Problems in defining the condition leads to some controversy.  Are some exploiting the situation? How many remain undiagnosed?


Identifying Dyslexia in children at an early age has become a major challenge for schools and a cottage industry has developed to identify Dyslexia and to help support Dyslexic children once identified.

A comprehensive test by an expert  for Dyslexia can cost as much as £400 .

Once identified Dyslexic children can be given bespoke support to help them develop strategies for coping with the condition and are given too  extra time to complete tests and exams, allowed to use computers and in some cases offered readers.  But Dyslexia is not free of controversy. Some critics believe that the condition doesn’t exist and has no scientific basis. Graham Stringer – Labour MP for Blackley and a member of the Commons Science and Technology select committee – described the condition as a “cruel fiction” and insisted it should be consigned to the “dustbin of history”.  Professor Elliott and Dr Gibbs have argued that “attempts to distinguish between categories of ‘dyslexia’ and ‘poor reader’ or ‘reading disabled’ are scientifically unsupportable and arbitrary”.  Others feel that mainly middle class parents exploit the condition to the maximum, and beyond, to give advantages to their children, particularly in exams. Certainly the condition has been hard to define.  The nature of the underlying difficulties experienced by dyslexics can be highly diverse from an inability to spell or recognize words to severe problems in personal organization and in processing information and data.  A European Union European Social Fund review of developmental dyslexia concluded that “Dyslexia can be defined in more ways than one, but each definition outlines a different concept”. The authors went on to define  as many as  seven different ways in which a person might be described as dyslexic.

 Sir Jim Rose’s report (“the Rose Report”) Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties was published in June 2009  and  made  19 recommendations that required action by DCSF and a number of non-government bodies. Those aimed at DCSF included suggestions that the Department should:

  • fund a number of teachers to undertake specialist training in teaching children with dyslexia so that access to specialist expertise can be improved across local authorities and schools will form partnerships to share expertise;
  • cancel the pilot scheme in which children with dyslexia will receive Reading Recovery support and  work with partners to develop additions to the delivery of Every Child a Reader and other interventions, particularly to make them more focussed on phonic work.

The Government accepted and endorsed all of Sir Jim’s recommendations and made available £10 million to support their implementation, including funding for the training of 4,000 specialist dyslexia teachers.  The Rose Report acknowledged problems with definitions of Dyslexia. Indeed, the Expert Advisory Group constructed a “working definition for the review that includes key characteristics”. For example-Dyslexia it posited  is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.  Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. (its extraordinary how many creative people are Dyslexic). It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.  According to Dyslexia Action this definition has received “universal acclaim and agreement” and it has “been adopted by all the dyslexia organisations”.

 However, the Commons Science and Technology Committee was not so sure about this.  It found in its 18 December report on Early Literacy interventions (see link below) that the Rose Report’s definition of Dyslexia is exceedingly broad. It says, for instance, that Dyslexia is a continuum with no clear cut-off points.  This led the Committee to conclude that the definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.  The Committee found that there is no convincing evidence that if a child with dyslexia is not labelled as dyslexic, but receives full support for his or her reading difficulty, that the child will do any worse than a child who is labelled as dyslexic and then receives specialist help. That is because the techniques to teach a child diagnosed with dyslexia to read are exactly the same as the techniques used to teach any other struggling reader. There is a further danger it noted that an overemphasis on dyslexia may disadvantage other children with profound reading difficulties.

It added: “There are a range of reasons why people may struggle to learn to read and the Government’s focus on dyslexia risks obscuring the broader problem. The Government’s support for training teachers to become better at helping poor readers is welcome and to be supported, but its specific focus on ‘specialist dyslexia teachers’ is not evidence-based.”  The Committee recommended that ‘specialist dyslexia teachers’ could be renamed ‘specialist literacy difficulty teachers’.  The report continued  “The Government’s focus on dyslexia, from a policy perspective, was led by pressure from the dyslexia lobby rather than the evidence, which is clear that educational interventions are the same for all poor readers, whether they have been diagnosed with dyslexia or not.”

The report also criticized the fact that synthetic phonics – a back-to-basics method of teaching reading – was not a full part of the one-to-one tuition.  Under the synthetic phonics method, much favoured by the Tories, by the way, children are taught to break words down into constituent parts and work out how to pronounce them for themselves.

 Ministers have actually accepted a recommendation from Sir Jim Rose that synthetic phonics should be at the heart of reading plans.  The DCSF’s reaction was to deny that its approach was not evidenced based. After all, it pointed out, Sir Jim Rose’s report lists 117 pieces of research.  The DCSF said that Dyslexia teaching is personalised in terms of the pace of learning and in terms of adapting to specific difficulties the learner may have. Dyslexia teaching courses are accredited by the British Dyslexia Association, giving specialist teachers the expertise and skills they need to meet the unique needs of dyslexic pupils.

 Most experts agree that Dyslexia exists and that  there are problems in narrowing down its definition. But because it is so broad a condition and so with differing symptoms, it leaves open the possibility that some parents exploit this to gain advantages for their children.

 It may well be worth taking a closer look at how children are tested for Dyslexia and whether there is evidence that some  parents  may be cheating the system  giving their children an unfair advantage over their peers. And given the expense of the Dyslexia test and the differing symptoms  isn’t there  a distinct possibility that that there are many disadvantaged pupils who remain undiagnosed?  Sir Jim Rose’s report, Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties, is available to download from the DCSF website www.dcsf.gov.uk/jimroseanddyslexia

Select Committee Report


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