It's Hard to Read

WE need help in the educational problem of our boy of thirteen,’ writes an observant mother. ‘To my dismay I discovered that he could hardly read a word. . . . Our remedy has been to give special attention to his reading without making him too unhappy about it. In my own tutoring of him I find that he reads many words backwards, was being read as saw. A word of two or three syllables that spells a word completely in the second syllable will be read as that short word. The boy being very left-handed, I decided that there was some connection between reading the word backwards and left-handedness. To this day I have never changed my mind about the connection, but I have found very few people who agree with me.’

This kind of difficulty with reading is very common, but few people in the past have observed its exact nature as this mother has done. The child who has difficulty with print merely seems stupid or unwilling to learn. He fails inexplicably to pass his grades in school. He often becomes sullen or defiant under wellmeant efforts to help him. In recent years, however, a physiological explanation of the difficulty has been offered by Doctor Samuel T. Orton, formerly of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, which now makes remedial training possible. Doctor Orton’s work was recognized by the medical profession in the assignment to him last year of the Salmon Memorial award. But the greatest tribute to him is the love and gratitude of an increasing band of released children now going happily into college, free from the ignominy and discouragement of failure in school.

In studying injuries to the skull, as a physician, Doctor Orton observed that there was an intimate connection between the skilled use of the hand and the speech functions. Both were apparently controlled by the lobe of the brain which was opposite to the master hand. If a right-handed person were injured in the left lobe of his brain, he would lose not only the use of his master hand, but the capacity to read, write, and speak. But the same injury to the right lobe would have no such effect. However, if a left-handed person were injured in the right lobe of his brain, his capacity to read, write, and speak might disappear along with the effective control of his master hand.

This one-sidedness extends also to the use of the foot and the eye. Righthanded people are normally right-footed and right-eyed. Left-handed people are normally left-footed and left-eyed. If a left-handed person kicks something out of his way in walking, he will probably use his left foot. If he attempts to sight a distant object, he will instinctively close his right eye and depend on his left.

Like the two eyes, the two hands, the two feet, the two lobes of the brain are mirrored reverses of each other. This appears from the fact that the lefthanded child often begins by writing mirror-fashion, and sometimes retains a dormant faculty for doing so long after he has become accustomed to writing in the usual fashion. Doctor Orton assumes that we all store two images, one the mirrored reverse of the other, but that the brain makes a choice between them and, for all practical purposes, erases the other. When this choice is not consistently made, confusion in reading appears, as described by the observant mother.

Some children find it hard to read because they do not remember easily the direction in which certain letters or words should face, and thus confuse the twin letters b and d and p and q, and such words as was and saw. These children do not have mirror vision — that is, they do not see words backward. They see just as you and I do, but their memory of which is saw and which is was is tricky. The reversal is possible physiologically only at the level of the brain which recalls words, because it is only there that one hemisphere works alone while the other is inactive.

Many mothers and teachers have thought, as our observant mother does, that the difficulty was connected with left-handedness, and Doctor Orton himself says that when he first started working with these cases he thought that left-handedness, frank or obscured, was a prominent factor. But his experience with more than a thousand cases has failed to support this. The idea that left-handedness as such is associated with reading disability is, he thinks, already too prevalent and has done some harm, since a teacher or parent often says, ‘My boy does n’t need that kind of treatment because he is n’t lefthanded and never has been.’ Doctor Orton finds that the completely lefthanded, left-eyed person may have no difficulty with reading even though his first writing may have been mirror writing. He must early forget his mirror writing and reverse the image, but this becomes automatic. The difficulty arises not from left-handedness as such, but from lack of complete consistency in the one-sided brain dominance. It is in the record left in the higher levels of the brain, which do not see, but which record what has been seen and so make possible the recognition of a printed word, that he believes two conflicting images of words may exist. One of these images is normally inactive, but, if it is not, there is confusion which makes reading difficult and must be corrected by special training.

The person who has this difficulty is called by Doctor Orton a ‘strephosymbolic’ or twister of symbols. Print is only an old and rather clumsy invention worked out in a hit-or-miss style, and the consistent direction of reading from left to right is only a convention. Had it been understood that a sizable minority of readers tend to reverse letters, we might have avoided those interchangeable pairs of letters, like b and d, which make so much trouble for the strephosymbolic. In many ancient writings both the facings of letters and the direction of the reading alternated from line to line. The famous ‘forum stone’ whose inscription Doctor Orton often exhibits has a zigzag arrangement of the print, the first line beginning at the left and moving right, the second at the right and moving left, and so on. From these older two-way inscriptions there gradually evolved ‘one-way streets’ in reading. In Greek and Latin, and consequently in modern languages, letters traveled to the right. In Phœnician, Hebrew, and in several Italian dialects, such as the Umbrian and Etruscan, they traveled to the left. As with automobiles in a one-way street, so the letters in this one-way writing or printing all face in one direction. We do not know why certain languages should have developed into east-bound or righthand streets, and others into west-bound, progressing toward the left. This can scarcely have been related to handedness or eyedness as is sometimes suggested. Were this so, we should expect to find left-handedness numerically greater than right-handedness in the Phœnicians, the ancient Jews, and the Etruscans. We have no proof that this was so. Indeed it is highly improbable, since righthandedness is much more common than left-handedness in all races known to-day.

Doctor Orton’s typical reading disability case is right-handed, but he has left-handed relatives, giving evidence of a probable hereditary origin of the lack of the complete dominance of either the left or the right brain. There are other evidences of this lack of completely one-sided brain dominance besides confusion of reading. Some right-handed people are left-eyed. Sometimes the motor patterns are mixed, some skilled actions being performed with one hand and some with the other.

The strephosymbolic apparently suffers, then, from the existence of two memory patterns of words, of about equal strength, of which sometimes one and sometimes the other is recalled. When he miscalls a word in a sentence after reading the same word correctly a moment before, his mistake looks to the teacher like plain carelessness and he may be punished for what is beyond his control. In striking contrast to this difficulty with reversible letters and words, the strephosymbolic child often is well endowed with visual skills and memories of a simpler order. His actual eyesight may be exceptionally keen, and his use of visual memories as they pertain to pictures, maps, plans, and objects other than printed words is often superior. Thus the child who is blind to words may rate as very superior in the Healy Pictorial tests and other forms of examinations using pictorial materials or objects.

Once the nature of the difficulty with print is understood, and one is ready to observe and utilize the child’s own compensations, the training is comparatively simple. Doctor Orton begins by giving the child a detailed physical and neurological examination to determine his master hand and to bring as much consistency as possible into his speech and motor patterns. This sometimes results in the retraining of apparently right-handed people to make them consistently left-handed. He frequently finds that left-handed children have been taught an unsuitable handwriting which puts a strain on nerve and muscle and makes their school work unduly slow and laborious.

Doctor Orton also gives the child an elaborate series of educational tests to place him scholastically in comparison with others of his age, and a series of intelligence tests. In the more intelligent children these often reveal great compensations, the child being as superior in some faculties as he is deficient in reading. These compensations are the most hopeful element in the problem and often furnish valuable guidance to the parent in leading the child out of fields in which he may be handicapped.

The compensation is derived front two sources. The child with mental energy has sought some other kind of cultural amusement instead of reading. He may have spent hours listening to music. He may have devoted time to drawing or mechanics. He has perhaps got an intensified capacity to look or listen, and so find diversion in the hours which a bookish child might spend on a storybook. Again, the child whose pride has been wounded by failure in school has often made a special effort to do well in the skills in which he could win praise. This accounts for the fact that strephosymbolic children often excel in science or mechanics or some of the arts. Nothing comforts a child or his parents more than to find some ‘very superior’ ratings on Doctor Orton’s charts. A child of thirteen can stand being marked ‘aged ten’ in reading capacity if Doctor Orton notes that he is ‘aged seventeen’ in his comprehension of the spoken word and in his spoken vocabulary, or that he is two or three years beyond his age in the mechanical-aptitude tests. This gives him hope and courage and willingness to tackle his problem all along the line.

After the child is thus diagnosed, he is given special remedial training in reading to suit his needs. The theory of this training is simple. Having no dependable visual standard for words, the child must be given another standard. Two other standards are available. One is the auditory form of the word, the other its kinæsthetic form — that is, the form fixed in the memory by tracing the word with the hand. Of these the auditory form is the more valuable standard. As the Platonic Socrates says, the spoken word is the true word, of which the written word is properly no more than an image; and to teach the child to appreciate the form of the spoken word, to think of all literature as something spoken, to hear what he reads, has cultural values quite beyond its immediate usefulness in correcting strephosymbolia.

In the particular case of strephosymbolia which I know best, the boy has compensated for his slight reading confusion by an extraordinarily clear and retentive ear-memory. He has saved himself in school from the full penalties of his extremely slow way of studying from the book by paying attention to what is said in class.

Doctor Orton’s technique of teaching involves the careful and steady use of the spoken word. The child learns his letters and speech sounds by saying each one aloud. He learns each word by saying it. He is taught to correct confusions by sounding out the letters in their given order and then blending those sounds into a word. The word say is the standby of the teacher of the strephosymbolics in Doctor Orton’s charge. The teacher holds up the printed letters to the child and asks, ‘What do these letters say?’ As he advances, the pupil learns to listen mentally to what he is reading, and to be sure that it makes sense. If he encounters a long and difficult word, he must experiment with different arrangements of the speech sounds until they turn into some word that he has heard. On this account, his spoken vocabulary must be kept well ahead of his reading vocabulary. He must be accustomed to hearing a good deal of literature read aloud, and to clear and careful pronunciation.

The fixing of the auditory image is reënforced by kinæsthetic training. The child writes out letters and words as he learns them, at the same time saying them aloud. The kinæsthetic method has proved so successful that teachers who have hit upon it have been inclined to consider it the whole key to the difficulty. It is far from that. But it is very helpful. When the elements of reading are mastered, the child is led into a study of the roots and basic meanings of words. He learns words in families. He is taught the significance of prefixes and suffixes. This helps him to see immediately that some combinations of letters make sense, and some, even though he seems to remember them so, do not.

A child so taught may always lack the mechanical speed of the born sight reader, but he has been introduced to the wonders of speech and the treasures of literature by a method no less valid than our customary teaching of the written word. Reading may become in time definitely pleasurable, and may involve a concentrated and thoughtful attention to what is said which more than compensates for the mechanical ease of the rapid and cursory reader.

After all, the strephosymbolic is not really a handicapped person. He merely has a little variation for which the makers of print and the procedures of the school have failed to allow. Compared with the naturally rapid readers, he is in the numerical minority, one person in ten being estimated to have enough of this trouble to interfere with his education. But 10 per cent of the population is a considerable mass of people, at that. The strephosymbolic can learn to read if he is taught with due regard to his nervous and mental constitution, and he may prove to be a better and perhaps even a wiser person for the extra intellectual discipline thus forced upon him.