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Holly Shapiro Ph.D. CCC-SLP

Director of Ravinia Reading Center in Highland Park, IL

Holly Shapiro Ph.D.Photo by Andrea Behrends

We are biologically wired to speak, but reading—a human invention—must be learned. Easier for some, much harder for others.

When I finished my doctoral studies at Northwestern University, I knew I wanted to help children who were not learning this critical life skill in school. I set up a private practice, worked hard with my students, and some would have called my practice a success. But my students’ gains weren’t dependable – I did not have a roadmap for improvement nor enough experience to tailor my work to each student’s struggles.

Eager to find better results, I took a series of workshops where I learned about a phonics-based approach to reading instruction called Orton-Gillingham. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study under the direction of some of the pioneers, notably Jean Osman and Paula Dozier Rome, who had known and worked with Samuel Orton himself. The Orton approach sparked what would become a lifelong interest in orthography, phonics, and the origins of words. As I modified my teaching with greater emphasis on these many concepts, I found that while some children learned quickly with most any instruction, many of my students were only able to learn using phonics.

Specialists in any field have to keep current in their research, but specific research findings tend to work their way more slowly toward generalists like teachers. Teachers, after all, have to know something about everything. In 1997 Congress created the National Reading Panel to promote successful reading instruction. The panel evaluated more than 10,000 studies on reading to see what worked. They published their findings two years later.

I was pleased to find that their research was very consistent with what I had learned in my studies and confirmed in my practice—that systematic phonics instruction from a professional was the best reading help for children struggling to read. This is especially the case for K-6 reading instruction. Our clinical teaching experience at Ravinia has borne that out.

As the field continues to grow I find more and more that my training as a speech pathologist is the one I draw upon the most because it's the speech sounds of language that are what's represented by the words on the page. It’s a simple and powerful reality that reading is related to talking. The Center is staffed by speech-language pathologists because the training we receive is the one best suited to tailor instruction to each student. SLPs are trained to understand phonology — the small differences in sounds that matter. We understand, for example, that a ‘b’ is substituted for a ‘p’ because of the closeness of their sounds, not because one is an inverted version of the other. The letters ‘d’ and ‘t’ don't look alike but confusion between those two sounds, and letters, are made with the same frequency. If we know why a child makes an error, we can correct it.

I find that our outcomes with students are better when I start with the premise that all words break down into sounds. With this at the helm our students achieve measurable levels of reading fluency that allow them to handle the volume and complexity that always occur as they move forward in school and in life. And while we love that your child’s achievement can be measured while they’re here, it’s our greatest goal that they effortlessly read in their lives outside of Ravinia Reading Center.

Reading is a skill and it can be taught.