Alonna Conrad has always struggled to read and write.
Most children learn to spell first by sound, replacing those auditory spellings with the proper ones in their first couple years of school. But Alonna, who is in fifth grade, is just now learning to do that.
She’s not alone.
Every year at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, 50 or so children from area K-12 schools attend a literacy clinic that helps them connect letters with their respective sounds.
The clinic uses something called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, a chart of 40-odd letters and symbols that correspond to certain objects. The letter “a” is linked to an apple, for instance, while the letter combination “ae” is linked to an acorn, marking the two sounds the letter “a” can make.
If a child doesn’t know how to spell or pronounce something, they only need to look at the chart.
“It was hard, because it was different from what I learned before,” said Alonna, who has improved her reading ability by two grade levels since joining the clinic last summer.
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“I like to read and write,” she said. “I write stories about a marker and a pen that go on adventures.”
Since 1988, the clinic at Saint Mary’s has helped roughly 1,000 children catch up to their peers. It runs four days a week during the school year, matching children with Saint Mary’s education students who work as tutors. Over the years, families have come from as far away as Iowa to attend the clinic.
“I think this is one of the best-kept secrets around,” said Jane Anderson, the clinic’s founder. “We don’t mean to keep it a secret — we’re just so busy teaching it.”
In a typical lesson, tutors will read a passage to the children in their group. Then the group will read the passage together. And then the children will read the passage by themselves.
It usually doesn’t take long for the children to read it without any mistakes, Anderson said, and they tend to apply the corrections they made to their general use of the language.
“If they do it often enough,” Anderson said, “they get it.”
Children who practice the Initial Teaching Alphabet three times a week for nine months typically improve their reading ability by two or three grade levels, Anderson said.
When things are working well, the clinic helps the tutors, too. It gives them experience working with children who they might otherwise be unsure how to reach.
“I was skeptical of I.T.A. at first,” said Michelle Wegrzyn, an elementary education major at Saint Mary’s. “I don’t know how, but it works.
“When I have my own classroom, I think it’s going to give me a little bit of an edge.”
Anderson said she has been successful teaching older children and adults to read and write with these methods, through this alphabet.
People who can’t so naturally marry letters and sounds are in no way less intelligent than people who can, Anderson said. She called it more of a mechanical quirk in the way their brains work.
But since many teachers are not equipped to reach those children once they become students, many receive poor grades and become frustrated with reading and writing altogether.
“We don’t want kids to feel dumb when they can’t read,” said Carol Brewton, the clinic’s director. “It’s wonderful to see kids who don’t believe in themselves, start to believe in themselves.”