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A Parent’s Advocacy Helps a Struggling Reader Shine

Stage lights shining on a young girl

Competing in pageants, Emily was a confident performer onstage. However, that confidence wavered while attending her Keyport, NJ, school.

Emily was an intelligent third grader, but her struggle with dyslexia made her feel frustrated and inferior. While she easily understood most lessons in her regular education classes, she could not read well enough to keep up in English language arts. She dreaded the weekly spelling tests on Fridays most of all. Attempts to help her study at home resulted in tears.

“I remember her being very young, telling me that she couldn’t read and she was stupid,” recalled Emily’s mother, Nicki.

Determined to ensure that her daughter had every resource she needed to succeed, Nicki was deeply involved in Emily’s education. “I think the biggest thing for parents is they have to advocate for their child, but they have to educate themselves,” she said.

Nicki took Emily to a neurologist for testing, which revealed a diagnosis of severe dyslexia. The motivated mom researched dyslexia and effective ways to approach instruction in preparation for meeting with school administrators. As a result, she was ready to work with those administrators to create an individualized education program (IEP) that would help her daughter.

Despite having excellent oral comprehension skills and a large vocabulary, Emily showed learning gaps in decoding, encoding, and fluency. Her reading skills were about two grade levels behind when she met Wilson® Certified Teacher Tamme Manganelli.

“Emily’s self-esteem was terrible, which was part of why her mom was so concerned,” Tamme explained. “She was a very popular girl who was competing in pageants, which can be a lot of pressure. I think not being able to read was an additional stressor.”

“Nicki is a fantastic advocate for her children,” Tamme added. “She knew the stats. If a student gets beyond third grade, it’s difficult to close learning gaps.”

“Some parents are nervous about stigma, but the more we do now, the better the long term is going to be,” Nicki said. “The most important thing I tell my children is that we are never going to be ashamed. What makes us different, makes us special.”

Advocating for her daughter sometimes meant asking that the school district do a technology assessment and bring in an outside agency to determine the best assistive technologies. Sometimes it involved waiting to sign an IEP until she felt the documentation sufficiently addressed Emily’s needs. It also required requesting that teachers use a science-based reading and spelling curriculum designed for students with dyslexia, such as Wilson Reading System® (WRS).

“Emily’s mom was somebody who kept it real for us. She was vocal, a parent who would go around to other parents and tell them to ask for Wilson,” Tamme said.

When Nicki met with school administrators, her goal was to arrive at the best possible solutions. “I tried to be as unemotional as possible. When I went in there, I went in as if it were a business situation instead of an emotional situation.”

Nicki also kept in mind that administrators weren’t refusing to help her daughter; they simply weren’t aware of some of the resources that she was aware of—resources that could help Emily. She did her research and presented it to the administrators.

“Nicki really fought to get her daughter the right to special education,” Tamme said. “She did her homework, and she knew about WRS. She made it clear that WRS was what she wanted for her daughter.”

Since 1995, Tamme has maintained WRS Level I Certification. One other teacher in the school had the same credential. With only two teachers to meet the needs of the whole school, students rotated through WRS instruction. Once Emily was classified as needing Tier 3 reading intervention, she was given one-on-one Wilson instruction with Tamme for 80 minutes per day, five days a week.

With Tamme’s guidance and WRS instruction, Emily’s reading and spelling began improving immediately, which boosted her confidence at school. “I only got to teach her for one year,” Tamme said. “She made such a monstrous amount of growth in that year that she was thrilled.”

Emily continued receiving Wilson instruction through the school’s resource center. She no longer had a reason to fear spelling tests; she stopped calling herself unpleasant names. Instead, Emily learned to say, “I’m not stupid, and I can read. I just learn differently.”

The rest of Emily’s school years were a sparkling success. She was invited to join the National Junior Honor Society, a student leadership program that requires good grades, community service, and citizenship. “In her mind, she was on a level playing field with her classmates,” Nicki said. “That was a big win.”

Emily is now a sophomore attending West Virginia University. College presents challenges of its own, but Emily knows that nothing can dull her shine. Following her mother’s example, Emily spoke with her advisors and professors and learned how to access the services she needs for continued success.

“There have been hiccups,” Nicki said, “She’s had to learn how to advocate for herself and navigate on her own because I’m not there.”

Nicki’s advocacy, combined with that of other parents, has continued to benefit other struggling readers (including one of Emily’s siblings) at the school. Over time, the school expanded WRS instruction and established after-school courses. This past year, it offered summer courses in WRS and Fundations Ready to Rise®. It also expanded its intervention team and is now implementing WRS, Just Words®, and Fundations®.

Thanks to a mother’s advocacy and her child’s success, other children’s lives continue to improve as their school is prepared to help everyone learn to read.

Congratulations to Emily—and best of luck as you continue to shine in college!