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Wednesday, January 14, 2009 

Dyslexia is a myth, says PM Rtringes.

For the most part, members of parliament, regardless of their political views, are not complete idiots or dyed-in-the-wool ideologues convinced of the righteousness of their minority opinions. When they are, such as in the case of Nadine Dorries, they tend to expose themselves, if you'll pardon the expression, and even if not pilloried publicly, tend to become known for the eccentricities.

Few though deign to expose their ignorance quite so forcefully or as weakly as Graham Stringer, who in an article for Manchester Confidential doesn't just suggest that dyslexia is occasionally misdiagnosed or that poor teaching sometimes results in children failing to learn to read or write adequately, but that the entire disorder has in fact been invented by the teaching establishment to cover up for their inability to comprehensively offer Stringer's magic bullet, synthetic phonics, having earlier in the article declared they are no panaceas.

Quite apart from the fact that Stringer should perhaps take up his idea that dyslexia has been created by the "education establishment" with the numerous scientists and doctors that first established its existence and have since, as Unity points out on Lib Con, published somewhere in the region of 6,000 peer reviewed papers and articles on it, it would be nice if he could even begin to compare like with like. Spot the problem with Stringer's argument:

There are two simple reasons for being confident about the false nature of dyslexia. International comparisons and the fact that so called dyslexic children have no more trouble learning to read than other children, if the appropriate teaching methods are used.

If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.

There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua (it is also pretty damning that according to Professor Julian Elliot there are 28 different definitions of dyslexia).

What languages are primarily spoken and taught in South Korea and Nicaragua? Ah yes, that would be Korean and Spanish. Especially considering that Korean is a completely different system of writing altogether, and consists almost entirely of a phonetic orthography this is about as absurd a comparison as you could possibly make.

Stringer further doesn't help his cause by conflating dyslexia with illiteracy in general. He opens the article with comments about illiteracy and its connection with crime, claiming that 25% of the population in Manchester is "functionally illiterate". Quite where he gets this statistic from in the beginning is a mystery, the closest probably being a Telegraph article from 2006 which claimed that 1 in 6 adults lack the literacy skills of the average 11-year-old. This is substantially different both from complete illiteracy and from dyslexia itself; dyslexia is not simply not being very good at reading or writing, but can also additionally affect speaking and other functions. Dyslexia prevalence is estimated at between 2% and 15% of the population, wildly off his 25% scale, although not far of the Telegraph's 1 in 6. He then further confuses the issue, after his rant about dyslexia not existing, by introducing his "magic bullet" of phonics, by suggesting that that 25% could all be happily reading and writing effectively if only they had been taught properly in the first place. The trial he quotes in West Dunbartonshire has incidentally not just involved teaching synthetic phonics, but also a 10-strand separate intensive intervention policy.

If, instead of suggesting that "dyslexia is a cruel fiction", Stringer had instead wrote, rather more sympathetically, that the common perception of dyslexia is false, or even described it as a myth, as a Dispatches documentary a few years' back did, he would have been on surer ground, as there is certainly disagreement over its exact diagnosis and how to treat it. Instead he's completely confident that there is no such thing, which puts him in a distinct minority of the usual conspiracy theorists and cranks that also still believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. If Stringer had wrote his rant in the Daily Mail then perhaps you could take it less seriously, considering the space it gives other every day of the week to the latest pseudo-scientific gimmickry. You could also accept it more if Stringer himself wasn't decently educated, but he in fact has a BSc in Chemistry and worked as a chemist before becoming a politician. Consequently, we can rather confidently conclude that Stringer himself is more than something of a cnut.

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Synthetic phonics is a great way to teach young kids to start reading, but it only gets you so far. It's slow and it won't help with the many words in English which aren't really phonetic.

The reason English is so much harder than many other languages is that there are so many words which aren't spelt phonetically.

I don't know how kids jump from reading phonetically to mostly recognising whole words as adults do. Are they taught this or just expected to pick it up?

I'm sure that nearly all of the functionally illiterate adults can in fact read and write as well as synthetic phonics would be able to help them with. Particularly as we say "functionally" illiterate, meaning that they're not completely illiterate and can read and write a bit, just not well enough.

I think you and Unity (at Lib Con) have got the wrong end of the stick with this, hence my extensive blog post on the subject this morning.

Dyslexia doesn't exist and never has done as an identifiable, testable condition. Stringer approached this from the wrong angle but still got the right result.

Good post, obviously. Why am I not surprised that a massive Tory twat like LFAT is the one to take on Stringer's mantle of blithering eejitism? It's almost as if they *wanted* to keep as many people as possible as illiterate as possible...

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