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The Dyslexia Myth - Daily Telegraph Feature - January 2007

Is dyslexia, as we understand it, a myth? It is now a year since a documentary I made for Channel 4 which suggested this sparked a national row.

Dyslexics tore into the programme. In the House of Lords, Lord Addington, who claims to be dyslexic, said: "within about 15 minutes I was so seething with rage it had me bouncing around the room". His wife had to turn the television off.

It was a typical response and a disturbing one. The near hysterical reaction from so many diagnosed as dyslexic obscured the vital message the documentary was trying to convey.

The common view is that while most poor reading just reflects lack of intelligence, dyslexics are different: they are seen as intelligent people who suffer visual or other problems which makes it difficult for them to see print properly.

Yet the evidence suggests this is a myth: that learning to read is not about intelligence and dyslexics are no different to other poor readers. If this is the case - and the evidence is very strong - then millions of pounds are being wasted on the wrong sort of help while countless children are denied inexpensive help that could transform their lives.

And eighteen months on the position seems worse than ever. Record numbers of 'dyslexic' pupils are now getting extra time in examinations and as students, record sums in cash payments. During a three year course they can get up to £9,580 to pay for such things as lap tops, tape recorders, extra books and photocopying.

What is happening is a scandal. There is no evidence that either extra time or cash payments bring any educational benefits to those with true, unresolved reading difficulties. Yet at the same time few young children with real reading difficulties are being given the help they need at school.

Understanding the evidence about poor reading is crucial. It is brutally clear. Some children, perhaps as many as one in five, do experience serious and unexpected problems in learning to read. If this is what is referred to as "dyslexia" then dyslexia is anything but a myth.

The Government itself has recently thrown its weight behind this: it has backed a new definition of dyslexia which includes all children for whom 'accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty'.

The problem is that this view of dyslexia seems to offend some people. They do not like dyslexics being grouped with other poor readers. They argue dyslexia is more than a difficulty in reading words: a broader problem, a medical condition even. In this way they justify the special help given dyslexics', help denied other poor readers.

And whatever the Government says about the definition of dyslexia - its policies still support the common view that dyslexics are indeed different.

But do they suffer symptoms other poor readers do not have?

Again the evidence is brutally clear. Numerous symptoms have been put forward to justify the notion that dyslexics are different, but they have never been borne out by research. No one has identified a set of symptoms which separates 'dyslexics' from other poor readers. There is no scientific evidence that such a syndrome exists. If dyslexia does not refer to reading problems, it does not, with any scientific rigor, refer to anything at all.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that many symptoms said to identify dyslexics are now believed to be the consequence of reading difficulties, not their cause. Compared to children who read a lot, those who do not, suffer educational and intellectual damage: their writing and spelling will be poorer, their ability to organise themselves less. All poor readers are likely to suffer such consequences whether they have been diagnosed as dyslexic or not.

The second reason science now rejects the notion that dyslexia is more than just reading difficulty is equally bleak. Life is not fair to children who find reading difficult: they are, sadly, more likely to have other problems than normal readers. Clumsiness, hyperactivity, poor short term memory and the rest are all more common among poor readers than other children. Yet none, individually, are that common and there is no evidence that these additional problems cause reading difficulties. Nor do they predict its severity. Many good readers have such problems. Many poor readers do not.

Poor short term memory illustrates the problem. It is the symptom most often quoted as distinguishing dyslexics from other poor readers. Poor readers are more likely to suffer such problems than normal readers. Yet although disabling, the evidence shows poor short term memory does not cause reading problems nor predict the outcome of intervention. In one highly regarded US study, out of 60 children suffering severe reading difficulties only eight had poor short term memories. Almost as many, seven, had very good short term memories. The children with poor short term memories benefited just as much from help with their reading as the others.

While when it comes to reading, most poor readers suffer a clear and identifiable set of weaknesses beyond this, they demonstrate such a wide range of strengths and weaknesses it is not possible to identify any group who, on the basis of non reading problems, could usefully be called 'dyslexic'.

Daily Telegraph - Dyslexia: a big, expensive myth