Schools contribute to the dyslexia epidemic

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

AI is wrong about dyslexia

ChatGPT is wrong. It stubbornly sticks to the "scientific consensus". It says:

Dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual's ability to read, write, and spell. Dyslexia is believed to have a genetic basis. It is not caused by schools. Schools provide support for students with dyslexia

The opposite is true. In a vast majority of cases, dyslexia has nothing to do with the genes, or the "neurodevelopment".

The main cause of dyslexia today are coercive practices in early reading amplified by the trillion-dollar business of the dyslexia lobby

Coercion in learning

The push for early reading is one of the causes of the epidemic of dyslexia.

While the mythology and misguided research call for an early detection and an early intervention, the opposite strategy is correct.

The biggest clue comes from democratic schools and from unschoolers. When there is no pressure, children learn to read on their own, at their own pace and time.

The mechanism by which schools generate dyslexia is pretty simple and obvious to a behaviorist. However, it is largely unknown to or dismissed by the "experts" in early reading.

Patterns and feedback in reading

In a healthy child, the process of learning to read has a form of continual interplay of pattern recognition, memory associations, conditioning, neural feedback, and generalization.

In pattern recognition, we have (1) the neural apparatus for recognizing text and (2) the systems for decoding penalties and rewards. In a healthy reading process, the main incentive for reading is the pleasure of discovering the meaning. When text patterns are associated with a meaning, when new knowledge flows into the reader's brain, the series of rewards results in fast progression towards proficient reading.

In text pattern recognition, the brain picks up individual letters, letter combinations, syllables, frequently occurring sequences, etc. Those are then associated with the semantics hidden behind the text. The source of initial semantic feedback might be pictures in a cartoon, audio in a movie, context (e.g. in advertising), or a helpful tutor. Each time a meaning is decoded, the reward signal is sent, and the new knowledge gets sealed paving way to long term consolidation. Through neural feedback and abstraction, grammar and semantics play an increasing role in determining further progress. The entire process is highly pleasurable.

In reading, text patterns are consolidated by the pleasure of discovery

In a pathological setting, the main outcome of pattern recognitions is penalty. This penalty may stem externally from a reading instructor or an observer. Over time, that penalty generalizes into an inner decoding failure penalty stemming from the frustration with the slow progress or with errors in reading.

In pathological settings, the conditioning is not guided by the rewards of meaning. It is determined by the externally driven penalties of boredom, impatience, frustration, anger, stress, anxiety, fear, or even physical pain (in children suffering corporal punishment as a result of slow progress). At school, slow readers are penalized by grades, criticism, peer ridicule, peer ostracism, parental dissatisfaction, screentime limits, playtime limits, confiscated devices, and ultimately by one's own negative self-assessment.

Instead of building the fabric of reading skills, the child builds an entirely different behavioral toolset that is based on avoidance. A combination of letters, a word, a person, a room, or even a book associated with reading will trigger anxiety and avoidance behavior. If learning is coerced, marginal gains in useful memories may well be outweighed by the associated stress and a continual buildup of negative associations with reading. Incorrect associations result in memory interference that makes it hard to build memories needed for reading.

In pathological reading, text patterns are associated with displeasure that interferes with memories required for reading

Various degrees of educational dyslexia develop in proportion to the ratio of rewards and penalties in reading.

The right course

In learning to read, the first thing to begin with is the motivation. If the child is not interested in reading, the stage is set for educational dyslexia. No children should ever be forced to read if they are not motivated to learn!

All a child needs to learn to read is: (1) motivation and (2) textual information with sematic feedback (e.g. a cartoon, a computer game, a YouTube video, a book with colorful pictures, or a helpful person). All learning material must be chosen by the child herself because there is no universal book or video that can do the job. The only guidance is learntropy, which maximizes the effects of learning.

The problem with schooling is that adults do not care about readiness and interests. All countries have their deadlines in which the child should read. The natural age, according to Peter Gray, might be as late as 9-14 years old. When a child does not meet the deadline, the pressure increases. In many cases, the extra measures only add to the stress of reading and make things worse. While correct memory associations will form sooner or later, the dislike of reading may last a lifetime.

A child will learn to read if she has (1) motivation and (2) access to texts with semantic feedback


Dyslexics are often of above average intelligence. Normal intelligence is actually part of the diagnosis to exclude organic causes.

The fact that a great deal of genius minds confess to dyslexia comes from two reasons:

  • extended developmental trajectory is a hallmark of high intelligence, but can also result in delays in reading that contribute to inducing dyslexia (see: precocity paradox)
  • semantic brain is a great springboard to genius minds. However, sematic brain is also equipped with high reactance and own educational preferences (e.g. whole word over phonics, guesswork, etc.)

Schools have a bad impact on intelligence (see: 100 bad habits learned at school), however, they often hurt the intelligent the most. Dyslexia is a phenomenon in which intelligence is often penalized. The brain that refuses to comply with the school regime is branded as slow or retarded. It should be celebrated instead.

Dyslexia is often associated with high intelligence and trouble at school


Well-schooled opinion with roots in the dyslexia lobby is that there is insufficient evidence for the claims in the presented text in peer-reviewed literature. The mountain of anecdotal evidence collected by dr Peter Gray is scoffed.

All new breakthrough scientific models are born as seeds in human heads (AI is not yet allowed to go wild). This is why we need to step away from the well-schooled approach in which all ideas must first be published in scientific literature. We need to open the discussion in social media. A half-baked idea born in one head, may find its completion in another head. I spoke about two component model of memory as of 1988. I was always asked about "support in literature". I could answer the doubters only in 1995, when I finally decided to publish the model myself. The evidence did not change; however, for the well-schooled, peer review often counts for more than evidence.

Educational origins of dyslexia have been brewing in many heads since the 1970s, however, the attribution of g uilt was often incorrect. Individual proponents tended to attribute educational dyslexia to specific methods of instruction: phonics, whole-word method (Sam Blumenfeld) or the syllabic method.

Excellent evidence on the power of coercion to induce dyslexia comes from children who receive the diagnosis of dyslexia as a result of pressure at home or at school, and then effortlessly learn to read in another language in another setting. This includes success of learning at school at lesser pressure, or learning a language that is allegedly less conducive for developing dyslexia. The cases described in literature, however, misinterpret that selective dislexia to language differences (e.g. orthographic depth).

Another hint comes from democratic schools with Sudbury Valley School reporting no kids with dyslexia in their six-decade long history.

In Poland, we now have an excellent observational battleground where a free digital School in the Cloud releases thousands of kids from coercive schooling generating a serial flow of cases where dyslexic kids improve dramatically when the pressure of school is taken away. I spoke to many of those kids personally.

The damage to the mental health of children is too monumental to wait. We need to stop coercing children. Better evidence in a wider peer-reviewed study will come independently.

The evidence for educational dyslexia is strong enough to immediately cease all forms of coercion in learning to read


Figure: Coercion in learning, displeasure of failure, incoherent memories, toxic memory and the pressure to succeed provide a set of complex positive feedback loops that lead to educational dyslexia. The main source of pleasure in reading is the discovery of meaning. Pleasure of learning provides for solid consolidation of memory of high coherence. In contrast, the main source of displeasure in reading is the pressure of schooling, frustration, and auto-coercion. The basis of learning to read is the motivation to understand written text. For more, see: Pleasure of learning

Further reading

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru