Meet Barbara Wilson, Founder of the Wilson Reading System®
In 1988, Barbara Wilson and her husband published the first edition of the Wilson Reading System® (WRS) to help students who were unable to learn through other teaching strategies. Nearly thirty years later, Barbara and her team have certified approximately 25,000 teachers for WRS Level I — including one hundred percent of the faculty here at Churchill.
We were honored to talk with Barbara Wilson about how this landmark program came to be, the advice she gives students and parents, and what it’s like to watch a student learn to read after years of frustration.
Churchill: The Wilson® website says your organization is dedicated to “literacy for all.” What makes reading so important to you?
Barbara Wilson: For too long, people have believed a certain population of students could not learn to read, and it’s not true. Students are capable of becoming independent and literate — it just takes the right type of instruction. We believe all students are able to learn if teachers know how to teach.
“For too long, people have believed a certain population of students could not learn to read, and it’s not true. Students are capable of becoming independent and literate — it just takes the right type of instruction.”
Churchill: What motivated you to develop a reading curriculum and training program?
BW: I was doing testing for students referred to special education in a small school district. I was the one person — elementary through high school — who tested all the students referred to special education. I kept seeing that the most common reason for referral was reading. Initially, I felt that we had solutions to address their reading problems. We would write IEPs and individualize different programs. However, as I was doing three-year reevaluations, I saw that a lot of the students had made almost no progress after three years.
I felt that there had to be a way to teach these kids. That’s what led me to find the training program at Massachusetts General Hospital, where I was trained in Orton-Gillingham methodology. I continued working there for the next five years part time with adults diagnosed with dyslexia, and at the same time, started a learning center with my husband, Ed, to work with students of all ages who could not read due to dyslexia.
Churchill: What do students with dyslexia require that other students may not?
BW: The biggest difference is that students with dyslexia need to be taught word structure systematically, incrementally, and with mastery. They need a lot of opportunities to apply their decoding skills in text that is limited to word structures that have been directly taught. Students with dyslexia develop fluency incrementally and they need substantial practice with specific word patterns for mastery.
“Students with dyslexia need to be taught word structure systematically, incrementally, and with mastery.”
Churchill: What advice do you have for students who are struggling to read? For their parents?
BW: I’ve had many, many conversations with students who have not succeeded, including many adults. I tell students that the instruction they need is very different from the instruction that didn’t work for them in the past. What they need, instead, is to go back to the very beginning to build up a deep understanding of word structure. We go step by step so that it doesn’t overwhelm them with too many things at once.
I tell them it’s going to take time, but they should quickly see the difference. You’re going to understand one pattern of words and then we’re going to add the next one. With each one, you’re going to be able to read more and more words.
That’s the same advice that I share with parents, so they understand that they will not see the immediate carryovers until enough pieces are in place, and that takes time.
Churchill: How do you describe the Wilson Reading System® to someone who has never heard of it?
BW: The Wilson Reading System® is a reading and spelling program for students with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia. It’s designed for students in grade two through adults who have not succeeded in learning to read with traditional methods. It’s a very step-by-step system that follows the principles necessary for individuals with dyslexia to succeed with reading and writing.
Churchill: What makes the Wilson Reading System® effective?
BW: There are two parts to that. One is certainly the materials and components of the Wilson Reading System®, which are specifically written and designed for individuals with dyslexia who really need to have the language broken down for them. The other is that it has to be taught in a very multisensory, structured way which doesn’t present too much at once. Perhaps that’s the biggest thing — that both the materials and the instruction don’t overwhelm the students with things that haven’t been taught or mastered.
Churchill: Why is teacher training so important to the Wilson® program?
BW: The materials are only as effective as the teacher. The training is key because in order to teach an individual with dyslexia successfully, teachers need to know how to be diagnostic. They need to understand, in depth, the structure of language, which they don’t generally come out of college knowing. Most importantly, they need to know how to take that knowledge and apply it to instructing a student who doesn’t instinctively learn that.
Churchill: What do you think is the most essential thing a teacher can take away from a Wilson® training?
BW: I think that it would be learning how to be diagnostic and break down the tasks that are critical for reading and spelling.
Churchill: What are the things that can happen when a teacher doesn’t have proper literacy training?
BW: Teachers go into teaching with a passion to help kids, and they get discouraged when they can’t do that. They give their best effort with what they know, but unfortunately, they may teach things too quickly, which overwhelms the student and doesn’t allow them to reach mastery. As that student progresses through the grades, they get more overwhelmed and behind. Teachers often get discouraged despite their best efforts.
Churchill: What’s it like to watch a student go from struggling to read, to developing a real understanding?
BW: It’s amazing. When I worked with the many adults who could not read, as they learned, they were overwhelmed to see that there was a way to help them. It was so sad to know how not being able to read had impacted their lives so much. It is never too late to learn, but I know firsthand how critical it is to identify and instruct students as young as possible to save the children and their parents from the pain of failure.
“It is never too late to learn, but I know firsthand how critical it is to identify and instruct students as young as possible to save the children and their parents from the pain of failure.”
Churchill: Outside of Wilson®, are there any programs or initiatives that you’re excited about in the area of literacy?
BW: Right now I’m very excited to see developments in literacy instruction that have students reading for knowledge rather than for the sole purpose of developing isolated skills. I’m extremely interested in literacy initiatives that are really thematic, with instruction that goes deep on a topic with both informational and narrative text. The kids get excited about that topic, and they’re learning the skills as they’re investigating the topic, as opposed to having the skills themselves be the end goal.