Dyslexia and Its Twisted Past

Dyslexia Correction and TreatmentYou might be reading this because your young son or daughter or some loved one has been diagnosed with dyslexia, or perhaps you want to ensure your child never experiences the frustration of a reading disorder. Both reasons are good ones and most parents today unfortunately find themselves in one category or another. It might surprise many to learn that the diagnosis does not mean precisely what most people think. There has been a flood of poor information circulated often by the "experts" and professional educators who have various reasons for labeling students as having this disorder or that. The most popular label has been dyslexia.

An American physician Dr. Samuel Orton (1879-1948) pioneered in the study of learning disabilities and speculated how best to teach students with dyslexic how to spell, read, and write. One specific disorder he discovered and named "strephosymbolia," meaning "twisted symbols." This term stemmed from Orton's observation that many of the children he worked with tended to reverse letters or transpose their order. Orton also reported that some of his research subjects could read more easily if they held pages up to a mirror, and a few were rapid mirror writers.

He realized too during his research that many of the students he worked with were not, in fact, organically dyslexic at all, and many of these "dyslexic" students had average, slightly above average and high average intelligence.

The students had simply not be taught with a method that successfully linked the phonic symbol with the sound in a manner that ignited or sparked the neuropathway in the brain to form what is called an "engram." Engrams can be described as the result or change of a stimulus, physical or psychological, in the part of the brain it reaches chemically or electrically, or in some so far unknown way. The word "engram" was coined by Richard Semon (1923) and translated from the Greek means something that has been engraved or written in. Some students if they were not given a multi-sensory approach simply could not recall the sound for the symbol efficiently; the engram had not been sufficiently secured.

What Orton concluded was that whether the learning disorder, not exclusively dyslexia, was inorganic in nature or organic in nature, the remedy was the same: a multi-sensory approach with the phonogram cards he requested a team of teachers compile, the original Orton Phonogram Cards. He later decided to try the method on perfectly healthy non-diagnosed students, and the results were even more astounding: reading comprehension, spelling, and writing skills in general soared.

Since Orton's time MRI's have proven his theories. Students need to see, say, and write the phonomes until the engram formation in the brain is tightly fixed. Yes, the brain scans of students with dyslexia are different from normal brains. No, they do not differ necessarily because some dire medical reason, but rather because those pathways have not been properly sparked, the proper engraving has not taken place.

Consider the research conducted by neurobiologist David Hubel of Harvard and Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University. They have demonstrated that cats can be blinded simply by covering their eyes during critical periods of infancy. Even though the cats' retinas remain intact, the connections between the retina and the brain are permanently impaired. When blindfolds are applied to adult cats, their vision is not permanently affected because the central wiring is in place. Deprivation-the opposite of enrichment-can affect the organization of the brain. The language centers of the cortex are not able to reach full maturity without proper stimulation. With the onslaught of sight-based reading instruction and other poor teaching methods that do little to stimulate the brain—viola, a dramatic rise in the number of reading disorders has occurred.

During the 1970's and 1980's Dr. Hilde Mosse, a pediatrican and specialist in adolescent psychiatry, documented this rise of reading disorders. She writes the following:

Statistical evidence is overwhelming that millions of American children, including those graduating from high school, cannot read. When a disorder affects so many people, one calls it an epidemic. An epidemic is always caused by external forces, not by defects in the individual…When so many children are affected by the same disorder, the explanation cannot possibly be individual psychopathology.

There is no epidemic of "organic" dyslexia; she concluded that there is, however, an epidemic of "inorganic" dyslexia, meaning the disorders is the result of poor teaching techniques such as sight-word method and other poor approaches to reading and writing.

Dr. Mosse herself realized what this all meant in terms of clinical approaches and diagnoses. She also writes:

It took years of painstaking examination of children to make me realize that reading and writing disorders were not necessarily signs of psychopathology or organic defects, but may instead be the consequences of inappropriate teaching methods. Until I actually observed sight-word teaching in classrooms, it had not occurred to me that anyone would attempt to teach a child how to read while withholding from him the information that letters and letter combinations stand for sounds. When I realized that this had become the standard curriculum in most schools for beginning readers in kindergarten and first grade, I had to revise my diagnoses of reading disorders.

Popular reading ProgramThis is a powerful statement to make and she did not make it lightly. She was living at the time when the great "Reading War" was taking place in this country. The popular progressive theories of Ken Goodman and other "experts" from Berkeley were taking education by storm. His ideas appealed to educators as it made their burdens lighter. Goodman proposed, among other theories, that student were born with a built-in "language acquisition device," or LDA, and that teachers really need not use old kill and drill phonics to teach them. Instead, educators should simply immerse students in the language and act as a midwife to bring their knowledge of the language forth. This was only an example of the many educational experiments several generations of students have been subjected to. Another related example is the currently popular approach that some schools are now implementing: teaching cursive before teaching print. The fact that early book print recognition is vital, and books are not written in cursive does not seem to bother proponents of this theory.

We see that the term dyslexia has dramatically shifted meanings over the years. For instance, in Paul S. Anderson's Language Skills in Elementary Education published in 1964, he defines dyslexia in his glossary as follows:

The inability to read understanding, due to a central lesion [in the brain]. (The ability to read may be intact, but there is little or no understanding of what is read.) (p 433)

This definition is very specific and obviously refers to an organic medical condition exclusively. Later the word was used to denote all types reading difficulties. Words have power as we all know. Using a word like dyslexia in a broad sweeping manner and allowing its definition to be altered over time dilutes and contorts its original intention. Such morphing of meaning has caused a near panic in the country. Mosse speculates on the number of authentically "organic" dyslexia patients by saying that if a teacher of thirty years of full-time teacher encountered one true organically caused dyslexic that would reflect the statistical number of authentic cases. This is a far cry from what the statistics show today on the number of those diagnosed today!

The same widespread panic can be said for many other popular education terms such as "hyperactivity." Mosse writes, "Hyperactivity has unfortunately become a fashionable diagnosis covering all sorts of children who cannot sit still and who do not conform. As a consequence, far too many children are receiving drug therapy." Likewise fashionable today are the terms "auditory processing disorder" and, of course, "attention deficit disorder." Dr. Mosse also addresses the many abuses of these terms as well.


The Result of Many Years of Study, Research, and Practice

Dr. Samuel OrtonOrigins Spelling and Reading is the result of many years of study, research, and practice in Orton-based multi-sensory reading methods. An American physician Dr. Samuel Orton (1879-1948) pioneered in the study of learning disabilities and speculated how best to teach students with dyslexic how to spell, read, and write.

Orton's interest in learning disabilities stemmed from his early work as a pathologist in Massachusetts, where he worked with patients who had suffered brain injuries during the war. This led him to study why some children with apparently intact neurological functioning have language disabilities.

In 1919, Orton was hired as the founding director of the State Psychopathic Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, College of Medicine. In 1925, Orton set up a mobile clinic in Greene County, Iowa, to evaluate students referred by teachers because they "were retarded or failing in their school work." Orton found that most of the students who were referred primarily because they had great difficulty in learning to read, in fact had near-average, average, or above-average IQ scores.

Orton's study of reading difficulties in children led him to hypothesize that these individuals have failed to establish appropriate cerebral organization to support the association of visual words with their spoken forms. He termed this difficulty "strephosymbolia," meaning "twisted symbols." This term stemmed from Orton's observation that many of the children he worked with tended to reverse letters or transpose their order. Orton also reported that some of his research subjects could read more easily if they held pages up to a mirror, and a few were rapid mirror writers.

Since Orton was working in the 1920's, he did not have access to modern brain scanning equipment, but he knew from his work with brain damaged adults that injuries to the left hemisphere produced symptoms similar to those he observed in children. Many of the children Orton studied were also ambidextrous or had mixed handedness. This led him to theorize that the children's reading problems stemmed from the failure of the left hemisphere to become dominant over the right. Many of Orton's theories about brain structure and organization would later be confirmed by modern brain researchers, such as Dr. Albert Galaburda, who compared the brains of deceased dyslexic and non-dyslexic adults in the late 1970's.

Dr. Orton's key contribution to the field of education was the concept of "multisensory" teaching–integrating kinesthetic (movement-based) and tactile (sensory-based) learning strategies with teaching of visual and auditory concepts. He wanted a way to teach reading that would integrate both the right and left brain functions and began working with psychologist Anna Gillingham, who introduced a systematic and orderly approach of categorizing and teaching a set of 70 phonograms, single letters and letter pairs representing the 44 discrete sounds (or phonemes) found in English.

Dr. Orton also influenced many other teachers including Romalda Spalding, who successfully taught a young boy with severe writing disabilities from kindergarten through the second grade under Dr. Orton close supervision and advice.

The author of Origins Spelling and Reading had the good fortune to be taught the Spalding method in elementary at a small school in South Omaha, where her mother, in fact, received teacher training from Mrs. Oma Riggs, another teacher who used the method with great success.

Origins uses the multi-sensory techniques developed by Dr. Orton and provides modern teaching materials that reflect the way the language has changed since Orton's time. For instance, the ubiquitous schwa sound (the ability of vowels other than U to make an uh sound such as in "family" which is pronounced "fam ŭ ly") was not considered a legitimate pronunciation even during Ms. Spalding's time. Most educators at the time were hoping that our slovenly speech would end, and people would return to more of an American version of the queen's English.

This we all know did not happen nor will it, so educators must map the speech of today accurately and not tell students that there are six vowels and, in any given word, they may make that funny "uh" sound. Good luck students!


The Dictation Component

The Dictation ComponentDr. Orton methods were also studied and utilized by another impressive physician who specialized in child and adolescent psychiatry, prior to practicing pediatric, named Dr. Hilde L.Mosse, author of You Can Prevent and Correct Learning Disorders; The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders. For over twenty year she served as a school psychiatrist for the New York Bureau of Child Guidance and the Board of Education. Mosse was co-founder of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem and was a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York Medical College. Her findings and studies, not exclusively on reading disorders, but also on childhood depression, criminal and violent behavior, and the effects of mass media on children were well known throughout Europe and the United States.

Like Orton, Dr. Mosse theorized and studied how the brain works in relations to the various "acts" that are required for successfully literacy. Her Complete Handbook is a cornucopia of information that truly every educator should study.

She believed not only in the strength of Orton's work but also stressed the important neurolinguistic gains that can be made in the act of having students write from dictation. Below are just a few of her thoughts on the subject:

Dr. Hilde Mosse in You Can Prevent or Correct Learning Disorders; The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders stresses that "dictation forces the child to pay the closest attention to the minutiae of the pronunciation of formal English"(Mosse 151). She goes to state that words, and shades of sounds within words sound different when words alone or when sentences, paragraphs, or entire stories are dictated. This she says makes "writing to dictation more difficult, but helps the child achieve more confidence in his writing as well as reading." She states "writing to dictation can be used as a test to find out whether the child can read and write, and is also an indispensable teaching method for both (151). Dr. Mosse also writes the following endorsement of the method:

The beginner should not be permitted to read what he cannot write, nor to write what he cannot read, and dictation assures that he learns both. It is the surest way to fix the engram complex between the visual form of letters and letter combination and their speech sounds firmly in the child's mind. It is also an important remedial method for children with all forms of reading disorders, whether or not they have an organic causation. . .Writing of an entire paragraph must become one automatic habit. For this reason and also because it helps develop linear eye movements with the return sweep, dictation should not be limited to so-called spelling words, as it so often is, but should include paragraphs and stories. We can always be certain that a child who can write to dictation can also read, be we cannot be sure that a child who can read can also write to dictation. Dictation test reading and writing at the same time and is therefore superior to all the group reading tests presently in use. It seems to me much more reliable and fair. (151)

Learning is deliberately slowed down and absorbed, not sped up by handing out a photocopy and telling students to circle or underline the verb or noun etc.,. That approach has been used in this country for forty years now with dismal results.

Dr. Mosse's Complete Handbook is filled with useful information about all types of learning disorders. She was a medical doctor who worked with children in New York City and at the time reviewed the methods which form the foundation for Origins Spelling and Reading for soundness. She concluded that these methods were the superior approach to correct and prevent all types of reading, writing, and spelling disorders.


Works Cited

Mosse, Hilde, Dr. You Can Prevent or Correct Learning Disorders: The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders. Beaverton, OR: Riggs Institute Press, 1982. Print.

"The prognosis for the treatment of all reading disorders is excellent. Only a small number of children with the severe organic type cannot be completely cured." - Dr. Hilde Mosse




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