Today, (31st January), I was debating with Professor Julian Elliot at UCL on whether dyslexia should remain as a label. I was called brave for agreeing to the #dyslexiadebate but I was beginning to wonder if I was just stupid! Still, Professor Elliot was welcoming and respectful and as is often the way with such issues, our common ground is wanting what is best for all children and finding the most effective and equitable strategy.

For anyone interested, my slides are here and you can see the recording here. I’d recommend watching Dr Solity and the Educational Psychologists from Warwickshire and Staffordshire LAs as the work they are doing with struggling readers is powerful and replicable.

I was there to argue for dyslexia to remain a label following a media storm and mention in the House of Lords when it was found to be written into these LAs’ policies that dyslexia was ‘scientifically questionable’. Dyslexia should certainly be open to scientific scrutiny but this doesn’t imply the negative connotations given by the notion that dyslexia is ‘questionable’ or as is often diluted down to the media, that ‘it doesn’t exist’.  Such language questions the person and what is missing is the emotional and instinctive side of the debate. I wanted to put forward an argument which wouldn’t be popular in academic circles, probably breaking many research based rules:

  • I used case studies 😱
  • I used lots of pictures 😱
  • I used emotions and metaphor 😱

I was however up against someone who has been researching this for more than forty years; I wasn’t going to win with stats. When we’re discussing dyslexia and finite LA resources; we lose the individual’s perspective. The self-esteem, the validation, the explanation.  The sheer relief for some children when you tell them that they have dyslexia, explaining why they’re not reading and writing like their typically developing peers.  

We are obsessed (quite rightly) with getting as many children reading as possible and the work being done by Warwickshire and Staffordshire LA looks powerful. I will be visiting them to find out more. Work from Dr Jonathan Solity from Optima Psychology also looked superb, I’m absolutely on the same page: letters and sounds flawed, decodable books flawed, interventions with TAs flawed. Real books and whole class teaching was advocated and it was music to my ears.  Incidentally I was also fascinated to hear that we hadn’t gone up in the PIRLS  (an international reading comparison) tables after all; if a number of elements such as private schools (who don’t need to take the phonics check) are taken out, we have actually gone down, from 8th place to 11th. Suddenly Gibb’s claim that England is improving the nation’s literacy levels with a year 1 phonics check is looking more and more dodgy.

There was much to agree with so where do we differ? I couldn’t help thinking the arguments against using dyslexia as a label were more operational than theoretical. What came up over and over was, in my opinion, just bad practice. Warwickshire and Staffordshire LAs discussed how assessment through teaching benefitted many including a project in special schools.  What wasn’t mentioned however, was who it didn’t work for.  Much of the evidence explored successful strategies for the majority not the minority. To be fair, Dr Solity mentioned  a 3% group of children his work did not seem to reach and suggested these pupils might be dyslexic. Are these the ones who often have to walk the corridor of shame from year 4 to year 1 for phonic lessons? Are these also the pupils who get excluded and end up in prisons?

The denial of dyslexia is problematic because it’s these outliers who are struggling readers and stubborn to intervention. With no reason why they are failing at literacy, with no assessment and analysis, these children are left feeling stupid and being labelled lazy; surely a retrograde step.  It’s not an either or: Science, good literacy teaching and early identification can be compatible with dyslexia.  Professor Elliot says there is a difference between ASD and ADHD compared with dyslexia. His reasoning is that the other conditions have strict criteria and there is evidenced-based interventions which can help. I’m not so sure this is different to dyslexia and if there is a chink in his debating armour it is this. I find it perplexing that a label which is easily understood by the public, by employers and by teachers is one which we want to lose and replace with literacy difficulties.  People feel empowered by the term dyslexia, why ban it?

It is not a perfect system but by denying the label and instead choosing ‘literacy difficulties’ means nothing and ignores those who are different.  Rather than empowering them, we are telling them they don’t exist.

Keeping dyslexia as a label is the equitable thing to do

I’d like to thank Professor Elliot for inviting me to contribute; he put a lot of trust in a loud, secondary modern alumni who is more comfortable with a punch up than an academic #dyslexiadebate. This is not over though, I’m already sharpening my tools for another round – there are many flaws in this debate and while Professor Elliot is like Dr Spock, the rational and logical side to this argument, I am Captain Kirk which makes me the boss.

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