In Defence of Dyslexia

The Dyslexia Reading Well Response to Drs. Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko's Research Briefing for: The Dyslexia Debate

Two Sisters

Henri Fantin-Latour's The Two Sisters (1859)
is featured on The Dyslexia Debate cover


The Dyslexia Debate has now been released. Our review of the book is available in the DRW Blog (May 5, 2014 Entry).  The response below is to the Research Briefing posted at Dr. Julian Elliott's Durham University Webpage prior to the book's release.  Updates to the response, based on the just released book, are noted in red.

The Issue

In promoting their book The Dyslexia Debate, Drs. Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko (whom I will refer to as 'the authors') claim that the word dyslexia is worse than meaningless, misleading parents and hurting children as part of a 'wait to fail' model of education.

This is a remarkable claim and an indictment of an enormous community of university research centres, scientists, parents, teachers, the International and British Dyslexia Associations (IDA & BDA) and of course, this website. 

Such a claim requires remarkable evidence, evidence which is lacking in the research brief, media appearances / statements made by the authors and in the book. The provocative and adversarial nature of their claims is attracting media attention, though more in the UK than North America. Unfortunately, the media have failed to challenge the authors regarding their dramatic claims, having served only to amplify their voice.

On behalf of the parents, teachers and advocates that visit this website, we offer the response below to the research brief and a review of the book on the DRW blog

Response in Brief

Help Take Back
The Word Dyslexia

If you are concerned about the attacks on dyslexia by the authors of The Dyslexia Debate and all of their unchallenged media coverage, please like it and share a link to this page on Facebook, Tweet about it, or better yet link to it from other web pages. 

With enough support this web page, rather than pages promoting the book, could become the number one Google result for "The Dyslexia Debate"

Let's take back the word dyslexia!

June 2014 update: Mission accomplished: This page ranks on the first page for the term "dyslexia debate"!

Thank you for all your help!


Based on The Dyslexia Debate research brief and recent media statements made by the authors, it is my contention that:

  • Elliott and Grigorenko's arguments against the term dyslexia consist almost entirely of 'straw man' attacks and semantics.

  • There is a sound and scientific definition of dyslexia that the authors ignore. They intentionally mix symptoms, causes and definitions of dyslexia in arguing that there is no agreed upon understanding of the term 

  • The term dyslexia, though imperfect, helps define and distinguish reading problems, aligns deficits with effective interventions, motivates parents and legislators to action and protects children from being falsely labeled as stupid or lazy

  • The real risk to struggling readers is failure to receive proper reading assessment and intervention early in their schooling, therefore more assessment and identification of dyslexia is needed, not less

  • Were the authors to succeed in eliminating the word dyslexia it would be an enormous setback for struggling readers, both in the United States where dyslexia legislation is being advanced at both the state and national levels, and in the UK where students can qualify for support based on being identified as dyslexic.

  • Their claims mislead parents and hurt children, which ironically is what they claim the term dyslexia is doing

One reason US students would lose from the loss of the word dyslexia is largely because of a remarkable grass roots parent movement in 45 states (Decoding Dyslexia) that has recently won or is winning battles for legislation (& awareness) requiring early screening for dyslexia. In New Jersey alone 2000 elementary schools must now test for dyslexia by grade two.

In Defence of Dyslexia:
My Response to The Dyslexia Debate Research Brief

The authors' research briefing for The Dyslexia Debate, released in advance of the book, identified 5 'myths' about dyslexia. They are listed below with my response to each. Select quotes from the brief appear in text boxes. I have added quote numbers for reference.

Myth A: Dyslexia is a special kind of problem that is found in only some children who struggle to decode text.

Quotes from The Dyslexia Debate research brief:

A1) "While many people assume that specialists agree about what is meant by the term dyslexia, the reality is that it is understood in many different ways. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that estimates of dyslexia often range from 5% - 20% of the population."
(13 different conceptions of dyslexia are listed to attest to the confusion)

A2) "The basis for determining a dyslexic subgroup from a wider pool of {Garden Variety} poor readers is highly problematic. While a number of symptoms are often found in samples of poor readers, it is wholly unclear which of these might be necessary for a diagnosis of dyslexia."

A3) "Indeed, in the opinion of many clinicians, it is possible to have dyslexia even when one's current literacy skills are sound."

Response to Myth A

The authors open the research brief by sharing their startling discovery (A1) that academics and specialists often disagree over terms and numbers. This is, of course, true of every healthy field of inquiry from particle physics to cosmology to geology. Has the earth warmed by 0.3 degrees since 1950 or 1.2? What does warmed mean? Ocean bottom temperature or stratosphere? Should we abandon the terms global warming and meteorology because of these vexing disagreements?

Attempting to leverage specialist disagreement itself to discredit a term is a weak opening gambit in their campaign against dyslexia. But what is the definition of dyslexia then and is it really problematic?

There is a simple and scientific definition of dyslexia: extreme difficulty reading caused by a hereditary, brain based, phonologic disability. The authors know that the signature of dyslexia is a phonological processing deficit and this is reflected in the very good definitions of dyslexia offered by the IDA and BDA. But instead of recognizing these specific, sound definitions and the critical role of a phonological deficits in dyslexia, the authors bury phonological awareness 10th among their long list of dyslexia conceptions and conflate (mix) causes with symptoms and definitions in hopes of convincing the reader that there is no real definition at all. The only ones muddying the definition waters are the authors.

Most, but not all, poor readers exhibit a phonological deficit. Often they have a secondary deficit in speed or comprehension. Technically those without a phonological deficit are not dyslexic, they are 'garden variety' poor readers, which the authors believe are unicorns of the reading world and not worth the hunt (A2). Is this dyslexic/garden variety poor reader distinction important? No. On this point I agree with the authors. The important thing is that a reading assessment identifies any deficits as early as possible along with any remediation/accommodations that are needed to help that particular student improve. But it does not follow from this argument that we should abandon the term dyslexia simply because it is synonymous with poor reader/decoder.

Even more convenient is the omission of neurological aspects from the list of dyslexia conceptions. The authors know that dyslexia is neurological, and that increasingly we can see its signature in real time brain scans, yet no mention of it is made here at all.  In the book it is recognized that modern brain scanning technology can discriminate between poor and efficient readers but that it cannot discriminate a subgroup of poor readers that are dyslexic. This is a semantic distinction only and does nothing to change the fact that neuroscience has validated the long held belief that dyslexia is  brain based and biological. 

Finally, listening to audio books at high speed is a valuable literacy skill that a dyslexic may have (A3), but I imagine the authors are referring here to the ability to read printed text. It would be preposterous to argue that one could be dyslexic and a very efficient reader of text at the same time. Anyone who argues this, clinician or otherwise, simply doesn't know the meaning of the word dyslexia. This is one of many straw man arguments made by the authors.

Myth B: Special tests are needed to identify which of these children are dyslexic and which are 'just poor readers'.

Quotes from The Dyslexia Debate research brief:

B1) "One of the biggest myths associated with dyslexia is that it should be defined in relation to intelligence. The so called ‘discrepancy definition’ of dyslexia recognises as genuine dyslexics only those whose level of reading is significantly worse than would be expected on the basis of their intelligence (typically measured by an IQ test). Research over the past twenty years has demonstrated the folly of this belief."

B2) "Some argue that while IQ tests are inappropriate for a diagnosis of dyslexia, other tests of underlying cognitive processes (e.g. working memory, rapid naming) can be employed to help to diagnose dyslexia. The Dyslexia Debate reviews this issue in detail and shows that relevant studies have provided contrasting findings that have limited value for the design of effective forms of reading intervention. Our current knowledge indicates that it is generally better to concentrate directly on academic skills rather than seeking to improve underlying processes."

Response to Myth B

Railing against IQ tests to discredit dyslexia is a classic straw man argument. Dyslexia cannot be assessed via an IQ test and is not being tested that way in most clinical practice today (though IQ tests are often administered concurrently as part of a comprehensive assessment). And while parents may take some comfort in the false belief that their child is significantly more intelligent than they appear, the existence of false beliefs or even shoddy clinical practice does not mean that there are no valid tests for dyslexia.

Yes, evidence has found that dyslexics cover the full bell curve of IQ and are not disproportionally high IQ people, but no serious person is arguing that dyslexics are all encumbered geniuses. This point is moot.

The authors' point about tests of working memory or rapid naming being of little value (B2) is just further straw man argumentation. Those tests are not tests for dyslexia/reading ability, they are tests of symptoms associated with dyslexia and reading problems. The most important tests for assessing dyslexia are tests of phonemic awareness, pronunciation, fluency, speed and comprehension. The difference between tests of working memory and tests of phonological awareness is the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence. 

That the authors fail to mention the actual tests for dyslexia in trying to discredit them is truly remarkable. There are tests for dyslexia and they work, including the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) and the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) among others. In the book the authors do reference tests such as DIBELS but always with the caveat that the test cannot distinguish a subgroup of dyslexics from among all struggling readers. This is wholly irrelevant in terms of accommodation. The purpose of the testing is to improve the selection of specific interventions, regardless of label. 

Myth C:  Diagnosing dyslexia removes false attributions of laziness or stupidity

Quotes from The Dyslexia Debate research brief:

C1) "Many poor readers have been unduly hurt by being treated as lacking in intelligence, and a diagnosis of dyslexia often seems to be a sound way to counter this. However the real problem to be tackled is not that dyslexia had earlier failed to be identified but rather that assumptions of low intelligence are made on the basis of reading skills. In reality, IQ and decoding ability are largely unrelated and, for this reason, teachers need to ensure that poor literacy skills do not translate into classroom demands that fail to reflect the child's true intellectual abilities."

C2) "One particular danger of using the term dyslexia to offset attributions of laziness is that this criticism might be seen as a fair description of poor readers who have not been given this diagnosis."

C3) "Using the term dyslexia to avoid improper understandings of a child as lazy or stupid is to fail to deal with the real problem of inappropriate attributions."

Response to Myth C

The 'real problem' (C1) is precisely that dyslexia/reading disabilities are not being identified. Are the authors seriously suggesting that public institutions of education should put their energies into eradicating false assumptions that people make about IQ and reading? No work plan for this Herculean task appears in the book.

The suggestion (C2) that there is a danger that garden variety poor readers might be unfairly labeled stupid or lazy because they lack the label 'dyslexic' is a tortured piece of reasoning for several reasons:

  • Kids don't go around with a sign around their neck that says dyslexic, most don't even share the fact with their friends. So their peers are not going to discriminate in calling them lazy or stupid.

  • Teachers, who may be aware of a diagnosis of dyslexia in their charges, are not likely to treat unassessed poor readers as second class students either. On the contrary, they will probably refer them for dyslexia testing precisely because of their now raised awareness of reading disabilities.

  • The real danger is that all poor readers will be considered garden variety poor readers and suffer the large group, standardized reading interventions ('read slowly, sound it out') program that has failed them for 100 years.

  • The obvious solution to the danger the authors perceive would be more diagnosis of dyslexia not less. Ensuring that every bad reader is labeled dyslexic and gets the effective support that exists would be much, much simpler than trying to create a whole new framework of reading assessment. This is true even if dyslexia were a meaningless label.

  • Finally, since Elliott and Grigorenko think the definition of dyslexia is so inclusive that nothing falls outside it (see A1,A2), how many students could they possibly fear are in danger of not having the label? They appear to be arguing against themselves here.

Regarding human nature's inclination toward inappropriate attributions (C3), the key question is how to overcome those false attributions. Behavior modification is too big a field to wade into here, but suffice to say that words have power to change behavior and that if the word dyslexia has any power to defuse false charges of laziness or stupidity (which it does), we would be terribly advised to throw it away.

The authors seem set to argue that abstract academic explanations of 'improper attributions' will stop kids from being hurt and move entire educational institutions to adopt better pedagogy and accommodations. This is a mistake. Can there be any doubt that abolishment of the term dyslexia would immediately result in more rather than less false attribution of stupidity and laziness? It's for this reason that their ideas are not just false but dangerous.

It is important to point out that development of a positive self identify, self confidence and sense of self worth are more important than any one particular academic goal of public school systems. In their rush to abandon the term dyslexia, the authors have apparently lost sight of this fact.

Remarkably, no alternative to the word dyslexia appears in this section of the research brief, but in their book the phrase the authors prefer is "Reading Disability". How could these words , which are already synonymous with dyslexia, yet more vague, possibly help children in a way that dyslexia does not? 

Myth D: A diagnosis of dyslexia will help teachers to select the most powerful ways to intervene.

Quotes from The Dyslexia Debate research brief:

D1) "There is a widespread belief that a diagnosis of dyslexia will help point to appropriate forms of educational intervention. This is wholly incorrect. There is no effective treatment for those who are adjudged to have dyslexia that differs from accepted practices for all children who struggle to decode." (Emphasis is the authors, not ours)

D2) "A wealth of research evidence has clearly shown that in comparison with normally reading peers, those who struggle to acquire reading skills typically require more individualized, more structured, more explicit, more systematic and more intense reading inputs."

Response to Myth D

It's important to understand just how obscure the point that Elliott and Grigorenko are trying to win under quote D1 above.  They are arguing that dyslexia assessment will not lead to appropriate types of interventions because the resulting interventions (D2) are good for every reader.  This is akin to arguing that assessment of breast cancer will not lead to appropriate treatment because the treatment cures every kind of cancer (With apologies for the medical analogy. Dyslexia is not a disease).

The authors have again completely missed the real danger that children are currently subject to and that is the danger of no assessment at all.  Struggling readers are not getting "more individualized, more structured, more explicit, more systematic and more intense" (D2) reading help. The public schools systems - at least in Canada and the US - do a poor job identifying students at risk of reading disabilities. These children tend to muddle along while the gap between them and efficient readers widens.

From personal experience I can attest that until my stepson was identified as dyslexic, all the extra tutoring and remediation we were doing (including extra in classroom help, the Kumon program and summer school) was misguided. Only after our dyslexia assessment did we get referred to a reading system that focused on phonological awareness and used structured, explicit, multisensory methods. The system we use is based on the Orton Gillingham approach, which is widely recognized as an effective system for teaching dyslexics.

In this section of the brief the authors also list a number of interventions for dyslexia that have no scientific support behind them. This list includes coloured lenses and overlays, exercise, vision therapies, supplements and bio-feedback. We fully agree that none of these interventions have credible research behind them (only anecdotes) and some border on quackery. But the suggestion here, in case you missed it, is that dyslexia interventions are frauds and thus the condition doesn't really exist. Unfortunately this again is a straw man argument hard at work. Professional dyslexia assessment refers children to reading programs like those my stepson is now getting. Noone referred us to supplements or biofeedback.

The authors are trying to smear dyslexia assessment by associating it with dodgy interventions that no professional would recommend.  This is a terrible disservice to professional assessors and psychologists who are trying to help parents and children to better understand the nature or reading problem and find effective solutions.

Myth E: A diagnosis of dyslexia should rightfully result in the allocation of special accommodations (particularly in exams) and additional resources

Quotes from The Dyslexia Debate research brief:

(E1) "There are two problems here. Firstly, there is the issue of equity and fairness. Myth E is particularly problematic if it results in a failure to provide appropriately for those poor readers who do not receive a diagnosis of dyslexia... Secondly, given that the basis for a diagnosis of dyslexia is highly problematic, allocating resources on an unscientific basis of this kind is untenable."

(E2) "An increasingly popular approach for helping children with a variety of learning difficulties (including reading) is known as response to intervention. Here intervention takes place immediately  a child begins to struggle academically (sic).  This is preferable to waiting for the child to continue to fail over time, and in the light of this, eventually seeking an assessment in the hope of ultimately obtaining a questionable diagnosis."

Response to Myth E

Standing on four misleading claims about dyslexia myths the authors now reveal the first details of their plan of action. They claim something called response to intervention (RTI) will better solve the problem of reading disabilities.

RTI could be a good idea, but here is not the place for a detailed review of that approach. See our page here for more detail on the RTI approach to diagnosis and remediation. Even in the book, there are few details as to what RTI is and how exactly it will better accommodate dyslexic students beyond general suggestions that RTI will ensures all students that require help will get it and that RTI isn't a 'wait to fail' approachImportantly, nothing in the book suggests that RTI requires the elimination of the word dyslexia. And how is it that school wide RTI testing would somehow be scientific and valid, whereas dyslexia assessment would not be? Are there no disagreements among the experts regarding the RTI tests (remember Myth A)? Of course there are. Further, if the RTI test(s) identify a severe reading difficulty based on phonemic awareness, fluency and pronunciation, won't the intervention be the same as under a dyslexia assessment?

Finally, the authors try to make the case (E2) that RTI is better because it involves early assessment (and that dyslexia assessment is somehow a 'wait to fail' model). Why is it that dyslexia testing cannot be universal and conducted early or even included in RTI testing? In fact early testing is precisely what dyslexia advocates are after. See for example the recent New Jersey legislation.


The word dyslexia is not perfect, but it is not the problem. The problem is struggling readers that don't get the help they need. Dyslexia distinguishes reading disability from learning disability, brings focus to critical phonemic deficits, buffers poor readers from the false label of stupid or lazy and helps focus attention and resources toward the development and implementation of effective reading programs and accommodations, most of which are still lacking in public schools.

What is The Dyslexia Debate's alternative to dyslexia? The authors suggest the phrase 'reading disabilities'. In my province of Ontario, public school students are neither assessed for, nor labeled dyslexic. Elliott and Grigorenko should be delighted. Instead my stepson was labeled LD (specifically, a reading disability) and given the usual ineffective interventions for poor readers. It wasn't until he was in grade 5 that he was identified (by me) as possibly being dyslexic.  We immediately sought professional assessment and then interventions. The programs we were referred to post assessment have made a difference that all the interventions up to that point had not.

To be clear our problem was not that my Stepson was deemed a garden variety poor reader and excluded from rich resources set aside for those with the special dyslexia label. The problem was that no struggling readers in the school were getting the kind of help they needed. The assessments and resources were not there period. This is the real problem in too many schools and school systems - and on this we need to focus.  

By launching their attack on the term dyslexia, Elliott and Grigorenko risk hurting every student who may be eligible for dyslexia assessment and effective intervention from the UK, to Canada, the US and beyond. Their 'response to intervention' proposal may be a good approach for identifying and accommodating reading disabilities, but by trying to reframe reading difficulties instead of leveraging dyslexia awareness and interventions, the authors risk undermining their own initiative.    

I do not fear the authors will succeed, since memes do not change that easily, but I do fear they may succeed in tainting every dyslexia related organization, school, tutoring centre, website, program or research proposal with a brush of the phoney.

I do not fully understand the motive of the authors but I can imagine that they have borne witness to a legion of incompetent dyslexia assessors, researchers, school administrators and dyslexia oil salesman. This is a shame, because the cadre of dyslexia assessors, authors, researchers, private school administrators and parent advocates I have crossed paths with have been some of the most inspiring, caring and capable people I have ever met.

Michael Bates,
March 6, 2014
(Updated May 5, 2014 following the release of the book) 

Help Take Back the Word Dyslexia!

If you are concerned about the attacks on dyslexia by the authors of The Dyslexia Debate, and all of their unchallenged media coverage, please share a link to this page on Facebook, Tweet about it, or better yet link to it from other web pages. 

With enough support this web page, rather than pages promoting the book, could become the number one Google result for "The Dyslexia Debate"

Let's take back the word dyslexia!

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