Teaching Chelsea how to read
By KENT FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
The sandy-haired kid handled math well enough and, for an 11-year-old, was blessed with artistic talent unlike any that teacher Gail Diederich had ever seen. But put a book in front of him and all you got was a blank stare. Fifth grade, and he could hardly read.
She was young and idealistic and this should not be happening, but he had her stumped. How could she teach him to read?
Looking for clues, she met his mother in the school library one fall morning. They sat across from each other, wedging their knees under one of the long, low kiddie tables.
Debbie Link talked about her son, Oren, how she worked with him almost every night, reading to him, but nothing seemed to help; how teachers in New York told her that Oren probably was retarded; how she didn't believe it, because no way a retarded kid can draw like that.
The meeting helped Mrs. Diederich understand Oren's temperamental behavior, but it did nothing to help her solve his reading problem. So she improvised. When she gave her class an exam on the Civil War, she let Oren sketch his answers. To provide a retreat from his frustrations, she and other teachers converted a spare closet into an art studio.
When the school year ended, Mrs. Diederich promoted him to sixth grade. Another year in fifth wouldn't solve his reading problem, of that much she was sure. Just let him go, maybe his new teacher could help.
But Mrs. Diederich couldn't let him go, at least not in her mind. Over the next 17 years, as she developed a specialty teaching reading, she kept thinking back to him. Did he ever learn to read? Did he make a success of himself? Was she to blame?
One morning, amid the bustle of the start of the day at Fox Hollow Elementary, the phone rang in Mrs. Diederich's office. A parent was out front asking for her.
Mrs. Diederich recognized him immediately: It was Oren, all grown up. Clinging to his leg was a sandy-haired girl with a freckled nose.
His daughter was in kindergarten, he explained, and already she was struggling with her letters and falling behind.
Oren asked his former teacher: Could you help?
Chelsea Link bounds into Mrs. Diederich's office in a bluejeans dress embroidered with ladybugs, clutching a storybook, Miss Wishy Washy.
She opens Miss Wishy Washy and follows along, her finger trailing below the words as Mrs. Diederich enunciates each sound and syllable.
"You see that word right there?" Mrs. Diederich says, pointing to pig. "What does it start with?"
"Puh, puh, puh," the sound pops off Chelsea's lips in rapid fire.
"What's the next letter?"
Chelsea hesitates. "M?"
"Look again," Mrs. Diederich says, tapping the page with her index finger. "I think that's an I."
It was November 1999. Mrs. Diederich had come a long way as a teacher since 1982, back when Chelsea's dad had struggled through fifth-grade at Schrader Elementary. Teaching reading is her forte now. She has spent summers teaching learning disabled children and helped Pasco County develop its first program for gifted children. She is the reading specialist at Fox Hollow and devours journals on the latest research.
Schools have changed, too. In the early 1980s, reading classes were ruled by "Whole Language," a fuzzy kind of teaching that, at its worst, left kids to unlock the meaning of words themselves. Educators were expected to teach kids of all reading levels from the same books, leaving little place for students who didn't get it.
"There wasn't an intense focus on reading problems back then and (special education) was kind of a mysterious thing," says Mrs. Diederich, now 52. "We did the old skill-and-drill type of teaching. That was the philosophy: Finish the chapter and give them a worksheet."
What we know about reading has come a long way, too.
Researchers apart chromosomes have revolutionized what we know about the genetic roots of dyslexia -- a commonly used name for reading disabilities. Dyslexia has been linked to four chromosomes, giving weight to something teachers have long known but couldn't quantify: A child can inherit a parent's reading problem.
"It's like the finger of fate," Mrs. Diederich says. "A lot of the keys to Chelsea may come through her father, and the thought has crossed my mind that we still might find something that will help Oren."
Every teacher has a capable student she just can't reach. Sometimes, a teacher blames herself. Sometimes, she blames the kid. Rarely does she get a second chance.
* * *
Even before Chelsea started school, her family noticed she had trouble putting things in order or following directions that required more than one step.
"I saw it and said to myself, "She's just like Oren,"' says Chelsea's grandmother, Debbie Link.
Not only was Chelsea like Oren, she was like grandma, too, and great-grandma, and Uncle Harold. They all struggled with reading.
At Catholic school growing up, Debbie could read to herself, but when she read aloud, the words just wouldn't come out. The nuns would scold her for being lazy.
"I would study, but I just could never get the letters," says Debbie, who is 51 and still has trouble keeping telephone numbers in the right order.
In kindergarten, when his class made bunnies out of clay, he sculpted a crouching brown rabbit with bulging haunches and ears laid low against its back. A nub of a tail and another for a nose made the rabbit look ready to spring to life.
But he couldn't do the letter work like the other kids. Twice during kindergarten, he ran from his classroom. The first time a teacher caught him as he left the building; the second time he made it all the way home.
"He was bright in so many ways, but when he went to school, it was trouble," Debbie says.
She went to the principal, who suggested she read more and play more games with him. She already was doing that. "They said: "Read to him, read to him.' It was me and him against the world."
The school eventually put him into special education. His teachers had him write letters in sand, hoping the rough feeling on his fingertips would somehow imprint the swoops and swirls of the alphabet onto his brain. They even tried to teach him Braille.
The move from Long Island to Pasco County in 1982 didn't help. By middle school, Oren was ready to drop out. "They weren't teaching me, they were only repeating the same things over and over."
He hung around for the art classes, but after he had taken all that Hudson High School had to offer, he quit.
He got a job selling shoes at the mall.
* * *
Cracking a reading problem is a tall order under the best conditions. This was Chelsea's situation:
Her kindergarten teacher was new, her portable classroom isolated at the back of the school. Her reading materials arrived three months late. There were 24 other children in the class, many worse off than Chelsea. One boy, with a bush of strawberry curls, wouldn't come out from under his desk.
It wasn't a simple matter for Mrs. Diederich to step in and help. In Pasco schools, reading specialists don't teach reading; they work with teachers to improve how they teach reading.
Mrs. Diederich felt like a glorified paper-pusher. She was in charge of organizing the school's new after-school tutoring program. She oversaw the administration of the state's new regime of standardized tests. She helped evaluate special education students. She tracked grant programs. Finally, and this one really galled her, she spent 45 minutes a day in the cafeteria monitoring kids and snipping open ketchup packets.
"I know that I've got the skills to get kids reading, but the only contact time I have with kids is lunch duty. I don't feel like I've helped one child learn to read this year."
Mrs. Diederich's lifelong friendship with books goes back to her days growing up at the toes of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. Her father was a high school dropout who could hardly read; her older sister Becky taught her. Her great-Aunt Maggie, who ran a bookmobile, kept them supplied with stacks of castoff books -- worn treasures that still occupy a place of honor in her study.
Little wonder that administrative duties frustrate her so.
Kindergarteners are expected to know most of their letters; Chelsea knew only the first eight, and E gave her fits. They are expected to recognize shapes and draw pictures in response to a teacher's questions. Chelsea couldn't do either.
Good readers intuitively understand that letters are written symbols that represent spoken sounds, and that sounds snap together like Legos to form words. But some kids don't get it. They don't understand that "cat" is one word made up of three distinct sounds: kuh, ah and tuh. Their ears can't pick apart the word or distinguish its sounds. They hear only the whole word.
Was that Chelsea? Mrs. Diederich thought so. Her academic journals told her that kids like Chelsea need a specialized reading program that teaches sounds first, and then how to put them together into words. The problem can be fixed with daily half-hour doses of focused, purposeful instruction. But it needs to be caught by third grade. If not, chances are the problem will never get fixed.
The lessons are complicated, well beyond traditional phonics, and most teachers are not taught how to give them. Even Mrs. Diederich, who was only a few credits shy of a master's degree in reading, felt ill-prepared to give Chelsea the kind of lessons she needed.
"She can do so many things, but when we start looking at her ABCs, they're just not there," Mrs. Diederich says. "Her parents are aware of it, her teacher is aware of it, I'm aware of it. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
* * *
Denise Link, Chelsea's mom, made it her mission to figure out which first-grade teacher would be best for her daughter. Long before kindergarten ended, Denise would spend afternoons at the school, pushing her youngest, Andrew, in his stroller, listening outside a classroom door or under an open window.
But Denise didn't wait for the school to move Chelsea along. Years earlier, Chelsea's pediatrician had prescribed speech therapy because of a lisp. Denise now used that prescription to get Medicaid to pay $75 a week for Chelsea to meet with a private speech therapist.
At home, Denise was trying to help Oren become a better reader, too. He and Denise had joined a new church, and they often spent the evening reading Bible passages to each other.
Oren started off with a worn King James version, but all the "thees" and "thous" kept tripping him up. He switched to a different Bible, written in simpler language, and highlighted the words that gave him trouble: disobedient, gratifying, advanced.
One night, reading Ephesians 6:15, "The Armor of God," Denise decided she could best help Oren by not always helping him. "I think it's great that he's reading, but what's the benefit if I just tell him the words?"
He understood. "I know that as the kids get older, I'll have to read more so I can keep up with them without stumbling. There's no shame in that.
"I don't want Chelsea to get discouraged like I did. I want to catch it early."
Oren had quit high school during his senior year in 1989 and got the job selling shoes. A few months later he signed up for night school. When he took the GED test, he didn't have to read. The exam rules allowed students with learning disabilities to get their exam questions from a tape recording. When he got his driver's license, he took the written portion orally, too.
He earned a certificate as a nursing assistant and found work at a retirement home, but quit after an altercation with a patient. He got a job as a roofer and eventually settled into a career as a plumber.
He and Denise have three kids: 7-year-old Chelsea, 5-year-old Joshua and 2-year-old Andrew.
Oren is 29 now, and like many poor readers, finds ways to get by. Denise handles the important things, like loan applications and filling out the kids' medical paperwork.
But getting by is hardly moving ahead, and that's what Oren wants to do now: He wants to start his own business. To get the master plumber's license he needs, he has to pass a written exam that covers topics as complex as worker compensation laws. The way he reads, Oren figures, he wouldn't stand a chance.
Deep down, he still harbors the notion that some day, he might yet become an artist.
* * *
By the end of kindergarten Chelsea could recite the alphabet, but she still couldn't recognize 14 of the letters by themselves. She didn't understand that sentences are made up of words, and that words are made up of letters, which represent spoken sounds. She was nowhere near being ready to read.
She started her speech therapy in June, a few weeks after school ended. She went to Children's Speech Services, run by Joan Miesner, a speech pathologist in Hudson. Chelsea and Denise call her Miss Joanie.
She ran Chelsea through a battery of tests, starting with a game to show whether Chelsea understood that words can be split into smaller pieces.
"Say toothbrush without saying "brush,' " Miss Joanie says.
"Toothbrush," Chelsea shoots back.
"Say farm without saying "fff.' "
"Farm," Chelsea replies.
Chelsea misses them all. The next test, "Rapid Object Recall," requires her to identify a series of pictures as quickly as she can. She runs out of time less than halfway through, scoring a 3. The average score is 10.
Another test requires Chelsea to repeat numbers in a series.
"Five, two," Miss Joanie says.
"One, two," Chelsea replies.
"Six, one, five."
"Six, seven." Chelsea says.
Researchers have recently begun using MRI machines to study the neurology behind reading disabilities.
The scans show that when we read, blood rushes into three areas in the backs of our brains, where vision is processed and language interpreted. When we play letter games or listen for rhymes, neurons in those areas crackle with activity.
But when someone who is dyslexic tries to read, blood instead streams into the front, right side of the brain, where speech is processed; the language areas of the brain show little activity. This breakdown in how the brain correlates speech sounds to letters may explain a dyslexic's difficulty processing written language.
But it's not a hopeless case of broken brains. Scientists have found that someone who is dyslexic can learn to read if she's taught how to compensate for her brain's unusual circuitry. Usually, that means first teaching her how to recognize and pronounce the 40 sounds in the English language and only later, how to match those sounds with letters and words.
Miss Joanie tells Denise that Chelsea's tests show that she has significant language problems. "It gives us a starting place, but she's going to have trouble reading," Miss Joanie says. "I can't say that we can fix it, but we can definitely work on it to boost her skills."
"Whatever we can do at home to help, please tell us," Denise says. "I don't want her to hate school. She loves school. She always wants to go, even when she's sick."
* * *
A triangular mirror sits between Chelsea and Justine Nelson, one of the speech therapists who works for Miss Joanie. They're talking "lip coolers," the long, hissing sounds that cool your lips when you say them. Fff is a lip cooler. So is vvv.
"Where are your teeth when you're making a lip cooler?" Justine asks Chelsea, who is studying her mouth in the mirror.
"On your lip," Chelsea says, curling back her upper lip to prove it.
"Where does the air come?"
"Over your lip."
Last week they tackled "tongue scrapers" -- sounds like kuh -- and "lip poppers" like puh and buh.
When Chelsea doesn't say a sound correctly, Justine uses a tongue depressor and her fingers to place Chelsea's tongue and lips into the proper position.
They're using a program called "Lips," which helps dyslexics sharpen their ability to distinguish the sequence of sounds in words. The program teaches the movements the mouth and tongue must make to properly form a sound.
This is not your father's phonics, and it's rarely found in public schools. "Lips" reverses the order in which the structure of language is taught. It starts with sounds and how to make and identify them. Only after the child has mastered those skills does the program introduce letters and, later, spelling patterns and words.
As many as one student in four needs an intensive phonics program like Lips to learn to read. Few get it.
By August, Chelsea is zipping along. Her ability to identify the sounds inside words improves remarkably.
Justine leans in to Chelsea until the tips of their noses touch."We'll get there, won't we honey?" she says with a smile.
"Yep. I'm going to read."
* * *
The principal at Fox Hollow Elementary assigned Chelsea to Ashlie Brierly's first-grade class, thinking her background in speech pathology and special education made her best-equipped to keep Chelsea's progress on track.
But that didn't mean that Mrs. Brierly would be able to lavish attention on Chelsea. Nearly half the students in her class had learning problems that were at least as severe as Chelsea's.
Each morning Chelsea and five other problem readers squeeze around a bean-shaped table with Mrs. Brierly in the middle.
This morning she gives each of them a nine-sentence storybook titled The Ball Game. Together they take a "picture walk" through the book, flipping the pages and talking about the illustrations.
A pig-tailed girl pulls a handful of pennies from her pocket and drops them on the table. The racket stops the lesson cold. Another girl pulls her shirt over her head and peers out an armhole.
Mrs. Brierly knows Chelsea needs much more attention than she can give her in class, so when Denise asks if she would tutor Chelsea after school, she agrees.
Progress isn't just slow, it is excruciating. At a session last November, Mrs. Brierly hands Chelsea a story called Monster Meals. "Whose meals is the book about?" she asks, pointing to Monster in the book's title.
Chelsea tugs at the collar of her Pokemon shirt.
"Who's this person?" Mrs. Brierly asks, pointing to the purple ogre on the book's cover. "What do we call them?"
"That's right. Monster what?" she says, again pointing to the title.
"Ssss. Stew." Chelsea says.
"No, not monster stew. Mmmmm. What do we call that?"
"I keep forgetting. Stew?"
"Okay," Mrs. Brierly says with a sigh. "What are they putting into it?" She points to the picture of two ogres making their meal.
"They're putting fish heads in to make a meal," Mrs. Brierly says, nodding. "What are they making? A mmmmm."
"A meal! That's right! Do you think the monsters are excited about making a meal? Do you think they're going to enjoy this meal?"
"Yes," Chelsea says, catching her teacher's enthusiasm.
"Good job," Mrs. Brierly says, patting Chelsea's hand. "Okay. Are you ready to read to me now? Go ahead. Read me the title."
* * *
Chelsea's luck turned in the school parking lot, just before Thanksgiving.
Her mom was headed for the minivan when she bumped into Diane Bartow, who was the lone teacher from Fox Hollow picked to take the school district's advanced class on teaching reading. The course required that she practice on a student. Just like that, Chelsea had herself another private tutor.
For the first few weeks, Chelsea's progress was faltering and slow. Her phonics skills were impeccable, thanks to her work over the summer, but she still needed help learning how to blend the sounds into words.
She would expend so much effort sounding out a word that she would lose track of the others that she had already figured out. She could read the first few letters of a word, and she could read the last letters, but she couldn't put them together to get the whole word.
Right after Christmas, though, the barriers started to fall.
Mrs. Bartow's materials had Chelsea reading at a Level 3. By February, Chelsea had zoomed to Level 8 and by mid March she was at Level 11, halfway to where she needed to be by the end of the school year. She was Student of the Month for the whole school.
By mid April she was at Level 16. Chelsea stopped relying on pictures for help when she got stuck. Her reading became smoother, more fluid. As she gained confidence, her enthusiasm ticked up.
Reading a story about a green-eyed cat who lives in a school, Chelsea stumbles on the last sentence.
"Our teacher doesn't like Green Eyes," Chelsea reads. "I bet she likes . . . loves . . . kittens though."
"Why did you go back?" Mrs. Bartow asks, pointing to the word loves. "Why did you change it?"
"Because it wasn't right."
"How did you know? It made sense when you first said it."
"Yes, but (loves) doesn't have a K."
"That's right," Mrs. Bartow says, closing the story book. "You made it right, and that's the important thing."
What sparked the improvement?
It wasn't one thing. Vigilant parents. Weekly sessions with a private speech therapist. Teachers who volunteered to tutor, one-on-one. Mrs. Diederich watching over every step.
Chelsea isn't "cured." She still guesses at some difficult words. But her teachers think that with continued hard work, she could be out of the woods by the end of second grade.
"I think you're just going to see her blossom," Mrs. Bartow tells Denise after a recent tutoring session. "She's jumped six levels in just one month."
* * *
Oren popped into Mrs. Diederich's office. He had become a regular visitor since their reunion 18 months earlier, and Mrs. Diederich greeted him with a hug.
He told Mrs. Diederich he wanted to get that master plumber's license, but the exam cost several hundred dollars and his reading needed a lot of work. Would Mrs. Diederich or her husband, a speech pathologist, consider helping him?
For 17 years Mrs. Diederich could not get Oren Link out of her head, wondering if she had failed him. Now, a second chance.
Of course they would help, she told him. All he had to do was say the word and they could get started.
She gave him another hug and he headed off to the parking lot. She turned toward her office and floated through the door.
* * *
Mrs. Diederich's husband, Jay, phoned Oren a few days later. Jay got the answering machine and left a message offering his help. He tried again a week later, leaving another message.
Eight weeks have passed and Jay is still waiting for Oren to call back.
Oren says he'll call, he really will. It's just that life keeps getting in the way, what with three little kids and long days on construction sites.
"Things happen and you get sidetracked," he says. "My whole life is last minute."
- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 727-869-6241.
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