Listen or read the following collection of Scott’s interviews with leading experts and learn from their studies.

Dr. Holly Shapiro

What is your background?

I had always planned to be an art major. However, at the age of sixteen, my interests turned to language. I was visiting my dad in Colorado, participating in an annual Deaf Camp Picnic benefiting the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf. There was a small outdoor stage and the teachers and counselors were interpreting John Denver’s concert using Signed English. I instantly decided to someday pursue a career that had something to do with language. Years later, I realized that goal, earning a graduate degree from the Speech and Hearing Science program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What is your profession?

I’m a speech-language pathologist. We’re generally concerned with facilitating communicative competence in humans. We treat individuals of all ages who experience a speech, language or voice difference or disorder. You might find us in a school, clinic, private practice, university, hospital, nursing facility or agency. In my practice, I work exclusively with written language, specifically teaching knowledge and skills required for literacy.

What are your personal/professional experiences with language?

I became a school speech pathologist after earning a Master’s degree. So many students on my caseload couldn’t read very well and I couldn’t help them because I didn’t know how. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to go back to school, so I did just that. I earned a Doctorate from Northwestern University’s Program in Learning Disabilities, became a learning disability specialist, rented an office, bought a suit and set up a private practice.

The only problem? I still didn’t know how to teach a kid to read. Not a clue. Today, I am able to see how much of what I use is what I actually did learn during my speech and language pathology preservice training, even though I didn’t make that connection initially.

So, a reading specialist friend recommended that I check out a Teachers Applying Whole Language Conference and for a while I encouraged students to predict words using pictures, surrounding context, and their own prior knowledge. That started to feel really stupid really quickly, so I began to delve into the world of phonics. My first class was Charlotte Lockhart’s Discover Intensive Phonics where I learned that letters were guardians, like the a in panic was a guardian that “made” the a short.

I put all of my eggs into the phonics basket. The class that resonated with me most was the pure Orton-Gillingham approach and I eventually traveled to the Reading Center in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the last groups of people to train under the late Paula Rome who actually knew Dr. Orton. Years later, I was grandfathered in as a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, and a Fellow I remain today (because all you have to do is pay dues).

Though the knowledge I gained from O-G training never felt complete, I did go with it because at least it was something. Phonics was very much out of favor at the time so I was frequently laughed at, belittled and ridiculed for using it. About 10 years after my initial foray into it, phonics earned an endorsement from the National Reading Panel. Children taught with phonics generally experience better outcomes than children taught with whole language.

I still wasn’t satisfied. I was getting tired of dredging up the same words over and over to fit the phonics rules I was teaching: cactus, picnic, dentist, locate, remote, Chippendale, badminton and fig. Ostrich, catnip, muffin, tunnel. Really? I started to make more of my own materials that better reflected the vocabulary students might actually encounter in their lives. But it  was phonics, so there was still an exception pile.

I continued to revise the way I practiced over the years, eventually giving up syllable division and syllable types. I came very close to something I was happy with, but I wasn’t there yet. It was actually a former client that suggested I check out an Etymology conference hosted by Gina Cooke of Linguist Educator Exchange and Doug Harper, creator of the Online Etymology Dictionary. I had heard of Gina Cooke’s work, but tired of being burned, I never really engaged with it. I thought it might be some kind of stupid and overly complicated phonics. Who needed more of that?

Well, the conference rocked my world. I learned, for the first time, how the English writing system works. Duh, seriously! Insight, at last. I’ll never go back.

Where can we find out more about your work?

Ravinia Reading Center

On Twitter @raviniareading