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Defending the "D" Word ... Dyslexia

Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • Dyslexia
  • Literacy
  • Struggling Readers

Henry Ward Beecher once said, a word is a “peg to hang ideas on.” A single word can conjure a host of meanings and associations. “Dyslexia” is such a word.

In the last couple of years, the well-known and respected researchers Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko have been arguing that it is time to do away with the “D word.” In The Dyslexia Debate (Cambridge University Press, 2014), they object to the word because many misunderstandings, false claims, and myths are associated with it.

For example, say Elliott and Grigorenko, dyslexia is often characterized as an obscure disorder of the visual system that produces symbolic reversals and that affects brilliant (Einstein-ish) males of a privileged class. (In fact, reversals, high IQ, and visual deficits do not distinguish this type of reading difficulty.) Dyslexia is often described as a “gift” of cognition associated with problem-solving ability and creativity – although scientific evidence for such a claim is scant, and dyslexia can affect all levels of society and all levels of intellectual ability. Dyslexia is frequently treated as a unique condition requiring specialized instruction that differs in important ways from effective instruction for all students who must be taught how to read – although, again, research suggests otherwise.

Objections by critics also extend to the policies of states that have established service delivery systems for students with diagnosed dyslexia. The guidelines for identification are designed to distinguish dyslexic students from others with reading and learning difficulties and provide them with instruction by specially certified teachers. To access the services—which are funded separately from special education, school improvement grants, Title I, and general education—students must undergo individual evaluation, which can be expensive, time-consuming, and often, of questionable validity. Meanwhile, many months (or years) might have passed before students receive the interventions that should have been available to them immediately upon entering school. Furthermore, students who may be designated “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” under an RtI system, but not referred to for dyslexia evaluation, may have very similar instructional needs that are not met.

The Dyslexia Debate contends that the solution to problems of definition, identification, and treatment of students with reading and writing difficulties is to do away with the term dyslexia in favor of terms such as developmental reading disability. I disagree. Here’s why.

  • First, the word dyslexia has two Greek morphemes: “dys” meaning “difficulty with” and “lex” meaning “words” or “language.” The word itself has more explanatory value than “reading disability.” Reading, spelling, and writing are language-based skills. The manifestations of dyslexia are in language-dependent functions, including the ability to parse the speech sounds in words, link them to an alphabetic symbol system, establish automatic word recognition, distinguish word meanings, and comprehend the complexities of academic language. The word itself points directly to the best remedy for all language-based reading difficulties: structured language teaching.

  • Second, the Greek prefix “dys” or “dis” is commonly used in scientific circles to denote an intrinsic quality or condition in an individual, rather than a condition attributed to environmental circumstances. In the case of literacy acquisition, both good and poor reading skill is associated with known neurobiological and genetic correlates. The difficulties with symbolic processing exist independently of parenting skills, books in the home, family values, overall student maturity, or teaching methodologies. The term connotes a condition requiring informed intervention from knowledgeable professionals. From neuroimaging research on dyslexia we know that brains can be “normalized” or taught to perform functions that are not easy or natural for them—but only if the therapy is aligned with mainstream scientific evidence about what works best.

  • Third, the word dyslexia is used freely and interchangeably in scientific circles and has been used for about 100 years – Elliott and Grigorenko notwithstanding. The word indexes a treasure trove of interdisciplinary scientific research, books and articles that summarize that research, advocacy and support organizations that assist parents and families, and legitimate therapeutic interventions. When children and their parents are trying to cope with the symptoms of dyslexia, discovering that there is a name for these problems, that they are not alone, and that a great deal is known about the condition can provide instant relief and hope for the future.

Acceptance of the term in educational circles remains a frustratingly slow process. But we should not eject the term from our vocabularies because it is abused or misunderstood. Doing so will not solve our problems. Informed, immediate, intensive structured language teaching for all students at risk—including those for whom the term dyslexia has been used—should be our goal. We still have much work to do to apply scientific understandings to the recognition and treatment of all reading difficulties, but it’s possible to challenge myths without throwing out this very meaningful “D” word.

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. For more information, visit the International Dyslexia Association.


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Editor's Note: This blog is a re-post of one originally published on October 21, 2015.

About the Author
Dr. Louisa Moats
Author of LANGUAGE! Live®

Dr. Louisa Moats has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation. Dr. Moats is the author of LANGUAGE! Live®, a blended reading intervention program for grades 5–12, and the lead author of LETRS® professional development and the textbook, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Dr. Moats is also co-author of Spellography, a structured language word study program. Dr. Moats’ awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association® for outstanding contributions to the field; the Eminent Researcher Award from Learning Disabilities Australia; and the Benita Blachman award from The Reading League.

Learn more about Dr. Louisa Moats