History of dyslexia: Interview with Dr. Maggie Snowling

percy word blind

Poor Percy F.

Diagnosed with “congenital word blindness” in 1896.

What happened to Percy? Did he ever learn to read? Did he have a happy life?

Why don’t we know more about him, and all the boys and girls who have struggled to read the written word?

The history of dyslexia, and people with dyslexia, is fascinating. And yet, it remains largely untold.

It’s important to document our history: to see how we have been labelled and mislabeled, treated and mistreated; how far have we come in understanding and accepting dyslexia, and where we need to go.

That’s why I’m so excited about Oxford University’s History of Dyslexia project. They are tracing the origins of dyslexia (primarily in the UK) – the early advocates, pioneers and researchers who got us where we are today. They are also collecting histories of people with dyslexia.

The project is focusing on three main areas:

  1. The science of reading, creating an authoritative account of the scientific debates over the definition of dyslexia and its causes, and
  2. The politics of dyslexia, exploring how scientists and campaigners struggled to make the government take dyslexia seriously, and
  3. The everyday experience of dyslexia, uncovering how dyslexic people and their families came to understand the subject


What follows is my interview with Professor Maggie Snowling, who is a British psychologist and researcher with the project. She is also the President of St. John’s College at Oxford.

My interview questions came from watching a presentation by Professor Snowling, Dyslexia: An Impairment of Language Learning lecture, held at the British Academy in 2013. I have posted the video below.

Dyslexic Library: Why is it necessary or important to tell the history of dyslexia?

Professor Snowling: It is important to write the history of dyslexia:

  • To learn lessons of the past – people with dyslexia used to be thought ‘thick’ we need to show how wrong that was
  • To learn about good practice to the longer term benefit of recipients
  • To ensure governments don’t allow the demise of policies which have been effective for supporting dyslexia

Dyslexic Library: What is the most fascinating thing to you about the history of dyslexia?

Professor Snowling: There is so much of fascination it is difficult to say what has surprised me most. I think I’d say it is how much interest this project has attracted – reinforcing the idea that it will be good for continuing to raise awareness of dyslexia perhaps outside of the usual circles.

Dyslexic Library: Your analysis of the changing understanding of dyslexia throughout history is interesting. Current thinking, as you describe it, puts it as a “dimensional disorder” rather than a “categorical diagnosis.” Can you explain what that means? And how might this change our understanding, identification and remediation of dyslexia in the future?

Professor Snowling: There is a huge amount of debate about how best to construe psychological conditions – not just dyslexia. Unlike measles there are no clear cut symptoms or boundaries – so it is not a category.  It is dimensional meaning that reading skills are distributed normally through the population. Dyslexia is at the extreme. If we move from thinking of dyslexia as a category we no longer need to wait for a “diagnosis” before we can intervene, support and circumvent.

Dyslexic Library: You describe dyslexia as an impairment of “language learning.” Can you define “language learning” – and what signs parents might look for?

Professor Snowling: There is a large body of evidence showing that people with dyslexia have problems with much language learning outside of written language – people’s names, new vocabulary, sometimes arithmetic, foreign languages. These problems are seen early in delayed speech and language development. In severe form, dyslexia occurs with oral language difficulties which persist.

Dyslexic Library: Finally, you state that ensuring children with dyslexia get the help they need is a moral imperative. How so?

Professor Snowling: If something is handicapping, then we are morally obliged to intervene!

Check out the History of Dyslexia website for a timeline of dyslexia, resources and an oral history project.

Listen to TES podcast, featuring Professor Snowling – “What teachers need to know about dyslexia and supporting dyslexic students” (November 2017).



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