Dyslexia and Literacy: Theory and Practice

Dyslexia and Literacy: Theory and Practice

by Gavin Reid, Janice Wearmouth
There are many examples of good practices in literacy which have not fully impacted upon the ways in which we teach children with dyslexia.

Dyslexia and Literacy: Theory and Practice provides the reader with an understanding of the most recent theoretical positions in dyslexia and literacy and how these may be applied in practice. The book critically considers the


There are many examples of good practices in literacy which have not fully impacted upon the ways in which we teach children with dyslexia.

Dyslexia and Literacy: Theory and Practice provides the reader with an understanding of the most recent theoretical positions in dyslexia and literacy and how these may be applied in practice. The book critically considers the current notions of literacy, provides an understanding of literacy concepts and re-appraises what we mean by literacy. The implications of this for dyslexic children are immense as it means that assessment and support can be more embedded in the curriculum context. The role of professionals such as learning support co-ordinators and educational psychologists are discussed within current legislative and theoretical frameworks. Classroom intervention and approaches to dealing with the diverse needs presented by dyslexic children are addressed by examining individual education plans and the development of differentiated curricula in schools. Gavin Reid and Janice Wearmouth have assembled an international field of renowned experts whose text will be a core source for university students on reading and dyslexia courses and is a set book for Open University course E801. Trainee teachers, special educational needs co-ordinators and educational psychologists will also find this volume of great value.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"…anyone interested in exploring more fundamental sensory deficits as a possible cause of dyslexia, along with theoretical hypotheses, should read [this book]…" (Times Educational Supplement, 3 October 2003)

"…of interest to students in initial teacher training…of value to teachers in inclusive schools…" (Educational Review, Vol 56(1), Feb 2004)

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Dyslexia and Literacy

Theory and Practice

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-471-48634-5

Chapter One


Angela J. Fawcett


At the start of the new millennium, considerable progress has been made in identifying the causes of dyslexia and providing intervention to break into the cycle of failure. My brief in writing this chapter is to consider how best we might consolidate this progress by working together to influence policy and practice for dyslexia over the next decade. This is not an easy task, nor one to be undertaken lightly. However, I have been able to draw on two sources here in support of my position, to ensure that the approach I advocate is fruitful. Firstly, the call from Rod Nicolson at the Fifth BDA Conference to consider targets for dyslexia research for the next decade in terms of unity of purpose. Nicolson (2001) noted that "the stage is set for undertaking ambitious, multi-disciplinary, multi-perspective projects aimed at redefining the field of dyslexia and learning difficulties as the field of learning abilities". Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the spirit of collegiality and consensus which emerged from the round-table discussions of causal theories, diagnosis and intervention, which concluded the conference. It was my task to act as discussant, drawingtogether comments from the causal theories round-table panel and the floor, summarising the issues arising to the satisfaction of all involved, and feeding back this information to the plenary session. This was a challenging task. Feedback from the three round-table sessions concluded that significant progress had been made in working together towards a common goal. Transforming this co-operative spirit into a reality, which can affect policy and practice, forms the new challenge for dyslexia research.

My plan for the chapter is threefold: first, to consider potential causes of confusion in dyslexia research and practice; secondly, to outline the progress that has been made in theory, diagnosis, support and policy over the past decade; and finally, to develop a series of targets for the next decade. Throughout the chapter, I will give my personal view of how to make progress in dyslexia research, with the key here that clarity and unity of purpose lead to success. In my role as an academic I advocate an open approach, with all the dyslexia community pulling together and respecting each others' viewpoints. This is reinforced by my role as parent of a dyslexic child, which leads me to think that no one theory will account for all the manifestations of dyslexia. It is our role here to work together towards greater understanding of the range of manifestations and theories which represent the truth about dyslexia.

The function of this chapter is be an introduction to the rest of this book. I shall therefore introduce a series of themes, which will be returned to and discussed in greater depth in other chapters in this volume.


This striking analogy emerged at the Fifth International BDA Conference, to critical acclaim from the audience. In his keynote address, Rod Nicolson described the pool of different perspectives involved in dyslexia research as an "ecosystem", a group with overlapping but often conflicting needs attempting to inhabit the same space. Inevitably, failure to recognise and respect the differences between these needs has led to something of an impasse. With an increased understanding of the role that each one plays, we now have the potential to unite the dyslexia ecosystem into a dyslexia world. The associated surge in power for dyslexia research could fuel our joint targets for the next decade.


One of the major tensions in dyslexia research has been the range of potentially conflicting viewpoints which we are trying to accommodate. These might include those of researchers and practitioners; parents and teachers; teachers and educational psychologists; schools and local education authorities; local education authorities and governments-all have different agendas, and much of the time these force them into opposition. Moreoever, in order to secure funding, it is common for researchers to emphasise the differences between their approaches rather than the commonalities among them. This is by no means the most fruitful approach, indeed uniting under a common banner has led to a surge in research funding in the US over the past two decades. We would like to advocate unity of purpose in adopting a broader perspective to the manifestations of dyslexia. In our view, such an approach has the potential for a "win-win" situation, whereby substantial funding is available to all to quantify the impact of the different theories and their application into practice. We might envisage the scenario where routine use of early screening tests detected problems pre-school, leading to proactive individual support, preventing the development of the reading deficits which characterise dyslexia. A similar approach might be adopted with adult dyslexia, with fuller screening and expert subsequent assessment, specifically for job-related goals. The net result would be greater awareness of the requirements for "dyslexia-friendly" practice, both in education and at work. These innovations would satisfy everyone involved in the dyslexia ecosystem-dyslexic people, support specialists, schools, educational psychologists, funding bodies and the government. Above all, we need to show that the costs of such a scheme would be far outweighed by the savings, linked to a successful, effective and cost-effective policy for dyslexia throughout the lifespan. Interestingly enough, the government have recently established that pre-school intervention can reduce the costs of support by a factor of 1:8 (Department of Health/Home Office, 2001). These are the factors on which we need to work if we are to influence both policy and practice.


In scientific research one of the most important distinctions is between cause and description. Typically, a reasonably complete description of the facts is needed, which allows researchers to derive hypotheses which can account for these facts. The hypothesis is then evaluated against new data, and scientific progress is made towards the true explanation. Naturally enough, problems can arise if hypotheses are built on incomplete data, because any characterisation of the difficulties is only partial.

In our talks, we often use the "medical model" of abnormal development, which distinguishes between cause, symptom and treatment. An appropriate analogy here might be with allergies. The same allergy can lead to different symptoms in different people, and the mechanisms are poorly understood. It is therefore necessary to use further, more sensitive tests, administered by a trained specialist, to determine the true underlying cause, and thus the appropriate treatment. Of course, there are very wide differences in the motivation of different protagonists within the dyslexic ecosystem. Practitioners are primarily concerned with treatment, educational psychologists with symptoms, and theorists with the discovery of the underlying cause(s). It is clear that, despite these different perspectives, a full understanding demands the investigation and integration of these three aspects. For example, in order to develop an applied test for early diagnosis of dyslexia, it is necessary to build on theoretical insights into the predictors of dyslexia which lie outside reading. Otherwise, we have no option but to return to the system where we wait for children to fail to learn to read, with all the associated trauma and negative impacts on self-esteem, which can damage children for life.

A further important discrimination is between the three "levels" of theory: the biological, the cognitive and the behavioural levels (Frith, 1997, and see Chapter 3 by Frith). Symptoms such as poor reading or rhyming deficits represent the behavioural level. Theories are explanations at the cognitive level; these might include deficits in working memory, phonological awareness, automatisation, and slow processing speed. Finally, the underlying brain mechanism lies at the biological level, with abnormalities in cortical language areas, magnocellular pathways, and the cerebellum. It should be recognised that these levels are different, that none is intrinsically "better" than another, and indeed that any complete explanation must include all three, with the cognitive level providing a necessary link between brain and behaviour.

Finally, let us consider development in terms of Thelen's "ontogenetic landscape" approach (Thelen & Smith, 1994), drawing on themes from developmental cognitive neuroscience. Here we need longitudinal studies of individual children, rather than the cohort approach which has been common in psychology, in order to see how underlying differences in the brain and cognition interact with the environment over time to produce the symptoms of dyslexia.

In summary, in order to develop a mature theory of dyslexia, we need to take on board all these different perspectives, and integrate them within a rich multidisciplinary framework, with specialists in all areas working together towards a common understanding.


One of the most contentious issues from an educational perspective is the concept of the dyslexic child as in some way "special" and deserving different treatment from the equally disadvantaged reading-disabled child. Many educationalists rightly stress the need for equal treatment for non-dyslexic children with special needs (Siegel, 1989). It is by no means clear whether dyslexia is a syndrome, like obesity (Ellis, 1993), or a collection of sub-types (Boder, 1973; Castles & Holmes, 1996) or based on a common "core" deficit (such as phonology). In Miles' (1994) terminology, a debate has arisen between the "splitters" and the "lumpers".

In the 1980s, US dyslexia researchers changed the focus to "reading disability" rather than "learning disability", thus concentrating resources on a painstaking analysis of the reading process rather than of the learning processes which underlie reading. Inevitably, this has led to divisions between researchers trying to find the causes of dyslexia and those trying to find the causes of the reading problems. In line with the analysis above, it should now be clear that both approaches are needed for a mature theory of dyslexia.


In 1990, when we published our early work on automatisation (Nicolson & Fawcett, 1990), the dominant theoretical framework was the phonological deficit, derived from seminal research in the UK by Bradley and Bryant (1983) and by Snowling (1986, and see Chapter 4 in this volume), and in the US by researchers such as Stanovich (e.g. 1988). Indeed, in the US this consensus among dyslexia researchers was instrumental in generating substantial long-term funding via the NICHD Learning Disabilities Program. Phonological awareness deficits, based on abnormalities in the language-processing areas of the brain, were posited as the key to the deficits in grapheme-phoneme translation which characterised dyslexia. The natural solution lay in intensive training in phonological awareness, and research focused almost exclusively on identifying the cause of the phonological difficulties.

By contrast, as the parent of a dyslexic child, I was aware that the deficits in dyslexia included, but extended far beyond, these phonological deficits. Indeed, I had noticed that there were subtle differences in the fluency with which children with dyslexia performed on all tasks, including those in which their performance was to all intents and purposes normal. Crucially, many of these skills were not related to literacy, with motor skills in particular featuring strongly in the work of Augur (1985) and Haslum (1989). Working with Rod Nicolson, whose theoretical background was in theories of learning, it was natural for us to consider all these varied manifestations of dyslexia. We therefore formulated and tested the automatisation deficit hypothesis (DAD)-that dyslexic children have problems in becoming automatic in any skill, whether or not it is related to reading. The most stringent test of the theory was in a domain as far away from language as possible, and so we chose balance. Somewhat to our surprise, and precisely as predicted by the DAD hypothesis, we found that the dyslexic children whom we tested did show problems in balance, especially if they were prevented from concentrating on balancing by having to perform another task at the same time. Interestingly enough, phonological skills are built up in precisely the same way (without explicit instruction) over several years, and therefore this explanation could also be applied to phonological deficits. We argued that the automatisation deficit could provide a broader framework for dyslexia research, integrating the phonological deficits within mainstream theories of learning.

We were somewhat dismayed by the negative attitude of some dyslexia researchers towards our hypothesis. Naively, we had assumed that they would share our excitement at this new perspective, which we hoped would be fruitful for dyslexia research. Eventually, we realised that many researchers had mistakenly assumed that we were advocating training in balance to overcome these automatisation problems in dyslexia. This interpretation had not even entered our minds! By contrast, many practitioners and parents of dyslexic children resonated strongly with our automatisation hypothesis-often with the reaction "That's our Johnny" (Miles, 1983).

However, in 1992 we talked to many influential dyslexia researchers and practitioners for our international survey (Nicolson et al., 1993) on screening for dyslexia in adults. The project involved a literature survey of adult literacy and diagnosis of dyslexia, interviews with UK experts on theoretical and applied aspects of dyslexia, and finally an international questionnaire study with a wide range of dyslexia practitioners and researchers. Most pleasingly, the survey established a clear consensus in the dyslexia community that was particularly impressive given that the respondents were specialists whose opinions spanned the spectrum of approaches to dyslexia and adult literacy. Respondents agreed that testing procedures that do not need a trained clinician could be carried out cost-effectively in adult literacy centres, units for young offenders or job centres. However, they also agreed that a second-stage testing procedure must be available, and that the screening should be integrated within a support framework. This survey strongly influenced our subsequent three-stage Screening-Assessment-Support proposal outlined below.

However, if we screen and support children proactively, this "stitch in time" approach could prevent reading failure, and lead to a situation where the child would no longer be diagnosable as dyslexic.


Excerpted from Dyslexia and Literacy Copyright © 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Gavin Reid is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, University of Edinburgh. He is an experienced teacher, educational psychologist, researcher and university lecturer. He has made over 200 keynote presentations throughout the UK and at conferences worldwide, including United States, Eastern and Western Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. He is the author of a number of books on dyslexia and learning styles including Dyslexia: A Practitioner's Handbook (1998) and is co-author of Dyslexia in Adults: Education and Employment (2001), both published by Wiley/
He is the course team which developed the joint Open University/University of Edinburgh course on Identifying and Addressing Difficulties in Literacy Development and has also a number of research and consultancy interests, including assessment, early literacy and dyslexia in adults.

Janice Wearmouth is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at The Open University in the UK. She is an experienced teacher, researcher and author in the area of special educational needs and difficulties in literacy development. Her research interest include pupil self advocacy, the development and organization of special and/or additional provision for pupils who experience difficulties in learning in mainstream schools, and home-school literacy partnerships.
She is co-chair of the course team which developed and produced the Open University Course E801 Difficulties in Literacy Development in Collaboration with the University of Edinburgh.

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