The Promise of Reading: A Commonwealth Conversation
By Catherine O'Neill Grace

The simple act of reading has been at the heart of a Commonwealth education from the beginning, and it remains so today. At school and beyond, reading remains a fundamental skill not only for learning, but for taking one's place in the world, and yet a 2018 Pew Research Center survey reported that nearly one in four adults in the United States had not read a book in the last year.

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement on June 4, 2019, Canadian essayist Stephen Marche deplored this decline. "[T]he [U.S.] is losing the craft of understanding, losing its capacity for citizenship," he wrote. "Even educated people are increasingly unable and unwilling to distinguish between fake and real information, becoming a community that cannot understand itself as anything more than a circulation of figures..... And the cure for all these problems is the same: read widely, read deeply, read."

Yet reading eludes some learners—as much as 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the International Dyslexia Association. This learning challenge separates people from the knowledge they need to move freely in the world of work and of ideas.

Not surprisingly, among Commonwealth alumni/ae are those seeking to decode dyslexia and unlock the power of reading for students. They also worry about how to deliver their labor-intensive, often one-on-one interventions equitably. Recently, Headmaster Bill Wharton spoke with two of these educators about their particular mission in teaching.

Janique Parrott-Gaffney '04 committed to her calling during her senior project as a teacher's assistant at a middle school in her Dorchester neighborhood. For Joshua Berlin '82, the process began when his frustration with resistance to change from schools caused him to set out on his own.

Since 1988, Berlin has been a Boston-based education consultant, leading a business that provides individualized tutoring that aims to arm students with the skills to move forward independently. Commonwealth has been among his clients since 1994.

Parrott-Gaffney, a dyslexia therapist and literacy consultant, founded her Washington, D.C. business, Literacy Without Limits, in 2018 after spending a decade as a middle- and high-school special education teacher in Washington, D.C., charter schools.

How did Parrott-Gaffney end up going out on her own? During her tenure in the classroom, she said, "I became increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by the number of students I was seeing who were in middle school and high school but who had just not mastered the basics in terms of being able to read the words that were in front of them on the page. That really got me thinking about how kids can spend so many years in school and progress so far, and still not have the basics. I wondered, 'How can I pursue training that will allow me to intervene and help them?'"

Parrott-Gaffney, who earned a B.A. at Bryn Mawr College and a master's in teaching at Brown University after she graduated from Commonwealth, trained at the Maryland-based Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center—and decided to leave teaching to found her own consulting business.

"I am a one-person shop," she said. She serves students in D.C. and Maryland, contracting directly with parents and schools for one-on-one and small-group reading instruction.

Berlin said, "I went to Amherst College and majored in English, with the idea that I was going to be a tweedy professor. About three-quarters of the way through, I became less interested in what I was learning and more and more interested in the ways in which people gain interest in things." After Amherst, he went on to do a self-designed independent degree at Harvard based around psychology, reading, and teaching and learning.

Berlin started working one-on-one with Massachusetts students in the 1980s. Teaching in the Cambridge public schools, he saw the learning issues that students struggled with, and made suggestions for change. "I was deeply frustrated by the lack of responsiveness to my complaints, ideas, and input, so I started a one-on-one tutoring service, first working with adult ed students around Harvard Extension and Bunker Hill Community College," he said.

He went on to work with public school referrals from school psychologists, and with independent school and college students. "I see some of the most learning-disabled and special-ed level kids that there are," Berlin said. "But I also work with Harvard students. And the interesting thing for me is that a core concern for both is reading—the fundamentals of reading."

Parrott-Gaffney said, "I'm working with students who have average to above average IQ. But they still struggle with reading. These are kids who are highly creative and, oftentimes, highly verbal. That can be really confusing for their parents and for teachers, who think, 'Okay, how can someone be so bright, but yet struggle with basic words? It's so important to remember that it's not about intelligence.'"

Wharton observed, "Both of you are running businesses where you're working with kids pretty much one-on-one. That's a very labor intensive and a very expensive proposition. What can you say about the equitability of providing those services across the socioeconomic spectrum?"

"That is something I have struggled with and continue to struggle with, because I've always been invested in working and serving in low income communities," says Parrott-Gaffney. "And now that I am a business owner I recognize that not everyone can afford my services and so I'm always thinking about, well, what are the ways that I can still work in those communities but make it work for myself as well?"

One solution she has found is to offer instruction to small groups whose needs may not be so severe. "That tends to be more economical for parents or for schools. Public schools tend to be wary of one-to-one. The small group is much more palatable."

Berlin said, "Kids who have parents who have access to resources can pay a dyslexia therapist like me to work with their child three to four times a week in addition to paying private school tuition. If the student is in public school, they can pay for an attorney who will argue that the student needs a special education school paid for by the public school district. It's heartbreaking for me, because there are so many students who need this type of intervention, but because it's something that people have to pay for, a certain group of kids don't get it."

He addresses this challenge with differential fees, he said, "which was something that was taught to me by my father, who was a lawyer and did a lot of pro bono work." He says, "about 20 to 25 percent of my practice is either pro bono or sliding scale. My idea is to run a business that makes enough of a margin to be able to do that and give back. That's the ideal for a business owner."

Parrott-Gaffney said, "I've been working with a tenth grader from my previous school. I've been working with him on his reading for three years. When I first started, he was in eighth grade and reading on a kindergarten level. He's severely dyslexic, and I started working with him pro bono. It's been an amazing experience for me, because I know that had I not honed in on this student, he never would have learned. And now he's finally learning how to read."

"How does the development of the ability to read change a student's sense of himself?" Wharton wondered.

"They see not only that they are able to decode and read, but that they're able to understand," Berlin said. "It opens up a whole new dimension of experience for them."

Berlin recalled his own early struggles with reading. Once they were conquered, he said, "reading became a way of extending imagination. It always offered some kind of promise, the promise of an imaginative world and later the promise of competency, the ability to frame things and to use language to negotiate the culture."

Parrott-Gaffney added, "I've worked with many students who, sadly, have been beaten down by the system because they have low skills. They're sitting in classes where they really can't access what's in front of them. That can be demoralizing. With [the dyslexic tenth-grader], I asked, 'If you saw another student struggling, what would you say?' And he said, 'I'd tell them to stick with it because it'll pay off in the long run.' He understands that this is important, because he's finally at a point where he can look at something and read it, versus looking at it and just completely guessing or making it up."

Berlin added, "Doing this work, I realized that not every kid is going to love reading, but I want them to read well enough to do the things that they want to do and to be able to pursue their own path. Kids who know they cannot read walk around feeling like imposters. Reading is the first order of business, and it leads to the capacity to work on other kinds of learning. I see kids who are either a mismatch for the school they're in or need a specialized school or a slower pace so that they can develop skills. You don't take your swimming lessons in a fast-moving river. You develop your strokes first, and then you hit the river with the full confidence of your abilities."

Catherine O'Neill Grace is an editor, writer, and editorial consultant based in the Boston area. This feature originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.