Retired Teacher’s Literacy Program Shows Results

by Leanne Miller

Linda Soehner is supposed to be enjoying her retirement now that she’s collecting her pension and living in the beautiful Owen Sound area.

But after a rewarding career as a classroom teacher, reading and Special Education specialist and elementary school principal with the Avon Maitland DSB, Soehner is busier than ever. With funding from a Trillium grant, she is refining, delivering and promoting a volunteer-based program that helps children and adults with learning disabilities to read.


“Children with normally functioning brains can apply and generalize concepts, so they learn to read and spell fairly easily,” says retired teacher Linda Soehner.
“Those with dyslexia or some learning disabilities cannot. Instead, they must work with a trained tutor to learn every individual spelling rule and use phonics and other strategies to break down and sound out new words and derive meaning.”

Soehner has developed a rigorous and structured program, influenced by her experience teaching Special Education and reading – as well as her own son’s dyslexia – and designed to stimulate and ultimately rewire the brain pathways responsible for reading. Soehner and her colleague and former education assistant Lori Gonder-Torrie are currently working primarily with children in the Bluewater DSB. The program is delivered in two ways. They meet once a week one-on-one with each child, who must be accompanied by an adult coach – usually a parent or grandparent. The coach then works at home with the child the other six days a week. Alternatively, trained volunteers go into schools to work one-on-one with children each day.

What they do

“One of the keys to my program is quality repetition,” says Soehner, “so tutors must commit to working one-on-one with their charges every day.”

Students work on word recognition, vocabulary building, phonics, word-structure analysis, compound words and syllable rules. Then they read aloud to their tutors, who test for comprehension.

Reading-level-appropriate books for the children are a critical resource in Soehner’s program and an important tool – both for monitoring progress and to motivate students as their reading levels increase.

Soehner was thrilled with the findings of a recent Mellon University brain-imaging study of dyslexic students and other poor readers. It showed that the brain can permanently rewire itself and overcome reading deficits if students are given 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction.

The study, published in the August 2008 issue of the journal Neuropsychologia, shows that the remedial instruction resulted in an increase in brain activity in several cortical regions associated with reading, and that neural gains became further solidified during the year following instruction.

“This study demonstrates how remedial instruction can use the plasticity of the human brain to gain an educational improvement,” said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging and senior author of the study.

“Focused instruction can help underperforming brain areas to increase their proficiency.”
“I went with my gut as I developed this program,” Soehner explains. “I was convinced that the brains of people with dyslexia and those struggling to read because of learning disabilities could be rewired with intensive work.” The Mellon University findings validate her efforts and spur her on to help more children.


So does it work? Soehner has many success stories. Take the boy who began working with her at the end of Grade 7, reading at a Grade 2 level. Over his Grade 8 year, his teachers reported that he no longer needed to be on a modified program and his individual education plan (IEP) was discontinued. He won the Most Improved Student award at his Grade 8 graduation.

Or consider the girl who was trailing behind her peers in the Grade 1 reading program. She worked with Soehner for three months beginning at the end of Grade 2 and is now an excellent reader.

Gwen Kloosterboer is vice-principal at Beavercrest Community School in Markdale in the Bluewater DSB. She has fully embraced Soehner’s program as one of several strategies to enhance student learning. Volunteer tutors come every day to work individually with about 30 Grades 1 to 8 students on their reading.

“I have seen children struggle to read throughout my career and I haven’t always been able to figure out how to help them,” Kloosterboer comments. “This program is easy, motivating and it works. Moreover, it’s not daunting for the volunteers; you don’t have to be a teacher to deliver the program. It’s sequential, structured and easy to hand off to the next day’s volunteer. They just come in, pick up their resources and get to work with their children.”
Teachers at Beavercrest consistently report improved reading abilities in their students, as well as increased confidence and self-esteem.

Jim and Nancy Mitchell are both retired teachers who volunteer half a day a week at Beavercrest. Retired 14 years ago, Jim’s experience ranges from elementary classroom teacher in Toronto to instructor at Toronto’s Lakeshore Teachers’ College and from principal in Dundalk to superintendent in Waterloo.

His work now involves spending an intense 25 minutes one-on-one with five boys in Grades 7 and 8. He’s one of four retired men who work with boys who are reading below grade level. Mitchell believes that the program has such a tremendous impact because it is structured, consistent and delivered one-on-one.

“It empowers these kids to take charge of their learning, and once they see that they can learn to read, they are motivated to learn more words and read harder books. It’s fantastic to be part of their progress.”

Leanne Forslund teaches Grade 1 at Keppel-Sarawak Elementary School in Owen Sound. She calls Soehner “my angel.” Three years ago, her son in Grade 5 could not read. She had him assessed privately and he was identified as having a specific learning disability. She tried Montessori schooling and was considering the Arrowsmith program in Toronto. (See the September 2008 issue of PS). But the cost was prohibitive.

“As a parent and teacher, I was desperate,” Forslund recalls. “My son was really struggling and very down. He couldn’t even enjoy a family visit to Dairy Queen because he couldn’t read the choices on the wall. You can’t succeed in life without reading skills. The world wasn’t available to him.” Then Forslund read about Soehner’s program in the local newspaper and gave her a call.

Eight months later, her son was reading at his grade level. Today, he is flourishing in Grade 8 and reading at an adult level. “He loves reading and school. He’s confident and successful and our family is full of joy.”

The impact on Forslund’s own teaching practice has also been significant. After all, she teaches Grade 1 – where children learn to read.

“It’s sequential, structured and easy to hand off to the next day’s volunteer.”

“I don’t hesitate to call parents if I see a child struggling to learn to read. I don’t wait and hope things will get better like I did with my son.”

Forslund believes the pace of instruction in a regular classroom catches perhaps 60 per cent of the children. No matter how brilliant, a teacher will not be able to reach all students all the time. Even Special Education programming, with IEPs, is about a small group of students working with a teacher. Some will need individualized work and that’s where Soehner’s program is invaluable.

Soehner recalls David, her first pupil, who helped in the design of her program.
“When I first met him, he was in Grade 4. He only knew how to read two words: ‘I’ and ‘am.’ I felt that if I did not help him he would never read.”

She was convinced that he was quite intelligent, thanks to his extensive oral vocabulary, and now believes that he is gifted. Working three days a week with Soehner, David completed the program and was reading at his grade level in just under a year.

From then on, he became an avid reader. He loved Harry Potter and all fantasy. He excelled in all areas of the curriculum and became a confident young man. In his Grade 6 EQAO testing, he scored a Level 4 in reading and he is now a successful Grade 8 student.

Dawn Tremblay teaches kindergarten and Grade 1 at St. Vincent-Euphrasia Elementary School in Meaford in the Bluewater DSB. Her son David was Soehner’s original pupil.
Tremblay explains what she believes made the difference for her son, who, she says, had a variety of learning challenges. “It was Linda’s intense one-on-one work to fill his phonic gaps.”

Once David experienced progress learning to read, he was motivated “like a dog with a bone,” Tremblay says, smiling.

He came to understand that words come apart and could be tackled letter by letter and then syllable by syllable. David used building blocks and then tiles to see how words were formed. Then he learned about the roots of words and began to apply the theories to bigger words. Once he got started, there was no stopping him. He was motivated to learn and catch up to his peers.

“So often kids fall through the cracks and aren’t able to climb back out,” Tremblay comments. “They lose motivation and write themselves off. It’s no one’s fault,” she says, “but it’s tragic when it happens.”

She feels that the demands on classroom teachers are overwhelming. There’s so much curriculum and class sizes are far too large.

“The keys to catching these children are time and one-on-one focused and individualized work. Our system doesn’t allow for that, even for children in the Special Education stream with IEPs,” she says. “Soehner’s program gives these kids what they need.”

Jeff Moser is principal at GC Huston Public School in Southampton where about 40 per cent of his student population belongs to the Saugeen First Nation. Many students at the school have struggled with reading and writing – although not so much today, thanks to Soehner’s program.

Board and Special Education assessments allow Moser’s teachers to identify children in all grades who are struggling with speech, language and reading. Volunteer tutors and teaching assistants work 20 to 30 minutes every day with the children on Soehner’s program and Moser reports that, in as little as six weeks, many children are reading at grade level. Others take longer, but all see improvements.

EQAO test scores for reading and writing at GC Huston have improved dramatically since the program began in September 2007.

“We scored below board and provincial averages in 2006. In 2007, we were above both,” Moser proudly notes.

He sees the program as one of many tools in his teachers’ professional tool kits that have helped improve student learning and achievement.

“From the many success stories I have seen, I know that reading skills continue to improve after the program is finished,” Soehner comments. “Report card marks go up, self-confidence, academic success and happiness increase and behaviour problems decrease.”

Soehner is keen to share her program. “Retired teachers have so much knowledge and expertise they can give back to the community.”
For training or program materials, contact Reading Rescue Ontario at Participation Lodge, 519-794-3201, ext 226 or e-mail

Literacy volunteers

Many Ontario teacher retirees appear to share a passion for literacy.

Lynda Silvester, for one, retired from the Waterloo Region DSB in 2000 as an elementary school principal. Her interest in school/community partnerships led her to develop Letters, Sounds and Words – a 10-week volunteer-driven program for five- and six-year-old children who lag behind their peers in meeting curriculum expectations for identifying letters, sounds and words at the end of Senior Kindergarten.

Volunteer coaches are trained to work with children one-on-one, using set materials for games and activities.

Letters, Sounds and Words differs from Reading Recovery, which is implemented by professionals rather than volunteers, and from Soehner’s program, which targets children with learning disabilities and dyslexia.

Silvester explains: “My program was originally designed for children who needed an extra boost at the right time to meet the expectations for the end of Senior Kindergarten. However, over the years, teachers have used it with children with mild to moderate learning challenges and with children for whom English is a second language.”

The program, designed for use in a variety of settings, including schools, was in use this school year with over 1,900 students and 1,800 volunteers in more than 130 schools in the Waterloo Region DSB, Waterloo Catholic DSB, Wellington Catholic DSB and Grand Erie DSB. Assessment results confirm the opinion of volunteers, teachers and parents that the program is very effective.

Elsewhere, retired Peel DSB teachers Peggy Morrison, David Heimbecker and Lis Braun all volunteer at Literacy North Halton (LNH), a community-based organization providing individualized tutoring to adults living in Georgetown, Acton and Milton.

Morrison retired as an elementary school principal in 2003 and is as busy as ever, consulting and volunteering. She calls herself redirected, not retired. She consults to the Ministry’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, works with Right to Play and contributes to Changing Perspectives, the journal of the Ontario Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“Volunteering allows me to keep involved and put my skills and expertise to good use,” says Morrison. “And it gives me the flexibility to set my own schedule and do only the work I want to do. It’s a perfect situation.”

She volunteers with LNH three hours every Monday evening with groups of up to five students between the ages of 28 and 58. While the students bring different backgrounds and experiences, they all lack the necessary literacy skills to function fully in society.
Morrison rejects the term illiterate, calling her students not-yet-literate instead. Some dropped out of school, others managed to slip through but only with very low literacy skills.

Although the students have different reasons for coming to LNH, they share a strong desire to read and write. One woman wanted to read to her grandchildren. Another wanted to get her driver’s licence. A man wanted to move ahead in his career and another wanted to prepare for Sheridan College’s ACE – Grade 12 equivalency – program that can lead to college admission.

“They learn to get by without being able to read,” Morrison explains, “but they can’t go as far as they’d like. We help them go much farther.”

David Heimbecker has been busy since he retired as a teacher-librarian with the Peel DSB in 2002. He volunteers for the Red Cross, works as a paid English and math tutor four evenings a week and tutors one morning a week with LNH.

“It keeps me involved in education at a pace I like,” says Heimbecker. “One-on-one or even three-on-one allows me to feel that I’m truly making a difference, which is hard to do with 35 kids all at once.”

Lis Braun retired from the Peel DSB in 1998 as a business and co-operative education teacher and assistant department head. Today, she volunteers as treasurer of Friends of the Old Brittania School House – a one-room Peel DSB school built in 1852 and now fully restored and used as a living-history classroom that students visit on day trips. Braun also works as an office volunteer at LNH, where she organizes the resource library that tutors use to deliver their programs.

“I wanted to keep contributing to society after I retired,” Braun explains. “Literacy is so important and, like many teachers, I want to help people to be the best they can be.”

For information on Letters, Sounds and Words, visit or e-mail


Teaching assistant Andrea Mitchell tutors a student at GC Huston Public School in Southampton.


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