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What is Dyslexia?

In English-speaking countries, the dyslexia label is professionally applied to some individuals who have marked and persistent difficulty accurately decoding single words. Unfortunately, the medical-sounding label implies that it is a distinct and identifiable disorder with a known medical cause. As Prof. Dorothy Bishop points out, ”(M)edical-sounding terms are more successful memes than the descriptive terms because they convey a spurious sense of explanation, with foreign and medical-sounding labels lending some gravity to the situation…they are treated seriously and gain public recognition and research funding.”

”In actuality, the dyslexia label is most likely to be applied, not to more worthy, or more unfortunate, individuals, but rather to those whose families have the drive – and, in many cases, the financial means – to gain access to a diagnostician.” 
(Elliott J. ResearchED magazine)

In European countries with transparent spelling codes, where almost every child decodes single words accurately after just a few weeks of phonics instruction, the dyslexia label is infrequently applied to some individuals who are considered to be very slow readers. See Myths 15 and 16 Dyslexia Myths and Facts

”It is not helpful to assign a quasi-medical label (dyslexia) to some children whose reading skills are significantly below those of their peers, and not to others.” 
(Elliott. J. quoted by Prof. Pamela Snow)

For a considerable length of time, one particular definition of dyslexia (IQ-achievement discrepancy where reading age is considerably lower than IQ would predict), was used as the basis for all diagnosis and research on the subject. It was eventually discredited: ”(T)here is little evidence that the long-term development of poor readers who are IQ–achievement discrepant is substantially different to that of poor readers who are not IQ–achievement discrepant, nor does IQ–achievement discrepancy reliably distinguish between those who are difficult to remediate and those who are more easily remediated. Consequently, IQ–achievement discrepancy is no longer the bedrock for identification of LD in the US (or of dyslexia in the UK, for that matter).” (Singleton p17)

The demise of the IQ–achievement discrepancy definition created serious difficulties for many working in the specialist field of dyslexia. They needed another way to diagnose it; one that didn’t require an IQ test. In the UK, the British Psychological Society produced a ‘working definition’ which the BPS simplified to, ”marked and persistent problems at the word level of the NLS curricular framework” (BPS 2005 p20). This working definition enabled professionals involved with ‘dyslexia’ assessment to carry on diagnosing the difficulty and allocating the label, if they wished, purely on the basis of subjective opinion or guesswork.

The British Psychological Society’s (BPS) definition of dyslexia (BPS 2005. p18) is only a ‘working definition’, not an operational one (BPS 2005. p19). The BPS notes that ”For a word to be used as a scientific concept, it must satisfy certain criteria…currently dyslexia does not meet such stringent requirements” (BPS 2005. p17)

Response To Intervention (RTI) is sometimes used to aid diagnosis. Unfortunately, when utilised for the purposes of diagnosis or to select subjects for dyslexia research, RTI is as imprecise and as questionable as other forms of dyslexia diagnosis, and there’s the rub; without an operational definition of dyslexia – which is the first step in scientific research, meaning that there must be a precise (infallible) measure of what it is you’re going to study, scientifically valid diagnosis cannot take place. This means that all research that used/uses the IQ discrepancy model, the ‘Bell Curve’ diagnosis (the bottom x% on the bell curve of reading ability) or RTI to select ‘dyslexic’ subjects, is null and void, as is research based on any other definitions -see Rice & Brooks appendix 1. p133.

”When something is operationally defined, this means it has parameters which can be measured with sufficient mathematical rigour that these measures can be relied upon to define the concept”
(D. McGuinness)

In Prof. McGuinness’s response to Hulme, she describes the problem with ‘dyslexia’ research studies that use the ‘isolated-groups design’.
Also, see D. McGuinness’s Language Development and Learning to Read pp10-11.

”When reading literature claiming that ”dyslexics‟ exhibit this or that symptom, or behaviour, it obviously behoves us to ascertain how the sample of ”dyslexics‟ was arrived at – how were they diagnosed. If it was by the discrepancy model of diagnosis, as is almost always the case, the findings are thereby rendered invalid and should, properly, be ignored. They seldom are. Indeed, such findings regularly march cheerfully on, underpinning and ”validating‟ later work, in bibliography after bibliography. The ”borders of pseudoscience‟ indeed” 
(Kerr H. p97)

”Much thinking about dyslexia is almost wilfully sloppy and sloppy science never did anyone any good, very particularly the subjects of it”
(Kerr H. p93)

Many eminent educational academics acknowledge that there is no scientifically accurate way to differentiate between those with a special reading disability ‘dyslexia’ and ‘common-or-garden’ poor decoders and spellers:

– ”The data do NOT show that dyslexics are different from poor readers. There is no indication that dyslexics represent a unique group” 
(Prof. Linda Siegel)

– ”The underlying difficulty appears to be the same, the way these children respond to treatment appears to be the same, there appears to be no justification whatsoever for going in and trying to carve out a special group of poor readers. This is what 15 years of research, all over the world has shown can’t be justified on a scientific or empirical basis” 
(Stanovich K. in Mills. The Dyslexia Myth)

– ”Most people assume that dyslexia is a clear-cut syndrome with a known medical cause, and that affected individuals can be clearly differentiated from other poor readers whose problems are due to poor teaching or low intelligence. In fact, that is not the case.” 
(Prof. Bishop 2010)

– ”Because there is no way to differentiate students with learning disabilities, the label is meaningless” 
(Prof. George Cunningham)

– ”(T)he word “dyslexia” has taken on a variety of interpretations over the years, and it has provided a vehicle for people who want to make a quick buck from distraught parents” 
(Prof. Tymms)

– “It is a dimension, it is more or less of something. There is no dividing line where you have it or do not. There is nothing to diagnose.” 
(Prof. Plomin. TES. 2019)

– ”(A)ttempts to distinguish between categories of ‘dyslexia’ and ‘poor reader’ or ‘reading disabled’ are scientifically unsupportable, arbitrary and thus potentially discriminatory” 
(Elliott & Gibbs)

– “There is no agreed-upon prevalence figure; that’s why we should not be talking about dyslexia as if it were a well-defined diagnosis for a well-defined group. I use the word as a descriptor for word-level reading difficulties…” 
(Dr. Louisa Moats)

– ”In our present state of knowledge it does not seem helpful for teachers to think of some literacy learners as ‘dyslexics’ and others as ‘ordinary poor readers” 
(Rice & Brooks)

– ”They learned what they were taught, period. There are no dyslexic kids. I mean, that is just a myth” 
(Prof. Engelmann. Children Of The Code interview)

– “I’m sorry, I have no idea what dyslexia is” 
(Prof. Pamela Snow)

There is no need to manufacture a neurodevelopmental defect to explain why a significant percentage (20-30+%) of children in English-speaking countries have great difficulty learning to decode and spell accurately. The evidence-based explanation is clear and simple:
The cross-cultural comparisons1 reveal that the source of English-speaking children’s difficulties in learning to read and spell is the English spelling system and the way it is taught. These comparisons provide irrefutable evidence that a biological theory of “dyslexia”, a deficit presumed to be a property of the child is untenable, ruling out the popular “phonological-deficit theory” of dyslexia. For a biological theory to be accurate, dyslexia would have to occur at the same rate in all populations. Otherwise, some type of genetic abnormality would be specific to people who learn an English alphabet code and be absent in people who live in countries with a transparent alphabet, where poor readers are rare. A disorder entirely tied to a particular alphabetic writing system is patently absurd and has no scientific basis. English-speaking children have trouble learning to read and spell because of our complex spelling code and because of current teaching methods, not because of aberrant genes” 
(D.McGuinness ERI p3. bold added.)

2003: Map of Europe (derived from Seymour, Aro & Erskine’s study) showing % of errors in word decoding at the end of the first year of formal school by country. The UK children in the study lived in Scotland. At that time, nearly all children throughout the UK were taught using a ‘balanced word reading approach, not high quality phonics.

”Aggregate children entering school all have the minimal prerequisites to be taught how to read…Since the kids all started with the same minimal prerequisites, the “deficiency” has to be in the instruction the children receive”
Prof. Dick Schutz. Reading Dystestia: A Specific Measurement Disability)

”All humans have the same brain architecture, and therefore how we learn is the same in all countries”
(Prof. Stanislas Dehaene)

”Children with general language delays, weak auditory or verbal short-term memory, or other perceptual and cognitive deficits could have problems learning to read and spell.  But these are language and memory problems, not ”reading disorder” problems.  These children are few and far between, constituting less than 5% of the population.” 
(D. McGuinness. RRF message board)

The first study to show clearly that ”the English spelling system and the way it is taught” is the cause of virtually all difficulties with word decoding accuracy in anglophone countries, was done by Heinz Wimmer in Austria (1993). German is spoken in Austria. It has a transparent spelling code and is taught using synthetic phonics. Wimmer tested all the worst readers in Salzburg sent to him by their teachers and found that they scored 100% correct on word reading accuracy and nearly as well in spelling. Their only difficulty was in reading speed. Next, Wimmer collaborated with an English researcher Goswami (1994). They compared normal readers in Salzburg (7 yr. olds with 1 yr. of instruction) and London (9 yr. olds with 4-5 yrs. of instruction) reading comparable material. The Austrian children read the material as fluently and accurately as the English 9 yr. olds and made half as many errors. A third study by the researchers Landerl, Wimmer and Frith (1997) compared Austrian dyslexic children (slow readers) with English dyslexic children (very inaccurate readers). The Austrian dyslexics were not only far more accurate but also read twice as fast as the English dyslexics.

The empirical evidence suggests that dyslexia (very slow and very inaccurate decoding and spelling) occurs in a significant percentage of children in English-speaking countries when they need to learn what is an extremely opaque spelling system without high quality phonics instruction. When excellent phonics teaching is absent, insufficient, muddled or delayed, children in those classrooms will have to discover the alphabet code, and how to use it for decoding and spelling, for themselves.

Early difficulties with single word decoding as a result of inadequate phonics instruction, can lead extremely quickly to generalised cognitive, behavioural, and motivational problems: ”(S)kill at spelling-to-sound mapping (must) be in place early in the child’s development, because their absence can initiate a causal chain of escalating negative side effects … extremely large differences in reading practice begin to emerge as early as the middle of the first-grade year” (Stanovich K. p 162)

Dyslexia due to inadequate phonics teaching occurs in all social classes. As Tom Burkard pointed out, ”There would not be such a huge industry charging obscene amounts of cash to (supposedly) remedy reading failure if it were not just as common with middle-class kids as with others.” (Burkard. RRF messageboard 20/12/04)

Ruth Miskin, an early reading expert and past headteacher, warns parents, ”We’re not talking about poor kids here, from homes where televisions are always on. I’ve seen plenty of kids from affluent families,… pupils at private schools, the 4×4 parked in the drive. These children are often labelled dyslexic or SEN (with special educational needs). Not a bit of it: what they are is, to borrow an American acronym, ABT — ain’t being taught” (R. Miskin)

”Socio-economic status is no protection from poor instruction” 
(Dr. Louisa Moats quoted by Dianne Murphy)

”So it is mainly the middle-class children – whose parents believe government propaganda about improving schools, or who buy poor-quality private schooling in the sad belief that the writing of a cheque guarantees quality teaching – who get involved in the great ‘dyslexia’ fantasy. They know that something is wrong. The ‘dyslexia’ lobby persuades them that it is their children who are at fault. This helps relieve parents and schools of any responsibility for the problem. The children, too, are led to believe that they are in the grip of some force that is beyond their control. This is why so many people willingly co-operate in their own victimhood.” 
(Hitchens. Mail on Sunday 04/06/07)

”30% of struggling readers come from households with at least one college-educated parent” 
(EAB. Narrowing the 3rd-grade Reading Gap. p3)

”I have been an Educational Psychologist for 15 years working at the school/classroom level within a Local Authority and I still do not know what dyslexia is”

2019. ”Dyslexia is one of the most well-known, but possibly least understood difficulties facing students” says Prof. Elliott.

‘Distinguishing cause from effect – many deficits associated with developmental dyslexia may be a consequence of reduced and suboptimal reading experience’

Prof. Pamela Snow: Dyslexia? We need to talk.

Prof. Pamela Snow: Dyslexia Dystopia.

‘It’s time to be scientific about dyslexia’ by Prof. Julian Elliott
2020. https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/rrq.333

D. McGuinness: submission to the UK Parliament inquiry into reading interventions and dyslexia (LI13)

D. McGuinness’ critique of Goswami’s TES article on ‘dyslexia’ across different languages.

Prof. Schutz. RTI: Response to Intervention or Really Terrible Instruction?

See p23-30 for the House of Commons cross-party Science and Technology committee’s ‘evidence check’ report on Dyslexia