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The History of Dyslexia

‘Word blindness’ was a recognised condition more than a century ago. But it was not until the 1970s that it began to be accepted by the medical establishment.

Tucked away in the pages of the British Medical Journal of 7 November 1896 lies a curious little article. Sandwiched between an account of ‘Dermatitis Caused by Roentgen X Rays’ and the announcement of a Belgian Climatological Congress is a short entry by William Pringle Morgan of Seaford, Sussex: ‘A Case of Congenital Word Blindness’. Like Roentgen’s x-rays, congenital word blindness would become a household concept, but not under that name. Today, it is more commonly known as ‘dyslexia’ and is estimated to affect around seven to ten per cent of the population.

Those with dyslexia struggle to break words down into their smallest constituent parts, making language learning an arduous process. Dyslexia runs in families and frequently occurs alongside difficulties in other areas, including organisation, calculation and concentration. Current academic consensus defines dyslexia as an impairment of phonological (speech) processing. According to Maggie Snowling, one of the leading scholars in the field, dyslexia ‘affects the way in which the brain encodes the phonological features of spoken words. The core deficit is in phonological processing and stems from poorly specified phonological representations’.

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