Is there such a thing as ‘dyslexia’? In this guest blog, Philip Kirby and Maggie Snowling offer a historical perspective on the debate [Photo credit: Béve Hornsby (1915-2004), founder of the Dyslexia Clinic at Barts Hospital, London. Courtesy of the UK Dyslexia Archive. Learn more about Dr Hornsby and her contributions to dyslexia here].
The scientific consensus around dyslexia as an identifiable learning difficulty remains strong. This is supported by the knowledge and experience of thousands of teachers, educational psychologists, SEN coordinators, parents, and people with reading and spelling difficulties themselves. Despite this, arguments that dyslexia is ‘invented’, and/or an unhelpful term, refuse to completely disappear. In this research brief, a list of these arguments is presented. While there is a genuine debate to be had about labelling and how best to describe dyslexia, most arguments against dyslexia rest on a misunderstanding of dyslexia science, and/or how specific learning difficulties like dyslexia are identified and diagnosed. As with any condition, dyslexia’s science changes over time. However, the direction of travel is firmly toward confirming and better understanding dyslexia as a distinct disorder, varying in severity from mild to severe.
Arguments against dyslexia fall into two camps: 1) that dyslexia does not exist at all; and 2) that the term ‘dyslexia’ is not useful. These are different propositions, but are often conflated, making them important to differentiate at the outset. In the first, dyslexia itself is questioned, it being suggested that dyslexia is simply a synonym for low ability or poor educational attainment – in other words, that there is no such thing as dyslexia at all. In the second, the dyslexia label is critiqued, it being suggested that, while the term dyslexia may describe genuine difficulties, it has become so loaded with political baggage and misunderstanding that a new label should be substituted in its place. This brief presents and critiques the key arguments from each of the two camps, showing how they stand against over 100 years of dyslexia research, as well as current scientific understanding. Specifically, it addresses four from the first camp:
- That dyslexia does not exist at all
- That people with dyslexia and general poor readers are the same
- That all poor readers benefit from phonics-based interventions, so the cause of their difficulties must be the same
- That universal scientific consensus has yet to be achieved, so dyslexia should be abandoned
and four from the second camp:
- That dyslexia diverts resources away from others who need help
- That ‘dyslexia’ is a term used for political reasons, rather than scientific reasons
- That dyslexia was invented by ‘worried mothers’ to boost their children’s confidence
- That the terms ‘dyslexia’, ‘dyspraxia’ and ‘ADHD’ are interchangeable
Arguments against dyslexia the reality
1. Dyslexia does not exist at all
In the 1870s, the kinds of difficulties we now call dyslexia were first identified in Germany1. By the 1880s, the term ‘dyslexia’ was coined, meaning ‘difficulty with reading’2. Later, science around the condition developed elsewhere in Europe, in Britain, and in the United States. By the 1960s, the presence of a specific learning difficulty associated with reading and spelling was clear, and organisations like the Word Blind Centre for Dyslexic Children in London were created to explore it further3. Studies of the condition found that the presence of such difficulties was unrelated to educational level, but often clustered in families. That there is a genetic basis for dyslexia, therefore, has been suspected for over 100 years4. Beyond this, the work of organisations like the Word Blind Centre helped to curtail the practice of labelling children with dyslexic difficulties as either stupid or disruptive – common accusations of the time5. [see here for an overview of the history of dyslexia]
Today, we know much more about dyslexia. It is widely-accepted that dyslexia is a specific learning disorder. We know it has an early onset in childhood and that it is persistent through the life span (although some affected individuals can compensate well and get by, sometimes by avoiding jobs that require significant reading and writing). Building on the knowledge that dyslexia runs in families, twin studies have revealed that it has a genetic basis – identical twins are more similar in terms of their reading and reading disability than non-identical twins. Molecular geneticists have identified some of the many genes associated with dyslexia, but how these interact to cause differences in brain structure and function is not yet understood. Despite this, considerable progress has been made in our understanding of the precursors of dyslexia by studying children who are at family risk of the condition. The findings of such studies reveal that problems in coding the speech sounds of language (phonological skills) are evident from early in the preschool years, long before children are taught to read.
2. People with dyslexia and general poor readers are the same
Until the 1970s, the ‘discrepancy model’ was commonly used as a guiding principle for the diagnosis of dyslexia. Within this framework, dyslexia was identified when there was a significant difference between general intelligence (as measured by IQ) and reading ability6. The discrepancy model differentiated between those readers whose difficulties might be explained by poor education or general low ability – general poor readers – and those whose difficulties could not explained by such factors. Later, as the science of reading developed, this model was retired, better acknowledging that dyslexia existed across the intellectual spectrum7. However, dyslexia’s critics continue to highlight the discrepancy model’s demise as an example of one area where dyslexia science was incorrect, and to suggest that, because it is no longer in use, there is no way to differentiate between those with dyslexia and general poor readers. This is untrue.
While a discrepancy between intelligence and reading ability is no longer considered indicative of dyslexia, other discrepancies remain important. For example, where teachers observe an increasing difference between a pupil’s ability to express herself in writing and in speaking, the presence of dyslexia is suggested8. Moreover, evidence shows that children with dyslexia often show greater resistance to reading interventions (i.e. find them less helpful) than other pupils with reading difficulties. This suggests that the cause of poor reading for some children may not be the same as for others. Such evidence sits alongside the scientific bases for dyslexia, described above. There may not be a universally-accepted dividing line between a pupil with dyslexia, and a pupil without – as with many other difficulties, such as depression, dyslexia exists on a spectrum (see below). Nevertheless, poor reading and dyslexia are not synonymous.
3. All poor readers benefit from phonics-based interventions, so the cause of their difficulties must be the same
Structured phonics-based interventions have been found to be useful to all poor readers. This has been used by critics of dyslexia to suggest that the underlying problem of all poor readers must therefore be the same, i.e. if the treatment is the same, the cause must be the same, too. This argument has two problems. First, as mentioned, while phonics-based interventions have been found to be of use to all, dyslexic readers often show greater resistance to them than other poor readers. Indeed, this is one way that the two groups might be differentiated. Thus, while phonics-based interventions are useful to all, their effects are not uniform, implying that the underlying condition is not uniform, either. Second, as multiple examples attest, the same treatment can be used for quite different underlying problems. Aspirin is sometimes prescribed for those at risk of heart attack, sometimes as an everyday painkiller – in each case, the underlying problem being addressed differs. Identical treatment does not mean identical cause.
4. Universal scientific consensus has yet to be achieved, so dyslexia should be abandoned
Science operates through the proposition of theories, their refutation, the proposition of new theories, and so on. There are few, if any conditions where scientific consensus is unanimous, with complete agreement on all aspects. Despite this, scientific consensus is often great enough to say that a condition exists, even if specific issues about that condition are still to be resolved. In this way, dyslexia is similar to many other, widely-accepted conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or depression. Consider depression: there are ongoing debates about its causes (aetiology), exactly how it should be defined and differentiated from similar conditions, and the best method of treatment9. Irrespective, depression can often be debilitating, with effects felt across society. Like dyslexia, depression is invisible, making it easier for dissenters to challenge; like dyslexia, it is sometimes criticised by those who claim it is an excuse for common problems that affect others, such as sadness and general low mood. However, in both cases, their effects are clear, and while specific aspects remain the subject of research, scientific research supports their existence.
Arguments against dyslexia the term
1. Dyslexia diverts resources away from others who need help
Estimates suggest dyslexia affects up to 10% of people, a substantial proportion of the population10. It is also a problem with a skill, literacy, which is crucial to successful life outcomes – from educational performance, to managing personal affairs, to making progress in the workplace. In this context, governmental recognition and educational support are key to giving people with dyslexia a fair chance. Like any issue, support for dyslexia exists in a world of finite resources, but recent years have seen reductions, rather than increases, in budgets for special educational needs11. Moreover, support for learning difficulties, of all kinds, is not a zero-sum game. In increasing support for those with dyslexia, society moves toward a position where those with cognitive differences are assisted, rather than ostracised. Historically, campaigns for greater political awareness of dyslexia have not just helped those with dyslexia, but contributed to a social consensus that increasingly celebrates neurodiversity. Campaigns for other conditions, such as autism, have done the same. Together, these efforts raise the tide for all.
2. ‘Dyslexia’ is a term used for political reasons, rather than scientific reasons
Until the 1980s, successive governments in the UK refused to admit the existence of dyslexia. Research at the UK Dyslexia Archive, based at St John’s College, Oxford, has shown that this was for one principal reason: governments were unwilling to commit the financial resources required to address an issue that affects up to 10% of the population12. Such unwillingness reached a peak in the 1970s, when direct pressure from officials was placed on the late Baroness Warnock, chair of a review on special educational needs, to omit dyslexia from her final report13. In response to government intransigence, a highly-successful advocacy community was instituted from the 1960s, led by organisations like the British Dyslexia Association and campaigners like Marion Welchman. Together, these lobbied for government recognition of dyslexia, and so state support for those with such difficulties. The legacy of their success is the widespread support now available for people with dyslexia14.
Necessarily, this advocacy movement sought to bring attention to the dyslexia label. While the scientific basis of dyslexia was important to their cause, and cited frequently, their primary purpose was political. As such, the advocacy movement often used a more straightforward definition of dyslexia than that of the scientific community – an act necessary to achieve maximum recognition for the term, and to make it interpretable to non-specialists and policymakers. In this, they echoed the approach taken by other campaigns that have sought recognition, funding and so support for specific conditions – from cancer to depression. Detractors suggest that, because of these political associations, the term dyslexia is invalid – useful only to lobbyists. What such arguments ignore is that, like the examples above, dyslexia can be both: an emotive term, understood popularly and used politically, but also a clear and useful scientific concept. The two are not mutually exclusive.
3. Dyslexia was invented by ‘worried mothers’ to boost their children’s confidence
Historically, dyslexia has sometimes been described as invention of ‘worried mothers’, seeking to find a way to explain their children’s reading difficulties and so exonerate themselves from personal responsibility. Today, the idea that parents of children with dyslexia are over-anxious, and use the term for personal gain, occasionally resurfaces. The truth is more complex. While many of the key figures in campaigns for political recognition of dyslexia were women, such as Marion Welchman, Kathleen Hickey, Wendy Fisher, Helen Arkell, Bevé Hornsby and Jean Augur, amongst many others, some of whom had children with dyslexia, the campaign for political recognition of dyslexia has been one of perseverance, in which the latest science of reading has been drawn on for support. Moreover, rather assisting only their own children, such campaigners have been responsible for creating schools, organisations, and momentum for government recognition of dyslexia, which has benefited a breadth of people with the condition. Mothers did not invent dyslexia, but they were amongst the first to notice it, and the first to deal with it15.
4. The terms ‘dyslexia’, ‘dyspraxia’ and ‘ADHD’ are interchangeable
Dyslexia, in common with other neurodevelopmental disorders, often co-occurs with other difficulties that affect learning. These include dyspraxia, which affects motor learning, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which affects concentration and other skills. Sometimes, the symptoms of dyslexia have been confused with those of these related disorders, especially because some people with dyslexia show a degree of poor coordination, disorganisation and/or inattention. It is necessary for professionals, as well as scientists, to be clear about the limits of a dyslexia diagnosis: dyslexia is a disorder of reading fluency and spelling – in its purest form, these are the only skills that are affected. However, in some cases, co-occurring difficulties can complicate dyslexia’s manifestation. Such features, if disabling, need to be treated, but it is important not to confuse these with dyslexia’s core features, or to deny dyslexia exists because it has a variable manifestation16.
About the Authors
Philip Kirby is lead researcher on the UK Dyslexia Archive project, based at St John’s College, Oxford. Founded in 2016, the Archive is producing the first comprehensive history of dyslexia. His most recent article is ‘Worried Mothers? Gender, Class and the Origins of the ‘Dyslexia Myth’’, published in the journal, Oral History.
Maggie Snowling is President of St John’s College and Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. She is a world-leading expert on the science of dyslexia, and contributed to the 2009 Rose Review of dyslexia and literacy difficulties. Her latest book is Dyslexia: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press.
1Kussmaul, A. (1877). Chapter XXVII. In: von Ziemssen, H. (Ed.), Cyclopaedia of the Practice of Medicine: Vol. XIV: Diseases of the Nervous system and Disturbances of Speech (pp. 770-78). New York: William Wood.
2Berlin, R. (1887). Eine Besondere Art der Wortblindheit (Dyslexie). Wiesbaden: J. F. Bergmann.
4DeFries, J. C. (1992). Genetics and dyslexia. In: Snowling, M., & Thomson, M. (Eds.). Dyslexia: Integrating theory and practice (pp. 3-20). London: Whurr.
6World Federation of Neurology. (1968). Report of research group on dyslexia and word illiteracy. Dallas, US: World Federation of Neurology.
7Rose, J. (2009). Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
9Beck, A. T., & Alford, B. A. (2009). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press; Parker, G. (2006). The DSM classification of depressive disorders: Debating its utility. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 51 (14), 871–873.
10Snowling, M. (2000). Dyslexia. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
11Havegal, C. (2015, December 2). Governments confirms cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance. Times Higher Education.
15Kirby, P. (2019). Worried mothers? Gender, class and the origins of the ‘dyslexia myth’. Oral History, 47 (1), pp. 92-104.
16Rose, Identifying and Teaching.
The History of Dyslexia Project (links to articles, presentations and newsletters)
Elliott, J. & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge University press.
Kirby, P. (2019). Worried mothers? Gender, class and the origins of the ‘dyslexia myth’. Oral History, 47 (1), pp. 92-104.
McBride, C. (2019). Coping with dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD: A global perspective. Abingdon: Routledge.
Ramus, R. (2014). Should there really be a ‘dyslexia debate’? Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 137(12), 3371–3374.
Snowling, M. (2000). Dyslexia. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Snowling, M. (2019). Dyslexia: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.