Reading/Learning Center: Where Children Learn to Read...and Read to Learn

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

By Sara Woelfel

“Reading, in itself, is a tool by which man acquires knowledge of the world about him –  the physical, intellectual, practical and abstract. Much of the great literature, the history of mankind, the studies of great philosophers and findings of science are lost to the person who cannot read efficiently.” – Sister Julitta Fisch, OSF, former director of the Reading Clinic

Third grader Zack Kaufman’s mother describes him as “painfully shy.”

“He doesn’t want to participate in class because he’s afraid of making a mistake,” Kathleen Kaufman of Milwaukee said. “Zack’s not behind in school, but I think he needs more confidence.”

Zack’s not alone, according to Gloria Wiener, director of Stritch’s Reading/Learning Center (RLC), who said his story is common among children who have not mastered reading skills at the same rate as their peers. Some children simply need to boost their skills, while others may have more severe problems that they have disguised for years.

It is children and young people such as these, with an array of problems regarding reading, who are the focus of the RLC, an on-campus center at Stritch that is steeped in history and dedicated to turning lives around through the mastery of reading.

The center has served more than 20,000 students since it opened in 1943. But skill-based instruction is only part of its mission. Identifying the problem as reading-based is half the battle.

“Reading problems are often difficult for classroom teachers to detect,” Wiener said. “The longer kids live with the problem, the better they become at coping and using avoidance techniques. They redirect discussion to get a teacher off course or withdraw from discussions altogether. Many won’t even raise their hands. Others may become more verbal and take on a ‘halo effect,’ aiming to please the teacher to disguise their inadequacies.”

And such avoidance can have serious consequences. According to research done by the Corporation for National Service, children who do not get help with reading difficulties may find themselves lacking essential skills for employment as adults. More than 20 percent of adults in America read at or below a fifth-grade level, which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. Forty-three percent of people with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty.

“Reading is the ultimate skill,” Wiener said. “Without knowing how to read, you can’t fix a car, play a computer game, or use a cookbook. You can’t learn much without knowing how to read. It’s a skill that encompasses every hobby, every field of endeavor. Nothing happens without reading. It’s basic, like breathing. If our kids can’t read, then they won’t be able to invent and create.”

Taking an individualized approach

Wiener’s dedication to reading education is nothing new at Stritch. As director of the RLC, she continues to build and maintain a reading program started more than a half-century ago by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. While the staff and location have changed over the years, the dual purpose of the clinic remains constant: to help young students improve their reading skills through affordable and individualized instruction while offering Stritch graduate students a setting in which they can develop their teaching methods.

Students come primarily from Southeastern Wisconsin and some from Chicago to take classes year-round at Stritch. Today, most of the students, who range in age from first grade through high school, hear about the clinic through word of mouth or have parents who attended. Wiener, who worked for Milwaukee Public Schools for more than 30 years, also spreads the word through her colleagues there.

The strategies used with these students were developed by the Sisters and are still used by RLC clinicians today.

“Lesson plans are individualized according to a child’s reading ability, strengths and needs,” Wiener said. “Children are tested and assessed when they enter the program to allow us to understand exactly what they need. We build a curriculum for a single child rather than just following a standard curriculum. Every day is based on what the student did before and how well it was done.”

During the tutoring sessions, teachers focus on working with words, phonics and using words the children know to help them figure out new words. Textbooks, magazines, newspapers, donated materials, and the Internet are used as resource materials. Teachers have to be creative to keep a student’s interest, Wiener said.

“The key issue is getting kids to read,” said Dr. JoAnne Caldwell, a former director of the RLC and current chair of Stritch’s reading/language arts department. “If it works, we do it. When our teachers finish for the day, they reflect on what the students did and didn’t do. They adjust their lesson plans based on their observations.”

The graduate students, who are experienced teachers pursuing specialized training in reading education, use methods they learned in class while working with two to four students, grouped according to abilities and needs. The hands-on training allows the teachers to understand concepts, design instruction according to each child’s abilities, and interact and form relationships with problem readers.

“As a reading tutor, I’m hired by schools to work intensely with phonics,” said Kathy Murry, a master’s degree student in reading/learning disabilities. “At Stritch, I’m broadening my skills and expanding the strategies available to me as I teach. I will be able to draw from a wide spectrum of options when teaching in the future. I feel a sense of satisfaction in helping to ease some of the panic the students feel. It’s a slow process, chipping away at reading concepts, but we’re helping them achieve a necessity.”

While one-on-one tutoring services with reading specialists are available at the University, the staff encourages small-group interactions, to enhance the learning process.

“Small groups provide opportunities for communication and collaboration, making it easier for students to transfer skills back to the school setting,” Wiener said.

“Kids realize they are not the only ones having trouble,” Caldwell said. “They help each other. We moved away from one-on-one instruction for most of our students because we began to see how kids can teach each other.”


The teachers create a non-threatening environment that encourages students to participate in discussions and test their reading skills.

“We don’t want them in a regular school setting with heads down and eyes on the floor,” Wiener said. “We also don’t talk at kids. They have that for 10 months of the year. Instead we require them to answer questions like, ‘What are you doing? How are you doing it?’ By having the children verbalize, we motivate them to be a part of the educational process.”

Wiener recognizes that different approaches trigger different responses in students, especially older students who do not need help with their basic skills but need to learn to read for information and to study more effectively.

“During the school year, these kids are textbooked to death, and that’s been unsuccessful,” Wiener said. “If we get them talking about a subject they are really interested in or show them a magazine article about their favorite activity, they begin to see that reading isn’t just about school, it’s about life.”

According to his mother, Zack discovered a new attitude toward reading with the help of his teacher, Julie Schneider.

“She caught on to what he needed and brought a level of comfort to the class,” Kaufman said. “His attitude about reading has changed. Zack just needed an extra boost, and I really feel like she gave that to him.”

Deep-seated roots

“The reading program at [Stritch] would never have been the success it was had it not been for the large number of our Sisters who gave their precious Saturdays and late afternoons during the school year and in summer to teach in our reading clinic,” Sister Julitta Fisch, OSF, one of the first directors of the clinic and first president of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, wrote in “Our Stories: A Franciscan Heritage.” “Much gratitude is due to these Sisters. It was a sacrifice to give their time, but it was they who gave the Stritch Reading Clinic its name in the reading field.”

By opening one of the first reading clinics in the Midwest in 1943, Stritch, then named St. Clare College, and the Sisters of St. Francis quickly gained a national reputation for their pioneering research and methods. In the years that followed, the clinic’s reputation grew with the annual reading conferences, the recognition of Sister Julitta as one of the nation’s primary reading experts, and the introduction of one of the nation’s first graduate degrees in reading education.

“Each year, we invited different top-name people to be the main speakers at the conference,” Sister Julitta said. “I went out to see them (the reading experts), and then they came to our place. That’s how we became so well known. One thousand people or more from in state and out of state would come to the conferences in the fall.”

“Stritch’s reading conferences predated state reading conferences,” said Sister Marie Colette Roy, a former director of the clinic. “Nothing was comparable. These annual conferences attracted loads of educators who were concerned to learn what they could about reading instruction.”

Despite the national attention the clinic received as a result of the conferences, “eventually others began their own conferences and it was no longer a novelty,” said Sister M. Camille Kliebhan, Stritch’s chancellor and past president. “The conferences faded out because they were no longer unique.”

Aside from the success of the conferences, the College’s reading education program gained national attention for its graduate degree. “We were pioneers in giving a degree in reading education because we were one of the earliest to recognize the field as important,” Sister Camille said.

The creation of master’s degrees in reading and special education marked the beginning of the College’s graduate division and the beginning of the admittance of men at the graduate level. The existing undergraduate reading education curriculum, practicum experiences, and required research served as a foundation for the new program and quickly gained the interest of teachers and other educators.

The College also offered these master’s degrees at their Boston clinic, which was established at the request of Richard Cardinal Cushing in 1951 to serve as a reading research and teacher education center for Boston and its suburbs. This clinic closed in 1960 when the College could no longer support personnel needs in both Milwaukee and Boston.

In the early 1970s, local public school systems requested that the reading education courses be taught off campus. Based on the availability of faculty, Stritch was able to fulfill some of these requests. This willingness to offer graduate education degree programs off site continues today through the College of Education.

While the success of the clinic can be attributed to the quality of its offerings, including the reading lessons, conferences and graduate degree, many people credit the Sisters of St. Francis, with their devotion and sacrifices, for the clinic’s reputation and success.

“We had many of our own Sisters working there, not earning great big salaries,” said Sister Marie Gerard Peter, OSF, a former director of the clinic. “We could offer reading classes at a professional level without charging an arm and a leg.”

During the summer sessions, when enrollments were at their highest, the Sisters not only taught classes at the College but also fulfilled other duties, such as serving in the cafeteria, being moderators in the residence hall, and even cleaning bathrooms to keep the campus running smoothly. They also doubled up in their rooms or slept in locker rooms or offices to allow as many summer students as possible to live on campus.

“As a part of our Franciscan heritage, and because we had a huge debt on the College, we tried to live as economically as possible,” Sister Marie Gerard wrote in “Our Stories.”

Many Sisters have fond memories of their work at the clinic and take pride in the thousands of students and teachers who have benefited from their efforts. The reputation they so carefully nurtured is still recognized by educators and schools today.

“When my resume shows that I’m in the graduate program at Stritch,” Murry said, “that carries a lot of weight.”

What’s next?

As Wiener considers the future, she is not planning to turn to technology to improve the reading lessons taught at the RLC. “Many kids are turned off by the computer if they can’t read,” she said. “For some beginning readers, computer-aided instruction may be beneficial. But equipping every classroom with a computer is not my goal.”

Instead, Wiener has her sights set on expanding the center’s offerings. “I would like us to help more children who are diagnosed with specific learning needs. Many parents are looking for places for their special-needs children. Sure, some of the kids go to camps in the summer, but that’s recreational and only for two weeks. We can give them academic opportunities.

“Reading is a life skill that all children can and should master.”