Dyslexia historical perspective

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Historical Perspective

Identified for the first time by Oswald Berkhan in 1881, [1] the term 'dyslexia' was coined in 1887 by Rudolf Berlin, an ophthalmologist practicing in Stuttgart,Germany.[2] He used the term to refer to a case of a young boy who had a severe impairment in learning to read and write in spite of showing typical intellectual and physical abilities in all other respects.

In 1896, W. Pringle Morgan, a British physician, from Seaford, East Sussex, England published a description of a reading-specific learning disorder in a report to the British Medical Journal titled "Congenital Word Blindness". This described the case of a 14-year-old boy who had not yet learned to read, yet showed normal intelligence and was generally adept at other activities typical of children of that age.[3]

During the 1890s and early 1900s, James Hinshelwood, a British ophthalmologist, published a series of articles in medical journals describing similar cases of congenital word blindness, which he defined as "a congenital defect occurring in children with otherwise normal and undamaged brains characterised by a difficulty in learning to read." In his 1917 bookCongenital Word Blindness, Hinshelwood asserted that the primary disability was in visual memory for words and letters, and described symptoms including letter reversals, and difficulties with spelling and reading comprehension.[4]

A key early researcher in dyslexia was Samuel T. Orton, a neurologist who worked primarily with stroke victims. In 1925 Orton met a boy who could not read and who exhibited symptoms similar to stroke victims who had lost the ability to read. Orton began studying reading difficulties and determined that there was a syndrome unrelated to brain damage that made learning to read difficult. Orton called the condition strephosymbolia (meaning 'twisted signs') to describe his theory that individuals with dyslexia had difficulty associating the visual forms of words with their spoken forms.[5] Orton observed that reading deficits in dyslexia did not seem to stem from strictly visual deficits.[6] He believed the condition was caused by the failure to establish hemispheric dominance in the brain.[7] He also observed that the children he worked with were disproportionately left- or mixed-handed, although this finding has been difficult to replicate.[8] Orton's hypothesis concerning hemispheric specialization was borne out by post-mortem studies in the 1980s and 1990s establishing that the left planum temporale, a brain area associated with language processing, is physically larger than the corresponding right area in the brains of non-dyslexic subjects, but that these brain areas are symmetrical or slightly larger on the right for dyslexic subjects.[9] FMRI imaging studies of children and young adults reported in 2003 provide further support, demonstrating that increases in age and reading level are associated with a suppression of right hemispheric activity.[10] [11]

Influenced by the kinesthetic work of Helen Keller and Grace Fernald, and looking for a way to teach reading using both left and right brain functions,[12] Orton later worked with psychologist and educator Anna Gillingham to develop an educational intervention that pioneered the use of simultaneous multisensory instruction. The Orton-Gillingham approach to remedial reading instruction is still widely used and forms the basis of many reading intervention programs. [13]

In contrast, Dearborn, Gates, Bennet and Blau considered a faulty guidance of the seeing mechanism to be the cause. The data collected in 1931 by Tinker and Goodenough (The J.Educ. Psych.) seemed to support this thesis. They wanted to know if a conflict between spontaneous orientation of the scanning action of the eyes from right to left and training aimed at the acquisition of an opposite direction would allow an interpretation of the facts observed in the dyslexic disorder and especially of the ability to mirror-read. To this end the authors asked four adults to read a text reflected in a mirror for ten minutes a day for a period of five months. It was confirmed that in all the subjects, the words were not perceived in their globality but required a meticulous analysis of the letters and syllables.

Moreover they also demonstrated either total or partial inversions even sometimes affecting the order of the words in a sentence. What is more, they revealed a curious impression of not just horizontal but also vertical inversions.These are errors that exist amongst dyslexics and they suffer from the aggravating circumstance inherent in all learning. What remained to be demonstrated was that there exists a preference amongst dyslexics, without sensory deficiency, or mental retardation, or any backwardness in speech or language, towards scanning with the eyes from right to left. Proof of this was provided in a work conducted under Clement Launay in 1949 (thesis G. Mahec Paris 1951). In adult subjects the reading of a series of 66 tiny lower-case letters, 5mm high, spaced 5mm apart, first from left to right and then from right to left was more easily and quickly done in the left to right direction. For former dyslexic children, a substantial number read a series of 42 letters with equal speed in both directions and some (10%) read better from right to left than from left to right. The phenomenon is clearly linked to the dynamics of sight as it disappears when the space between letters is increased, transforming the reading into spelling. This experience also explains the ability to mirror-read. This reading test can also be used to diagnose serious cases of dyslexia.

In the 1970s, a new hypothesis, based in part on Orton's theories, emerged that dyslexia stems from a deficit inphonological processing or difficulty in recognizing that spoken words are formed by discrete phonemes (for example, that the word CAT comes from the sounds [k], [æ], and [t]). As a result, affected individuals have difficulty associating these sounds with the visual letters that make up written words. Key studies of the phonological deficit hypothesis include the finding that the strongest predictor of reading success in school age children isphonological awareness,[14] and that phonological awareness instruction can improve decoding skills for children with reading difficulties.[15]

The advent of neuroimaging techniques to study brain structure and function enhanced the research in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, interest in the neurologically based causes has persisted. Current models of the relation between the brain and dyslexia generally focus on some form of defective or delayed brain maturation. More recently,genetic research has provided increasing evidence supporting a genetic origin of dyslexia [16].

Researchers are currently searching for a link between the neurological and genetic findings, and the reading disorder. There are many previous and current theories of dyslexia, but the one that has the most support from research is that, whatever the biological cause, dyslexia is a matter of reduced phonogical awareness, the ability to analyze and link the units of spoken and written languages. [17].


  1. BERKHAN O. Neur. Zent 28 1917
  2. "Uber Dyslexie". Archiv fur Psychiatrie. 15: 276–278.
  3. Snowling, Margaret J. (1996-11-02). "Dyslexia: a hundred years on". BMJ. 313 (7065): 1096. Retrieved 2007-06-08. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. Hinshelwood, J. (1917). Congenital Word-blindness. HK Lewis \& Co., ltd.
  5. Orton, ST (2519). "'Word-blindness' in school children". Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. 14: 285–516. Check date values in: |year= (help)
  6. Henry, MK (1998). "Structured, sequential, multisensory teaching: The Perlow legacy". Annals of Dyslexia.
  7. Orton, S.T. (1928). "Specific reading disability—strephosymbolia". Journal of the American Medical Association. 90 (14): 1095–1099.
  8. Geschwind, N (1982). "Biological associations of left-handedness". Annals of Dyslexia. 33: 29–40.
  9. Galaburda, A.M. (1994-08-16). "Evidence for Aberrant Auditory Anatomy in Developmental Dyslexia". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 91 (17): 8010–8013. doi:10.1073/pnas.91.17.8013. Retrieved 2007-06-17. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help); Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. "Was Orton Right? New Study Examines How The Brain Works In Reading; Offers Key To Better Understanding Dyslexia". Science Daily. May 19, 2003. Retrieved 2007-06-17.
  11. Turkeltaub, P.E. (2003). "Development of neural mechanisms for reading" (PDF). Nature Neuroscience. 6 (7): 767–773. Retrieved 2007-06-17. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  12. Orton, Samuel. "Word Blindness in School Children". Archives or Neurology and Psychiatry 14:285-516.
  13. Goeke, Jennifer (2006). "Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-based reading instruction: a review of the literature". Journal of Special Education.
  14. Bradley, L (1983). "Categorizing sounds and learning to read: A Causal connection". Nature. 30 (2): 419–421. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  15. Alexander, A (1991). "Phonological awareness training and the remediation of analytic decoding deficits in a group of severe dyslexics". Annals of Dyslexia. 41: 193–206. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  16. Collins, David and Rourke, Byron (October 2003). [taylorandfrancis.metapress.com/index/H47FWM65HHJAP0K6.pdf "Learning-disabled Brains: A Review of the Literature"] Check |url= value (help) (PDF). Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 25 (7): 1011–1034. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
  17. Lyytinen, Heikki, Erskine, Jane, Aro, Mikko, Richardson, Ulla (2007), "Reading and reading disorders", in Hoff, Erika, Blackwell Handbook of Language Development, Blackwell, pp. 454–474, ISBN 9781405132534