If you have a struggling reader, you might wonder if he’s dyslexic. One of the major signs of dyslexia is poor phonological processing, or struggles with manipulating sound. However, whether a child is dyslexic or not, all struggling readers need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. A reading intervention program is critical if any child falls behind in reading.
If you’re an educator, you’re probably wondering how to help your struggling reader. Depending on your location, parents in your community are strongly advocating for one program. If you’re in San Diego the program you hear about is different from the one parents consume in New York and different still in San Francisco. Reading intervention programs swoop in and take a strong hold of the market, selling the idea that their program is the crème de la crème and no other program works.
Corporate Reading Intervention Programs
You look up the reading intervention program that’s selling like wild in your area. As an educator, you want to learn the program to help your students. You’re floored when you realize you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to receive training, get a license, buy materials and sign a contract. You’re uninterested in buying their program, but all their rhetoric tells you nothing else works.
In this post, I want to talk about the corporatization of reading intervention programs and why they’re largely inaccessible to the broader public. I also want to discuss my goals with Reading Elephant, which are largely to democratize reading intervention materials. I’m very lucky that I can do this, since my hands aren’t chained to one of these corporate reading intervention programs. They can’t lay claim to my knowledge.
A Dyslexia Professor who Taught Teachers
I learned from John Shefelbine, dyslexia professor and reading interventionist that did school-district wide reading interventions in California. He got his BA from Stanford, MA from Harvard and Ph.d from Stanford, though he was one of the most humble people I’ve met. He was dyslexic himself. He was brilliant. Though he co-authored some works, I still believe his singular unpublished program remains the best…a program he chose to share with his graduate students.
I remember giving reading short shrift, just like most people. I took reading for granted. I didn’t understand what it took to teach a child to decode.
On the first day of class, Shefelbine picked up a chair to explain why learning to decode is so difficult for many kids.
“You see this?” he asked. “What is it?”
“A chair,” the class responded.
He flipped the chair sideways. “Now what is it?”
“A chair,” we said again, wondering if he’d gone mad.
He turned the chair upside down. “Now what is it?”
“A chair,” we answered quizzically.
“Isn’t it common sense that no matter how we orient this chair in space it is still a chair? This has been true for nearly all of human history. Pick up any object. Reorient it in space. It is still that object. Not so in reading. After humans developed a writing system, for the first time, these objects…letters/units… could not be reoriented. If they are, they are something else entirely. The /a/ in ea says something different in /ai/ and something different still in just a_. A u upside down is n…The way we flip and arrange these letters changes their sound and meaning.”
Researched-Based Reading Intervention Programs
After working with my first student, I realized just how powerful his programs were. I worked with someone who’d been in a bad car accident and lost the ability to read. She had acquired dyslexia. The student also had trouble articulating sounds. Though she’d been in reading intervention programs for years, her progress was slow. When I worked with Shefelbine to help her, she made such fast gains I was astounded. I thought… I have to find a way to do this, to help struggling readers learn to read.
Literacy Professors often Spew Unscientific Belief Systems, Not Shefelbine
In most graduate programs, future teachers learn theory, which is often full of philosophy and belief systems. Professors locked in their classrooms can easily spew theories of how kids learn to decode. They don’t often interact with kids that really struggle with reading. Professors teach their graduate students to go off and teach whole word reading, a method based on guessing, looking at pictures, and incorporating some phonics, albeit in a sloppy manner.
Shefelbine Designed Researched-Based Reading Intervention Programs
Shefelbine was passionate about helping struggling readers. He taught effective explicit, systematic phonics instruction. In addition, he was very generous with his knowledge. Those who learned from him could enter their careers with the ability to help any struggling reader. Thus, no one was beholden to these powerful reading companies that claim only their model works.
Shefelbine authored materials for struggling readers, but his very best remains unpublished. Why didn’t he publish it? I can only guess. Since it was unpublished, he could do whatever he wanted with it: he democratized the program and made it accessible to his graduate students. This meant, his students could enter the public realm and share their knowledge with their school or even the world. No one can sue us for “intellectual property.” The knowledge I share and will continue to share is filtered through what I initially learned under Shefelbine’s guidance.
Shefelbine’s students, like me, have scattered throughout the US and become literacy leaders in our communities. No one lay claim to our knowledge. Shefelbine gave us full reigns over his reading intervention programs and inspired and motivated us to help struggling readers and dyslexic students. Even more powerful: he taught us how to design materials. His knowledge and generosity are the reason I can sit down and create an individualized lesson for any student.
What I know about reading intervention programs is largely an extension of his legacy. He had a very wide reach, but I’m grateful that I had the chance to work with him. In our last conversation, he encouraged me to keep going.
“Keep going. Stay in it. If you’re this passionate about it, keep going.”
And that’s what this blog is really about. A continuation of someone who inspired, trained, encouraged, and mentored me. Thank you John Shefelbine.