Once upon a time a group of blind people felt an elephant to satisfy curiosity.  The man who was presented with the head declared, ‘an elephant is like a pot.’ The woman who had observed the ear disagreed: ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ He who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. The person who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a granary; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

How they argued! Each one insisted that she or he alone was correct. Of course, there was no conclusion for not one had thoroughly examined the whole elephant.

When a person is opinionated or blind to his limitations because of insufficient knowledge or closed mindedness, she is as blind as if she had no eyesight.

Most academics and practitioners in the field of dyslexia adopt a deficit model wherein a learner who does not conform to established norms of development in those areas traditionally valued by society are regarded as disabled. And of course in a traditional society such as many of our schools, this is so.

The research field in dyslexia is a multi-faceted one, covering brain structure, neurological processing, the cerebellum, visual cortex and speech and language processing. Many studies look at the role and efficacy of memory, fluency of information retrieval and literacy acquisition – and find learners with dyslexia wanting. For these reasons the term is surrounded by confusion and ambiguity. The definition that is widely used was developed by the British Psychological Association in 1999:

Dyslexia is evident when accurate and fluent word reading and/or spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty.

This definition focuses on literacy learning at the “word” level – i.e. persistent difficulty with letter sounds, blending, syllabification and rhyme – and implies that the problem is severe and persistent despite appropriate learning opportunities.  It usually provides the basis for a staged process of assessment through teaching.

It is likely that in Scotland we will adopt at some time the new definition developed by the Scottish Government and Dyslexia Scotland. This has a slightly broader range in that it recognises discrepancies between a learner’s cognitive ability and performance.

Dyslexia can be described as a continuum of difficulties in learning to read, write and/or spell, which does not respond well to conventional teaching techniques. These difficulties often do not reflect an individual’s cognitive ability and are often not typical of performance in other areas.

The impact of dyslexia as a barrier to learning varies in degree according to the learning environment and the demands of the curriculum as there are associated difficulties such as:

  • auditory and /or visual processing of language-based information
  • phonological awareness
  • oral language skills and reading fluency
  • short-term and working memory
  • sequencing and directionality
  • number skills
  • organisational ability

Motor skills and co-ordination are often affected.

Dyslexia exists in all cultures and across the range of abilities and socio-economic backgrounds.  It is neurological in origin; a hereditary, life-long condition.  Unidentified, dyslexia is likely to result in low self esteem, high stress, atypical behaviour, and low achievement. 

Despite these variations in terminology and characteristics ( I nearly wrote symptoms) there tends to be consensus, in the UK at least, that the focus for intervention should be based firmly in the classroom and some agreement that dyslexia represents more than a reading difficulty. Many of the interventions that are regarded as effective for learners with dyslexia incorporate good learning and teaching practices which will benefit all children.