Why I believe that dyslexia is not a myth

September 16, 2005

The recent Dispatches programme on Channel 4 provocatively called The Dyslexia Myth has caused a storm, and it concerned me greatly.

I am project director for AchieveAbility, a national initiative funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England with partners from across the education sector, the British Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Institute.

The project's purpose is to raise awareness and to support the progression of higher education students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. The Dyslexia Myth was based around the views of Julian Elliott, who we feel misrepresented the nature of dyslexia and could well mislead the public. His assertion that "dyslexia persists as a construct largely because it serves an emotional, not scientific, function" and his implication that dyslexia is solely about poor reading ability appeared to be more of an attempt to criticise national literacy levels than to start a debate on the condition itself.

This is a crucial issue in higher education, where dyslexia in students can go undiagnosed. It is important to understand that dyslexia is not solely a literacy issue. It is a neurological condition affecting the processing of information and understanding meaning. It can affect people from all backgrounds and IQ levels.

Dyslexia may overlap with related conditions such as dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder, dysphasia and dyscalculia. Not all people with dyslexia will display the same range of characteristics. In childhood, its effects can be misattributed to emotional or behavioural disorders. By adulthood, many dyslexics will have developed coping strategies to mask their difficulties.

The programme's assertion that the diagnosis of dyslexia undermines literacy interventions is damaging to the good practice developed by experts in the field.

Intervention in the classroom is key to achievement, not just in reading, but in conceptualising information and the development of working memory.

They should happen early and be implemented to benefit all learners. But there is a huge resource issue, demonstrated by the fact that only one local authority, North Yorkshire, has taken on the Cumbria reading initiative, an excellent project that was shown in the programme.

Findings from the project have uncovered evidence that many children with learning difficulties are not identified in school but at further or higher education level. This is due to a lack of resources and means many learners sink before they have any chance to swim and achieve their potential.

The project has more than 80 student ambassadors working across England in schools and colleges, a high percentage of whom were diagnosed only on entry to higher education. One of them told us: "At school, 90 per cent of the time the problem was not that I couldn't find the answers to something, but that I didn't understand what the question was and what I should be looking for. I needed help on structuring time and thoughts, learning how to break things down so they could be solved quickly."

The project is launching a pilot to support teaching and identification methods in further education and schools for all learners, not just those with specific learning difficulties. We will be releasing 4,000 CD-Roms to schools, colleges and Aimhigher practitioners. These have been developed in conjunction with the Dyslexic Institute and aim to raise awareness of the nature of dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

On June 22, 2006, we will be running a national conference with Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, as keynote speaker. The conference will discuss the findings of the project and some of the key messages from the Dispatches programme.

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