Hitchens: Dyslexia is NOT a Disease. It is an Excuse For Bad Teachers!



While I cannot comment on a report that claims there is no easy definition for dyslexia, I do agree that learning difficulties and ADHD labels have been helpful to poor teachers looking for an excuse.

Mr Hitchens has gone a lot further than I would, but the fact that many teachers rely on labels such as dyslexia to avoid full responsibility for a child’s lack of progress is hard to dispute:

I doubt there has ever been a society so easily fooled by pseudo-science and quackery as ours is. Millions of healthy people take happy pills that  do them obvious harm, and are increasingly correlated with inexplicable suicide and worse.

Legions of healthy children are drugged into numbness because they fidget during  boring lessons, and countless people are persuaded that they or their children suffer from  a supposed disease called ‘dyslexia’, even though there is no evidence at all that it exists.

A few weeks ago I rejoiced at the first major cracks in this great towering dam of lies. Dr Richard Saul brought out his courageous and overdue book, ADHD Does Not Exist.

I also urge everyone to read James Davies’s book Cracked, on the inflated claims of psychiatry since it sold its soul to the pill-makers.

Now comes The Dyslexia Debate, published yesterday, a rigorous study of this alleged ailment by two distinguished academics – Professor Julian  Elliott of Durham University, and Professor Elena Grigorenko of Yale University.

Their book makes several points. There is no clear definition of what ‘dyslexia’ is. There is no objective diagnosis of it. Nobody can agree on how many people suffer from it. The widespread belief that it is linked with high intelligence does not stand up to analysis.

And, as Parliament’s Select Committee on Science and Technology said in 2009: ‘There is no convincing evidence  that if a child with dyslexia is not labelled as dyslexic, but receives full support for his or her reading difficulty, that the child will do any worse than a child who is labelled dyslexic and then receives special help.’

 This is because both are given exactly the same treatment. But as the book’s authors say: ‘Being labelled dyslexic can be perceived as desirable for many reasons.’ These include extra resources and extra time in exams. And then there’s the hope that it will ‘reduce the shame and embarrassment that are often the consequence of literacy difficulties. It may help exculpate the child, parents and teachers from any perceived sense of responsibility’.

I think that last point is the decisive one and the reason for the beetroot-faced fury that greets any critic of ‘dyslexia’ (and will probably greet this book and article). If it’s really a disease, it’s nobody’s fault. But it is somebody’s fault. For the book also describes the furious resistance, among teachers,  to proven methods of teaching children to read. Such methods have been advocated by  experts since Rudolf Flesch wrote his devastating book Why Johnny Can’t Read almost 60 years ago.

There may well be a small number of children who have physical problems that stop them learning to read. The invention of ‘dyslexia’ does nothing to help them. It means they are uselessly lumped in with millions of others who have simply been badly taught.

It also does nothing for  that great majority of poor readers. They are robbed of one of life’s great pleasures and essential skills.

What they need, what we all need, is proper old-fashioned teaching, and who cares if the silly teachers think it is ‘authoritarian’? That’s what teaching is.

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4 Responses to “Hitchens: Dyslexia is NOT a Disease. It is an Excuse For Bad Teachers!”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    I agree with the notion that there are no such “diseases” as dyslexia and ADHD, up to a point. The point at which I make my departure is that it is somehow a teacher’s fault. I could buy it if every class had only one student. However, in a class of 30 students, all being taught by the same method, there are always a few who fail to learn, either to read, or to pick up on maths. Why is this? If they are all subjected to the same teaching regime then why don’t they all uniformly learn? And why is it that under the increasingly regimented, one size fits all curriculum regime, we still observe students who don’t appear to make it and whose educational deficits multiply with the advancing years?

    If the answer to this lies not in the teaching, which is becoming increasingly and blandly uniform, i.e same teacher, same curriculum, same methods, same program, same ad nauseum, why is it that some children fall behind? Is it in the teacher and then teaching? Is it in the curriculum? or is it in the student?

    Piaget and other cognitive researchers, who have largely fallen out of favour lately, posit a development of cognitive capacities in people that proceed through a series of stages. In the physical realm it is easy to see how children grow and develop from one stage to the next. As child begins to walk s/he begins tentatively to stand, first using props such as furniture but eventually to stand independently, then gradually takes the first steps, then before long is walking independently. Do all children reach the same stages at the same chronological time? Obviously not. Why, then, should we suppose children to develop cognitively in uniform stages? Yet that is what the current thinking in curriculum development seems to presuppose.

    Now if all children are taught the same things, in the same way, at the same time, by the same teacher, in the same school, using the same curriculum and some catch on quickly and advance, others catch on more slowly and still others fail to catch on wouldn’t one be led to consider that the variable factor is, then, the student and the student’s current level of cognitive development? So the reason why some students fail to learn to read may possibly be that at some critical point they were not yet cognitively equipped to absorb the new learning and by the time they were the curriculum car of juggernaut had moved on leaving them behind.

    You would not force a child to walk before s/he could stand. Why then do we attempt to perform the same operation in the cognitive realm?

    This matter bears further investigation.

    • Michael G. Says:

      Very good points!

      • John Tapscott Says:

        Of course there are many other factors affecting a child’s ability to learn than cognitive development but level and rate of cognitive development cuts across socioeconomic, racial and cultural factors as all children, no matter where they come from, pass through the stages of cognitive development in the same way as they pass through stages of physical development. Other factors may influence cognitive development in the same way that diet and customs might influence physical development.

        Nevertheless, cognitive development is so critical to education that to fail to take it into account in curriculum development and in teaching practices is the same as failing to take proper diet into account in physical growth and development.

  2. John Tapscott Says:

    Policies, practices and procedures in a bad system negate the efforts of good teachers and make it easy for bad management to pass the blame to teachers. What if it were discovered that ADHD was a function of boredom? And what if boredom was discovered to be a function of disengagement? And what if disengagement was discovered to be attempting to teach concepts not appropriate to the level of students’ cognitive development? Would those who were responsible for the curriculum put their hands up and say, “We made a mistake. We will have to change the curriculum.”? Or would they turn to the teachers and say, “There are some bad teachers among you.” ? I think we all know the answer to that question.

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