Misleading Headlines about Dyslexia Studies

I get angry when I read headlines that either intentionally mislead and inflame people about anything. Sometimes it’s done out of some form of laziness.  In this case the headlines and reporting are about dyslexia.

There’s been a recent study released that should lead to more kids getting more resources, opportunities for success and services.

Unfortunately there are some headlines that insinuate that dyslexia isn’t real.

In a recent study from Stanford University, scientists have zeroed in on the brain activation patterns of poor readers. They have found that these “brain activation maps” are similar in those with higher and lower IQs.

In other words, dyslexia doesn’t mean your dumb.  On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that just because you’re dyslexic, you’re automatically brilliant. The article’s title is, “Brain imaging study shows physiological basis of dyslexia.”

According to Stanford’s School of Medicine, “…in the wake of recent behavioral studies showing that phonological deficits — that is, difficulties in processing the sound system of language, which often leads to difficulties in connecting the sounds of language to letters — are similar in poor readers regardless of IQ.”

This is further evidence that, as Sally Shaywitz has argued previously, IQ and reading skills are not as coupled as many previously thought. While on the one hand this means that if you struggle with reading and spelling due to core phonological deficits in decoding and recoding of phonemes (speech sounds), it doesn’t reflect your capacity to be smart and successful, it also means that people who test out in the below average range of IQ can also be dyslexic. As some responsible folks have noted (including those from MIT and Stanford), these findings should lead to the opening up of resources for a broader range of students.

But here’s where I get angry:  There are articles with the following headlines, “Doubts raised over dyslexia diagnoses” with the subheading: “Dyslexia could be just a label, according to scientists, after a study of brain scans found there is little difference between the way children with the condition think while trying to read and those who simply have a low IQ.”

Again, direct from Stanford (who did the study):

“Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an imaging technique to show that the brain activation patterns in children with poor reading skills and a low IQ are similar to those in poor readers with a typical IQ. The work provides more definitive evidence about poor readers having similar kinds of difficulties regardless of their general cognitive ability.”

Is it just me, or does this upset anyone else?

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
This entry was posted in Discussion Topics, Education Issues and Ideas, News, Reading, Writing, and Math, Social Issues and Ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Misleading Headlines about Dyslexia Studies

  1. Liz Ditz says:

    The poor science writing is an issue bigger than just dyslexia.

  2. Sanford says:

    Amen, Liz. I totally agree. Caring less and less about being accurate, and more about being heard is becoming rampant.

    This one though, hits close to home.

    Good to hear from you.

  3. It upsets me too! I suggest action. Consider writing a letter to the editor when they see this kind of bias. Send a copy of your letter to;

    The reporter
    The ombudsmen if the paper has one
    The publisher
    Local advocacy groups for dyslexia

    If they publish the letter, it may help spread the right information.

  4. John Hayes says:

    The quality of information about dyslexia is generally poor with significant bias towards using MRI studies as the gold standard and acting as if every new study cancels what was determined in previous studies. For those who place great value on MRI studies Consider that all the children in MRI dyslexia studies are actually put into the different groups determined by standard pen and paper testing combined with oral tests. It is never the other way around because you can not determine what group someone belongs to by MRI.

    The dyslexia and IQ issue has basically had 2 sides . The first side is that all the studies over the last 10 years or more have shown that dyslexia is not related to IQ. I guess we can now believe it since it has been “proven by MRI”.

    The second side is the feel good statements that dyslexics have average or above IQ’s . Not one study has come to that conclusion. It is only observational and due to the fact that lower IQ people were excluded from consideration combined with the fact that higher IQ dyslexics are more easily noticed, evaluated diagnosed.

    The importance of the concept of dyslexia and IQ not being related is that lower IQ children have often improperly been excluded from consideration as being dyslexic and so are missing out on the opportunity of help that comes with being diagnosed dyslexic. Please read that long run-on sentence again. Presently dyslexic children with lower IQ’s who could benefit from interventions as well as the smarter dyslexics are not being given the chance to be considered as dyslexic because of their lower IQs. That must be changed.

    To give an indication of how dated the information about Dyslexia and IQ actually is feel free to read the article I posted in Aug/2006 that was based on years of earlier studies that basically said that dyslexia and IQ were not related.

    There were even some good studies that identified lower IQ dyslexics and determined that they benefited from dyslexia intervention as much as the higher IQ dyslexics did. Yes , those studies have already been done where lower IQ dyslexics have been diagnosed and given dyslexia interventions with the results that their improvements from interventions were similar to the higher IQ dyslexics given the same interventions.

    Here is the article I wrote in 2006 dyslexiaglasses.com/dyslexia_myths_revisited.html . It was based on information available from many years before 2006.

  5. Sanford says:

    Dale, great suggestions. Good spirit!

  6. Sanford says:

    “acting as if every new study cancels what was determined in previous studies” True for many areas. That’s why this all gets confusing for many folks. Coffee’s good…prevents certain cancers…coffee is extremely harmful. That’s why Liz’s comment is spot on.

    I’m not sure I get your point about MRI’s. Are they not good tools?

  7. John Hayes says:

    My point about MRI’s is that they are good for verifying information that is basically already known but with much lower resolution than pen and paper tests combined with interviews.

    The results of every dyslexia MRI study is always the same. The results show the difference between groups of dyslexics and groups of non- dyslexics with enough overlap between the results that individuals can not be identified as being dyslexic or not.

    If someone goes into a educational psychologist’s office and takes the required tests , when the results are evaluated a conclusion will be arrived at that reports if someone ids dyslexic or not.

    You will not find anyone willing to determine if an individual is dyslexic or not by MRI because the machine does not have the resolution and there will be too many false negative and false positives.

    That is not to say that MRI dyslexia studies are not valuable for research . but generally the driving force is that prior paper studies evaluate something like phonological processing problems and conclude that most dyslexics have phonological processing problems . That is followed by someone that has identified the brain area where phonological processing takes place and then looks for differences between groups of dyslexics and non dyslexics and then reports that there are differences between groups of dyslexics and non dyslexics in that area. The MRI results are then reported as new information when they are basically verification of older studies.

    In my opinion the glory should go to the people who do the original testing and develop the new information rather than someone who already knows the answer and uses a machine that can’t be assured of definitive results on someone as having that problem by that method MRI.

    The biggest flaw with dyslexia reporting is the focus on the idea that there are some universal characteristics of dyslexia. The truth is that while come dyslexia problems are more common than others ( phonological processing is one) none are common to all dyslexics except poor reading skills . This leads to the conclusion that less common but still associated problems ( like short term memory problems) are not always tested for and so interventions will tend to not address all associated problems because they are not universal.That is a major reason that all interventions have non responders and improvements in dyslexia interventions will only be made when more complete testing methods are developed and used.

    This throwing out the research baby with the bath water actually degrades the understanding of dyslexia rather than improves it . My niche of visual dyslexia is a prime example. When dyslexia was considered to be visual that was not true for most dyslexics. Visual problems were never universal and so it was often reported that dyslexia and vision are not related which was also not true. The real nail in the coffin for vision as causal was describing dyslexics as seeing backwards because dyslexics often wrote letters backwards since most beginning students tend to write backward letters sometimes dyslexic or not. There are an assortment of real visual problems that make seeing text in a complete, stable, and uniform manner that make reading very difficult for a significant minority of dyslexics but because they are not universal problems they are not tested for and so less likely to be addressed.

    People also tend to forget that MRI studies have been done on the visual centers of the brain with the same differences reported between groups of dyslexics and non dyslexics as the other areas of the brain associated with reading . Visual dyslexia actually is easily self identified with most dyslexics reporting no visual problems and visual dyslexics reporting their specific problems if asked about how the see the letters and words on the page. 2 common comments by visual dyslexics are that they could read if the words would stay still or always look the same.

    Anyway MRIs are never going to be used as a general diagnostic tool for dyslexia and have as yet not diagnosed their first dyslexic. Close observation of communication skill problems can identify most dyslexics well before they enter school . Visual dyslexics without communication problems are normally only identified when test is encountered or the print size is reduced about 3rd grade.

  8. Richard says:

    John: I’m delighted to read your well reasoned and written comments here. I hadn’t had time until this morning but I tend to agree with your idea that language based learning disabilities and IQ (high or low) have no relation and I’ve been saying this for years (at this very site).

    I think the legacy of linking higher than average IQ with dyslexia comes from years of linking dyslexia with mental retardation, it’s a defensive reaction and understandably so. However, the most vocal users of this defense aren’t the diagnostic community, they’re the parents of the kids who are labeled.

    I think the legacy of linking IQ and dyslexia comes from social spin and eventually the diagnostic community gave the people who were funding it what they wanted by attempting to make the case scientifically.

    I know this sounds like a grand conspiracy and in many ways it was and may still be.

    This isn’t to say that I’ve not gotten a lot from listening to Sally Shaywitz talk about her FMRI work and the struggle of people with dyslexia to read and the fact that we’re not processing fast enough preventing us from building an efficient automatic decoding engine, this makes great sense and it certainly explains what I think is my own personal experience. But, the link to IQ… that’s exactly as you say it is.

    Thank you.

  9. Sanford says:

    Good comments. John, for me, one of the most important contributions you’re making with your arguments is society’s tendency to swing like pendulums, applications of and funding of research included. I’ve been involved with the dyslexia community for over 25 years now. I couldn’t agree more with the notion that there does not appear to be universal traits of dyslexia that everyone has, except for difficulties in reading and spelling. That may be because it’s rare to find someone with pure dyslexia, as it’s defined, without having some other aspects to their learning profile that plays a role in their struggle. There are some out there (and these may be some of the high profile, highly achieving dyslexic role models that are trotted out so often, such as John Chambers and Charles Schwab). I don’t know that for a fact, but only having difficulties with phonemic, small structural elements for symbols for print (single word decoding) is less the norm than what I have seen over the years. Some dyslexics have higher or lower degrees of language retrieval issues, syntax anomalies for example. Some consequently do not have the gift of gab. So the rest get left out.

    And that’s another piece to this intelligence/dyslexia discussion: Until such time that we have more complete ways to measure and ascertain intelligence we can’t say anything for sure. IQ tests, as much as I use them to good advantage, and can tell me important things, are so heavily weighted towards language and logical thinking, that they are not effective and true indicators of intelligence in a practical sense and thus the suppositions that follow are incomplete.

    The trends have surely been heavily leaning away from any visual aspects of learning and reading disabilities. I for one have been swayed by the preponderance of literature as well as my own experience as an LD specialist, towards the language-learning aspect and roots of dyslexia. However, as you mention John, the complete negation and disregard for any visual aspect is a degradation of open mindedness. Over the years I’ve worked with countless individuals who clearly (to me) have language processing weaknesses who also are affected by glare on paper for example or who misread and transpose visual sequences that appear to have little to do with phonemics.

    The grand conspiracy is that we love to find the best and brightest in any underdog group. This relates to Richard’s pointing out that it’s often parents who are most guilty of this. The problem is that leaves unnoticed the far greater number of folks who have a complex of issues and whose expressive or retrieval of language issues mask their ability to think and problem-solve. So, who are we to even say that the group of lower IQ kids means what we think it means.

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  12. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an imaging technique to show that the brain activation patterns in children with poor reading skills and a low IQ are similar to those in poor readers with a typical IQ. The work provides more definitive evidence about poor readers having similar kinds of difficulties regardless of their general cognitive ability.”

    This is totally clear, but for people who are pressured for time or who are not familiar with the subject or style of writing in scientific articles it might still be confusing.
    As researches we can prevent such misunderstandings by considering to add a second abstract in lay language.

    • Sanford says:

      Not only do lay people need some clarity, but even reporters of reputable publications mess it up sometimes. There was a recent reporting of this study in a major publication that was highly misleading and inaccurate. In it, it said that here was no difference between the brain activation patterns of dyslexics and non-dyslexics. It should have stated that there were no differences between poor readers with higher or lower IQ’s. Needless to say, I wrote in to the editor.

  13. Billy says:



  14. Sanford says:

    I hear you. Having dyslexia doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. That’s what the whole point is. Dyslexia does not equal stupid and doesn’t mean automatic giftedness. It means reading and spelling are difficult to some degree because of some underlying processing differences.


  15. abm says:

    The standard pen and paper testing has limitation too: (1) age (2) accuracy as well. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the better outcome the intervention may have. Imaging research potentially could be used as tool to diagnose dyslexia way before the children learn to read. Now it is still not clear, that’s why we need to do research.

    • Sanford says:

      It’s good to get as much information as you can, pencil paper and otherwise. And, especially relying on IQ tests, it’s crucial to get work samples when attempting to judge anyone’s capacity. In terms of dyslexia, earlier diagnosis is one of the best ingredients for success and even prevention of great difficulties. It’s not the only factor, but definitely important. By looking at things like Rapid Naming and Phonological Processing as well as alphabetic principles, we can get close to getting a sense of brain tendencies without fmri’s.

  16. Kristy says:

    I believe my 8 year old son to be dyslexic and I have for over 3 years and the school psychologists and IEP teachers basically blow me off when ever I bring it up. Everything I read online about dyslexia points me in that direction. Now my son will be 9 in a few days and is severely behind in reading and writing and still flips letters and numbers even in his own name, which he knows. They are telling me he has a low IQ so he can not have a learning disability, that a learning disability is someone with normal or high IQ, but still struggles. I just can not understand how his IQ can be accurately tested if he can not read well. He also struggles holding his pencil ( he holds it upside down, with the eraser away from him, like a left handed person) and they tested him and said he has eye tracking issues. They are suggesting he must be autistic, although they can not diagnose. However…. my son is very affectionate and talks all the time, he can sometimes be quite around some people, but not at all around people he knows. He also is able to learn, if for example he watches a documentary or youtube video on a subject. He also seems to do okay with match, with the exception of flipping numbers ( i.e. 41 becomes 14) For example he was on the phone with my mom and told her it was 901 today and tomorrow it will be 601, talking about the temperature. It was 109 and 106.

    I guess, I am wondering if someone has learning disabilities can they also have a low IQ or perhaps the IQ is not accurately assessed.

    • Sanford says:

      Kristy, I’ll answer your last question, about IQ and LD. There are two answers: 1. Intelligence and dyslexia (and LD in general) are “uncoupled.” Basically this means they aren’t connected. You can have a lower, average or higher intelligence factor (IQ) and also have LDs. They aren’t connected. And 2: IQ tests as good as they can be, don’t necessarily depict intelligence. It can do a good job of demonstrating acquired knowledge and some problem solving ability. Is a slow reading but gifted plumber or sailor or electrician not intelligent? Or are our assessment tools limited?

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