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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/2/13

Is Dyslexia Really a Learning Disability?

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Dyslexia is a label that is commonly applied to children who seem perfectly normal, except that they have not learned to read in school. Yet the word dyslexia was not originally intended for that purpose. It was originally used in cases in which adults had lost their ability to read as a result of a brain injury, such as from a stroke or from a blow to the head. This loss of reading ability generally went along with other signs of brain damage, including other problems with language. If a child who otherwise seems perfectly normal is not learning to read in school, we should be cautious about using medical terms like dyslexia, which imply that the problem is in the child, and specifically in the child's brain and nervous system, rather than in the school.

Today, the diagnosis of dyslexia is given to many children whose only apparent problem is that they are failing to learn to read in school. Thus, dyslexia is one of a range of problems that are being classified as learning disabilities. Unfortunately, when we apply a label such as "dyslexic" or "learning disabled" to a child simply because the child is not doing well in school, we are jumping to the conclusion that the problem is in the child's nervous system. Thus, problems in the school, such as poor teaching methods, may go unrecognized and unsolved. We should be much more cautious about using the "d" word--disability--when we are really talking about a simple lack of skill, as opposed to a lack of ability to develop a skill. There can be many reasons why someone has not acquired a particular skill. Sometimes, the reason is medical. Sometimes, it isn't. Those were lessons that I learned in childhood.

When I was a preschooler, there was a little boy in our neighborhood could not talk and did not seem to understand anything that was said to him. Even though he was over 2 years old, he did not know any words at all, not even mama or dada. Some people suspected that he was mentally slow. Fortunately, a doctor eventually figured out the real cause of the problem. The boy was completely deaf. In fact, the doctor said that the child had been born deaf. The child had been deaf all along, and nobody realized it. The boy could not talk because he could not hear. He could not respond to or imitate speech sounds because he had simply never heard them. Once somebody finally realized that the boy could not hear, he was enrolled in a special school where he could learn to use sign language and read lips and even speak English, along with learning the regular school subjects. The inability to hear is a disability. So is the inability to see. Children who have disabilities of that kind certainly need special schooling. When they grow up, they will also be entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A girl in our neighborhood had a different kind of problem. She could see and hear and talk just fine. She seemed to be of normal intelligence. Unfortunately, she wasn't learning to read in school, and it was making her life miserable. Because of her problem with reading, she was doing poorly in all of her classes except art class. All of her other teachers assumed that she was simply lazy and bad. So they punished and humiliated her for failing to learn. Her teachers failed to teach her to read, but they did succeed in turning a happy preschooler into a young woman with serious emotional problems.

Fortunately, the girl's problem with reading eventually got solved, not by the school system but through sheer dumb luck. The summer after she finished sixth grade, she started babysitting. One of her charges was a girl who had gone through second grade without having learned to read. This younger child was getting tutored in phonics, and the babysitter was asked to help her with her phonics homework. Thus, the babysitter ended up learning phonics from the younger child. As a result, the babysitter quickly caught up to her own grade level in reading.

The babysitter explained to me that nobody had ever shown her how to sound out words letter by letter. For years, she had been trying (and failing) to memorize whole English words as random sequences of letters, without an understanding that letters systematically represent sounds. She never learned phonics because our school used a whole-word teaching method, which was built into our reading textbooks. Those books were called the Reading for Meaning series. The advocates of the whole-word method claim that their method teaches children to read for meaning, while phonics supposedly only teaches children sounds. Yet how can a child figure out what a text means if the child cannot figure out what the printed words actually say? Several years of whole-word instruction had left that girl functionally illiterate. A few lessons in phonics allowed her to catch up to grade level.

The whole-word method of teaching reading was invented by Thomas Gallaudet in Massachusetts in the 1830s, for the purpose of teaching deaf children to read. He reasoned that deaf children could not learn phonics because they cannot hear speech sounds. In the 1840s, Massachusetts' first Secretary of Education, Horace Mann, decided that Gallaudet's method should be used for teaching hearing children as well. The results were disastrous, and the teachers rebelled. Yet Mann had the last word because he got to hand-pick the people who went on to teach in the teachers' colleges. Thus, many aspiring teachers from that day to this have been taught to use the whole-word method, even though scientific studies have consistently shown it to be ineffective and harmful. In the 1920s, Dr. Samuel Orton showed that the use of the whole-word method was the cause of the reading problems that are now called dyslexia. The more "sight words" children were asked to learn before they started learning about phonics, the more likely they were to have problems with reading. Yet the whole-word method remained firmly entrenched in many public schools in the United States, even after Rudolf Flesch explained the problem in his 1955 bestseller Why Johnny Can't Read.

Lately, I have heard about more and more children who are getting diagnoses of learning disabilities of one kind or another. Often, the only evidence that anything is wrong is that the child is not doing well in school. One young man who is currently in college told me that he had some sort of "processing disorder." When he was in school, he had an individualized educational program, or IEP, because of that presumed learning disability. As a result, he was given many accommodations and special privileges in school. He was allowed to take more time than the other children when taking tests, even high-stakes tests like the SATs. On one hand, I'm glad that children who have genuine disabilities, such as blindness or deafness or autism, can get special help and special accommodations. On the other hand, I wonder whether there was really anything wrong with that young man. Did he really have some sort of learning disability, or was he just suffering from the ill effects of bad teaching methods or poor discipline?

I'm glad that the young man was able to get through primary and secondary school and into college, but I wonder whether the learning disability label did him any good. Was there ever really anything wrong with him? If not, would the false diagnosis of a learning disability have done more harm than good? Did the label and the IEP allow the school to hide the fact that it wasn't successful in teaching basic academic skills? After all, if the boy had good academic skills, he would never have been labeled as learning disabled. And what about the psychological effects of the diagnosis on the boy himself? Might it be harmful for a person who is not truly disabled to have a self-concept of being disabled? Might the diagnosis of a learning disability have bred a sense of complacency, an acceptance that it was okay for him to have poor skills in reading or arithmetic? Although the special attention and accommodations he received as a result of his IEP allowed him to get better grades, not to mention a higher SAT score, did they breed an unhealthy sense of entitlement? Will he expect that the road will be made smooth for him for the rest of his life, because of a "disability" that may not even exist? It's doubtful that any workplace will make special accommodations for someone with a "processing disorder," whatever that means.

In recent years, many people have expressed concern over the increasing role that psychological and psychiatric diagnoses as well as psychiatric medications have been playing in education. I share that concern. Psychiatry in the United States went from an overemphasis on psychosocial explanations for neuropsychiatric problems in the mid-20th century to an overemphasis on neuropsychiatric explanations for psychosocial problems today. In the mid-20th century, it was commonplace for psychiatrists to assume that disorders such as autism or schizophrenia were a psychological reaction to bad mothering, rather than being the result of a brain disorder. Today, we are seeing an increasing tendency for nearly any behavioral or academic problem in childhood to be assumed to be the result of a brain disorder. Thus, we are seeing an increasing number of children who receive some sort of medical-sounding diagnosis, and an increasing number of children who are receiving psychiatric medication.

To sort out truth from nonsense, we have to think clearly about the difference between a disability and a mere lack of skill. The little neighbor boy I described above could not speak or understand what was said to him. Thus, he lacked important language skills. Eventually, it turned out that he lacked these skills because he had a serious disability: congenital deafness. Clearly, he needed some special schooling to help him compensate for that disability. Similarly, the girls in my neighborhood who could not read lacked reading skills. However, their problem was not due to some defect in their ability to learn. Their problem was due to the use of a defective teaching method in their school. This defective teaching method had no effect on me because I taught myself to read before I started school. I figured out English phonics by analyzing the rhyming words in my Dr. Seuss books. Likewise, those two girls also eventually learned to read by learning phonics outside of school. Their "learning disability" was solved; but sadly, the school's "teaching disability" persisted.

If an adult loses his or her ability to read because of a stroke or a head injury, it makes sense to use a medical term like dyslexia to describe the problem. However, if some child who otherwise seems perfectly normal is failing to learn to read in school, the problem is probably in the school, not in the child. The solution is to fix the school, not label the child as disabled.

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Laurie taught herself to read at age 4 by analyzing the spelling of the rhyming words in Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. She has worked as an editor in medical and academic publishing for more than 25 years. She is the author of five books: (more...)

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