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My Experience with the Wilson Reading System

by Teresa McHugh, reading specialist

Over the past thirty years since I have been a special educator, I have been exposed to many different methods of teaching reading. I would like to tell you about the children I teach and the Wilson Reading System and why I think they fit together well.

My students have been classified as having learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, behavior disorders, and autism. Most of my students have trouble with decoding and because of this, they have reading comprehension deficits. Their reading skills are significantly below grade level. They may rush when reading out loud and guess at words that they don't recognize. Sometimes they slowly "sound out" words and it takes so long to reach the end of a sentence, they cannot decipher meaning from it.

Attention is another issue for many of my students. Keeping focused on the task at hand can be extremely difficult. Attitudes toward reading are often poor because they know they do not do as well as their same grade peers. Memory can be a factor in holding on to new sounds in isolation or within a word. Even if they are successful in decoding enough words to form a sentence, paragraph, or page, they cannot remember the thoughts that the words combine to express. Frequently, disorganization works against their efforts to improve reading skills. It is not unusual for my students to work very diligently on a paper in class or at home only to find that it has disappeared into a "black hole" between home and school. These are some of the problems, which face the students on my caseload.

Although I have used many methods of remediating reading over the years, I believe that the Wilson Reading System has shown some of the greatest results in terms of increase in decoding skills and subsequently comprehension skills. I would like to briefly describe the steps of the Wilson Reading System and explain why, in my opinion, I think it works so well for struggling readers.

The ten major steps of the Wilson Reading System are these:

  • Sound card drill (symbol to sound)
  • Instruction and review of reading concepts or rules.
  • Review of new and previously taught word cards.
  • Wordlist reading and charting of number correct.
  • Sentence reading.
  • Quick drill (sound to symbol)
  • Teach new spelling concept and review those previously taught.
  • Written dictation so student can write sounds, words, and sentences.
  • Controlled text, words the student has mastered, passage reading.
  • Listening comprehension of enriched text, words outside those the student has mastered.

In each step, a constant weaving of review questions brings previous concepts back. Although this program is largely aimed at improving decoding skills, the stories provide opportunities to read and retell information of increasing length and complexity.

I believe the reason that this system works for students with learning disabilities, attention issues, and/or memory issues is because it begins at a level where the student is experiencing success and gradually and carefully builds from that point. The assessment, which is provided, is called the Wilson Assessment of Decoding and Encoding.

Many of my students have been in over their heads for so long, they have forgotten what they do know. They feel helpless to decode a grade level passage so their main strategy has become avoidance. With the Wilson Reading System, slowly and carefully, they are exposed to sounds and words within their reach. When students understand that most words follow rules, reading and spelling begin to make sense to them. Keeping in mind memory deficits, they are not asked to hold these rules in memory, simply to know where to find them in their student handbook. This teaches them the extremely valuable lesson of self-reliance. As a teacher, I learn the equally valuable lesson of letting the student help himself by allowing him time to search for the information he needs.

When letter sounds are begun each sound is tapped on a finger. This multisensory aspect helps commit sounds to memory by using a different neural pathway to the brain than rote reading and spelling use. This tapping also helps slow down the reading and spelling process to allow the student to hear, identify, and reproduce that sound. The weaving of questions from prior steps also is a memory aid that serves to reinforce the learning pathway. Dictation of words and sentences helps the student to choose the correct sound. Nonsense words allow students deconstruct words sound by sound without guessing. Initially, the student searches his brain for the "real" word that resembles the nonsense word, but soon they realize their "guessing game" will no longer work. They absolutely must use the sounds they have learned. The short time spent on each of the ten steps and constant interaction with the teacher helps the student maintain his focus.

In short, this program uses each step to hand the control of what the student reads back to the student. It is gratifying to see the positive effects begin when the student realizes he has the tools to safely navigate increasing numbers of words. This is visually represented on the word charts. A majority of the students who have learned to give their power to their teacher as they wait for her to help to "give" them the words they do not know, begin to feel the empowerment when they know which tools to use to become an independent and fluent reader.

Teresa McHugh is a Wilson-trained reading specialist and tutor in the Chicago metro area with thirty years of experience. You can call her at: (815)-469-3644.


Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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