The dislexia sceptik is onn to sumthing

Academic and supposed dyslexic James Panton thinks the professor who describes dyslexia as a 'social fig leaf' for the middle classes has a point.

British professor Julian Elliott first hit the headlines two years ago with his claim that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of dyslexia. Last week, he sparked further controversy when he said that ‘dyslexia has become a social fig leaf for middle-class parents who do not want their children to be considered lazy, thick or stupid’ (1). Of course, his argument is a little more subtle than we were led to believe by last week’s media furore. So he didn’t quite say, as was claimed in the Mail on Sunday, that ‘Dyslexia is a fantasy’ (2).

Rather, Elliott argues that dyslexia ‘persists as a construct largely because it serves an emotional, not a scientific, function’ (3). He says there is no rigorous consensus about how the condition should be defined or what diagnostic criteria should be used: ‘There are so many different understandings of what dyslexia is, or is not, that the term as used in professional practice has become almost meaningless.’ (4) Standard symptoms – such as the inversion of letters, clumsiness, untidy writing or poor working memory – are all commonly found in people who have no reading difficulties at all, as well as in poor readers who would nonetheless not be considered dyslexic. Elliott points out that contrary to the myths of ‘miracle cures’, diagnosing someone as dyslexic tells us almost nothing about how that individual can best be taught to read: ‘There is no sound, widely accepted, body of scientific work that has shown that there exists any particular teaching approach which is more appropriate for “dyslexic” children than for other poor readers.’ (5)

Elliott’s views – particularly controversial at the moment, given that the British government has just promised that £900,000 will be spent on training teachers to spot dyslexia in their classrooms (6) – are important. The fact that ‘dyslexia’ is now used to describe a wide variety of learning difficulties, to the extent that it has apparently become all but meaningless, should make us reconsider our use of the word as a scientific label. His even more controversial claim (that dyslexia has now become a ‘social fig leaf’) rings true, too - though he is wrong to think that this is simply a middle-class phenomenon. In truth, the rise of the dyslexia tag points to broader, and more worrying, shifts in the cultural landscape.

I previously argued on spiked that the category of dyslexia has become remarkably woolly over the past few years. In the mid-1990s, figures suggested that as much as four per cent of the population was dyslexic; in the 10 years since, that number has more than doubled. According to the UK charity Dyslexia Action: ‘About 10 per cent of the population are affected by dyslexia to some degree.’ (7) (Emphasis added.) Other studies claim that as many as 15 per cent of us are dyslexic (8). In the US, it is claimed that between 15 and 20 per cent of the population has a ‘language-based learning disability’, of which dyslexia accounts for the greatest proportion (9) (see Can’t read, won’t read, by James Panton).

I am a good example of this rather woolly category expansion. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, both in primary and comprehensive school, I was tested for dyslexia. I was diagnosed on each occasion as a poor speller, a clumsy and untidy writer, not much cop at mental arithmetic, and not particularly good at organising my thoughts on paper. But I was not, according to the educationalists, dyslexic. The standard prescription was that I should make a bit more effort and spend a bit more time learning the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation. In short, I should pull my socks up.

By the time I was 21 and about to sit my finals at Oxford, I was tested again. This time it was discovered that I was suffering from dyslexia, somewhere on the scale between moderate and extreme. Given that none of my symptoms had become worse – indeed, I had made a very concerted effort to overcome them – it seemed instead that the criteria for diagnosing dyslexia had undergone a significant shift.

I have every sympathy with parents who want to find out why their child is struggling at school, and I know the sense of relief that the diagnosis of dyslexia must bring. For parents who have suffered sleepless nights, convinced that their child is not stupid but unable to explain why he or she cannot learn to read or add up, the dyslexia label must seem like an answer to their prayers. Yet this tendency to categorise more and more children as dyslexic, a tag that now covers a broad range of learning difficulties, creates far more problems than it solves.

By labelling great numbers of children as dyslexic, we do a disservice to those children who really do suffer from severe learning difficulties - those who do need special attention and resources in order to be properly educated and to compete with other children on an equal footing. Expanding the category of dyslexia runs the risk of draining resources away from these children. Moreover, we also do a disservice to the newly labelled ‘dyslexic children’. Once children, and their parents, have a medical label through which to understand the problems they experience in the classroom, there is a strong temptation to interpret all their experiences through this label. Rather than serving as a springboard to better educational achievement, the category dyslexia can quite easily serve as both an explanation and an excuse for every difficulty a child encounters.

I am glad that I was never diagnosed dyslexic as a child. Instead of thinking my underachievement was the result of a medical problem, I realised that if I was to make my ambitions a reality then I would need to push myself beyond my limitations. I remember smuggling maths books home at night in my first two years at high school so that I could keep up with my peers; I forced myself to read ever more complicated books, and taught myself to speed-read, too. It was only by challenging my limitations that I was able to go on from school to university to postgraduate study, and now to work in the academy.

And yet the temptation to interpret any difficulties I encounter as a product of ‘my dyslexia’ remains strong. It’s a little embarrassing to admit to my peers in the senior common room that I failed to get a first-class result in my university exams… perhaps if I tell them I am dyslexic they will be less severe in their judgments. When I can’t quite be bothered to open a long and difficult book, or when the complexity of an argument makes the words start swimming in front of my eyes, it is tempting to give up, and to console myself with the thought that these things don’t come easy to me because I Am Dyslexic. Worse, I sometimes sneakily think that the things I do achieve are all the more impressive because I am dyslexic.

Professor Elliott is no doubt on to something when he says that parents, who understandably don’t want their children to be labelled lazy, thick or stupid, have started to embrace the label dyslexia as an explanation for all their woes. And yet, while it may well be the case that middle-class parents are more attuned to the possibility of having their child labelled dyslexic rather than lazy, to think that the expansion of the D-word is a simply a middle-class phenomenon, as Elliott claims, is to miss broader trends in contemporary culture that have led to an increased diagnosis of dyslexia.

Today, a broad range of social and educational problems is understood in pseudo-medical terms. Over the past few years, along with a phenomenal rise in the number of children and young people labelled dyslexic, we’ve also seen more children diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Just as dyslexia has been expanded to include a host of learning difficulties, so ADHD now describes all sorts of children, from those who exhibit severe hyperactivity symptoms to those who simply won’t sit still.

Finding pseudo-scientific solutions to the very many problems that afflict the education sector is now all the rage. Last year, it was reported that the British government was considering giving omega-3 and omega-6 oil supplements to schoolchildren in an effort to improve their behaviour (10). A few months ago, it was suggested that teenagers’ capacity to concentrate in class might be improved if the school day were started later because teens have biologically programmed sleep patterns that are different to those of adults (11). The scientific substance of both proposals may, or may not, be sound. But come on - problems with behaviour and concentration in schools are not a product of children failing to eat enough tuna at lunchtime or needing to have a nap in the afternoon, and to argue so is to overlook the various ways in which the education system could be improved across the board.

Not long ago, discovering that your child had a learning disability would have been a little embarrassing; it certainly wasn’t something to be discussed at the schoolgates. Yet now, dyslexia has become almost a badge of honour. ‘Our Tommy can’t read because he’s dyslexic; Julie can’t play netball because she’s dispraxic; and though we used to think that little David was just badly behaved, we’re really delighted now we know he has ADHD!’ In contemporary culture, these labels are no longer things to be embarrassed about - rather they have become signs of just how very ‘special’ our children are.

There is something unhealthy about a culture that employs an ever-expanding plethora of labels to categorise children. The tendency to seek out individuated and increasingly medicalised solutions to social and educational problems suggests that achievement and struggle are undervalued today. In our willingness to label children, we encourage a climate of special pleading that undermines the effort, hard work and the sentiment of ‘going for it!’ that should be at the heart of education. By teaching children to understand that their problems are ‘natural’, we are implicitly shifting the focus of education away from pushing children to achieve to the best of their abilities and turning schools into a kind of doctor’s surgery for monitoring differently abled subsets of youth. That can only foster a culture of low achievement and diminished aspirations.

James Panton is tutor in politics at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the Manifesto Club. Contact james.panton@sjc.ox.ac.uk

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill discussed the furore over a government minister’s decision to send her dyslexic child to private school. James Panton discussed dyslexia in Can’t read, won’t read. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick questioned whether parents can improve a child’s mental health through their diets. Brid Hehir discussed craniosacral therapy in Head cases. Or read more at spiked-issue Education.

(1) Dyslexia ‘is used by parents as an excuse for slow children’, The Times (London), 28 May 2007

(2) The UK isn’t fit for this hero, Mail on Sunday, 3 June 2007

(3) Dyslexia Myths and the feel bad factor, Time Higher Education Supplement, 2 September 2005

(4) An Interview with Julian Elliott: About ‘Dyslexia’, EdNews.org, 9 December 2005

(5) Dyslexia Myths and the feel bad factor, Time Higher Education Supplement, 2 September 2005

(6) New Deal for Dyslexia Government gives ‘No To Failure’ a £900,000 kick start, DfES, 15 May 2007

(7) What is dyslexia?, Dyslexia Action

(8) See, for example, ‘Visual Interference’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 May 2003

(9) International Dyslexia Association

(10) Pupil food pill plan ‘considered’, 12 June 2006

(11) Making teens start school in the morning is ‘cruel’, brain doctor claims, Daily Mail, 11 January 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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