Ripples in the wake of the Channel 4 programme The Dyslexia Myth

By Charmaine McKissock

Charmaine McKissock discusses issues that continue to cause controversy since Channel 4 broadcast ‘The Dyslexia Myth’ last year. Here she considers the main points made by the programme and outlines her own views on defining Dyslexia.

A tabloid approach to investigative journalism?

Does anybody still remember the furies that were unleashed in the wake of Channel 4 programme ‘The Dyslexia Myth’ last November?

At the time, I agreed with many of the individual points that were made in the programme. Many issues had been making me uneasy for a long time, despite have struggled to get the needs of people with Specific Learning Difficulties recognised for over two decades. For example. I am in no doubt that the term ‘dyslexia’ is over-used, wrongly used, fuzzily used and this does disturb me.

However, I was chilled by what struck many as the unnecessary sensationalist language, emotional manipulation, and tabloid approach used in the programme, which I listened to 4 times. At that time, David Mills apparently headed up an organisation that exists to uphold broadcasting standards! Is this a case of the Emperors New Clothes? Valid points were ‘spun’ so as to reach somewhat illogical and biased conclusions that the general public would be – in all likelihood – unable to discern. My own mother (I thought I had trained my mother a bit better over 20 years…) rang in great excitement, a few minutes after the end of the programme, asking breathlessly if I have heard about the ‘new miracle breakthroughs’ that had occurred. The use of the word ‘new’ to describe some of the research findings in this programme is stunning. In the same programme, we are told that this evidence has been around for at least 30 years and is only now reaching teachers. Surely the blame for this must partly be shared by the researchers and professionals who continue to produce inaccessible material.

The fact that coloured glasses are mis-sold and do not help all poor readers does not disprove that there is a valid connection between visual perception and reading difficulties – eminent researchers in the fields of vision science (such as Prof Bruce Evans) or physiology (such as Prof John Stein) would produce a strong counterargument. Similarly, the fact that private organisations are making a mint from prescribing coordination and balance exercises that could be learning one yoga session does not discredit all the traditional and less traditional remedial methods that could be effective. The fact that dyslexia has been linked to anything from left-handedness, giftedness in creativity, persistence of infant reflexes and nutritional deficiencies does not discredit the existence of dyslexia.

Towards redefining Dyslexia?

David Mills says that the ‘the reason we did not deal with definition of dyslexia in the documentary is that there is simply too much disagreement about it. I thought the essence of investigative journalism that aim to debunk myths is precisely to sift through and evaluate disagreements. Here Mr Mills describes five major views about the future use of the term ‘dyslexia’:

View 1
The term dyslexia should be dropped completely.

It is said that dyslexia carries so many wrong associations, and is understood in so many different ways by so many different people, that it serves no useful scientific or therapeutic purpose. It should be replaced by ‘reading problems’ or in more severe cases ‘reading disability’.

I have a lot of sympathy with this view. As a journalist I like to know what words mean. There are problems though. The term dyslexia is so ingrained that a lot of people would still go on using it. There is also the fact that ‘dyslexia’ is a handy term for those trying to focus attention on the needs of those with reading problems.

View 2
‘Dyslexia’ can be redefined to describe all children who find it difficult learning to read because of phonological problems.

This would provide a clear definition which would identify children who have a sufficient problem detecting the smallest sounds in words which make learning to read difficult. It would thus identify children who will need additional tuition in a small group or even one-to-one help.

This could result in labelling up to one fifth of children as ‘dyslexic’. Do we really want to suggest that so many children are in some way ‘disabled’? Given that so many children have problems learning to read, we should look upon difficulty in learning to read as an entirely normal experience for quite a lot of children.

View 3
‘Dyslexia’ should only be used to describe children with the severest problems.

These children will need not only small group teaching but also often skilled one to one assistance to overcome their problem.
Such a definition has the merit that it would help institutions like the Dyslexia Institute focus attention on such children. Yet it would still label children as dyslexic who, with the right teaching at school, will learn to read perfectly well. It may also suffer from the difficulty of arriving at a cut off point. So on one side of this line a child would be labelled dyslexic, while on the other, a very similar child would not be.

View 4
‘Dyslexia’ should be used only for the 1-2 per cent of children with a long-term reading problem who do not respond to the best school teaching currently possible.

There is no doubt that these children need far more help than individual schools can provide, including diagnostic tests and long term support.

This view is supported by many leading researchers. It would mean that ‘dyslexia’ defines a clear group of children who are significantly disabled and for whom special help is both needed and justified.

View 5
‘Dyslexia’ should no longer be really associated with reading problems nor defined in relation to reading.

The argument here is that there is a pattern disability, much wider than mere reading problems, which can be used to define who is, and who is not dyslexic.

The problem is, that as far as I am aware, there is precious little agreement on whether such a pattern exists or, if it does exist, how at present it might be defined. There are indications that some adults who have suffered long-term reading disability do often share other challenges, such as poor memory or poor organisational skills, but whether this could be used to redefine dyslexia seems, on the evidence, problematic.

So what do I think after all the research that I have done? I am tempted by the definition in View 3, that dyslexia should be used to define children with the severest problems.

However in the end I think I would come down in favour of View 4, reserving the term ‘dyslexia’ for the 1-2 per cent of children, whose problems, on present evidence, are unlikely to be resolved by even the latest ‘state of the art’ school teaching. It would be a rigorous definition and focus attention on those who suffer most. They need all the help we can give them.’

Those were David Mills’ views about defining dyslexia here are my own views:

1. Different genes interact with different environments to produce differing effects on brain and behaviour. Some human beings appear to be born with a vulnerability in mapping speech to arbitrary symbolic shapes. This vulnerability interacts with other cognitive skills and environmental factors to produce an increased risk of reading and/or writing difficulty.

2. ‘Pure’ developmental disorders are rare and, as yet, we do not have effective scientific tools (biological tests, brain scans etc) that allow us to diagnose developmental dyslexia in its purest form. Sometimes the effects of the environment can ‘mimic’ the deficits in dyslexia

• in people with restricted oral language – often linked to socio-economic disadvantage;
• in people who receive poor learning experiences;
• in students who lack experienced of academic language and study skills.

Therefore scientifically labelling reading problems by totally accurate arbitrary categories is not possible. The way forward is perhaps to adopt a dimensional line of enquiry (Bishop & Snowling, 2004) i.e: how severe and resistant to sustained intervention is the individual’s reading/writing difficulty?

3. I can’t see how ‘Dyslexia’ can be defined to describe all those who find it difficult learning to read because of phonological problems with phonemes (that is those who have a sufficient problem detecting the smallest sounds in words and which may make learning to read difficult). Dyslexia is known to exist throughout the world, including in individuals who are trying to use a non-alphabetical written language, such as Chinese. There must therefore be multiple causes and manifestations of this difficulty: hence maybe we should refer to the ‘dyslexias’ rather than ‘dyslexia’. It is not because one cause might be correct that they many others are wrong: there are many different skills involved in the reading process, so it is not surprising that they are multiple causes…

4. Here are short and expanded versions of my definition:

‘The word ‘Dyslexia’ is an umbrella word to describe a particular cluster of learning difficulties affecting written language skills.

Whilst the individual may have good inter-personal, verbal, visual-spatial, number, practical, creative and problem solving skills, their difficulties with literacy are persistent, inconsistent, specific, and significant.

Difficulties with attention, automatic learning, memory, phonological processing, visual perception, sequencing, direction, time, organisation, motor coordination, speech, and numeracy may be present, contribute to or cause the difficulties.

The primary cause of the difficulties however is not due to lack of adequate learning opportunities, general learning difficulties, sensory impairments, health or emotional issues. These however will compound the difficulties.

In some situations, the individual may find themselves disadvantaged or disabled. The individual may consider himself/herself disabled in certain contexts, if this difficulty prevents them carrying out certain functional literacy tasks, without accommodations.

Other words such as Dysphasia, Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, Dyslcalculia, Attention Deficit Disorder or Aspersers Syndrome describe different clusters of learning difficulties, although many of the difficulties overlap with Dyslexia.

The identification of Dyslexia should be rigorous, staged, dynamic, holistic and part of a ‘whole team’ approach, including the individual with difficulties.’

I would be delighted to hear the views of you Britelings out there. Or come along and talk it over at the Seminars on ‘Screening for Dyslexia’ that we are running starting from this November. See BRITE News for more information on these seminars: http://www.brite.ac.uk/news.htm

C. McKissock – Brite November 2006

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