Published in The Lakeland Times
“No skill is more crucial to the future of a child, or to a democratic and prosperous society, than literacy.”
This aphorism, first stated in the Los Angeles Times, knocks the fact that 50 percent of children struggle with learning to read into a sobering realm of reality.
Of those children, 20 percent struggle severely with the task. Fast forward a few years and 70 percent of this significant minority can be found in jail, or with alcohol and drug-related problems.
“There are a lot of far-reaching consequences of illiteracy,” said Donna Hejtmanek, Literacy Task Force of Northern Wisconsin board member.
The task force held its annual meeting Monday, Nov. 9, at Nicolet College to address the root causes of illiteracy, and what can be done to help those who struggle with learning to read.
These people are usually deemed dyslexic, a widely misunderstood umbrella term defined by the International Dyslexia Organization as “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling abilities.”
It is not, as is typically believed, simply reading words in reverse.
Special guest Trish Ellis, an educational consultant who specializes in neuro-education, shed scientific insight on the issue. She discussed the details of how the brains of dyslexic readers differ in structure and function from those of normal readers.
For a non-dyslexic person, reading engages three areas of the brain: the parieto-temporal lobe, which controls word analysis, the occipito-temporal lobe, which controls word form, and the Broca’s area, which controls articulation and word analysis.
For a dyslexic person, reading only engages the Broca’s area. The neurons that create brain pathways to the other areas are not as developed as they are in a non-dyslexic reader’s brain. Consequently, the dyslexic reader’s brain must work much harder to compensate.
This disability is not any indication of intelligence; In fact, dyslexic people often have above average IQs.
However, Ellis pointed out that literacy is still an integral part of becoming a functioning member of society.
“Reading is not necessary for survival,” she said. “But tell that to the third-grader who has to read out loud to the class.”
Fortunately, she said, the brain is extremely pliable, and sculpts itself from outside experiences. The connections between different areas of the brain can be created and strengthened through continued use, much like muscles grow stronger from exercising.
“We need to build the reading brain through purposeful and informed instruction,” she said.
Le Ganschow, a former member of the international dyslexia board and current member of the task force’s board, formed the literacy task force in 2004 to do just that.
She said she initiated the group’s formation when she became inundated with phone calls from concerned parents of struggling readers.
“As I received calls I was looking for someone to teach students in the way that they needed to be taught,” she said. “We ended up forming a small nucleus of people who wanted to address the issue of struggling readers.”
The group decided the most efficient way to address the problem was to train tutors to teach students.
The group is now in its fifth training session, and became an official non-profit organization in 2008.
Ganschow said when they started the sessions, people such as Hejtmanek, then a special education teacher, began coming forward to help.
Hejtmanek said she thinks the conventional teaching approach to reading is flawed, as it does not address the needs of all students. She said the fault does not necessarily rest on the teacher, but on the system itself, or perhaps more accurately, on the curriculum that students training to become teachers follow.
She pointed to her own experience in 1976 when she graduated from college and went straight to teaching, finding she was ill-equipped in the front of a classroom.
“I called my mother and asked, ‘how do you teach kids how to read?’” she said.
She said phonics were left out of the curriculum then, as they still are in most schools today. Instead, children are taught to simply memorize the structure of the word and its meaning.
The Wisconsin Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (WIBIDA), with which the task force is loosely affiliated, works to address illiteracy problems legislatively, including seeking changes to the methods instructors are taught to employ.
Though many children may learn based on these methods, about one in five children struggle.
“They never learned how to blend the sounds together,” Hejtmanek said. “Consequently, these kids just fall further and further behind.”
The task force’s two-week intensive training course is based on a multi-sensory methodology, also known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, through which students are taught to link the sounds of the letters with their shapes, using three pathways of memorization to solidify what they learn: letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, and meaning word parts.
Ellis said students have better reading comprehension if they talk about what they’ve read and teach it to someone else.
Beyond tutors and teachers facilitating the learning process for struggling children, parents also play a critical role in literacy development.
Ellis said the best way to engage children in reading is to constantly expose them to it at a young age.
“Read billboards, cereal boxes, comic books, magazines, and books,” she said.
No child responds in exactly the same way, however. Nona Soroosh, a member of the task force, said she struggled to help her youngest son with reading for many years despite this repeated exposure.
She took him to a tutor, a learning disabilities teacher and a specialist with a Ph.D. in reading. When her son still hadn’t learned to read, she sent him to several specialized boarding schools, all of which failed.
Finally, Soroosh moved to Bloomington, Minnesota, where she enrolled her son in a school that employed the Orton-Gillingham approach and was reputed to have extremely high success rates.
She said her son’s reading level shot up to a fourth grade level in one year, but the program was then phased out the next year.
But Soroosh refused to let her son’s progress stop there, and after becoming educated in the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading, opened up an international boarding school in Eagle River.
The school was in operation for 15 years, and Soroosh’s now-literate son works in newspaper sales.
Although she’s currently retired, she remains an advocate of the approach that facilitated her son’s learning. She is also a board member on the task force, as well as a tutor.
Of course, no solution is a panacea for the whole.
“What works for one might not work for another,” Ellis said.
But the task force is working to ensure that no children are left behind in terms of the opportunity to learn.