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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 46 back to contents
Dyslexia or Bad Initial TeachingIrina Tyk

It should always be a matter for scepticism what innate learning difficulties are presumed to exist on the basis of low learning achievement. Symptoms of a general nature are not diagnoses of a specific pre-existing condition. Any teacher or Head working with young children, as I do, encounters the challenge of children who fail to learn what is expected of them and it would be quite absurd to conclude that this is because they share the same pre-existing condition. There are as many reasons why children fail to learn as there are individual variations of children, and in families and in teachers.

The fact that so many children nowadays experience difficulties acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills may be ascribed to many reasons, and I suggest that the gathering incidence of dyslexia is not one of them. Of course, there are levels of dyslexia which make it more difficult for the young child to learn to read. However, it seems absurd to posit a rising tide of dyslexia on the back of the rising tide of illiteracy.

I would like to suggest that there are a number of factors, at least as important as dyslexia, which account for early reading failure:-

  • The anti-intellectual culture of school, and of family life; the belief that struggle is inimical to happiness; what you know is not nearly as important as how you feel
  • The failure to understand that language and reading are tools of thinking, and the failure to adopt a method to teach reading which bears any relationship to thinking and rational principles
  • The widespread belief that it is not possible to learn to read English according to phonic rules
  • Widespread ignorance among teachers of the 44 sounds which make up the English language
  • The fact that most reading schemes currently in use are of little help if one wishes to teach children to read by reference to phonic rules
  • The abandonment of whole-class teaching, and the consequent redefinition of the art of teaching
  • Low academic expectations at home and at school
  • The virtual disappearance of requiring children to learn anything by heart, and the consequent inability of students to commit anything memorable to memory
  • The general view that very young children, below the age of seven, should spend most of their time learning through play; and that all learning which is not spontaneous is harmful to the development of such young children
  • The reluctance to test children so that the gap between instruction and retention can be measured
  • The rise of the computer and information technology which is wrongly believed to sideline the need to acquire proper levels of literacy
  • Lastly, the adoption of the label of dyslexia to conceal the failure to teach reading effectively

Poor levels of concentration, inadequate levels of retention and poor organisational skills, in conjunction with an inability to acquire proficient levels of literacy, may well be evidence of an innate learning disorder. However, there is good reason to suppose that many children who exhibit some of the classic accompanying symptoms of dyslexia are in fact victims of acquired practices and prejudices which have evolved in response to the changing culture of education and morality in our schools and in our homes.

There is an inclination in our schools, and beyond, to view variations in how one learns and variations in how one engages with knowledge as evidence of illness or unacceptable mental irregularity. Introversion and a solitary disposition are not abnormalities which require psychological or psychiatric intervention. Unusual mental landscapes and states of mind which make learning harder are not necessarily detrimental. Likewise, poor literacy skills, more often than not, require an overhaul of teaching methods and a reappraisal of educational culture rather than a presumption of a specific learning disorder.

Holland House School - Reading scores from June 2000


Boys and girls mixed

Average chronological age


reading age

Form 1K

19 in class



Form 1A

22 in class



Form II

20 in class