Durham University education expert Professor Julian Elliott is hoping to persuade the educational establishment to bring in new policies to help problem readers. He spoke to Health and Education Editor Barry Nelson
SINCE he published The Dyslexia Debate earlier this year, Durham University education expert Professor Julian Elliott has attracted a lot of flak from critics.
His book – five years in the making and co-authored with a worldexpert on genetics at Yale University in the US – drove a metaphorical coach and horses through the whole idea of dyslexia.
After his comprehensive review of all of the evidence about dyslexia – defined by the Oxford dictionary as a “disorder in involving difficulty in learning to read” – Prof Elliott concluded that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that dyslexia existed.
Instead the professor of education advises schools to make greater efforts to identify pupils who are struggling to read and to give them the intensive extra support they need to get their reading up to speed.
Now Prof Elliott is on a mission to convince Government officials to set aside existing policies on dyslexia and to switch resources to breadand- butter reading support.
He has also been on his travels, preaching the same message to educationalists in Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands and the United States.
“I think people are beginning to understand the arguments now,” he told The Northern Echo.
“There are powerful reasons why people wanted the dyslexia label.
People have told me when I was diagnosed with dyslexia it made me feel better.
“All of these things may be true, but it doesn’t make them scientifically valid. My job is to be a scientist about it. If it is scientifically flawed, then I have to say that.”
One of the ways currently used to treat dyslexia is by fitting glasses with coloured lenses but Prof Elliott says there is “no evidence” indicating they will help people with severe reading difficulties. The criticism that greeted his book did not surprise him. “I knew what was going to come at me. I was ready for it but we did have some rather strange things.
“I got a letter from an 11-year-old girl who goes to a special school for children with dyslexia which told me she was very upset that I had told her she was lazy.
“At no point would I say a child was lazy, I never even used that word to describe kids.
“What I have said is that if you struggle how to learn to read you can lose your motivation but that is not the same thing as saying someone is lazy.”
Prof Elliott said he suffered some abuse on Twitter as well but shrugged this off as “water off a duck’s back.”
What impressed him was that most of the people who were attacking him had not read his book.
“I have not had an email from anyone who has read the book and then been critical,” he says.
He was also grateful to the American Pediatric Association for backing his no-nonsense approach to the existence of dyslexia.
But he accused one of the largest dyslexia organisations of refusing him the right of reply to hostile comments made on their website – even though he is a member himself.
While the dialogue with Westminster has begun he is under no illusions of how difficult it is going to be to shift entrenched positions. “A few years the science and technology select committee did a review on dyslexia and agreed with what I have been saying, in fact I gave evidence to them but the Department for Education at that time wasn’t responsive at all.
“There are a lot of people who put pressure on government to keep this position and there are a lot of vested interests in the dyslexia lobby.
While the professor said it was “not straightforward that the science will win out” he aims to keep pushing to change policies.
So what advice would he give to parents who may be concerned that a child is having serious difficulties in learning to read.
“You have to make sure the school is giving the child as much support as you possibly can. You also need a good assessment to see if they really have got a problem with their reading level.”
Prof Elliott says parents can request an educational psychologist to look at the child’s reading but insists that schools should be more than capable of testing a child’s reading ability.
As far as providing extra help with reading, Prof Elliott says it is vital that this is done by someone who knows what they are doing.
“It is really important that this job is done well.
“Research suggests that unless you get it right the child doesn’t get any benefit.”