Photograph by Joel Plotkin
Ginger Biasotto created the Reading Assist Institute.
He would do what he usually did when confronted with a similar challenge: Rely on time-tested tricks and subterfuges so that no one knew or suspected he didn’t know how to read. The electrician’s supervisor had just handed him a piece of paper with information about a project. “What do you think?” his boss asked. The man scanned the page, pretending to take it in. He looked interested and thoughtful. Then came the trick. “I did what I always do,” he says. “I asked someone else who was reading it what they thought.”
Ginger Biasotto’s heart breaks a little every time she tells a story like that. She is hurting for the man and those like him, who must embrace a charade to avoid being exposed—and ridiculed. She hurts for the children who struggle every day in school with basic tasks simply because their brains are built to do thousands of things—except read easily. And she aches for her son, Andrew, whose own battles with the written word led her to become a crusader on the literacy front and to create the Wilmington-based Reading Assist Institute, which aims to help young students with learning disabilities navigate the treacherous—for them—reading waters.
Beginning this school year, RAI is receiving a huge boost, thanks to the arrival of 15 full-time AmeriCorps volunteers who will provide reading instruction and encouragement for kids in the Colonial School District. They will work one-on-one, using a curriculum that Biasotto developed during decades of research of methodologies that have produced real results in Delaware and around the country. It’s a big step and one that she hopes will convince the state that this type of intensive tutoring should be universally available to students for whom reading is an overpowering adversary.
“You can’t know how excited I am,” Biasotto says. “It’s like learning my dream is going to become a reality. I had given up years ago hoping that schools would take this project on. They were underfunded and overcrowded. Now, here are 15 people who can change the world.”
During the mid-’70s, Biasotto was a teacher in Delaware, and a colleague gave her a book by Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a physician and pioneer in the field of learning disabilities. At the time, Andrew was floundering in school, due to his difficulties, and Orton’s book was a revelation for Biasotto. “I read it like a novel,” she says. “It was very exciting to me.”
Andrew was heading into seventh grade when Biasotto took him to a psychologist in Philadelphia, who told her there were five schools in the world capable of addressing his particular learning needs. One happened to be in Baltimore, so that’s where Andrew went. “He jumped six years of reading in two years,” she says. Andrew went on to graduate from Salesianum School and Stockton University.
“That was the beginning,” Biasotto says of her son’s experience in Baltimore. “When Andrew started learning, I felt like I found a cure for cancer. I knew so many children who were struggling, and I received so many calls from parents. I wanted to help.”
The problem was finding a way to turn that passion into reality. Eventually, Biasotto was charged with creating a curriculum and training volunteers so that they could work one-on-one with students in need. That was 1979. Today, RAI serves about 200 students a year, according to executive director Vickie Innes. RAI tutors work in schools and in homes, helping to unlock the mysteries of reading. Schools are beginning to identify candidates who could benefit from RAI’s intensive instruction as early as first grade.
“Learning to read for many is much more difficult than people think,” Innes says. “About 20 percent of the population won’t pick up reading through traditional classroom instruction. They will need intensive teaching to learn.”
The AmeriCorps volunteers will undergo a thorough training program to learn the Orton-Gillingham method (named for Dr. Orton and Anna Gillingham, a Columbia University professor) and apply it to students. Each volunteer will work with six students a day in 45-minute blocks. Though the grant that provides funding for the program is a one-year outlay, Innes reports that RAI can continue to apply for future money. The ultimate goal is to increase RAI’s reach throughout the state.
AmeriCorps volunteers can do that, but so can Delaware residents like Karen Roof. A former teacher, Roof decided to volunteer for RAI after hearing Biasotto speak. “She was very inspiring,” Roof says. One day a week, she works individually with three students—usually in second through fourth grades—in 45-minute sessions. Four other volunteers work with children the rest of the week. Roof has gone through a 30-hour training class and receives periodic instruction in new techniques. By building relationships with the young readers, she is able to earn their trust and help them progress.
“They come in kind of down because they can’t read well,” Roof says. “After I work with them, they get to know me, and I get to know them. Some of them don’t read well. Others don’t read fast. Some just hate to read. “I try to bring a positive attitude. The big thing is, if they don’t get it the way you present it, you have to try again. It’s not their fault. We can’t give up.”
The arrival of the AmeriCorps reinforcements allows RAI to take that attitude further into Delaware schools and impact even more students. In Biasotto’s perfect world, every child in the state learns to read, no matter what his or her difficulties may be. The new conscripts offer a great opportunity, and Biasotto is hopeful great things will come from their efforts.
“I pray a lot, but I have no way of knowing how well they will do,” she says. “They will have mentors, and Reading Assist will do everything necessary to help them be successful. We have to be successful.”