Dr Ross Cooper, a former lecturer at South Bank University, has proposed a "bagatelle" theory of dyslexia and related issues, which he describes in a five minute video here. He presented the idea as "a manifesto" at a conference, Dyslexia Matters, at Edge Hill University on June 14th, where it was given the status of a keynote address.
I've transcribed Dr Cooper's video here, for the purposes of analysis. I've taken great care over this, and will be pleased to make any corrections to the transcript that readers may point out.
I want to introduce to you the bagatelle model of specific learning differences. The old deficit model of dyslexia, dyspraxia and other specific learning difficulties has the idea that each of these things is something that is wrong with somebody. That it has an identifiable cause, even though nobody's found one yet, and that each of them appear to overlap in mysterious ways, but they're discrete and they can be fixed. The deficit model identifies people in terms of their difficulties, and then, in response to that, they attempt to remediate those difficulties, so, for example, if you're dyslexic, and you have difficulty with phonological awareness, then they will attempt to fix that, to remediate it, by giving you lots of phonics practice and so on. And I argue that that's actually a big mistake.
The bagatelle model is based on the game, where you have, like a ballbearing or a marble, and it's fired up into the maze of pins and holes and slots, and it bounces around until it arrives in a particular hole or a particular slot. Now, we can use that as an analogy of human beings. We need to make it a little more complex though. Instead of their being one ball, let's imagine there's a few. They're all fired up together. And let's imagine that instead of a two-dimensional maze of pins, we've got a three-dimensional maze of pins. But essentially, the model is that the balls are fired up into the maze, and unlike ballbearings of course, people react to the different experiences, some of which can be rather humiliating and painful and difficult, and the ballbearings end up in particular slots or holes.
Now, the deficit model identifies dyslexia, or dyspraxia, by which combination of holes or slots that you end up in. And I'd say, that's looking at the wrong end of the process. Let's imagine that some of us have a particular difference in these ballbearings or marbles. And they're fired up into the maze. And we bounce around, and we're predisposed to end up into particular slots. But not predetermined. Now what is this core difference? The core difference is a very strong preference, almost need, to process information holistically, to make sense of the big picture. Now, if you process information holistically, that requires, depends on, creativity - to map things and make connections. It relies very little on working memory. In contrast, if you prefer to process information sequentially, that relies heavily on a good working memory, and very little on creativity.
So, we have this difference, we're fired into the maze, we're predisposed to end up in particular slots , and they'll say, "OK, this slot, reading difficulty, phonological awareness difficulties, working memory difficulties, we'll call that dyslexia. Ok, working memory difficulties, difficulty co-ordinating, muscles, clumsiness, we'll call that dyspraxia. Difficulty focusing on one thing at a time rather than everything, ADHD. And now, we can go on.
Now where you end up in these particular slots is a matter of chance, a matter of your experiences through life, and how those affect of you, and how you perceive yourself as a result of them. And what I'm really saying, is that all these specific learning differences (emphasised) have the same core difference. They're the same as each other. They end up in slightly different places, but with lots of overlap. So we know, for example, that if you get diagnosed as having ADHD, fifty per cent of those people are also diagnosed as having dyslexia, fifty per cent are also diagnosed as being dyspraxic, twenty-nine per cent are diagnosed as having Asberger's. These aren't small overlaps. These are significant overlaps, because really we're talking about fundamentally the same thing.
We can also have the situation where someone is fired into the maze, fired into the bagatelle, with the same differences as me, but doesn't end up in exactly the same slot, and they're not diagnosed as having a specific learning difficulty. And other people end up in the same slot surely, purely by coincidence, and they are diagnosed as being dyslexic or dyspraxic or ADHD, but actually they are not the same as me, they've got a range of different core differences. And I think, if we need to understand (emphasised) specific learning differences, we need to understand the core differences, and how through our lives we end up in particular slots and holes and traps.
There are pros and cons to this argument.
There is much misdiagnosis of dyslexia on the basis of phonological processing difficulties or memory difficulties. These are characteristics of individual people which may stem from causes ranging from glue ear to very limited exposure to language. They are not dyslexia.
There is much misdiagnosis of ADHD, Asperger's and autism, with no firm scientific basis.
The categories can have the effect of slots into which people are fitted, and have a limiting effect on the way they think about themselves and people think about them. Once in such a slot, it is difficult to get out of it.
There is no reference to any scientific or other evidence to support the argument. It is an idea from a children's board game that has no parallel with learning or any branch of education. It has no more to contribute to a discussion of learning difficulties than Pin Ball Wizard.
The statement that there is "no identifiable cause" of difficulties such as dyspraxia and dyslexia is an ignorant denial of the scientific investigations of, among many others, Dehaene at the Collège de France, here, and Professor Margaret Snowling and her colleagues at York University.
The idea that people are fired into a bagatelle, a game that involves, if not a level playing field, a consistent slope that is the same for each player, takes no account of the well established links between different experiences and social conditions that characterise English-speaking societies. A bagatelle ball goes where the initial force, the board and gravity takes it. It has no control over its fate. Human beings have parents, and at least some element of free will.
The equation of remediation with "extra phonics practice" ignores the research on phonological awareness that has been shown to help children make sense of phonics. This is not at all the same thing as extra phonics practice, and it is dishonest or ignorant to claim that it is. Phonics involves using the information about sounds contained in letters in order to read words. Phonological awareness builds up children's knowledge of differences between sounds, some of which may be obscured in the everyday language they use and meet.
The statement OK, this slot, reading difficulty, phonological awareness difficulties, working memory difficulties, we'll call that dyslexia takes the current practice of superficial diagnosis of dyslexia as the only evidence of dyslexia itself. This sets up up a false definition and then attacks it. Phonological awareness difficulties often stem from limited experience of language, and are not dyslexia. Working memory difficulties are not dyslexia. If people are described as dyslexic on the basis of these issues, they are mis-diagnosed.
The statement that extra phonics practice is "a big mistake" ignores research evidence on the effectiveness of phonics, and offers no evidence of the effectiveness of any alternative.
There is nothing in this presentation that even pretends to help anyone learn to read and write, or to address any of the issues raised in the Rose Review or in any other serious attempt to tackle the problems caused by the difficulties or differences that Dr Cooper discusses, whether or not they are termed dyslexia. It is ignorant, superficial nonsense.
Update. Guardian Cribsheet has posted some of the transcript here, with an excellent comment from a parent, seeingclearly, which I have used to add to the above. I have found this account of Dr. Cooper's model delivered at Cambridge University, no less. LSE has also climbed aboard, with this at Brainhe.
So, Dr Cooper has clearly struck a chord. In both cases, the language is a bit fancier than in the video, but there is still no evidence whatsoever of this approach helping people learn to read and write. In fact, the only logical conclusion to Dr Cooper's attempt to ignore what he calls the "sequential processing" that is needed to learn to read and write - itself an oversimplification, as everyone learning to read has to understand the patterns and connections he associates with creativity - and to replace it with "holistic processing" is that literacy is both unnecessary and a barrier to learning. In the end, the bagatelle model is more a wail of anguish than a scientific theory, and should be treated as such. Seeingclearly says she is tired of having theory presented as fact, and Edge Hill and LSE seem to have come dangerously close to doing this.