Some experts say “dyslexia” does not exist. It’s a figment. Meanwhile, “dyslexia” organizations stridently claim that 20% of all children have “dyslexia.” Maybe even 25%.
Here is a very odd chasm, indeed. On the one hand, not real. On the other hand, an epidemic even now destroying millions of kids.
Another intriguing thing about “dyslexia” is that people who think they have it do not like being told they don’t. Try to think of another disease or disorder where the victims, told they are not victims, will insist they are. Cancer or herpes? People are overjoyed to find they don’t have it. But with “dyslexia,” its alleged victims insist emphatically that, yes, they have it and don’t you dare say otherwise.
Already we sense the outlines of something bizarre and twilight-zonish.
Significantly, “dyslexia” is almost impossible to define. It’s not one thing, like a tumor. It’s more a semantic blur, like “UFO phenomena.” Turns out, “dyslexia” is just a fancy Greek word for not-reading. Much like “dysfunctional” means not-functioning--who knows why? Millions of children who aren’t good at reading are labeled “dyslexic,” as if that’s a conclusion. Not so. We still have no idea what is actually wrong, and neither do the people who so promiscuously abuse this term.
Suppose a boy walks in shivering, An expert says: He is “dys-caloric.” Which tells us what? That he was playing in the snow? That he had a terrifying dream? Or that he has a fever? We need to know, because cause is everything. Cause tells us what sort of shivering we are witnessing.
With regard to reading, we need to know why a child is having trouble. Is the failure in the student’s head; or is the failure in the school’s methods? Simply putting a fancy name on a problem, as if that’s the end-point, is dishonest and unhelpful. Indeed, “dyslexia” organizations and school officials would like the word “dyslexia” to be the termination of all thought and discussion. “Your kid is dyslexic--that’s it, nothing more to think about.” Which is disingenuous. There’s everything to think about. Let’s start.
The word “dyslexia” is wonderfully soft, vague, and medical-sounding. That seems to be its main appeal and why it can bamboozle parents into silence. It gives children an odd distinction they can call their own. It reveals nothing, and blinds all.
Note that 60 years ago the word was hardly used. Children with reading problems were said to suffer from hundreds of different problems. You would probably be surprised to find that many dozens of books were written to explain the myriad of factors said to cause poor reading: bad eyesight, weak hearing, chaotic family life, psychological problems, bad teeth, low IQ, depression, guilt, neuroses, bad parents, endocrine problems, bad nutrition, brain damage, difficult siblings, word-blindness, tonsils, adenoids--anything that could possibly be a problem for a child has, in fact, been offered as a cause for poor reading. Experts often recommended surgeries or weird contraptions intended to alter, for example, eye movements. You can’t fully appreciate the craziness in American education until you look at what the professors came up with 60 years ago in research on reading. Here’s one expert’s opinion quoted in “Why Pupils Fail In Reading” by Professor Helen Robinson (1946): “’To put the matter in a nutshell, it appears that in order to avoid difficulties in reading and writing one should be left-eyed and left-handed, or right-eyed and right-handed, and preferably the latter.’” The book goes on in that mode for 249 pages.
Long story short, the Education Establishment has now conflated all these alleged causes, which tended to be specific and thus testable and disprovable, under the one word “dyslexia,” which tends to be vague and not disprovable. How convenient.
It’s clear that the Education Establishment, for 70 years, has been doing a lousy job at teaching children to read and was always shamelessly eager to grab at phony, pseudo-scientific explanations for their failures. Likewise, they were always in a great hurry to blame the victims. Not a pattern, all in all, that inspires confidence.
Remarkably, even though our self-proclaimed experts would consider a dozen new theories before breakfast as to why children could not read, they were all agreed that no one should consider an alternative method of instruction. Isn’t that the first thing a sincere and objective educator would consider?
Finally, the main question is always: why can’t a kid read? Is there something wrong with the child’s brain. That’s what the International Dyslexia Association claims. Or is it simply that schools insist on using improper methods to teach reading? As a Mount Everest of evidence suggests.
How should reading be taught--that is the essence of the debate, the essence of the so-called Reading Wars. Should we teach English as if it’s a phonetic language, which it is? Or should we pretend that English words are visual symbols, or shapes, that children must memorize--this being the central claim of Whole Word?
Now, it’s a matter of record: the experts pushing Whole Word concede that children can memorize only 100-200 sight-words per year. So even if everything is on track, the children know only 1,000 words as they reach middle school, and are thus less than semi-literate at the age of 12. So Whole Word, by its own claims, is a GUARANTEE of low literacy. Worse, many children cannot retain even 100 sight-words a year with automaticity, i.e. instant recall. So Whole Word all too often becomes a blueprint for almost no literacy. Why would any sane person endorse what amounts to planned illiteracy?
But it’s even worse than that. As children struggle to memorize new sight-words, their sight-vocabulary becomes increasingly jumbled. New material drives out old material. Fragments of words swim in their memories. The brain becomes confused about how to process print, and reacts in weird, unpleasant ways. Words may appear to slide on the page. Every excursion into print is like walking in a fun house. The frightening kind. Students become discouraged early; and many give up. At this point, the kids are labeled “dyslexic,” as if this condition were always there and the school just now discovered it!
Whole Word requires huge amounts of memorization. But memorizing designs of any kind is difficult, tedious work. (It’s much the same difficulty whether you’re memorizing coins, faces, paintings, cars, insects, logos, or sight-words.)
Imagine that each week you’re introduced to 10 new people; and you’re expected to remember their names. Now you’re in the second grade and you’re expected to know instantly the names of 200 people, let’s say. By the fourth or fifth grade, you’re expected to know the names of 500 people. Think back to when you attended a really big meeting or convention. Recall how difficult it was to name every face with certainty. Recall also the tension, the fear, at being constantly put on the spot by each new person. But in social situations at least you have a few seconds to organize your thoughts. Reading must occur much faster than that. You have to name three of four sight-words a second. So imagine you’re expected to walk through this huge mob of people, a high school reunion, for example, and you have to instantly say, “Jane, Mary, Joe, Harry, Archie, Kate...” at reading speed. Trouble is, even names you’ve known for many years can refuse to come to the surface. Reading stops.
(On the other hand, imagine for a second that all these people have name tags. Think how easy life is now. You don’t have to carry information in your brain. That’s what phonics is like--name tags. The information is in the words on the page, not in your head. But with whole-words, there is nothing in the word that confirms what its name is. You have to bring it up from your memory, precisely as when you see a possibly familiar face. “Oh... hi...uhhh...you’re...uhhh?...Terry??” Probably that’s happened a hundred times in everyone’s life. That’s what reading is like for people forced to learn with sight-words.)
Now we come to an interesting question: when you cannot recall all those names instantly, are you suffering from “dyslexia”???
Is it fair to pin a label on you when you are unable to do things that virtually nobody can do? Really, don’t you instead deserve the label “perfectly normal human”? Arguably, most “dyslexics” deserve exactly that title.
The majority of people would have great difficulty naming instantly as many as 1,000 faces, cars, paintings, etc. But 1,000, when it comes to reading, is a very small vocabulary. We need 25,000 minimum. Now you see the magnitude of the project, the hopelessness of the quest, the idiocy of the Whole Word approach, and how all the ordinary kids in the second, third and fourth grade will simply be destroyed. Why not just beat their heads against a wall? Would that not be more merciful than slowly entangling their brains in a reading scheme that works only for those with super-memories? And the worst of it is, the more years the child tries, the harder it is to escape. The holistic reflex (i.e., seeing words as wholes) becomes locked in. The child sees a word-shape and tries to name it or guess its name (as opposed to sounding it out). At that point real literacy is for the most part a figment.
Now, to put all this in perspective, let’s consider how quickly real reading instruction unfolds. Marva Collins, one of our great educators, ran a school in the Chicago ghetto, as it was then called. For more than 30 years she took the most disadvantaged of the disadvantaged. She claims that she taught “all’ of them to read by Christmas of their first year, no matter whether they were 4, 5, 6 or 7 years old. So where’s the “dyslexia”?
Meanwhile, Siegfried Engelmann, author of “How To Teach A Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons,” claims that his instructors taught thousands of children to read, even children with IQs below 80. All became readers by the end of first grade. Where’s the “dyslexia”?
Finally, Mona McNee, author of “The Great Reading Disaster” and a teacher of reading in England for more than 40 years, says it best: “All children, apart from the blind, profoundly deaf and brain-damaged, can learn to read within two years, while still in the infant school [which ends at age 7]. Reading schemes should not go on forever and after two years children should be capable of choosing their own books.”
Note that at the age of three nearly all children learn a much more difficult skill than reading: they learn to speak a language. Any genuine deficiencies would be found at that time. Children showing up at school are rarely defective. So it should be no surprise that “all,” according to these experts, can learn to read if properly taught.
So here is the broad view of the situation: on the one side, children routinely learning to read comfortably and confidently by the age of seven; and on the other side, children who even at the age of 12 or 14 can’t actually read and may have already peaked. A stark and ugly contrast.
Here we come again to the big riddle: the Education Establishment’s refusal to drop a clearly flawed method. They insisted upon the latitude to create failure in every direction. But they didn’t want their methods blamed. What to do? Blame the children, of course. The children are said to be flawed; they are genetically messed up. Even the best intentioned teachers cannot hope to turn these second-tier children into readers. It’s only appropriate that these kids be considered handicapped and labeled “dyslexic.” In applying that label, the Education Establishment creates what they think is an ironclad alibi. Failure is not their fault; it’s the fault of these defective children. What a trick: it’s only after these experts get their hands on the kids that the kids become damaged! But you aren’t supposed to notice the true sequence.
Bottom line: Whole Word is the crime. “Dyslexia” is probably best understood as the cover-up.
Here is an extraordinary aspect of this whole story: all the way back in 1955, Rudolf Flesch in “Why Johnny Can’t Read” explained the entire mystery and how to eliminate most reading problems. But still the Reading Wars raged on. Samuel Blumenfeld, another of our great educators, has also analyzed the crisis very clearly in several books. But still the Education Establishment was able to enshrine Whole Word up until roughly 2000. At that point, having created widespread functional illiteracy, they had to agree that some phonics was helpful. But even today, in many public schools, children in early grades are forced to learn several hundred sight-words and so the tragedy continues.
The excuse for this continuing malpractice is a cliché endlessly repeated: “There is no one best way to teach reading.” (In his 1981 book “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read,” Flesch listed “Ten Alibis” that schools hide behind; #8 was “No One Method Is Best.”)
Sight-words, in large or small doses, cause problems. Here, somewhat more technically, is why. English must be read left-to-right only. Whole Word encourages children to scan words back-and-forth, up-and-down (that’s how we look at a face), until words are identified. It’s the back-and-forth gyrations that create the cognitive disorientation that is commonly associated with “dyslexia.” When the back-and-forth is wired into the brain, tests will invariably find -- surprise! -- that the children have a reading disability. Maybe so but it’s school-induced. (At first it’s physically based, but it will soon lead to emotional problems such as anxiety, self-loathing, and ADHD.)
Real reading is one-directional, always moving forward. Whole Word “reading” is characterized by lots of dithering. It’s precisely this dithering that school officials end up labeling “dyslexia.”
Whole Word theory claims that children can learn to look-and-say, that is, name sight-words at a glance, instantly. In practice, however, reaching this kind of mastery for even 1,000 words is very difficult for most children. More to the point, the process unfolds over MANY years; and all during that time the children are most definitely NOT naming very many words automatically. Mostly, they are scanning and RESCANNING, checking and RECHECKING. Their eyes are darting horizontally and vertically, as they try to confirm in their memory that “land” is something to do with music but “hand” is where you build a house. No, maybe it’s the shape with the little ball near the beginning, “band.” No, maybe...
This anarchy and uncertainty is exactly what reading is like for Whole Word students. The gurus of this voodoo actually tell the children to check ahead, to glance back, to look at the picture up at the top, to compare the words on the page with other words they know. Reading-wise, this is destructive chaos; most of what is happening is wasted motion. Please put your own mind into this scenario. Imagine your eyes searching forward and backward over some unfamiliar or half-familiar words. Add up the exhausting effort and misspent time. You will quickly see that English, with all of its similar-looking words, is an unfriendly jungle. Now and then something will pop up that you are 100% sure of --for example, “they” -- but mostly you must deal with similar designs you’re only half-sure of -- “thin...they’ll...them...thus...thorn.” Never forget that Whole Word students, by themselves, have absolutely no way to be certain of anything. All they can do is stare into the depths of their memories and try to find confirmation there that “hand” is the design that has something to do with music. Or is it “land”? Or “band”?
Suppose a brilliant child does master a few thousand sight-words. Simply to pick up a newspaper is to encounter thousands of new and incomprehensible words. Imagine how discouraging that is. (Now you know why a study by The National Endowment for the Arts showed "startling declines" in the number of Americans who read for pleasure.)
All of the above illuminates why the USA is said to have 50 million functional illiterates and more than one million “dyslexics.”
One of the things that makes recovery difficult is that many people, once they’ve identified themselves as “dyslexics,” embrace the label with a vengeance. Told that they don’t, in fact, have a problem, they say: yes I do. They don’t seek help, defiantly assuming they can’t be helped. After all, they’ve been told by “literacy experts” that they were born this way. That’s the power of this evil myth.
I’m a big fan of Jay Leno, but it troubles me when he casually says, “I don’t read much. I have dyslexia...” In saying this, he encourages other victims to accept their fate. Why doesn’t he use his soapbox to guide people toward some possibility of salvation. Most people, younger ones especially, can start over and learn to read properly.
Similarly, I know a local VIP who said: “I don’t read much. It’s hard for me. I’m dyslexic, you know...”
So I asked him, what about the possibility that you have nothing wrong with you, that you were taught with a faulty methods and lied to? Remarkably, he wasn’t interested. Like Leno, he has embraced the damage.
I said, “Perhaps you could use your influence to stop the schools from perpetuating what happened to you.”
He brushed this aside. That’s when I decided to write this article. The evidence seems to be overwhelming that “dyslexia” is a con, a very vicious con, like Whole Word itself. People need to talk about it.
The Education Establishment has made the whole subject of reading so confused that parents have almost no chance of understanding what is being done; the media explain nothing; and the schools dissemble. But here’s one way to boil it all down: if a child is having any trouble learning to read, ask this question first: is this child made to memorize sight-words? If so, that’s very likely the problem.
Reading difficulties, so far as I can tell, become conceptually interesting only when you have a child who was never taught any sight-words, at any stage, and went on to have trouble. This almost never happens, according to Marva Collins, etc. But at least we could say, legitimately for a change, maybe this child has something that can be called “dyslexia.”
Otherwise, it’s much simpler to note that Whole Word instills a wide array of bad habits. Children are encouraged to try to memorize thousands of weird little graphics (aka sight-words), to skip words and guess words, to use picture clues and content clues, to figure things out, as if reading were a crossword puzzle. Kids end up substituting words and reversing words. (It’s grimly funny that “dyslexia” is sometimes defined as children doing any of those things that Whole Word makes them do!)
The safest assumption when a child has trouble reading is that schools are not teaching it properly. They need to emphasize the alphabet and the sounds. It’s so fundamental. If a child understands the concept that symbols on the page stand for sounds, and the child is processing words from left to right, one syllable at a time, the child will learn to read. But Whole Word, for most of its vicious history, told children the alphabet was irrelevant, and that no one should bother with letters, syllables, or sounds.
The leading spokesperson for Whole Word declared flatly: “Readers do not need the alphabet.”
(For more analysis of the reading crisis, see “42: Reading Resources” on the writer’s site Improve-Education.org. Also see “33: How To Help A Non-Reader To Read.”
A short 4-minute graphic video on YouTube sums up many of these points: "The Strange Truth About Dyslexia" ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeFLLnRWROQ ).