It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

Yesterday I wrote a piece “When in doubt apply a label” in which I discussed the controversy that surrounds the categorisation of children. Within the article I mentioned Julian Elliott’s recent work published in his book The Dyslexia Debate. A couple of respondents from Canada, Ireland and India posted comments on this blog but I also received an interesting observation from a friend here in the UK. She was unaware of the blog until her daughter, a local teacher, drew her attention to yesterday’s piece. Having read what I wrote she felt obliged to telephone me and give me her perspective.

She began the conversation by telling me she thought I had overlooked an important point. She wasn’t angry, at least not with me, but she was disappointed by an education system that had failed her at school. She went on to tell me that at the age of twenty two, she was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic. This diagnosis, she related came after having been labelled as a complete failure at school by many of her teachers and also by her father. Alice (not her real name) had finished school at age sixteen with virtually no qualifications and left only with a feeling of relief that her school days were behind her. As far as she was concerned she was finished with education which she saw as having provided her with little more than misery. She left school with a negative view of teachers and very few friends. Even worse, her father who was a successful business man, accused her of being lazy and wasting her educational opportunities.

Having left school Alice had a succession of jobs, none of which she found particularly satisfying until an opportunity arrived for her to work for a national chain of florists delivering flowers to individual customers and floral displays for corporate events. She enjoyed this work and at last found some satisfaction in her life. At about the same time she married and all was going well for her. Then fate took a hand in her life. After two years in her delivery job her boss approached her one day and offered her a promotion to work in the office. Alice says that she immediately panicked, knowing that she would not be able to cope with the demands of office work. Her boss was surprised when she turned the job down, he knew she was newly married and would probably appreciate the increased salary that came with an office job and he believed she had the right personality for the position. He pushed her to take the post and with great apprehension Alice agreed to give it a try for three months on the condition that she could return to delivery work if it didn’t work out.

Alice told me how after a week in the office she was in a complete panic. She found herself adopting the very same strategies that she had used in school to avoid demonstrating the difficulties she had with reading and mathematics. She spent a restless weekend after her first week in the office post and on the following Monday had resolved that she had to see her boss and give him the full truth about why she couldn’t do the job. She described to me how much courage it took for her to sit in the office and tell her boss that she had difficulties performing the required level of reading tasks and that she didn’t want to continue in the post. However, she had not expected the reaction that she got from the man sitting opposite her.

Her boss asked her about her experiences at school and she told him about her struggles with learning. He immediately sympathised and told her that his experiences had been similar, but that the school which he attended rather than seeing him as lazy or stupid decided to provide him with extra support. With the cooperation of his parents he was given additional structured lessons to assist him in overcoming his reading difficulties. He described how a teacher had built an entire reading programme for him built around Leicester City Football Club match programmes and other related materials knowing that was his area of interest. With time his reading improved and he managed to leave school having done reasonably well in his final examinations, but more importantly feeling confident in his own abilities.

Alice’s boss told her that he would not let her give up the office job as he thought she had the personality to make a success of the post. He wanted her to stay on in the office and would give her an assistant to help with the things she found difficult, but on one condition. He would arrange for Alice to have an assessment of her learning needs and the company would then pay to provide any additional training that she needed. At this point Alice told me she had dreadful visions of returning to the classroom, but her boss was both insistent and kind.

I listened to Alice’s story over the phone recognising that it was probably a bold decision that she had made to call me and tell me her story. I attended to what she had to say without interruption as she then carried on to recount how she had gone for an assessment with a very sympathetic lady. The assessment lasted nearly two hours after which she was asked, “has nobody ever suggested to you that you might be dyslexic?” Alice says that she had never heard the term until that point. The specialist who had conducted the assessment explained how the word dyslexia was being used and that with the right kind of support many of Alice’s difficulties could be addressed.

From that day on, Alice told me, I realised that I was not stupid and that there was a reason why I struggled so badly at school. “I read your article on the blog”, she told me “and I thought someone should tell you the other side of the story.” Following the assessment Alice returned to reading lessons and quickly learned strategies that had never been made available in school. She retained the office post and was in fact promoted further a couple of years later. She remains bitter (her word) about her school experiences describing these as lost years. She is convinced that had the label of dyslexia been applied to her early in her schooling she would have been more likely to receive the support she requires.

Alice may be right. There’s no way we can tell. I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.

I sent this piece to Alice so that she could read it and give me consent to post it on this blog. She was happy to do this (as long as I changed her name) saying that maybe it would encourage others to think more about her experiences. We discussed my view that a label should not be necessary in order for a child to receive appropriate teaching. She tells me that she agrees but equally that she thinks me naïve and suspects that many more children will consider themselves to be failures and furthermore will believe it is their fault unless they are given the right messages. “For me,” she said, “knowing that I am dyslexic and not stupid or lazy, is important. It’s my right to wear this label if it helps me to feel better about myself ”.

Thank you Alice for sharing your story. I do hope that others might contribute to this discussion.

When in doubt apply a label!

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I have mentioned the concerns that many of us have about labelling before on this blog. My own main concern is that once we apply a label of any kind we are in danger of encouraging stereotyping. Let’s just take two examples to illustrate my point. If a child is described as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) this will raise alarm bells for many teachers and other professional colleagues. Individuals so labelled are likely to be perceived as problematic, presenting with difficult behaviours and unreceptive to conventional teaching approaches. These same teachers are therefore sometimes bemused when the pupil arrives in school and is withdrawn and quiet.  Stereotyping a child according to his label will often lead to such confusion. A contrasting example might be provided when we look at the label professor. To illustrate this point let me tell you a story.

In 2011 I was visiting a school where a good friend of mine was the headteacher. Prior to my visit he told the pupils in a class of 10 year olds, “today my friend Richard is coming to visit us, he is a Professor at the university. Why don’t you draw a picture of what you think he might look like so that you can show him when he comes?” Now, my friend has a good sense of humour. He knew what he expected and he wasn’t disappointed. When he took me to visit this class, all the pupils had produced pictures of the visiting professor. Some of you may already have an image in your mind of what they had produced. Many had drawn predictable pictures of a wild haired, bespectacled, quite elderly man, in many instances wearing a white lab coat. I suspect they were quite disappointed that I didn’t look like a real professor (well not much anyway!).

As I hope the two examples demonstrate, there is a certain danger in applying labels to people. This is an issue of which many of us working in education have been aware for a number of years, yet there is still a newsworthy quality to debates in this area.

Of all the labels applied to children it is “dyslexia” that appears to make the news with the most alarming regularity. When I arrived home this evening I recognised the easily distinguishable voice of a colleague from the University of Durham coming from the television in the sitting room. Professor Julian Elliott is a respected teacher and researcher whose work in the area of special and inclusive education is well known in the UK. Julian’s views on what he has in the past referred to as “the myth of dyslexia” are well known, but he is currently in the news for his latest book “The Dyslexia Debate.” Interviewed about this book Julian stated that:-

“Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.”

Julian suggests that many children have reading difficulties and that parents and teachers often search for a reason to explain these. In particular, he believes that middle class educated parents feel more at ease if their child with a reading difficulty has the label of dyslexia. Having a diagnosis makes it acceptable to have a difficulty. There is however, says Julian, no scientific justification for using the label and if a child has reading difficulties he needs carefully planned teaching approaches that are equally beneficial for others who have similar difficulties but no label.

As might be expected Julian’s views do not find favour with everybody. Dr John Rack, who is head of research, development and policy, for a national organisation called Dyslexia Action has argued that the term has a legitimate scientific and educational value. When confronted with Julian Elliott’s ideas he said:-

“We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle. And for very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia.”

 “Helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome or find ways around the particular blocks that are there.”

So, which side of this debate do you come down on?

The issue is not helped by the fact that for some children and their families it is much easier to obtain resources to support their child if they can obtain a formal diagnosis. This applies to other learning needs and is not specific to dyslexia. Who can blame parents who seek these diagnoses when they believe that it will make life easier for their child? Similarly, we should not blame teachers or school managers who know that if they can have a child assessed and labelled they will be provided with additional resources to make their teachers’ lives easier.

As I argued in an earlier blog, the teaching approaches that have been developed specifically to address the needs of children who have a label, whether this be dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder or any of the numerous others applied, often have some value in the pedagogical armoury of the teacher. When these techniques are carefully applied they may well benefit just as many pupils who don’t have a label.

My concerns remain. Once we apply a label we create an image of a child, and that can often have negative connotations and in particular a lowering of expectations about what a child might achieve. But as I have also indicated, the application of a label may result in a pupil gaining additional support and access to well trained and dedicated professionals.

This is a debate that is destined to continue well into the future. It is however one that is important to have as we strive to assist teachers to become more inclusive in their teaching. Do feel free to join the debate, your insights may well help those of us who are struggling.

Now where did I leave my lab coat and wild wig?


The Dyslexia Debate  by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870

The Dyslexia Debate by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870