The Right Not To Read

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The Right

Not To Read

Russell D. Snyder, M.D.

from flu’ Departments of. Pediatrics’ 071(1.\(‘Irologq. (.Tnir(’rsily of ,sTew .‘th’xieo .\Iedieal Center,

A ll)u(IIerque

ABSTRACT. Skill in reading is desirable. However, the ilnportance of reading may be overemphasized in schools.

Reading skills are determined relatively and not absolutely. Thus, relatively poor readers will persist. Schools cannot

eradicate individual differences. Biological Inakeup and

societal pressures are the important factors in determining reading skill. Present method.s of reading remediation are of

questionable efficacy and are traumatic to some children.

Time with its associated normal development succeeds in reiiediating the majority of children with dyslexia. Most poor readers eventually attain reading levels that enable thelli to couiiprehend the types of printed materials

common-ly encountered. If a child finds reading difficult or distaste-fiil, that child should be encouraged to read but should have

the right not to be forced to read. Pediatrics 63:791-794,

1979, dyslexia, reading, learning disability, remedial reading, school failure.

A high level of reading proficiency is

consid-ered an important aspect of public education.

Parents, schools, and government agencies

become concerned over any apparent

shortcom-ings in the teaching or learning of reading, a

concern reflected in the national Right To Read

program. The existence of reading problems and

their eradication have become major issues.


No precise definition of childhood dyslexia or

reading disability exists. The typical dyslexic

child is a boy of normal intelligence, motivated to

learn, with no major sensory deficit and no

socioeconomic or cultural disadvantage. Dyslexia

is often equated with learning disability.

Howev-er, learning disabilities may occur in areas other

than reading. Problems in acquiring skill in

math-ematics, music, or even physical education do not

receive the intense attention that is directed

toward reading disability.

The assumption that the child with dyslexia is a

nonreader constitutes a common error. In the

majority of cases, the child with dyslexia is a poor

reader but has at least a modicum of skill in the

interpretation of the visual symbols of language.


Developmental variations are readily accepted

in early life. A normal child may begin walking

independently between 1 1 and 14 months of age.

Meaningful speech may begin between 10 and 14

months of age. There is a corresponding normal

range for the onset of the ability to read,

extend-ing from about 3 to 14 years of age, depending on

nervous system maturation and perhaps other

factors.’ However, many school systems rigidly

demand that the development of reading skills

l)egin at approximately the same age for all

children.2 The failure to accept variation in the

age of onset of reading skill leads to unnecessary

teacher and parent anxiety and unnecessary

pres-sure on the student. Reading skills do not

corre-late well with chronologic age.

Test scores for reading ability fall roughly on a

normal distribution (Gaussian) curve slightly

skewed to the left.’ Dyslexic children will be on

the lower end of this distribution curve. Nothing

can modify the statistical fact that the reading

curve will have a lower end. Improving reading

skills merely shifts the curve up the scale or

modifies its shape, but does not abolish its lower

end. Reading skills are measured relatively and

not absolutely. Thus, the problem of the relatively

poor reader persists. If a race is run, someone will

inevitably finish last.

In the hypothetical “average school,” 50% of

the students will read at or below grade level

Received July 19; revision accepted for publication Septem-ber 19, 1978.

ADDRESS FOR REPRINTS; (R.D.S.) Department of Neti-rology, University of New Mexico Medical Center,





when grade level is defined as the class median.

This statistical fact is generally not recognized.

Educators and parents tend to view below-average performance as unsatisfactory. A student

performing below average in a classroom should

not necessarily be considered an adverse

reflec-tion on either the parent or the teacher.


The anatomic l)asis of acquired adult dyslexia

was described by Dejerine’ in 1892. He described

a 68-year-old man in whom dyslexia and right

heniianopsia developed after a cerebrovascular

accident. An infarct was found in the left

occipi-tal region with involvement of the spleniuni of

the corpus callosuni. Neither the sudden onset nor

the associated heniianopsia are characteristic of

the usual child with reading disability. At present,

there is uncertainty regarding the pathologic

substrate for childhood dyslexia. Possibly two

groups exist. Children in the first group are rare

and constitute the ‘hard-core’ ‘ childhood

dvslex-ia. This group may have identifiable I)rain lesions,

does not respond appreciably to remediation, and

has deficits that persist into adult life. The second


is iuuch niore coninion and may simply

represent slow CNS niaturation, in some cases on

a familial basis. Children in the second group do

not have an identifiable l)rain lesion and improve

with time and remediation or both. Thus, in most

cases “childhood dyslexia’ is not a disease in the

usual sense. Providing a medical or neurologic

diagnostic label does not necessarily imply the

need for a specific diagnostic or therapeutic

approach. It appears unlikely that further

refine-ments of the neurologic examination will advance

the understanding of childhood dyslexia or other

learning disorders.


A pervasive notion exists that the reading

problem could be obviated by identifying poor

readers earlier in their school careers and

subject-ing them to special training programs. This notion

exists in spite of the lack of evidence for effective

means of early identification. Kindergartens and

even prekindergartens are now attempting to

identify potential problem readers. If the young

poor readers include a substantial number with

maturational delay, they will improve in time

with or without special reading programs. Any program directed toward such a group will be

assured of reasonably good results. There is no

evidence that the proportion of students with

reading problems in later grades is significantly

reduced by early remedial programs,TM and the

involved children may be unnecessarily trauma-tized by the experience.

Perhaps delay in the introduction of reading into the school curriculum would have more benefit than early introduction. Early childhood

may not be the optimal age for introduction of the

academic content traditionally required. Reading

instruction generally begins with the onset of

formal schooling, usually at age 5. Progress in

reading becomes the major factor in judging

success in school. The evidence that delay in the

onset of reading instruction would prove

deleteri-ous is extremely thin.u


The language arts include reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In everyday activities for the majority of adults, speaking and listening may well be the more important skills. Reading may not be the principal method by which a child

acquires information.i Neither intelligence nor

income has been clearly related to literacy. Although we decry high school seniors who have

attained only a “seventh-grade reading level,”

that level is actually more than adequate for most reading activities and for most jobs, even

profes-sions.’#{176} Many newspapers in this country are

written at the fourth- or fifth-grade reading level. A poor reader develops strategies to help cope with the reading problem and utilizes alternative methods to acquire information. Nevertheless,

reading receives the bulk of the time in

elemen-tary education. Eyen mathematic problems

become based on an understanding of the printed word.

To the child, school appears to be primarily concerned with right answers; teachers and books

are seen as the major reservoirs of the right

answers. ‘ ‘ Our society has a pervasive belief in the truth of the printed word. Although schools continue to emphasize the importance of books and reading, the United States is not a nation of bibliophiles.’ “Print is not dead; it is just an old technology, no longer very exciting.

Technolo-gy now offers effective alternative methods of

communication, a fact frequently overlooked by schools.



Remedial reading programs are based on the

hypothesis that reading deficits are correctable,

but that the deficits will not improve

sponta-neously or fully in the ordinary school program. Remedial reading programs can produce a slight increase in the reading level and can be of

immense help in selected situations. Remedial

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reading instruction can make poor readers into

passable readers, but it will not make poor readers

into good readers. The improvement in reading

ability gained through such programs generally

washes out with time, and the child returns to his

previous learning curve.’4’6 This should not be at

all surprising, as intensive training programs for

many other skills have similar outcomes.

A number of factors assure some degree of

success in most remedial reading programs: (1)

early identification leads to the inclusion of

chil-dren with maturation delays who will ultimately

do well under any circumstances; (2) an

expecta-tion of success in a well-presented program may

evoke at least a temporary increase in effort and acceleration of the learning curve; (3) inexact

definitions of reading problems and pressures to

identify large numbers of poor readers will lead to

the inclusion of a substantial number of normal children from the lower end of the normal

distri-bution curve who have at least a reasonable

learning capacity and therefore a potential for

improvement; (4) evaluation immediately after an

intense training program will show improvement to the greatest advantage; (5) the financial incen-tives for successful programs encourage the most

optimistic interpretation of the data regarding

results of treatment; and (6) a more favorable

teacher-student ratio is beneficial to most


Eye-movement exercises and perceptual motor

training are currently popular methods of

reme-diation. The evidence of benefit from these

ther-apies is tenuous.’7’t If a corrective program is to

be employed, the educational strategy should be directed to the skill that is to be learned.20

The use of oral-aural rather than written communications is a frequently overlooked form

of remediation. Is it intrinsically incorrect to

learn from audiovisuals or even from actual experience? Why should a student be forced to take written notes or written examinations when a recorder or a direct personal dialog might be

used equally well? For many students with severe

reading deficits, the oral-aural route is the major alternative route for education.

Remedial reading programs may be emotional-ly damaging to a child. These programs focus not

on the child’s strengths and accomplishments but

on his failure. With our present methods of

remediation, a child with dyslexia can very


become a child receiving special attention

to reading during school, remedial instruction

after school, and special tutoring from his parents at night. A large percentage of the child’s waking

day can be occupied by the very thing he cannot

do and often finds distasteful. Childhood can thus be marred by systematic humiliation. Any interest the child may have in the reading process can be abolished.

Constant emphasis on the child’s area of failure may also set in motion the self-fulfilling prophecy. According to this process, children viewed as capable perform well while those considered not capable do, in fact, perform 2

The reading-disabled child may be criticized for not working at his maximum potential. Few of

us, however, work at maximum potential for any

length of time. Pressures for such constant high-level performance may have adverse effects.

The perpetuation of the intense emphasis on childhood dyslexia is to some degree financially guaranteed. Remedial reading teachers may receive higher salaries than regular classroom teachers. School districts may receive additional appropriations for children identified as learning

disabled. Some optometrists, psychologists, and

physicians have profited from association with

the area of reading problems. A large and influen-tial industry is involved in the manufacture of reading tests and special reading programs.

Reading is a skill similar to all other skills in that ability is determined by biological makeup and societal pressures and modified only

minimal-ly by

education or training.


Perhaps our educational system could consider a decrease in the emphasis on the attainment of skill in the interpretation of the printed word. For

many children, this skill is elusive at best. A

recognition that reading ability is related in part to the degree of neurologic maturation is in order. Reading ability may correlate better with neuro-logic maturation than with educational technique or chronological age.

In our technological society, alternatives to reading exist. The oral-aural approach is one such alternative. Educational television and movies are

also alternatives. Other methods for the teaching

of reading should be tried, such as the sequential phonetic, gestalt, and kinesthetic approach.

Children need to be encouraged to read, but perhaps not with the intensity presently occur-ring in many schools. Also, the timing of the introduction of reading materials into the school curriculum should be reevaluated.




hend the types of printed materials commonly

encountered. A tolerance should be developed for

those who are not efficient in the reading process

or who do not like to read. Schools should not

make reading the sole, and perhaps not even the predominant, route for learning. If a child finds reading difficult or distasteful, that child should

have the right not to be forced to read.

However, all children should be encouraged to read. They should be helped when appropriate. For those children who have difficulty with the visual symbols of language, allowances can be made to permit maturation and alternative

meth-oth; of learning can be used and even



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Russell D. Snyder

The Right Not To Read


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The Right Not To Read

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