Today’s interview is with inspiring individual Dr. William Keeney. Bill is the English Department Chair and has taught English at Delaware Valley Friends School for over a decade. Bill has a strong interest in educational research and pedagogy and was featured in the HBO documentary, Journey Into Dyslexia. He has published poetry, plays, and scholarly articles in American Literature, and presents on reading at national conferences such as the IDA. He was awarded the West Chester Public Library's Literacy Hero Award in 2007. Bill earned his B.A. at Columbia University and his M.A. and Ph.D. at Boston University, where he studied with Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Camp Spring Creek: We were so moved by your classroom demeanor and educational philosophy in the HBO documentary, Journey Into Dyslexia. For our readers who have not seen the video, would you mind summarizing your points?
Bill Kenney: Not being able to read is not your fault. One in five people have trouble learning to read if they are not taught well. This is because of a specific part of your brain that is different from the “norm” but is NOT the same as a difference in intelligence. You can have superior intelligence and still not be able to read without effort. If you didn’t get taught well, that is the fault of the educational system that didn’t get you the help you need and deserve. (If you are at Camp Spring Creek, count your blessings because they will be able to teach you to read the right way.) Even if you were taught to read, reading still might be a struggle because of how your brain processes writing into oral language. Because our current society is so dependent on text, you do have to read well enough to get by. Fortunately, there are some pretty good technological aids that you can use that will help you get through, such as audio books (particularly Learning Ally, especially for schoolwork) and text-to-speech tools. However, even if reading remains a struggle for you, you can still live a productive, successful, and happy life using your other gifts and talents.
CSC: We understand that, despite stereotypes, many children with dyslexia come to love reading and stories. When teaching required texts in a mandatory education setting, we’re curious about what you see on “the front lines” and how you address that. As an English teacher at a school specializing in dynamic learning experiences for students with learning differences, some might think that you have “the hardest subject” to teach. What kinds of resistance do you face in the classroom and how do you work with that?
BK: The key to getting “buy-in” is hope. It begins by “de-mystifying” the problem by explaining its origin in scientific terms and re-assuring the students that reading and intelligence are two very different things, and the fact that they might be struggling to learn to read is not their fault. However, I also emphasize that learning to read is a very core skill, and that with effort and skilled instruction, they can learn to read better and with less effort. I am honest that it will take time and hard work, and that they may never become readers who “enjoy” reading, but they can become readers for whom the value of reading and what reading brings into their lives can be a reality. Finally, I provide audio (with variable speed playback so that they can listen along faster, if they can process it) so that they can have access to books that are at grade level even if their reading is not there yet.
CSC: As a lover of literature and writer yourself, can you tell us about a peak learning experience you had growing up—something that involved realizing how much you loved stories or how you discovered the power of literature? Feel free to share some of your favorite book titles with us from childhood to present day!
BK: I was blessed with the ability to read easily from a young age, so I began reading everything from a young age, so I don’t know if my story is going to resonate with people who struggle to read, but I am glad to share it. I remember the first time I “fell through a book.” I was sitting in an armchair and suddenly was just effortlessly reading. My memory is that the book was called Ab the Caveman, although I have looked for it since and have never been able to locate a copy. In my youth, I devoured comic books, sports stories, science fiction, horror, etc.
Then, in my senior year of high school, I read Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. I remember thinking: This is a book that was not written for me, it is not about a world I know anything about, but it is absolutely compelling, rich, and insightful—this is what literature is all about. In college I began to enjoy poetry such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, and Wallace Stevens.
Some of the things I have read most recently that I love to recommend are: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Annie Proulx’s short stories, and Charles Frazer’s Cold Mountain. However, I don’t think what I read is necessarily what someone decades younger than I should read! For young adults, I think The Hunger Games is the best of these kind of series, I always recommend To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye for high school students, and many students in my school love The Alchemist and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.
But my final word would be: Find your own book recommenders. Read what your friends have read and liked. Read several books by the same author or in the same genre. Your teachers will probably introduce you to “classics” like The Great Gatsby, but on your own, explore. Read widely. It doesn’t matter nearly so much what you read as whether you read!
CSC: Camp Spring Creek feels strongly that the Orton-Gillingham approach can be beneficial to all types of learners, not just children with dyslexia or other learning differences. We also stand behind the belief that this approach can be integrated successfully into the public school and home learning environments, with proper training and information. For our parents or teachers with children at home, can you share a basic technique or skill that you teach in your English literature classroom? Perhaps something that could easily transfer into the home or public school learning environments such as a word game, a reading challenge, or some other exercise…whatever comes to mind.
BK: You are correct that good, systematic teaching is beneficial to everyone, particularly when it comes to the basic skill of reading. Research shows that there is only one pathway in the brain to efficient reading, and that everyone who learns to read builds those same neural networks—some just build them faster and with less effort, but the process is exactly the same. So, if we all teach all students in explicit, multi-sensory, structured and systematic ways, everyone will learn to read as quickly and as well as they possibly could! My motto is, this isn’t special education, it’s education by specialists—“It’s just good teaching.”
Since I teach in a high school and primarily with literature, I have two basic pieces of advice: If you still have difficulty reading, use audio as a support to help your speed, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension; and, for comprehension, re-read. This is what all readers do to improve their comprehension; it is just that “natural” or skilled readers can do this quickly and efficiently (as well as having the freed-up space in their minds to monitor their comprehension because the reading process has faded into automatic).