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Historical background

Difficulty with reading was the first form of specific learning difficulty to be described. In 1878, a German physician, Dr Kussmaul, described a man who was unable to learn to read. The man was of normal intelligence and had received an adequate education. Dr Kussmaul called this problem reading blindness. Nine years later, Dr Berlin, another German doctor, coined the term dyslexia (from the Greek for ‘difficulty with words’) for this condition.

The first British report of a specific learning difficulty was also of adults with reading difficulty. A Scottish eye surgeon, Dr James Hinshelwood, published the report in 1895, and called the condition word blindness. His paper prompted the first description of specific reading difficulty in a child, one year later, when Dr Pringle Morgan described a 14-year-old boy, Percy, with reading difficulty. The boy’s teacher wrote that ‘[he] would be the smartest lad in the school if instruction were entirely oral’.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, interest continued to focus on specific reading difficulty. In 1925, an American neurologist, Dr Samuel T Orton, proposed the first theory of how specific reading difficulty arose. He placed great emphasis on the development of dominance of one side of the brain. This theory will be discussed further in Chapter 3. Together with his assistant, Anna Gillingham, he developed a number of teaching strategies, some of which are still in use.

Other forms of specific learning difficulty were also described during this period, but these were not widely recognized until 1939, when Dr Alfred Strauss and Dr Heinz Werner published their description of children with a wide range of learning difficulties. They emphasized the variety of these problems and the importance of looking at each child individually to assess their particular educational needs. It was their work that gave the impetus to the establishment of clinical and educational services for children with specific learning difficulties, first in North America, and then in other parts of the world.

A landmark was reached in 1977, when Public Law 94-142 was passed in the USA, ensuring the rights of American children with specific learning difficulties to appropriate evaluation and management of their problem. In 1981, the United Kingdom passed an Education Act that stated that children with learning difficulties of all kinds were entitled to appropriate evaluation and help according to their special needs.

Specific learning difficulties now receive much more attention than at any other time in the past. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • ? At no other time in history has the ability to gain academic skills and qualifications been such an important factor in a highly competitive employment market.
  • ? All children in developed countries now attend school, and parents take an interest in their progress.
  • ? The need for proficiency in academic skills has extended beyond urban areas, as work in rural areas has also become more technical and competitive.
  • ? With the reduction in the number of serious illnesses that affect children (such as polio and tuberculosis, TB), more attention can now be directed towards the non-life-threatening problems such as specific learning difficulties.
  • ? There has been a realization that some of the emotional problems of adolescence and adulthood relate to school difficulties and that if not properly managed during childhood, such difficulties may play an important part in impairing self-esteem and the ability to cope in later life.
  • ? With the realization that many developmental and behavioural problems have underlying biological causes, the search for such causes in conditions such as specific learning difficulties has intensified. Children with these difficulties are thus less likely to be dismissed as lazy, as was the case in the past.
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