Professor doubts scientific validity of dyslexia
In England, Durham University education professor Julian Elliott has touched off a firestorm following his piece in the Times Educational Supplement that questions the scientific validity of the term "dyslexia." After an extensive review of research and his 30 years' experience in the field, he concludes no consensus exists as to what dyslexia is, how to diagnose it and how to treat it.
An Interview with Julian Elliott : About “ Dyslexia “
Monday, September 12, 2005
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Portales, New Mexico 88130
Recently, in England, education Professor Julian Elliott of Durham University has received a great deal of attention after an article that he wrote in the Times Educational Supplement questioned the scientific validity of the term "dyslexia."
Professor Elliot conducted an “extensive review of the research” and based on his 30 plus years' of experience in the field, has concluded that there is no consensus as to what exactly “dyslexia” is, how to diagnose it and how to treat or remediate it.
In this interview Professor Elliot responds to questions regarding this elusive construct that is often referred to as “ dyslexia”.
1) Professor Elliott, there was a recent article in CEC briefs indicating that you doubt the scientific validity of the word “dyslexia”. How did this all come about?
Channel 4, a national TV station in the UK, is screening a programme entitled “The Dyslexia Myth” on Thursday 8th September in which I feature. The Executive Producer read a review I had published in a book (Elliott, & Place, 2004,) entitled Children in Difficulty: A Guide to Understanding and Helping 2nd edition, Routledge Falmer) and thought that this reflected his own understanding of a very muddled field.
He then toured the U.K. and North America speaking to the leading academics in the field. The result is this programme.
Prior to the screening of the documentary, I wrote a small piece for teachers in the T.E.S. and the subsequent result was explosive. The story was plastered across the nation’s newspapers and featured in a variety of national television and radio programmes.
My piece argued that there were so many different understandings and conceptualizations about what dyslexia is, or is not, that the term, as used in professional practice at least, had become almost meaningless. This turned into media headlines incorrectly reporting that ”Academic claims that dyslexia doesn’t exist”. Of course, the point was much more subtle than his although in talking with journalists, it proved hard to explain the difficulties of dealing with social constructs such as this and persuade them that the Manichean world that they wished to present was an oversimplification .
What I actually have said repeatedly is that there are multiple understandings of dyslexia, and as a result, this has rendered the term meaningless. I guess I’m questioning the utility rather than the validity of the construct as it is popularly conceived.
2) So why are people getting so angry?
Having worked with young people with a variety of learning difficulties for thirty years, I am not surprised by the many stories I have received from parents about the suffering their children have experienced as a result of their reading difficulties. Often these reveal deep anger and frustration. Messages that I have received say such things as:
“Are you saying that my child is faking it?
“Are you saying that my child doesn’t have a reading problem but, in actuality, is stupid?
“I’ve struggled for years to get teachers to recognize that my child has a problem. Now you’ve said this, they’ll never take me seriously”
“A headteacher (principal) once told my eldest son that dyslexia existed only in the minds of the middle classes, Maybe you’re related to him!!!!”
“You are the kind of person who does untold damage to people who are dyslexic and the reason the Local Education Authority manages to fail us”
“You are a dangerous man”
The problem is that often the writers of these accounts have failed to grasp the key points that I and others (including leading North American researchers such as Keith Stanovich, Jack Fletcher, Richard Olson and Frank Vellutino, who all appear in the programme) are making. I think that there is an element of projection operating here where hurtful and misguided comments from the past become associated with this story and are relived,
In responding individually to each of these messages, I have tried to point out that, of course, reading difficulties are all too real and no one should accuse those with such problems of faking anything.
I have pointed out that making judgments about a child’s intelligence on the basis of their literacy difficulties is wholly unjustified. The hurt and humiliation experienced by many because of this error explains, I think, the increasing proportion who now describe themselves as dyslexic (as many as 10% of the population). In the TES, I make the following points:
“Let’s not beat about the bush, though; let’s get the key issue out into the open. Behind all the rhetoric and reasoning, the anger and the angst, lies the thorny question of intellect and its relationship to literacy. Anxieties abound in this area, embodied in the words of a mother of a child who I was assessing: “I know our Darren can’t read very well but he’s not stupid…….not like his father…… He went to the daft school!” Public perceptions often link reading difficulties with intelligence and, in our culture, an attribution of low intelligence often results in powerful feelings of shame and humiliation. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the widespread, yet wholly erroneous, belief that dyslexics are intellectually bright, poor readers would create a strong, sometimes impassioned demand to be accorded a dyslexic label. The fact that decoding text is, in reality, a low level cognitive activity that can sometimes be accomplished by those with severe intellectual difficulties often passes unnoticed.”
Following the seminal work of Stanovich, reading- I.Q. discrepancy approaches are increasingly recognized as being unhelpful in the diagnosis of reading disability (although I suspect that they may be more widely employed in the United States).
A very helpful piece discussing intelligence and the use of I.Q. tests can be found in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2004) Vol. 45, No. 1, pp2- 40 by Vellutino et al. The key educational point in relation to this issue is that teachers, or, for that matter any significant others, should always seek to stretch the child intellectually and endeavour to minimize the effect of literacy difficulties in accessing an appropriate curriculum.
Behind the feverish accusations that my claims are damaging is the very real difficulty that many parents have encountered in getting additional resources and support for their children. All too often, they have found that they have needed to obtain a diagnosis of dyslexia before they have been able to persuade education authorities to take action. In the U.K., there is less of a tradition that children should have a clear label before resources are provided. Nevertheless, a label of dyslexia is seen by many as a means of being taken seriously and consequently of accessing resources. However, we argue in the programme that there is clear evidence that all youngsters with reading difficulties should be provided with structured intervention programmes. There is little need to split up this population into dyslexic sheep and other poor reading goats.
3. Do you think that the same debates rage within the scientific community?
This is a very important question. I think that a huge gulf has emerged between researchers in the field of ‘developmental dyslexia’, practitioners in schools and other educational institutions, and the general public. In the research world, there continues to be a range of competing theoretical positions, although researchers are increasingly agreed that reading is a language-based, rather than a visual skill, and that different aspects of language are significant at different stages in the development of reading ability.
It is now widely accepted that the core problem in early reading concerns phonological processing (the ability to recognize different sounds in spoken language) and knowledge about the relationship between written and spoken parts of speech The general public, however, tend to think of a much wider range of problems including visual factors (e.g. letters swimming around the page) and solutions such as the use of coloured lenses.
4. How does all of this impact upon intervention?
We make the point that, because of its amorphous nature, a diagnosis of dyslexia has no utility in guiding intervention. Indeed, there is there is no sound, widely accepted, body of scientific work that has shown that there exists any particular teaching approach more appropriate for ‘dyslexic’ children than for other poor readers. There are, as will be suggested on the Channel 4 documentary, approaches which have great promise, yet these appear to help all youngsters, not merely a subgroup of so-called dyslexics.
5. I personally believe there are several reading problems- a student can have trouble in comprehension, word attack, and remembering what they read. Should we have separate words or terms for these different kinds of reading problems?
I think that it’s essential that we recognize that these are all important aspects of literacy. Problems cannot simply be reduced to decoding. For example, I am a member of a research group that has recently been awarded a large grant by the Economic and Social Research Council to examine ways by which we can best help children with working memory and academic difficulties in schools. Other youngsters are great at decoding but can experience huge difficulty in extracting meaning from text: this is a phenomenon that one can sometimes find even in youngsters with very low I.Q.s.
Yet still another group of children can decode well but have significant problems with spelling. I think that it is essential that we separate these out for assessment and intervention purposes rather than lumping them together under one general term.
6. Does there seem to be a genetic factor involved in reading problems or difficulties? Does it appear to run in families?
This is incontrovertible. There is clear evidence (e.g.. the famous Colorado studies) that children run a much greater risk of reading problems if born to a parent with such a disability. There is much exciting work being undertaken examining genetic aspects of language based reading difficulties (see the work of Elena Grigorenko and her team at Yale University, for example). However, advances in genetics and brain studies are, as yet, of little practical utility to those who seek to provide practical interventions for children with reading difficulties.
7) In this increasingly electronic, computerized, sophisticated world, what will happen to those who have difficulty reading? Will they be able to work at Harrods as stockpersons or what type of employment will they have?
The television programme suggests that a significant proportion of children with reading difficulties can be helped to develop sound literacy skills, given early, highly structured intervention. However, there is likely to remain a very small group who will continue to experience difficulties into adulthood. Many such people find ways to cope with their problems and lead highly successful, meaningful lives. I think it would be very wrong to imagine that such individuals could not find ways to achieve their life goals.
8) Many years ago, individuals with epilepsy were thought to be possessed by devils and demons. Twenty years from now, what do you think will be said about poor readers?
Twenty years hence seems a long time but, if I look backwards, twenty years seems like the blink of an eye. Interestingly, advances in the scientific study of reading disability have been substantial over this period, yet popular conceptions, and much educational practice, seems little changed. I would hope that in twenty years from now, scientific advances have made a major impact upon our understandings of reading disability and the ways by which we can best help those who suffer so greatly. Maybe the term ‘dyslexia’ will survive but, if so, I hope that we will all – academics, clinicians, teachers and parents- have a much clearer consensual understanding about what we mean by the term Hopefully, as a result, the many myths about dyslexia will, once and for all, finally be dispelled.
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