Readers who are interested in my background are probably wondering whether I can really help with your child or students. I encourage you to read the many testimonials written by my students, parents, and educators which will provide you a glimpse into the work I've done and the people I've helped. Below you will find a mini-autobiography that summarizes my background and, I hope, gives you a sense of the passion I feel for helping those who struggle with reading, spelling and writing.
My passion for helping students with reading, spelling and writing difficulties began many, many years ago.
I began teaching in a grade two classroom in 1970, in Edmonton, Alberta. During the first month, I noticed something that changed my life - some of my students experienced difficulty with reading and spelling. I had not previously been aware that some people have difficulty with printed words. Or, if I was aware, had never thought there was anything that could be done to help them. And, certainly, I hadn't thought that I might help.
However, noticing those struggling grade two students in my classroom caused my life and my interests to become focused. Why were reading and spelling hard for some people? What, exactly, was hard? And, what could be done to make these tasks easier for them?
That quest has never left me. It has directed my life up to the present. And will continue to channel my thinking and my teaching.
I started, in 1970, to read about reading. I read textbooks, and research articles, and educational teaching programs. And I started trying different approaches to the teaching of reading in my classroom, e.g. learning words as complete units and giving many visual repetitions of the words to my students, giving them only words and stories that could be figured out sound-by-sound, etc. I also began taking university courses in reading. What things had already been tried to help students learn to read and spell? I wanted to know everything.
This interest in reading development led me to get my Master's Degree in Reading and Language, four years after I began as a classroom teacher. I wanted to become a reading specialist.
At the University of Alberta, I took a wonderful course that accelerated my understanding of reading difficulties and interventions. It was a course in the Reading and Language Clinic, taught by Dr. William Fagan. Here we learned how to assess student's academic strengths and weaknesses. We tried to figure out what they were thinking by watching and analyzing their responses when reading words and answering questions. We tried to discover patterns in their thinking, so that we could develop strategies, techniques, and tools that they could use to improve their word reading, listening and reading comprehension, spelling and writing.
As I made diagnostic observations and designed tailor-made teaching recommendations, I knew that I was really learning how to assist struggling readers, spellers, and writers.
My first job after getting my M.Ed. was as a Reading Specialist in an Education Clinic in a large public school system. I worked with about forty students each year, assessing their academic needs, and designing and implementing personalized programs, to help them become more successful with print. Once the students started achieving greater academic success, they returned to their local school, where their teachers and families could continue giving specific support. In this setting, I worked with psychologists, speech and language pathologists, social workers, and classroom teachers, and learned about the critical information all of these professionals could bring to the task of helping students who struggle academically. This was an exciting two years of my life, because I was mandated to focus intensely on learning difficulties and teaching interventions. At this time, I first heard of a concept, which is now called phonological awareness, that was related to accurate reading and spelling, and which was developed in the 1960's by Charles and Pat Lindamood, in California. I was intrigued, and began using the Lindamood "Test of Auditory Conceptualization", and did some reading of the current literature on this topic. However, there wasn't much in the mid-to-late 1970's.
I went to England for a year as an Exchange Teacher in 1978-79, and met Gordon Wells, now in Toronto, Ontario, who introduced me to the concept of teaching as "collaborative meaning making", a concept which has influenced all of my teaching and coaching throughout my career.
Upon returning to Canada in 1979, I got a job assessing and making teaching recommendations for students already in special needs classrooms. And I had my first daughter.
Then, in 1982, I had my second daughter. Watching my children becoming comfortable with books and acquiring literacy made my quest for helping struggling readers all the more compelling.
In the mid 1980's, I returned to classroom teaching, and was a grade one teacher in the mornings and a pull-out resource teacher in the afternoons. Two major things happened from this experience. First, most of the students in my grade one class were making very slow progress with reading and spelling, and I felt frustrated because it seemed as if I didn't know enough. Even after all of these years as a teacher/reading specialist. What was I missing in my knowledge?
Interestingly, both of my daughters had learned to read before starting kindergarten, so I knew that I had provided a literate environment for them at home. But what was missing for my grade one students, who also came from caring homes?
The second thing that happened was that Marie Clay came from New Zealand to talk about the "Reading Recovery" success they were having. I wanted to know more about this, and to do it. I studied the information on "Reading Recovery", got a Teacher Researcher Grant, and began an Early Intervention Project with three professors from the University of Alberta. I worked with three students intensively. Their reading improved immensely, but I wasn't satisfied with their spelling and writing gains.
At this time, I started to realize that while I had perfected my skills at making printed words easier to decipher, my students seemed to be missing something at, or needing help with, a pre-print level. And I didn't know how to think at a pre-print level, so how could I help them?
I returned to a Consultant position in the late 1980's, assessing and working with students from a number of schools. At one consultant meeting, Dr. Steve Truch from Calgary, Alberta, spoke about a new educational clinic, "The Reading Foundation", he had just established, which was based on the successful work being done by Pat and Phyllis Lindamood, and Nanci Bell in California. I was thrilled to realize that I could study with them personally.
In 1990, I went to Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes in San Luis Obispo, California, three times, to learn about auditory conceptual judgment (phonological awareness) and visualizing/verbalizing in detail, with the intent that I would add this knowledge to my teaching tool kit. It was an inspiring time with them, as I honed my thinking and my teaching practice.
When I returned to Edmonton, I immediately started trying out my new skills and knowledge. I began to work with Robert, an eight year old who could read about eight words. My good friend had been tutoring him and really felt that she didn't know how to help him. I asked Robert's mother if I could use him as a guinea pig, but that I wouldn't hurt him! She said that if I could teach her son to read, I could have him as a guinea pig. Robert and I worked together from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., three evenings a week, not the best time of day for an eight year old. However, Robert started learning and remembering words. After several months, I brought one hundred words for Robert to read. He looked at me, a bit troubled. Didn't I know that would be too hard for him? He read ninety-four of them correctly! His mother cried. I cried. For Robert, it was now easy. Of course, I had carefully selected one hundred words that exhibited symbol-sound correspondence. They could be figured out, if you knew their sounds, and how to analyze them in a left-to-right manner. Robert was now learning to read; whereas, before this, he hadn't been learning any words at all.
Now I knew that I had the knowledge I needed. The Lindamood's work had brought pre-print knowledge from the discipline of Speech and Language, and had combined this with some aspects of linguistics, to produce a teaching program for developing accurate reading and spelling. As we now say, they had developed phonological awareness in students who couldn't seem to make sense of print. Once these students understood how sounds were produced, they could begin to match their own speech sequences to letters, for reading, and could monitor their own speech and then produce letters in sequence, for spelling.
Now that I was able to teach a student who exhibited a serious reading delay, I knew that I could change the way many students struggled with print. I could help teachers to change the reading frustration of students in grade one. I could help change the high school drop-out rate, because we know that many drop-outs have reading and writing difficulties. I could help reduce the number of students who were placed in special needs classes because of delayed reading. I could help accelerate the reading progress of students already in special needs classes.
But, I couldn't get anyone to listen!!
So, in 1991, I opened a private educational clinic. At "The Centre for Literacy", my staff and I could deal directly with student's needs. I pre-assessed their strengths and needs, in reading, spelling, writing, math, and content areas like social studies and science. Most of our students exhibited weaknesses in phonological awareness. Their reading and spelling lagged behind their peers, even though many of them worked harder than their classmates. We worked intensively with them, sometimes for four hours a day, to develop their phonological awareness so that their reading skills would accelerate, and they would be able to function more successfully in their classrooms. We also found that many of our students didn't visualize actively when they read, or while they wrote. They also did not know how to visualize abstract concepts, like democracy and justice, etc., and so they experienced increasing difficulty in the content areas as they progressed in school. Soon, teachers, psychologists, principals, and doctors began sending their children to The Centre, because word spread quickly about the dramatic success we had with our students. It was a thrilling experience for all of us.
At The Centre, I also got to do some workplace literacy work in a large company. Other employers sponsored their employees to The Centre, because they knew that lack of literacy development was hindering their employee's advancement. Other adults were injured on the job and came to us as part of their upgrading. But mostly we worked with, and changed the lives of, students in schools. I was often interviewed on television and the radio about what we were doing that was making such a difference for our students, a task that I viewed with pleasure.
While at The Centre, I had two very exciting visitors. Phyllis Lindamood, from Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, came to teach a seminar and work with us. And Dr. Joseph Torgesen, the eminent researcher and educator, spent a day with us, talking about issues in phonological awareness. This was profound mentorship, and inspired us to continue our successful work.
At that time, I was also part of a group of three Speech and Language Pathologists, one kindergarten teacher, and one pre-school teacher, who formed "The Literacy Connection", an organization that received provincial funding to promote resiliency in children. We worked with three and four year olds who had been identified with language delays, and taught the children and their parents how to develop phonological awareness at that early age. These children would likely enter school with weak skills for reading and spelling, if we did not intervene prior to their entering school. We were preventing reading difficulties.
After working as the Director of The Centre for eight years, I left Edmonton to open another Literacy Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, and to be closer to my ailing parents.
In November 1999, I became a Reading Specialist in San Jose, California, working in a private school that received students who were identified as severe behavior problems in their local schools. Although all of these students were labelled as behavior disordered, I knew that reading difficulties had a huge impact on their lack of school success. So I began working with the oldest students with the lowest reading scores, e.g. the seventeen year old who read at a grade two level, the thirteen year old who read about ten words, etc. These bruised young students had to want to come and work with me every day. And spending time with a teacher working on reading and spelling, when you'd struggled with these tasks for years, might not be your favorite past time! At first, I had no books in the room. I told them that I knew I could make reading and spelling easier for them. I told them that I knew they could learn to read and spell. There was no doubt in my mind. I was supremely confident that if we worked together in certain ways, ways that might be different from how they were taught before, that they could learn. Enlightened self-interest always seems to take over. I had them hooked. Most (or all) of these students had never had a mentor before. And, if they had, they hadn't been provided with one-to-one academic support. It was a privilege for me to be involved in their lives, and to perfect my teaching skills. These students didn't really know what "rigor" was. Their emotional/behavioral/self-concept/learning issues had, for years, got in the way of making many academic gains. And they had not been taught how to use their own sensory cues to give them information about how to figure out reading and spelling words, how to use their own visual memory to help them remember reading and spelling words, and how to use their own visual imagination and sketching skills to help them understand what they read, and organize what they wrote. They already had all of the tools they needed; they just didn't know that they did. What an exciting revelation for them. They had the power to learn. Needless to say, there were many successes. One of my students, Johnny, read a valedictory poem for his grade nine graduation, a challenge he would never have been willing to meet, prior to this.
All of these students were missing foundational skills, yet, if I had worked with them only on elementary tasks, they would have felt insulted. So I learned how to work on basic skills AT THE SAME TIME as I worked on multi-syllable words and complex content. Learning how to teach by "weaving" easier-harder concepts and skills became the foundation for my book, "Why Your Child Can't Read And Spell And What YOU Can Do About It". In it, I demonstrate how to teach phonological awareness, in particular, both developmentally and remedially, with struggling older students. Most books and teaching approaches present information from simple to complex. However, if you're a struggling reader/speller/writer, you're already uneven in your skill development, maturity, and knowledge, and this easier-to-harder approach will bore you, because it won't seem relevant to you. Plus, learning never occurs in a strict, pre-defined linear manner. All of us learn uniquely, and we need to tailor-make our teaching, to make it precisely applicable to each learner.
In August 2001, I returned to Canada, and again began working for a large school district as a Reading Specialist. I assessed students from kindergarten through high school, identified their learning needs, specifically, and then recommended teaching strategies that would help them succeed. I also provided training in phonological awareness and concept imagery for school staff who truly wanted to become immersed in teaching practices that would change the reading/spelling/writing capabilities of ALL students. I worked intensely and excitedly at this.
Many school districts, in my experience, appear to operate with the belief that there will always be weak readers, spellers, and writers. They seem to believe that if you are a weak reader in the early grades, you will continue to be so. As well, they think that if you experience difficulty learning to read with the methods they have used to teach you, then they might as well try those same approaches again.
I've never understood either of these beliefs. First, if you have reading and spelling difficulties because you lack fully-developed phonological awareness, then if we teach you phonological awareness, now we can accelerate your progress. We can change the rules. We can change the expectations for you.
If you have difficulty understanding what you read, it could be that your imagery for ideas hasn't been fully developed. Or, that you don't know how to make images with more complex, abstract information. We can teach this.
If you don't know how to organize your ideas for writing, you can be taught to create organized sketches before you begin writing.
All of these skills are essential. And all can, and should be, taught.
Second, if you didn't learn easily when a certain teaching method was used, then surely we should change what we do as teachers. We should find out how to teach you. We should try to figure out what might be hindering your smooth, expected academic development.
I have personally witnessed so many changed lives, when students (of all ages) have been given the tools they need. When they use these tools, they can move forward as more successful readers, spellers, and writers.
This will continue to be my life's passion. I picture myself, in my 90's, helping another student acquire the tools of a successful reader and writer. And I picture myself spending the next years of my life teaching other adults the knowledge, skills, and techniques they will need to help the developing and struggling students they meet.