Does Labeling Students as “Dyslexic” Disable Teachers’ Confidence?

Rob Wipond
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If teachers believe that a student has a psychological learning impairment that is biologically-based, the teachers are less likely to believe that they can help the student, according to research presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Education and Child Psychology.

The research was presented by Newcastle University educational psychology professor Simon Gibbs, stated a report on the British Psychological Society (BPS) website.

“Dr Gibbs asked a sample of primary school teachers to complete two questionnaires about children who were having difficulty with learning to read,” explained the BPS. “One questionnaire sought to discover how much the teachers believed they could do to help the children. The other questionnaire sought to discover the extent to which the teachers believed that the children’s difficulties were ’essential’- that is, how far they marked out the difficulties as having a distinct biological basis.”

One version of the two questionnaires, however, described children who had “dyslexia,” while a second version of the questionnaires described children who had “reading difficulties.” About 130 teachers responded to either of these versions.

The results “indicated that the label ‘dyslexia’ evoked responses that suggested it was seen as a fixed disability, and that the teachers believed their ability to help children with ‘dyslexia’ was unlikely to develop over time,” stated the BPS report. “By contrast, the teachers who had been asked about ‘reading difficulties’ were less likely to see the children’s problems as permanent; were also more likely to believe that they would be able to help them, and that their skills developed with experience.”

Gibbs commented that, “These findings challenge the value of labels like ‘dyslexia’, which may be used as shorthand descriptors for the difficulties some children experience. These labels may be of illusory benefit because they reduce teachers’ belief in their ability to help the children. As a result the labels could be ultimately unhelpful to the children’s wellbeing and educational progress.”

Does the ‘dyslexia’ label disable teachers? (British Psychological Society, January 8, 2015)

20 COMMENTS

  1. As one with mild dyslexia, I find this article extremely baffling. Why is it being referred to as psychological when there are valid tests that can definitely can determine the nature of the problem? And if teachers feel the label dyslexia prevents them from helping students improve reading, they shouldn’t be in the field since there are specific instruction techniques that work.

    I realize many labels are harmful to people, particularly psych labels but refusing to label anyone when doing so can give people an idea of what their issues are seems to me to be beyond absurd.

    • I think the argument here is similar to the one around psychiatric diagnosis verses psychological formulation. Formulation means asking what is the problem, what caused it and what might help. With problems with literacy, that is reading and writing, finding out what the perticular problem is, and perhaps having some idea of what might be causing it, might be more valid than a diagnosis if dyslexia.

      “many eminent figures working in the wider field of education continue to state that, at present, there is no scientifically accurate way to differentiate between those with a special reading disability, ‘dyslexia’, and ordinary, ‘common garden’ poor readers:”
      http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/what_is_dyslexia.htm

      • My son had reading issues in first grade, possibly because our PCP had diagnosed him with 20/20 vision, when actually an eye doctor later told me he was almost legally blind. He got glasses, and ended up graduating as valedictorian of his high school class.

        I think the grown ups should get out of the business of stigmatizing children all together. I was taught it was impolite to call other people names when I was a child, weren’the any of the psychiatric professionals taught this?

      • John,

        I started to read the material at the link you posted but many of the references don’t involve a straight link which made it hard to see what they were referring to. On one in which there was a straight link in which they essentially claimed special services were worthless, I got an invalid message. I did come upon one site in which it was suggested neurodevelopmental disorder be used but that seems alot less useful to me because it doesn’t tell anything about the person’s problems.

        I think you’re comparing apples to oranges since dyslexia has never been a psychological issue even though it is in the DSM. Well, not being able to read can be psychological but that is another discussion.

        The issue is in order to offer the most appropriate reading instruction, you have to know what the problem is. Just like regular doctors can’t offer a treatment without a diagnosis.

        If you want to call it something else besides dyslexia, be my guest but the issue unless you have an idea as to what the problems are with reading, then you could be offering the wrong remediation.

        By the way, as one who had discussions with you previously about changing how society reacts to things, I am surprised you wouldn’t agree with me that teachers need to change their attitudes no matter what label a person has.

        • I agree that teachers need to know what the problem is that a person is having in learning to read in order to best address it. H0wever I still think that debating the validity of the concept of Dyslexia is worthwhile.

          My comparison to Formulation is that in you try to find out what the problems is, what caused it and then decide what might help. In trying to help someone who is struggling to read you try to decide what the problem is and then try to decide how to address it. The cause is pressumed to be Dyslexia by those who believe in it. This may or may not be a valid concept.

          I could try to find some more websites with links but I’ll leave it for the moment.

          • John,

            No reading instructor who is worth a darn would assume someone’s problems are due to dyslexia. I know many people who definitely don’t have dyslexia but have issues like comprehending what they read. That is a totally different ballgame.

    • I think you kind of missed the point. It just points to the reality that if you define someone’s problem as biological rather than psychological people are more likely to see it as permanent and a “lost case”. That leads them to doing nothing to help the situation on one hand and to discriminating such people on the other (that has been shown for “mental illness” – the more people believe it’s genetic, incurable brain disease the more discriminatory attitudes they have).
      Maybe a better practical approach is to refrain from labelling and just addressing the issues individually? Since the labels are only a short name for symptoms and offer no diagnostic or treatment advantage it would be helpful to drop them altogether.

      • Actually B, there have been studies that show that dyslexia has a neurological basis and that with intense remediation, it disappears. I think this applies to younger students around 6 years old although I am not sure.

        Sheesh, not all labels are evil or should we just outlaw all of them? In other words, if some one has a gunshot wound, let’s not tell the doctor where the injury is in the name of not labeling someone?

        And as I said to John, what about changing the attitudes of teachers so that students do get the help they need no matter what label you want to use?

        • The problem is it also leads to – “this kid is dyslectic so we don’t have to do anything to improve his/her reading skills”. I mean it makes sense if the label is in some way helpful in guiding therapy but in this case in only means “the kid does not read well. And the diagnostic or therapeutic interventions do not profit at all from the label itself so the label is kind of useless if not counterproductive.

  2. There was a somewhat similar study back in the 70s looking at the impact of the ADHD label on teacher behavior toward students. They found that those kids who got the ADHD label got LESS academic attention and support after they’d been labeled and medicated, because the teachers believed the medication had solved the problem and they did not need to attend to it. Identifying the specifics of a problem and the child’s strengths can really contribute to a better solution, but I don’t believe labels, including dyslexia, are really very helpful in making things better for kids. And this study confirms my own observations.

    — Steve

    • That is true. It just gives the kids a free pass not to do anything to learn to read properly and an excuse for teachers and parents not to spend time on trying to help the kid learn. In the end nobody is helped since the kid will grow into an adult who has never learnt how to read but everyone can feel better about themselves for a wee while.

    • Steve,

      An ADHD label is a different ballgame since that allegedly involves behavior and mental illness. Unfortunately, because dyslexia is linked to ADHD, it can cause problems in that sense.

      I don’t think we totally disagree about identifying the source of a problem. But if someone definitely has a pattern of dyslexia such as severe decoding issues and other strengths, it seems to refer to it in general terms is kind of splitting hairs in my opinion.

      • I am sure we agree about most things.

        I think it depends a lot on the attitude of the professional you are working with. If they are able to see the label as a shorthand description of the challenges the child faces, and providing some professional guidance for how s/he may intervene to improve the situation, that is one thing. The difficulty comes in when the professional begins to see the child in terms of the label, as “disabled” rather than “differently abled” and having strengths in other areas that could be used to help with the challenges they face. I think the analogy with ADHD is quite apt – these so-called “ADHD” kids genuinely DO have difficulty attending to something they find dull, and it does create difficulties for a standardly-structured classroom. However, they also often bring other strengths such as stubborn commitment to a goal or objective, willingness to tolerate discomfort or conflict to accomplish their mission, an ability to think creatively and find alternate ways to solve a problem, and so on. Not to mention that they may have other challenges they face that are only expressed in the classroom through their lack of interest or distractibility, but might be something that could be addressed if anyone bothered to take the time to ask them why being in class is difficult. Further, it’s been shown through research that these kids are virtually indistinguishable from “normal” kids (on the average) in an open classroom structure where they get to make more decisions and have more control of their time and activities. Yet it is rare that they have the opportunity to try out that option, because people think that the label means they are deficient and need to be “fixed” rather than considering changing the expectations they’re exposed to.

        I am sure much of this is applicable to kids with the “dyslexia” label. I am always happy when people recognize that there are unmet needs, but I hate to see these kids channeled into some “program” without someone bothering to take the time to figure out what is behind their reading challenges. Calling it “dyslexia” may be a good first step toward making folks aware of what is going on and starting to think through what options may be available to help, but too often, I find it’s a last step toward lowering expectations and creating “programming” that is more designed for the convenience of the teachers than the needs of the kids.

        Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of smart, creative, hard-working special ed teachers out there who do a great job. But I do find the labeling process dangerous, because it allows people to begin to think they know something about a kid and to stop looking further for both causal factors and possible solutions.

        —- Steve

  3. I don’t have anything profound to share here but this reminded me of something that happened in my second year of teaching. I had a 16 year old pair of twins (brother and sister) in one of the classes I taught. They really weren’t disruptive students but seemed very apathetic in class most of the time. Their grades were none too good either.

    Well, come to find out, both of them were profoundly dyslexic? They couldn’t read worth a damn. I wondered what tipped the teacher off who recommended that their parents take them for evaluation, I myself didn’t make any connections. I knew that they couldn’t write very well but this isn’t that unusual these days, unfortunately. My mother who only had a third grade education wrote better letters than most of my seniors in high school. I wondered how this brother and sister got so far in school before anyone caught what was causing difficulties for them in school. How did their parents not know?

    I suspect that no one really expected that much from them, myself included, because they were usually quiet in class and all of the teachers just attributed the poor grades, etc. to a lack of caring and not wanting to be involved. Only one teacher out of all of us pursued finding out what the real situation was for these kids. This taught me some good lessons about looking into things and doing a little research rather than just assuming that students don’t care and deserve what they get for this behavior. I also believe that they got as far as they did because many teachers just promoted them so they wouldn’t have any problems with questioning parents. All in all, these kids were treated very badly by the educational system even before it was known that they were dyslexic.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Teaching is a tough profession so making mistakes is understandable. Still, tt is sad that these poor students suffered until 16 before being correctly diagnosed.

      Instead, they still got a label but not the one that was helpful. If they had been diagnosed correctly at a much younger age, their chances of being successfully re mediated with the right instruction would have greatly increased.

      I think you just proved my point about labels and why they aren’t always so bad. 🙂 and how not having the right one will lead to one that is alot more stigmatizing such as “not caring”.

  4. The metaphor or treating a labeled medical problem with the scientific appropriate methods vs. experimental fruits and veggies or positive hymes will prove that by not following the methods of PROVEN, one is negligent in harming the patient.

    Science and data are all there. It’s a face that science often takes time to catch up to the education world and unforntuately they are choosing to take the Ostrich road …perhaps due to $$$ although in the end it costs our society far more. DSM cite to have dyslexia removed from the medical books is insane. The Dyslexia Training Institute put out an excellent Teacher simulation which in 2 minutes will explain the importance. Seeing these 6 teachers and 3 are treated very differently ….speaks for itself. They have one for writing too. I call my son’s writing “monster” writing which is Dysgraphia and is connected to many with dyslexia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?x-yt-ts=1421914688&x-yt-cl=84503534&v=ZznFCz6V1cM