Volume 7, Issue 1
By Carolyn D. Cowen
Dyslexia experts and advocates are relentlessly dogged by claims that a miraculous discovery, invention, or product will “cure” dyslexia—which the claimants often blame on some sort of vision-related cause. Like the proverbial bad penny that invariably turns up, these claims and explanations are among dyslexia’s many whack-a-mole myths that never seem to die!
Never mind that nearly all experts agree that a preponderance of scientific studies show that dyslexia is a language-based condition. Never mind consensus reports (e.g., the 2011 joint technical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics) clearly stating that although someone can have learning disabilities and vision deficits, one does not cause the other, nor does treating one fix the other. Never mind the Sisyphean efforts of dyslexia experts and advocates who labor to debunk the various incarnations and reincarnations of dyslexia-vision myths and their spinoff products and solutions.
Never mind all the robust science, consensus reports, and tireless efforts; the vexing myths seem to live on.
Never mind all the robust science, consensus reports, and tireless efforts; the vexing myths seem to live on.
Even with the decades of remarkable strides in the science and treatment of dyslexia, we still have failed to inoculate the public against regular outbreaks of vision-based flimflammery preying on desperate parents’ hopes and uninformed educators’ wishful thinking. All too often, the popular press and social media aid and abet in the transmission and amplification of these myths.
The Myths That Keep on Living
However well intentioned some of it may be, there is a cost to this vision-based hype and hubbub. Valuable learning time—when the brain is most plastic (i.e., young)—can be lost as the focus on effective intervention is sidetracked. Compounding the emotional costs of failure, the person with dyslexia often feels at fault when expectations are not met. And the snake-oil cures often entail hefty monetary costs. But still, these damaging myths live on.
However well intentioned some of it may be, there is a cost to this vision-based hype and hubbub.
- Do prisms, colored lenses, tinted overlays, training glasses, or other vision-based gizmos, exercises, and rigmarole improve reading in people with dyslexia? The science says, no. (See #1, #4, and #10 below.)
- Do so-called “dyslexia fonts” improve reading in people with dyslexia? Again, the science says, no. (See #9 and #10 below.)
- Do online algorithms scrambling all but initial and final letters 20 times a second in random words simulate the actual visual experience of dyslexia? Absurd. (See #6 below.)
- Do people with dyslexia see print differently than people without dyslexia—hence the notorious letter reversals and transpositions (e.g., b for d and was for saw)? This answer is nuanced. First, virtually all young children make these errors until they acquire more experience with print. (Therein lies a clue to this apparent phenomenon in dyslexia—children and adults with dyslexia who struggle to read print are less incentivized to do so than those without dyslexia and, therefore, get less print experience.) Second, any transient visual difficulties still may have their roots in a core phonological deficit. (If it is difficult to hear the difference between /b/ and /d/ phonemes, it will be all the harder to correctly associate them with letters that have mirror shapes.) Third, once considered a hallmark trait of dyslexia, evidence for the prevalence of letter reversals is mixed. (For interesting discussions about these errors and their etiology, see chapter 7 in Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain, 2009, and see “Neural Correlates of Letter Reversal in Children and Adults,” 2014.)
- Do the visual system differences found in dyslexia cause reading problems? Evidence suggests it is the other way around, though complex questions remain. (See #3 and #11 below.)
Even when carefully explained, soundly discredited, or decisively dispatched, these and similar dyslexia myths and their vision-based suppositions seem to rise from the dead—like the villain-who-just-won’t-die trope in a B movie.
Science, Not Science Fiction
This is not to say that scientific exploration of the role of the visual system in dyslexia is not a worthy pursuit. Dehaene, for example, speculates that while reading deficits in most people with dyslexia stem from impaired phonological processing, automatization of links between vision and language may play a role for some (2009). Also, see #11 below for a cogent review of research findings and complex open questions about the role of the visual system in reading and dyslexia.
But the science itself must be worthy. As Mark Seidenberg (2017) said in his critique of a vision-related dyslexia study that recently received much attention on the Internet,
Researchers are still discovering basic facts about the structure and function of the visual system, not to mention language and the rest of the brain. There are multiple anomalies associated with dyslexia, and the problem is to see how they fit together. That will require large-scale studies in which researchers examine multiple deficits in the same subjects, rather than focusing on their pet theory. It will also require competent studies that build on previous research and relate to existing findings.
Unfortunately, even though noted dyslexia experts lambasted that particular incompetent study (mentioned above), it attracted far more attention than its critiques. It is even more unfortunate that widespread attention has not focused on what we do know about the language-based causes of dyslexia and the highly effective Structured Literacy approaches used to treat them. In fact, since it turns out that this kind of reading instruction benefits most students, this lack of attention is downright appalling.
Our Secret Weapon
No, vision-based cures and simplistic vision-neuromyth explanations of dyslexia are not likely to die anytime soon. Those bad pennies will continue turning up, mistaken as valuable currency.
But we do have a secret weapon, one that makes a powerful difference every day in countless lives: You.
Members of the global community of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) are passionately dedicated to disseminating accurate information about dyslexia and the instructional practices proven to help overcome, even prevent, reading difficulties.
If we can save one parent from wasting time, money, and hopes on an unproven vision-based approach, it is worth our effort. If we can help one educator deliver effective, science-based reading instruction, it is worth our effort. And if we can rescue one child from experiencing failure and the lifelong consequences of illiteracy or low literacy, it definitely is worth our effort. We do achieve all these things every day, even if we will never entirely eradicate the myths and poppycock.
When it comes to dyslexia, there are few absolutes—it is, after all, a neurodevelopmental, multidimensional, spectrum condition. We have not unraveled all its mysteries or untangled all its intricacies, including exactly how the visual system may play a role in some cases of dyslexia. Nevertheless, we can confidently assert at least two things:
First, reading ability in people with dyslexia will not be improved with a silver-bullet solution—vision-based or otherwise. Second, Structured Literacy approaches are proven to improve reading ability in people with dyslexia.
These facts inform our work.
Myth-Busting Info at Your Fingertips
To support the IDA community in its vital efforts on behalf of people with dyslexia, and to help stem the tide of damaging dyslexia myths, we have compiled a list of past articles from IDA publications and other sources that tackle the vision-based fictions head on.
Keep this information at your fingertips, so you will be ready the next time you hear a claim about some wonderful vision-based discovery, invention, or product that purportedly cures dyslexia. When you do, take a deep breath. Get centered. Then find what you need below and respectfully share it!
- Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision from the American Academy of Pediatrics Joint Technical Report (Pediatrics, March 2011, Vol. 127, Issue 3)
- Vision Efficiency Interventions and Reading Disability by Jack M. Fletcher and Debra Currie (Scroll to the bottom of the linked page for Controversial Therapies in Dyslexia: IDA Winter Perspectives, 2011, Vol. 37)
- Visual System Differences in Dyslexia Do Not Cause Reading Problems by Carolyn D. Cowen (IDA Examiner, July 2013)
- False Claims Mislead about Dyslexia Treatment by Kristen L. Penczek (IDA Examiner, August 2013)
- When Educational Promises Are Too Good to Be True by John Alexander (IDA Fact Sheet)
- Online Dyslexia Simulation Is Compelling, Powerful, and Wrong by Carolyn D. Cowen (IDA Examiner, March 2016)
- Beware of Education Promises Too Good to Be True! by Carolyn D. Cowen (IDA Infographic, October 2016)
- Thoughtful Responses to Controversial Dyslexia Study Offer Perspective by Examiner Editorial Board, (IDA Examiner, November 2017)
- The Effect of a Specialized Dyslexia Font, OpenDyslexic, on Reading Rate and Accuracy by Jessica J. Wery and Jennifer A. Diliberto (IDA Annals of Dyslexia, July 2017)
- Dyslexia Font Does Not Benefit Reading in Children With or Without Dyslexia by Sanne M. Kuster, Marjolijn van Weerdenburg, Marjolein Gompel, and Anna M. T. Bosman (IDA Annals of Dyslexia, December 2017)
- What is the Role of the Visual System in Reading and Dyslexia? by Jason D. Yeatman (IDA Examiner, February 2016)
- Click here for an introduction to Annals articles finding lack of evidence for the claimed benefits of so-called dyslexia fonts.
- Links in the body of some older articles may be broken. However, enough descriptive information usually is there to enable a successful search for the original link.
- Do you have other great articles or reports countering vision-based myths in dyslexia? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blackburne, L. K., Eddy, M. D., Kalra, P., Yee, D., Sinha, P., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2014). Neural correlates of letter reversal in children and adults. PLoS ONE 9(5). doi./10.1371/journal.pone.0098386
Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York, NY: Viking.
Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M., CDT, is the Digital Media Strategist/Content Editor for the International Dyslexia Association’s Examiner. She is an educator and social entrepreneur known for developing and managing programs and initiatives that improve the teaching-learning landscape for students with learning differences. These days, she focuses on harnessing the power of digital media to make complex information accessible and actionable for the spectrum of decision makers involved in creating change on behalf of students with dyslexia and other reading challenges. Carolyn also focuses on helping nonprofits strategically power the mission with the message. She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Newgrange School, Ann Robinowitz Education Center, and Laurel School and on the Board of Directors for the Research Institute for Learning and Development. Follow her on Twitter @cdcowen.
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