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The Burying of Roza Levina (or, How History Can Shape Science)

The April 1984 issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities includes a review paper about how kids learn to read. The author, Joanna Williams from Columbia University, outlined the history of an idea: that children who have trouble learning to read also have trouble with phonemes, or the sounds that make up words. Teaching children to read, she argued, should begin by teaching them how to sound out words.

The theory is fairly mainstream today. But in the 1980s and 90s educators were loudly debating which reading methods work best. (Remember all of those annoying “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” commercials? You’re welcome.)

In her 1984 review, Williams argued that research had long focused on visual rather than auditory aspects of reading. She dates the earliest work on phonemes to 1963, when two Russian psychologists published papers “in very sparse detail.” No other research happened until the 1970s, and even then it wasn’t much, Williams wrote. “To a great extent this is still an experimental idea.”

That was true — in the West. But in Russia, phonemes were old news, as I learned in a fascinating review published last month, also in the Journal of Learning Disabilities. Beginning in the 1930s, phonemic instruction became popular all across Russia, thanks in large part to the work of a woman who was never mentioned in Williams’s paper, nor in dozens of similar reviews that have appeared since. Her name was Roza Levina.

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Roza Levina conducting a clinical assessment. (Journal of Learning Disabilities)

Levina spent most of her career at the Experimental Institute of Defectology, in Moscow, a place for research on how to educate children with developmental delays. She started there in 1931, two years after it opened, and would become one of its superstars. Since then, the Institute “has been the flagship of the theory and practice of educating children with special needs in the Soviet Union and Russia,” writes Galina Chirkina and Elena Grigorenko in the new review.

Levina’s research and philosophy were based on the phoneme; for example, she recognized that dyslexia is often rooted* in problems with spoken language. As the Institute gained prominence, so did Levina’s phoneme theories, influencing not only school curricula but policies of health plans and hospitals across the country.

So why was this big idea and its widespread application unknown to Western researchers some 50 years later? One easy answer is the Cold War, which obviously made it difficult for American and Russian intellectuals to swap ideas freely. But there’s a more specific explanation that has to do with scientific citations.

Remember those two Russian psychologists Williams cited in her 1984 review? One was Daniil El’konin, whose paper appeared as a chapter in a 1963 book, Educational Psychology in the U.S.S.R., compiled by two English historians, Brian Simon and his wife Joan. The Simons chose which articles to include with the help of some personal connections in Russia. For whatever reason, their book doesn’t include any chapters related to special education, despite the fact that it was a “huge chunk of Soviet educational psychology,” notes Chirkina and Grigorenko. So Levina was left out. This is especially strange because Levina and El’konin shared the same scientific pedigree: They knew each other, and in fact were both part of a small group of young scientists mentored by Lev Vygotsky.

I’ve been wondering what might have happened had Western researchers been exposed to Levina’s ideas. Would phonics have been ushered in more readily? Would the reading wars never have happened?

There’s of course no finger to point here. The Simons and Williams cited studies as they saw fit; this is the nature of history, right? I certainly run into the same problem when writing science stories. I always try to find out where an idea originated, only to eventually realize that it’s not a single idea, and that pieces of it appeared in several places at different times.

This is what Chirkina and Grigorenko call “the amazing connectedness of good ideas.” Looking back on the past “is like stargazing,” they write. “One can see them all simultaneously, no matter how distant in space and time they all might have been.”

*Update, 11:07am: changed text so as not to imply that all types of dyslexia stem from speech problems.

Top photo by Hans Dinkelberg