Dyslexics learn with '50s method Jemicy students learn reading systemically

March 07, 1998|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

The Jemicy School is full of children like Julie Kuhn. IQ well above average. Attended a top public school in the Baltimore area. But couldn't learn to read.

Three years after switching to the Owings Mills private school for dyslexics, the 12-year-old from Ellicott City is devouring the children's novel "Julie of the Wolves."

The student-teacher ratio at Jemicy is 3-to-1, and tuition costs $17,500 a year. But there's no magic to the results: Jemicy uses a teaching method called Orton-Gillingham that has been saving dyslexic children from academic disaster since at least the 1950s.

Nearly one in five American schoolchildren needs the help, but many aren't even diagnosed. A new study released this week shows that dyslexia, a difficulty learning to read despite a normal intelligence, isn't the mystery it once was. It's caused by specific dysfunction in part of the brain.

But many children can't get access to appropriate instruction because it's not typically offered in public schools.

"I can't think of any children I've worked with who haven't benefited from it," said Maggie Kennedy, a teacher, reading tutor and member of the state's reading task force. "It makes a difference for a huge number of children."

The essence of Jemicy's instruction is a highly organized, sequential system of teaching.

The lessons target dyslexics' central problem -- trouble recognizing that words are made of smaller units -- hearing, for example, that "bat" is made up of "buh," "a" and "tuh" -- and that printed letters correspond to sounds. Through a multisensory approach, children absorb these concepts by seeing, hearing and feeling letters and sounds.

Children do repeated exercises to imprint sounds and letters in their mind, such as drawing a J in a pan of sand. While pronouncing the sound E, they touch the edge of a table. For U, they point upward, or touch an umbrella.

They also learn hundreds of rules. Tiny kids tick off credos like the CK rule: when the "kuh" sound comes at the end of a word and follows a short vowel, it's spelled CK, not K, as in "smack."

Many Jemicy students enter the school feeling dejected. Early in elementary school, Julie Kuhn would cry before school, bang her head against the wall at home and scratch her arms and legs in frustration. By the time they leave in eighth grade, all Jemicy students will have learned to read, though at different paces, said Carol Ditto, the assistant director.

Most will be at or above grade level, and many, like Julie, will love to read. Graduates have moved on to a variety of colleges, among them universities such as Brown, Emory and Johns Hopkins.

On a recent morning at the school, a former barn with pine walls, low ceilings and cozy tutoring rooms that were once stables, four 6- and 7-year-olds sat at a table, each with a puzzle of plastic letters that, put together in the right order, form a word. "S-i-tuh," said Chad Hollenshade. "Sit."

Next door, four 8-year-olds practiced the short E. "If my dog is sick," said teacher Melissa Stein, "I'm going to take him to the "

"Vet!"

"Two T's?" asked Rachel Feinberg, preparing to write.

"Is it a "Floss" letter?" asked Stein. The Floss Rule: If F, L or S is at the end of a word, double the letter. Hence, one T in "vet."

Upstairs, three 11- and 12-year-old girls practiced sounds and words in rapid-fire sequence. They read "instructor," "visitor," "translator" -- holding their hand under their jaw and feeling the jaw drop with each syllable.

Despite popularity of Orton-Gillingham-based methods and anecdotal evidence of their success, little reliable research exists to prove they work, said Barbara R. Foorman, a research scientist at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Foorman studied the program in a public school, where children were taught in groups of eight for an hour a day. The Orton-Gillingham method produced gains in reading over a school year -- better than results from two other programs used -- but gains disappeared when researchers accounted for intelligence level and economic status.

In other words, poor children and children with below-average intelligence were not likely to benefit from such instruction in a public school setting. The method offers good training when it's given in a tutoring session the way it was designed, Foorman said. But in her study, it didn't translate well to larger groups of eight.

J. Thomas Viall, executive director of the Baltimore-based International Dyslexia Association, agreed that most evidence is anecdotal, but he believes in the method and would like more studies.

Researchers estimate that about half of all children grasp reading almost intuitively, while others require some degree of systematic, explicit training in speech sounds and phonics, and about 20 percent of these need intensive training. Orton-Gillingham is one of several approaches, and is widely used by private tutors around the country.

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