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Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development and Dyslexia

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Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development and Dyslexia

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PART 4: Concepts of dyslexia as a syndrome



There is a range of perspectives, from cultural/societal and socio-economic to cognitive, from which to view both the difficulties that students may experience in literacy acquisition, and the causes of those difficulties. In Part 4 of the Unit Guide we address the cognitively-based concept of ‘dyslexia’. As we discuss below, the difficulties identified as characterising dyslexic individuals are closely associated with bottom-up views of the reading and writing process.



Take a few minutes to ask colleagues and friends what they understand by the term ‘dyslexia’. List the kinds of responses they give you.

Now read Riddick, B., Wolfe, J., & Lumsdon, D. (2002). Defining and identifying dyslexia. In Dyslexia: A practical guide for teachers and parents (pp.1-26). London: David Fulton.

How sympathetic are you to the notion of dyslexia? Do you have personal experience of students who face the kinds of difficulties outlined in these chapter? If so, what measures have been taken to support these students in addressing these difficulties?

How useful do you find the list of components suggested as being helpful in conceptualising ways to support such students on page 18 of ‘Defining and identifying dyslexia’ and pages 18-19 of ‘What is dyslexia?


Grouping together particular kinds of difficulties in literacy under the umbrella heading ‘dyslexia’ is controversial for a number of reasons, some of which we will discuss below. As you read this section you might choose to reflect on the extent to which you find the whole concept of dyslexia helpful in understanding the difficulties in literacy experienced by some students and in conceptualising ways to address these, or unnecessary and a distraction – or, indeed, something else!


Part 4 of this Unit Guide will introduce you to some key aspects of dyslexia. These are:

• concepts of dyslexia

• frameworks for theory and practice

• appropriate responses to students’ learning needs


Concepts of dyslexia

Dyslexia is a psychological conceptualisation of difficulties that, most commonly, refers to the way in which individuals process information. In this conceptualisation, the information- processing system of ‘dyslexic’ individuals is seen as different from that of non-dyslexics in ways that have an impact on a number of areas of performance. Some definitions relate only to difficulty in acquiring literacy as reflected by its derivation from the Ancient Greek: δυσ (dys), meaning ‘bad’ or ‘difficult’, and λεξίς (lexis), meaning ‘word’, or ‘speech’. Reading and writing are particularly affected, but co-ordination, personal organisation, directionality, balance, patterning and so on may also be affected to some degree.


There is a lot of debate and controversy associated with the concept of dyslexia. Some of this is concerned with whether or not there is an identifiable entity that we might term ‘dyslexia’ in the first place and, if so, what are its precise nature and causes. Pumfrey (1998), a well- known researcher in this area, describes dyslexia as a `variable syndrome`. This means that definitions of dyslexia may vary and be interpreted in different ways and also that a number of difficulties that affect areas other than literacy acquisition are often experienced by dyslexic individuals and that distinct patterns can often be identified among these difficulties. Other issues relate to equity in resourcing individual learning needs by privileging certain groups of students with a ‘dyslexia’ label.


The controversies associated with dyslexia may at times present a picture of confusion around what constitutes best practice in identification, assessment and teaching. For example if there is uncertainty about what constitutes dyslexia in the first place, how can we ever say definitively that an individual is dyslexic? What do you think?


To understand the various ways of conceptualising ‘dyslexia’, you will need to examine explanations of dyslexia and ask yourself what kind of factors have contributed to that explanation. For example you might wonder whether a particular explanation has arisen from research data, or because it has been developed to fit, and justify existing practice. You might also question whether the explanation views dyslexia mainly as a reading difficulty or also incorporates a range of other factors.


Research into ‘dyslexia’



Now read the first three sections, ‘Introduction’, ‘Research into dyslexia’ and ‘Discrepancy definitions’ in Chapter 2, ‘Concepts of dyslexia’ in Wearmouth, J., Soler, J. and Reid, G. (2003) Meeting difficulties in literacy development, London: Routledge Falmer.


Note down the issues and controversies in the field of dyslexia that are discussed here.



 In this chapter Fawcett (2002) is cited as noting that one of the major tensions in dyslexia research is the potential conflict between the viewpoints of individual and interest groups all of whom have different agenda: researchers and practitioners, parents and teachers, teachers and educational psychologists, schools and local education authorities and local education authorities and governments. What do you understand the specific interests of these groups to be? Fawcett comments that practitioners are concerned with ‘treatment’, educational psychologists with ‘symptoms’, and academic researchers with uncovering cause(s). How far would you agree with her that integrating all three aspects is essential to support improved student learning? She comments on the significance of the issue of funding in forcing academic researchers into opposition. In your own experience, to what extent is it the case that the resourcing issue can force parents and potential resource providers into opposition?

As we can see from this chapter, Nicolson (2001) was commenting from his own experience when he referred not only to the disagreements between scientists working in the field of dyslexia research but also to the increasing range of alternative and vigorously marketed ‘treatments’ for dyslexia. How conversant are you with any of these treatments? How far do you sympathise with his view that their range and diversity may in fact confuse and mislead practitioners and parents?

How well did you understand the argument about discrepancy definitions of dyslexia? In the discrepancy definition, traditionally both intelligence quotient (IQ) and standardised reading age were tested. As Fawcett (2002, p.20) notes, the cut-off method adopts a criterion such as  “IQ of at least 90, and reading age at least 18 months behind chronological age”. The regression method assumes “reading age that is at least 1.5 standard deviations below that expected on the basis of the child’s IQ”. In other words, the regression method takes account of IQ so that a young person with a very high IQ but with an average reading age may be diagnosed as dyslexic. In the cut-off method, a young person with an IQ of 92 and reading standard score of 90 could be diagnosed as dyslexic, but not so using the regression method.


Differences in the views of researchers in the field




Read pages 29-36 of the Wearmouth et al (2003) chapter ‘Concepts of dyslexia’ in Wearmouth, J., Soler, J. and Reid, G. (2003) Meeting difficulties in literacy development, London: RoutledgeFalmer. Differences in definitions given by researchers working in the field, relating to the notion of dyslexia as a syndrome and how the syndrome can be precisely defined. You should note how these views differ in relation to the role of intelligence in identifying dyslexia. You should also note how on the one hand researchers such as Stanovich focus almost exclusively on reading while Nicolson and Fawcett link dyslexia with other cognitive processes and offer a broader definition of dyslexia.

You will be aware that dyslexia as a syndrome attracts controversies and disagreements in relation to an understanding of the research and research priorities in causes and explanations as well as in assessment, teaching approaches and policy. Consider the seven views in relation to the above and:


• identify the differences between the views expressed

• reflect on the extent to which you agree with any particular statements

• think about the implications of these statements for both policy and practice. Focus particularly on the issues of identification and assessment for the purposes of funding individual students’ learning programmes.


Theoretical framework

In order to understand the different domains within which causal factors and the different perspectives in dyslexia research and practice might be categorised, Frith and Morton developed a ‘causal modelling framework’. This framework incorporates three ‘levels’ of theory: the biological level, the cognitive (processing of information) level and the behavioural (Frith, 1997). The ‘biological level’ is the physical brain mechanism, with abnormalities in the language areas of the cortex (outer layers of grey matter), magnocellular pathways, and the cerebellum (the part of the brain below the cerebrum). The behavioural level is defined as what students identified as ‘dyslexic’ commonly do, or cannot do, for example poor rhyming and rhyming deficits and poor or apparently bizarre spelling. Explanations at the cognitive level are associated with information-processing and might include deficits in short-term or working memory, phonological awareness, automatisation, and slow speed of processing. Hypotheses about the way in which the brain processes the information it receives from sensory receptors are the essential link between brain and behaviour. In this framework the environment is assumed to mediate the effect of all three aspects.




Now read Frith, U. (2002) Resolving the paradoxes of dyslexia, ch 3, pp 45-68. In G. Reid & J. Wearmouth Dyslexia and literacy. Theory and practice, Chichester: Wiley/Open University.


We would advise you to read each section thoroughly and, as you do so, to reflect on:


• your own understanding of each of the three levels used to categorise causal models of dyslexia: biological, cognitive and behavioural

• how the issue of environmental influences fits into Frith’s framework.


It might be a good idea to compose three lists in which you outline the various theoretical causal factors that relate to each of the levels. As you do so consider which of the theoretical causal factors related to dyslexia that you can take into account when planning for learning for each child.


At this point, if you are interested in reading more about research into aspects of dyslexia you might choose to read pages 36-51 (A theoretical framework for understanding dyslexia) of the chapter ‘Concepts of dyslexia’ in Wearmouth, J., Soler, J., & Reid, G. (2003) Meeting difficulties in literacy development: Research, policy and practice. London: Routledge Falmer, available through the library’s electronic access. You will note that this section of the chapter follows Frith (1997) in classifying and discussing theories at the biological level, the cognitive level and the behavioural level. We suggest that you add to the outlines of theories relating to the three levels as appropriate.



We should state at the outset that the three levels overlap and that, at times, it is difficult to separate out one level from another. Some of the material, particularly in relation to studies of brain activity among dyslexics, is quite complicated, so we have summarised more of the texts you have just read than is usual.

Biological Level

You may have noted that new techniques in neuroscience, brain imaging, and genetics have enabled progress at the biological level in theoretical dyslexia research. The work of Galaburda (1993) suggests that the hemispheric processing patterns of dyslexic people show differences in relation to non-dyslexics. ‘Right hemisphere processing relates to tasks that require a ‘global’ holistic approach while left hemisphere processing involves analyses of detail and small chunks of information’ (Wearmouth et al, 2003, p. 39). Dyslexic children and adults who are right hemisphere processors can have right hemisphere skills that can place them at a disadvantage in left hemisphere tasks, such as reading accuracy. On the other hand, (West, 1997) dyslexic right hemisphere processors can be at an advantage in tasks requiring a holistic approach.

There has been some interest in the role of the visual systems in dyslexia (Stein, 2002). Eden et al (1996) show how dyslexics can have abnormalities associated with the magno-cellular sub-system of the visual cortex, the work of Stein (1995) has revealed convergence difficulties and Wilkins(1995) has shown how some dyslexics may benefit from, for example, coloured overlays due to difficulties in some visual processes. Some researchers have raised the possibility of ‘scotopic sensitivity’ syndrome, based on the theory that some individuals have visual pathways, photo-receptors, and/or brain systems that are hypersensitive to some wavelengths of light (Irlen & Lass, 1989). Tinted lenses or coloured overlay sheets have commonly been advised for individuals thought to experience such hypersensitivity; but the effectiveness of their use has also been questioned.




Read the chapter ‘Visual Processes’ by Everatt in Reid, G. & Wearmouth, J. (eds.) Dyslexia and literacy: Theory and practice (pp.85-98), Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. As you do so, note down:

• what is meant by ‘theories of general visual recognition impairment’, and why these theories fell into disfavour in the 1970s and early 1980s;

• what is meant by ‘surface’ as opposed to ‘phonological’ dyslexia;

• what is meant by the ‘magnocellular deficit hypothesis’ and reasons why there is some uncertainty about the validity of this view;

• what you now feel about Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome and the rationale underlying the use of visual filters to improve reading, now that you have read more about this in the chapter;

• what you understand of views on the relationship between eye movement co-ordination and dyslexia.


Comment Everatt notes that studies in the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrated that students identified as ‘dyslexic’ can search, locate, recognize and compare visual stimuli as competently as non- dyslexic students. How much does this surprise you? It was only when individuals were asked to name pictorial representations of familiar objects that dyslexic individuals achieved less well than non-dyslexic peers.


‘Surface’ dyslexics are those who are over-reliant on the relationships between letters and sounds and will assume that pronunciation of particular combinations of letters is regular. From this research we might argue that one route to reading is direct access of a word via its visual form, otherwise there is no reason why surface dyslexics should mispronounce words that are spelt like other words. ‘Phonological’ dyslexics are those who find it difficult to code letters into sounds.


Perhaps, from a practitioner’s point of view, the most significant issue here is whether and how identifying a learner as either a surface or phonological dyslexic enables you to devise a programme that will address the learner’s difficulty. What do you think?


The Magnocellular Deficit Hypothesis is described as being very influential in both the research into causes and explanations of dyslexia - ‘an alternative visual-based theory’ (Everatt, 2002) which proposes that dyslexia may be the consequence of an abnormality in the neural pathways of the visual system. One pathway, the magnocellular (M) system is sensitive to gross (lower spatial frequency), rapidly changing (high temporal frequency) or moving information. Individuals identified as dyslexic tend to be relatively poorer than non- dyslexics in performing tasks designed to assess the functioning of this pathway (Chase, 1996; Hogben, 1997; Lovegrove, 1996). When visual stimuli are presented quickly, dyslexic individuals require longer gaps between two stimuli and longer presentations of each stimulus to identify items. There are also post mortem investigations that show abnormal organization and size of cells in the magnocellular layers of the visual system of individuals who had had difficulties in reading, (Livingstone et al, 1991).


Individuals identified as ‘dyslexic’ are also less reliable in their ability to detect the coherence of movement among moving dots. Functional magnetic resonance imaging indicates a lower level of activity in the areas of the cortex thought to be responsible for identifying the direction of movement when dyslexics carry out such tasks (Eden at al., 1996).


Acceptance of the magnocellular pathway deficit hypothesis is not entirely straightforward, however. Some good readers perform relatively poorly on tasks related to the functioning of the magnocellular pathway. Not all dyslexic individuals perform badly. In addition, lower levels of activation in the visual context cannot be assumed to arise from differences in the magnocellular pathway alone there is input to processes performed by the visual cortex from the parvocellular pathway as well as the magnocellular. Everatt concludes from his own work and that of others that dyslexic individuals perform worse than non-dyslexics only on tasks involving interaction between magnocellular and parvocellular pathways.


The so-called ‘cerebellar deficit’ hypothesis was developed in order to account for common patterns of difficulties in balance, speed and phonological skill among dyslexics (Nicolson and Fawcett, 1994). The cerebellum is a densely packed and deeply folded subcortical brain structure made up of two cerebellar hemispheres that account for 10% to 15% of brain weight, 40% of brain surface area, and 50% of the brain’s neurons in humans. It is involved in the control of independent limb movements and especially in rapid, skilled movements. Damage to different parts of the cerebellum can lead to different symptoms in humans: disturbances in posture and balance, limb rigidity, loss of muscle tone, lack of co-ordination and impaired timing of rapid pre-planned automatic movements. Research studies over a long period concluded that the cerebellum was involved in speed, in learning and in becoming automatic in motor skill. Evidence from the US also suggests the possibility of cerebellar involvement in language dexterity through interconnections with the language areas of the brain, in particular Broca’s area (Fawcett, 2001). Studies conducted by Fawcett and Nicolson indicate that dyslexic children show:


• clinical symptoms of cerebellar abnormality

• abnormalities in the activation of the cerebellum in automatic processing and in new learning

• greater frontal lobe activation. This suggests that dyslexics were by-passing the cerebellum to some extent.


The ‘Balance Model’ of Reading and Dyslexia


There is one further example of a biological model of reading and dyslexia that we will discuss here: the so-called ‘Balance Model’. This was first introduced at a time when neuropsychological research seemed to indicate that the division of language and visual- spatial perception functions runs completely parallel with the left-right division in the brain. The balance model hypothesises that early and advanced reading will be mediated by the right and left hemisphere respectively. This model predicts that some children, P (perceptual)-type dyslexics, rely too much on the perceptual features of text because they may not be able to shift from right to left in the hemispheric mediation of reading. Some other children, L (linguistic)-type dyslexics, rely on linguistic features of text to read fast, but pay too little attention to perceptual features of text. These children are thought to move to left hemispheric processing of text too early. You might notice here a close similarity to descriptions of approaches to reading which may be classified as bottom-up (perceptual) and top-down (linguistic), as we discussed in Part 2 of this Unit Guide. Bakker and Robertson (2002) comment that one strength of the neuropsychological approach is that identification as a P- or L-type dyslexic is carried out mainly through observation of breading performance and therefore difficulties can be approached through interventions designed to address the specific weaknesses. Given the evidence that the brain can change its capacity in accordance with stimulation from the learning environment – in straightforward terms that it can be ‘trained’ – there may be a strong argument that L-type dyslexics should be trained in systematic programmes that focus on the perceptual aspects of letters and symbols, and P- types on fluency and the speedy comprehension of meaning. What do you think? If you were to adopt one of these routes to supporting higher levels of reading among dyslexic students, how would you ensure that you maintained a balance in literacy learning so that, for example,


P-type dyslexic did not receive training in perceptual aspects of print to the exclusion of meaning, interest and engagement with text?


If you are interested in reading more about the ‘Balance Model’ you might like to read the chapter by Bakker and Robertson in Reid, G. & Wearmouth, J. (eds.) Dyslexia and literacy: Theory and practice (pp.99-114). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons


Cognitive Level

Since the 1980s, the dominant theoretical framework to explain dyslexia has been at the cognitive level of understanding: the phonological deficit hypothesis, derived from seminal research in the UK by Bradley and Bryant, (1983) and by Snowling (1986), and by Stanovich, (1988) in the US. As Fawcett (2002) notes, from a phonological deficit explanation, the solution lies in intensive training in phonological awareness.


Phonological awareness


Much of the research activity on dyslexia has related to the area of phonological awareness. Phonological knowledge is an important area of learning in oral and written language. It continues to be the object of controversy regarding the amount of focus and the type and nature of learning opportunities that should be provided in early literacy programmes.


Decoding of unfamiliar words is a complex and challenging task for many children. How many of the children you encounter have difficulty in analysing chunks of letter or words (that is, sounding out) beyond the first letter? English is not purely a phonetic language. The 26 letters are represented by 44 sounds and the various ways of combining letters produces many words that are not easily decidable. The Literacy Experts Group (1999) concluded that for some struggling readers, an over-reliance on contextual cues (semantic and syntactic), combined with weak decoding skills, was not sufficient to solve unknown words. Do you have experience of children who can read whole texts, but cannot recognise words out of context?


Some critics of current approaches, for example Tumner and Chapman (1999) and Nicholson (1997) in New Zealand, suggest that greater attention should be paid to the development of phonological processing skills than currently takes place in early literacy programmes in New Zealand. Tumner and Chapman (1999) argue that looking for familiar spelling patterns first, and using contextual cues to confirm predictions based on word-level information is particularly important for children who are at risk of reading failure. Poor readers often rely on partial visual cues and contextual guessing (Bruck, 1992). The word identification skills of these children remain relatively weak.


Tumner and Chapman recommend that:


The early identification and remediation of children who have inadequate phonologically-based word-identification strategies may be the key to reducing the incidence of reading difficulties in children. (p.64)


As we have already seen (Vellutino et al, 2004, p. 6) facility in word identification is particularly important to children’s competence in reading in the early stages. What do you think from your own experience?




At this point we would like you to read Hatcher, J., & Snowling, M.J. (2002). The phonological representations hypothesis of dyslexia: From theory to practice. In G. Reid & J. Wearmouth (Eds.),

Dyslexia and literacy: Theory and practice (pp.69-83). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. This book is available through the library’s electronic access.

As you do so, note the authors’ comments on:


• What is meant by ‘phonological representations’

• Why difficulties associated with phonological representations are likely to impede reading development

• What kinds of research evidence support the authors’ views on the phonological representation hypothesis

• What constitute the most crucial indicators of dyslexia in children’s individual profiles

• How phonological skills might be assessed

• Implications for practice of research into the significance of phonological awareness.


Comment Hatcher and Snowling consider the phonological representations hypothesis as an explanation of dyslexia and discuss the implications of this for assessment and teaching of dyslexic children. Phonological representations are the attributes or the knowledge about sounds which the child brings to the task. Learning to read is an interactive process in which the child uses all her/his language skills. Phonological processing seems, according to Hatcher and Snowling, to be strongly related to the development of reading. Deficits at the level of phonological representation constrain children’s reading development. According to Hatcher and Snowling one of the effects of this is the inability to generalise knowledge about the phonological properties of sounds and words they are taught. This means that activities such as non-word reading are problematic because of the difficulties associated with sound-symbol relationships. The authors support the notion that this can be viewed as one of the most robust signs of dyslexia. They suggest that the persistent difficulties dyslexic children have with phonological awareness appear to be more obvious when children are learning to read in irregular orthographies such as English. The fact that dyslexia can exist in virtually all countries would perhaps indicate, however, that phonological awareness is only part of the range of difficulties associated with reading which can be experienced by dyslexic children. (See the comment by Nicolson in this part of the Unit Guide.)


The evidence for Hatcher and Snowling’s view on the importance of the phonological representations hypothesis comes from studies, some of which investigate the development of dyslexic children before they fail to read. This can be achieved by following the progress of children with a higher risk of dyslexia, by virtue of having a dyslexic parent, and carrying out retrospective analysis of the children’s early language skills. The studies found differences between children with and without reading difficulty at the age of seven. For example the children with reading difficulties made more speech errors and had limited use of syntax at the age of two and half. The authors also refer to a study by Gallagher, Frith and Snowling (2000) which demonstrates that children with significant reading impairments at eight years of age showed slow speech and language development in the pre-school years.


Hatcher and Snowling suggest that the phonological representations hypothesis is also compatible with differences between the profiles of individual children which are characteristic of dyslexia. They suggest that the most crucial factor in the individual profile of dyslexic children is not criteria relating to sub-types of dyslexia but the actual severity of the lack of development in phonological representations. This can account for the differences and the different presenting characteristics of the dyslexic group. Additionally dyslexic children with poorer phonological representations will have fewer compensatory word attack strategies to draw on which will further undermine their reading performance.


Hatcher and Snowling conclude that assessment of phonological skills is therefore necessary and they provide examples of tasks: rhyme recognition, rhyme production, phonological manipulation such as phoneme deletion and letter knowledge, which can be found in some of the established tests available for this purpose. This view has considerable implications for practice and particularly intervention programmes in the early years. They outline examples of phonological awareness training such as rhyme activities, identifying words as units within sentences, syllable awareness and blending tasks, but also indicate that it is insufficient to train phonological awareness in isolation as it is important to establish the relationship between sounds and written forms of words.

Hatcher and Snowling provide some examples of packaged programmes for this purpose and some evaluative data on their effectiveness. They suggest that despite the importance of phonological awareness in the early development of reading, interventions that rely exclusively on training in phonological awareness are less effective than those that combine phonological training with print and meaning in the context of sentences in text.


McNaughton (2002), however, cautions that specific instruction in long-term decoding skills may not be transferred into long-term gains for text reading and writing. He cites evidence from a number of experimental, descriptive and ethnographic studies where early systematic and explicit phonics instruction given to children in poorer communities produced improvement of limited comprehension and real text reading and writing (McNaughton, 2002, pp.94-95).


Brain research and the reading process

We have included a discussion of brain research here because it synthesises discussion of dyslexia at a biological level with understandings of the importance of phonological processes in literacy acquisition. It reinforces views about the latter with evidence from human biology, that is research into the brain and its functioning.

The importance of adequate functioning of the phonological system in the development of reading is supported by recent neuro-imaging technologies that have contributed important information beyond what is available through studies of reading behaviour alone. The phonological system has been shown to be significant in reading acquisition across different languages, both those that are alphabetic, for example European languages, and those, such as Chinese, that are based on characters or logographs, and across both hearing and deaf communities.



Now read Goswami, U. (2008) ‘Reading, dyslexia and the brain’, Educational Research, 50(2), pp. 135-148.. As you do so note down:

• what evidence the author uses from neuro-imaging data to substantiate the claim that phonological recoding to sound is the key early reading strategy, rather than word or logographic recognition;


• the conclusions that are drawn about the potential usefulness of neuro-imaging data to educators.



Goswami cites neuro-imaging studies of non-dyslexic readers to demonstrate that neural networks for spoken language play a significant role in reading from the beginning. In comparison, dyslexic readers show different patterns of brain activation in various parts of the brain, for example under-activation of regions associated with word recognition and ‘an atypical pattern of continuing right hemisphere involvement’ (page 18). Intensive phonological interventions can result in significant increases in activity in the areas (Simos et al, 2002).


Goswami concludes that, if neuro-imaging studies have a use in education, it may be to ‘identify neural markers of risk for developmental dyslexia’ that can be identified in infant’s pre-speech and in older children without requiring their full attention.


Summarising understandings of dyslexia



To summarise this section on concepts of dyslexia we would like you to read the section ‘Underlying causes: cognitive deficit theories of dyslexia, pages 7-18 in Vellutino, F.R., Fletcher, J.M., Snowling, M.J. & Scanlon, D.M. (2004) ‘Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades?’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(1), pp. 2-40.


Add to your notes under the three headings as in Frith’s causal framework. We would advise you not to write notes on past theories that have now been disproved, but to concentrate on theories that appear to be well supported.

Now read the section ‘Underlying causes: biological foundations of dyslexia’, pages 18-28 and complete your summaries under the same headings.


What do you feel are the implications for practice of the theories of the causes of dyslexia that you have read so far? Vellutino et al comment that, most importantly, it is crucial not immediately to assume that a child who cannot read at the expected level is dyslexic. S/he may not have had the requisite instruction in reading and/or adequate exposure to text at an appropriate level. Psychometric assessments, that is formal measurements, of a child’s abilities do not allow for early educational and literacy experiences. Assessment might better first be employed in a diagnostic and formative way to establish a productive learning plan. This plan might then take account of a child’s strengths as well as weaknesses and be evaluated to see whether difficulties in reading relate to lack of prior structured reading tuition and access to texts rather than cognitive deficits. In other words, where a child is identified as experiencing serious difficulties in reading acquisition an intensive support programme should be prioritised over formal standardised cognitive assessments. You might like to read Vellutino et al’s thoughts on this in the final sections of their paper, ‘Implications for practitioners’ and ‘Summary and conclusions’, pages 28-31 of their paper.

What are you own thoughts about this?


Labelling and stigmatisation

A number of researchers, for example Pumfrey (2002), Riddick (2002) have looked at the question of whether labelling young people as ‘dyslexic’ is positive or negative. Pumfrey (p. 248) suggests that there is a slippery path from the recognition of such differences to the identification of ‘defects’, in other words deficiencies in the individual dyslexic person. He portrays the identification process as an example of `the slippery path from differences to defects (which) can lead to the pathologizing of normality – differences- deviations- difficulties- disabilities- deficits – defects.` Riddick (2000), however, feels that there are both positive and negative aspects of the dyslexia label.



What particular issues do you consider there might be in using the dyslexia label to describe difficulties in literacy experienced by students?

Are there both positive and negative aspects to this? Note down what they are from your own experience.


Riddick cites Gallagher (1976) in discussing the positive and negative aspects of labelling. These are:


• diagnosis and appropriate treatment and alteration to the environment

• enabling further research which may lead to better understanding, prevention and treatment

• acting as a positive way to call attention to a particular difficulty and obtaining better resources through funding and legislation.


• the professionals labelling for its own sake, without suggesting any form of treatment or support

• as a way of maintaining the status quo by keeping minority groups at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

How far do your experiences reflect these views? Have you noted down any other aspects? What about the issue of fairness in resourcing? We discuss the question of equity below.


Social and emotional consequences



Briefly note down what, from your own experiences, are:

• the emotional effects on students of experiencing difficulties in literacy development

• the emotional effects on adults in later life of experiencing difficulties in literacy development

• the extent to which you feel that your school takes seriously the issue of emotional effects of difficulties in literacy development.

Now compare your notes with the interview transcript on pages 77-81 of Wearmouth, J., Soler, J., & Reid, G. (2003) Meeting difficulties in literacy development: Research, policy and practice, London: Routledge Falmer, available through the library’s electronic access. In this transcript a young adult, ‘Katherine’, who was identified as ‘dyslexic’ at quite a late stage in her education, describes her feelings about her difficulties in the area of literacy acquisition and her recollections of school experiences.


Is there anything about ‘Katherine’s’ comments that surprises you? Hers is an individual account and we cannot generalise from it. However, her comments serve to reinforce some of the assumptions that we might make about the potential long-term consequences and effects on life chances of not addressing children’s difficulties in literacy at an early stage. As an adult, she felt humiliated at the public display of her poor literacy skills. She also felt cheated of opportunities that she might have had if she was competent in reading and writing. Her recollections of school experiences also reflect many of the comments recorded in Riddick’s (1996) study of the personal experiences of 22 children, aged from 8 to 14 years and identified as ‘dyslexic’, and their families. Here, for example, children reflected on similar feelings of disaffection and of dread of ‘visible public indicators’ (p.124) of their difficulties in literacy, such as reading aloud and always being the last to finish work.


Riddick (p.32) notes that among clinicians and educationalists there is general agreement about the ‘devastating effects’ that serious difficulties in literacy development can have on students and their families. However, there is little formal research on the social and emotional consequences of dyslexia. Given that, as we discuss below, there is a whole body of research on what motivates learners in the context of school work, including those who experience difficulties, this is somewhat surprising. The research that exists in the area of the relationship between difficulties in literacy development and self-esteem has resulted in somewhat mixed and apparently contradictory findings. The net result of this, for practitioners, is that research projects must be scrutinised very thoroughly before any generalisation of their findings can be assumed. For example, Riddick refers to work by Lawrence (1971) the results of which were used in some schools in the early 1970s to justify the use of counselling rather than individual reading programmes to raise the level of literacy of students with difficulties in literacy acquisition. Lawrence’s (1971) study investigated the effects on reading attainment of individual personal counselling from a ‘responsible, sympathetic’ adult, with ‘status’ in the child’s eyes (Lawrence, 1971, p 120) compared with the results obtained by a traditional ‘remedial’ reading programme administered by a specialist remedial reading teacher. After six months, the students in the counselled group showed a significant rise in reading attainment on a test of word recognition compared with all other groups, together with ‘improved self-images’ (Lawrence, 1971, p.119). However, different adults carried out the counselling and the specialist teaching. We know nothing about the relationship that existed between the specialist remedial reading teacher and the students nor the teacher’s status in the eyes of the student group. Whilst the results of Lawrence’s study clearly indicate the importance for student learning of the relationship between students and teachers, it does not disprove the need for good, well-structured teaching programmes in literacy.



Read Riddick’s chapter ‘Researching the social and emotional consequences of dyslexia’. As you do so, note down:

• some of the problems encountered by those attempting research in this area

• how far you agree that teacher expectations can have a profound effect on student learning

• the extent to which you agree with Burns’s (1982) conclusions (cited by the author) about how teachers might ensure that they do not transmit different expectations to high and low achieving students in the classroom.



You may have noted that:

• Clear definition of both dyslexia and social and emotional difficulties is problematic, so that comparing like with like is very difficult. Secondly, much research compares groups of students with and without difficulties in literacy development. Such studies mask individual differences between children. Those who experience difficulties in literacy but are well supported at home may have higher self-esteem than those with very difficult home circumstances but no literacy difficulties, for example. Furthermore, it is likely that social and emotional experiences fluctuate over time and that the child’s home and school context may change, all of which can affect the outcome. In addition, it is not clear if difficulties in literacy lead to poor self-esteem, or whether poor self-esteem leads to poor literacy acquisition. Finally, both what constitutes ‘self-esteem’ and also how to measure ‘self-esteem’ are highly problematic.


• Early researchers (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) appeared to attribute overriding importance to teacher expectations on student performance. However, later researchers were much more circumspect in their conclusions and concluded that there was a great deal of individual difference in the significance attributed by students to particular teachers’ attitudes and, therefore, much difference between the effects of such attitudes. In addition, teachers’ expectations operate in interaction with other factors, all of which must be taken into account in their effect on students.

Burns (1982) concludes that classroom teachers should interact evenly with all students, talk to all students, offer realistic praise and find a balance between being over critical or over commendatory, and, finally, match tasks to individuals. Riddick notes some of the challenges in putting these principles into practice in the busy classroom situation and advises seeking additional support where appropriate.


If you consider that your school takes the self-esteem of its students seriously, what are the systems that have been put into place that demonstrate this? Have students at your school who experience difficulties in the area of literacy been asked how they feel about provision in the school curriculum or how they feel about themselves? Can you suggest systems that might be put into place to facilitate this?


In Riddick’s (1996) study, the children had very strong views about which teachers were able best to support them in ways which were positive and productive.


People jump to the wrong conclusions and they should be educated about what dyslexia means, it’s just been one of my dreams to tell them all what it means. (Riddick, 1996, back cover)



From her research Riddick (1996) identifies key qualities of the ‘best’ teachers as a propensity to offer praise and encouragement linked with understanding of the difficulties experienced by the learner. The ‘best’ teachers (Riddick, 1996, p 133):

• encourage and praise

• help students, adapt work and explain clearly

• understand students and do not attempt to humiliate them

• do not shout

• have a sense of humour

• know if children are dyslexic

• treat all children as if they are intelligent.


The worst teachers, on the other hand:

• are cross, impatient and shout

• criticise and humiliate students

• are not helpful, and are negative about students’ efforts

• ignore some students and show they consider some students ‘useless’

• do not understand the problems faced by students with difficulties in literacy and are insensitive

• blame students for their problems and call them ‘lazy

• puts red lines through students’ work.

What comments would you make about Riddick’s notion of good practice with dyslexic students in the light of your own experience with any students that experience difficulties in literacy development?

There may be long-term negative consequences for young people who do not experience support in school to address their difficulties in literacy development. If you are particularly interested in the long-term effects of the experience of severe difficulties in literacy acquisition you might be interested in reading a further personal account in Riddick et al.’s chapter ‘Andy’ Riddick, B., Farmer, M., & Sterling, C. (1997) ‘Andy’, in Students and dyslexia: Growing up with a specific learning difficulty, Chapter 3 (pp.34-46), London: Whurr Publishers.


Experiences among dyslexia students in higher education

The research into emotional factors associated with dyslexia has tended to focus on school- aged children. However, there is a small-scale study of university students that clearly demonstrates raised anxiety levels with regard to academic achievement and social interactions among dyslexic students in comparison with non-dyslexics (Carroll and Iles, 2006)



We would like you to read the article Carroll, J.M. & Iles, J.E. (2006) An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, pp. 651–662.


As you do so, note down:

• what you see as the difference between state anxiety and trait anxiety;

• how surprising you find it that both academic anxiety and social anxiety were clearly associated with difficulties in reading;

• what you would conclude about the implications of these findings for practice;

• what difference you think it might have made to the outcomes of the study that the participants were predominantly female.



As the authors note (p. 653), ‘state’ anxiety results from an emotional reaction to a specific situation and, if repeated over time such as continual failure in literacy activities in school, this anxiety may become a stable personality feature, hence the term ‘trait’ anxiety.

The authors conclude that dyslexic students should perhaps be assessed for their emotional well-being, following which they might be offered support such as counselling, where appropriate. How far do you agree with this conclusion? In the long run, however, it may be that prevention is a much more positive strategy and that effective approaches to addressing dyslexic-type difficulties at an early age should be in place for all children. What do you think?

Responses: resources, policy and practice

We have discussed above some of the different perspectives held by researchers and practitioners which somehow need to be reconciled and converted into practice to satisfy the demands of legislation, policy makers, school management, teachers, psychologists, parents and, above all, to support all students in engaging in learning both within educational institutions and outside.


We will conclude this part of the Unit Guide by discussing the issue of the equitable use of resources and then what might constitute appropriate responses to meet the needs of dyslexic children at the level of the community and family, the school and classroom.

Issues of equity and resources

In countries where dyslexia have been recognised as a ‘condition’ associated with poor achievement at school especially in relation to literacy learning, the issue of resource allocation in relation to dyslexia is one that has often generated much heated debate. Writing in an English context, Pumfrey (1996) cited in Reid (1998, pp.5-6) acknowledges that:


... establishing a resource allocation decision making model that is explicit, open, fair and theoretically defensible, requires considerable professional knowledge (Pumfrey 1996, p.20). In practice however criteria used to allocate resources for dyslexia often have a reactive as well as a proactive element. The reactive element usually emerges from parental pressure (Heaton, 1996) and the proactive attempt from an objective attempt from education authorities to establish some form of working criteria for identifying and dealing with dyslexia within their budgetary considerations. This however usually results in discrepancy criteria being employed – for example, reading scores two standard deviations below prediction from I.Q., or perhaps reading accuracy at or below second percentile for age. (Pumfrey 1996, extract from Reid, 1998, pp. 5-6)


In the UK, for example, some years ago there was no recognition of ‘dyslexia’. In recent years an increasing widespread acceptance of the term has been evident. Nevertheless it is important to consider the objections to attempting to define and promote the widespread use of the term dyslexia. The following are typical of the debates that have recurred over the years between those who consider specific difficulties in literacy should be treated as a special ‘condition’ labelled ‘dyslexia’ and funded accordingly, and those who argue that the important issue is to identify and address the difficulties as experienced by students in schools and not categorise under one label:


Children who experience difficulty in learning to read are frequently called dyslexic, but their difficulty does not arise because they are dyslexic ... they are dyslexic because they cannot read ... and therefore the cure for dyslexia is to learn to read. (Smith, 1973, quoted in Young and Tyre, 1983, p.18)

This fairly prevalent view at the time of the notion of dyslexia was countered by Miles (1983) who suggested that:

Dyslexia can be seen as a discrete condition since it may not necessarily be seen as a normal variation of reading performance.



Read pages 60-62 of Wearmouth et al.’s (2002) chapter ‘Concepts of dyslexia’ in Meeting difficulties in literacy development, London: Routledge Falmer.

What are your own reactions to the different views expressed here?

As Reid (2001) notes, in the UK the differences regarding professionals` understanding of dyslexia, the use of the term, and the identification criteria have been evident for many decades.



Read the description below of this hypothesis.

‘... some of the individual differences that are ascribed casual significance in other theories of dyslexia may simply be indicators of consistent and important differences in different social contexts. Solity (1996) suggests that potential sources of learning opportunities (e.g. parental input) might account both for pre-school differences in phonological awareness and for differences in progress with learning to read. ... it is always important t

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  • Title: Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development and Dyslexia
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