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Reading, dyslexia and political footballs


A couple of weeks ago, an academic paper was published that analysed certain results of a long-term study into parents and children and concluded that a range of visual impairments which can affect reading are not substantially more common among children with dyslexia than their non-dyslexic peers. This was reported widely in the media, including a feature on the BBC’s Today programme.

Now, we use the word ‘headlines’ both for the titles of newspaper articles and for summarised key findings of academic studies, but these are two ”˜headlines’ are very different beasts. When a news editor creates one from the other, distortion can creep in. In this instance the news headlines were variations on two rather strident themes: ‘dyslexia has nothing to do with vision’ and ‘coloured filters do not aid dyslexic individuals with reading.’

Back then we were in the middle of the Hay Festival, and the audience at our panel event (and indeed Mairi’s driver from Cardiff Airport) were very interested in the implications of the paper. We are lucky enough to have Bernadette McLean, Principal of the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre on our Board of Directors, and we asked for her take. Bernadette’s answer was interesting on two fronts. Firstly, she sent us links to a range of thoughtful responses to the study. Secondly, she said that she is always loath to comment publicly on ‘political’ matters.

That gave us pause for thought, because Bernadette is right. Reading in general, and dyslexia in particular, are very politicised. Why should this be?

Literacy and politicians

Well, at base, literacy is the cornerstone of success in education. In turn, education is a cornerstone of success in life in our society and therefore literacy is of high interest to politicians. No administration can improve educational attainment and associated life chances without improving literacy. There is a tendency therefore to put two and two together to make five. Literacy is identified simultaneously as the problem and the cure.

A lack of literacy is not the root of the problem of poor life chances across society. In almost all cases it is one result of an intergenerational cycle with multiple causes, effects, and perpetuating factors. To say that increasing literacy increases life chances is true, but to suggest that literacy can be addressed in isolation from all of those other issues, and moreover will negate their effects, is a hideous over-simplification. Literacy is a function, ultimately, of language. Language is a function of highly developed cognition. Children’s cognitive development is dependent on a vast and complex range of factors – diet, early care, genetics and more. Those who struggle with literacy will tend to have experienced deficits in one, more or all of these areas, and these must also be tackled in order to break the cycle that includes poor literacy.

Within this politicised context, dyslexia brings its own issues. It is unrelated to ability and can affect the learning of the most or the least able. It is called a learning difficulty or a learning difference depending on the preference of the individual or organisation. It can’t be ‘cured’ because it isn’t an illness. It’s a difference in the way an individual’s brain undertakes some processing tasks, and it can adversely affect the literacy skills necessary to get on in life. That’s a quirk of fate. Half of the world can’t sing for toffee, and it doesn’t matter. But our society values literacy so highly and requires it so often that a difficulty accessing the written word has to be written into Equalities legislation as a disability.

‘A middle class problem’

The politics of dyslexia relate to the politics of literacy in many ways. Both are regularly presented and/or dismissed as issues for ”˜education’ to ‘fix’ despite a lack of resources with which to do so. But there are also differences. Dyslexia tends to have a profile as a ‘middle class problem’ and parents of dyslexic children can be portrayed as troublemakers, malcontents or delusional. This is in contrast to literacy issues; since these are closely related to social exclusion, affected individuals are less likely to want or be able to make their voices heard.

In the dyslexia world there are competing agendas among charities as they bid for scarce resources. Commercial interests get in on the action (even us!) with expensive programmes and gadgets (not us). Researchers fight for space on the airwaves and front pages to promote the latest theory. Painful experiences abound, and these aren’t always channelled in the most helpful manner. Events for parents of children grappling with the school system here and now, for example, are often hijacked by long and drawn-out tales of educational woe in the 1950s.

It can be hard for parents to know where to turn, and their experience can vary from a complete lack of information ”“ re how their local authority might help, for example ”“ to an overload of competing advice. In terms, then, of the study, here is our attempt to sift through the ‘politics’…

Questionable assumptions in news reporting

News reports of the study tended to assume that dyslexia is widely understood as a visual issue and specifically one of visual acuity ”“ that is to say relating to the functions of the eye itself, such as focus and muscle control.

In fact dyslexia is widely understood as a neurological issue ”“ that is to say relating to the brain. It is generally defined as a range differences in processing and recall primarily affecting language and reading but also a range of other functions.

There are different types of visual issues

The study did not focus on visual processing or visual perceptive issues – i.e. the way(s) in which the brain deals with visual information. These issues include scotopic sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome/visual stress, and are not indicative of issues with the eye itself. Sufferers may find that coloured filters alleviate perceptions of glare or movement on the page, or other discomfort.

Dyslexia and visual issues

Some academics including Professor John Stein use the term ‘visual dyslexia’ for a range of visual processing issues they identify within the continuum of neurological difference denoted by the term ”˜dyslexia’.

Most of the larger dyslexia organisations believe that these are discrete issues although they may co-occur with dyslexia. A key reason for maintaining the distinction is that some individuals need support in relieving visual stress AND dyslexia as defined above.

It is therefore true to say that coloured filters will not help individuals who have dyslexia if they do not also have visual processing issues. But nothing in the analysis negates the considerable body of evidence showing that coloured filters do help those with visual processing issues, whether or not they also have dyslexia. Some individuals with dyslexia may therefore be helped by use of filters in rather the same way they would be helped by glasses if they were long-sighted. Neither the filter nor the glasses will combat dyslexia but they will combat other issues also affecting the individual’s reading.

Conclusions to take away

Testing for visual acuity issues is advisable; these may then be addressed, or eliminated as a cause of reading problems. The study found that 16% of children with dyslexia and 11% without had visual acuity issues. That’s one or two children in every ten who may need aids such as glasses.

Your child may have a visual perception or processing issue and this may be helped by coloured filters or glasses. This is not currently defined as ”˜dyslexia’ by most people.

Visual perception/processing may be your child’s only issue OR (s)he may ALSO have dyslexia, i.e. a neurological issue affecting language, reading and/or other tasks (e.g. tying laces or telling the time). The filters/glasses will not help with this. (S)he will need special teaching and support as well as the filters/glasses.

The study did not establish whether children with dyslexia are more likely to have a visual processing problem than children without dyslexia. The Helen Arkell Centre and others believe that this may be the case.

It is also worth remembering that reading skills develop with reading practice; individuals who struggle with reading tend not to build up this practice.

The definition of dyslexia is fairly widely accepted but it remains a blanket term for a range of neurological differences and as such is open to some interpretation. In the end of the day, the point of defining dyslexia is to help ensure that individuals can access the support they need to achieve their full potential. The purpose of excluding certain issues from the definition is to reduce confusion and ensure that support is tailored correctly, not to denote other issues as less significant and sufferers less requiring of support.

The Study and Barrington Stoke

At Barrington Stoke we have always used a tinted background to reduce the contrast between black and white. Our rationale for doing so that individuals with visual stress/scotopic sensitivity/Irlen syndrome may perceive ”˜glare’ or ”˜movement’ when reading black text on white due to the high contrast. We have never defined this as ”˜dyslexia’. When we created our approach and tested our page tints, we worked with vision specialists as well as dyslexia specialists.

Our font, spacing and layout are designed to help overcome some of the issues facing a child with a visual acuity problem. For example our increased line spacing is designed to help stop a child with poor eye muscle control dropping a line when encountering ascenders and descenders very close together. Again, we have never considered these issues as falling within the definition of dyslexia.

In our many years of publishing we have found that modifications for visual perceptive disorders, visual acuity deficits and/or dyslexia help any reader towards an easier reading experience. And of course that’s our aim: to help more children read more.

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