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.