Dyslexia Is Not Real

Dyslexia Does Not Exist

Dyslexia Is Not Real

The International Literacy Association (ILA) recently (2016) released a position paper on dyslexia. The paper is mildly critical of those who tend to attribute reading difficulties to dyslexia. The paper, like many organizational position statements, pitches a few softballs at the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

The IDA fired back with its own critique of the ILA’s position paper. In its response, the IDA criticizes what it perceives as misinterpretations of the research studies regarding dyslexia.The game quickly changed from softball to hardball.

The ILA had its ducks in a row (Was the organization anticipating a response from the IDA?) and tore into the ILA’s critique with an addendum to its original position paper: “Dyslexia: Response to the International Dyslexia Association.” In the addendum the ILA questions whether dyslexia is, indeed, a diagnosable condition, disputes the IDA’s advocacy of a one-size-fits-all solution to reading problems, i.e., systematic, explicit phonics instruction, and advocates abandoning the term, dyslexia, altogether. Quite a strong position paper from such a venerable reading institution!

As a reading specialist, I whole-heartedly agree with the International Literacy Association, even though I provide a strand of systematic, explicit phonics instruction in my own reading intervention program (among other approaches to reading remediation).

Why dyslexia is not real and why educators should stop using the term.

The International Dyslexia Association offers a variety of definitions regarding dyslexia (bolded terms mine):

“Dyslexia is a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain. There is no cure for dyslexia and individuals with this condition must learn coping strategies” (https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-at-a-glance/).

“Dyslexia is, above all, a condition that impedes reading acquisition” (https://dyslexiaida.org/ida-urges-ila-to-review-and-clarify-key-points-in-dyslexia-research-advisory/).

Essentially, in these two definitions the IDA uses condition as if dyslexia is an identifiable, measurable reality. It is not. When advocates of dyslexia trot out brain scans of struggling readers purportedly with this condition and compare to different-looking scans of good readers, they beg the question. In other words, they assume what has not yet been proven. We know so little about the brain and to attribute brain abnormalities to dyslexia is simply poor science.

And such a strange use of the term, condition! By way of contrast, sunburn is a good example of a real, identifiable, and measurable condition. It can be diagnosed with reliable and valid measures. It is positively correlated with overexposure to ultra violet rays. It has predictable effects: pain, increased body temperature, and sometimes chills. It can be treated with aloe vera (some claim) and heals over time. It can be prevented by using sunscreen. Sunburn has all the qualities of a real, identifiable, measurable condition; dyslexia does not.

Following is another more detailed definition of dyslexia, adopted by the IDA Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002 (bolded terms mine):

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/).

Notice the multiplicity of reading problems purportedly attributed to dyslexia. Any first year grad student knows the unlikelihood of establishing a statistically significant correlation between a single cause and more than one effect. Just as any savvy consumer knows how to spot an invented condition by its wide variety of effects (effects which just so happen to be shared by many of us).

For example,

In 1990, E. Denis Wilson, a medical doctor in Florida invented what he modestly called “Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome” –a new condition he claimed was widespread, and causing a huge array of symptoms: fatigue, headaches, irritability, fatigue, dry skin, asthma, allergies and more. Wilson claimed his condition could be diagnosed by measuring body temperature. A lower than normal temperature confirms the diagnosis. According to Wilson, it was the slight reduction in body temperature that apparently causes the body’s metabolic pathways to function-sub-optimally, causing the vague symptoms reported. Your medical doctor doesn’t diagnose Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome because it’s a fake disease (https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/naturopathy-vs-science-fake-diseases).

To popularize invented conditions, proponents frequently promote simplistic diagnostic tests. Of course, I tested positive (as will most people) on the “Wilson Temperature Syndrome” test. By the way, I also tested border-line positive on the International Dyslexia Association’s “Dyslexia Self-Assessment for Adults” (Fran Levin Bowman, M.Ed. & Vincent Culotta, Ph.D., Copyright, 2010, All Rights Reserved).

Such tests lend credence to the notion that the condition is more prevalent than many would believe. The “you are not in this alone” assurance tends to be a key marketing strategy. The International Dyslexia Association claims that “Dyslexia affects 1 in 10 individuals, many of whom remain undiagnosed and receive little or no intervention services” (https://dyslexiaida.org/dyslexia-test).

Wilson recommended the use of thyroid hormone (T3) to treat his syndrome. Note that an invented condition always seems to have a snake-oil cure-all.

Magic Elixir for Reading Problems

Snake Oil Cure-All for Reading Problems

The International Dyslexia Association has systematic, explicit phonics instruction as its treatment and plenty of resources in its website’s bookstore.

But why not simply agree to use the term, dyslexia, as a catch-all word for reading problems? Indeed, many reading teachers and reading specialists have chosen to adopt this definition to make peace with their special education colleagues (who tend to view dyslexia as a learning disability). As an aside, many in the homeschooling movement have also bought into the dyslexic diagnosis as a key reason why some students have not achieved reading or math success in the public schools.

It would be tempting to do so; however, continuing to use this term, dyslexia, is counterproductive. The IDA’s classification of dyslexia as an incurable learning disability precludes using the term as a convenient synonym for reading problems. Although many struggling readers are certainly well-served with the explicit, systematic phonics approach advocated by those in the dyslexic camp, this instructional remedy and others should not be promoted as mere coping mechanisms. Reading specialists and reading intervention teachers know that targeted, assessment-based instruction can cure reading problems, not just provide simple band-aids.

To close, I agree with the conclusion of the International Literacy Association in its position paper addendum responding to the criticisms of the International Dyslexia Association:

“In other words, there is no empirical basis for the use of the term dyslexic to distinguish a group of children who are different from others experiencing difficulty acquiring literacy (“Dyslexia: Response to the International Dyslexia Association“).

Reading is a complex and multi-faceted process. Let’s abandon the use of dyslexia–an artificial and counterproductive construct with no research base.


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. My own snake oil to sell 🙂 Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops (explicit, systematic phonics instruction) with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

I just visited your website and, oh my, I actually felt my heart leap with joy! I am working with one class of ESL students and two classes of Read 180 students with behavior issues and have been struggling to find methods to address their specific areas of weakness. I am also teaching three senior level English classes and have found them to have serious deficits in many critical areas that may impact their success if they are attending college level courses in a year’s time. I have been trying to find a way to help all of them in specific and measurable ways – and I found you! I just wanted to thank you for creating these explicit and extensive resources for students in need. Thank you!

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By the way, I got Sam and Friends a few weeks ago, and I love it. I teach ESL in S Korea. Phonics is poorly taught here, so teaching phonics means going back to square one. Fortunately, Sam and Friends does that and speeds up pretty quickly. I also like that I can send it home and not charge the parents – we all love that.  I like it a lot! It’s also not about something stupid, like cats and dogs. 

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I work with a large ELL population at my school.Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 


FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

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