March 12, 2019

Falling for Phonics: A Valentine’s Day Special

Part Two of the Unraveling My Struggle with Dyslexia Series


This is a love story and a birthday wish.

phonicsWe were born the same year: products of the '80s and brought into this world by educators. We hailed from the midwest and grew and shifted with the four seasons year after year. Your mom was a first-grade teacher turned principal in Decatur, Illinois. My parents met and fell in love as educators in a small Catholic school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Mom was a third-grade teacher, Dad was a sixth and eighth-grade teacher who later turned principal, and Grandpa was even the school custodian!  

The stars were aligned for us both, but it would take 30-some years before we would ever meet and a couple of years after that until I could feel your presence change my life.  

jillian-kaster-dyslexiaMy parents didn't stay educators forever. By the time I was born, Dad had finished law school and was on his second year working as a commercial lawyer for Norwest Corporation (which later merged with and got renamed Wells Fargo), and Mom had moved into administration for a highly ranked college preparatory private school. Education remained a core value in our home: expectations were high, and rules were in place. “No, we will not be getting a Nintendo unless each of you three kids has straight As on your report cards” was a common line in our house. That’s okay with me, I thought. As the youngest in my family, I had a wild imagination and kept myself entertained with dolls and crafts and playing store and church (yes, that is a thing!). But, you can imagine the frustration we all felt when I had trouble memorizing my multiplication facts in third grade. Dad would run flashcards with me over and over at the dining room table. As I’d stumble through, he’d say, “Jill, you’ve got to know them like this!” while his fingers quickly snapped repeatedly. But even with my best efforts and his, nothing seemed to stick.  

The same went for reading, spelling, and writing. Despite my love for crafting a good story, getting it on paper was like pulling teeth. The writing process was draining and left me feeling disoriented. The words would take off from my thoughts, but before they’d land onto the paper, they would be lost in a mysterious whirlwind of the Bermuda Triangle that was my mind. It felt like a mystery that not even my teachers or parents could explain.

learning-to-readWhen Dad would tuck me in every night, we’d sing songs, and he’d share stories. (His rendition of the Three Little Pigs with Stinky, Smelly, and Odiphoris was a favorite.) There was so much joy shared over the rich language that filled the room each night. But when school came the next morning, and it was time to read, I’d crack open a book and be lost once again. I’d spend more time pretending to read than actually reading, and when I did make my way through the pages of a book, I seldom finished it.

jillian-kaster-dyslexiaSomehow I managed to make it through school though. Yes, I had tutors. Yes, while the other children were all tucked away in their classrooms, I’d walk the creepily long, desolate halls of my elementary school to a cramped storage closet half-turned study room to practice words with a teacher who had white spitballs on the side of her lips that pulsed as she talked. It was Ms. Annette Kass, though, not the saliva teacher, but a gentle, deeply invested educator with curly red hair, who was the first and only teacher close to bringing me to that “Aha!” moment. She would write words on cards and split the words with different color print. I would trace the words; the shorter words would have two colors, and the longer words would have three or even four colors. Looking back now, I believe she was dividing by and writing the words into syllables using different colors so I could try to remember the spelling and pronunciation in chunks. But like I said, she was close, but there was no cigar.  

dyslexia-diagnosisI made it through college. Thank goodness, and no offense to Iowa, but being in a small humdrum town for university really helped me hunker down and focus on school. I would spend hours in the library working so hard to get good grades. Surprise, surprise! I ended up double majoring in elementary education, special education with a reading endorsement. In truth, getting a degree in education for me was, in part, a search to see where my own gaps were. As I progressed through my life in middle school and high school, I found ways to compensate, but I always knew I was missing something. I got by but was left daydreaming about Zack Morris from the 1989-1993 hit TV show Saved by the Bell (I told you I was a product of the '80s!). I dreamed of Zack, not because he was my childhood crush, but because I wished I had the ability he had on the show—to stop time. While the world waited frozen, I wanted to break into the school to teach myself all the things I felt I had somehow missed. My degree in education was my chance to find the missing key, but even as I walked the stage to get my diploma with my teaching license under my belt, it was still left unfound.

As you can imagine, now as an adult I am left in complete awe wondering how, after growing up a struggling reader, and having a degree in elementary education, and having a degree in special education, and having a reading endorsement, and having several years of teaching experience, did I have to wait for 30-some years to meet you?

When we finally did first meet, I was teaching kindergarten. I introduced you to my students and saw their reading scores bloom. I started to become a fanatic of explicit phonics. I still didn’t have all the pieces, but I knew I was onto something. It wasn't until I up and left the classroom to join forces with you when everything began to make sense. My first week on the job, I went through the method of the program, based off of Orton Gillingham (OG) instruction, in its entirety.  Although I had been versed in and spent years teaching other OG programs for students in kindergarten through fourth-grade, there were moments I wanted to fall out of my chair. Do you mean to tell me that there are actually simple rules you can follow to know how to sound out words? Do you know how many times I’d look at a long, unknown word and just read it left to right, having no idea if those vowels were meant to be short or long, and then I’d just take a wild stab at where to break up the word for syllabication? It’s only two skills for any length of word?! You literally took the whole English language and broke it down piece by piece. And just like that, at 30-some years old, it finally made sense. It's because of you I now can spell in front of a room full of colleagues and prospective clients with confidence. It’s because of you I know how to pronounce new street names with automaticity when I am traveling around meeting educators in every nook and cranny of this country. It’s because of you that I gained the confidence to walk into a doctor's office and get tested for dyslexia after all these years of doubting myself thinking maybe I was just dumb.

And now, it is because of you, Reading Horizons, that I celebrate my 35th year around the sun as a genuinely more happy and fulfilled person.  

future-of-educationMy birthday wish for us (in case you missed it, Reading Horizons is the one I was speaking to this whole time!) is that the world and the powers that be can reflect. For many learners, the missing keys are never being taught in the classroom nor are they taught to college students seeking education degrees, nor are they covered by law to teach. We live in a world where there are answers out there to help students like myself learn to read and write. It wasn't until my job at Reading Horizons that I finally understood dyslexia, how the brain learns to read and write, and best practice for teaching struggling learners. I had to wait 30-some years to get the information I had been missing all along—not just my diagnosis but how language actually works. Nobody should have to wait three decades to learn skills that ought to be introduced and mastered in the third grade, and I am dedicated to spending my work on getting that changed for our nation's children. Happy Birthday, Reading Horizons.

Read Part One of the Unraveling My Struggle with Dyslexia Series ›

Learn more about Reading Horizons company history ›

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