Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects over 6 million people in the UK. Dyslexia is recognised by law and, for many, a diagnosis can be crucial in getting the right help and support.
Research, over the last 40 has years has provided a much clearer picture of dyslexia, its causes and the support which is helpful in managing its effects. A formal definition of dyslexia was agreed by the Department for Education following a review of evidence in 2009 which found: ‘Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling’. This definition is widely recognised today and accepted by Government, the teaching profession, parents and children alike.
Speaking about this, Dr John Rack, Director of Research at Dyslexia Action said: “The Rose Review definition makes it clear that reading and spelling difficulties are linked to underlying abilities in the processing of information about word sounds. It also emphasises that dyslexia is unconnected to IQ and occurs on a continuum, which means that it will vary in severity.”
Despite general consensus on this important definition, there are some challenges to the value and validity of the concept of dyslexia, as previously discussed in the book: ‘The Dyslexia Debate’. Dr Rack comments: " The issue raised in this book is whether there is value in classifying some of these problems as ‘dyslexia', and others as not'.”
In a bid to resolve this issue, a panel of leading researchers gathered together at Durham University for a two-day discussion and last night spoke of their findings. Presenting the consensus of the panel, Prof Julian Elliott, who co-wrote the ‘Dyslexia Debate’, said that the panel had agreed:
- There’s a significant proportion of people who struggle to learn to read, up to about 20%
- The term dyslexia is used for ‘an extremely small number of people’ who are resistant to the best forms of structured educational intervention
- For those people to become functionally literate we need to put into place various forms of assistive technologies.
Prof Elliott added that the label dyslexia does have an ‘…absolute functional value in saying we really need to do something very special for this very, very tiny proportion of people…’ and ‘…when we have absolutely exhausted everything we know for those people’.
In answer to a question from the audience about whether dyslexia was under or over diagnosed a member of the panel said that there’s a ‘…very serious problem with estimates of prevalence of dyslexia as they occur on a continuum and exactly where on the continuum you demarcate people is unclear so it’s hard to say whether it’s over diagnosed or under diagnosed’. He went on to say that: ‘it’s fair to say at least 20% of population is at risk of a reading problem but how many of those have dyslexia is unclear’. He added it was difficult to say what percentage of children had difficulty responding because of that continuum.
Dyslexia Action’s response
Dyslexia Action welcomes the contributions of the academic panel and the summary of their conclusions as a useful contribution to developing our knowledge and understanding of dyslexia, and considering the best ways to communicate that.
However, we take issue with the view that only a ‘tiny’ minority of those with difficulties should be viewed as dyslexic – we do not want to see a return to the view that someone can only be called dyslexic when all reasonable attempts to help them have failed!
The panel are recognising the spectrum of difficulties and the fact that some people respond to support better than others. We agree that more research is needed to understand these differences, but we do not see why the term dyslexia would be used for only a ‘tiny minority’. Why not, as we do today, continue to recognise that dyslexia varies in severity?
Dr Rack said: “This narrow view of dyslexia would be quite problematic in practice. If you can't be dyslexic until all else has failed, then what are you beforehand? It would not be very easy to use 'at risk of dyslexia' as a way of explaining what your problems are and the things that are helpful in overcoming them."
Whatever academics conclude, Dyslexia Action believes it is still important to consider the views of people with dyslexia and those who work to help them make sense of their differences and difficulties.
Benefits of a diagnosis
A diagnosis can help people to access disability support; ensure they receive reasonable adjustments; and help them to understand why they are struggling more than their peers, which can help to boost confidence and self-esteem.
For instance, being assessed as dyslexic really helped student Ben, 15, regain his confidence. Following specialist support from Dyslexia Action and additional support in school for his dyslexia, Ben began his GCSEs last year on the gifted and talented register in three subjects and in most of the top sets. His Mum Ruth believes he would have failed miserably at school if his dyslexia had not been identified and he had not received specialist support. “Being labelled as dyslexic, gave Ben a reason for why he was struggling, helped him to understand himself more and gave him the confidence to persevere,” said Ruth. “He would have completely switched off and failed at school otherwise.”
Dr Rack added: “We know the term dyslexia can be helpful for many, as it helps people understand their strengths and difficulties; helps them make sense of past struggles and to access the right help and support.
“If the blocks or barriers that are getting in the way of progress can be identified, then focused support can be given to improve things or to find ways around those blocks. An assessment, which can diagnose dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties, is useful therefore to provide reassurance, or to help decide between the different options of support available.”
 Julian G. Elliott (Durham University) Elena L. Grigorenko (Yale University), (May 2014) The Dyslexia Debate.