Labour MP: Dyslexia is a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching

The BBC has the story:

A Labour MP has claimed dyslexia is a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching.

Backbencher Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley, describes the condition as a “cruel fiction” that should be consigned to the “dustbin of history”.

He believes the reason many children cannot read and write properly is that the wrong teaching methods are used.

But Charity Dyslexia Action said the condition was “very real” to the 6m people in the UK affected by it…

Chief executive Shirley Cramer said: “Once again dyslexia seems to be making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

“It is frustrating that the focus should be on whether dyslexia exists or not, when there is so much evidence to support that it does.”

You can read the full story here.

Update: interesting follow-up debate to the BBC story at Liberal Conspiracy and Letters from a Tory.

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  • Buried in Stringer’s idiocy is an interesting nugget though. Why do countries like South Korea and Nicaragua (apparently) have much higher literacy rates than we do?

    Is there some reason why they have fewer people with dyslexia or do they have ways of dealing with it.

    I’ve always puzzled over the apparent contradiction between low literacy rates at 11 and record GCSE passes year after year. Stringer claims that 1/4 of Manchester people are functionally illiterate – the national pass rate is c.98%.

  • Both the Korean alphabet and the latin alphabet as used for Spanish have a greater grapheme-phoneme correspondence than in English, and that might be part of the story.
    But also, many “increases” in diagnosis (e.g. autism) are probably because professionals know about a disorder that they didn’t previously. If in Korean and Nicaragua education professionals simply brand dysklexics as slow learners or stupid, then of course they won’t report much dyslexia!

  • There are 27 definitions of ‘dyslexia’. However,although many children do indeed struggle to read those who understand that written English is a code, and have sufficient time to practise its essential skills, do learn to read.
    Gordon Brown, perversely, has introduced the hugely expensive, universally criticised, Reading Recovery programme for struggling readers. This Whole Language programme runs counter to synthetic phonics; for some dyslexics it is profoundly damaging.
    Surely, it is time for Gordon Brown’s initiative – let alone its cost – to be fully investigated?

  • g.carter:
    there’s mounds of research that shows that phonics is a particularly unsuitable way to learn to read a language like English, and that whole language approaches are much better if you want the child to actually understand what they’re reading. If you’d like, I could send you references…

  • Letter-from-a-moron/tory
    So, are you an expert on literacy?
    I am a professor of communication disorders, so at least I DO know what I’m talking about…!

  • David Evans 15th Jan '09 - 7:43pm

    I wonder if I’m the only one who finds it just a bit amusing that a post from a ‘professor of communication disorders’ begins “Letter from a moron/tory …” But then we all can be provoked.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Jan '09 - 10:32am

    Different people have different abilities, where’s the news in that? I’m good at logic and reading and writing, but crap at most things involving physical dexterity. Is this down to “bad teaching” or just the way I am? Well, I think I can complain about PE teachers at school ignoring me and not helping me make the best of a bad job on the physical side of things because they gave all their attention to those who were good at that and had potential for the school sports teams. But I don’t think I can say it’s entirely their fault that I am the way I am.

    I teach a subject – computer programming – which some people find easy and take to right away, others find very hard. I’ve just marked a bunch of tests taken at the end of the first semester second year of a three year degree. After a year and a half there are some people showing a level of ability that others get to in the first month of learning this stuff. A bit’s down to effort, but a lot is something quite mysterious. If your one of these people who “gets it” it can be very frustrating to see the struggles of those who don’t. “Why” your are tempted to say “can’t they just see what’s obvious?”. But others, seeing what I do, are tempted to say “it’s because he’s a bad teacher”. The reality is that if you go to education conferences on this subject everyone across the world is saying the same thing, everyone finds this “some take to it, some don’t” thing, and no-one has cracked how to get round it. If there was an easy way to do it, wouldn’t someone somewhere in the 40 years this subject has been taught at universities across the world have found a way to do it? Every time someone comes up with a bright idea, look again at discussion a few years later and the chances are it’s all about a new bright idea that’s going to sweep away all those problems caused by the old way of doing it – the old way being that previous bright idea. Quite often the new bright idea is the bright idea before the last bright idea.

    I understand that dyslexia refers to specific difficulty with reading which does not necessarily mean difficulty with other mental abilities. I’ve come across students who are diagnosed dyslexics, but are good natural computer programmers, for example. It doesn’t seem to me to be much more surprising than the fact that there are people like me who are good at logic things but bad at dexterity things. The “27 definitions of dyslexia” however also makes sense to me – it may be a label used for what is actually a variety of different things. Those things may range from problems with the visual handling of written script to slowness at the deeper level of translating the written words into meanings. Also, it very much is the case that if you identify a phenomenon, the more your look for cases of it, the more you are likely to find. I remember when I was a councillor and we looked at borough figures for this, it did indeed seem to be the case that dyslexia was more common in the more middle class schools, which would support the claim that it’s just a middle class way of pretending disappointingly unintelligent kids aren’t really just unintelligent. However, a closer look revealed that the higher proportion in more middle class schools was all due to higher pushiness to diagnose it in those schools.

    So people are different, with different ranges of skills. Intelligence isn’t one dimensional. When training, whether it’s teaching reading or teaching computer programming, different approaches work for different people. Reality, I suspect is that there isn’t one way to do it, rather for some people there’s one way which works best, and for other people there’s another. It helps to know where people are so we can search for the way which works with them. If people are poor at some aspect, we must find what we can in the way of aids to get them through that, or special techniques which work for them. But also we need to know when to accept that’s just how things are.

  • So far, Matthew’s post is the most perceptive of the lot. There have always been children with problems learning to read; along with teachers who weren’t too good at teaching it; and in the 80s and on to the present day and probably at other times as well, poor theories which threw out a lot of what had been learned about teaching reading in the past.

    However, Labour’s “Reading Recovery programme” is typical new Labour, moderately useful, but enormously expensive. The saying “Must try harder” springs to mind.

  • Martin Land 20th Jan '09 - 2:03pm

    I’ve waited a few days and thought carefully about this before commenting. Well here goes.

    I’m old enough (52) to be puzzled by much of the strange world of today’s childhood. I’d hate to sound like an old Tory, but you see, I went to boarding school and the school of 800 pupils was very careful to tell us all which children had any particular problems and what we were to do in case of an emergency. We had two children who had Asthma and needed an inhaler and one child who had had epileptic fits when smaller, though he had none when I was at the school. We also had no chldren with problems behaving. I’ll leave it to your imagination to work out why!

    We had no children who were allergic to nuts, milk (indeed pre-Thatcher, every child had to drink a third of a pint a day), gluten (in fact we had never heard of it). I’m not a nutty Labour MP so I don’t dispute that these allergies and extreme allergic reactions exist. I’d just like to know what has happened in the last forty years that has brought this on. We ate lots of nuts when I was a kid, drank milk, ate bread and I’ve grown up to be a typical unfit, overweight middle-aged man.

    I am a (currently non-practicing) teacher, so I’ve seen some of these problems on the ground as it were. I think it’s a good thing that we have now identified many areas of learning difficulty and that the needs of children can be addressed.

    But thereby hangs the tale. I was faced with a year 7 class (11 year olds) of 30 two years ago. Of these 30 children, 7 had allergies and 8 some sort of learning problem, including dyslexia. Half the class. Something the Teacher is quite rightly supposed to take in to account and be fully aware of. There is little that a Teacher can do about allergies, but the learning difficulties?

    Well, I took the trouble to lie to the children. You see, I teach languages, so I told them that they were starting something new and that they were all therefore starting at the same level and that they would all find they had learning difficulties in French. I told them (rightly) that even French people had trouble with French spelling!

    By creating equality, all the children worked together and enjoyed their lessons. Those with learning difficulties seem relieved to be treated as equals and the stars no longer had the ‘I’m clever and I’m being held back’ chip on the shoulder teachers so often experience. I’ll be frank – I would defy even a highly experienced teacher to have gone into that class and told me which children had the learning difficulties.

    So what’s my point? I accept the difficulties being experienced by many children and I accept that they suffer from defined and definable difficulties. I think, however, that in overly emphasising these problems we are increasing them. More remedial action needs to be taken at an earlier age and more effort taken before the problem gets out of hand.

    Indeed in some ways it is already out of hand. ‘John has this, that or the other condition’ is the endless refrain of parents when Parents Evenings come along. Far too often the truth is exactly the same as when I was a teenager – John is just lazy (weren’t we all?) and parents can hide behind a problem rather than actually work with their children and their teachers to try to solve it.

    There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. We need to concentrate more holistically on supporting children. Yes these conditions exist. But there is no reason why the should be allowed to hold children back as much as they are.

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