In 2005, Professor Julian (Joe) Elliott, of Durham University, took part in a television programme that claimed that there was no way of distinguishing between "dyslexia" and other forms of reading difficulty. This was followed by a conference in London, to which I contributed a case study, and this book is the long-term follow up.
Professor Elliott, and his Yale colleague Professor Elena Grigorenko, have produced the widest-ranging analysis of research into the subject I've ever seen, with seventy pages of references to research, ranging from the battles over phonics to the latest brain scan evidence. While they give credit where it’s due, their criticisms of the limitations of the research evidence they scrutinise are consistent and convincing. Even brain research evidence, the clearest yet of a genuinely biological basis to reading difficulty, has its limitations clearly exposed – the illustrations of brain dysfunction that have resulted from scans are composites, and do not yet provide any clear evidence that can be used to help individuals. Their conclusion is that it is still impossible “to identify a dyslexic subgroup in any consistent or coherent fashion that would be acceptable to the scientific or professional community” (p.170). The term “dyslexia” therefore has “outgrown its diagnostic and conceptual usefulness”, and should be “discontinued.”
And yet it is “untenable”, say the authors, to deny that some reading difficulties are biological in origin. They propose instead that such difficulties be termed "reading disability". The problem here is that most people assessed as dyslexic are not disabled - a young man who had been so assessed approached me in Oxford while I was carrying the book, and we had an interesting discussion about its contents and his experience. He was now working as a retail manager, and found it ridiculous to think that he was in some way disabled. What he and others in his position need are some adjustments to the ways in which they are taught. These adjustments are known to some (not all) teachers, and are based on a strand of case-study research beginning with the work of Grace Fernald - whose 1943 classic, Remedial Techniques in Basic School Subjects is not listed in the references. Only one article of Fernald's is listed, from 1921, and evidence of her techniques is seen as "anecdotal". This term in itself is too easy - the whole of surgery is based on clinical observation and case study, and it is as valid a research technique as any other.
The dismissal of evidence on the use of tints is similarly based. If we take from the physical sciences and the development of new drugs the idea of a double-blind, randomised, controlled trial as "gold standard" research, it is self-evident that the method can't be applied to a tint, as everyone can see it. We can't have a "partially sighted" trial.
Here are three cases involving tints:
1. A very bright girl who read excruciatingly slowly, but with perfect accuracy and understanding. She explained that she needed to read everything twice, and with an overlay immediately read just as well, but faster than she could articulate the words.
2. A school secretary whose desk was opposite a glass panel behind which was an unshaded fluorescent light, and who was losing days of work at a stretch through incapacitating migraine. Covering the panel with cardboard and adding a blue tint to her computer screen removed the problem.
3. A boy whose behaviour deteriorated so rapidly when he started school that he became a danger to himself and his family. After five years of misery, a teacher in a private school tried a tint and the problems disappeared.
Three anecdotes. There are many similar cases on migraine, but they remain anecdotes. Or cases, if we consider that they are essentially true, and the outcome of professional observation. None of these people were dyslexic, however the word might be defined - they were sensitive to certain elements in light, a different issue, but one that can cause devastating problems with learning to read and write.
Which brings us to Dr Terry Moore and Chris Carling, and their advocacy of Thomas Locke's approach to language study in Language Understanding: Towards a Post-Chomskyan linguistics. Locke's pragmatism, using best avaiable evidence, will not produce a perfect solution - or the illusion of one - but will, as he says, probably get our ship into port. We can't match people who are assessed as dyslexic with controls with any reliability, so case studies and other evidence are the best we have, and some of their shortcomings can be tackled by using standardised tests and long-term follow-up, as in the Clackmannanshire reading research.
In the end, the problems of investigating the range of issues known as dyslexia lie as much in the limitations of scientific method as in the elusiveness of the phenomenon itself. It is there - though probably in no more than 1.5% of people and not the 5%+ suggested by psychological tests - and teachers need to tackle it. The way forward is to consider each element of evidence, including test scores on issues such as memory and processing speed, on its merits, and to tackle the specific issues that they indicate, without recourse to the global term "dyslexia". I never use it myself unless someone else does first, which may be a start.