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 vision or 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 have not learned 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 the use of poor teaching methods, may go unrecognized and unsolved. We should be much more cautious about using the word disability when we are really talking about an inability, which means a simple lack of skill. There can be many reasons why someone has not acquired a particular skill. Sometimes, the reason is medical. Sometimes, it isn’t. Those are lessons that I learned in childhood.
When I was a preschooler, there was a little boy in our neighborhood who 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 never heard them. Once somebody finally realized that the boy could not hear, the boy 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.
Deafness is a disability. So is blindness. Children who have disabilities of that kind 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 normally. 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 teachers except her art teacher assumed that she was lazy and bad. So they punished and humiliated her for failing to learn. Her teachers had 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 outside tutoring in phonics, and the babysitter was asked to help the child with her phonics homework. Thus, the babysitter ended up learning phonics from the younger child. As a result of these lessons in phonics, both girls quickly caught up to their 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. 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 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? Here’s how the text of a child’s book would look to someone who knows all of the common sight words but does not know phonics:
The whole-word method of teaching reading was invented by Thomas Gallaudet in Connecticut 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 has some sort of “processing disorder.” When he was in public 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 or cerebral palsy, 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?
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 was failing to teach him the basic skills that he will need in college? After all, if the boy had good academic skills, he would never have been given a diagnosis of a learning disability.
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? The special attention and accommodations that he received as a result of his IEP probably allowed him to get better grades, not to mention a higher SAT score, but did they really help him? Did they fail to solve his basic problems, while breeding 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. 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 the opposite problem: an increasing tendency for nearly any behavioral or academic problem in childhood to be blamed on some presumed defect in the child’s brain. Thus, an increasing number of children are receiving some sort of medical-sounding diagnosis, and an increasing number of children are receiving psychiatric medication, simply because they are not learning much in school.
To sort out the truth from the nonsense in education, we must think clearly about the difference between a disability and an inability. The deaf child I described above had obvious inabilities: he could not speak or understand what was said to him. Eventually, it turned out that these inabilities resulted from a major disability: congenital deafness. Clearly, he needed some special schooling to help him develop abilities despite his disability.
Similarly, the girls I described above had an important inability: they could not read. However, this inability was not due to any disability. Their problem was due to a defect in their school: the use of a bad teaching method. This bad 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. As a result, I could read at a 5th grade level by the end of first grade. 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 to label the child as disabled.