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Bob Burden argues that dyslexics may be more in need of therapy or counselling than specific teaching interventions 

Dyslexia is recognised under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) as a form of disability that affects between four and eight per cent of the general population. All schools, colleges, universities and business organisations therefore carry a responsibility for identifying those affected and for making suitable provisions for helping to overcome its negative effects (HMG, 1995). When it is recognised also that up to 50 per cent of the prison population suffer from some form of dyslexic condition (Kirk & Reid, 2001), the nature of the problem looms large.

Identification and remediation pose problems in themselves, however, because of the lack of agreement between various bodies involved as to what exactly dyslexia is, let alone how best its effects can be overcome. Literally dozen of definitions abound, most of which will differ in accordance with the professional background of those involved. Historically, dyslexia was first identified in the 1880s by medical practitioners who therefore tended to interpret its symptoms in medical terms, requiring some form of “cure” (Miles & Miles, 1990). This was later taken up by neurologists, who became concerned with identifying which part of the dyslexic brain was most likely to be malfunctioning (Stein, 2008; Fawcett & Nicolson, 2008). At the same time, geneticists were engaged in seeking that part of the genetic structure that contributed to the typical familial difficulties faced by dyslexics (DeFries et al, 1982; Gayan & Olson, 2001).

Meanwhile, not to be denied their say, educationalists of various persuasions tended to identify the problem as one most likely to result from poor or inadequate teaching. Thus, they focussed on theories of instruction, particularly with regard to the “best” way to teach young children to read and spell (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Hatcher et al, 2004). The recent Rose Review, set up at the behest of the then Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, began with just this orientation, but soon found itself in danger of becoming bogged down in the definition controversy. In arriving at the following definition, the review body managed to circumvent some of the controversial issues, but set out its stall very much within the educational camp.

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate word reading and spelling.  Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculations, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well founded intervention.” (Rose Report, 2009).

For all its strengths, this definition clearly has its weaknesses. It focuses almost entirely on the early stages of learning to read and spell and comes down very firmly in support of phonological difficulties as an explanation and a phonics-based approach to reading as the most likely way to prevent problems of a dyslexic nature. The most significant problem with this and most other definitions of dyslexia, however, is that it loses sight of the fact that dyslexics are people having difficulty in coping with the culturally imposed assumptions that (a) literacy is important, and (b) everyone should find it (relatively) easy to learn to read.

As was implied above, most current research into dyslexia tends to focus upon where it exists within the human brain or what form of intervention is most likely to prevent or overcome its effects. Essentially, such approaches are reifying the concept, giving the impression that dyslexia is a thing that can be identified or a condition that can be diagnosed and then dealt with. If we consider dyslexia from a more humanistic perspective, however, we find ourselves asking a totally different set of questions of the following nature:

  • how does it feel to be faced each day with the apparently simple task (in that everyone else can do it) of learning to read without being able to cope?
  • do any of the significant adults in one’s life (parents, teachers, partners) seem to understand (a) how it must feel, and (b) how to help?
  • if learning to read and spell is considered to be so important in our society, what effect is the inability to do so likely to have on a person’s developing sense of identity?
  • is there really an effective “one solution fits all” approach to literacy?
  • what are likely to be the long term effects of slipping through the net and not being recognised as suffering from specific learning difficulties of a dyslexic nature?

The comparatively limited research that has been devoted to such questions has tended to produce somewhat equivocal results. A review of the research results relating to the self-concept of dyslexic school children (Burden, 2008), for example, reveals that a person’s general self-esteem will not necessarily suffer irrevocably as a result of struggling at school from difficulties of a dyslexic nature, but that early recognition, intervention and emotional support are all significant factors in building resilience.

A closer investigation of this data, alongside more intensive interviews with young people who had been diagnosed as dyslexic, showed that their feelings of being understood played a vitally important role in coming to terms with early literacy difficulties (Burden, 2005). This did not necessarily require the significant adult to understand the nature, cause or “cure” for the disability, only in the first instance that they demonstrated empathy with the dyslexic child’s feelings. However, this was only the first stage in a long term process that would be necessary for the development of their ontological security. As the American psychologist Martin Covington has identified, a growing child's sense of self-worth is highly likely to be closely associated with how well they are coping with school-based academic tasks. If one is aware of not doing well, this in turn may well lead to what Covington terms “self-worth concern” and efforts to protect one’s sense of wellbeing. “… the student's sense of esteem often becomes equated with ability – to be able is to be valued as a human being but to do poorly in school is evidence of inability, and reason to despair of one’s worth” (Covington, 1992).

Interviews with several hundred dyslexic primary and secondary school pupils about their early experiences at school have revealed the following common developmental pattern: an overwhelming sense of confusion is likely to arise if, by the age of seven, the skills of reading and spelling have not become established. (Although dyslexic difficulties occur across the ability range, the confusion is likely to be greater if the child is articulate or adept in other educational areas). This is much more likely in the UK where the pressure to “learn” begins at an earlier age than in other countries where formal schooling begins later. This confusion will often give rise to further emotional reactions, either in the form of withdrawal and anxiety about school work or in acting out behaviour, such as playing the clown.

At this point, it is essential that the true causes of the child’s difficulties are identified. If these are dismissed unreasonably as laziness, inherent lack of ability or as the result of emotional problems, negative barriers to success are already being constructed. Refusal by a child’s teachers to deal with the issue seriously will not be best helped by acquiescent parents. It is often the “stroppy mother”, who refuses to be fobbed off with promises that such difficulties “inevitably sort themselves out”, who is likely to provoke positive action towards a long-term helpful outcome. If the difficulties show little sign of being overcome, then a full diagnosis, preferable by a qualified educational psychologist, is likely to be needed. A key issue here is how this assessment is carried out and how the results are conveyed to the child with dyslexic difficulties. It is not unknown for a diagnosis of dyslexia to be used as a crutch or excuse for future failure. In this respect, the disabilities legislation can serve, paradoxically, as an obstacle to success. Dyslexics need to be assured that their difficulties are not an indicator of general lack of ability, but, at the same time, they need to be helped to take on board that they may have to work twice as hard as their peers to achieve similar results. To be afforded laptops and extra time in examinations will not necessarily help in themselves to bring that message home.

A considerable amount of psychological research has revealed that there are certain aspects of emotional development that affect significantly a person’s success or failure in learning. Notable amongst these are feelings of self-efficacy, internal locus of control and the reasons that are attributed to success and failure. Thus, by the time a child faced with difficulties of a dyslexic nature reaches adolescence, he or she will have established a core set of self-constructs which will be related to the sense they have made of their successes and failures in learning (their attributions), their confidence in their ability to be successful at tasks at which they have previously failed (their self-efficacy), their sense of being in control of their present and future actions (internal locus of control), and the amount of effort they are prepared to put in to overcome their difficulties. Of course, they will need a sense of agency, which will depend on their awareness of appropriate strategies to employ in order to overcome their difficulties, but the successful employment of these strategies will depend largely upon the child’s developing sense of identity.

As the young person moves through adolescence into adulthood, the emotional consequences of not being able to overcome their dyslexic difficulties will become even more acute. Even those who manage, as a result of good teaching and personal effort, to gain access to higher education will continue to need emotional support. In fact, it is this latter group who stand to benefit less from a continued input of remedial and study skills techniques, and more from access to a sympathetic and knowledgeable counsellor. Those who don’t make the academic grade are likely to give up and either seek in various ways to pretend, as Covington suggests, that literacy doesn’t matter, or move into a variety of unsuitable jobs, possibly even taking to crime (Reid, Came & Price, 2008). Leaving school with minimal qualifications, they may well drift from job to job until they stumble upon one where a high degree of literacy is not an essential requirement. Those who are fortunate and/or more resilient may, on the other hand, end up in “helping” professions, such as social work, childcare or the prison service, where interpersonal skills have traditionally counted for far more than high level literacy. 


The current trend in universities and other organisations seeking to meet the requirements of the DDA would appear to be based on the assumption that dyslexics’ greatest need is for intensive remedial input, study skills training, laptops with spellcheckers and extra examination time. However, while all of these may be helpful and, in some cases, even essential, they are unlikely to be enough in themselves. It may even be that the person with dyslexia is suffering from a surfeit of phonics and study skills ideas and finds a spellchecker of limited value, if they can’t identify the correct version amongst several alternatives. What they will need in addition, and sometimes they will need little more than this, is an empathic listener with counselling training to help them find their own ways of overcoming the challenges with which they are faced. If these challenges have become overwhelming, then therapy may be the preferred option. What is vital is that all persons with learning difficulties, of whatever age, are helped to build a sense of self-mastery. As Covington concludes (1992), “When the belief in personal efficacy flourishes, so does imagination, flexibility, and compassion; and when this belief is compromised, so is a major share of humanity”.

Further information

Bob Burden is Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Psychology at the University of Exeter and past President of the International School Psychology Association. He is currently a trustee of the British Dyslexia Association and Chair of the BDA’s Accreditation Board:


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Burden, R.L. (2005) Dyslexia and Self-Concept: Seeking a dyslexic identity Chichester: John Wiley.
Burden, R.L. (2008) Dyslexia and self-concept:  A review of past research with implications for future action.  In G. Reid et al (eds), The Sage Handbook of Dyslexia London:  Sage (395-410).
Covington, M.V. (1992) Making the Grade Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
DeFries, J.C., Fulker, D.W. & LaBuda, M.C. (1987) Reading disability in twins. Evidence for a genetic etiology.  Nature, 329, 537-539.
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This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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