Sometimes, academia calls for a thick skin, particularly if you’re notorious for denouncing an entire area of research.
In the case of Prof Joe Elliot, the subject of his doubts – dyslexia – has also formed the backbone of his own career. I met him at a recent ACAMH conference on dyslexia in Cardiff to find why he’s so against the label.
“It’s a term that means all things to all people,” he said.
The broad application of the dyslexia diagnosis, and the resultant dilution of its meaning, is just one aspect of this area of research and practice that frustrates Joe. As well as contending that the diagnosis is inconsistently applied, depending on the context and motivations of the professional involved, Joe doubts whether dyslexia exists as a single condition at all.
“What we haven’t learnt yet is any way of differentiating in a meaningful, scientific way between a dyslexic child and a non-dyslexic poor reader,” he said. “We’ve got two kids reading two or three years below their age, what are the criteria that you can use to say one has dyslexia and one doesn’t?” he said. “No one’s done that yet. Until they do that I think it’s a load of chicken shit.”
Understandably, his dissenting views have caused some friction in the dyslexia community, although he seems comfortable wearing the controversy.
“I had dinner with the trustees of the British Dyslexia Association – it was like Lucifer being invited to the chapel choir concert,” he said.
Apart from the lack of specificity in the way the diagnosis is applied, Joe is also wary of the effect it has on those who have trouble reading, but for various reasons, miss out on the benefits of a diagnosis.
“They don’t get resources that could go to a system-wide intervention for poor readers, those resources go to the individuals who get these labels,” he said.
Joe gives examples of dyslexia diagnoses given by university disability teams on the basis of students’ mental processing speeds, or by school teachers at independent schools on the basis of working memory problems.
In both cases what is being tested is a cognitive faculty that is thought to underpin dyslexia, rather than an actual measure of reading ability, he said. He believes this focus on unproven links to brain functions that are only tangential to reading ability also undermines the effectiveness of interventions.
“You put kids in front of a computer an hour a day doing working memory tasks and they’ll get better at it, but it’s not transferable,” he said.
“Imagine we had a tennis ball and we stood in the middle of this hall and tried to hit a pillar all day,” he said. “Ultimately, we’d probably get quite good at it, would it actually cause you to become better at tennis? Probably not.”
Although the ‘dyslexic’ university student who gets a free laptop or the pupil who gets extra time in a test may be deserving of such benefits, Joe believes that assigning need in this way can entrench existing patterns of disadvantage.
“If you give the diagnosis of dyslexia everyone loves you. Parents love you, the school’s happy – they might get more resources – the kid’s happy,” he said. “Everyone’s happy, except for a kid in a tower block in Liverpool or Peckham who just seen as a thick kid and gets no help.”
He suggests an alternative approach, based on more narrowly-defined reading difficulties and interventions tailored to address these.
“We should be talking about the particular difficulties we’re concerned with and identifying which of these we should be putting resources into,” he said.
He acknowledges that other areas of practice may also suffer from overly broad diagnostic criteria, but has no misgivings about his own choice of target.
“I do think dyslexia is the most crap of all,” he said.
Hopefully, the battle he continues to wage will lead to better support for those who struggle to read, regardless of how they’re labelled.