Dyslexia Is Not a Brain Disease!

In school, I learned some impor­tant lessons about sci­ence. Two of the most impor­tant are these:

  • If you don’t want to get con­fused about what some­thing real­ly is, think care­ful­ly about what you call it
  • If you want to know why some­thing hap­pens, look at where and when it hap­pens.

Recent­ly, I read some­thing that rein­forced both of those lessons. It was an arti­cle by Samuel Orton, AM, MD, pub­lished in 1929 in the Jour­nal of Edu­ca­tion­al Psy­chol­o­gy about a prob­lem that was being called “con­gen­i­tal word blind­ness.” It referred to chil­dren who were hav­ing trou­ble learn­ing to read.

The term “con­gen­i­tal word blind­ness” imme­di­ate­ly caught my atten­tion. It made no sense. The word “con­gen­i­tal” means present from birth. How could an inabil­i­ty to read be con­sid­ered a con­gen­i­tal prob­lem? Aren’t all babies born illit­er­ate? It’s illog­i­cal to use the word “con­gen­i­tal” to describe a prob­lem that nobody can detect until the child is six years old.

Dr. Orton explained that the term “con­gen­i­tal word blind­ness” was being used to refer to a com­plete inabil­i­ty to learn to read. Physi­cians had been study­ing the prob­lem for sev­er­al years. Teach­ers and psy­chol­o­gists were also aware that many chil­dren were hav­ing much greater dif­fi­cul­ty in learn­ing to read than would be expect­ed from their abil­i­ty to learn arith­metic, their abil­i­ty to learn from lis­ten­ing, and their gen­er­al alert­ness. Orton want­ed to know what was going wrong in cas­es where oth­er­wise seem­ing­ly nor­mal chil­dren were hav­ing so much trou­ble learn­ing to read.

In his ini­tial stud­ies, he found that many chil­dren with read­ing dif­fi­cul­ties seemed to have the same prob­lems. They tend­ed to reverse let­ters and words. For exam­ple, they’d mis­take the let­ter “d” for the let­ter “b” or mis­take “p” for “q.” They also tend­ed to get con­fused between short palin­dromic words, such as mis­read­ing “was” for “saw.” They also tend­ed to reverse parts of words, such as read­ing “twor­rom” instead of “tomor­row.” Today, this prob­lem is called dyslex­ia.

Under a grant from the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, Orton car­ried out an extend­ed field study of this prob­lem in com­mu­ni­ties in Iowa in 1926 and 1927. What he found was dis­turb­ing. The prob­lem wasn’t equal­ly com­mon every­where, and the prob­lem seemed to result from the way the chil­dren were being taught to read.

All of the chil­dren were being taught to read by the “whole-word” or “look-say” method. This meant that they were taught to rec­og­nize whole words, as if Eng­lish words were like Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs or Chi­nese char­ac­ters. In the town where read­ing dis­abil­i­ties were more com­mon, the chil­dren were giv­en no oth­er kind of read­ing instruc­tion, such as help in sound­ing out the let­ters of a word, until they had mem­o­rized about 90 words. In the oth­er town, where read­ing dis­abil­i­ties were only half as com­mon, chil­dren were ini­tial­ly taught with the look-say method but were giv­en spe­cial instruc­tion in how to sound out the words if they start­ed falling behind.

Orton con­clud­ed that the children’s learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties were prob­a­bly the result of using the look-say method to teach chil­dren to read. He also con­clud­ed that the prob­lem could be reme­died by giv­ing chil­dren spe­cial help to elim­i­nate their con­fu­sion about the direc­tion and ori­en­ta­tion of let­ters and words. Thus, Orton revealed that the cause of the prob­lem was not a defect in the child’s brain but a defect in the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem.

In gen­er­al, if a dis­ease is tru­ly genet­ic, the inci­dence of that dis­ease stays steady from one gen­er­a­tion to anoth­er. It does not sud­den­ly flare up with­in a pop­u­la­tion. The fact that dyslex­ia broke out when the schools stopped using phon­ics tells us that it is not a genet­ic dis­or­der. There is no no excuse for using a teach­ing method that pre­dictably caus­es learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. The dam­age done to a child in his or her first few years of school­ing caus­es a great deal of suf­fer­ing and can have life­long effects.

Orton wrote that many chil­dren had been referred to his clin­ic because they were hav­ing trou­ble learn­ing to read. In many cas­es, the child’s teacher had thought that the child was fee­ble-mind­ed or had com­plained that the child was mis­be­hav­ing. In Orton’s expe­ri­ence, the chil­dren could be taught to read if prop­er meth­ods were used. He also found that the children’s behav­ior prob­lems typ­i­cal­ly result­ed from the read­ing prob­lem. The children’s behav­ior improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly after they learned to read.

Orton’s warn­ing that dif­fi­cul­ty in learn­ing to read is the pre­dictable result of bad edu­ca­tion­al approach­es fell on deaf ears. The peo­ple at the Rock­e­feller Fund pro­vid­ed the fund­ing for Orton’s research, but then they ignored its results. Instead of advo­cat­ing effec­tive meth­ods for teach­ing read­ing, they went on to pro­vide sub­stan­tial sup­port for advo­cates of the “look-say” method, despite the evi­dence that it was caus­ing learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. The look-say method became even more pop­u­lar in the 1930s. It was part of the “whole lan­guage” approach applied sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly in the pub­lic schools in Cal­i­for­nia in 1987, with dis­as­trous results. With­in a few years, California’s fourth-grade read­ing scores fell to prac­ti­cal­ly the low­est in the Unit­ed States, ahead of only Louisiana and Guam.

Today, we no longer hear the term “con­gen­i­tal word blind­ness,” but we hear a lot about dyslex­ia. We also have lots of oth­er labels that are applied to chil­dren. I won­der how many of the chil­dren who are giv­en labels such as ADD, ADHD, and oppo­si­tion­al defi­ant dis­or­der are sim­ply express­ing frus­tra­tion and anger at how bad­ly they are being treat­ed, and how bad­ly they are being taught? If that’s the real prob­lem in a par­tic­u­lar case, I can’t see how drug­ging the child would solve it.

I decid­ed to dis­cuss Orton’s study in my nutri­tion blog, even though his study has noth­ing to do with food, because his study illus­trates an impor­tant point about how peo­ple fail to use sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge. Orton pro­vid­ed evi­dence of the obvi­ous cause and sim­ple cure for a seri­ous prob­lem. He pro­vid­ed this infor­ma­tion to peo­ple who had enor­mous influ­ence on pub­lic pol­i­cy, and yet they ignored what he had to say and went on pro­mot­ing harm­ful poli­cies. We see sim­i­lar prob­lems in the field of nutri­tion. We are told that dis­eases like coro­nary artery dis­ease and type 2 dia­betes are genet­ic, even though they seem to cause prob­lems only where peo­ple are eat­ing the wrong kind of food. Although those dis­eases can eas­i­ly be cured if the obvi­ous cause is removed, the dis­eases are treat­ed chron­i­cal­ly with pills. Even though the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence pro­vides clear lessons, these lessons are not being used to guide pol­i­cy deci­sions or even being com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the gen­er­al pub­lic.

not-trivial-front-coverNote: To learn more about why bad teach­ing meth­ods have been used in our pub­lic schools, read my Web page on the Read­ing Wars. You can read more about this prob­lem in my book Not Triv­ial: How Study­ing the Tra­di­tion­al Lib­er­al Arts Can Set You Free.


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