Can’t read, won’t read

'Dyslexia' is becoming a catch-all excuse for poor work.

James Panton

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Topics Politics

Over six years ago, shortly before sitting my finals at Oxford, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. This came as quite a surprise. I had been tested on a number of occasions at both primary and secondary school and no dyslexia had been found – though I was told that learning the rules of spelling and grammar, and putting more effort into the presentation of my work, would be a good idea.

Something seemed to have changed between the tests I had undergone in my teens, and the test at the end of my undergraduate degree. The change was surely not with my literacy – I was coming to the end of a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, and my tutors were predicting a first-class result in finals. Around the time of my diagnosis I had also been offered a place to study for an MPhil in philosophy. If I was suffering from a learning disability, it had made little impact on my academic trajectory – although I have to admit that my spelling and punctuation may still have left a bit to be desired.

Many advocates suggest that we are now only beginning to discover the extent of previously unrecognised learning disabilities. According to Ross Cooper, a dyslexia expert at London South Bank University, ‘The amount of undiagnosed dyslexia has always been great and we are just beginning to find people who have always been there’ (1). So perhaps I was one of the lucky few whose condition was finally recognised?

Six years on, I am sceptical. The increasing numbers of students diagnosed with dyslexia reflects a broader shift in the climate of higher education, and an expansion of the definition of dyslexia, rather than any objective increase in the disability.

In the mid-1990s, figures suggested that as much as four percent of the population was dyslexic, but the estimate has grown substantially in the past decade. The Dyslexia Institute claims that up to 10 per cent of the British population has ‘some form of dyslexia’, of which four percent are ‘severely dyslexic’ (2). Other studies put the proportion of dyslexics as high as 15 percent (3). In the USA, the figures are higher still. According to the International Dyslexia Association, between 15 and 20 percent of the population has a ‘language-based learning disability’, of which dyslexia accounts for the greatest proportion (4).

As estimates of the extent of the problem have grown, universities have started to take dyslexia seriously. In the past decade, encouraged by government, funding and advocacy groups, special centres have been opened at many universities to diagnose and assist students with dyslexia. For example, all students entering Bradford University are screened for dyslexia, and the university’s figures suggest that more than 60 per cent of students with a recorded disability are dyslexic (5). At many institutions dyslexic students have their disability ‘taken into account’ when their work is marked; and it is the norm for dyslexics to have special arrangements made in tutorials and extra time granted in written examinations.

Undoubtedly, there are students who suffer from the severe learning disability, dyslexia. The Dyslexia Institute’s claim that four percent of the population is ‘severely dyslexic’ may even be accurate. Resources, time and expertise must be made available to ensure that individuals with dyslexia, and other learning difficulties, can enter higher education and participate on an equal footing with their peers. What is worrying, however, is the extent to which the amorphous category of ‘dyslexia’ has been expanded to cover a whole range of other individuals.

A number of academics have begun to express their concern about the number of students being afforded special treatment in the university sector. A recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement expressed concern that dyslexia is ‘being used as a convenient excuse by lazy students who want to gain access to extra exam time and one-to-one tuition’ (6). Peter Shaw, professor of biochemistry at Nottingham University, is concerned that many students are falsely claiming dyslexia when they are in fact “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’ (7).

It is no great surprise if a minority of students are playing the system in order to receive special treatment. But it is worth remembering that the system being played is one that educationalists and advocates have themselves put in place.

In secondary education and at many universities, we place decreasing emphasis on reading books or writing essays, so perhaps we should not be surprised that a number of even the brightest students display weak literacy skills. But the tendency to label these students ‘dyslexic’ trivialises the experience of those who really suffer from a serious learning disability, and leads to excessive demands on special recourses.

However, the expansive use of the dyslexic label has a far more serious impact upon the educational climate within the university. Our preparedness to define a broad range of students as having special needs encourages a climate of special pleading, and lowers students’ expectations of themselves. The hours spent reading books in the library, and the effort required to organise thoughts and ideas into a written argument, can be difficult, but struggling with these difficulties is an essential part of higher education. By labelling students who find such challenges particularly onerous as ‘dyslexic’, we encourage them to understand these challenges as beyond them. Rather than learning from their mistakes, and being encouraged to overcome their weaknesses, the label ‘dyslexia’ provides a readymade excuse for poor work.

When students produce substandard work, or fail to satisfactorily complete an assignment, they are told that their work isn’t up to scratch. However, when students are labelled ‘dyslexic’, it is no longer that the work is substandard; rather, the work must be assessed against different criteria. The expansion of the category leads to a climate in which we, as academics, come to expect less of our students, and in which students come to expect far less of themselves.

Six years ago last month, I discovered that I had received a good, but far from exceptional, 2:1. Perhaps the extra time I’d been granted in finals wasn’t enough. Perhaps I should have qualified for further special treatment, or my ‘dyslexia’ should have been taken into account when the scripts were marked. Perhaps I wasn’t responsible for my mark, but was a victim of my condition. I’m sceptical. I think my performance in finals just didn’t come up to scratch.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and chair of the Post-Graduate Forum.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Cited in Chris Bunting, ‘Worrying Case of Can’t Write, Won’t Write’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 July 2004

(2) The Dyslexia Institute

(3) Olga Wojitas, ‘Visual Interference’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 May 2003

(4) See The International Dyslexia Association

(5) Cited in Chris Bunting, ‘Worrying Case of Can’t Write, Won’t Write’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 July 2004

(6) Chris Bunting, ‘Worrying Case of Can’t Write, Won’t Write’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 July 2004

(7) Cited in Chris Bunting, ‘Worrying Case of Can’t Write, Won’t Write’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 July 2004

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