Research in Dyslexia, lead by Dr Gavin Reid


Over the past 2 decades, there have been many changes in policy and provision for children with special educational needs. Discussions among policy makers, parents and practitioners continue with regard to what constitutes a special educational need and how such needs should be met. In the area of specific learning difficulties, these discussions, which have at times been heated, have focused on the following questions:
What are specific learning difficulties and how may such difficulties be recognised?
Are children with specific learning difficulties qualitatively different from other children with learning difficulties?
Do they require different teaching materials, teaching methods and forms of classroom organisation?
What happens when parents and teachers disagree about the nature of the problem and appropriate forms of provision?

In 1990, Stirling University's Department of Education was commissioned by the Scottish Office Education Department to investigate policy, practice and provision for children with specific learning difficulties. The study investigated the views of parents, professionals and voluntary organisations and gathered illustrative examples of provision by both education and health services.


What are specific learning difficulties?

There is general agreement that a child may be said to experience specific learning difficulties when there is a significant gap between their attainment in different cognitive areas, or between measured ability and general performance. Some argue that specific learning difficulties are constitutional in origin and children who experience such difficulties have qualitatively different problems from those with more global learning difficulties. Others maintain that children with specific learning difficulties are suffering form a developmental delay and that these are likely to lead to differences in the severity of problems, but not in fundamental causes.

There is also disagreement over how wide the discrepancy in ability needs to be, before it is termed a specific learning difficulty. Further, people disagree as to whether specific learning difficulties only occur in some areas (eg. literacy or numeracy) or whether they may occur in any area (eg. gymnastics, modern language).

These disagreements over definitions meant that this was an extremely complicated area to research. One of the first tasks for the researchers, was to discover whether there was a shared working definition of specific learning difficulties, which would be acceptable to our respondents (see below).

Learning Difficulties - A Policy Framework

The Warnock Report and the Progress Report of HMI entitled The Education of Pupils with Learning Difficulties in Primary and Secondary Schools were published in 1978. Both documents were highly influential in shaping policy for children with learning difficulties. Warnock argued that educationists should focus on adopting the school environment to meet children's needs and that medical categories of handicap should be abandoned. There was no sharp dividing line between those with learning difficulties and others - as many as 20% of children might experience some form of learning difficulties during their educational career. Further, parents should be much more closely involved in decisions on assessments and educational provision for their children. The HMI Report, focusing on children with learning difficulties in mainstream schools, argued that many learning difficulties could be attributed not to intrinsic deficit in the child, but to inappropriate curricula and teaching methods. Remedial education based on withdrawing children from mainstream classes for special teaching was misconceived. The Learning Support Teacher should collaborate with the class or subject teacher who bore the ultimate responsibility for meeting the needs of children with learning difficulties.

This emphasis on cooperative teaching and consultancy and the lesser importance attached to withdrawn from the mainstream classroom for individual tuition was further reflected in the 1990 SCOSDE guidelines. As we shall see, the abandonment of categories of handicap and the new role recommended for the learning support teacher has not been welcomed by those who see children with specific learning difficulties as being essentially different from those with global learning difficulties and in need of expert tuition.

The Research Project

The project addressed the following central questions:

  1. To what extent are pupils with specific learning difficulties recognised as a group with distinctive need and how is the nature of their difficulties perceived?

  2. Where specific learning difficulties are recognised, how are they identified?

  3. How are the needs of these pupils met & their identified difficult remedied?

The perspectives of a wide range of groups were explored, including those of voluntary organisations, parent's education authority personnel, learning support teachers, teacher educators, pre-service teachers, medics and the Scottish Examination Board. In addition, examples of particular forms of provision were investigated. Research methods used included questionnaire surveys, semi-structured interviews, documentary analysis and observation.

The accompanying table summarizes research questions and sources of evidence.

Overview of Findings

Among respondents there was agreement that some children displayed levels of achievement in certain areas of the curriculum, which were discrepant with their general achievement level. Where specific learning difficulties did exist, those in the areas of literacy were regarded as the most salient. Despite this general agreement, there were three distinct ways in which specific learning difficulties were conceptualised, which were termed the discrete view, the continuum view and the anti-categorisation view. It should be emphasised that theses were not water-tight compartments and there was considerable overlap between the different perspectives.

Those who adopted the discrete group view argued that the problems experienced by children with specific learning difficulties were qualitatively different from those with more global learning difficulties. Many preferred to use the term "Dyslexia", this suggested a learning difficulty which was constitutional in origin. Proponents of this view included voluntary organisations, parents, the Scottish Examination Board and a minority of medics, education authority personnel, teacher educator and learning support teachers.

The continuum view conceptualised children with specific learning difficulties as representing a loose group within the spectrum of Learning Difficulties, ranging from specific to global and from mild to severe. Children within this grouping would have some common and some differing characteristics and a firm cut-off point between specific and global difficulties could not be drawn. Those who subscribed to the continuum view included the majority of education authority personnel, learning support teachers, teacher educators, pre-service teachers and some medics.

Those who adopted the anti-categorisation view maintained that even though some children manifested discrepant abilities in certain areas of the curriculum, it was not helpful to group these children together under the umbrella term "specific learning difficulties". Rather than categorizing children according to the nature of their learning difficulty or disability, teachers should focus on meeting the needs of children through curriculum modification. Advocates of this position included some education authority personnel and some learning support teachers.

These three broad conceptualisations of specific learning difficulties led to different views on assessment and provision. Those who favoured the discrete group view advocated the use of normative tests to diagnose the precise nature of the problem and thereafter individualised tuition using specialist materials to help the child overcome or circumvent his or her difficulties. Proponents of the continuum view recommended the use of a range of assessment techniques, including normative and criterion-referenced tests, observation and diagnostic teaching. They suggested that some specialised tuition might be in order, but felt that most teaching should be within the mainstream class and with the emphasis on accessing the mainstream curriculum. Those who opposed categorisation felt that assessment should focus on describing the child's needs rather than deficits and that this should be done principally through observation within the context of the mainstream class. Curriculum goals and teaching methods should be broadly similar for all children and the principal responsibility for meeting the needs of children with learning difficulties lay with the subject or class teacher, assisted where necessary by the learning support teacher.

There was general agreement that most children with specific learning difficulties were educated in the mainstream class with some withdrawal for individualised tuition. Within the context of our study, resources did not allow for detailed study of this form of provision although data from the parents' survey did indicate a general view that the amount and nature of individual tuition was inadequate. We did, however, provide illustrative examples of the type of specialised tuition, which existed in a number of authorities. These included two models of reading center, a dyslexia unit attached to an independent school and a unit, which formed part of an Occupational Therapy Department (OTD) of a large hospital. Parents were generally very satisfied with such forms of provision which they felt were tailored to their child's needs. However, with the exception of the unit attached to the OTD, there was evidence that specialised provision was focused on boys and middle class children.

General Findings - Key Concerns of Particular Groups


Parents favored the use of the term "Dyslexia" rather than specific learning difficulties, some considered that the term specific learning difficulties was used by education authorities in order to evade their responsibility to make available specialised provision. Many were in favour of maintaining a firm distinction between different types of learning difficulties because they felt a stigma was attached to global learning difficulties, whereas this was not the case with regard to specific learning difficulties.

Parents felt that teachers should be more alert to the early signs of learning difficulties and should take prompt action to arrange an assessment.

Many parents felt that children received insufficient individual tuition and that teachers lacked knowledge of specialised teaching methods. They disliked the apparent readiness of schools to label parents who expressed concern about their children's progress as fussy and neurotic. They also felt that teachers could improve their communication skills, explaining clearly the nature of the child's difficulties and the proposed action.

There was some evidence that parents were increasingly aware of their rights and were willing to use the legislation to secure the provision they felt their child required. Many parents had been in contact with voluntary organisation's and found them supportive both in terms of providing information about specific learning difficulties and contacts with psychologists and tutors.

Middle class parent's tended to be more dissatisfied with assessment and educational provision then working class parents.

Voluntary Organisations

Secretaries of local branches of the Scottish Dyslexia Association indicated that they preferred the term "specific learning difficulties" to "Dyslexia". This was because they considered such difficulties to be constitutional in origin rather than primarily due to general low ability or social emotional problems.

The role of the voluntary organisations was primarily one of parental support, such as general advice on how to cope with the problems of dyslexia, arranging contacts for the private assessment of children, advising on appropriate teaching methods, helping to find a suitable tutor, putting parents in touch with others in a similar position and informing parents of their legal rights.

There was concern that the education system failed to identify a substantial proportion of children with specific learning difficulties and identification was often too late in the school career, leading to deterioration in learning and behaviour. The view was expressed that most dyslexic children would not respond to ordinary remedial teaching and required one-to-one tuition.

Although the work of individual learning support teachers and psychologists was regarded with approval, voluntary organisations felt that the prevailing philosophy within education authorities was opposed to the recognition of the particular needs of children with specific learning difficulties, leading to learning support which was inadequate and inappropriate.

The following measures were advocated by voluntary organisations:

  • Increased withdrawal of children from mainstream class for individual tuition, particularly based on multi-sensory methods, specialised reading centers, general learning support beyond S2, focused on assisting children to circumvent their problems.
  • The opening of Records of Needs was not seen as necessarily the best solution as a means of ensuring appropriate provision for children with specific learning difficulties. Rather, it was felt that such provision should be generally available and brought into play as required.

Learning Support Teachers

Although the term 'specific learning difficulties' was used by most teachers, two thirds said they would use the term 'dyslexia' on at least some occasions. The latter term was felt to have a more precise meaning and was taken to refer to problems in delivering written symbols. More experienced learning support teachers were more likely to use the term than those with less experience.

Learning support teachers who claimed to use the term 'dyslexia' reported greater confidence in being able to help children with specific learning difficulties than those who did not. They were also more likely to report that guidelines on specific learning difficulties existed in their school.

Primary learning support teachers reported collaboration with colleagues in identifying children with specific learning difficulties, where as secondary learning support teachers recognised themselves as having sole responsibility. Perhaps because of the greater degree of collaboration in primary schools, learning support teachers in that sector expressed greater awareness of and confidence in systematic identification procedures than their secondary colleagues.

Learning support teachers reported that the most common terms of educational provision for children with specific learning difficulties was in the mainstream class with withdrawal for individual tuition. Withdrawal was more common in primary than secondary and more primary than secondary teachers considered that withdrawal for individual tuition was the most important aspect of the learning support teacher's role.

In the secondary sector, there appeared to be more concern that if children were withdrawn they would lose touch with the mainstream curriculum. In addition, learning difficulties at this stage were seen as less subject to remediation.

In terms of the relative importance of their role, learning support teachers felt that cooperative teaching and consultancy were the most important. Fewer teachers saw withdrawing children for individual tuition as the most important aspect of their work.

A majority of learning support teachers said that they did have teaching materials, which were suitable for children with specific learning difficulties. However, in most cases these were regarded as being appropriate for all children with specific learning difficulties, including those with more global learning difficulties.

Learning support teachers met parents of children with specific learning difficulties at parents' evenings, but individual consultation without this established framework appeared less common.

Learning support teachers felt that they themselves needed more training in the area of specific learning difficulties (only a third of those in the survey held the DIPSEN). Some who had completed the DIPSEN felt that insufficient time had been spent on specific learning difficulties.

On the whole, learning support teachers felt that too many demands were made of them in the context of limited resources and range of learning of learning difficulties with which they had to deal. Where they felt they could not meet the needs of all children, they established their own priorities and children with the most severe difficulties often received priority.

Teacher educators and pre-service teachers

The teacher educators we spoke to, who were involved in pre-service training in the area of learning difficulties, supported the view that some children experienced and unexpected discrepancy in achievement in different areas, usually with regard to literacy and general measures of intelligence. Alongside this view, they supported a continuum model of learning difficulties and believed it would be difficult to separate out children with specific learning difficulties from others with more global learning difficulties.

At both colleges, the priorities of teacher educators were to provide student teachers with some understanding of differentiation, in particular the need to provide curricular materials at appropriate levels for individual children, and the roles of the learning support teacher as consultant and individual tutor. Providing detailed knowledge of specific learning difficulties was seen as less important at this point.

It was policy at both colleges that learning difficulties should permeate all programs as well as featuring in individual inputs. Opportunities to study certain areas such as, specific learning difficulties in more depth, was provided by electives, guided reading or research projects. In both colleges, developments were a foot to allow students to students to study specific learning difficulties in more depth.

Student teachers claimed to be familiar with the team specific learning difficulties, but only slightly more than half selected a definition based on the concept of a discrepancy in abilities (the definition most commonly held by the profession). The others chose a wide range of definitions, including problems specific to one child or a particular sensory disability.

Educators of student teachers in the primary sector considered that their approach to the teaching of reading was thorough and satisfactory, but primary student teachers felt that although they were well versed in theoretical aspects of the teaching of reading, they lacked practical knowledge.

Interviews with teacher educators involved in in-service training revealed different emphases in the two colleges. Those in College A were more likely to see specific learning difficulties as a distinctive category of learning difficulties, whilst acknowledging that children with specific learning difficulties may experience problems which vary in character and severity.

Those in College B were more reluctant to define children with specific learning difficulties as a discrete group and placed greater emphasis on the possibility that learning difficulties arose from problems in the curriculum rather than problems with the child's learning abilities.

Teacher educators in College A were raising the profile of specific learning difficulties in their training programs. Modules on specific learning difficulties formed optional and compulsory elements in the Diploma in special educational needs. These had been written, by a seconded educational psychologist, supported by the Dyslexia Trust.

College B was also planning to introduce a module on specific learning difficulties into their Diploma in Special Educational Needs.

Implications of Findings for Different Groups

Voluntary Organisations and Parents

It was evident that relationships between teachers and parents were often far from harmonious. Part of the onus for improvement lies with the educational professionals, but parents also need to communicate clearly that they wish to know how their child is being educated and how they can assist in this process.

Voluntary organisations and parents are concerned about the particular group of children or the individual child whose interests they are representing. Exerting pressure for better provision, perhaps using the legislative framework, is a valid enterprise. However, it is essential for parents and voluntary organisations to understand that education authorities are responsible for the education of all children and have to ensure an equable distribution of resources.

Education authority personnel

Education authority personnel have a responsibility to state clearly their policy position on specific learning difficulties and participate in an on-going dialogue with teachers, parents and voluntary organizations.

Given the present state of uncertainty about the best means of educating children with specific learning difficulties, education authorities should evaluate the effectiveness of different forms of provision.

Education authorities should ensure that access to special provision such as reading centers is equitable and does not favor class children.

Learning support teachers

Learning support teachers need to find a means of balancing the demands of their different roles. Given the wide-ranging nature of their work and the needs of individual children, they must draw up priorities in collaboration with the special needs adviser and communicate these to parents and the mainstream/class teacher.

Learning support teachers should have a clear conception of the future educational program for children with specific learning difficulties and monitor progress. They should also endeavour to enlist the help and support of parents, who can be valuable partners in the education of their children.

Better communication is required between learning support teachers and parents about the educational provision for individual children. Wolfendale (1989) has suggested the development of the formal parents' evening consultation into a parent/teacher conference, in which the child's progress is discussed and goals are set by and for both parent and teacher. The learning support teacher should be attentive to parents' anxieties and be willing to discuss possible forms of assessment and provision.

Participation in in-service training may be of value to some learning support teachers in developing knowledge and skills with regard to specific learning difficulties.

Class/subject teachers

Effective liaison with the learning support teacher is essential, so that the role of both teachers is understood and can be communicated clearly to parents. Sympathetic treatment of parents who express concern about their child's progress is important.

In-service training may help class and subject teachers to understand the particular problems of children with specific learning difficulties may be accommodated or circumvented.

Teacher educators

Teacher educators must accept that can only provide student teachers with a broad overview of learning difficulties and that a more in-depth approach is appropriate for in-service training.

They must ensure that at both pre-service and in-service stages teachers are encouraged to develop a critical and reflective stance, being made aware of the range of theories and prescriptions for practice which exist.


The study provided much evidence of tension arising in the area of specific learning difficulties as a result of conflicting national policies, competition for scarce resources, uncertainty over the fundamental causes of learning difficulties, disagreement over incidence and debates over what constitutes effective provision and how this should be measured. In addition, whereas parents were obliged to balance the needs of individuals against those of a wider group of children and this created disagreements over priorities.

Conflicts of interest and opinion seem likely to continue in this area. In so far as the various groups on whom the issue of specific learning difficulties impinges are prepared to try to understand the perspectives of others, the conflict may be less acrimonious and more constructive than in the past. More reflection and evaluation of their own practice on the part of many teachers, and a greater awareness on the part of parents of the responsibilities which schools shoulder for all pupils with many kinds of problems, could no doubt ease some of the tensions. There is, however, scant evidence that we are on the brink of a full and shared understanding, let alone a resolution, of these kinds of difficulties in learning. If real progress is to be achieved, fundamental and multi-disciplinary research is called for together with a determined examination of the inconsistencies in the educational policies relevant to this area and to special educational needs more generally.

Dr Gavin Reid, Head of Equity Studies, Moray House, University of Edinburgh, Scotland New Zealand