Henri Fantin-Latour's The Two Sisters (1859)
is featured on The Dyslexia Debate cover
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.
Based on The Dyslexia Debate research brief and recent media statements made by the authors, it is my contention that:
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.
For more on why UK university students in particular stand to lose, see the March 7th Press Release from the BDA
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.
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'.
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
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
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:
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? Wouldn't redefining dyslexia as reading disability be an easier alternative?
Myth D: A diagnosis of dyslexia will help teachers to select the most powerful ways to intervene.
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
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
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' approach. Importantly, 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.
March 6, 2014
(Updated May 5, 2014 following the release of the book)
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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