By Chris Lane
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Pediatric neurologist Eldo Bergman is not a teacher, but he has a great deal to say about teaching reading. As a medical scientist, he sees patients every day who have severe reading disabilities. As the founder of the Texas Reading Institute, he's in the vanguard of reading instruction in the state. And as a committee member, he's helped draft a nationally recognized plan of action for the Houston Independent School District.
But Bergman has the most to say about reading when he speaks as the father of five children, two of whom are learning disabled. Even then, this white-haired, affable version of the Good Doctor takes a scientific approach. To illustrate his long struggle to find help for his son Philip, Bergman pulls out a favorite visual aid: a graph of Philip's reading level from second grade right on up to the present, at age 23. At the top of the graph is a line indicating the ability of the average reader. It slants gently and steadily upward, hovering a smidgen below grade level. Philip's lines, which track various skills involved in reading, are well below average. In second grade, he was about half a grade level behind. By the time he entered high school, he was reading at a fifth-grade level, and his ability to read new words was even lower -- though he'd received intensive specialized instruction from HISD for four years.
In eleventh grade, Philip, whose IQ exceeded 140, was among the 61 percent of HISD juniors who read more than two grades below grade level. By then, Bergman knew that most remedial help offered in schools today won't enable the weakest readers to catch up. Contrary to the oft-repeated adage that children will "grow out of" reading impairment, children who are poor readers in first grade have proven to be overwhelmingly likely to be poor readers in twelfth grade. And poor readers are not anomalies -- about 20 percent of the population has persistent reading trouble.
Bergman and a growing cadre of parents, activists and teachers insist that many of these children can not only be helped, they can be helped fairly easily: With the phonemic technique Bergman advocates, even severely disabled children can be brought up to speed with 40 to 80 hours of one-on-one instruction; and the earlier the intervention, the less help they need. And so Bergman's graph represents not only his son's progress, but hope for one out of five children.
Once Philip was "out of the grasp" of public school, Bergman was free to work intensely with his son to overcome what he knew, by then, were Philip's specific hurdles. Three years after Philip graduated from high school, he was finally reading at an adult level.
While trying to help Philip, Bergman came to believe that no one in Houston administered the appropriate assessment tests for children like Philip and that no one used the most effective teaching programs. In response, he started the Texas Reading Institute, which in its eclectic approach essentially does what schools are supposed to do for learning disabled children -- it tailors each child's instruction to meet his or her specific needs. The parents who bring their children to the institute are those whose children do not respond to normal intervention. In other words, Bergman gets the toughest cases.
The stories these parents tell are remarkably similar; Bergman calls them "stories of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation." To begin with, the families grow more and more frustrated with their school district's programs and attitude. Often, they resort to employing a $50-an-hour advocate to help them navigate the special education system. They discover that they must demand what they want for their children -- from tests for dyslexia to special training for teachers. They stop believing the words "your child is doing fine" or "your child is lazy and unmotivated," and start believing their children are being shunted through the system. They find that teachers assigned to help their children are often unprepared, untrained or just don't show up. Finally, another parent or their advocate refers them to TRI. Here, they pay $200 to have their child tested, and $40 an hour for one-on-one instruction.
These parents swear by Dr. Bergman. So far, his institute has tested approximately 200 students, and tutored approximately 75. Bergman happily offers statistics such as this one: The institute's first 30 students improved 3.4 grade levels in word attack (the ability to sound out an unfamiliar word) after four to eight weeks of instruction. With few exceptions, kids who cannot read before attending the institute can read afterward.
The key, Bergman says, is to look at the scientific research -- the solution to illiteracy is there in black and white. Ninety-six to 98 percent of the population, he says, can be taught to read. And learning to read can resonate positively throughout a child's life -- parents report improved self-esteem, fewer behavior problems, less hyperactivity and even better handling of speech impediments. Suzy Zrake, director of the Katy Attention Deficit Disorder Association, says two weeks after her daughter started sessions at TRI, she got a call from her school. The assistant principal wanted to know if Zrake had changed her daughter's medication.