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America Carrillo greets students as they arrive at the YMCA in Manchester on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Reading program changed immigrants' daughter's life


“The gato wlkd itno the casa and jmpd on Jane’s laapp.”

A simple sentence about a cat walking into a house and jumping on a girl’s lap looked something like this to America Carrillo when she entered Central High School five years ago.

She could recognize a few simple words like ‘the’ or ‘and’. If she knew bigger words, her brain translated them into her native tongue, Spanish.

But most words were indecipherable mush. The freshman read at a first-grade level, second if they had a good day being tested.

An only child, she believed she would fail classes and disappoint her parents, hard-working Mexican immigrants whose American dream rested on her success. “My first thought was I would not be able to go to college because of reading,” she said.

Today, Carrillo is 18 and enrolled full time at New Hampshire Technical Institute, where she hopes to earn a degree in orthopedic therapy. She works part time at an after-school program at the YMCA, where her duties include helping kids with their homework.

Last semester, she earned an A in her college English class.

The difference in her life was the multi-sensory reading program that she entered as a Central freshman, a program that could be cut back as part of the worst-case scenario for the proposed school budget.

Three of the five specialty teachers would be laid off.

Two will remain to help some readers. Other students will get attention from reading specialists and reading interventionists who already work in city schools, said Jennifer Dolloff, director of special education services for Manchester.

“We felt we could do it more efficiently this way,” Dolloff said. Of course, students such as Carrillo had worked with such helpers in the past to no avail.

To Carrillo, the multi-sensory approach to reading made all the difference.

Say the word “multisensory reading” and I envision Helen Keller feeling toy letters with her hands and eventually speaking stirring prose. It’s not that complicated, or complex.

As a matter of fact, it’s pretty similar to the phonics-based reading program that teachers used for decades to teach reading. First you learn letter sounds. Then you sound out the letters in a word to figure out the word. If it’s a big word, you break it into parts, treat them like little words, and then put them together.

It also involves repetitive drills and exercises to improve reading speed and comprehension. Finally, teachers work on the confidence of students who’ve suffered with poor reading skills for years.

“It’s just the simple things she did. She’d ask ‘how’s your day,’” Carrillo said. “If I didn’t understand anything, we’d go over it again, or she’d explain it a different way.”

“There was something about her. She wanted it so bad, you found yourself bending over backwards to help her,” said Carrillo’s teacher, Jeanne Kennedy, one of the teachers who would get laid off.

In their first year, Carrillo and Kennedy worked for about an hour one-on-one every day. The next three years, she was in a group of three readers.

Carrillo did have help in the past. It was just a continuation of the whole-language approach, which Manchester uses to teach all its students. Whole language emphasizes knowing a word by sight, rather than sounding it out. Of course, that’s necessary with a word such as “unique,” which doesn’t follow normal letter sounds.

Seventy-five percent of kids will learn to read, no matter what instructional method is used, say Kennedy and reading teachers. But struggling readers — dyslexics, people with learning disabilities, English language learners — need a more phonics-based approach.

“Everything started coming in order,” Carrillo said. “I felt I was doing it right, reading correctly.”

Multi-sensory teachers appeared before the school board earlier this month to make their case. They gave statistics about what happens to non-readers: juvenile court, welfare, prison.

They said fourth grade is the watershed year. If a child isn’t reading proficiently then, he or she has a 78 percent chance of never catching up.

Dolloff assures me that Manchester will do right by these kids. She also assures me that Manchester schools will be able to meet the demands of a new law, which requires that young students be screened for dyslexia and that appropriate instruction be in place for them.

If there are teachers around to pick up the slack of the three laid off multi-sensory instructors, that means school teachers have extra time on their hands? No, Dolloff said: “everybody’s got a full plate in Manchester.”

So how will it get done? “We felt,” Dolloff said, “we could do it more efficient this way.”

I’m not getting it. Maybe I need a lesson or two.

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com on Saturdays. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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