Twins Ty and Alec D’Aigneau each fingered sets of colored tiles into five-letter words, then counted off each sound as they spoke it, slowly, to their tutor.
This word was clink: “k-l-ink.”
They spoke it again, this time putting the sounds together to match the crisp movement of their teacher’s finger as she swept it through the air.
Ty and Alec, soon to be eighth-graders, did these exercises over and over with a level of concentration that would seem more befitting of calculus. At the end of the one-hour session, they took turns working through a few pages from a Magic Tree House book, written at a second-grade level.
It’s a small but mighty achievement for two teens who were nonreaders a year ago, and who were told they always would be.
”From not being able to read ‘as’ to spelling ‘catch,’ it’s a big change,” their mother, Amanda, said.
Their tutor is TerraBeth Jochems, a Billings high school teacher by day who for the past decade has also provided free, specialized tutoring to students with reading disabilities.
She takes in the toughest cases, the students who are falling far behind their peers — usually despite other interventions — and are in danger of never catching up. This summer Jochems worked with 10 students, her largest group yet, thanks to a grant from the Downtown Exchange Club.
Many of her students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disability in which the brain has trouble connecting language sounds and symbols, despite normal intelligence levels.
For some people, the effects can be profound and lifelong. One classic sign: Individuals with severe dyslexia can have difficulty recognizing a word they just read.
But dyslexic individuals generally have normal intelligence levels, which can make the disability particularly frustrating for students, teachers and parents.
“They can comprehend what’s being read to them, what’s being told to them,” D’Aigneau said of her sons, who were recently diagnosed with the disorder. “But we could never find an answer as to why they could not read.”
Jochems herself was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and said she struggled with reading for years. Having overcome it herself is one reason she said she is committed to helping these students learn to read. It’s her way of giving back, and it has become her life’s work.
Jochems uses an Orton-Gillingham approach to instruction, called the Barton System, which combines phonics or sound-based principles with kinesthetic activities.
The tutoring sessions are highly interactive; students practice sound, spelling and language rules simultaneously, using their eyes, hands and mouth. It’s an all-of-the-above, ground-up workout that exercises both hemispheres of the brain.
”They say the sounds, they touch the sounds and they move the tiles around,” Jochems said. “They’re exercising a part of their brain that’s been dormant.”
For some students, the multisensory learning reaches them in ways other methods haven’t.
“The way that teachers are teaching us in school, it’s like the wrong way,” Ty said. “It’s a little bit harder for us to learn.”
The multisensory tutoring has benefitted Amber Zaino’s son Isaiah, who was a smart third-grader but reading at a first-grade level when he starting meeting with Jochems. He was suffering in all subjects because of it.
“He is super good at numbers math, but he wouldn’t do well on math tests because he couldn’t do the story problems,” Zaino said.
Zaino connected with Jochems at a crucial time, as the transition into fourth grade is the traditional point when students stop learning to read in class and instead begin reading to learn.
After a year of tutoring, Isaiah is reading at his grade level, getting A’s in class and, finally wanting to go to school. He will likely graduate from Jochems’ tutoring soon.
The magic isn’t necessarily in the technique, Jochems said. But in giving students cognitive tools that their brain can use, the tutoring helps them become confident in their own ability to learn.
“Even though in the classroom they might not seem to, they are thirsty to learn,” Jochems said.
Over time, as the first few sounds and words begin to click, students’ fear of reading fades, and they stick with it, Jochems said.
“That takes a special kind of heart. They’re willing to come again and again and again, because they can do it.”
This week’s session was the last of the summer for Ty and Alec. They’ll pick it up again in September, after completing some summer homework: finishing the book they’ve been working on.
Alec, though, has higher aspirations. One day he wants to read books like “The Hobbit,” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“We’re getting there, one day at a time,” his mother said.