In 1907, a schoolmaster in Glasgow, Scotland, mentioned to a county Medical Officer of Health that he was “greatly puzzled” about four of his students. They were the youngest brothers in a family of eleven children and, unlike their seven siblings, had “experienced the greatest difficulties in learning to read.” The medical officer, a former pupil of James Hinshelwood, “at once” recognized the true nature of the difficulty. He referred the boys to his former mentor to confirm the diagnosis and provide the schoolmaster with expert help (Hinshelwood, 1907, p. 1230).
Hinshelwood confirmed the medical officer’s preliminary conclusions: the boys indeed had congenital word-blindness, a condition that “frequently assumes a family type,” was probably hereditary, and was caused by a “faulty development” of a special cerebral area. He reasoned that, because the reading problems were clustered in one family, and because the four boys had normal general intelligence, lacked visual problems, had good auditory memory as well as visual memory except for words and letters, had a family life which had not impeded their siblings’ learning, but had failed to read with school instruction that had been successful with their siblings, it was “evident that their cerebral defect was a purely local one,…that it was strictly confined to the cerebral area for the visual memory of words and letters, the left angular gyrus, and did not extend at all beyond that” (p. 1231). Four years after examining these four brothers, in 1911, Hinshelwood (1917) had the opportunity of examining two members of the next generation of this family, viz. the children of the eldest daughter of the family. The mother had six children, and while she never had any difficulty in learning to read, two of her children were word-blind.
Hinshelwood (1907) concluded that the root of congenital word-blindness lay in children’s brains because he had observed that dysfunctional reading symptoms found in adults with brain lesions were analogous to those of certain children with reading problems. If an inability to recognize and remember letters and words, or to unite recognizable letters into syllables or words, was acquired word-blindness, a symptom of localized brain damage in adults; and if it was clear that sensory functioning, intellectual functioning, and environmental conditions could be excluded as causes of the reading disability, and if the reading symptoms were similar to those of acquired word-blindness, it was “evident” that the problem was caused by localized brain damage that was probably hereditary.
The difference between the two classes of cases, explained Hinshelwood in his book Congenital Word-blindness (1917), is that in acquired word-blindness the visual memories of words and letters, the result of years of past training and education, have been completely lost, whilst in the congenital form children with otherwise normal brains and intelligence are unable to acquire these visual memories of words and letters at least by the same process of education and training as other children.
Hinshelwood considered “pure” congenital word-blindness — where the defect is grave and confined to the visual memory center only in an otherwise normal and healthy brain — to be treatable through personal and systematic instruction, and should be started sooner rather than later, “when the brain is most plastic, when it is most receptive of impressions and most capable of further development” (p. 97). He even had hope for people who suffered from acquired word-blindness, as he believed that re-education would assist the corresponding center on the opposite side of the brain to take over the functions of the defective cerebral area, and detailed case studies of his patients who had done so.
For Hinshelwood treatment was just as important for children of the lower classes as for those of the upper: “The child of the rich man,” he wrote, “in most cases is spared the struggle for existence, and is provided for by his parents, but the child of the poor man has to earn his bread and push his own way in the world. To ask him to begin his career in life as an illiterate without being able to read is surely to handicap him very heavily throughout his whole existence, no matter what career he may choose. There is more to be considered than simply ‘getting on well in the world.’ Every man, rich and poor, has an intellectual side to his existence, and life would be to many a very poor thing without this. To condemn an individual to lifelong illiteracy is to condemn him to intellectual starvation, and to cut him off for ever from the enjoyment of one of life’s purest and greatest pleasures. I regard it, therefore, as a gross injustice to any child, no matter what his position in life may be, not to be taught to read, if it is possible to do so even at the cost of great trouble to all concerned” (p. 99).
Hinshelwood was an advocate of the “old method” of teaching reading, not the “look and say” system. The “old method” occurred in three stages: first, that of acquiring the visual memories of the letters of the alphabet to recognize them by sight; second, learning to read words by spelling them out aloud letter by letter, and so appealing to the auditory memory; and finally that of acquiring the visual memory of words and so learning to read by appeal to the visual memory center alone, i.e. reading by sight alone. When this is accomplished, the individual reads not by analyzing each word into its individual letters, but by recognizing each word as a separate picture. “Each word is regarded rather as an ideogram, picture, or symbol which suggests a particular idea. The individual now recognizes a word, just as he recognizes a landscape or a familiar face, by its general outline and form without resolving it into its constituent details,” he explained (p. 55). To reach the third or final stage in the art of reading is a much more formidable task, and requires for its accomplishment a much longer time period. For the congenitally word-blind to reach stage three requires great determination, patience and perseverance, and very frequent repetition. “As instruction advances,” wrote Hinshelwood, “it will be found as a rule that the rate of progress gradually becomes accelerated, and obstacles, which at first seemed insuperable, are gradually overcome” (p. 108).
Hinshelwood, J. (1907). Four cases of congenital word-blindness occurring in the same family. The British Medical Journal, 2(2444): 1229-32.
Hinshelwood, J. (1917). Congenital word-blindness. London: Lewis.