Dyslexia Research II: The History of Dyslexia

The term dyslexia was introduced in 1884 by the German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, in “Over dyslexie.” He coined it from the Greek words dys meaning ill or difficult and lexis meaning word, and detailed his observations of six patients with brain lesions who had full command over verbal communications but had lost the ability to read (Berlin 1884 & 1887, as cited by Opp, 1994). Today we refer to this type of dyslexia as acquired dyslexia.

From Kerr and Morgan to Orton

Recognition of developmental dyslexia is credited to James Kerr and Pringle Morgan (Mather & Wendling, 2012). In an article to The Lancet titled “A case of congenital word blindness,” Morgan (1896) identified a 14-year-old boy called Percy, who despite adequate intelligence was unable to even write his name correctly. The concept was taken up by James Hinshelwood, a British ophthalmologist, and the American neurologist Samuel Orton.

Hinshelwood (1917) attributed congenital word-blindness to a lesion in the left angular gyrus, which impaired the ability to store and remember visual memories for letters and words. Orton, on the other hand, advocated the term strephosymbolia (twisted symbols) to indicate that the problem was not one of word-blindness per se, but that visual impressions were ‘distorted’ in the perceptual processing of letters and words (Tønnessen, 2015). Working from 1925 onwards, Orton studied over 1,000 children. His observations persuaded him that children with dyslexia were especially prone to left-right confusions and reversals, such as mistaking b for d or was for saw. Orton concluded that dyslexia was due to a failure to establish a left-right sense, which was in turn caused by incomplete cerebral dominance (Corballis & Beale, 1993). Together with his assistant, Anna Gillingham, he developed a number of teaching strategies, some of which are still in use (Selikowitz, 2012). Orton’s work inspired many, including the neurologist Norman Geschwind, and led to the foundation of the Orton Dyslexia Society, now the International Dyslexia Association (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2008).

At the beginning of the 20th century the number of children who were diagnosed with congenital word-blindness or developmental dyslexia was small. Because their cognitive and educational features did not correspond to any of the recognised categories of handicap, they were disenfranchised from any formal special education services (Moats & Lyon, 1993). This situation was to change dramatically during and after the 1960s, following research in the 1930s and 40s on brain-injured adolescents by two eminent Jewish scholars.

Strauss and Werner

In the midst of the developing holocaust, Alfred A. Strauss and Heinz Werner began making their way to the United States via separate routes. They came together in 1937 at the Wayne County Training in Northville, and began a collaboration which laid the cornerstone for what today is known as the field of learning disabilities (Cruickshank & Hallahan, 1973).

Strauss and Werner observed that the intellectually disabled adolescents in their care manifested the same perceptual, mood and learning disorders that Kurt Goldstein had found in head-injured soldiers (Kaufman, 2008). Based on their symptoms, Strauss and Werner divided their students in two groups: the endogenous type consisted of students who had a family history of mental deficiency, and the exogenous type had no family history of mental deficiency. According to Strauss and Werner, their intellectual disability was caused by brain injury — before, during or after birth. In comparing endogenous and exogenous adolescents on perceptual and cognitive tasks, they found the endogenous group to be more successful than the brain-injured adolescents regarding these abilities. The endogenous group had no behavioral problems, while the brain-injured group engaged in — what they described as — disturbed, unrestrained and volatile behaviour (Franklin, 1987). Kavale and Forness (1985) reanalyzed Strauss and Werner’s original studies on brain-injured children. They concluded that the performance differences reported between the two groups of children — the endogenous and exogenous — were in fact too small to justify the distinction which Strauss and Werner had made.

Strauss and coworkers Kephart and Lethinen extended Goldstein’s study of head-injured adults and Strauss and Werner’s study of brain-injured adolescents to children. These studies included “children with known brain-damage, such as cerebral palsy,” but also “samples of children who evidenced learning and behavior problems but did not show clinical signs of brain damage”(Kaufman, 2008, p. 3). Strauss and his new coworkers argued that the kind of perceptual-motor and cognitive problems and behavior problems, that Strauss and Werner had found among the exogenous group, were not only to be found in mentally defective children. These problems were also found in children of normal intelligence. They concluded that children of normal intelligence, who exhibited these learning and behavior problems, were also brain damaged, giving rise to the terms “minor brain damage” and “minimal brain injury” (Franklin, 1987). While this line of reasoning comprises an invalid argument — if A then B; B; therefore A —  this moved the field forward in a dramatic way. The term “brain damage” was, however, mitigated to a less deleterious one, namely minimal brain dysfunction, and dyslexia together with at least one hundred childhood problems such as strabismus and “sleeping abnormally light or deep,” were included in this all-compassing term (Clements, 1966) — a term no longer in use.


Lethinen’s early work suggested that remediation of the perceptual disorders was feasible, and was followed by a plethora of visual-perceptual-motor training programs to rectify children’s minimal brain dysfunctions. Names like Frostig, Ayres, Getman, Kephart, and Barsch, associated with different methodologies on the same theme, dominated the 1960s (Kaufman, 2008). However, subsequent systematic reviews of 81 research studies, encompassing more than 500 different statistical comparisons, concluded that “none of the treatments was particularly effective in stimulating cognitive, linguistic, academic, or school readiness abilities and that there was a serious question as to whether the training activities even have value for enhancing visual perception and/or motor skills in children indicated” (Hammill & Bartel, 1978, as cited by Kaufman, 2008, p. 3).

Samuel Kirk

In 1963 Samuel Kirk coined the term learning disabilities to describe children who have disorders in development of language, speech, reading, and associated communication skills, and introduced it to a large group of parents in Chicago, Illinois. They enthusiastically accepted the term and shortly thereafter established the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (Kaufman, 2008; Armstrong, 1987).

Advocacy groups, in the rush to generate public awareness of the condition of dyslexia, with the cooperation of a compliant media, have perpetuated the belief that a host of famous individuals such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Hans Christian Anderson were dyslexic. The folk myth — the “affliction of the geniuses” — continues to be spread despite the fact that knowledge of the definition of dyslexia and the reading of any standard biographies would immediately reveal the inaccuracy of many such claims (Stanovich, 1989). For example, as Coles (1987) points out, Einstein’s reading of Kant and Darwin at age thirteen is hardly representative of individuals who are currently labeled dyslexic. A systematic study of Hans Christian Anderson’s diaries, letters and poems from age 20 to age 70 concluded that “in all probability, the notion that Andersen had dyslexia is a myth” (Kihl, Gregersen & Sterum, 2000). But so, with the backing of parent movements and advocacy groups, the LD enterprise became “an enormous machine — indeed a factory — with attending cottage industries, fuelled by legal, socio-political, educational, and entrepreneurial energy” (Moats & Lyon, 1993, p. 283).

Education for All Handicapped Children Act

With the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EACHA) in 1975, learning disabilities was officially recognized by the United States Department of Education. Public schools were required to identify students with learning disabilities and provide them with special education services. The federal government mandated the need for a substantial discrepancy between a child’s achievement level and his or her potential for achievement, leaving it for each state to decide how to determine whether a student had a severe discrepancy (Pullen, 2016). However, because students are not yet old enough to obtain meaningful and reliable reading and math scores until third and fourth grade, it is difficult to find a discrepancy. This situation has resulted in the IQ-achievement approach being labeled a “wait-to-fail” model (Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2015; Kavale, 2005; Pullen & Mercer, 2009; Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2009). In its place, policy makers have proposed what is referred to as a response to intervention (RTI) approach.

Variations exist, but RTI usually consists of three tiers of instruction. Tier 1 is typical instruction (with the important provison that it be evidence-based) delivered in the general education classroom. Students not doing well in Tier 1 are provided more intensive instruction in small groups several times a week (Tier 2). Those who are still struggling following Tier 2 interventions are referred for special education evaluation, with special education being Tier 3.


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