Dyslexia – getting it wrong

The debate continues.

There are two beliefs that those who write about the 101 varieties of  ‘dyslexia’ reviewed by Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko in The Psychologist (August 2014) have in common. These are (1) that it is important to be able to read and (2) the difficulties which many pupils experience at school are to be attributed to some individual characteristic. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Consider the first point. Until a few years ago, a huge proportion of the German workforce consisted of ‘guest workers’ who could not even speak the language, never mind read it. Some years ago, one survey in Scotland showed that all 16-year-olds could read, another that, by the time they were 22, 20 per cent could no longer do so. The ability had atrophied due to lack of use.

Alison Wolf’s report on vocational education suggests that, in the end, ‘vocational education’ focusing on reading does not really help people to get out of the cycle, never mind encourage them to ‘enjoy’ reading. I remember interviewing a mother, a nurse, and a good one at that, who was learning to read in order to be able to help her children avoid the punitive, demeaning and destructive treatment to which she had been subjected at school. But as far as her job was concerned, her inability to read was not a problem. Given something to read she turned to a colleague and said she had forgotten her spectacles. Equally, I remember talking to a head of a (medical) R&D unit about the dissemination of research: ‘These guys never read anything; they pick it all up through networking.’ (Actually, that observation is more telling than might at first sight appear because, insofar as competence depends on techno-rational information, it depends on idiosyncratic combinations of up-to-date, specialist, knowledge – the building up of which relies on forms of reading that are a far cry from the kinds of reading focused on – and assessed – in schools.)

Of course, ‘reading’ may have become more important as people are increasingly required to attend CPD courses on the latest ‘health and safety’ (and related) regulations (instead of relying on common sense.) But this only supports my contention that ‘the problem of illiteracy’ has largely been created by bureaucrats.

‘Dyslexia’ (operationally defined, as in the studies reviewed in Elliott and Grigorenko’s article, as having reading problems) is generated by a deeply dysfunctional school system largely designed by bureaucrats which is good for some, OK for about another third, but bad, indeed often seriously damaging, for about a third. This school system relies on norm-referenced tests of a small number of poorly conceptualised and over-generalised ‘abilities’. These tests not only lack construct validity as well as predictive validity outside the school system, they automatically designate half the pupils as ‘failures’ at school.

As Elliott and Grigorenko note, the ‘dyslexia’ system operates to benefit those who design ‘diagnostic’ instruments, make assessments and write reports, and run CPD courses… and, of course, those parents who have the wherewithal to negotiate with a network of regulations to the advantage of their children.

Psychologists have a serious professional and ethical responsibility to seek educational arrangements that avoid consigning so many of our children to demeaning and degrading ‘educational’ services and ‘benefit’ organisations and, instead, are structured in such a way as to benefit all our children. Among other things, this will mean challenging the notions of ‘ability’ and ‘measurement’ that permeate so much of our work.
John Raven


Elliott and Grigorenko (with whose argument I heartily agree) wisely added a question mark to the title of their article in The Psychologist (‘The end of dyslexia?’, August 2014). For dyslexia is more a religion than a scientific entity. I am still occasionally attacked for not ‘believing in’ dyslexia – the emotive use of ‘believe’ constituting a major reason for the term’s refusal to go away.

Over half a century ago, my first academic publication was a critique of the use of the term dyslexia (Russell Davis and Cashdan, 1963). We argued that for the term to be scientifically acceptable as applied to a defined group of children (or adults) it would have to satisfy the criteria of evidence for its having a differential aetiology, prognosis or remedial treatment Our then conclusion was that it satisfied none of these three criteria.

Fifty years on, some small advances have been made in the grouping of symptoms and the mapping of their relationships to other deficits. And a whole series of committees and working parties have listed sets of features, some or all of which dyslexic persons may possess(!). But no one has yet successfully linked aetiology to prognosis to successful treatment.

The bottom line is that the wrong question is still constantly posed. Instead of enquiring into the existential nature of dyslexia, we should simply be asking how far it is a useful term.

Asher Cashdan
Emeritus Professor of Education
Sheffield Hallam University

Russell Davis, D. & Cashdan, A. (1963). Specific dyslexia. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 33, 80–82.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber