Dyslexia Movie Revisited

The Secret 1992
A 1992 made-for-television that treated the subject of dyslexia in adults and children.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about The Secret, a film about dyslexia, the neurological condition that makes learning to read, write, and spell more difficult for some people than for others.

Recently, a reader came across my article and wrote to ask me why my review of the film was so negative.

For this reader, The Secret is “a beautiful film that helps people understand the problems of a dyslexic person.”

The Secret does offer sympathetic insights into the plight of an adult who cannot read and a child who is having difficulty learning to read. This is well done and I regret that my earlier review suggested a lack of feeling for the characters’ painful experiences.

Another positive aspect of the film is that it provides the following useful information about the neurological condition called “dyslexia”:

Dyslexia is not caused by lack of intelligence.

Dyslexic individuals may be extremely intelligent and creative.

Dyslexia often runs in families.

Dyslexia can be managed.

The film does not, however—at least as far as I can recall— make it clear that dyslexia is not simply difficulty with learning to read. True dyslexia is found with a cluster of behaviors. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored, and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organization, and sequencing. Signs of possible dyslexia that can be observed in children before they go to school include the following:

• delayed speech
• inability to recognize rhyming words
• trouble learning nursery rhymes
• difficulty in learning the names of the letters in the alphabet
• inability to recognize letters in the child’s own name
• persistent baby talk or mispronunciation of familiar words

My negative reaction to The Secret is rooted in a key scene.

Kirk Douglas plays a man who never learned to read and discovers that his grandson has reached the fourth grade without having learned to read. Unlike the grandfather, who was never diagnosed, the grandson is taken to a specialist who—for a fee of $1,200—tells the family that the boy has dyslexia, but that he can learn to read—if he is taught to sound out letters. I don’t remember any discussion of the other factors that needed to be addressed.

I object to the movie’s implication that only dyslexic children need to be taught “to sound out the letters.”

The American Dyslexia Association estimates that 1 in 10 people has dyslexia. However, on the 2015 NAEP reading test, 64% of all US fourth graders scored “below proficient.”

They didn’t all have dyslexia.

Ngram chart for dyslexia
The Ngram chart shows a rise in the use of the words “dyslexic” and “dyslexia” from the 1960s to the present. The word “dyslexia” was coined by a German researcher in the late nineteenth century by combining the prefix dys—“bad, abnormal, difficult”—and lexis, “word.” The English noun “dyslexic,” to mean a person with dyslexia, was first used in 1961. “The Secret” was made in 1992.

Since the 1960s, the words dyslexia and dyslexic have become popular all-purpose words that are often used loosely to describe any difficulty with reading. A great many children who fail to master the basics of beginning reading by the time they complete the third grade are labeled “dyslexic” when in fact they are the victims of ineffective reading instruction Grades K-3.

Reading is a by-product of speech and writing. Children who do not master the relationship between speech and written symbols rarely become fluent writers or readers.

Dyslexia is a condition that deserves the attention of parents and teachers, but not every child who has difficulty learning to read has dyslexia.

I’d like to see a made-for-television movie about teaching methods that produce reading failure in children who do not have dyslexia. Perhaps such a movie could also demonstrate effective methods for teaching young children to read.

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