A Passion for Learning Fuels a Mission to Support all Readers
By Taylor Wiedemann
From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I enjoyed my learning experience at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio, situated within a school district that is consistently top ranked in the state of Ohio as well as nationally, according to U.S. News and World Report. It felt natural that I’d want to pass my love of learning onto others. But by my first semester of college, my perception of reality shifted. I quickly realized how fortunate I was while preparing a college essay. As a natural helper, I immediately connected with many of my peers who had numerous difficulties with the assignment. While I wrote this paper with ease, I realized only a few others had ever cited sources for a paper or used APA style, among other knowledge gaps. It was an eye-opening moment that helped me understand that many students received less than adequate teaching and were ill-prepared for an education beyond high school.
Fortunately, my teachers within the Olentangy Local School District provided the knowledge, strategies, and tools to help students impact the world. They were passionate, and in turn, I adopted my own form of passion. I wanted to become an educator, not just to teach but also to help others become global citizens who can succeed in any career path.
Helping those with disabilities
My passion for helping others has always stemmed from being inspired by my uncle with Down Syndrome. After realizing his lack of opportunities early in life, I wanted to forge a path to change this. When he was in school, his education opportunities were limited. The sole focus of his education was learning basic skills such as learning to tie his shoes. There was no inclusion and no training in marketable skills. He left school without the necessary tools to be employable, which was a totally avoidable outcome.
I watched him struggle as an adult because he didn’t have these foundational skills. It made me want to change the pathway for all children with learning disabilities. It was difficult to watch him being treated differently. In many ways, this led me to a career as an intervention specialist. I returned to Olentangy to work in the school district that helped foster my impactful education and desire to teach students who have varying learning needs.
Combining a career with a passion for education
I began a career as an intervention specialist in the Specialized Learning Center at a middle school within the district. Its focus was on helping students with intellectual learning disabilities and behavioral challenges such as Autism, Down Syndrome, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). I was exposed to students with varying academic needs and learning styles. It was here that I started using InferCabulary, a visual vocabulary program that improves students’ ability to infer the meaning of new words. I realized that students with learning barriers could better acquire vocabulary words when paired with visual representations of the word. The images paired with each vocabulary word helped to elicit a deeper and more meaningful connection. This experience helped shape my desire to ensure all students have their educational needs met individually, meeting their exact learning styles and preferences.
My experience using InferCabulary led to exploring more of the world of intervention and the Orton-Gillingham (OG) approach of direct multi-sensory and diagnostic methods to teaching literacy. Part of becoming a new intervention specialist within the district is training under a Fellow from the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE). Olentangy is actually leading the nation, becoming the first public school district to establish an accredited training program in-house. Designed for students with dyslexia who continue to struggle with reading and spelling skills, the program emphasizes a scientific, multisensory approach to teaching reading. After a 100-hour supervised practicum, 60-plus hours of training, and 10 observed lessons, I achieved the Associate level within the AOGPE.
The middle-school challenge
The Orton-Gillingham approach is purposeful, immediate, and directive. Kindergarten and first grade are the most prominent times to begin instruction for those struggling with reading. The challenge becomes much greater for the middle schooler who hasn’t yet grasped the foundational skills.
It’s not merely about teaching letters, letter sounds, and spelling patterns, but instead breaking words into smaller, more manageable syllables. There are prescribed steps to the process of syllable division. We analyze the vowels and the consonant patterns within a word, examining these word parts for any commonalities. After students learn to identify the patterns in a word, we then analyze the word using morphology, identifying the smallest parts of the word that carry meaning. This helps to derive a working definition for each word.
I had the opportunity to speak personally with Beth Lawrence, a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) who co-founded InferCabulary along with fellow SLP Deena Seifert. We discussed the pivotal role that the website plays in my classroom. We also discussed further about morphology, one of the other strategies that I find revolutionary for our middle school learners. We spend a lot of time in my classroom learning Greek and Latin roots, which directly enhances vocabulary acquisition. It’s powerful. For instance, the root GRAT meaning, “to be thankful” or “to please,” turns into a lesson on gratitude. We use ancient Greek stories on war, looking for morphemes like AUTO, meaning “one’s self” and ARCH, meaning “to rule, or ruler” to examine different government types. It opens students’ minds to the most challenging social studies concepts that are difficult to connect in our daily lives. We pull the words apart, examine them, then look at the themes and the meaningful parts. The process has been tremendously successful for our students.
Added attention for dyslexia
At first, all students struggle with the arbitrary nature of smaller words within a larger word, and sometimes there is pushback, especially for students with dyslexia. For students who have dyslexia, being forced to read usually involves struggle. However, once they have learned the essential tools and can apply them, things begin to click. The ability to use outside knowledge is the most significant part. Students must be able to venture outside my classroom and apply the concepts they’ve learned to other subjects and situations. Through the discovery of analyzing words for syllables and morphemes, students begin to take the crucial step to applying what they have and this shows true mastery.
The importance of a multi-sensory approach
Multi-sensory education has the power to change a student’s self-esteem. I have reluctant readers who hate reading, spelling, vocabulary, and writing, yet beg to be in my class. For many, there is no rhyme or reason to the English language. But through this approach, my students are finally able to make sense of the English language. Too often, people assume struggling readers have low intelligence. However, this is not the case at all. And because of these techniques, many of my students are finally able to feel like successful readers for the first time in their lives. It’s a great feeling to know that instructional practice can change a student’s life and their view on education.
Foundational reading skills carry over to other disciplines like science, English, and math word problems. By honing the reading skills strategies, students are open to learning more in different classes and situations they encounter away from school. It is an application of reading knowledge that is so necessary for the success of learning in class and life.
About the author
Taylor Wiedemann is an Intervention Specialist in the Olentangy Local School District in central Ohio. Having trained under Holly Robbertz, a Fellow at the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE), Taylor specializes in delivering multi-sensory instruction to students with varying intellectual and specialized learning disabilities. Taylor makes it her mission to instill a strong sense of self-esteem, an eagerness to learn, and most importantly, help reluctant readers learn to love reading.