achieved. If newly taught code knowledge and skills are not practised extensively they are bound to erode too.

Myth 12: Dyslexics are compensated for their lack of phonemic awareness and weak decoding skills by being naturally gifted in the creative/visual-spatial sphere: Famous dyslexic chef Jamie Oliver thinks that ”children with dyslexia are ‘lucky”. In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell describes dyslexia as ”a desirable difficulty” (see Prof. Seidenberg’s book Language at the Speed of Sight p178-185 for a critique). The ‘Made by Dyslexia’ charity suggests that ”Dyslexia can be a blessing” (The Times. Oct. 2020), whilst The Telegraph (July. 2022) has the headline ‘Why dyslexia is not a ‘disorder’ but an evolutionary advantage’. The Telegraph article goes on to say ”Scientists claim that people with the condition are naturally more skilled in discovering, inventing and creating new things.”
Facts:
Comforting though this idea is for some, it is simply an ‘opinion bolstered by anecdote’.
”Being unable to read is not a gift, not a superpower and sending this message of dyslexics being special is really unhelpful.” (Amanda, parent of a ‘dyslexic’ child. Twitter/X).
”There is no evidence that dyslexia bestows these capacities and talents on people. I understand it’s feel-good stuff, but it should matter if it’s true or not. It should also matter that these ideas can have unintended negative consequences.” (Miriam Fein. Twitter/X)
The late Martin Turner, formerly head of psychology at Dyslexia Action, said that it was a ‘travesty’ to talk about dyslexia as a bonus when it caused such suffering: ”It’s a myth that there are compensatory gifts. Dyslexics go into the visual arts like sheep head for a gap in the hedge. They aren’t more creative, they are more stressed.” (Jardine) 
In a review of the research on dyslexia in adults, Dr Rice and Professor Brooks came to the same conclusion. ”On anecdotal evidence, the belief that ‘difficulty in learning to read is not a wholly tragic life sentence but is often accompanied by great talents’ may seem attractive. However, systematic investigation has found little if any support for it.” (Rice & Brooks 2004 p18)
When researchers at the University of Edinburgh ”tested the hypotheses that those with reading disability are compensated with enhanced creativity”, they found that ”Stronger reading was in fact linked to higher creativity, controlling for IQ.” 
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104160801300040X
More recently, researchers in Chile explored the links between reading skills and creativity. Their findings did ”not support the hypothesis that specific reading disability is associated with better performance on creative tasks.”
https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/spanish-journal-of-psychology/article/abs/reading-skills-creativity-and-insight-exploring-the-connections/FFE2FF6477EB81B0C4C05008B85E4FC5
”The war of words over dyslexia: now it’s a blessing, not a curse” (Leah Hardy. The Telegraph. Oct 2020)
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education-and-careers/2020/10/12/war-words-dyslexia-now-blessing-not-curse/

Myth 13: Dyslexia can be accurately diagnosed by an educational psychologist or a ‘specialist dyslexia teacher’ using special tests.
Facts:
No scientifically valid tests are available that can differentiate those with ‘dyslexia’ from other poor decoders: ”After three decades as an educationalist, first as a teacher of children with learning difficulties, then as an educational psychologist and, latterly, as an academic who has reviewed the educational literature, I have little confidence in myself (or others’) ability to offer a diagnosis of dyslexia.” (Prof. Elliott. TES)
”Quite aside the perennial challenge of specifying how dyslexia can be diagnosed as a distinct subgroup of struggling readers and writers (spoiler alert: it can’t), there is no link between a diagnosis of dyslexia and what needs to be done to support a young person with their literacy.” (Joanna Stanbridge. Senior Educational Psychologist https://edpsy.org.uk/blog/2022/response-to-the-hancock-bill-no-starfish-left-behind/)
Dyslexia misconceptions among dyslexia assessors:
https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/dyslexia-misconceptions-among-dyslexia-assessors
Because of their inability to give a legitimate diagnosis (there is no universally agreed operational definition, or legal definition of dyslexia in England (Singleton. 2009 p16), a specialist dyslexia teacher or educational psychologist’s written report is very unlikely to include the concrete label of dyslexia. Instead, it will substitute words such as, ”has a specific weakness in phonological development” (see Myth 2), or it will be hedged about with words that avoid commitment to a definitive diagnosis: ”exhibited a pattern of difficulties characteristic of dyslexia” (see Myth 5), ”has a dyslexic profile” or ”is at risk for Dyslexia-SpLD”, with the discrete ‘dyslexia’ diagnosis and label only given to parents verbally.

Myth 14: Dyslexia can be found worldwide.
Facts:
”In English-speaking countries, tests of decoding accuracy are the major tests (often the only tests) that educators and researchers rely on to measure reading skill and to define ‘dyslexia.”
(McGuinness. RRF newsletter 49 p19).
In countries with transparent spelling codes such as Austria, Finland and Greece (Philip Seymour. The Science of Reading 2007 p299), it is rare to find people who are very inaccurate single word decoders i.e. dyslexic in the English-speaking countries’ sense of the word.
Because word reading accuracy is nearly 100% in countries with transparent alphabet codes, tests of decoding accuracy are not used; reading fluency and comprehension are assessed instead i.e. the term dyslexia means something completely different in these countries.
(McGuinness. RRF 49 p19 / Philip Seymour. The Science of Reading 2007 p297). 
”If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.” (Graham Stringer MP. 2009).

Myth 15: It is possible to correctly identify and diagnose those with dyslexia living in countries that have transparent writing codes, by testing students’ reading fluency and comprehension, because those with this specific brain defect, despite being accurate single word decoders, find reading effortful and slow.
Facts:
”Some children in countries with transparent alphabets do have reading problems, but these have to do with fluency and comprehension. Yet even this is relative.” (McGuinness. RRF newsletter 49 p19)
When researchers Landerl, Wimmer and Frith (1997) compared Austrian dyslexic children (slow readers) with English dyslexic children (slow and inaccurate readers), the Austrian dyslexics were not only far more accurate (7% v 40% word reading accuracy) but also read twice as fast as the English dyslexics.
”Slow reading’ is relative; the optimal reading rate varies across writing systems. ‘Slowness’…is a function of the writing system, not a property of the child.” (McGuinness. ERI p191-2)
”Reading speed isn’t an isolated skill. It’s a function of decoding accuracy, text difficulty and general language ability.” (McGuinness. GRB p14). ”When reading skill is so entirely tied to a particular writing system, there can be no validity to the notion that poor reading or ‘dyslexia’ is a property of the child…” (McGuinness. RRF newsletter 49 p20).
”Reading fluency is a by‐product of the instruction that teaches children how to read. It is
not something that can be instructed directly.” (Prof Schutz)

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Does Dyslexia [as a distinct and diagnosable decoding disorder] Exist?
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227704059_Does_Dyslexia_Exist

The dyslexia debate: some key myths. Prof Elliott. LDA Bulletin May 2014.
https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/LDA-BULLETIN_2014ElliottDyslexiaMyths.pdf

‘Six myths about dyslexia’. Susan Godsland.
https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Six-myths-about-dyslexia.pdf