Redwood student

At Redwood Day, “Old-School” Phonics Helps Kids Love Reading

Editor’s note: Chicago Unheard contributor Sara Urben, a National Board Certified primary teacher and literacy coach, recently visited Redwood Day in Rogers Park to learn more about their work helping students with dyslexia learn to read well using systematic instruction in phonics. Sara sat in on a classroom and interviewed co-founder Kait Feriante. Their conversation shows how teachers can connect across different assumptions and philosophies about reading to ensure all kids get the instruction they need to crack the code of written English and develop a love of reading.

While I was beginning the process of Wilson Language Dyslexia Practitioner Certification this year, I stumbled upon Redwood Literacy and was impressed by their results, innovative model, and unwavering belief that all students can learn to read and write at high levels of proficiency.  In 2018, Redwood Literacy began by offering after-school tutoring and intensive summer remediation programs, and has recently expanded to include Redwood Day. Here, students identified as dyslexic or significantly behind their grade-level peers are taught to read using the Wilson Language System, an Orton Gilligham-inspired, multisensory, and systematic approach to learning to read and write.

Within the education world, the “reading wars” –the debate over how best to teach beginning reading–rage on. Recent reporting from radio journalist Emily Hanford has reignited the long-running debate about the role teaching phonics should play in helping kids learn to read. I recently took the opportunity to visit this tiny school that I had heard so much about and learn from its co-founder and teacher, Kait Feriante.

When I arrived on a snowy Monday morning in Chicago, all 16 students at Redwood Day School were participating in Morning Meeting.  Similar to a morning meeting that you might see in any traditional classroom, they shared their feelings, hopes for the day, and stories from the weekend. What made this Morning Meeting unique was that it ended with a whole-group discussion about what it meant to be dyslexic.  Students talked about what might be more challenging for them, the importance of self-advocacy, and also what unique gifts also set them apart. From their mature responses, it was clear that students had had these conversations many times before, and that social-emotional learning was a huge part of Redwood’s unique school model.

I learned about this and much more from my conversation with Kait Feriante.

These Kids Are Smart, But They Don’t Know How to Decode

Tell me a little about your background and what brought you to found Redwood.

My undergraduate degree was in Special Education.  I went to ISU and got my Learning Behavior Specialist certification.  My husband, Andre (also a literacy teacher at Redwood), did Teach for America and got placed on the the South Side in Marquette Park at one of the largest elementary schools in the city and I got a job there as a Learning Behavior Specialist in a self-contained classroom.  I had sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders. I had 18 of them and in the first couple weeks of school I thought, “These kids are very smart, but they do not know how to decode any words.” One, I was shocked. How did they get to this point and not know how to decode? And I was also just really perplexed.  Things I was trying just weren’t working.  

So I sought out Wilson out of desperation.  I knew these kids could learn to read, but nothing I was doing was working, and I didn’t want to pass them off yet again not having those basic decoding skills.  So I started my Wilson Certification. I got certified and started using Wilson in my classroom in the public school setting. After a couple years there, we moved to the Noble Charter Network where I still used Wilson in some of my small group instruction.  When I started having my own kids, I moved out of full-time teaching and started a private practice part-time, really just because I didn’t want to stop teaching. I did private practice for five years and worked in private schools all across the city. I loved what I got to do as far as teaching students to read, but really missed that social justice aspect, which was one of the main reasons I got into education in the first place.  

In Chicago, the going rate for a dyslexia practitioner is about $100-150 an hour.  So, if you do it with fidelity, two or three times a week for two to three years, you’re looking at a total cost of around $30,000 for a family to remediate their child. Obviously it is a huge sacrifice for pretty much any family, but completely inaccessible to lots of families in Chicago.  The idea for Redwood was to teach Wilson with fidelity, but do it in small groups so that we can bring the cost way down for families and still be able to pay our instructors well. Another part of our goal was to train more people as dyslexia practitioners. We launched that first summer with about 40 kids.  We had kids come from all over the city and it was really great.  

Starting a school was not really on my radar, but at the end of that first summer, ten families approached us and said, “Hey, we don’t really have a place to send our kids to school.  Would you consider doing a full-day school program?” We decided in August to open Redwood Day in September. The first year, which was last year, was absolutely insane. We were building the airplane as we flew it, learning so much as we went along.  But the kids were awesome, we had awesome teachers, and they just grew so much with the small group instruction and the small school environment. I think a huge reason it has been so successful has been the teachers’ deep understanding of what dyslexia is and how it marks a learner.  

Is It Brain Differences or Instructional Gaps? Both!

When you think about the students at Redwood, both the students who attend Redwood Day and those who participate in your summer and after-school programs, do you think that most of them have come to this point because of inherent brain differences or do you feel like there have been gaps in their Tier I instruction at their previous schools?  Or some combination of both?

Great question.  We don’t require a neuropsych evaluation for students to attend Redwood because again, part of our mission is to keep it as affordable as possible and neuropsychs are very expensive, especially for families who don’t have insurance.  We don’t want that to stand in the way of students getting what they need. I would say 80% of our students at Redwood have a diagnosis of dyslexia and a neuropsych to back that up, and for a few of them it’s a little bit of a mystery if they have dyslexia or if there’s been a gap in instruction.  I would say that for all of them, there has also been a gap in instruction.  

They are super-smart kids and they have not been able to learn how to read in the traditional school setting just because their brain wasn’t understood and the right instruction wasn’t given.  So even if they were in a school program that had quality instruction, it just wasn’t the right instruction for them. I think in the city of Chicago, and probably the nation as well though I can’t speak from experience, there’s a lot of inconsistency in terms of if schools are using an explicit phonics program.  It varies a lot from school-to-school and even classroom-to-classroom. So I think it’s both, for sure. I think in our after-school programs it’s a more even split between kids who have severe dyslexia which is really impacting their ability to learn to read and write proficiently and kids who have had inconsistent instruction and just need that explicit instruction to be able to learn.

When Kids Can’t Decode, Guided Reading Doesn’t Work As Expected

Why did you choose Wilson as the core curricular program when you were starting Redwood Day?

The first school that I was in was a turn-around school, and they didn’t have much curriculum that first year.  They had a bunch of Fountas & Pinnell materials that were left over but that no one was really using. That was when I went to them and said, “Hey, I don’t have a curriculum and I don’t know what to do with these kids.”  The guided reading stuff was what was given to me. I tried to use it but it just was not a good fit. Since they couldn’t decode, it was just not at all the right program which became apparent very quickly. Doing those traditional guided reading groups was not an effective use of time because when students couldn’t decode they were not able to access what I was asking them to do.  So pretty quickly I felt frustrated and unequipped. I didn’t know what to do with those kids. I knew that it was not that they couldn’t learn to read. They could, but I just didn’t know how to do it. So it was then that I sought something else out and found Wilson.

It’s Hard to Love Reading If You Can’t Decode the Words

How, if at all, do you balance the very systematic and explicit phonics work that Wilson is known for while also giving students choice and instilling in them a love of reading?

We really encourage kids to be avid audio book readers while they are closing the gap in their decoding.  There’s a lot of research out on the effectiveness of using audio books in the classroom. Sometimes people are really anti-audiobooks because they think kids aren’t really reading.  But there’s a lot of research to show that when we read an audiobook we utilize a lot of the same parts of our brain that we do when reading a book on paper. They can listen to whatever they can comprehend.  It’s a great way to boost background knowledge and vocabulary acquisition, which are two of the biggest ways we can enrich their comprehension. That’s the primary way we keep that high-rigor comprehension work going, expose them to multiple genres, and give students choice.  They have daily audiobook time where they’re working through novel studies; but they have a lot of autonomy in terms of what they read. Podcasts and documentaries are also things that we expose kids too.

But the bottom line in my mind is that until a child can decode, they can have a love of listening to someone read, which is awesome- we want to instill that.  But it’s really hard to love reading if you can’t decode. There’s constantly something that makes you feel stupid, there’s constantly something that makes you feel misunderstood, and there’s constantly something that keeps you from accessing the learning environment like everybody else.  So I think if I had to choose one or the other, I’d say we have to get kids decoding. Let’s not stay there. Once they are decoding we need to push that love of reading and expose them to lots of different things, but you just don’t have access if you can’t decode. I think it’s the classic pendulum swing.  If we go too far towards the phonics again, we’ll have to of course correct. But I feel like right now we don’t have enough phonics instruction happening consistently in classrooms.

Something I’m struck by as I’ve observed here at Redwood is the high level of engagement.  It is Wilson and it is repetitive, they’re doing it every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “boring.”

Interestingly, I’ve learned recently that the dyslexic brain needs anywhere from thirty to as many as one hundred times as many exposures to a concept in order for it to stick than a non-dyslexic brain.  So the repetition may appear boring or dull to an outside observer who doesn’t have dyslexia, but for the dyslexic brain you need those multiple exposures for it to stick. I rarely see kids bored because we’re asking them to do things that they can do, and I think they can very quickly, within a month or two, see that payoff.  They start to see, “This is helping me,” whereas so many other things they’ve tried have not.

In Part Two of my interview, Kait Feriante will discuss Redwood Grow, Redwood’s initiative to spread their work to traditional elementary and high schools and what she’s learned through this work about professional development.

Photo credit: Redwood Literacy Facebook Page

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Sara Urben

Sara Urben is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher who leads professional development with educators from around the city. She is passionate about purposeful play in the classroom, the benefits of bilingual education, and literacy as a social justice issue.