“I can’t write. Can you help me? I’m desperate.”
These were the words of a second grader when she came to Mrs. Tolson for help. The little girl couldn’t read. She couldn’t write. She had been to several specialists and her words reflected her utter despair: “No one has been able to help me.”
Rebecca Tolson is a certified academic language therapist who works with students reading one to three levels below their current grade level.
“When a student comes to me, there is this wall. I represent everything that is hard for that child. I have to be sensitive to that and build a rapport and break down barriers.”
A year later, the child who expressed her despair writes in beautiful, cursive lettering. She also reads well.
“You are a really good reader,” Tolson recently told her student.
Tolson, who was featured before in , has always had a passion for helping kids, but now she is on a mission to change students’ lives in an even bigger way.
“I finally realized that I can affect a lot more kids by training teachers,” Tolson said.
Though she continues to work one on one with students, this past year, Tolson trained more than 200 teachers in remediation strategies for dyslexia at workshops offered through the Stark Educational Service Center and the Northern Ohio Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Ashland University.
Seeing that the answer of providing training on teaching/remediation strategies for dyslexia was beyond her personal realm, with the support and encouragement of the Northern Ohio Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, of which she serves as treasurer, Tolson decided to .
On June 1, Tolson testified to the House Education Committee in support of House Bill 157, a bi-partison bill co-sponsored by Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township, and Rep. Tom Letson, D-Warren. On June 22, it passed unanimously in the House. It will move on to the Senate when sessions resume in the fall.
Tolson wrote the bill in part because she was astounded at the number of teachers who had little to no knowledge about dyslexia and its intervention strategies. Some people she met didn’t even believe that dyslexia was an actual condition, unaware that brain research proves otherwise.
Tolson believes that a crucial first step in helping kids is for Ohio to adopt an official definition of “dyslexia” and validate it as a neurobiological disability. HB 157 does that, along with giving Educational Service Centers authority to contract with specialists to provide training.
Training helps teachers to understand that effective instruction for dyslexic students must be “explicit, systematic, sequential, cumulative and data driven,” Tolson said.
“Dyslexic students need from 20 to 50 repetitions with a new letter, sound or concept to reach mastery,” she said.
Many educators revere the Orton-Gillingham method as the most effective in teaching students with dyslexia. This method dates to the 1930s, the collaborative effort of a neuropsychologist/educator team. Methods are multi-sensory in approach and include tactics like skywriting, writing in sand trays, letter tiles and other manipulatives. Because dyslexic students’ brains work differently from others’, the teaching strategies need to be different.
“It’s not that these individuals can’t learn to read, they just need to learn differently, using different strategies,” Tolson said.
To her, it’s also a "social issue."
"The illiteracy rate in prisons is very high," she said. "We want to set students on a different path.”
“Because I have the knowledge and skill to teach children who struggle, I want to plunge forward and help as many as I can. God gave me the gift to teach, and it’s my passion. He’s given me the desire to help,” Tolson said.
For her, the bill is “about advocacy. It’s about standing up and saying, ‘There are ways to help. This is how.’ We want every educator, especially those responsible for teaching reading, to understand the signs and symptoms of dyslexia and reading strategies that help these students.”