What exactly is dyslexia?

It is estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of the population suffer the kind of reading and writing difficulties that are characterised as dyslexia. But although most people have some perception of what dyslexia can be about, and although several organisations provide various descriptions of this common reading and writing problem, there is no clear scientific definition as to what dyslexia actually is. "It is time to come up with some new hypotheses so that we can move forward with our research", says Professor Finn Egil Tønnessen of the Norwegian Reading Centre.

"In many ways, you could say that research into reading and dyslexia has stood still for more than a century, even after countless research projects. Much of this is due to the fact that there are no clear definitions on which to base our research", says Tønnessen.

In the book Can we read letters? Reflections on Fundamental Issues in Reading and Dyslexia Research (open access e-book), Tønnessen and Professor Per Henning Uppstad take the reader on a review of dyslexia research over the last 100 years. The authors point out that even though dyslexia has been the subject of a huge amount of attention and research, it is based on terminology that can be vague and ambiguous, which causes problems when it comes to comparing the results of research.  

This means that dyslexia and literacy researchers have come to different conclusions, which makes it difficult to compare results and agree on what the various researchers are actually talking about. The result is that current definitions are unclear and this can lead to problems for researchers, teachers and, not least, the people who are struggling to read and write.

Now Tønnesen believes that researchers have to explore new directions and find new hypotheses about what dyslexia is.

"We need clear definitions in order to compare the results of research. The problem is that the very specific definitions that researchers want to have are rejected by teachers, who prefer broad descriptions. But we will only be able to break new ground in research when we have clear definitions and hypotheses. Without these, our work will continue to be futile and lack clear objectives. And this is what has been happening throughout the 20th century".

The definitions of organisations like the World Federation of Neurology and the International Dyslexia Association have set the trend of describing what dyslexia is. But Tønnessen is critical of the definitions provided by these organisations, saying that they are unclear and problematic. For example, the World Federation of Neurology describes dyslexia as "(...) a disorder manifested by difficulty learning to read, despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity". Tønnessen points out that it is pertinent to ask: Is it only persons of normal intelligence and with good sociocultural resources who can be diagnosed as dyslexic if they struggle to read and write?

"If we stick to this definition, it will add to the burden of those who perform poorly in reading and who also have a background of inadequate resources. Other definitions can also be misused as criteria for deciding who is not entitled to help. It should be fundamental that everyone should receive help on the basis of need".

Tønnessen believes that researchers must agree on what criteria should be used as a basis for comparing definitions of dyslexia. 

"Dyslexia is often interpreted as 'reading difficulties'. But having difficulties is subjective and cannot be observed. If we are to define dyslexia, we have to restrict ourselves to what can actually be observed. We should start by looking at the symptoms, and study the people who have these symptoms in more detail. Until we can agree on clear definitions, we should regard all attempts to explain dyslexia as hypotheses", says Tønnessen.

The discussion about dyslexia is related to the discussion about what reading is. Traditionally, reading has been divided into decoding and comprehension, and reading has been described as a process or a model. Tønnessen puts forward the theory that reading is actually more of a skill, which he describes as a combination of automation and consciousness. As with most other skills, the performance—in other words, reading­—is influenced by many factors, such as the situation you are in or how you feel at the time.

"Teachers in particular need to know what they should look for when deciding whether a student may have dyslexia. But the symptoms of dyslexia can vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. That is why it's important to find out whether the problem of the person who has difficulties reading and writing is in the acquisition of the skill of reading, or in the performance", says Tønnessen.
Tønnessen borrows from the European interpretive tradition of hermeneutics in order to describe the natural, on-going change of focus between the whole and the individual parts. To change flexibly between these is a skill. This means that the change of focus is partly automatic and partly conscious. As an example of a skill, he chooses a simple action, such as walking. If we find ourselves thinking too much about the action of walking—using too much consciousness about how we are walking—we can actually lose tempo and rhythm, and in the worst case, we stumble. On the other hand, if we trust our autopilot too much, we fail to deal with bumps and holes in the road.

"My contention is that we have to find the balance between these two extreme points within ourselves. To make this clearer, I have borrowed some concepts from two extremely different schools of psychology: From behaviourism, I have borrowed the concept of 'automation', and from cognitivism, I have borrowed 'consciousness'. Hermeneutics as a method provides a very good description about how we are constantly moving from the whole to individual parts and back again, constantly changing and deepening our understanding".

Tønnessen further develops the concept of "consciousness" by emphasising the differences between "seeing" and the more aware "noticing".

"It is productive to distinguish between 'seeing' and 'noticing'. We often say that we 'see everything' in our surroundings, we 'see' the whole wood, but we only notice a limited number of details at any one time, let's say a fallen branch that is lying across a path in the wood. Even though multiple thought processes are taking place at the same time, we can only direct our full attention to one process at a time. It is the same when we read; we have to switch back and forth between the text as a whole and the particulars, such as difficult words.

"This hermeneutic interplay between the particulars and the whole applies to everything from sensory impressions to words, texts — and our whole life experience. All of the sub-tasks involved in reading are based primarily on interpretation. In order to achieve the best flow, and thereby the best speed and depth in reading, switching between individual parts and the whole is determined by an optimal combination of automation and awareness", says Tønnessen. 

Text: Elisabeth Rongved and Kjell Inge Torgersen / the Norwegian Reading Centre

Professor Finn Egil Tønnessen

Professor Finn Egil Tønnessen