There’s no Such Thing as Dyslexia?

They Think FISH Differently


‘Dyslexia is a myth to cover up bad teaching of reading and writing’; so claimed Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester, Blackley. He also said there was a link between illiteracy and crime – because prisons are full of people who are unable to read and write. He made these suggestions sometime ago but there has been a steady groundswell of ill-educated opinion happy to go along with these notions.

Of course there are an inordinate number of prisoners who are illiterate. Statistics confirm that. Some of them will have had a poor education; at home and at school. If they had had a better education they may have been able to perform huge scams with our banking system and have avoided any form of retribution.

There are, it seems to me, two main problems with dyslexia as a concept.

Some people want their family member, or indeed themselves, to be diagnosed as Dyslexic. It acts as a hook to hang a difficulty on. It also may confirm a long held belief – it’s not their fault.  I have heard countless parents say,

“Thank you. Thank you so much. We always knew he or she had something wrong.”

My immediate response has always been to point out that a diagnosis is not a cure and nor is it an excuse. It is more of a signpost, or a possible foundation for an approach to learning; the start of a helpful change of strategy for the teacher and the learner.

The other problem centres around the myths about Dyslexia. So let’s dispel some of these myths. (And yes, I do mean ‘dispel’.)

  • Dyslexia does not mean simply not being able to spell very well.
  • Dyslexia is not just about finding it hard to read.
  • Dyslexia does not mean that a person is stupid. (I am prepared to accept that some dyslexics might be stupid; but only in the same sense that some women are hopeless drivers, some men can’t multi-task and some birds can’t fly.)
  • Dyslexics are good at art. Admittedly there is a link with Dyslexia and creativity. Statistics prove that too. (Here’s some that spring to mind; – W. B. Yeats, Roald Dahl, Richard Branson, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Zephaniah, Michelangelo, Tom Cruise, Richard Rogers etc…) But not all dyslexics are natural creators.

Dyslexics often think differently and that can be advantageous when looking for solutions to problems. ‘Thinking differently’ is a decidedly beneficial trait in the creative world. I have worked with one teenager who, at fourteen, had a reading age of 5. He could not write a sentence unaided but regularly beat his maths teachers at chess. Some children find the easy stuff hard and the hard stuff easy. They may struggle with basic numeracy, be diagnosed with Dyscalculia – a related problem – but we should make no mistake about it, anyone with Dyslexia, who survives 11 years or more of schooling, has done well. Many don’t. Many become disaffected, withdrawn, the class clown, the truant, the trouble-maker. I know because I have worked with students like this for years. Their self-esteem is shot through. It isn’t always because they have failed; it is more that the education system has failed them; not necessarily through poor teaching but more often than not because of poor resources, lack of awareness, ineffectual training or just pure lack of time. If you have a class of thirty and most of them, ‘get it’, the teacher feels he or she has to move on to the next stage. The pupil who thinks differently has learned to be quiet about not necessarily, ‘getting it’. They bumble along or create diversions. Task avoidance techniques abound here.

When I was at school there were no dyslexics. Not as such. (There were no homosexuals until about 1970 either; and only one in my home town.)

There were no dyslexics but there were thick kids, the nutters, the ones who were laughed at by most, if not all, of us; usually at the instigation of the teacher. I remember, with more than a degree of sadness, a boy called Dawes. He was with me and about 40 other children in what is now called year 4. We were aged seven or eight. Dawes was berated time and time again by the teacher because the fool couldn’t write properly. Droopy Dawes, as the teacher nicknamed him, couldn’t spell words like ‘night’ for example. What an idiot. He couldn’t spell ‘walk’ or ‘talk’ – never mind do the walk! He thought that two times four made six. Oh how you would have laughed if you had heard him coming up with these stupid answers in front of the rest of us. We all hooted. On reflection I would like to think our laughter was caused through some sense of embarrassment, embarrassment mingled probably with a hope that we wouldn’t be next to be asked to answer something; something that we didn’t know. (My own fear was the nine times table.)

Dawes was removed from the class. He went down a level. I would like to say that he went on to much better things but the truth is I don’t know. I managed to cling on to the edges of ‘the bright set’. We weren’t encouraged to mix with dullards. We were just encouraged to laugh.

There were no dyslexics when I was at school. Why? Because the state did not recognise such a condition. And if we are not careful we could slip right back into that Slough of Despond.

People like Graham Stringer, MP, who are out to make a name for themselves, may well provide the groundswell that would pander to the ‘Let’s Make More Cuts’ brigade. I am not saying we should spend more on individual students. In actual fact I think some of the money that is made available is squandered and unnecessary. It could be better used elsewhere. My plea is not for more money, it is for wholesale recognition of a condition. It is a condition which, if you have it, simply means you learn differently. And because of the way most schooling works dyslexia is a learning difficulty. It is something that can affect a child’s ability to develop a strong understanding of language. And we think by using language. (We also think visually but language tends to be most people’s main tool.)

The first diagnosis of developmental dyslexia that I am aware of is called, “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness” written by W. Pringle Morgan, M.B. It was published in 1896 in The British Medical Journal. It was however a long time before Dyslexia was identified in schools.

Dyslexia constitutes a Special Educational Need (as defined by the 1993 Education Act). It was first recognised by parliament in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is seen as a disablement. It is recognised as such and should continue to be recognised. Not so that we can excuse certain people for their disability. Not so that we can accuse others for inventing the concept in order to cover up bad teaching. Not so that we can pity the ‘sick person’ and throw inordinate amounts of money at them. It should be recognised because dyslexics are valuable. They think differently. They are often more able in terms of problem solving. They can provide a different take on things. They are not dissimilar to someone from a different culture, from a different sect, the opposite sex, a different mind set. They can bring something new to us all.

Unless sufferers are given the opportunity to embrace an education they will suffer more and perhaps contribute less. Dyslexia demeans confidence; it can make verbal instructions difficult to understand. It can mean having to read, re-read, and then read again, a text in order to make some sense of it. It can make some early learning irrelevant, even damaging. And, at the other end of the scale, can make lectures virtually impossible to follow especially if the delivery does not consider the different way people learn.

And this is key. Teachers need to use different strategies in order to impart information. It will help not only the dyslexic child. It will help most others too. We all learn using different strategies.*

It has always struck me as ironic that the very word, dyslexia, is, in itself, difficult to spell. It has also struck me that if we called it by any other name it might be more helpful. So let’s call it, for sake of this argument, ‘FISH.’

We should have ‘SCHOOLS FOR FISH’

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to spell. For most FISH sufferers there are tricks, techniques and methods that can improve spelling tremendously. I know; I’ve helped lots of FISH. I wrote a novel about it. **

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to read. This can also be circumvented for many with use of gels – a sheet of coloured acetate that settles the words and helps the reader to focus. Early diagnosis and the right kind of teaching of reading can help here too. I know I’ve seen it work.

If you have FISH you might find it difficult to organise things, to be on time, to understand instructions, explanations or follow a line of inquiry. Again good teaching, training and an embracing approach, can help ensure that even the most severely dyslexic person can have access to a complete education.

To be successful, work needs to begin early. To be effective, the teacher needs more than a day, a week or even a few weeks of training. To improve not only the lives of FISH but the contributions they can make to our society, we need people who acknowledge the condition and are prepared to fund it in a properly thought out way. We do not need gainsayers pretending that FISH does not exist.

You can see that I have already run into difficulty with the alternative word. ‘Fish does not exist’ or ‘fish do not exist’, becomes fraught with unnecessary grammatical difficulty.

I’ll come clean and explain why I chose the word. It is an old joke. One that my grandfather demonstrated to me many years ago.

“What’s this say?” He asked showing me the word GHOTI.

“I don’t know,” I’d reply (even though I did by the third or fourth telling.)

“G-H-O-T-I.” He would spell the word out.

“I still don’t know.”

“It spells FISH,” Grandad pointed out. And then he went on to explain;

The ‘GH’ is pronounced ‘F’, as in ‘enough’. The ‘O’ is the ‘I’ sound, as in women, and ‘TI’ gives us the digraph ‘SH’ as in ‘nation’.

It’s daft I know but it serves to highlight some of the many anomalies to be found in this wonderful language of ours.

It is said that there is less dyslexia in Spain and Italy than here in England. Somehow I doubt it. There are probably far fewer people with spelling problems. Their language is phonetically more plausible. And I do know that spelling, no matter how difficult for some, can be taught. I have worked with a severely dyslexic boy whose fascination with all things prehistoric meant that he could spell, ‘tyrannosaurus’ and ‘pterodactyl’. The same pupil struggled with ‘could’ and ‘doesn’t’.  His low self-esteem meant that he ‘couldn’t’ and ‘didn’t’ for a number of years. But this is to miss the point. Dyslexia is not just about spelling or reading.

Dyslexia is about a different way of thinking. Once we’ve acknowledged that we can begin to include many learners who will otherwise slip through the net.

And that’s all I’m asking for. Acknowledgement.


* The 7 Main Learning Strategies:

Verbal (linguistic): The learner prefers using words, both speech and writing.

Physical (kinesthetic): The learner prefers using, hands and sense of touch perhaps the whole body.

Logical (mathematical): The learner prefers using logic, reasoning, number, charts.

Social (interpersonal): The learner prefers to learn through group work.

Visual (spatial): The learner prefers pictures, images, diagrams.

Aural (auditory-musical): The learner prefers learning through sound, music and rhythm.

Solitary (intrapersonal): The learner prefers to work completely alone with computer/books.


British Dyslexia Association:

The chasm between evidence and educational practice: Video

‘Dyslexia is a Myth’: BBC News

** Perspective: Novel (Also in paperback)

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