A recent article in The Guardian has kicked up quite a lot of fuss.
“The Battle Over Dyslexia” advertises the idea that dyslexia “doesn’t exist”. For people who have read it, and who want to know why we can in fact say dyslexia is real (despite the flawed research featured in the article), I delivered a presentation to Macmillan Education last year dealing with many of these issues.
To make the kind of claims this article makes requires a cumulative misunderstanding of research so astounding that it screams incompetence. Well, incompetence and perhaps a careless arrogance and insensitivity to others. Indeed, why publish this unless you want to upset people??? I’m going to quote what it says, and examine each of the relevant claims.
They begin with (and use as foundational) a 1964 study. 1964. In academia, that’s not only last century, it’s an entire paradigm ago. Mistake number 1 – using outdated studies to make new claims. In it, it says, they “couldn’t find a pattern of indicators, common to all the children, that would coalesce into a single syndrome called dyslexia”.
That’s mistake number 2. In order to understand a condition, you don’t need to find a pattern of indicators that coalesce into a single syndrome. That’s basically nominalism and essentialism, two viewpoints no academic worth her salt takes seriously these days.
In order to understand a condition, you don’t need to find a pattern of indicators that coalesce into a single syndrome.
It goes on: “Until the 70s, dyslexia had been a way to explain why intelligent children couldn’t read. But in the 80s, research started coming out which suggested that your IQ had no bearing on your ability to read or write”. Well so what? No one’s making the case that it does!
The point is that low IQ might also indicate other conditions that are not dyslexia-related, and is used as a filter mechanism that stops people readily assessing someone as dyslexic when in fact something else could be going on that more readily explains poor literacy skills. It’s not that IQ is related to reading, it’s that low IQ might well indicate other conditions which should make you hesitant to diagnose dyslexia. He just got it the wrong way round!
“Yule hadn’t been able to find a uniform diagnostic criterion – a pattern that fit all the dyslexic children he’d studied – [so] was it even a condition at all? That’s when the penny dropped. It was b*ll*cks.” What he means is that his research criteria were b*ll*cks. If you can’t find uniform diagnostic criteria, you don’t simply conclude that the thing you’re looking at doesn’t exist! That’s Research 101. You examine your diagnostic criteria and you examine your aims and purposes. You examine whether the research parameters you’re using are the correct parameters, and you ask whether your starting point was the right starting point, not simply conclude that whatever you’re researching doesn’t exist. No supervisor or Doctoral Viva panel would ever accept that as a conclusion! They’d look at it as a limitation of the research programme.
“Since that day”, it says, “Elliott, a professor of education at Durham University, has made it his mission to challenge the orthodoxy on dyslexia” – Well of course he has, partly because he’s found a lovely niche and can make $$$ out of it. There’s nothing wrong with challenging orthodoxy, though – in fact, we should celebrate that. But this is academia at its worst, preying on the insecurities and trauma of parents and children seemingly for personal gain, fame, and career goals. He even admits he enjoys the infamy it brings him. Fortunately, we can hope that academia at its best will continue to challenge him.
Elliott needs to realise that we always understand dyslexia relative to our own aims and purposes, and he needs to closely examine his own aims and purposes before throwing countless families under the bus of the trauma of uncertainty once again. If he’s looking for some fabled and immutable “objective understanding” of dyslexia, he has no more chance of finding that than he does of finding an objective understanding of love, or of gender, or of socialism, or of beauty, or of normality. But we’d never conclude that those things aren’t real.
If he’s looking for some fabled and immutable “objective understanding” of dyslexia, he has no more chance of finding that than he does of finding an objective understanding of love, or of gender, or of socialism, or of beauty, or of normality. But we’d never conclude that those things aren’t real.
👉 Repeat: we are not essentialists (searching for the single essence of dyslexia, of truth, of humanness, of gender, of love…)
👉 Repeat: we are not reists (where only those things we can boil down and touch exist)
👉 Repeat: all our definitions are relative to our own aims and purposes
👉 Repeat: this is the basis of understanding.
Researchers like Elliott seek to define, which is an act of restriction (both on the research being carried out and on the people being researched), and an act of power. What we need to do is listen, which is an act of openness and an act of humility. Then maybe people like these will understand what research – and indeed what dyslexia – really is.
Published on September 24, 2020