Review of Elliott and Grigorenko (2014) The Dyslexia Debate.

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Elliott, J.G. and Grigorenko, E.L (2014) The Dyslexia Debate, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

This book has, it is fair to say, 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 on the reading research packed into the book. 

Elliott and Grigorenko should be commended for the thoroughness with which they review the literature on reading, touching on adults and their reading skills as well as, understandably, focussing on children.  They have refreshingly wide view of the facets of reading skill, both when considering how we assess and how we make meaningful interventions to help struggling readers.  They cover fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as well as decoding skills.  They comment that phonics is not everything, “as the use of phonics tends to be less powerful for older struggling readers” (p 957).

They have some really useful insights into the methodology for researching reading interventions, warning the researcher about large confidence intervals in standardised test scores that make it hard to judge whether an increase in test performance (which may be statistically significant) actually reflects a “real gain.” They point out that teacher interventions often generate smaller effect sizes than lab-style experiments, making it hard to compare these two fields.

The book debates the tension, when designing an intervention strategy, between going for longer duration or higher intensity of instruction, rather pessimistically concluding that neither can guarantee success with older children and adolescents who are resistant to learning.  The authors seem to argue for the use of sufficiently “individualized and structured” (p 1046) programmes of support to address specific needs.  However, they conclude that there is nothing special about support that is designated dyslexia support, and are particularly down on multisensory strategies.

I applaud a book that says that the most important thing is to concentrate on developing approaches that will help a struggling reader.  However, I think their mission to discredit the term dyslexia has blinkered the authors, somewhat, to the strategies that those of us working in the field, particularly of adult dyslexia, have to offer to the reading debate!