Then and Now

The little boy sat at the table, hyperventilating, rocking back and forth, and scrubbing his hair frantically with his hands. It was the beginning of the year at a school that catered to bright and gifted students who didn’t necessarily fit inside the boxes we often try to put them in. I was the elementary school’s special education teacher, and my job consisted of about half academic intervention and half behavioral support for kids having difficulties. We started the school year with a lot of community-building and routine-setting activities before diving into beginning-of-year testing and academics, so I was spending my days popping into classrooms and reconnecting with students on my caseload and supporting the teachers. I carried a walkie-talkie and was on call for any kid having difficulty in a classroom.

It was the third time in as many days that I’d gotten a call to come to the second-grade classroom because Jacob, a boy new to our school, was having another meltdown. This time, it involved a chair getting knocked over and game pieces scattered across the room. I sat quietly with him chatting, until he was calmed down. I tried to ask questions that would give me a clue as to what was causing him to suddenly “go off” on a daily basis. Once he calmed down, he was smart and funny. I really liked this kid. 

I made a note to check in with his teacher during her plan time to get more information. My first question was “How is he doing academically?” The teacher really didn’t know since we had been doing a lot of cooperative learning and testing hadn’t started yet. She also told me that every time a task that involved any actual work came up, that was when he’d have a meltdown and he’d be out in the common area with me. So the next time, I grabbed a worksheet. Once he’d calmed down, we began to work, as best we could, on whatever was happening in the classroom.

It was quickly apparent that Jacob couldn’t read. At all. And he was angry about it. Really, really angry. 

I’d done my Associate level Orton-Gillingham training over the summer and was eager to begin my practicum so I could be certified. I immediately wanted to use Jacob as my practicum student. Over the next few weeks, he completed the beginning-of-year assessments and I did some diagnostic assessments from my OG training. I knew it would be difficult in my school setting to have time and consistency for one-on-one instruction, so I got permission to tutor him after school twice a week on a volunteer basis and got parental permission to work with him. My Fellow cautioned me that he was a complicated student and might be difficult, but that is my favorite kind of student and I dove right in.

The next time I was sitting with Jake, I wanted to get his buy-in on our plan, so I drew a picture of a brain and explained to him how the brain learns to read and how some people have brains that learn differently, but that with some specific activities, we can rewire the brain to read more efficiently. I assured him that even if some of the activities seemed babyish, it wasn’t because I thought he was a baby, but that multimodal activities were scientifically proven to change people’s brains. He sat up and began asking me questions about how brains work and agreed to try everything I asked him to do as a “science experiment” to see if we could grow his brain.

I worked with Jacob for several months and then, unfortunately, I had to leave that school midyear and so my sessions with Jacob ended. Over the next few years, I worked with a couple of other students who, for one reason or another, still had not worked out so that I could finish my practicum, which included at least 100 hours of supervised tutoring. I was getting discouraged about ever finishing my practicum, when Jacob’s mom got in touch with me and asked me to work with him again. He’d completed an evaluation with the local children’s hospital and had gotten a dyslexia diagnosis and they were on the waiting list to get tutoring through there, but she really wanted to get him help as soon as possible.

So I started working with Jacob again, and he was improving. I remember the first time I pulled out a decodable chapter book and he was so excited to read his first-ever chapter book. Jacob was a master at distraction, and keeping him on-task was a constant battle. He knew how to ask an interesting question that would derail the whole lesson. Or he’d argue a point and distract us. On the days I had to videotape the lesson for my mentor’s review, I bribed him with a king-sized candy bar kept just off camera as a reminder to “just do what I ask you without arguing –please.” 

Midsummer, Jacob’s mom informed me that he’d gotten a spot at the tutoring center that would be starting in a few weeks.  I had a number of lessons to finish to get my 50 recent lessons in with him and so I struck a bargain. After the two lessons per week we were already doing, I’d throw in any lessons we could fit in for free just to finish my hours with Jake and get my application in. So, Jacob and I spent a lot of time that summer and he made great progress. I was able to finish my hours and write my case study and–finally!–completed my practicum and I sent Jacob on his way to his next tutor. 

I’ve kept in touch with Jacob’s mom through Facebook all these years and watched as he played on the basketball team in high school and lettered in diesel mechanics three years in a row. He kept a high GPA throughout high school, and even got a 4.0 in the district’s technical education program. He became a student instructor for his diesel mechanics program and was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society in his junior year. He also completed ten years of martial arts training and completed community service as a financial education volunteer and with the United Way. He recently received a scholarship and will be attending Community College of Aurora and finishing his A.A.S. in Diesel Power Mechanics. 

This week, I received the graduation announcement for Jacob and I asked him if I could write about my experience teaching him. He gave me full permission to use his name and pictures. This is what quality intervention can do for kids. Jacob was not being taught in a way that worked for his brain, and respected his intellect. When the instruction changed, he began to learn. All his determination, humor, and curiosity helped him to overcome his difficulties and thrive in his endeavors. I am bursting with pride to have played a part in his education. I can’t wait to see where Jacob goes next.

Seven Characteristics that Make the Orton Gillingham Approach Work for Your Kid

The Orton Gillingham (OG) approach is considered to be the Gold Standard for teaching students with dyslexia. What is it about the approach that makes it effective and unique? OG principles include being language-based, explicit, systematic, yet flexible, simultaneously multisensory, diagnostic and prescriptive, brain-based, and emotionally sound.

1. Language-Based

Our language and alphabet are phonetically structured by sound/symbol correspondences that must be learned because no one can memorize all the words they will ever encounter. Teaching is based on understanding and exploring how language works and how we learn to communicate.

2. Explicit

Everything we expect a student to know must have been previously taught, or assessed to be known. Even if a student can read and spell a word it is often useful to make sure they know the underlying rules behind what they know so they can then apply it to unknown words. 

We don’t expect kids to know what they don’t know or expect them to have learned somehow by osmosis. We don’t expect kids to read words they don’t know how to read and we discourage guessing at words by looking at a picture or first letter or figuring out what word it might be by context. 

3. Systematic, Yet Flexible

In math, we generally teach addition and subtraction before multiplication and division. In the same way, we should not toss in advanced words like through and balloon to an early reader. We teach line upon line, using our scope and sequence and checklists to make sure students understand all previous concepts. We also systematically review material so that students don’t forget concepts and have continued practice with all learned material.

Skipping around is hard for students who already have a large cognitive load just trying to keep up. It is empowering and encouraging for students to be able to see where they have been and where they are heading to. This record is useful to the tutor as well as parents and future teachers. But it is especially important for the student to see progress and be celebrated for each step forward.

Yet, remaining flexible is also important, if a student is getting so frustrated they can’t effectively learn. When this happens, we can switch gears and play a game, get up and move, or just stop for a chat. Then we can get back to work.

4. Simultaneously Multisensory

This feature is often misunderstood. It doesn’t just mean we have the students do hands-on things like write in sand (By the way, sand is not mandatory to OG. I rarely use it. SO. MUCH. MESS.)

We want students to use as many senses (and thus brain regions associated with those senses) as possible AT THE SAME TIME. Thus the student writes a letter or word (kinesthetic and tactile) while saying the letter and sound and possibly keyword as needed, or spelling or sounding out the word (mouth muscles activated, so kinesthetic) while hearing their own voice, (hearing, obviously) while looking at the letters (visual) while also keeping in mind all the steps (executive functioning/frontal lobe) This is often referred to as VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) and the theory behind it is that the more brain regions that are activated at the same time, the more brain connections the student will form and the better the student will remember. 

This is the least studied aspect of OG and there is not a lot of research on the efficacy of this method, but I can tell you from experience that it keeps attention and provides concentration and repetition that works well for most students. Using a variety of surfaces is fun and engaging for students who need a lot of practice. I like to use textured mats, carpet samples, a variety of writing surfaces like a personal whiteboard or chalkboard, and yes, for younger students who really need it, I do pull out the shaving cream and sand.

5. Diagnostic and Prescriptive

An OG practitioner will be constantly jotting notes on observations, errors, and hesitations. The attention to detail is used later to plan the next lesson with the needed review, reteaching, or just practice. This ensures that the student is reviewing what that particular student needs at that particular moment. A practitioner is often thinking about our students and what they need in order to progress throughout the day. I can’t tell you how many times I lie awake at night thinking about what is happening in tutoring sessions and how I can make adjustments to my lesson plans. 

6. Brain-Based 

OG is based on our best and current understanding of how the brain works and learns. Brain Imaging has clarified and strengthened OG teaching. Required, ongoing, continuing education from conferences and publications keeps practitioners up to date on the latest research. 

7. Emotionally Sound

Let’s face it, our students who have dyslexia have beaten themselves up enough. When we teach them, our continued repetition and review ensure that students have a high level of success. We go as fast as we can and as slow as we must. A practitioner who is able to be empathetic, flexible, and encouraging is going to have more success with fragile students who work SO HARD every single day. We work hard in our sessions, but we always keep in mind the student’s emotional well-being is the most important aspect of tutoring.

A tutor who uses these seven characteristics will have greater success with teaching your kid and catching them up to their peers. Be sure to ask your tutor and teachers if they have training in OG. It will make the difference!

Building Readers for Life

Diane is honored and excited to present for the second year at The Literacy Nest Conference. Her topic this year will be Systematizing Word Study into your Orton Gillingham Sequence.

You can sign up here:

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The Shallows

by Diane Talbot

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recently, I reread the Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, which I first read when it came out in 2010. Ironically, this time I listened to it on audiobook – in just minutes, I was able to find it at my local library, download it onto my phone, and plug it into my car stereo to listen to on my commute. There are portions that are dated, of course, and ever newer social media platforms exist now, but the basic premise held up well.

When I read it the first time, I was militantly resisting ebooks for myself. When my son graduated from college, he bought me a Kindle PaperWhite for Mother’s Day, telling me if I hated it, he’d resell it. Today, I wouldn’t easily give up my Kindle. I love the instant gratification of being able to buy or check out a book, making fonts a comfortable size and being able to read anywhere without regard for good lighting. I like the portability of having a whole library in my purse, and I like that I can highlight passages and instantly share them on Goodreads, and that Goodreads automatically updates my progress on the book.

There are some downsides, of course: I don’t like not knowing physically where I am in a book. (Many books don’t have the progress percentage and even when they do, the type is so tiny that I have a hard time easily reading it.) I miss being able to easily close the book and stare at the cover art or reread the synopsis—and it’s harder to go back to reread a portion to remind myself of what happened. I tend to read a lot of sweeping historical novels that have maps and genealogical flowcharts, and miss being able to flip to them to refresh my memory.

For novels, a digital copy works fine. Yet I still read journal articles and informational texts on paper whenever possible, going to the trouble of printing whole textbooks when taking a course that only has an ebook. I need to physically make notes in the margins and highlight and flip back and forth. For comprehension, paper works best for me, and Carr cites the brain research that tells us why this is so.

Recently, I was working with a middle school student who struggles with comprehension. Reading one of his texts online—as almost all his schoolwork is assigned—he had a question about what something was, and before I could explain and get back to the text, he had a Google window open. Along with definitions, it included images that included barely on topic anime characters and he was laughing and changing his screen image to one of them. No wonder he struggles with comprehension!

As a Literacy Specialist, I still have many of the same reservations as Carr did then. I worry about comprehension and attention when students read online. I worry that they are being distracted by hyperlinks and the ability to follow those impulses. I worry that students are missing the tactile experience of a book, which I know is particularly important for kids with dyslexia and other learning differences. I worry that the information on the web is difficult to sort through for accuracy and relevance.

Yet, the move toward ebooks for education has many benefits both for the school and for kids. The costs for schools are lower, and updated information is as easy as an update to the webpage. The kids don’t have backbreaking backpacks. For kids with learning differences, in particular, textbooks can be read aloud, an important accommodation. The use of Google Read and Write allows students to simplify webpages, taking out videos and advertisements, so they can make notes and highlight online. Used thoughtfully, these tools are beneficial.

Technology isn’t going anywhere and we and our kids will have to adapt. Nicholas Carr gives some good insight and suggestions for how to navigate the good parts of the internet, and also keep the focus and depth we need to understand our world. For online work, I took Carr’s words to heart and try to keep distractions to a minimum when I need focus. I don’t allow pop-ups. I shut down social media and move my phone away from me.

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

By Diane Talbot

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A student of mine could not stop talking about how much she loved this book, so I decided I needed to read it to see if it was as good as she thought. I am so glad I did. This book won the Newberry Award in 2017 and it is well-deserved. It is a lovely fairy tale with compelling characters. The use of language is just delicious; my student and I used words from the book for a series of word investigations. For older children and young adults–and adults– who love a well-told tale of magic and adventure, this is a wonderful choice. I loved it!

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All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

By Diane Talbot

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, though, as a mom and teacher, watching Finch spin out of control with no adult stepping in, made me sad and anxious. I also worried about Violet, dealing with Finch’s emotional roller coaster alone. It was not an easy read. Mental illness and suicide ideation is not something that can be taken lightly and this book did a good job of addressing this issue.

As a side-note, I really want to do my own “wandering” project now. It is an amazing concept to discover all the bright places in your own area.

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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland, #2)

By Diane Talbot

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked this book a lot. I read the first one (The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) last year. I loved it, but by the time I was finished, I was not chomping to move on to the next book in the series, as I often am when I find a series that I like.

Last week I needed a sure-thing, a happy read, and picked up the second book in the series. The whimsy and imaginative use of language and characters did not disappoint. I love the escaped shadows who are enjoying their freedom from their corporeal people and creatures. I loved that September is growing up, learning to stand up for herself and understand the gray scales in life. The text is packed with delightful details. I love how clothing is sentient and adjusts to the wearer’s needs. Every sentence is beautiful and skimming is not an option.

If you love Lewis Carroll, you will love these modern twists on the fantastic fairytale.

That said, I have to admit that the next book will be sitting on my shelf waiting for a while until I need a sure-thing read. These books, for me, need to be savored and I seem to have a limit for how much I can enjoy, kind of like eating a pile of candy. At the moment, I am ready to brush my teeth and dig into something different.

It is good to know there are a few more books on my shelf ready for when I need a deep-dive into imagination.

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