To label or not to label

Dyslexia is not a disease, and is not caused by a damaged brain.

Although having dyslexia means that learning and performing based on reading and understanding may be difficult or even impossible , most dyslexics are blessed with a higher than average  intelligence, creative abilities and a dynamic  perceptual talent enhancing their performance in strategic planning, inventing, engineering, architecture, music, and manual skills, to mention but a few..


So then, why is having dyslexia often seen as an unfavourable, stigmatising label, so much so that most of our educational and psychological professionals in South Africa  refuse to use the word? The word is even taboo in some individual and franchised private schools where teachers are prohibited to use the word. (Funny, they do not mind using the word Ritalin!)

Parents are often left with evaluations referring to their child’s working memory, performance levels, abstract visual reasoning skills, conceptual thinking  (below average), etc., but the diagnosis of (possible) dyslexia is often not mentioned.

As a fully trained Davis Dyslexia Correction Facilitator, I am perplexed as to the reason why parents bring their dyslexic child for the week’s 30-hour treatment, but refuse me to use the word “dyslexia” in front of their children. Most of them say they do not want their child to be labelled. It seems they fear the child might be bullied in school.

What they do not realise, is that their child is already labelled as having a learning disability – that is why the school, and/or other specialist therapists have referred him/her to me to address the apparent dyslexia problem!

What is a label?

Neutral label:  a piece of paper or other material that gives you information about the object it is attached to, like inside your  trousers indicating the size, and to how clean it..). No problem with these labels (only perhaps those nasty non-diplomatic reminders that my clothing size is still XXL!)

Labeling theory is a study field in deviant sociology developed in the 1960’s to address deviant behaviour of how the perception of oneself and one’s behavior are often shaped by daily interaction in a community (e.g. school). Communities have many unwritten rules and norms, and even more so in a school-community.  Here the Self is constructed and reconstructed through the daily interactions of the learner with his peers, teachers and the extended community (parents and relatives).  Here the learners get non-intentional feedback-labels which are used to describe and classify the learner:

  • clever, brilliant
  • outstanding performance
  • an example
  • can do better
  • underperformed
  • slow or fast
  • try harder next time …


Some of these, let’s call it scholastic stereotypes, appear formally in teacher-comments on assignments and tests, (very good, brilliant, try harder next time, Fail! Come see me…).  The repertoire is not big, as it is understandably difficult for a teacher to give unique individualised comments on 30-40 daily assignments or tests papers (the size of most of our classes in SA).  However, these types of comment very easily become stereotypes, linked to a person to whom the comments are directed on a regular basis. Johnny always gets a try harder label and Sue is always brilliant.  The few times that Johnny did try harder and delivered better work, the try harder comment may not appear, but no other comment is made as replacement!  Johnny has the  permanent label of a learner who will do better if only he tries harder and harder.  The sad reality is that Johnny has probably long ago reached the limit of his ability to “try harder”. Johnny is now most probably busy to do or already past the point where his Self-image is being formed by what he thinks (or knows) others are  thinking of him.  One of the American Sociologists who coined the concept of social interactionism, George Mead (1935) found that this feedback a person gets is the main creator of human behaviour, both real and imaginary.owever, these

The Dyslexic and her/his labels.

“Am I learning disabled or … dys-learning abled?”   Watch this YouTube clip

The majority of young learners who show symptoms of dyslexia are very aware that at most times of any day they experience some form of a  learning disability.  The disability can feature in reading, spelling, writing and Math.  As we all know, schooling is heavily based on reading and writing.  The person with a reading disability usually knows there is a problem with his/her reading, (often already in preschool and is labelling himself as having a learning disability: “I cannot read.”  As the words “learning disability” is most probably not part of his vocabulary, he/she judges him/herself as dumb, stupid, lazy.

Negative labelling:

Comments from teachers (“you have again not prepared” , “try again”,  “it’s not that difficult”, “focus!”) and peers laughing and mocking, add to strengthen that self-perception. It becomes his negative label. Often one of a whole range of negative labels all derived from his problem with reading.

No two dyslexics are the same, and the learning disability is only one facet of dyslexia. As the Davis  School of thought has proven that dyslexia is mainly caused by confusion about a written or spoken symbol, we understand that when that confusion is not immediately solved, a myriad of distorted and false sensory perceptions are formed in the mind. To solve the confusion the dyslexic will most often assimilate incorrect data  like turning the letters around, guessing, over-concentrate or try any possible action to cope, which sadly, in most cases, will fail him/her.  The dyslexic will start to apply all sorts of compulsive / to help him out of the dilemma.  Instead of helping him to cope, it makes the problem worse, by adding more “negative labels” to his Self.

The professional label of “dyslexia”:

In my Davis Dyslexia Solutions practice, I prefer wherever possible, to have my potential clients first evaluated by educational professionals who has some sense of the concept of dyslexia.  Fortunately, most of the time the diagnoses are made by the resident Education Psychologist/Speech Therapist/Occupational Therapist at the school after the dyslexic child has been referred by the teacher(s) who noticed the developing of a learning disability.

There is no exact physical test (like a blood test) available for dyslexia.  But there are about 37  clear cut dyslexia indicators that have not failed us Davis facilitators in determining a certain level of dyslexia in a child. When these traits are discussed with the concerned parents, they often recognise in their child the behaviours and agree to the diagnosis of dyslexia.

Please take the Davis free online test for dyslexia.

These indicators or characteristics are the typical dyslexia-labels. We need to name them to change them.

However, difficulties and challenges arise when parents refuse to discuss dyslexia with their children, relatives and even teachers. Teachers are often hesitant to share their suspisions of dyslexia  with the parents.

Parents and teachers often do not realise that the dyslexic child is very well aware that he/she is already been given the overall label of “one with a learning disability”.  The child is daily bombarded with remarks like:

  • Fail!
  • You are not listening;
  • Stop dreaming;
  • Apply yourself;
  • Do not lie to me, you have not practised your spelling!
  • Sit still!
  • Don’t be lazy.
  • Homework again not done;
  • Try harder ….


I am not even going to repeat remarks from peer groups.

His marks are most of the times below average, his handwriting often  is a mess, she forgets books at home, and spend most of his day day-dreaming.  His self-esteem plummets, and it is not unusual for a nine-year-old child already on anti-depressant meds.

Learning the truth:

Eventually, the dyslexic child will learn the truth.  During  a parent-teacher meeting, it’s often the teacher who is recommending intervention, referring the child to a Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Psychologist and eventually to the GP for his chronic dosage of Ritalin and similar drugs.

By now the child is officially aware that something seriously is wrong with him.  But still, parents and some teachers do not discuss the condition with the child. My experience is that in most cases, parents have no knowledge of dyslexia, and does not know where to go to learn more. For that no one can blame them. The concept of dyslexia is very new in South Africa,  The same apply to most teachers – dyslexia is not part of their training.

Label on the bottle:

Every morning he reaches out to get his daily dose of life-saving meds.  What are the labels on the bottles?   Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, Strattera, Leximal …?  Very clear labels for a type of behaviour that may not be mentioned?  Does it make sense?

Currently typing the word “dyslexia” into a Google search immediately gives more than 13-million results! 

The 7 Advantages of admitting carrying the label of dyslexia:

  1. It is at this stage that the socially “bad” label (of stupidity, laziness, naughtiness ) changes into a diagnosis, naming the reason for the learning disability  and describing the general and specific symptoms or signs of having dyslexia.
  2. The learning disability now has a name for which the best treatment can be applied.
  3. By using the word/diagnosis/label or whatever you want to call it, the mechanics of the learning difficulty in class can now be explained to the child, and shown how to master it.
  4. The dyslexic can now begin to learn how to control lack of focussing in class, trouble putting thoughts into words, exceptional daydreaming, concentration headaches when trying to read or study, directional confusions, being disorderly, having poor memory for sequences, and problems with social relationships.
  5. The dyslexic label in a supportive school and home environment is  tremendously helpful, as it provides an explanation of why the otherwise bright child is underperforming.
  6. Once diagnosed as dyslexic, appropriate accommodations and treatments can be applied.
  7. Once tested as dyslexic, the dyslexic child can now be treated holistically for ONE overall learning disability, dyslexia, by a trained dyslexia therapist.

The Davis Dyslexia  Correction Programme:

In his book, The Gift of Learning (2003)  Ron Davis is very explicit when he talks about parents asking him not to use the word “Dyslexia” while talking to their children.  Davis writes: “ … it is the worst possible thing a parent cougift of learning1ld do to a child.  These parents are providing their children with an inaccurate interpretation of reality.  That can only serve to force a child into an inappropriate interpretation of his own existence. … Protecting a child in this way amounts to having the child practice insanity.”

You see, eventually the child, who is already aware of his as yet “unnamed” learning disability, will experience the truth.

The Davis Theory depends on openness, truthfulness and honesty.  A Davis Dyslexia Facilitator cannot offer his help to a child if the child is not aware of what is “wrong” with him; especially as the Correction Programme expects a lot of cooperation from the child to eliminate the reasons causing his dyslexia. “The more aware a person is of having a problem, the easier it will be to find a way to motivate him to solve it.”

So, the answer to tell or not to tell your child that he/she is dyslexic, is an undisputed YES!  Have an open discussion and tell your child that you have found a potential solution to overcome  his/her hassles caused by dyslexia.  Remember in ost cases the dyslexic is highly intelligent, so a discussion based on academic research and solutions should not be above his comprehension.  Don’t be afraid to expose him/her to the Davis publications, and YouTube videos.

Till next time,

Jan Viljoen

Free Dyslexia Screening Test

The first step in determining whether you or your child are experiencing learning difficulties due to dyslexia, is to do this preliminary free and confidential screening assessment in order to get a profile of learning strengths and weaknesses, including a measure of severity of symptoms.

Your answers to the 41 questions are confidential and stay with you. Your results will be shown on screen as soon as you finish answering the questions. You will have an opportunity to print out your results at the end of the assessment.

Free Davis Dyslexia Screening Test

The second step is a basic interview by phone/skype where you can ask as many question as needed. Contact:

Jan Viljoen At Dyslexia Solutions South Africa

Phone : +27 83 413 1428 or Email: After this initial exercise the formal process will start.