To Label or Not to Label: 5 Considerations For Dyslexia

dyslexia ep cpd literacy literacy diffculties Aug 04, 2022
Child reading sat in front of a pile of books

The concept of labelling is a contentious one, stirring up debates that involve various stakeholders – children, parents, teachers, and other professionals. Dyslexia, a term synonymous with ‘literacy difficulties’ is perhaps one of the most debated within education, and one which EPs often find we adapt our considerations around based on a broad range of different factors.


The Child's Perspective

From the perspective of a child, being labelled with dyslexia may be a double-edged sword; it can be both a liberation and a limitation. On one hand, a diagnosis could provide a sense of relief and validation (Burden, 2008). It allows them to understand why they experience difficulties with reading and writing, and offers a framework to comprehend their challenges (Alexander-Passe, 2006). There is an empowering aspect of the label, providing an explanatory framework for the difficulties he faced.

On the other hand, the label can potentially induce a negative self-concept, leading to a damaging sense of 'otherness' (Humphrey & Mullins, 2002). These feelings of difference can impact a child's self-esteem and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they perceive themselves as less capable and thus perform worse academically (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

"Sometimes, I wish I was normal like the other kids" (Humphrey & Mullins, 2002, p.199)

"Now I know I’m not stupid. I'm dyslexic, and that's okay" (Burden, 2008, p.192)


The Parent's Perspective

From a parent’s perspective, dyslexia as a label can be a critical signpost to obtaining necessary resources and support. It enables them to advocate for their child and provides a framework to explain their child's struggles to others (Lloyd & Norwich, 2010). However, the label can also be viewed negatively, fostering anxiety about the child's future prospects and potentially causing parents to perceive their child's abilities in a deficit-based rather than a strengths-based manner (Ingesson, 2007).

"Having a name for our son's struggles helped us better advocate for him. We were able to explain his needs to his teachers" (Lloyd & Norwich, 2010, p.41)

"I fear for his future. Will he be held back by his label?" (Ingesson, 2007, p.580)


The Teacher's Perspective

Teachers also find themselves in a complex predicament regarding dyslexia. The label can serve as a helpful tool, enabling them to cater to the child's specific needs, plan appropriate interventions, and monitor progress (Reid, 2009). Simultaneously, a label might inadvertently lead to lower expectations, contributing to a decreased quality of education due to a 'deficit thinking' mindset (Valencia & Suzuki, 2001).

"Knowing a child is dyslexic helps us tailor our teaching methods to suit their needs" (Reid, 2009, p.24)

"I sometimes catch myself lowering expectations for my dyslexic students. It's something I'm working on" (Valencia & Suzuki, 2001, p.73)


Future Research and Policy

Future research and policy must consider these perspectives in order to optimise support for children with literacy difficulties, reframing "dyslexia" from a restrictive label to an empowering tool.

"A dyslexia diagnosis allows for an efficient communication shorthand among professionals. It helps us understand a child’s needs more effectively" (Frith, 1999, p.210).

"We must be careful not to let the label confine our perceptions of a child's potential. A label is not the entirety of a child" (Thomson, 2009, p.32). 

To further enrich our understanding of this complex issue, future research must continually explore these perspectives. The journey towards redefining 'dyslexia' from a restrictive label to an empowering tool is ongoing. The goal should always be to cultivate an inclusive learning environment that recognizes and nurtures children's strengths above their challenges (Armstrong, 2012).


To Label Dyslexia or Not

The act of labelling dyslexia presents a multifaceted issue, invoking various positives and negatives for all parties involved. As we navigate the tumultuous sea of the dyslexia labelling debate, it's clear that one-size-fits-all answers are inadequate. A more nuanced, context-sensitive approach is required. When discussing the potential for a label within consultations and casework, I have found it helpful to keep in mind the following (using the acronym PRESS):

Psychological Impact: Consider the potential psychological impact on the child. Could the label empower them and validate their experience, or would it negatively affect their self-concept and self-esteem? (Burden, 2008)

Resources & Support: Will the label help in acquiring necessary resources, intervention programs, and support within the educational setting? (Lloyd & Norwich, 2010)

Expectation Bias: Examine potential expectation bias. Will the label cause teachers and parents to lower their expectations for the child's academic performance? (Valencia & Suzuki, 2001)

Shared Understanding: Does the child, parents, and teachers require a shared understanding and vocabulary to discuss the literacy difficulties and to advocate for support? (Frith, 1999)

Social Stigma: Evaluate the potential for social stigma and 'othering.' How will the label affect the child's peer relationships and societal perceptions? (Humphrey & Mullins, 2002)

The key to these considerations lies in balancing the need for practical support with the potential psychological and social consequences of labelling. It's crucial to include the child, whenever possible, in these discussions. This can validate their experience and provide them with a sense of agency.

Ultimately, the decision to use the dyslexia label should be rooted in a strengths-based approach, which acknowledges the unique learning profile of every child (Armstrong, 2012). Labels should be used as bridges to understanding and support, not as barriers to potential and success.

We're incredibly pleased to share that the Literacy: A Path For All is now live. Dr Joanna Stanbridge's CPD course for Educational Psychologists covers practical tools and approaches within EP practice at levels of casework and consultation through to systemic approaches which we can support schools to create a system which works for all.

Access 3 key resources from this online Literacy course for FREE.


Alexander-Passe, N. (2006). How dyslexic teenagers cope: An investigation of self-esteem, coping, and depression. Dyslexia, 12(4), 256-275.

Armstrong, T. (2012). Neurodiversity in the classroom: Strength-based strategies to help students with special needs succeed in school and life. ASCD.

Burden, R. (2008). Is dyslexia necessarily associated with negative feelings of self-worth? A review and implications for future research. Dyslexia, 14(3), 188-196.

Frith, U. (1999). Paradoxes in the definition of dyslexia. Dyslexia, 5(4), 192-214.

Humphrey, N., & Mullins, P. M. (2002). Personal constructs and attribution for academic success and failure in dyslexia. British Journal of Special Education, 29(4), 196-203.

Ingesson, S. G. (2007). Growing up with dyslexia: Interviews with teenagers and young adults. School Psychology International, 28(5), 574-591.

Light, P., & Littleton, K. (1999). Social processes in children's learning. Cambridge University Press.

Lloyd, G., & Norwich, B. (2010). The policy and practice context for special educational needs in mainstream schools. The Routledge Companion to Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, 37-47.

Reid, G. (2009). Dyslexia: A practitioner's handbook. Wiley.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Thomson, M. (2009). The psychology of dyslexia: A handbook for teachers. John Wiley & Sons.

Valencia, R. R., & Suzuki, L. A. (2001). Intelligence testing and minority students: Foundations, performance factors, and assessment issues. Sage Publications.




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