Musings on Wearing Black

Musings on Wearing Black

A hand raised, “So I guess limiting distractions also means paying attention to the colors of our clothing, doesn’t it?”

Inwardly, I groaned as I looked at my adult trainee. She had flowing red hair, a bright, vivacious smile, sparkling eyes, and unrestrained expressions. Her clothing matched her personality – bold colors, sweeping patterns, energetic pulses. Marcia was compassionate about becoming an Academic Language Therapist, embracing the practice with full force, willing to make whatever changes were necessary. Her instincts were absolutely correct, yet I hoped that the advice to tone down her wardrobe would not diminish her passion and energy. I never imagined the reverse could also be true.

Her question hit me at a time when I was mulling over my own clothing choices. I had long ago gone to mostly solid color shirts, although I certainly had days when I would succumb to the playful patterns of a favorite blouse or dress.  Yet, especially on days when my students seemed very distracted, I wondered if wearing all black would make a difference.

With thoughts of Morticia Adams, funeral directors, baristas, priests, backstage crews, and 20-something fashionistas, I recognized my resistance to a black uniform. I imagined feeling bored, restricted, confined, morose, out-of-place. Yet as school returned for the fall session, I committed to the experiment.

After a week, I was hooked. As anyone who wears a uniform will tell you, a uniform simplifies life. My new ensemble consists of well-cut black jeans, a scoop-neck, black blouse, and a simple black jacket or sweater.  For color and personality, I often add a scarf, which easily comes off as I work with a student. My earrings are my only jewelry, usually studs or simple gold hoops. That first week, I noticed that rather than feeling stifled with the lack of clothing variety, I felt more freedom and creativity. The effort I was putting into choosing clothing could now go to other endeavors. I discovered wearing black gives me energy.

img_0366     But what is the student benefit? I have a long list of environmental distractions to avoid: clutter, perfumes, peeling paint, food odors, squeaky chairs, fluorescent lights, bright white paper, changes to routine and structure. For many of my students, seemingly small annoyances can make the difference between reading correctly or incorrectly.  Wearing black avoids any subtle color clashes with reading materials.  What I am wearing becomes unimportant to the lesson.

As I was recently getting dressed for work, I smiled as my eyes fell on a pair of cat earrings. “Such fun cats,” I thought, as I impulsively pushed the wire hoops into my earlobes. I looked in the mirror, gave my head a playful shake, and watched the cats dangle and dance. I thought about a student and how she would probably love these cat earrings with their mismatched colors and expressions.


“quilt… snatch…creek,” intensely, carefully, rhythmically, Mark read his words. My own breath was shallow; my movements subtle, my voice silent. He was in the zone.

Then it was over.

“Hey, Mrs. Spear! Are those cats? Oh wow! Do those cats have different colors? They are so cool! My mom, she has a dog pin that is two dogs. They have really shiny eyes. Do you have a cat, Mrs. Spear?”

Jolted from my own sense of success, I sighed and smiled, remembering my feelings of playfulness that morning in the mirror.  I took out my dancing, dangling cats, set them to the side, and promised dear Mark that he could look at them more closely at the end of the lesson. Perhaps because I was wearing black, the earrings were more noticeable. Yet it was also a powerful reminder that small distractions make a big difference.

Now, when training adults new to Academic Therapy, my discussion about distractions includes talking about our clothing.  Academic Therapists can control the setting to highlight the lesson and maximize student opportunity for success. Our clothing choice is yet another way to make this happen.



A Roadmap to Literacy

“At age nine, when it became obvious that my son was not growing out of his reading problems, I didn’t know what to do or where to go.”

“We hired the Reading Specialist from our school to tutor our daughter. After six months, there was no real progress. The Reading Specialist seemed as stumped as we were.”

“I trusted the teachers in school to teach my children to read. Aren’t they the experts?”

        Sound familiar? When a child experiences frustration when reading, parents naturally look for solutions. Many invest in countless hours doing internet searches, meeting with teachers, lamenting with other parents, and paying bills for tutoring that just doesn’t seem to work. Some go further. They push the teachers to do more, hire advocates, and then they confront the grim reality that the teachers in their school system, regardless of credentialing in reading or special education, have not been adequately prepared to address the needs of learners with dyslexia. Desperate, parents often turn to private schools or home schooling, hoping to meet their child’s needs. A lucky few connect with a Certified Academic Language Therapist (CALT) or other qualified dyslexia therapist*, and after extensive one-on-one instruction, are able to breathe a sigh of relief as their child eases into reading independence.

Against this backdrop, the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) took a bold step in 2016. Through the Center for Effective Reading Instruction (CERI, pronounced seer-ee), it began credentialing Certified Structured Literacy Teachers (Tier I) and Certified Structured Literacy Interventionists (Tier II). Further, IDA is credentialing Dyslexia Specialists and Dyslexia Therapists at the Tier III Level. This credentialing, at long last, gives parents and school systems a new way forward. Change will include hiring teachers, reading specialists, and special education teachers with the requisite literacy training to effectively teach all learners, including and especially students with dyslexia. Tier III interventionists will be made available to severe dyslexics, those able to read only with intensive, one-on-one therapy.

“Change will include hiring teachers, reading specialists, and special education teachers with the requisite literacy training to effectively teach all learners, including and especially students with dyslexia.”

This credentialing initiative builds on two existing IDA programs: the accreditation of university programs beginning in 2012 and the publication of the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (K&PS) in 2010. The accreditation of university programs gives school systems guidance on which new hires are trained to deliver structured literacy instruction for all learners, not just those with dyslexia. The Knowledge and Practice Standards spells out what teachers and interventionists need to know. If a teacher did not graduate from an accredited program, the K&PS can be used to direct courses of self-study or continuing education. Teachers now have clear directions on how to supplement their skills so they can better serve all students in their classroom; administrators can look for these credentials and skills when making hiring decisions; parents can request that professionals working with their children have documentation that these professionals have training specific to supporting struggling readers. For the DC area, public schools face a mounting challenge. While awareness of the needs of students with dyslexia is increasing and parents are pressing the need for improved services, not one college or university preparation program in DC, Virginia, or Maryland holds CERI accreditation. Human Resources Departments within school systems have the ability to pressure local university programs to pursue CERI credentialing. For now, teachers and parents in the DC area have to advocate that teachers employed by the school systems receive additional training to meet the K&P Standards.

“. . . teachers and parents in the DC area have to advocate that teachers employed by the school systems receive additional training to meet the K&P Standards.”

The DC Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is contributing to these efforts. In addition to our well-attended workshops and conferences, our Board has decided to combine its expertise in the publication of this newsletter. With each issue, we will address a skill from the Knowledge and Practice Standards. We will examine the skill, describe its importance to reading, and provide classroom or small group activities in support of skill development. Further, we will describe indicators of students who cannot develop this skill in their learning environment. This documentation will aid parents, teachers, and administrators in the decision-making process that may lead to Tier II and Tier III interventions.

Taken together, professional credentialing, accreditation of training programs, and the Knowledge and Practice Standards give hope to parents, teachers, administrators, and —most of all — students for improved literacy outcomes within our public education system. We know what it takes to teach students to read. It is our task now to make sure that these skills are available to all teachers and all students.

“Far too many teachers say they feel unprepared for the classroom after completing teacher preparation programs, yet we know that there is no more important in-school factor for student learning than having a great teacher, particularly in our highest-need communities.”  – Every Student Succeeds Act

*For a complete list of independent training programs, click here.

From Special Education Teacher to Academic Language Therapist

In the fall of 1995 I was completing my final class for my master’s degree in Special Education, with certifications in Learning Disabilities and Emotional Disturbances. I accepted a job teaching high school as a Special Education Teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). I thought myself well-prepared. I had graduated from a highly-regarded four-year college and received high marks in my master’s level work at George Mason University. My teaching certification exams were completed with scores above the 90th percentile. Once I was actually placed in a teaching position, however, I discovered that very little of my education actually helped students learn what they needed most: how to read. I was very skilled at writing IEP’s, adjusting for diversity in the classroom, metacognitive teaching strategies, classroom management, and laws related to inclusion of all students in the public educational system. However, none of my teacher coursework prepared me for a grim reality: most of my students (labeled as ‘Learning Disabled’) had reading and writing skills at the 3rd – 6th grade level and now, in 9th grade, were expected to fully participate in the rigors of regular education. The FCPS strategy for these students was clearly to accommodate them, not to provide remediation. As Special Education teachers, we were to get them through high school; whether they could actually read, write, or perform basic math operations was rarely addressed.

In my first year as an FCPS teacher, David was in both my team-taught social studies classroom and my remedial Basic Skills Review class. David was clearly very bright and had strengths not always found in students with learning disabilities. Although he had a 4th grade reading level, he could sit in a regular education classroom and absorb most of the information from listening. He had home support and completed his homework and projects. He earned B’s in most of his classes. In his freshman year, David asked why ‘tap’ became ‘tapped’ with the p doubled. I was a naïve, first-year teacher and was astounded with the question. I assumed everyone learned the doubling rule in elementary school. It was my first direct experience with how difficult it was to teach this one basic skill to a student with a reading disability. I covered the doubling rule several times that first year in my Basic Skills Review class. Sadly, I never saw one student catch on. David and others in the classroom could recite the rule but never could apply it. Like most teachers, I concluded that teaching spelling to students with learning disabilities was clearly a waste of time. I was not yet aware that such skills had to be taught to mastery in a multi-sensory manner following a diagnostic and prescriptive program. In fact, the words ‘multi-sensory’, ‘diagnostic’, and ‘prescriptive’ had yet to be part of my professional language and training.

In my third year teaching, I had David a second time in my Basic Skills Review class. His reading and writing had not improved, although he was earning his credits towards graduation and had college aspirations. That year, his parents became the bane of my existence. They called for meetings with the department chair and brought an advocate. They wanted to know what I was doing to improve his basic skills. They wanted their son to graduate with more than a ‘B’ average; specifically, they wanted him to graduate knowing how to read. I did the best I could; however, I had David in a class with eight other students who were struggling just to pass their classes. With teaching five classes, I was putting out fires all day. The reality was that I had neither the time nor the training to provide David or any of my other students with what they needed the most: remedial help for students with dyslexia.

David was lucky. His parents were aware he needed help beyond what FCPS could provide. Early in his junior year, David’s parents hired a specialist trained in multi-sensory language instruction to work with him after school. I started to see improvements. In the spring, David proudly announced to me he had just finished a book. He sheepishly told me it was the first book he had ever read cover to cover. I had had no idea that this bright young man had never read a book. I was so proud of him, but once again was awakened to how badly the educational system had failed him. The impact of his disability confounded me, and yet here he was earning B’s in high school. It was then that I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity, I would train in a reading system that worked for dyslexic students.

In the late 1990’s, FCPS provided some multi-sensory, reading training to a limited number of teachers. Because I did not teach a dedicated remedial reading class, that training was not open to me.

In 2001, my family moved to New Hampshire and I took a break from the classroom. I found a Wilson instructor and learned about dyslexia and how to teach students with dyslexia. I became a Wilson Certified Tutor and joined the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) as a Professional Member. I also discovered the short-comings of the Wilson system and went on to become certified in an IDA-accredited, Orton-Gillingham system, which I had learned was truly the ‘gold standard’ for teaching students with dyslexia how to read. I set up my own practice as a Dyslexia Specialist and was soon fully booked with private clients.

Since returning to VA in 2009, I have added a third dyslexia certification from the Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center in Rockville, MD and am now a Certified Academic Language Therapist with a private practice in Northern VA.  All of this training took place apart from any formal teacher-education program. In fact, the IDA accredits teacher preparation in reading from a very limited number of university programs, none of which are in Virginia.

In retrospect, I am very grateful to David and his parents. They had high expectations of me and FCPS. David’s success with specialized instruction proved to me that dyslexic students could learn to read, and that I had been part of a system that was short-changing them. Now in my private practice, I guide my students into fluent reading, writing, and spelling, and in doing so, partner with them in finding and expressing their voices. These voices should not be hindered by a lack of teacher training, staffing or inability to pay for private instruction.  Appropriate literacy instruction should be a basic student right.