About the speaker: John Stein is a professor of neuroscience in Oxford University Medical School. He is particularly interested in the auditory and visual perceptual impairments suffered by dyslexic children.
Further information about this Talk
Key Points Covered in This Talk:
- The Argument That Dyslexia Does Not Exist: Recently an MP called Graham Stringer took up the view of a Professor of Education at Durham University called Julian Elliot who said that "dyslexia does not exist". The reason he argues this is because there is no way (Julian Elliot says) of distinguishing between the reading problems that a dyslexic has from the reading problems that somebody might have simply because they are not very clever. They both suffer from difficulties with matching print with the sounds of words (i.e. phonological problems). Furthermore the treatment / teaching that you need to help both classes of children is the same, namely giving them phonological exercises. That being the case there is no point in diagnosing dyslexia, therefore dyslexia does not exist.
- Why Dyslexia Does Exist: Julian Elliot's argument is profoundly wrong for two reasons.
- Many dyslexics don't just have a phonological problem.
- Dyslexia definitely does exist because it has genetic, immunological and nutritional causes.
It would be madness to say just because, for instance, high blood pressure is continuous with normal blood pressure that high blood pressure doesn't exist. Dyslexia also occurs with a lot of non-reading problems. For instance most dyslexics have problems with sequencing things, with remembering the order of the days of the week or the months of the year, problems with remembering the sequence of numbers and problems with knowing their left from their right. Dyslexics often also have allergies (such as eczema and hay fever). All those things mean that dyslexia is not just a literacy problem but a neurological syndrome, involving the whole nervous system because these magnocells are impaired in their development all over the nervous system. So it definitely does exist.
- The Political Reason for Julian Elliot's Viewpoint: Professor Stein has more sympathy with this part of Julian Elliot's argument. This is what now amounts to a scandal: that is to say that middle class parents can almost buy the diagnosis of dyslexia by paying enough money. Whereas if you are not very well off the state schools are very reluctant to diagnose dyslexia because they have very little resources to direct at dyslexia. If they do diagnose dyslexia then they are, by law, bound to provide certain things such as free computers. This costs money therefore making schools unwilling to diagnose dyslexia. That means (by the law of unintended consequences) that middle class people get computers because their parents can afford to get them diagnosed as dyslexic when actually the working class children need them more. This is a good reason for tightening up the diagnosis or changing the way in which we view the diagnosis; it is not a reason for supposing the diagnosis does not exist.
- The Problem of The Changing Definition of Dyslexia: A problem that has arisen recently is that the definition of dyslexia has changed. Up to about five or ten years ago the definition involved a discrepancy. That is to say if a child's reading was well below what you would expect from their general intelligence then they could be classed as dyslexic. This has been abandoned for various reasons. It is now the case that people think that children are dyslexic when their reading is lower than it should be for their age, independent of how intelligent they are. This relates to the problem that Julian Elliot was talking about, in that if you say that anybody whose reading is below what it should for their age you are going to be including people whose reading is low because they are not very intelligent. This is madness. Saying this is to say that there is no phonological difference between dyslexics as we would define them and poor readers who are poor simply because they are not very bright. The worst problem is that this means that if you are very bright and yet your reading is normal for your age, when it should be well ahead of your age, you can't be defined as dyslexic. That is a tragedy because children who are very bright and yet can't read are the most upset by it and get the most distressed, losing their self-confidence. It does not really matter whether people are called dyslexic or not because it is quite arbitrary where you draw the line between normal reading and dyslexia. What's important is that people should understand why children find it difficult to read. The amount of money should not be increased for dyslexics but rather it would be better to increase the amount of money to teach the teachers how to recognise the signs and how to help the children.