Redefining dyslexia

Margaret Crombie writes.

Debates and arguments around dyslexia are many, and have taken up a great deal of psychologists’, teachers’, policy makers’ and others’ time over the years since the term was first coined almost a century and a half ago. Views range from those such as Richard Branson, who firmly believe we should be advocating that people ‘think like a dyslexic’, to those like Professor Joe Elliott, who has argued for many years that the term should be abandoned. Views on all sides have become entrenched. It’s time we moved on!         

Here is the crux: dyslexia assessment is complicated, and it is made more complicated by the way we define it. The multitude of varying definitions does not lead to early intervention in children’s early learning when it would most benefit those who have dyslexia.

While it may suit some for dyslexia assessment to be the preserve of only the most highly qualified professional psychologists and teachers, we do no service to children and young people if we continue to think this way. We need to move from a deficit model where a child is seen as the problem – or reading, writing and spelling are seen as problems (which require to be assessed) – to a model where we look at solutions! 

Solutions lie in making accommodations that will enable children with dyslexia to learn and show their learning. If we simplify the definition we can then simplify the identification process. Not assessing children at an early stage because they are not at the age when we would expect competent reading, spelling and writing is to deny intervention and accommodations when they could be most effective.           

Those with dyslexia know what they know, but they cannot always express their knowledge in terms of writing, spelling and reading. It is not the reading, writing and spelling that present the challenges to children and their teachers and parents/carers. It is the process of learning to read, write and spell. So make accommodations while the child is learning and you empower psychologists, teachers and others to focus their interventions on what works for the child. 

Though other areas such as working memory are likely to be affected, it is the impact on literacy which causes the greatest frustration developmentally and throughout life. Teachers and often parents recognise early learning difficulties, but in my experience as a specialist teacher, often feel that they lack the expertise to confirm their suspicions. They don’t really need the likes of me to rubber stamp their suspicions. For those with modest knowledge of dyslexia there are accommodations, often involving fairly simple use of technology, which can alleviate the destructive impacts of unmediated dyslexia on the self esteem and confidence of individuals.  And this does not apply only to children – it applies throughout the individual’s lifetime.

Recent assessment reports, for children I know, have cited t-scores, results of closed tests and obscure references to literature seemingly in the interests of professional credibility. Reports should provide insight into, and understanding of, the individual’s needs and recommend what can be done to accommodate these needs in terms of learning and enabling learning and knowledge to be demonstrated. Reports must be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in order to be useful, so professional terms must be explained or not be used. Ultimately, teachers, psychologists and early years workers recognise literacy difficulties without complex assessment.

I suggest defining the word ‘dyslexia’ as a difficulty with literacy that results in a person requiring a set of accommodations to be made to enable them to demonstrate their abilities. 

Such a definition would be accessible to all psychologists, teachers and anyone with an interest in pursuing true inclusion and accessibility in classrooms and beyond. There could then be no excuse for not identifying the needs of children from an early age and making appropriate provision, in terms of focused teaching aimed at alleviating difficulties and enabling individuals to succeed. Accommodations are a set of enabling arrangements that are put in place to ensure that the person with dyslexia can demonstrate their strengths and abilities, and show attainment: thus relieving the frustrations felt by those with dyslexia! Many accommodations are quick and cheap with little or marginal impact on budgets. Allowing additional time for thinking and working out answers, for example, may impact positively on a child’s ability to demonstrate their knowledge but will only be a mild inconvenience in most classrooms.

Let’s agree, in the interests of simplifying the assessment process, that we need a definition that is straightforward; that can be assessed without the need for expensive tests which serve to delay appropriate intervention at the earliest possible time when it would be of greatest benefit; and which remains useful into adulthood to ensure positive outcomes.

- Dr Margaret Crombie MBPsS

Further reading

Crombie, M. (2018). Dyslexia – A practical guide for teachers. Wakefield: SEN Books.

Elliott, J.G. & Grigorenko, E.L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kale, S. (2020, September 17). The Long Read – The Battle over dyslexia.  The Guardian. 

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