This content is for Paid Membership members only.
Login Join Now

The History of Writing and Dyslexia

It’s Dyslexia Awareness Month!

Every year, October heralds a range of fundraising and educational activities that aim to bring about an awareness of dyslexia. If you’re interested, have a look at the brilliant work of Code ReadFive from Five and SPELD NSW to learn more.

For this month, we thought we’d kick off our blog with a look at the history of writing and dyslexia, and what it means to be dyslexic in the modern age.

Writing is a Time Machine

To begin with, let’s be clear – the brains of human beings are not necessarily geared towards reading and writing. We were made for chatting to one another and conversing through oral language. No wonder reading and writing is hard for some of us!

But step into the time machine and we can trace the history of writing to over 5000 years ago. The Sumerians of the city of Uruk (in modern day Iraq), have been credited with the first writings around 3500BC when they started to record their urban, everyday dealings on clay tokens and tablets.[1]  Using the world around them, these early writers recorded things using familiar symbols known as pictographs, like the ones in the image on the left below. Today, we still use pictographs for many things and they can be particularly helpful for people who struggle to read the written word – emojis have even become a universal language!

Pictographs from an ancient Sumerian tablet on the left, to the more recognisable emoji symbols on the right.

Since 3500BC, written representations of language according to geography and custom have constantly shifted. Modern English, for example, is the lovechild of three main parent languages: Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Greek. Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), developed from the Germanic languages of the Angles, Saxons, Vikings and other seafaring peoples who invaded Britain from the 400s. Then Latin (and French) travelled across the English Channel with William and his French conquerors in 1066. Greek and Latin really came into their own when England started to expand its empire and the printing press was brought to London by William Caxton in the late 1400s.[2] Still, only the rich were able to access the education that would allow them to learn how to read and write in any language. Luckily for English speakers, writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare were educated enough to provide us with stories and plays that helped shape our modern language. Ever heard a knock-knock joke? You can thank Shakespeare for that.    

So why is all of this important in terms of dyslexia?

Because dyslexia is inextricably linked to reading and writing, and if we know a little about the history of language and the written word, it can help us trace the way language works. It can help us make logical links between sounds, letters, words and sentences across time and place.

Many languages have died off and some have evolved but writing remains consistent in its purpose: to represent speech and to shape our thinking.[3] Writing represents the intricacies of the diverse human race and has a huge role to play in the way we ‘read’ and experience the world – an extension of what we saw in those original Sumerian pictographs. Today, whether you can read and write easily or not has implications for how your own world is shaped. 

Having said that, it’s also only really been in the last few hundred years that written texts in English have been available to everyone. In Australia, school wasn’t even compulsory until the mid to late 1800s, with Tasmania the first to introduce compulsory schooling for kids aged 7-12 in 1868! This means that our spongey little word processors (otherwise known as our brains), are playing catch up on a system of writing that is relatively new in terms of its availability. It also means that until a wide range of people started to read and write, learning differences like dyslexia would not have been recognised. In terms of the long stretch of human history, emerging understandings of dyslexia only really coincided with the introduction of compulsory schooling during the Industrial Revolution.

A Dyslexia Timeline – Some of the Main Events

1877 – German neurologist Adolph Kussmaul first came up with the term ‘word-blindedness’ after recognising the difficulties of otherwise very capable children when trying to read.

1887 – German ophthalmologist Rudolf Berlin went on to coin the term ‘dyslexia’ after observing that not all issues with reading were associated with vision issues.

1890s – early 1900s – British journals show that observers like Glaswegian James Hinshelwood recognised developmental dyslexia as existing in bright learners who struggled to read.[4]

1925 – Neuropsychiatrist and pathologist Samuel Orton along with educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham and teacher Bessie Stillman (poor Bessie, she often gets forgotten), worked to bring together, “neuroscientific information and principles of remediation,” and “compiled and published instructional materials.”[5]  Thanks to their work, we now have the Orton-Gillingham method which emphasises visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning as a way to cumulatively strengthen neural pathways for reading and writing.

Since then, scientists have discovered much more about the functional systems in the brain that need support to understand language, reading and writing. Dr Sally Shaywitz explains dyslexia as a complex difference, “with its roots in the very basic brain systems that allow students to understand and express language.” She, among others, advocates for the need to provide dyslexic learners with accommodations and interventions that involve systematic, cumulative and explicit instruction.

Today, we also understand much more about how dyslexia affects people in different ways. Some people see dyslexia as their ‘gift’ and the creative or problem-solving talents that can accompany dyslexia are, rightfully, a matter of pride. There are many famous and highly successful dyslexics, including Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Pablo Picasso, Keira Knightley and Jackie French, to name but a few. For others, however, dyslexia brings with it many struggles. For some, it is not a much-loved ‘gift’ and is instead seen as a never-ending hurdle to overcome. Everyone’s journey is different.

The International Dyslexia Association points to “perhaps as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole,” as having some symptoms of dyslexia. That means that no matter what your journey with dyslexia looks like, one thing is certain: you are never alone.

[1] ‘The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer’ (2003). Jean Jacques Galssner, Donald M Herron. JHU Press. 

[2] ‘A Brief History of English’, by Suzanne Kemmer (obtained through William Van Cleave).

[3] ‘How Writing Represents Speech’ (1993). David R. Olsen.

[4] ‘Overcoming Dyslexia’ (2020). Sally Shaywitz, M.D.