Does the ’dyslexia’ label disable teachers?

Different labels for difficulties with reading have been found to be associated with varying beliefs in how effective teachers believe they can be.

That is the conclusion of research being presented today, Thursday 8 January 2015, by Dr Simon Gibbs from Newcastle University to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Education and Child Psychology. The conference takes place from 7-9 January 2015 at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Durham.

In his research (carried out with Professor Julian Elliott from Durham University) Dr Gibbs asked a sample of primary school teachers to complete two questionnaires about children who were having difficulty with learning to read. 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.

Two different versions of the questionnaires were used. In the first version both questionnaires talked about ‘dyslexia’ and the second they talked about ‘reading difficulties’.

A total of 146 teachers responded to the ‘dyslexia’ questionnaires and 121 responded to the ‘reading difficulties’ questionnaires.

When Dr Gibbs analysed the results he found that the two different labels were associated with differences in the teachers’ beliefs about their efficacy in helping the children. They 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.

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.

Dr Gibbs says:

“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.”

Also at the DECP Annual Conference today, Dr Sue Roffey from the University of Western Sydney will be leading a workshop on "Why wellbeing?"

She says: 

"Wellbeing happens when a whole school values the multi-dimensional aspects of each individual and provides an environment where pupils feel physically and emotionally safe. Approaches to wellbeing incorporate a supportive and caring school community where pro-social values are strongly promoted; it is where a strengths-based approach helps pupils find meaning and purpose to what is on offer. A focus on wellbeing also promotes social and emotional learning and a healthy life style.

"Educational psychologists are in great demand - but often their time is taken up on reactionary duties, such as statutory assessments.  We know that it makes economic sense to prevent difficulties arising in the first place or to engage in early intervention.  There is so much we could do if we had the permission and time to do it."