Elliott, J.G. and Grigorenko, E.L (2014) The Dyslexia Debate, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
I have just finished reading this book, which, it is fair to say, has caused and possibly courted some controversy in the media as well as in academic circles and among practitioners. Even before it was published, there were two excellent commentaries on it by academics who had clearly obtained advance copies:
Dorothy Bishop of St John’s College Oxford
Anne Castles, Kevin Whedall and Mandy Nayton from universities in Australia
They are both well-reasoned arguments for why we should read the book and respect its evidence base, though not necessarily agree with its ultimate conclusion that the term dyslexia should no longer be used.
Here are my thoughts.
- The first thing to say about this book is that it provides a really comprehensive review of the literature, both historical accounts and up to the minute research in this field. I haven’t ever seen such an extensive list of references in a book that is targetted at a lay audience as well as academics. It will form an excellent resource. I wish I had had such a good list of sources when I was completing my doctorate!
- It also has a useful reminder of how the notion of dyslexia as a discrepancy between high IQ and reading ability is “largely discredited.” (p 69) This cannot be said often enough, both on ethical grounds, and also for practical reasons, as “the use of the IQ test as a proxy for cognitive potential is itself highly contested. ” (p 101) Intelligence tests are such blunt instruments for coming to any diagnostic conclusions.
- The authors use this point to bolster their argument for abandoning the term dyslexia, since some individuals and their parents seek to claim dyslexia, if linked to high IQ, erroneously, as a way of showing they or their children are not just slow at learning. However, in my mind, this is stretching the logic. If people have false beliefs about the nature of dyslexia, then put them right! No need to discard the term, just because peole use it incorrectly.
- This book gives a really thorough account of the different theories of the aetiology for dyslexia. In particular, it is refreshing that the authors note that “phonological awareness appears to be rather less important for older poorer readers than it is for children… ” (p 196). This is certainly something that I have said all along from my experience and research with adults.
- There is a great discussion about the relationship of working memory to reading (pp 233 – 239), and in particular some insights into the role of phonological memory as opposed to phonological awareness. Elliott and Grigorenko draw on the research of Wagner, one of co-authors of the CTOPP and TOWRE tests we use, which actually casts doubt on the influence of phonological memory on word recognition, except when dealing with multisyllabic words. They also question ” the value of digit span tasks as the particular tasks may not generalise well to tasks such as reading” (p 234). I have always said that the three composite scores and their subtests in CTOPP measure different things and can give rise to really discrepant scores in adults.
- On a more general level, Elliott and Grigorenko make the useful point that there are vast differences in the research literature in the way dyslexia is assessed, and the cut-off points (in terms of standard deviations below the norm) that are chosen to define subjects who are dyslexic. This makes it very difficult to generalise from research findings.
- They also point out how difficult it is to compare the different intervention tools used and their effect sizes in the research literature, for a similar reason; we are not comparing like with like.
- The concluding chapter of this book is convincing in many aspects… why stop to worry about whether it is dyslexia or not if you could spend your time more efficiently as an assessor and/or practitioner in making recommendations for more effective support. The authors remind us of the need to go beyond just word reading when assessing an individual’s reading ability, yet they seem wary of profiling as a strategy for assessment of need and appear particularly resistant to the notion that dyslexia can confer strengths.
- So finally their overall message…they seem to say that the term dyslexia is not useful because no one can agree what it is. They want it to be somthing to do with a reading disorder and are resistent to the idea that it could encompass anything else. They are wary of all of the divergent theories of aetiology. They want practioners to concentrate their efforts on effective intervention…
- In addition to the counter arguments raised by the blogs mentioned above, I have one further point.: How do you account for the experience of adults assessed as dyslexic, where we often discover it is more than a reading disorder? Adults with dyslexia (whether diagnosed as children or newly as adults) usually have a history of idiosyncratic acquisition of literacy skills including reading. They may no longer manifest any problems with word recognition, but there are residual effects, which it useful to profile. So I would commend Elliot and Gregorenko to ponder more on the field of adult dyslexia and also look at specialist teacher assessment reports for adults are really rich in unique profiling and detailed recommendations for support. High quality asessment and individualised interventions, which impact on success in FE, HE and employment, might convince them that the term dyslexia is a useful one.
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