The Right to Read, Chapter 1: The Keys to the Kingdom

the-right-to-readDear Sir
Heardy I aply for any posision in your cumpany. I am ninteen years of age and have now cumpleted grabe ten. I am interristed in people and a motivateb person. I dont have any work ecsperience dut I am wiling to lern..Yours faitfuly.
Mr. R. M. White

When reading the above letter you might think that it was written by someone with a very low intelligence. You are wrong. This person’s intelligence is above average, but he is limited in his ability to read and spell correctly. He is what professionals call dyslexic.

The term dyslexia was introduced in 1884 by the German ophthalmologist, R. Berlin. He coined it from the Greek words dys meaning ill or difficult and lexis meaning word, and used it to describe a specific disturbance of reading in the absence of pathological conditions in the visual organs.2 In a later publication, in 1887, Berlin stated that dyslexia, “presuming right handedness,” is caused by a left-sided cerebral lesion. He spoke of “word-blindness” and detailed his observations with six patients with brain lesions who had full command over verbal communications but had lost the ability to read.3

In the century to follow the narrow definition Berlin attached to the term dyslexia would broaden. By the mid-1970s it was describing a condition of epidemic proportions, and although it had no universally accepted symptoms, it was commanding the attention of an armada of professionals, including pediatricians, neurologists and educational psychologists.

In its short history the condition would have a multiplicity of names. In 1895 James Hinshelwood, an ophthalmologist from Glasgow, established the term “congenital word-blindness,” but since then it has been called strephosymbolia, word amblyopia, bradylexia, script-blindness, primary reading retardation, specific reading disability, developmental reading backwardness, analfabetia partialis, amnesia visualis, genetic dyslexia, reading disability, and learning disability.4 Most of these have now been discarded in favor of the terms dyslexia, reading disability and learning disability, with learning disabilities (LD) as the umbrella term for a variety of learning difficulties, including dyslexia.5

Although there is a large number of other “disabilities” to be found within the LD field, a reading disability — or dyslexia — remains the most common. Estimates of learning-disabled students being dyslexic vary between 70 and 85 percent. Some experts are of the opinion that this percentage is even higher, so much so that labeling a child as learning disabled is understood to include a reading disability.6 If one evaluates the importance of reading in the learning situation, this opinion probably comes close to the truth. Reading is regarded as the most important skill that a child must acquire at school,7 because one must learn to read in order to be able to read to learn.8 The implication of this is that the child who is a poor reader will usually also be a poor learner.

The fact that we have a label called learning disabilities at all is due to the times and the society in which we live. After all, it is a society’s priorities that determine whether a particular child will be considered disabled. In every society there have always been people who could not meet the demands that were placed on them. Those who could not comply with such demands were mostly rejected or considered to be an outcast. The Spartans in the seventh century B.C., for example, set great store by physical prowess. Training to serve the state physically commenced at the age of seven years and was only concluded at the age of thirty. In cases where a newborn was very weak or severely deformed and would not be able to serve the state, he was left on a mountain to die. In order that their women might bear children who would become as strong and fierce as their fathers, the soldiers offered their wives to the strongest and most powerful warriors.9 In the Elizabethan era, again, the focus was on musical talent, and people who could not play an instrument or could not sing, were looked upon as uneducated.

In the Anang society of Nigeria, musical talent — including bodily-kinesthetic abilities — is still looked upon as important. By the age of five, the children of that society can sing hundreds of songs, play numerous percussion instruments, and perform dozens of complex dances. In Eskimo cultures, spatial ability is a major strength because Eskimos place a high survival value on noticing subtle differences in snow and ice surfaces. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of a chunk of ice when it floats off into the sea! Sixty percent of the children in Eskimo cultures score as well as the top 10 percent of American schoolchildren on tests of spatial aptitude. In certain South Sea island cultures, the ability to build and steer a canoe and navigate it by the stars — requiring superior bodily-kinesthetic and spatial abilities — is very important.10Highly literate people from our culture with superior linguistic or logical-mathematical abilities might find their smartness to be useless in these cultures. They might find themselves labeled “dancing disabled” or “navigating disabled.”11

In modern Western society, as it happens to be, mastery of basic academic skills — reading, writing and arithmetic — is a necessary prerequisite for success in both school and employment settings and society at large. Naturally, also in our society there are members who are unable to meet the expectations, and the seriousness of such difficulties is hard to exaggerate. It is therefore understandable that a child who cannot cope in the classroom is a source of distress to his parents. To see how one’s otherwise normal child drops further and further behind in comparison to his classmates and perhaps fails year after year, is no laughing matter. Few parents are driven to tears if a child does not achieve well on the sports field. However, because reading and writing are essential in life and making a living, problems at school can lead to great anxiety in parents. Unless the child’s problem is dealt with in an adequate manner, what awaits him outside the school gates is probably nothing but a hopeless future:

Many adults with learning disabilities are underemployed, often stuck in dead-end jobs that do not tap into their true vocational potential.12 Many others are not finding employment at all. Many are unsuccessful in their pursuit of further training, and few are accessing the adult services that have been developed to serve them. Many LD young adults have major academic…and vocational needs that make it hard for them to…live independent lives…13

The figures on the salary check, however, might not be the only concern. People who cannot read can also not read instructions on a bottle of prescription medicine, look up numbers in a telephone directory, or read the menu in a restaurant. Being unable to read traffic signs and street names, or maps on long journeys, they cannot travel freely. They cannot read the letters that their children bring home from their teachers or help them with homework. They cannot write to friends or read for pleasure. In fact, they are severely isolated in a reading world.

Choice, in all its facets, is diminished in the life of the reading-disabled person. If he votes, he is forced to cast a vote of questionable worth. Being unable to read important information in print, he can’t make an informed decision. He would probably vote for a face, a smile, or a style, not for a mind or character or body of beliefs. Even the printed TV schedule, which provides people with the luxury of preselection, does not belong to the arsenal of options in the life of a nonabled reader. One consequence is that the viewer watches only what appears at moments when he happens to have time to turn on the switch. A lot more common is that the TV set remains in operation night and day. Whatever program is offered at the hour when he walks into the room will be the nutriment that he accepts and swallows.14

Learning or reading disabilities can have destructive emotional effects. Persistent learning failure leads to anguish, embarrassment and frustration. “There is something terrifying about sitting at the back of the class and having somebody ask you questions which you know you will never be able to answer,”15 an adult dyslexic told British actress Susan Hampshire, who is also dyslexic.

In describing his feelings about growing up with a learning disability, Nelson Rockefeller, who served as vice president of the United States and governor of the state of New York, recalled:

I was dyslexic…and I still have a hard time reading today. I remember vividly the pain and mortification I felt as a boy of eight when I was assigned to read a short passage of scripture at a community vesper service and did a thoroughly miserable job of it. I know what a dyslexic child goes through…the frustration of not being able to do what other children do easily, the humiliation of being thought not too bright when such is not the case at all.16

For some the humiliation becomes too much. In one study, Peck found that over 50 percent of all suicides under age fifteen in Los Angeles County had been previously diagnosed as having learning disabilities. The actual percentage of youngsters labeled “learning disabled” in most school districts in the United States is below 5 percent; therefore, it seems clear that youngsters with learning disabilities constitute a disproportionately large percentage of adolescent suicides compared with the general adolescent population.17

In another study, conducted in Ontario, Canada, the researchers analyzed all the available suicide notes (n = 27) from 267 consecutive adolescent suicides for spelling and handwriting errors. The results showed that 89 percent of the twenty-seven adolescents who committed suicide had significant deficits in spelling and handwriting that were similar to those of the adolescents with LD.18

Behavior problems resulting from their negative experiences are not uncommon in LD youngsters. The strain and the frustration of underachieving can cause them to be reluctant to go to school, to throw temper tantrums before school or in some cases to play truant. Cheating, stealing and experimenting with drugs can also result when children regard themselves as failures.19

Former U.S.A. First Lady Barbara Bush, who has a learning-disabled son, noted that “learning disabilities can destroy lives. To get a really disturbing sense of this — we need only to look at the estimates of the learning disabled among juvenile delinquents.”20 Results from a study in the U.S.A. by the National Center for State Courts demonstrated that youths with LD were 200 percent more likely to be arrested than nondisabled peers for comparable offences.21 According to the U.S. Department of Education 60 percent of America’s prison inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.22

Bob Turney is a dyslexic who turned to crime because he thought he was thick. At primary school, he sat at the back of the class looking at picture books and did not have a clue what the teachers were talking about. When they said that he was stupid, he believed them; and when they treated him as disruptive, uncooperative and lazy, he behaved accordingly. He left school at fifteen, barely able to write his own name, got involved in his first burglary, and spent the next eighteen years in and out of prison.23

Desperate parents, therefore, clutch at any straw in an effort to rescue their child…

The tragedy is that children who receive treatment for their learning disabilities are seldom better off than children who receive no help at all. Zigmond and Thornton sum up this sad state of affairs:

Despite concerted efforts at early intervention and remedial teaching, learning disabilities are pervasive and persistent. Elementary school programs do not save LD students from serious academic and social problems in high school. High school programs for LD adolescents do not rescue these young adults from problems out in the world.24

There can be only two explanations for this inability of experts to assist the learning disabled. The first explanation may be that they are trying to solve an insolvable problem. Statements such as “learning disabilities cannot be ‘fixed’,”25 “a learning disability is a lifelong condition,”26 and “dyslexia is like alcoholism…it can never be cured”27 are often found in the literature. Other statements are even more dooming. According to Professor Gerald Coles, author of The Learning Mystique, learning-disabled children will either not learn to read or will read so poorly and slowly that each year they will fall further behind classmates who are normal readers.28 In other words, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

The only other explanation for the deplorable results obtained in the LD field, is that learning disabilities is in fact curable, but the experts in the field are still groping in the dark to find a cure.

One finds that LD experts are divided in schools or factions. They often differ so violently from each other that one sometimes wonders whether they are talking about the same thing. Their arguments are often based on illogical suppositions and circular reasoning and their research on unsupported claims. Literally thousands of research reports, articles and books on learning disabilities are published each year, more than any person can read. However, the tremendous amount of knowledge that has already accumulated is not a reflection of the progress that is made.

There is only one way in which any science can make progress: its point of departure must be based on fact. If the point of departure of any science is questionable, what follows will naturally be questionable too. Suppose Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts did not know that the moon was circling around the earth. All their calculations would have been wrong and they would probably still be trying to reach the big piece of cheese.

The field of interest in the science of LD is children with learning problems. Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes that particular problem. A disease such as pellagra, also called the disease of the four D’s — dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death — took the lives of thousands in the Southern states of America during the early part of the twentieth century. Data is sketchy, but by 1912, the State of California alone reported 30,000 cases and a mortality rate of 40 percent. Today, pellagra is virtually unknown because we know that it is caused by a vitamin B3 deficiency.29 A viable point of departure in the LD field would thus be: what causes a learning disability? To illustrate the present state of affairs on this point, we quote Hallahan, Kauffman and Lloyd: “But what actually is known about why children are learning disabled? The answer to this question is “very little!”30

If “very little” is known about why children are learning disabled, it implies that, whatever is regarded as the cause or causes of this problem may be based on no more than guesswork. The causes are presumed and as we all know, presumptions can easily be wrong. The whole science of LD could well be based on a false point of departure, which could certainly be the reason why so little — if any — progress is being made. If this were true — and the reader is soon to discover that it is — at least one possible inference could be made: Statements claiming that learning disabilities were incurable, could well be wrong. Once the cause of pellagra was discovered, it was no longer considered to be an incurable disease.

Note that inherently there was nothing inherently wrong with the people who died from this disease. It was caused solely by a deficiency in their diet. In the same way, as this book will show, inherently there is nothing wrong with the majority of children who struggle at school! Once the true nature of the problem afflicting these children is understood, we can disregard the idea of learning DISabilities, and start solving learning INabilities.

Although the supposition of “learning disabilities” is criticized in this book, it is not the intention to deny the existence of learning problems. It is a well-known and accepted fact that worldwide there are millions of children to whom school is a nightmare. However, the time has come to start thinking about learning failure in a meaningful and scientific manner. This book offers an alternative theory for the cause of the learning disabilities phenomenon, one that is based on logical, rational and scientific principles. Moreover, the practical method based on these principles holds out an answer to many prayers.

Whatever your present point of view on learning disabilities, do not allow your beliefs to overrule your scientific judgement. No stone may be left unturned to eradicate this problem, especially as it brings such devastation in the lives of so many children. As Richardson states so succinctly:

Literacy gives us the keys to knowledge and wisdom — the keys to the Kingdom. Isn’t it time now for us all to put our heads together, to work together to see to it that those keys are given to every child?31


Pointers to Dyslexia

Generally, the term dyslexia is used to describe a severe reading disability, but there has been little agreement in the literature or in practice concerning the definition of severe or the specific distinguishing characteristics that differentiate dyslexia from other reading problems.32 Instead of getting involved in the wrangling over a definition, we would rather use the “symptoms” below as an indication that a person has a reading problem and therefore needs help:

  • One of the most obvious — and a common — telltale signs is reversals. People with this kind of problem often confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or they sometimes read (or write) words like “rat” for “tar,” or “won” for “now.”
  • Another sure sign, which needs no confirmation by means of any form of testing, is elisions, that is when a person sometimes reads or writes “cat” when the word is actually “cart.”
  • The person who reads very slowly and hesitantly, who reads without fluency, word by word, or who constantly loses his place, thereby leaving out whole chunks or reading the same passage twice, has a reading problem.
  • The person may try to sound out the letters of the word, but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, he may sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”
  • He may read or write the letters of a word in the wrong order, like “left” for “felt,” or the syllables in the wrong order, like “emeny” for “enemy,” or words in the wrong order, like “are there” for “there are.”
  • He may spell words as they sound, for example “rite” for “right.”
  • He may read with poor comprehension, or it may be that he remembers little of what he reads.
  • The person may have a poor and/or slow handwriting.


  1. Bartlett, J., Familiar Quotations (16th ed.), (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1992), 75.
  2. Berlin, R, “Über Dyslexie,” Archiv fur Psychiatrie, 1884, vol. 15, 276-278, cited in G. Opp, “Historical roots of the field of learning disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, January 1994, vol. 27, 10.
  3. Berlin, R., Eine besondere Art der Wortblindheit (Dyslexie), (Wiesbaden, Germany: Bergmann, 1887), cited in Opp, “Historical roots of the field of learning disabilities.”
  4. Drew, A. L., “A neurological appraisal of familial congenital word-blindness,” Brain, 1956, vol. 79, 440-460, cited in G. S. Coles, The Learning Mystique (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 10.
  5. Coles, The Learning Mystique, 10.
  6. Ibid., xii.
  7. Blignaut, C. M., ‘n Inleiding tot Leesonderrig (Johannesburg: A. P. B., 1963).
  8. Barkhuizen, B. P., ‘n Psigologies-Pedagogiese Ondersoek van die Leesprobleem in Transvaalse Laerskole (Unisa: Unpublished DEd thesis, 1963).
  9. Sussman, N., “ Sex and sexuality in history,” in B. J. Sadock, H. I. Kaplan & A. M. Freedman (eds.), The Sexual Experience (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1976), cited in J. P. Dworetzky, Introduction to Child Development (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1981), 82.
  10. Gardner, H., Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983), cited in T. Armstrong, In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Personal Learning Style (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1987), 17.
  11. Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 17-18.
  12. Gerber, et al., cited in H. B. Reiff & P. J. Gerber, “Adults with learning disabilities,” in N. N. Singh & I. L. Beale (eds.), Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 186.
  13. Zigmond, N., & Thornton, H. S., “The future of learning disabilities,” in K. A. Kavale (ed.), Learning Disabilities: State of the Art and Practice (Boston: College-Hill Press, 1988), 199.
  14. Kozol, J., Illiterate America (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1985), 23, 26-27.
  15. Hampshire, S., Every Letter Counts: Winning in Life Despite Dyslexia (London: Corgi Books, 1991), 220.
  16. Rockefeller, N., TV Guide, 16 October 1976, 12-14, cited in J. Lerner, Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies (4th ed.), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 4.
  17. Peck, M., “Crisis intervention treatment with chronically and acutely suicidal adolescents,” in M. Peck, N. L. Farberow, & R. Litman (eds.), Youth suicide (New York: Springer, 1985), 112-122.
  18. Hazel, E., McBride, A., & Siegel, L. S., “Learning disabilities and adolescent suicide,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, November 1997, vol. 30.
  19. Hampshire, Every Letter Counts, 291-292.
  20. Ibid., 151.
  21. Broder, P. K., et al., “Further observations on the link between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 1981, vol. 73, 838-850.
  22. http://www.hcity.com, website maintained by G. Sagmiller, author of Dyslexia My Life.
  23. Hinds, D., “Word blind,” Independent, 11 July 1996, E8, E9.
  24. Zigmond & Thornton, “The future of learning disabilities,” 199.
  25. “New perspectives on teaching from successful adults with learning disabilities,” Remedial and Special Education, 1 January 1995.
  26. Reiff & Gerber, “Adults with learning disabilities,” 172.
  27. Clark, M., & Gosnell, M., “Dealing with dyslexia,” Newsweek, 22 March 1982, 55-56.
  28. Coles, The Learning Mystique, xii.
  29. Kraut, A., “Dr. Joseph Goldberger and the war on pellagra,” website address: www.nih.gov/od/museum/exhibits/goldberger/full-text.html, 1996.
  30. Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J., & Lloyd, J., Introduction to Learning Disabilities(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 16.
  31. Richardson, S., “Specific developmental dyslexia. Retrospective and prospective views,” Annals of Dyslexia, 1989, vol. 39, 3-24.
  32. Sawyer, D. J., “Dyslexia: Introduction to the special series,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, January 1992, vol. 25, 38-39.


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