The Dyslexia Migraine

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Does dyslexia exist?

Professor Anna Bosman at the Department of Special Education and the Behavioural Science Institute of Radboud University, in the Netherlands isn’t convinced.

She has studied dyslexia for the last decade and has concluded that dyslexia is a result of poor education. She believes that the increase in dyslexia diagnoses in the Netherlands has less to do with more children having something’ wrong’ with them than it has to do with poor teaching.

She argues that many children are diagnosed with severe reading and arithmetic difficulties unnecessarily when in fact there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them.

“They simply don’t practice enough. Children need the spelling rules properly in their heads. They need teachers drilling them in class, the old fashioned way.”

Professor Bosman says the same applies to maths problems too and that dyscalculia could be a lack of basic skills such as addition, subtraction and knowing the multiplication tables.

She did a study in which 50 pupils were given intensive mathematics training for six weeks and the maths skills of all those taking part improved by an average of 1.5 school years.  She said,

“Almost all pupils are able to acquire these skills.”

According to Professor Bosman, if a pupil has difficulty with readings or maths, then we tend to look deep inside the child first and

“We forget to check whether good education was provided.”

Her studies show that when children are taught scientifically based methods, they progress in leaps and bounds and says,

“I even wonder whether dyslexia exists.”

“Make Sure Everything Is Named!”

Every teacher will tell parents to name everything: PE kit, stationery, coats, jumpers…and children themselves. We love to label and labelling children is what we do constantly.

In the 2017 report ‘Hooked on labels and not on need’ commissioned by GL Assessment, more than half of the 810 teachers surveyed said that there was a widespread misdiagnosis of special education needs among children, with most saying that was due to ‘parental pressure’.

Lorraine Petersen, the former chief executive of the National Association of Special Educational Needs, says that some parents “are looking for a label even though their child may not require one. They feel that the label will give the child and/or the family additional support that they may not get without the label. For instance, access to benefits, support with examinations, additional health and/or social care support or a place in a specialist setting.

The report says, “What is essential above all is accurate and informed assessment of individual child need.”

This clearly is essential but we hit a real headache when it comes to dyslexia. How can we assess it if we don’t know what it is?

Groundhog Day

Professor Bosman’s views might be controversial but we have been here before. Around three years ago experts at Durham and Yale Universities said ‘dyslexia’ as a term should be dropped because it was unscientific and lacked meaning.

In The Dyslexia Debate,  Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko  argued that more focus should be put on helping children to read, rather than finding a label for their difficulty. Professor Elliott said,

“Parents are being woefully misled about the value of a dyslexia diagnosis.”

“Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment.”

“It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result. Research in this field clearly demonstrates that this is a grave misunderstanding.”

The authors found that indicators in one person leading to a ‘pronouncement’ of dyslexia are often missing in someone else also diagnosed as ‘dyslexic’. They argue that the term dyslexia is too woolly and the primary undertaking for professionals should be to identify reading difficulties early and then step in quickly rather than hunt for a dubious diagnosis.

Not surprisingly, this view has met with fierce opposition and a fair amount of hate mail too. For a more measured and academic riposte to The Dyslexia Debate then take a look at what Professor John Stein (co-founder of the Dyslexic Research Trust) has to say about why he thinks dyslexia does exist and why he thinks it is highly genetic. 


Professor Stein’s view is that dyslexia is highly hereditary and developmental dyslexia exists as a genetically based neurological syndrome that doesn’t just involve reading. ‘Wobbles, warbles and fish – the brain basis of dyslexia’ puts forward the ‘magnocelluar’ theory of dyslexia and that dyslexia has a biological basis and not ‘a middle class label’ but the visual motion system of dyslexic children may be impaired.

“I’m sorry, I have no idea what dyslexia is”

…this is the response of Professor Pamela Snow after being asked about dyslexia during a presentation to 200 primary school teachers,

I immediately sensed the unease in the room of course, but went on to explain that it’s a term that (in Australia at least) has never acquired a robust, ring-fenced meaning accompanied by tight and transparent diagnostic criteria.

Such honesty is refreshing.

How would you define dyslexia if a parent asked you those dreaded words, “Do you think he might be dyslexic?”

I have been asked this question many times myself and admittedly I fumble around for something meaningful to utter. Asking my colleagues for help normally confuses the issue as everyone has something different to say.

Dyslexia is a notoriously difficult term to understand and professionals are a long way off from agreeing on a meaningful definition. Hop onto any website devoted to dyslexia and you will see lots of working definitions which vary considerably and so it can be little wonder it is hard to pin down (For example, The British Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia Action, The Dyslexia Association, the NHS)

A formal definition of dyslexia was recommended by Sir Jim Rose in an independent report: Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties which was agreed by the Department for Education in 2009. It’s worth referring to and makes the important point that dyslexia “…is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.”


As a teacher, we need help defining dyslexia but also practical resources to support our thinking and classrooms.

In Nina Jackson’s book Of Teaching, Learning and Sherbet Lemons: A compendium of careful advice for teachers, I found her chapter ‘Dyslexia – A Gift, A Curse and A Learning Difference’ really helpful. She says,

“Acknowledging that dyslexia is a specific learning difference will help you focus on how your lessons are planned, how you create your resources and the way in which the teachers in your school support children with dyslexia through focused practice and an inclusive ethos of learning.  Dyslexia-friendly schools identify what is the right thing to do to enhance the effectiveness of learning for all.”

“Understanding the needs of all learners is paramount for engagement and motivation in learning, so don’t wait for a pupil to receive a formal diagnosis of dyslexia. Address the issues head on and look at early intervention for ‘learning needs’ rather than ‘labelling needs’. But then this is what ‘good teachers’ do isn’t it?”

I have also found The Codpast a truly inspiring destination. This is a super positive website that celebrates the cool and creative side of dyslexia and features podcasts, videos, blogs, reviews and articles. You’ll kick yourself for not finding it sooner.

Then there are a couple of books by Gavin Reid and Shannon Reid which are invaluable for classroom use as they contain tried-and-tested strategies and engaging activities to help us.

There is one for primary and one for secondary: 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Supporting Children with Dyslexia and 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Supporting Students with Dyslexia .

The books contain the latest research and best practice with ready-to-use activities that you could also point parents in the direction of.



How do you solve a problem like Maria? No one seems to know and dyslexia is still a riddle.

If you can catch a cloud and pin it down then let me know how you do it.


8 thoughts on “The Dyslexia Migraine

  1. We have a friend whom my wife was teaching Portuguese. He was never diagnosed with Dyslexia but when trying to read a lot of the letters appeared in a different order to him. ( This is a man who built his own ocean going boat from plans.) He also has similar problems with english words. He now thinks he is dyslexic because both his sons were diagnosed with it when they were at school.

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  3. I find this article extremely offensive. Dyscalculia is NOT a teaching problem. I, despite years of hard learning, still can’t remember my times tables and make big mistakes in even basic arithmetic. As a child my parents tried everything to help me learn maths, but to no avail. Between the ages of about 5 and 18 I read, wrote out, spoke allowed and was tested on the entire times table every single day… but I never improved at all. I wanted to do physics, chemistry and biology at school but couldn’t do the maths. No one ever bothered having me tested for Dyscalculia and so it wasn’t until in my 30’s that I found out about it online! Teachers are to blame for my problems now as an adult as they should have spotted this as a child and had me referred for testing and help!

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