Does Labeling Students as “Dyslexic” Disable Teachers’ Confidence?

If teachers believe that a student has a psychological learning impairment that is biologically-based, the teachers are less likely to believe that they can help the student, according to research presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Education and Child Psychology.

The research was presented by Newcastle University educational psychology professor Simon Gibbs, stated a report on the British Psychological Society (BPS) website.

“Dr Gibbs asked a sample of primary school teachers to complete two questionnaires about children who were having difficulty with learning to read,” explained the BPS. “One questionnaire sought to discover how much the teachers believed they could do to help the children. The other questionnaire sought to discover the extent to which the teachers believed that the children’s difficulties were ’essential’- that is, how far they marked out the difficulties as having a distinct biological basis.”

One version of the two questionnaires, however, described children who had “dyslexia,” while a second version of the questionnaires described children who had “reading difficulties.” About 130 teachers responded to either of these versions.

The results “indicated that the label ‘dyslexia’ evoked responses that suggested it was seen as a fixed disability, and that the teachers believed their ability to help children with ‘dyslexia’ was unlikely to develop over time,” stated the BPS report. “By contrast, the teachers who had been asked about ‘reading difficulties’ were less likely to see the children’s problems as permanent; were also more likely to believe that they would be able to help them, and that their skills developed with experience.”

Gibbs commented that, “These findings challenge the value of labels like ‘dyslexia’, which may be used as shorthand descriptors for the difficulties some children experience. These labels may be of illusory benefit because they reduce teachers’ belief in their ability to help the children. As a result the labels could be ultimately unhelpful to the children’s wellbeing and educational progress.”

Does the ‘dyslexia’ label disable teachers? (British Psychological Society, January 8, 2015)