Dyslexia and dyscalculia are developmental disorders in the areas of reading and mathematics. Michael Skeide, a developmental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, is the editor of the recently published Cambridge Handbook of Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. Annie Brookman-Byrne sat down with Michael to discuss how research in this area has changed over time, and how we can provide better support for children with reading and mathematics difficulties.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: How common are dyslexia and dyscalculia, and do many children have both?
Michael Skeide: They are surprisingly common. In a class of 20 students, typically one child has dyslexia and another has dyscalculia, though they may not necessarily have clinical diagnoses. And it is likely that one of those two children will actually have difficulty with both reading and numbers.
ABB: How useful are clinical diagnoses, given the limitations of categorising children in this way?
MS: The usefulness of diagnostic categories differs depending on the child. Some children feel relieved when they receive a diagnosis, as it helps them understand that it’s not their fault that they’re struggling in school. A diagnosis can also open the door to help and support, including extra time in exams, for example.
Other kids don’t benefit from a diagnosis. They may be bullied after receiving a clinical label, which can cause serious mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
One argument against categorising is that children who are slightly above the diagnostic cut-off – for example, their reading difficulties are not deemed severe enough for a diagnosis of dyslexia – may not receive the educational support they need. So in some cases diagnostic categories can actually be a barrier to receiving help.
If diagnostic categories were eliminated, all children could be offered individualised interventions to meet their needs even well before they start school. In my mind, this is how it would work in an ideal educational system.
“If diagnostic categories were eliminated, all children could be offered individualised interventions to meet their needs.”
ABB: How has research into dyslexia and dyscalculia developed over time?
MS: Research into dyslexia and dyscalculia started with individual case studies in the late 19th century. In these studies, physicians recorded their observations of individuals who had certain difficulties in recognising written words or understanding numbers.
In the 1960s, researchers began to examine groups of individuals with these disorders. Initially, they conducted cognitive assessments, measuring things like intelligence, attention, and memory. The aim was to try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those with dyslexia or dyscalculia – historically with a strong focus on the weaknesses. But as we now know, developmental disorders are not simple, neat categories.
Then, in the 1990s, researchers began to employ neuroscientific techniques to identify the brain regions associated with each disorder. They also started to use genetic approaches to determine which genes may be linked to dyslexia and dyscalculia. One aim of this research was to look for causes of these disorders, with the goal of preventing them from occurring or providing interventions to help children as early as possible.
Since around the 1970s, some researchers have collected data on the same children, observing their development over time, starting in early childhood. Studies like these can be particularly informative, but unfortunately they remain scarce.
“I would like to see learning environments that bring out the unique potential of every child.”
ABB: How can better support be provided for children with dyslexia and dyscalculia?
MS: The key is to move beyond one-size-fits-all education. I would like to see learning environments that bring out the unique potential of every child – whether that child has a developmental disorder or is considered highly gifted.
At the policy level, this requires improving the quality of teacher training, especially kindergarten teacher training. But it can’t all be down to teachers, who already have such a challenging job. Ideally, all early education centres would have the resources to hire a professional who is qualified to identify individual needs for support and implement early intervention strategies.
In some cases, dyslexia and dyscalculia can be traced back to sensory and cognitive difficulties in the first years of life. For example, some kids who develop dyslexia have a history of language disorders – difficulty understanding or using spoken language – that have often been ignored or overlooked. I would like to see early paediatric screening of all children so that these difficulties can be identified and addressed.
But even this is not enough; caregivers should be involved as well. I would like to see incentives for parents from all backgrounds to take part in regular psychoeducation programmes. These programmes are promising tools for helping parents improve home learning environments with relatively little effort.
“The best way to understand dyslexia and dyscalculia is to look at the big picture.”
ABB: What’s next for research in this field?
MS: We need more studies that follow the same children from birth and throughout their school careers. These studies should include children with and without developmental disorders. Researchers should look at the children’s cognition and emotions over time, and at their brains, genes, and environments. The best way to understand dyslexia and dyscalculia is to look at the big picture.
Finally, researchers need to use what they have learned to design programmes to support children from an early age. These interventions must be tested properly, so that we can see whether and how they work. This research will help us enable all children to reach their full potential.
The Cambridge Handbook of Dyslexia and Dyscalculia, edited by Michael Skeide, was published in July 2022.
Michael Skeide completed his undergraduate studies at Heidelberg University and Harvard University, and then obtained his PhD in Psychology from the University of Leipzig. For his postdoctoral research on dyslexia and dyscalculia, conducted in Leipzig and at Stanford University, he received a Habilitation degree from Humboldt University in Berlin. He is currently the head of a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Skeide’s award-winning research is published in journals like Nature Reviews Neuroscience and Science Advances. His work is supported by the European Research Council (ERC), the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the Jacobs Foundation.