Blog post

The 'Dyslexia Debate'

The existence of dyslexia became a heated debate in education after Professor Julian Elliott published The Dyslexia Debate in 2014, arguing that the concept has no scientific value. In this blog, Dana Abu Omar, a PhD research student at the University of Derby, discusses how there are actually two debates.

By Dana Abu Omar - 28 January 2019

According to Professor Elliott's work, dyslexia as a concept has no scientific value - it is only an emotional function for parents who see the diagnosis as a way of saving their children. His reward was to receive many hostile comments from parents worried about their children's reading. They believed in dyslexia.

For me, however, there are two dyslexia debates: the academic and the public. I recently participated in a panel discussion at the University of Derby, 'The Dyslexia Debate: Is it time to rethink dyslexia?', where I argued against its existence, using scientific evidence. The current state of our knowledge does not support the existence of differences in the brain that can be said to cause dyslexia and, therefore, we cannot talk about the terms dysfunctional or abnormal 'dyslexic brains'. I used these and more arguments, while the other panellists argued for dyslexia using their own personal experiences.

For example, one of the panellists said she used coloured overlays for reading. I argued that their efficacy is not scientifically supported. She did not like what I said, but the reality is that the efficacy of these filters is unproven, and the use of coloured overlays does not reliably improve the reading speed of dyslexics.

The academic debate

The first debate, what I call the 'academic debate', aims to determine whether or not 'dyslexia' exists. There are many problems with the notion of dyslexia: the efficacy of the diagnostic criteria for dyslexia are unclear, and many of its characteristics apply to other learning difficulties such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The distinction between the categories of 'dyslexia' and 'poor readers' that has plagued research is also vague; the discrepancy approach (the discrepancy between intellectual ability and performance in reading) has been questioned; there is no evidence for unique teaching methods that work for dyslexics but not for other poor readers.

Nevertheless, the British Dyslexia Association has argued that dyslexic children learn using a multisensory approach, and specialist dyslexia teachers also believe multisensory interventions are the best way to support dyslexic children. Others support interventions using music. The whole subject raises many questions about pedagogical approaches, and there are no sound answers.

The public debate

The second debate, which I call the 'public debate', focuses on the personal experiences of self-professed dyslexic individuals in the media. Many celebrities have openly declared their dyslexia to positively support dyslexics, justifying its claimed scientific function. This debate is flawed because it ignores research. The label has become a cultural fashion, which is now widely accepted despite the lack of consensus on its definition.

Personal experiences have gained impact because they stir the emotions of desperate parents, who see the daily suffering of their dyslexic children.

At the same time, research has lost its impact because the media has given attention to empirically unsupported examples of successful 'interventions' that help people learn to read.

The media has also claimed individuals with dyslexia are creative, even though research does not strongly support the link with creativity. It deludes thousands of dyslexic children's parents who would be better learning from research in the field before believing what they read in the media.

Although the experiential side in the public debate is increasingly influential, good research does exist that questions the scientific validity of dyslexia. The topicality of the subject in the media encourages educationalists to give parents the label they desire. There is no clear distinction between the categories of 'dyslexics' and 'poor readers'. There needs to be a constant battle between the academic and experiential arguments if we are ever going to resolve the debate.

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About the author

Dana Abu Omar
PhD student

Dana Abu Omar is a PhD student, at the faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Education, at the University of Derby. ​ Her research is on the dyslexia debate. She questions the utility of the term to identify and support children with dyslexia by presenting three different approaches: the biomedical, sociological and affirmation approaches