Let me introduce myself and share my background. My journey has many dimensions. I am an individual with a diagnosed learning disability. I am the mother of three, now adult, children who have diagnosed learning disabilities. I am, as a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham, an expert in the instruction of phonics and ran a tutoring center for 7 years. I am a licensed School Psychologist in the State of Indiana and have worked for ten years in that capacity in schools. I have a PhD in School Psychology and am a member of the American Psychological Association. I am the inventor of Sounds First Reading System and have worked developing that tool over the past 10 years.
As a child I struggled with reading. I have a memory of not knowing how to read. When I learned to read, sometime in the 4th grade, it was limited. I was and am a very slow reader. I could not reliably decode words. Except for reading novels, which I enjoyed, I avoided reading. Reading was not a good tool for me to learn. Thankfully, I was able to get through school, including college, doing little to no reading for most of my courses. In college the best I could manage was reading the first sentence of each paragraph. I felt like a cheat, and would not have admitted it at the time. I never finished any timed tests but was often able to squeak by with barely passing grades. But I got through it. When I was in school there was no broad understanding of a reading disability. I simply saw myself as inadequate, but, I thank God, I was generally resilient.
When I left college I did not look back. School was what one had to do. I had benefited from education, I was just not very good at it. I did not worry about it until one day, when I was 37 years old, my son’s kindergarten teacher expressed concern about his lack of progress in reading. That was the day my life shifted, although as with most things, I did not know it at the time.
As it turned out my son had dyslexia (a learning disability involving decoding, reading rate and spelling skills). He was tested, thanks to that vigilant teacher, during the summer after his kindergarten year. Testing revealed, even at that early age, a clear discrepancy between his cognitive skills and aspects of achievement. No doubt. But, as a parent these numbers were meaningless to me. I had to rely exclusively on the advice of others.
At the time my son was diagnosed, my husband felt called to Ministry. We moved from Chicago, Illinois to Richmond, Indiana. We were in a new community. I left behind a career in Social Services. From that point on, although I had not planned it, my life work has been in the field of Special Education. While in Richmond I met Phyllis Hutson who became my mentor. She was a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham and she provided tutoring to all three of my children. During the three years we lived in Richmond it became apparent all three of my children had learning differences that met criteria for specific learning disabilities and qualified them for Special Education Services. Also while in Richmond, I took advantage of the opportunity to learn multi-sensory phonics from Phyllis.
We moved to Greenfield Indiana, which would be our home for the next 15 years. In those years I learned much through the hard knocks of parenting children with learning differences. Each of my children were bright, enthusiastic learners who, unfortunately, did not quite fit the mold to be a “good student.” In my struggles we were forced to request an educational hearing for each of our children. That was a terrible strain.
Also while in Greenfield, I became the Director of the Indianapolis 32° Masonic Learning Center for Children. This center, run by the Scottish Rite, gave free tutoring to children with dyslexia. While doing this I decided to return to school. I was admitted into the School Psychology program at Ball State University. Really I did not know what I was getting myself into, but I knew I wanted more formal education. Over the years of working with my children, it became clear to me that they had gotten their learning differences from their mother. I reflected back on my education and saw all the signs. It was when I went back to school and recognized that I could not go through this difficult program without acknowledging my own challenges that I was evaluated. And it was no surprise to me, I had dyslexia.
Again I was blessed. At Ball State, through the disability services, I was introduced to Kurzweil, a premier text reading software. Kurzweil reads text while tracking it. With Kurzweil I would read 400 words a minute and not become tired. In graduate school, for the first time in my life, I could use reading to learn. And reading the material makes school a whole lot easier.
Also at this time, myself and two mothers were working to open a school in Indianapolis, for children with language based learning differences. My son, who went to a boarding school in Massachusetts for two years, was able to come home and attend school at the Hutson School. Which opened on the first day I started graduate school.
I went on to earn a PhD in School Psychology from Ball State University, but it took 10 years. The challenge was not getting through the course work, it was what happened while I was researching for my dissertation proposal that I got held up. I knew I wanted to do some kind of study to support the efficacy of the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading. I just didn’t know what. So I was reading, using Kurzweil, for hours and hours about many theories of reading pedagogy. As I clicked from academic article to article, I drifted into topics of linguistics and concepts of language transparency (how clear is a code; does one symbol represent one sound?) when I had an “ah ha
moment.” It stuck me, after learning about how people in China are taught to read and speak Mandarin Chinese at the same time using a phonetic code, that such a code could be used to make English transparent. That night I realized the concept that became Sounds First Reading System.
In the end, after six years of development and an initial trial, I wrote my dissertation comparing Sounds First Reading System to an Orton-Gillingham approach. This research, which is available here, was based on the first students to receive SFRS as an intervention over the course of one year. It compared their progress in that year to the progress they made the year before using Orton-Gillingham, and comparing them to progress a matched set made exclusively using Orton-Gillingham over two years. At that time, all materials were hand coded. The results of the study were promising.
The following year I approached a friend, Bill Hodson, a computer programmer, to create a program that would be able to rapidly put coded text over regular English. He did so in a remarkable rapid time by adapting text to speech software. An interesting out come to this was that I learned that there were not 42 sounds in English, as I had argued in my dissertation, but 41. I had used the sound commonly known as the long u sound. But in fact, that is a blend of two sounds y and oo. Therefore, if you read my dissertation, it is inaccurate on that point.
In 2015 my husband and I moved to Evansville Indiana. Another new home. Since being here I have worked with a wide range of children developing the materials to teach SFRS. These materials are designed for teaching children of any age. The art work and many of the stories are taken from works that are in public domain. Besides the practical reason of avoiding costs, these materials are unique and therefore interesting even for older children. With the publication of the first set of 80 books, comes an opportunity to put SFRS into the hands of parents and teachers. The concept addresses the fundamental flaw in our code. It is a tool I hope to continue to develop as people share their experiences with me.