The battle over dyslexia

By Sirin Kale for

Julian “Joe” Elliott was training to be an educational psychologist when his supervisor invited him to lunch one day. The year was 1984, and Elliott was 28. As they were eating, Elliott’s supervisor mentioned that he had spent the morning testing a child for dyslexia. He had determined the child was dyslexic, and put her on a programme called Data-Pac, a new approach to teaching literacy which paired teachers with children for individual sessions that taught them how to sound out letter combinations. Elliott asked what he would have recommended if the child hadn’t been dyslexic. His supervisor appeared sheepish. He would have put her on Data-Pac anyway, he said.

Elliott thought that was weird, but what did he know? He qualified as an educational psychologist in 1986 and began practising. Over the next decade, he was often asked to assess children for dyslexia. At this time, most educational psychologists believed that dyslexia was a learning difficulty with a neurological basis, which affected bright children whose difficulties reading and writing could not be explained by the usual factors, such as low IQ, not having attended school or having a chaotic home life. The method for diagnosing dyslexia, known as the discrepancy model, was relatively straightforward: test a child’s IQ and their reading age, and if there was a discrepancy between the two – average-to-high IQ, low literacy – that child was dyslexic. Elliott felt unsure about these assessments. The children he tested for dyslexia all struggled to read and write – that much was clear – but their literacy difficulties manifested in different ways. Elliott was still junior, and he chalked up this sense of uncertainty to imposter syndrome.

In 1998, Elliott co-wrote a guide for teachers working with children with special needs. The book was nominated for the Times Educational Supplement’s academic book of the year award, but if Elliott was being honest with himself, the chapter on dyslexia wasn’t up to much. “It was a bit of a shitty chapter, really,” Elliott told me. “I hadn’t got a handle on it.” Six years later, when his publishers asked him to write a second edition of the book, he was determined to nail the chapter on dyslexia. He was older now, more experienced. He collected every study on dyslexia he could find and started reading.

In his research, Elliott came across one particularly startling paper. In 1964, a young researcher called Bill Yule was sent to the Isle of Wight to carry out fieldwork on dozens of schoolchildren with reading difficulties. Yule was in no doubt that many of the children he studied suffered horrendously in trying to read and write. He saw it firsthand. But Yule – who would become one of the leading educational psychologists of his generation – couldn’t find a pattern of indicators, common to all the children he tested, that would coalesce into a single syndrome called dyslexia. Each child’s literacy problems seemed to be different.

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