The Forgotten Art of Learning from History

The Forgotten Art of Learning from History

A forgotten art I believe, is understanding the role history plays in our future. I never understood why in many areas of life we always seem to learn the hard way again and again.

Even when we are presented with the same scenario, situation or problem in the present day, we choose to ignore the information and advice that came before. We need to understand we have been given a gift of knowledge that has been documented in our lifetime or in previous lifetimes, yet many choose to ignore it.

I know the paragraph above can be referenced for just about any situation we face today but as we are a dyslexia group and support evidence-based practice, the angle I am taking today is dyslexia and education.

I do find myself asking why in New Zealand we need to reinvent the wheel ALL the time. To be honest it drives me nuts. Besides the amount of time being wasted taking the wrong direction or testing theories which we know have already been proven, it is also money that is wasted. It is criminal the amount of money that is wasted when we can’t even get funding for our kids in schools or get them assessed.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do find myself asking myself these questions:

  • Is the need to be bigger and better and more important than learning from those who have come before?
  • Is acknowledgment and international recognition more important than what you are actually trying to achieve?
  • Why is there a need to keep things part of a selected group when the knowledge would surely benefit everyone?
  • Why is there a fear of acknowledging practitioners in the field that will bring just as much experience as researchers and academics?

I believe those that put the research into practice understand the research at a level only the person working with the child can understand.

Okay so enough about me and my thoughts, the reason I wanted to write this was to show what came before. I had to read this article as part of my MSL accreditation three years ago. Like many things we all do. I read it, I summarised it and you send it in for approval.  My box was ticked.

Since then I have learnt so much more. I am also a bit of a history geek and I have been looking at the history behind the Orton Gillingham approach which the International Dyslexia Association now call a Structured Literacy approach.

I found myself reading this article again. “WHY ORTON WAS RIGHT” by Norman Geschwind M.D.

Don’t get me wrong Orton did get a few things wrong, but if he was granted the time and the technology that succeeded him, there is no doubt in my mind he would have stated he was wrong and continued researching the areas to improve what he already knew.

He was an incredible man that recognised this condition was not rare and in fact what he discovered in 1925 still stands true today. Yet we have been ignoring them for nearly 100 years in our education system. It is a scary thought that what was researched in 1925 and has been proven time and time again, we as a society still need to advocate for dyslexic students and argue against myths and non-evidence-based approaches.


In 1925 Samuel T Orton received a $60,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to carry on research about a previously neglected disorder (Congenital Word blindness).

It included three major things

  1. Studying children
  2. Devising remedial methods
  3. Underlying all Studies of the physiology of the brain.

Here I have highlighted the 13 facts that he got right and we need to remember this was back in the 1920s and we are now in the 2020s.

  1. Visual Perception was normal
  2. Neurological analysis of the location of the disorder (same place his predecessors had located in the late ninetieth and beginning of the twentieth century where the brain reads).
  3. He noted that childhood dyslexics could often read as easily or in a distinctly superior fashion when the text was upside down or in a mirror.
  4. He called attention to the ambidexterity of some of his original dyslexic children who could write as well with one hand as the other and could even write their names upside down.
  5. He pointed out the relationship to stuttering, an often neglected fact. Three of his original 15 cases were stutters.
  6. He realised quite clearly that as important and disabling as it was, dyslexia could not be studied or understood isolated from these accompanying conditions.
  7. He stressed the high frequency of left-handedness in dyslexics and their families.
  8. He pointed out the high rate of similar disorders in the families of these patients.
  9. Orton pointed out the frequency of slowness in the acquisition of spoken speech in dyslexic children.
  10. Orton pointed out the frequent clumsiness in dyslexics. (This hasn’t been researched in later years).
  11. He also pointed out there were children in whom difficulties in learning to read had never been present yet who spelled extremely badly. Experts believe they are also dyslexics. (This hasn’t been researched further).
  12. Orton pointed out that it should not be assumed that the emotional disturbance is necessarily the result of the impact of the disorder on the child, but that it can be the direct result of changes in the brain. (This part of his research is still neglected today). Orton realised that it was necessary to assume that the emotional disturbances in many of his patients were the result of changes in the brain.
  13. Orton pointed out we must not jump to the conclusion that disorders in other areas are necessary causes of dyslexia.

History can also tell us what we got wrong, so it is only fair we also state what Samuel T Orton got wrong.

Samuel T Orton believed the brain to be symmetrical and that there would be no visible structural alteration to account for the difficulty. (Yet research shows a visible alteration in the brain).

Samuel T Orton believed that the disorder of the brains of childhood dyslexics would not be confined to one side, but rather present on both sides.

He also believed –

  • If there is a visible alteration in the brain then surely one must despair of being able to help the patient.
  • If there is a fixed structural disorder in the brain, the re-education of the affected individuals is useless.
  • If it is indeed true that there is an important genetic component in dyslexia, one must abandon hope. Since the genetic endowment of the individual must inevitably doom him to a life of permanent impairment.
  • We simply do not have the time to wait for the results of biological research, since we are faced with an enormous immediate problem


What I do want to show, which I believe, is probably the most significant point. Those that came after Samuel T Orton corrected the wrongs and strengthened the knowledge that was and is still needed to support our dyslexic children today.

This article can be found in Annals of Dyslexia

Vol. 32 (1982), pp. 13-30 (18 pages)

Published By: Springer

This document was written by Sharon Scurr founder of the Dyslexia Evidence-Based group. 18 September 2022.