Is dyslexia being used as a convenient excuse by lazy students who want to gain access to extra exam time and one-to-one tuition? The experts are divided. Chris Bunting reports.
Peter Shaw has nothing against dyslexics per se. It is just the "inherently lazy" illiterates who impersonate them and the "wishy-washy" educational psychologists who go along with them that get his goat.
Shaw, professor of biochemistry at Nottingham University, is one of a number of academics in Britain's senior common rooms worried at what they see as the abuse of the label dyslexia among a minority of students.
"It is a flag of convenience for some of them," he says. "I have sympathy for people who genuinely suffer from dyslexia. But with other students I get the impression that they are just bad at their own language. Some are just inherently lazy people. They have never read books or done the work in school that others have. They are the ones who create the fuss."
Students who are diagnosed dyslexic gain significant advantages under the disabilities rules in place in many institutions - such as extra time in exams and one-to-one tuition. Shaw believes there is a temptation for underperforming non-dyslexics to seek the label. "We had one example where the student came back after failing an exam saying his lecturers hadn't taken notice of his dyslexia, although he had not said anything to them before the exam," Shaw says. He has noticed an increase in the number of students labelled dyslexic in recent years and believes the rise may have less to do with better detection of the disability or increased incidence of the condition, and more with less selective access to higher education.
"The bottom line is that we are at a point where pupils and students can't use their own language very well. They haven't been taught to spell. They haven't been taught to use grammar. Punctuation is a complete black box for them: a random explosion of dots. There are a whole lot of students who come through who just don't write," he says.
"Dyslexia is a real problem and a number of students do suffer from this quite severely, but the problem you have is the way it is being defined in some institutions. As far as I can understand, diagnosis is mainly based on there being a difference between their reading and writing ability and their other abilities. It is really quite wishy-washy."
Shaw's criticisms get short shrift from Ross Cooper, a dyslexia expert at London South Bank University. "How does he know that these people that he is attacking aren't dyslexic? Has he any expertise? Is he just guessing? His descriptions of them don't give us any clues. I could claim that some people labelled deaf aren't actually deaf, but would I be right?"
Cooper, a dyslexic himself, believes there is no evidence of significant overdiagnosis of dyslexia in universities, but rather that we are only now beginning to uncover a problem that has been submerged for years. "The amount of undiagnosed dyslexia has always been great and we are just beginning to find people who have always been there," he says.
Cooper points out that students do not diagnose themselves dyslexic. They are examined by educational psychologists or teachers trained in identifying the condition and, although there is disagreement on methods of identification, Cooper says it is rare, in his experience, to find disagreement on whether an individual student is dyslexic.
Dyslexia has become a hot issue in universities. From September 2002, part four of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act was belatedly applied to higher education. It is now against the law for universities or colleges to discriminate against any disabled person in admissions or in the services they provide. Dyslexia, regarded by many as the most amorphous and ambiguous of disabilities, is covered by the Act. In many institutions, the majority of disabled students on their rolls have the condition. At Bradford University, for instance, more than 60 per cent of those with recorded disabilities are dyslexic.
The full implications of these legal changes will not become clear until case law has developed. For instance, universities are required by the Act to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled students, but the legislation does not define what is meant by "reasonable". Helena Jones, disability officer at Bradford, says: "Everybody is grappling with this issue. There is no clear route and we are all struggling not only to meet the demands of the Disability Discrimination Act, but also to make sure that we are meeting the needs of students.
"The whole area of dyslexia and supporting dyslexic students has sometimes evolved in a reactive way. Institutions have found themselves in situations where the issues have snowballed so the reasonable adjustments that they have been making as they go along have got more and more unwieldy," she says.
Bradford screens all its students for dyslexia on entry and a full educational psychologist report is commissioned for each student picked up.
The university is committed to meeting any recommendations from those reports, such as extra examination time and one-to-one support from specialist teachers, but it has recently decided to stop taking account of students' dyslexia at the marking stage, a reform prompted by unease among academics about the unequal treatment of dyslexics. "We do not operate a two-tier marking system," Jones says. "In a university such as Bradford, you are going to get a lot of discrepancies between different students'
literacy skills. We take a lot of students from non-traditional backgrounds, we take a lot of students from overseas and we do not give them special marking. Many of these people have problems with expressing their knowledge in very academic language and it is difficult to unpick these literacy difficulties and to give one set of students special marking."
Some in the university special needs community have greeted Bradford's move as a retrogressive step. Others either already make no allowance at the marking stage or are in the process of moving away from such dispensations.
What is most striking about universities' treatment of the issue is the extent of disagreement not just between academics but between disabilities officers.
The situation is not helped by disagreement among experts on what dyslexia is or how it should be addressed. A formidable 180-page review of the research literature on dyslexia in adults, published in May by the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy, compares the literature with the California Gold Rush: generating much excitement but also a lot of heat and dust. "As in any gold rush, fools' gold is found everywhere," the report says.
Michael Rice, the Cambridge-based author of the review, says: "The state of dyslexia research is to some extent a state of chaos where it is difficult to find two people who are talking on the same wavelength." He says there are many definitions of dyslexia but no consensus - some definitions are descriptive, while others use a variety of causal theories to define their subject.
He also notes the absence of any agreement on how dyslexia can be distinguished from other causes of adult literacy problems, such as social disadvantage. "Some have genuine and serious dyslexic problems; others have had problems in their childhood with some stage of development, and there are those about whom it is rather difficult to see that they ever had anything like dyslexia."
Rice praises the effectiveness of techniques developed by dyslexia experts to support learners but claims that these are often highly effective with non-dyslexics struggling with literacy. In a phrase that sent shockwaves through the dyslexia community, Rice's review concludes: "There is no evidence from research to support a policy of differentiating dyslexic from non-dyslexic students in adult literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages."
But if any senior common room traditionalists think Rice's revisionism sounds like welcome relief from responsibility for meeting students'
special needs, they should think again. He is arguing for getting provision for people with literacy problems out of the ghetto of dyslexia support and into the mainstream of university teaching.
The NRDC review concludes: "The most urgent topic for revision is the concept of dyslexia itself, not least because it has, in effect, been commandeered to invest unsuccessful learners with responsibility for the shortcomings of their teachers. Worse than that, it has led to an assumption that the skills essential for mainstream teaching are needed only by remedial specialists."