Twice a week Ingrid Gowdy drives her son Robert, 8, from their home in Vineland to Northfield, hoping that a special reading center there can teach him to read.
“Oh, thank God someone told me about this,” Gowdy said as she sat waiting for Robert to finish his free, hour-long class in the Orton-Gillingham reading method with tutor Taryn Simmons. Robert has been tutored since October and Gowdy said she seen improvement that she was not seeing in school.
“This has helped him greatly,” she said. “I also work with him at home every day. I don’t expect miracles, but I am seeing progress.”
Based at the Northfield Community School, the Northfield Learning Center is one of five tutoring sites in New Jersey sponsored by the Scottish Rite Masons, Northern Jurisdiction. The centers provide free Orton-Gillingham tutoring to children with dyslexia through the non-profit Children’s Dyslexia Centers, Inc.
A neurological disorder that makes it very difficult to process language, those with dyslexia do respond to a multi-sensory and phonetics-based approach to reading and writing. The most well-known is the Orton-Gillingham method. Reading programs such as Wilson and Project Read also use a phonetics-based approach.
The challenges facing students with dyslexia are getting more attention following a report from the New Jersey Task Force on Reading Disabilities, and bills proposed in the state Legislature to require screening for students and training for teachers.
The Northfield Center opened in 2004 with four teachers and four students, and this year has 15 teacher/tutors and 33 students who get free tutoring twice a week for an hour. The tutors receive free training through a partnership between the Masons and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Center for Dyslexia Studies.
Mary Farrell, director of the Center for Dyslexia Studies said more teachers are getting trained each year, and they are also working with some school districts, most in North Jersey. To date, 24 districts have participated. But awareness of dyslexia is still spotty around the state, and the centers are crucial in both training teachers and helping students.
“There is a ripple effect when teachers who have been trained can demonstrate success to other teachers,” Farrell said.
She said it is crucial to diagnose and begin helping students before third grade.
“If we can catch them early, they will have the chance to catch up to their peers,” she said. “After third grade, they will improve, but will never be as fluent.”
Many of the students coming to Northfield are in third and fourth grade, but there are also some middle school students. Northfield center director Barbara McAuliffe said it is more difficult for the older students.
“We have eighth graders who are working so hard, but they hate to admit they need help,” she said. “There are peer issues at this age.”
Leslie Coursey’s son Ethan, 10, is in his second year at the center and the fourth grader easily reads to his tutor, Michelle Jacobs. Coursey said she had her son tested a few years ago when she noticed his reading wasn’t improving. He has made so much progress that his classroom teacher at the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City last year came to observe the tutoring sessions.
“His confidence has increased,” Coursey said. “He is taking the techniques he learns here into class, and is also getting extra help in school.”
Jacobs, a third-grade special education teacher in the Pleasantville school district, said she signed up for Orton-Gillingham training because she can see how it will benefit her students and supplement the reading system they use in the district.
“If I didn’t have this, I might think a child just can’t spell,” she said. “But it’s really about how they learn. It really opened my eyes.”
Shane Becker, 10, a fifth grader from Egg Harbor City, wasn’t shy about showing off his reading skills.
“Can I show them?” he asked tutor Carolyn Williams as he demonstrated mastery of different vowel sounds, often a major challenge.
Williams, a teacher at Egg Harbor Township High School, said Shane, who started in September, had more skills than they first realized, but didn’t know how to articulate what he knew.
McAuliffe said some children find ways to compensate for early reading problems, so they don’t get properly diagnosed until they are older and struggle with more complex reading. She said kindergarten screening, as proposed by the state task force, could help identify and intervene earlier.
Farrell said all five centers have waiting lists, and many children are being left behind in districts that do not have teachers trained to help them.
“I know this will take money,” she said. “But if the state could find a way to use the money we have, we could diagnose and treat children earlier and maybe not have to provide so many services later on.”