When A Child Is Labeled Dyslexic

by Dr. Patrick Groff
NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.

It is an unfortunate, yet easily demonstrated fact that public school officials often are not eager to be held accountable for instances of educational malpractice that they commit. A current prime example of this evasion of responsibility by educators is the reading instruction crisis in California.

For the past decade, California teachers have been indoctrinated by their state department of education, professors of education and inservice training sessions into an uncritical acceptance of the “Whole Language” (WL) approach to reading instruction. Over this time, WL instruction became more popular in California than in any other state. As a consequence, however, California students became the least capable readers in the nation.

The California legislature recently took this deplorable situation in hand, and passed laws that prohibit conduct of the worse excesses of WL teaching. However, there never has been any public apology from the California Department of Education, the state superintendents of public instruction, and the others who created the reading instruction crisis, for their role in denying millions of children full opportunity to learn to read.

In this regard, when school children fail to learn to read it often is charged by school officials that their nonsuccess is caused by a defect in the student, and/or his/her parents. A particularly insidious example of this attempt by educators to transfer responsibility for their malpractice away from themselves and onto children, is the custom of labeling children who fail to learn to read properly as dyslexic.

A child with dyslexia, it is commonly held, has personal problems that prevent the school from teaching him/her to read. In WL classes, for instance, a child’s reading disability thus is attributed to his/her innate or learned shortcomings, and never to the fact that WL consistently has been proved experimentally to be an inferior instructional approach.

There have been several strong protests of this negative attitude of schools toward accepting responsibility for creating students’ reading problems. The schools should not be allowed to escape having to assume liability for their failures to teach children to read by blaming their student victims, it is reasoned. A notable book to this effect was that by Gerald Coles, The Learning Mystique (Pantheon, 1987).

Another remarkable text to this effect of late is that by professor of special education Louise Spear-Swerling (Southern Connecticut State) and psychology professor Robert Sternberg (Yale), Off Track: When Poor Readers Become “Learning Disabled” (Westview, 1996). For parents whose children have been classified by the schools as dyslexic, this book is required reading.

The text compellingly documents the fact that dyslexia is not a medical ailment. There is little or no basis for claims that youngsters who are labeled dyslexic have an intrinsic biological disorder, e.g., neurological dysfunction. There are no reliable, precise measurements of dyslexia, as there are for high blood pressure, for example.

Moreover, definitions of dyslexia commonly either are so vague or so disparate that they may be interpreted quite differently by those who consult them. What supposedly is dyslexia will even vary from state to state, or school district to school district. As Off Track notes, “a child may achieve a dramatic ‘cure’ for RD [dyslexia] just by moving!”

Then, the recommended treatment of dyslexic children turns out to be the kind of teaching all children require to best learn to read. All beginning readers need direct and systematic teaching that develops their conscious awareness of the speech sounds in spoken words (their phonemic or phonological awareness), and how letters are distinctive one from another. They need to be taught in an explicit fashion how the alphabet represents speech sounds (phonics information), and how to apply this knowledge to decode written words (to convert their letters into speech sounds).

All novice readers also need much practice applying their newly gained phonics skills with decodable words in stories and expository texts. A decodable word is one a child has been prepared ahead of time to sound out (decode) through phonics teaching. To comprehend these texts well, students’ vocabulary knowledge, awareness of the way written materials are organized, and what to do when they cannot comprehend when reading, also must be expanded.

Those who diagnose children as having dyslexia try to defend themselves by saying that they have revealed the primary cause of the child’s reading malady. However, the “exclusionary” criteria applied in this regard are defined too imprecisely to be reliable. For example, it is said a child only has dyslexia if s/he is two grades behind in reading. Seldom, if ever, however, is it ascertained whether the supposed dyslexic child has been provided appropriate reading instruction. Moreover, two years behind in grade three for students is quite a different matter than for students in grade nine.

It further is claimed that diagnoses of dyslexia rule out children who, among other characteristics, have emotional problems, are culturally or socioeconomically disadvantaged, are mentally retarded or are neglected by their parents. However, the difficulty of obtaining precise and valid statistics on these factors is readily apparent. And, in the practice of labeling children as dyslexic they frequently are ignored. So, it often turns out that boys, emotionally maladjusted children, and those from low-income families are declared to be dyslexic far more often than are girls, well- adjusted children, and those from affluent families.