Education & Dyslexia Myths
Myths about education in general and dyslexia specifically are pervasive and harmful. If you suspect dyslexia in your child (or its close cousin, dysgraphia), or if your student has recently been diagnosed, you may think you already understand what you're dealing with. But a lot of what we think we know is actually myth, and it's important that we and our children separate truth from fiction.
Where do myths come from? The origins of most education and dyslexia myths can be traced back to a time when we knew so much less about how the human mind acquires and retains information.
To be fair, research into learning reveals new truths and replaces old myths every day, which is why I am so strident about the importance of relying on data-based research to drive the educational choices we make for our children with learning challenges.
Common Dyslexia Myths
Dyslexia can be outgrown. Alas, no one outgrows dyslexia, but with appropriate, consistent, and early intervention, nearly everyone with dyslexia can learn to manage it.
Dyslexia does not exist. There are decades of scientific research proving its existence.
Dyslexia is rare. Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities and affects 15-20% of the US population.
Schools test children for dyslexia. The specifics vary by state, but generally speaking American public schools merely screen for dyslexia to determine who might be at risk. An accurate diagnosis of dyslexia is a result of the evaluation of several varied assessments – physical and psychological examinations, a medical history, and academic testing – and is beyond the capabilities of the vast majority of schools.
Most reading teachers are highly trained in remediation methods. Most teachers receive very little instruction on how to teach reading because the underlying belief in many educational institutions is that kids, exposed to enough books and words, will pretty much learn to read on their own. "Scientific research has had relatively little impact on what happens in classrooms because the science isn't very highly valued in schools of education. 'Prospective teachers aren't exposed to it or they're led to believe that it's only one of several perspectives . . . In a class on reading, prospective teachers will be exposed to a menu in which they have 10 or 12 different approaches to reading, and they're encouraged to pick the one that will fit their personal teaching style best.'" (See https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read)
Dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until 3rd grade. Although there is an elevated risk for false-positive diagnoses in screening pre-readers, a comprehensive approach that weighs other factors, such as family history of dyslexia, is preferred. By third grade, a dyslexic student is already significantly behind their peers, and earlier intervention yields better outcomes. (See https://improvingliteracy.org/ask-an-expert/can-young-child-under-age-6-be-diagnosed-dyslexia-or-age-focus-recognizing-warning)
Dyslexia is caused by a lack of phonics instruction. Dyslexia is a genetic learning disorder that one is born with. It is neurologically-based differences in how the brain processes language. Appropriate intervention to manage dyslexia includes phonics, but the lack of phonics does not cause it.
Dyslexia cannot be diagnosed. This is 100% false, perhaps based in the reality that there is no one test that determines dyslexia. Instead, according to the International Dyslexia Association: "A diagnosis of dyslexia begins with the gathering of information gained from interviews, observations and testing. This information is collected by various members of a team that includes the classroom teacher(s), speech/language pathologist, educational assessment specialist(s), and medical personnel (if co-occurring difficulties related to development, health or attention are suspected)." (See https://dyslexiaida.org/testing-and-evaluation/)
Any child who reverses their letters has dyslexia. Many, many children reverse letters while learning to read and write. Sometimes referred to as "mirror writing," it is not cause for alarm, nor a sign of dyslexia.
Those with dyslexia are lazy. One might better argue the opposite is true, since those with dyslexia must work harder than the average person to read. Many untreated dyslexic students invent a spectrum of coping strategies and work-arounds to achieve success despite not being able to read fluently.
Those with dyslexia see letters reversed. Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that impacts one's ability to recognize speech sounds and how they relate to letters and words; it is a language processing disability, not a visual disorder.
Those with dyslexia see words backwards. Just as many early readers reverse letters, many also "see" words backwards. This is a normal part of learning to read. Children with dyslexia do not see or read words backwards any more than children without dyslexia, and word reversal is not a sign or symptom of dyslexia.
Common Education Myths
Multitask Myth - The reality is that no one can truly multitask, and trying to do so is ultimately counter-productive, including while trying to learn. The human brain can really only do one thing well at a time and research backs this up time and time again.
Learning Styles Myth - This is another theory with no basis in fact or research that assumes different people learn best in different ways, i.e. some of us do best with information presented visually, or aurally, or whilst engaged in a related hands-on activity. "In their review of research on learning styles for the Association for Psychological Science, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) came to a stark conclusion: 'If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.'" (See https://deansforimpact.org/learning-styles-what-does-the-research-say/)
The Learning Pyramid Myth - This is an unproven theory that draws broad and inaccurate conclusions about a correlation between information delivery style and retention, i.e. "doing" or re-teaching a concept drives the highest retention rates but listening to a lecture yields the lowest.
Right Brain/Left Brain Myth - "Dr. Melina Uncapher explores the right-brain/left-brain myth: that people are preferentially “right-brained” or “left-brained” in the use of their brains. Just as we can’t walk or run effectively by favoring one leg, we can’t function effectively by favoring one brain hemisphere instead of using them both in an integrated way. Many neuroscientists think about brain activity as a sort of neural concert, where individual players may have a stronger role during certain movements, but no one side of the orchestra always dominates." (See https://deansforimpact.org/neuromyths-busted/)
Brain Gym Myth - Although few would dispute the premise that physical exercise is beneficial to us all, there is zero scientific evidence or peer-reviewed research that supports Brain Gym's claims of improved learning or academic outcomes through specific repetitive physical exercises that will enhance brain function and unite various areas of the brain.
Grit Myth - Although there is nothing particularly wrong with having "perseverance and passion for long-term goals" - the basic definition of grit - the message to children sounds more like "you would be successful if you just tried harder." Also, "According to a U.S. Department of Education report on grit, 'persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student may potentially induce stress, anxiety, and distraction, and have detrimental impacts on students’ long-term retention, conceptual learning, and psychological well-being.'” (See https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/whats_wrong_with_grit)
Knowledge is Googled Myth - It is undoubtedly true that we have faster and easier access to encyclopedic levels of knowledge, but having it at your fingertips is not the same as having it in your own head. Yes, we should be teaching things like critical thinking, but we still need to be teaching facts. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that knowledge serves as the foundation on which higher-level thinking is based. For instance, he points out, one cannot interpret the significance of the phrase, "He was a real Benedict Arnold about it" without knowing who Benedict Arnold is or what he is famous for. (See https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/how-knowledge-helps)
The Mozart Effect Myth - Research does not support the claim that listening to classical music makes you smarter. This myth exploded out of a modest study that found a small group of college students performed slightly better on spatial reasoning tests after listening to Mozart; the improved performance ability waned after 10-15 minutes. Popular media blew the findings and significance wildly out of proportion. The authors of the original study have stressed that there is no enhancement of general intelligence.