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Calling All Senses: Help Me Read!

Multisensory Approach Aids Struggling Learners


In a small room within the teacher’s lounge, Southeast Elementary School fourth-grader Aubrianna Vernon focused on the consonant blend, “spr.” With her index finger, she wrote the letters in the air, on a table and in sand spread on a plate. She practiced reading the words, “sprig,” “sprat,” “sprint.” Zeroing in on each letter, she spelled, “s-p-r-i-t.”

“And what do you do to make that say ‘I’?” asked Jackie Servis, referring to the long vowel sound.

“E,” added Aubrianna, completing the word “sprite.”

Aubrianna has made big steps in reading since last school year, with help from Servis, a tutor for SLD Read. It’s a West Michigan-based nonprofit that uses the more than 80-year-old Orton-Gillingham instructional approach to teach struggling readers. SLD Read serves Kelloggsville, Wyoming, and Grand Rapids Public Schools in Kent County, and schools in more than a dozen other counties.

The approach has proven effective with students who have struggled to learn to read, like Aubrianna, giving them more tools and methods to decipher the words on the page in front of them.

Though it’s designed to help children with dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham is effective for all types of learners, and Kelloggsville Public Schools is incorporating it into regular elementary reading instruction. The multisensory approach teaches reading using the four senses: vision, hearing, touch and kinesthetics. That means movement, Play-Doh and sand are often part of the lesson.

As a result, Aubrianna has become a better, happier, more confident reader. “Aubrianna is very bright; she just wasn’t able to learn to read,” Servis said.

“I like the books. I get to learn new words,” said Aubrianna.

Fourth-grader Aubrianna Vernon practices spelling in the sky
Fourth-grader Aubrianna Vernon practices spelling in the sky

Layers of Reading Support

To boost reading proficiency, Kelloggsville has added layers of support and interventions. All use or complement the Orton-Gillingham approach, in which all teachers have been trained through SLD Read.

Through its Rite Steps program, SLD Read provides free individual tutoring for fourth- and fifth-grade students for one hour, twice weekly at Southeast Elementary. On top of that, students who need reading intervention services receive five days a week of phonics support from an instructional coach and reading specialist.

“SLDRead fits into our district’s goals by ensuring consistency in core instruction and achieving reading proficiency for all students,” said Assistant Superintendent Tammy Savage, adding that the organization is supporting the district with some staff and parent workshops throughout the year.

When intervention specialists, tutors and teachers at a school are all using the same approach, or “speaking the same language” — as in Kelloggsville — students can really excel, said SLD Read Executive Director Maura Race.

The tutoring service alone fills a big need. On average, students who receive SLD Read tutoring see 12 months of reading growth in an academic school year, or 1.7 to 2 years of growth after 100 hours of intervention, Race said. Plus, it’s a service many students wouldn’t get otherwise. Private at-home tutoring is expensive, and, at Southeast Elementary, about 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

While none of her students is diagnosed with dyslexia, Servis suspects some have the disorder, which affects one in five people to some degree.

Specialists say Orton-Gillingham works because it breaks reading down to foundational skills, targeting where each student struggles. Skills are taught individually, in a sequence, so students understand how to put sounds together to blend them into words. Servis adds spelling rules into the instruction, like introducing the “magic E” at the end of a word, as Aubrianna demonstrated.

“They are learning in a very systematic way. They are learning a sound, a rule, and that goes into the background of what they know,” Servis said.

Southeast Kelloggsville Elementary School fourth-grader Aubrianna Vernon uses different methods to learn consonant blends, including writing in sand
Southeast Kelloggsville Elementary School fourth-grader Aubrianna Vernon uses different methods to learn consonant blends, including writing in sand

The best thing is that students who finally learn to read after a long, frustrating road have a new sense of confidence and optimism, Servis added. “When they come in here they are smiling, because they are getting help with what has been a huge, huge problem for them.”

Once they take off, they keep progressing into fine readers.

“If you see Aubrianna in a year from now, you will be amazed at how she can read,” Servis said. “She’s been a joy to work with, an absolute joy.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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