These Professors Claim Dyslexia Doesn't Exist, But We Should Be Wary

BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 18: A fourth-grade student looks at books in the elementary school at the John F. Kennedy Schule dual-language public school on September 18, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. The German government will host a summit on education in Germany scheduled for mid-October in Dresden. Germany has consistantly fallen behind in recent years in comparison to other European countries in the Pisa education surveys, and Education Minister Annette Schavan is pushing for an 8 percent increase in the national educaiton budget for 2009. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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According to a controversial new book, dyslexia is a broad and "meaningless" label, which simply doesn't exist as it's currently understood. Authored by Professors Julian Elliott and Dr. Elena Grigorenko, of Durham and Yale University respectively, the new book The Dyslexia Debate pushes for the term "dyslexia" to be thrown out, owing to its vagueness and broadness. It goes on to assert that children are too often labeled dyslexic when exhibiting a wide range of different reading difficulties, and the slew of diagnostic tests children are given thereafter is a waste of resources.

Understandably, the new book has touched a nerve with many people who work with, and care for, children dealing with learning disorders. Roughly 17 percent of American population have been diagnosed with dyslexia, and many people have found it frustrating that two researchers could present such an all-or-nothing judgment on a condition that causes tremendous struggle and challenges for many people. 

Elliot and Grigorenko argue that they're not doubting the struggle that some kids have with literacy. But the diagnosis of dyslexia is too imprecise, they say, since sufferers exhibit quite different symptoms and respond to different kinds of treatment. Literacy struggles should be examined on a case-by-case base, they write, rather than given an umbrella diagnosis.

According to Elliot, his motive is to retire the term "dyslexia" in favor of more specific assessments regarding literacy. He told The Independent:

We need to identify specific difficulties that youngsters have in their academic life… other aspects of literacy skill, like reading fluently, like spelling, the ability to express yourself through written language, your handwriting. Rather than coming up with a term like dyslexia, which is extremely nebulous, we’re much better having a profile of these particular skills [that children struggle with] and dealing with them directly.

Elliot and Grigorenko say that their five years' worth research found that symptoms experienced by one diagnosed dyslexic often aren't present in somebody else with a similar diagnosis. This, they write, led to their belief that the range of issues encompassed by the term "dyslexia" are too varied and dissimilar for a general classification. 

Unfortunately, not all of Elliott's comments on the topic have been that tactful or polite. If the reception of his new book bothers him, he's got plenty of blame to place on himself, thanks to distinctly unscientific and accusatory assumptions about the motivations of dyslexic children's parents he made last year:

There is a huge stigma attached to low intelligence. After years of working with parents, I have seen how they don't want their child to be considered lazy, thick or stupid. If they get called this medically diagnosed term, dyslexic, then it is a signal to all that it's not to do with intelligence.

At that point, Elliot left the realm of the researcher, and became a social critic. He went on to assert that university students who are diagnosed with dyslexia are getting unfair advantages in terms of additional study time and funding. And this kind of needless and offensive add-on — "dyslexia is a cover-up for dumb kids" — hurts badly. Its precisely the kind of crass stigmatization that the diagnosis helps to mitigate in the first place.

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The head of the charity Dyslexia Action, John Rack, had a straightforward and terse reply: "There is ample evidence that dyslexia exists across the spectrum and the argument that there is no consistent means of identifying it is one cited by people who don't know enough about the subject."


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