Dyslexia and the Old Masters: A brief look back

March 22, 2013

About a month or so ago I had the honor to present to a group of parents of dyslexic children on Staten Island.  The group, Wishes of Literacy, is doing great work in their advocacy for parents and they are joining forces with the burgeoning grassroots Decoding Dyslexia movement, such as the Decoding Dyslexia NJ and Decoding Dyslexia NY groups.

Even though I’d like to believe I know my stuff when it comes to the topic of dyslexia and reading disabilities, I did a little “homework” on the topic before the talk and I found myself reading about the history of dyslexia assessment and treatment.  

What I have always appreciated was that there were many old masters, long forgotten giants in the field of reading research, who just got it. They understood the issues.  They knew what worked.  What they said decades ago applies to the present day.

Here are a few choice quotes:

In 1909 James Hughes in his book “Teaching to Read” noted,

Oral language being natural is learned without conscious effort.  Visible language (i.e., reading) being artificial, has to be learned by a conscious effort.

“Word recognition is the only possible basis of reading…the best method of teaching word recognition is the one that makes the child independent of the teacher.”

That was in 1909!!!!!

Later in 1967 the late, great Dr. Jean Chall, stated:

It would seem, at our present state of knowledge, that a code emphasis – one that combines control of words on spelling regularity, some direct teaching of letter-sound correspondences, as well as the use of writing, tracing, or typing – produces better results with beginners than a meaning  (i.e., literature-based or comprehension) emphasis.

Dr. Robert Dykstra said it well in 1974:

We can summarize the results of 60 years of research dealing with beginning reading instruction by stating that early systematic instruction in phonics provides the child with the skills necessary to become an independent reader at an earlier than is likely if phonics instruction is delayed  and less systematic.”

It is also important to remind ourselves that the Orton-Gillingham method has essentially gone unchanged since the 1930s.  With all of the Orton-Gillingham based methods out on the market currently, really what they represent are good old wine in fancy new bottles.

Takeaway Point:

While our research or “evidenced-based” window is very narrow looking back over a few years, the old masters in the field of reading research and dyslexia really knew their stuff.  They are worth revisiting.

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