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Dyslexic students get extra support, but what about those without the label who struggle with reading?

It’s understandable that parents want to get the label because they believe it will lead to an intervention, but interventions are ineffective, expensive and time-consuming

Is dyslexia really just a meaningless label as Professor Elliot suggests? Is there a difference between a child labelled ‘dyslexic’ and a child labelled ‘a poor reader’? In the UK we have around 375,000 diagnosed as dyslexic, but what does this actually mean? Of the hundreds of dyslexic students I’ve taught, many have languished helplessly in the doldrums of illiteracy while some seem suddenly to make rapid and remarkable progress.

This year, two students who were presented to me as dyslexic have experienced very different trajectories.

One, let’s call him Ben, had spent Years 7 and 8 being taught English in very small groups of students identified as having ‘specific learning difficulties’. In Year 9 such students are put back into mainstream classes with the expectation that the work they’ve done in the previous two years will have equipped them to cope.

Ben arrived in my class very worried about whether he was going to ‘look thick’ and with a very low estimation of his ability. He’s a quiet, hard-working chap, however, and wants to do well. I spent a fair bit of time working with Ben at the beginning of the year and, frankly, failed to see what the problem was: his reading was a little hesitant and his writing was inaccurate but full of good ideas and definitely showed signs of conscious crafting.

One lesson, I was talking to him about his work and suggested some ways he could improve his spelling. The despondency of his response was heartbreaking; ”But I can’t spell, sir. I’m dyslexic.”

“Ben,” I told him. “That’s nonsense! Of course you can.”

We spent some time going over doubling consonants, ‘i before e’ and a few other easy to implement gems and before we knew it, his spelling had improved! We also did some work on various reading strategies like skimming and scanning and, guess what? His reading comprehension showed similar improvements. His confidence has grown massively and he’s now consistently producing C grade work. We’re now talking about what he needs to do to get an A in Year 11. If he carries on the way he has this year, he’s a shoe-in.

Then there’s 'Carrie'. She has terrible attendance, her behaviour is awful and she produces little or no work. When I met her parents at parents’ evening, they told me that none of this was Carrie’s fault; she was dyslexic you see. I didn’t see. I pointed out that even though she might find English difficult that was no excuse for not trying. At that point we reached a bit of an impasse.

Things have got a little better because, frankly, I’m not prepared to accept the bare minimum of work that Carrie feels it’s acceptable to produce. Although she doesn’t work anyway near as hard as Ben, her reading and writing have improved and she’s making what we might describe as ‘steady’ progress. But her attendance is slipping, she’s regularly excluded and there’s been talk of her having a ‘fresh start’. Through it all, her parents maintain that her dyslexia isn’t being catered for. I worry that she may not make it.

It’s understandable that parents want to get this label because they believe the label will lead to an intervention, but arguably the interventions are ineffective, expensive and time-consuming. Resources are diverted away from helping all children with reading problems. If resources are thrown at a particular group of students suffering from a particular syndrome, what happens to students who haven’t paid the £300 quid or so needed to receive this label?

As ever, educated, middle-class parents will have both the cultural capital and the cash to ensure their child receives a dyslexia diagnosis, and children who come form a more deprived background will not. How can it be fair that our system further disadvantages the disadvantaged?

I’m not dismissing the anxiety caused by struggling to read. There’s no doubt that life tends to be harder if you find reading difficult. You are more likely to have other problems (clumsiness, hyperactivity and poor short-term memory, for example) and having one such problem increases the likelihood you’ll have another. Yet, there is no evidence that these problems actually cause reading difficulties. Maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse. Maybe the reading difficulties cause the problems?

Maybe we should agree that either every child with poor reading ability is dyslexic, or that none of them are.

Read more from David Didau at his blog www.learningspy.co.uk