When you are the one practicing and practicing (with your child) and there is reading failure, you know something is not right. Once I found out about diagnostic, sequential, cumulative, individualized, multi-sensory instruction: the Orton Gillingham approach, I had to be sure that no other family had to spend hours in the evening spelling the wrong spelling lists or reading homework that a child was not ready to tackle.”
~Educator Julie Heath, explains what inspired her to build a program for dyslexic children in the school where she teaches near Buﬀalo, NY.
Julie Heath was aware of dyslexia from her school years because her private school’s soccer team played matches against The Gow School, a school for high schoolers with dyslexia. Knowing that there was a learning diﬀerence named dyslexia became much more real for her 14 years into her teaching career when her son began to struggle with learning to read despite a strong phonics program and good teaching at his school.
Discovering the prevalence of dyslexia is thought to be one person out of ﬁve, Julie was saddened to think of how many dyslexic students had passed through her classroom without being reached in the way they needed to be. This drove her to educate herself and her colleagues in identifying ﬂags for dyslexia as well as methods for remediation of reading and spelling. Julie looks back on the past eight years as a journey fueled by a passion to do better for students in her school who struggle due to dyslexia.
“I remember sitting in the school gym with our kindergarten teacher. I taught first grade at the time. I said, “I feel like I am going on some kind of journey and taking you with me.” She was all in, and what a journey it has been!” ~Julie Heath
A tribe of encouragers gathered around Julie at her school. Encouragers started with her administrator who was willing to listen, read the research she sent his way, and trust her to run with her idea for a specialized program under the roof of their existing school. A team of teachers, including Julie and two other elementary teacher colleagues, committed to getting the specialized training they needed to implement best practice remediation. Family support from Julie’s parents, husband, and kids encourage her and allowed her the time she needed to study as she completed the many hours of specialized training. Educators at other private schools who had started programs inside their schools shared how-to tips with Julie, assuring her this path worked for them, and it could for her too.
With what she describes as an uncharacteristic drive, Julie found an organization providing Orton-Gillingham training. She connected that organization with her local public schools, and a summer O-G training was arranged, hosted by the area public schools. Julie and her coworkers were able to attend. For the second level of O-G training, a teacher friend, by then on the same journey, traveled to Michigan with Julie and her family to attend a live training event there. Julie was graciously given a scholarship by Boon Philanthropy that helped fund her practicum. She is now a dyslexia specialist through Brainspring, certiﬁed by the International Multi-sensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC) and by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).
Following her ﬁrst training, Julie began using O-G in her tutoring. She knew once she learned of the approach that her life would never be the same. Always an enthusiastic classroom teacher, she suddenly found that that classroom passion was waning and small group and one-to-one tutoring was pulling at her heart. Slowly but surely with the help of a very encouraging and open-minded administrator, her position changed to building tutor for individuals that were ﬂagged with possible dyslexia.
The center developed at Julie’s school includes not only students with dyslexia, but also students with autism, intellectual delays and dyscalculia. Partnering with special educators in her area, trained teachers with best practices for each of these learning diﬀerences were added to the center so all students’ needs are met in the best way. In hindsight, Julie shares that it would have been better to start with just serving dyslexic students and expand as trained staﬀ to do so became available.
Eight years into her journey, Julie continues to work with dyslexic students by providing them with reading therapy. Other trained tutors give 1:1 tutoring. Classroom teachers have been trained in the O-G approach, and use it enthusiastically in their classrooms since it is a strong reading and spelling program. These teachers are excellent support, looking for red-ﬂag signs of dyslexia, tracking phonological awareness, and administering screenings.
In framing advice to other teachers who are thinking of establishing a dyslexia program in the school where they have inﬂuence, Julie quickly says, “It’s about time!” There is room in our schools to help more than the mainstream learner, and it takes someone to champion the cause, lead the way, and guide the administration through the process. Julie reminds teachers that they do not have to do this alone. There are O-G groups, O-G training, supportive colleagues at other schools - a whole community ready to rally around and give the help and encouragement needed.
Reﬂecting on what the past eight years have accomplished, Julie sees her journey as one of helping families and teachers. She helps teachers who tried everything to no avail for some of their students. She helps families by being the one to come alongside them during the ﬁrst shock of an unexpected disability diagnosis to say, “It is going to be ok; we know what to do.” Families that ﬁnd their child has a learning disability are confused, saddened, disappointed, and feel alone. Julie ﬁnds fulﬁllment in being there for them, saying, “I understand. Let me be used to comfort you and to help your amazing child reach his or her fullest potential.” And don’t we all aspire to do the same?