I was prompted to write this following the comments by Labour backbench MP Graham Stringer who claimed dyslexia is a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching methods (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/7828121.stm). Now a lot has already been said about this and unsurprisingly his comment is poorly viewed by the dyslexia organisations. My own views on Mr Stringer’s comments are that he is rather misguided and that is from personal experience of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is unfortunately rather an umbrella term used to cover a number of different learning difficulties, in many ways we should be using the term learning difficulties instead of dyslexia, but the term dyslexia has stuck. Dyslexia also does not mean you are an idiot, or unable to learn or even unable to achieve, I personally have a bachelors, masters and a doctorate. However, I did struggle with my school exams. Another curious problem with dyslexia is that it is sometimes not picked up until a child is 8 years old or later, the reason being that some children learn to sight read whole words, its not until they come across longer more complex words that their difficulties become apparent. There’s an argument here for children to learn English using phonetics as Mr Stringer proposes, since if you use phonetics from early on you should be able to cope with longer words later, but phonetics are not the full story.

My own personal experience of dyslexia or learning difficulty is a short-term working memory and audio-loop deficit. To briefly describe this: the audio-loop is that part of your cognition/memory which you use when listening and can be thought of as a continuous loop of audio tape. That is by itself it can only hold a finite amount of information that you hear. This is aptly demonstrated in the number sequence task which was included as part of the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) and the WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Essentially a short series of random digits between 0 and 9 are read in sequence to you and you recite them back, the length of the sequence increases until you start consistently making mistakes. Most individuals can recall on average 7 give or take 2.

Working memory is that part of your cognition which you use to manipulate information. Using the number sequence task again to demonstrate, the next step is to do it again, but to recite the sequences in reverse. Working memory is the part of your cognition that allows you to rearrange the numbers in reverse… and I never do well at this compared to others.

I know the turning point for me was the advent of personal computers and getting one just before going to university. No longer was it a case of having to write an essay 5 or so times each time altering something different. I suddenly had a tool which could replace my working memory deficiency and could allow me to quickly manipulate and organise my thoughts. It was a government grant that allowed me to get a machine and achieve what I am now, my parents would have not have been able afford it.

What’s interesting is that was not until my partner of a many years started teaching me German that she appreciated the problems I have with working memory and my frustration I have at mentally manipulating so many different variables relating to the German language when trying to compose something.

One bit of evidence that Mr Stringer brings to support his case that dyslexia does not exist is:

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.

The problem here is that what the UK uses as a measure of literacy is probably very different to what these countries use as a measure of literacy.

So yes dyslexia does exist, but we have to address each case differently. When my dyslexia was discovered I had to attend remedial lessons at a specialist centre and part of this was being taught phonetics, so I would welcome Mr Stringer’s proposal for children to be taught phonetics. However it needs to be remembered it is not a cure all, just something that would help and I’ve yet to find out what the arguments are against teaching phonetics. There must be some.