At 78, Ohio native Wayne Dennis had been married for nearly six decades to his wife Shirley, raised two kids and had held a wide array of handyman jobs over the years: everything from hanging aluminum siding to blowing glass to working on the assembly line at the local Jeep factory. Wayne was also endlessly creative, always working with his hands; he’d made a huge carving of Crazy Horse out of black walnut that had taken several years to complete.
But in all those years, Wayne told Janet, he’d never learned to read.
“He began telling me how he’d dropped out of school after 8th grade and that he’d just never really been able to read. When he asked me if I could tutor him, I thought: ‘What can I possibly do for this man that others haven’t already tried in all those years?!’ I was a bit worried about taking him on,” Janet says.
“If I had one thing to tell people who are my age, who are struggling with reading: it’s never too late.” —Wayne Dennis
Janet had been a reading specialist at Dorr Elementary in Wayland, Ohio outside Akron for more than twenty-one years. Her assessment was that Wayne was probably struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia. “He had a lot of trouble with phonemes—and distinguishing between vowel sounds was a problem. He thought all vowels sound like a long /a/.”
By that spring, Janet and Wayne started meeting weekly. “I started with techniques that I’d always used in the classroom, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Orton-Gillingham that I really learned how to hone in on his trouble areas and work on them,” Janet says.
Janet began training with Helen Brandon and the Institute of Multi-Sensory Education. “Suddenly, I had a systematic approach to target and improve his phonemic awareness. We worked on breaking down unfamiliar words into parts and sounding out letters. It made an immediate and huge difference in what Wayne was able to read,” Janet remembers.
Another tactic Janet employed: she sought out materials focused on Wayne’s favorite subject, the Civil War.
“I got interested in the Civil War in the early 70s. I did leatherworking back then and a guy had asked me to make him a pair of boots modeled on the ones Union soldiers wore,” Wayne remembers. That sparked in him a desire to learn more about the history of the war. He started participating in battle re-enactments and even retraced the steps of a Union soldier’s journey, on horseback, from Ohio to Gettysburg. And for years, Wayne collected Civil War books that he couldn’t read.
“So, I sat down at the kitchen table with my family and we came up with a list of Civil War words that I could connect to phonemes for him. /A/ was ‘Appomattox,’ /u/ was ‘Underground Railroad,’” Janet says.
Within a few months, Wayne was finally becoming a reader. “He told me he was reading a book and that he ‘couldn’t put it down,’ and I thought: Yes! That’s what we want,” Janet says.
“…it wasn’t until I was introduced to Orton-Gillingham techniques that I really learned how to hone in on his trouble areas and work on them.” —Janet King
Janet wasn’t the only one who noticed a change in Wayne. “I’ll never forget when Shirley came up to me in church, held my hand and told me she’d waited 57 years to hear Wayne read aloud. It was just an amazing moment,” Janet remembers.
Wayne beams at the thought. “Shirley told me she had never been prouder of me. And I wanted to make her proud.”
As a teacher, Janet found an unexpected benefit in working with Wayne: “Because I was new to Orton-Gillingham, I saw that as I worked more with Wayne, my teaching improved with my elementary students, too. I had more practice with the techniques. That I hadn’t anticipated.”
“And of course, it’s been extremely rewarding to work with Wayne and watch him blossom. His determination to learn how to read after so many years is very inspiring,” Janet says. “I sometimes feel like I’m getting just as much or more from working with him than he’s getting from me. Now that I’m retired, I’m eager to work with more adult learners.”
Today, Wayne divides his time between Ohio and Florida. His wife, Shirley, passed away in 2014. But his commitment to improving his reading skills remains strong.
“I’m at about a 3rd or 4th grade level right now. My next challenge is to get through the Bible. I just started. I still struggle with long words, but I know if I take my time and sound everything out, I can get through it,” Wayne says.
“If I had one thing to tell people who are my age, who are struggling with reading: it’s never too late. If you set your mind to it and practice and keep at it, you’ll get there. I’m proof of that.”