History of dyslexia

Department: Educational & Family Studies
Section: Research & Theory in Education
Research area/-theme: dyslexia, education, history
Researcher: Marjoke Rietveld-van Wingerden


One in ten children in Dutch primary schools has a form of dyslexia. For a long time, nobody in the teaching profession knew what to do about it. As a result, these children were often unjustly dismissed as stupid due to their inability to learn to read, write and spell properly. Since this time, a huge number of therapies have been developed, often in the alternative circuit. Many dyslexic children were measured for prism glasses in order to better control coordination of the eyes. Others were told to do crawling exercises to improve coordination between the left and right-hand sides of the body (people thought that coordination exercises like this would have a positive effect on the brain). Creative teachers devised reading and language exercises and educational therapists devised treatment plans for ‘poorly literate’ children.

In the Netherlands, the field of education only began to take an interest in dyslexia after the Second World War. This was much later than in countries such as the USA and Denmark. However, the problem had been recognised by medical science many years earlier, with the terms ‘dyslexia’ and ‘word-blindness’ dating back as far as the late nineteenth century.
In this research project by the Educational Neuroscience section and the Educational Theory section at VU Amsterdam, the central issue is why it took so long before dyslexia was recognised as a reading disorder by the fields of education and educational therapy. In answering this question, a great deal of attention is given to the way in which interest in dyslexia increased and what factors contributed to this development. These factors included the establishment of a new type of school in 1949 for children with learning disabilities and educational problems, the introduction of remedial teachers at the beginning of the 1970s, the development of educational therapy, and parents speaking out and setting up organisations in the 1980s. For a long time, the term ‘dyslexia’ and what exactly it entails have been the subject of many a dispute. The variation of opinions about the disorder have resulted in a diverse range of treatments.

For more information, contact Marjoke Rietveld-van Wingerden.