dyslexia: not a myth

The main thing that Labour MP Graham Stringer’s recent column on Manchester Confidential tells us is that he is astonishingly full of misguided and misinformed opinions.

In an article titled ‘Dyslexia is a myth,’ Mr Stringer repeatedly confuses illiteracy with dyslexia, mistakes correlation for causation, fails to notice how he refutes his own position, and reveals a touchingly naive belief in the wonder-working powers of literacy in general and ‘synthetic phonics’ in particular.

Since there’s nothing particularly new in what he says, the main impact of his article will simply be to confirm in their prejudice the many people who already incomprehensibly refuse to recognise that you can fail to learn to read and spell as efficiently as your peers without necessarily being stupid and lazy.

Contrary to what he asserts, the concept of dyslexia was not invented by the education establishment, but was in fact identified (by ophthalmologists and neurologists) roughly a century prior to the implementing of the current educational practices which he seems to believe are responsible for so many children failing to acquire basic literacy.

Contrary again to what he assumes, dyslexia has never been equated with illiteracy. At least, not by people who know what they’re talking about. You can be fully adequately literate, and still dyslexic. This is why one of his key reasons for deciding that dyslexia must be invented — namely that “countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea … have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%” — is entirely spurious.

He fails, further, to notice that conceding in one sentence that rates of functional illiteracy have “shown little variation in the last 128 years of compulsory education” rather fatally undermines his contention in the very next sentence that “if the rate of literacy were improved there would be an inevitable decline in crime”. If literacy rates have remained constant over the past century and a half while crime rates rise, how can he reasonably predict lower crime rates if literacy rates were raised?

He cheerfully then concludes that if only everyone else in the country (– world? no, because nowhere else in the world, not even the Republic of Korea, do folk trouble themselves to invent a brain disorder called dyslexia) — if only everyone else would follow the shining example of West Dunbartonshire’s primary schools and teach children to read using ‘synthetic phonics,’ all our literacy-hence-crime woes would be eliminated. Of course, although I don’t want to belittle whatever they’ve achieved, Dunbartonshire’s teachers have not eliminated their dyslexics. They’ve simply equipped them with strategies which mitigate the impact of their dyslexia on their reading (decoding) skills. Just because Mr Stringer’s understanding of the world has no room for people with dyslexia who can read doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If Mr Stringer wants to argue that synthetic phonics is the best teaching method available, that’s one thing (and it’s okay). It’s also okay to say it’s disgraceful for a quarter of the UK population to be functionally illiterate. But claiming that dyslexia is a wicked, cruel, false, fictional malady and an invented disorder not only exposes a great deal of ignorance, misunderstanding, and prejudice but is also extremely counterproductive (the end of tackling literacy problems is hardly well served by denying the existence of one of the best-recognised contexts in which literacy difficulties are experienced). It’s also just a wee bit of a publicity-generating exaggeration.

12 thoughts on “dyslexia: not a myth

  1. Incredible. Already in the stats, somebody got here by searching “when was dyslexia invented.” Try wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyslexia#History

    i suppose you could say the “scientific study of reading” took off in the mid-seventies (? any historians of psychology like to refine that?) and the literacy deficits associated with dyslexia have probably been studied for that amount of time. But the phenomenon of children having unexpected difficulties acquiring literacy (unexpected relative to their performance in other cognitive areas) has been around for as long as widespread/’universal’ literacy has been a phenomenon in society.


  2. I’m glad you saw that article too. I was livid when I saw it. I mean, of course one politician with an agenda can cancel out the huge body of work carried out by a diversity of researchers internationally. I’m sure dyslexics and their families and teachers will be particularly grateful for the extra abuse and unhelpful attitudes they will now face. How irresponsible and stupid of him!


  3. I enjoyed your well argued statement about Stringer’s ridiculous assertions.
    I have blogged about the same story (http://hileryjane.wordpress.com/) and would welcome your comments.
    I, too, live in Edinburgh and work in the field of dyslexia. I should be interested in learning more about your research.
    Best wishes


  4. Even compared to the people who normally get a bit sniffy about dyslexia, Stringer’s comments plumb unusual depths of ignorance.

    (I mean, it’s one thing to think that perhaps the diagnosis of dyslexia might be too leniently applied in some cases – something else to think that some Scottish council areas are actually dyslexia-free!)

    PS – Gareth, it’s been intriguing me since the last time i visited your site – that couldn’t be the one and only Mike in the background of your profile pic, could it?


  5. Just in answer to your PS, Cath: I’m pretty sure it isn’t! The picture was taken on a tour bus in Dublin, and I certainly didn’t notice Mike there too. But you’re right: it does look a lot like him. I hadn’t noticed before.

    Which reminds me: I really must write more frequently in my blog.


  6. There’s a celebrity joining in this fight for reason and science.

    (At least, I gather he’s a celebrity. I’d never heard of Sir Jackie Stewart, but my knowledge of pre-2000 British pop culture is even worse than … erm … my knowledge of post-2000 British pop culture. The media notices him, anyway.)


  7. Thanks, Tim, for the cross-link. V interesting!
    Now, if only we knew whether Sir Jackie is aware of Cath’s blog … ?!?
    [Also: why is motor racing part of pop culture? Anyway, hadn’t heard of Sir Jackie before either :-)]


  8. I’m just trying to work out if i’d heard of Jackie Stewart for any reason other than his dyslexia … no, i’m sure i must have!

    If he’s a celebrity it’s for an actual achievement, ie F1 racing, which if i remember rightly he worked his way to the top of without the benefit of a diagnosis of dyslexia, ie under the stigma of being stupid/lazy in school


  9. Pingback: Truth about dyslexia | Friendly Humanist

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