Thousands of children are being wrongly diagnosed with dyslexia, a leading education expert has claimed.

Professor Joe Elliott, from Durham University, believes many parents with children who have difficulty in literacy lessons push for them to be diagnosed with dyslexia so they can get the extra support they need.

Prof Elliott says this leads to children being falsely labelled and ignores the fact there are simply many children who struggle to read and should be given help at an early age.

The academic, a director of research at the university's School of Education, said: "Many of the messages that I have received from parents have pointed out that the system has forced them to use the dyslexic label in order to access additional resources.

"Parents believe that if their child were to be diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways of solving their problems would emerge."

Prof Elliott's views are provocative and he sparked controversy following his appearance on the Channel 4 programme Dispatches: The Dyslexia Myth, screened four years ago.

In it, he claimed to have little confidence in his ability to define dyslexia, let alone diagnose it, despite 30 years in the field.

Part of the problem, according to Prof Elliott, is that dyslexia is not easily identifiable.

One recent study into the condition identified 28 slightly different definitions of the term. The symptoms typically associated with it include everything from poor short-term memory to clumsiness.

"Not only do these blend into other diagnoses, such as dyspraxia, but they are also commonly found in people who are not considered dyslexic", he said.

Prof Elliott argues that a diagnosis is a hollow victory for many parents, not least because there is no clear evidence that any one teaching approach is more suitable for dyslexics than any other group of poor readers.

Instead of spending time, energy and money on diagnosis, he believes that resources could be better spent on early, high-quality intervention for all poor readers.

He said: "All youngsters with reading difficulties should be provided with structured intervention programmes, initially in small groups and, where necessary, individually."

He stresses he would rather identify all children with literacy difficulties at an earlier age, than see parents fight for dyslexia diagnoses.

"We want more assistance for these children, not less," he added.

Almost 70,000 pupils had extra time - typically another 45 minutes in a three-hour exam - to complete GCSE and A-levels in 2007, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The figure has more than doubled since 2005 and Ofqual, the new exam regulator, predicts a similar rise when the 2008 special consideration statistics are released later this spring.