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Reading Rocks!

Nov. 30, 2009

An intense summer program created and staffed by Baylor faculty and students is helping local children tackle their language and literacy problems and find the fun in learning.


By Kevin Tankersley

Before 7-year-old Benson Offit attended Camp Success this past summer, he was reading at a level more than a year behind his age. One intense week later, he was nearly on pace with his peers.

Going into the summer, "his letters and numbers were backward, he could not read nearly at level, and his handwriting was sloppy as well," says Benson's father, Dr. Thomas Offit, a cultural anthropologist at Baylor. "We saw tremendous improvement in his handwriting, reading and in his excitement and energy. It was wonderful."

Camp Success is a four-week program designed to help children with speech, language and reading programs, says Dr. Michaela Ritter, director of the camp and associate chair in Baylor's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. The children attend camp three hours a day for four weeks.

"It's about 50 hours," Ritter explains. "It's an entire school year of therapy [in four weeks].

"We'll get a referral that a child is having difficulty with reading, spelling, the way they're putting their sentences together. It could be speech. We have the family fill out a complete case history."

From there, Ritter and her staff extensively examine each child's case to determine who is given one of the 80 slots open in Camp Success. It's a difficult job, as more than 200 children were on a waiting list this year.

"When they come in, we comprehensively test the child. We look at their vocabulary, we look at how they're putting sentences together, we look at how they're writing, if they can write sentences," she says. "We look at if they can tell us a narrative, because narratives are linked to how a child is comprehending."

Information is also gathered from teachers and parents to determine the child's strengths and weaknesses. Hearing and visual screenings are conducted as well to rule out any physical problems that might be affecting the child's reading and language studies.

Ritter said she and her team check each child's auditory system, "because if the child has had any ear infections, that can cause them to be poor listeners. They can hear, but just may not be as attentive as they need to be."

The children are also checked for any medical, emotional or psychological conditions that may be causing language problems.

"For most of these children, there's no apparent cause," Ritter says. "You do your evaluation and find out that [this child] is great in vocabulary or great the way they speak in sentences. However, when they try to make a sentence in written form, that's difficult. When they try to read a word, they're not able to decipher that word."

Those challenges can then be exasperating in a school situation because the child is not performing up to potential.

"These are bright kids. They have average to above-average IQ. They come in and they're really frustrated," Ritter says.

But most children respond to the program--and lots of positive feedback--after just a few sessions.

"A lot of times we'll have these 16 year olds who will not come in with a good attitude," Ritter relates. "After about three days, it's totally different. They feel positive. They're ready to read a book. They're asking us when they can start practicing and reading. It turns from a very negative attitude to a very positive one, saying 'I can do it.' We love that. We want the child to see that they have this great potential."

STUDENT INVOLVEMENT

University faculty members aren't the only ones involved in helping the children reach their potential; Baylor students like Samantha Fisk also play a large part.

"One of my clients had a lot of behavioral issues in school, and we saw quite a bit of acting out during group time the first week," remembers Fisk, a graduate student from San Antonio. "He refused to answer questions, wandered out of the circle, and only spoke in whispers or shouts. By the second week, though, I think that he realized that he was not there to be put down or shown that he wasn't adequate, but to learn in a supportive environment with other kids like himself, and he became the most engaged client in the room."

Bethany Fowler, BA '09, another graduate student working in the program, describes one of her summer clients as "so intelligent, with the biggest imagination ever," but she was having difficulty with her writing. Fowler says the little girl was prone to give up after not being able to handle a task on the first try, but she slowly made some progress.

"Towards the end, she still had her times when she would get frustrated, but she really was motivated and wanted to work hard and show that she can read words now and she can write," Fowler says.

Camp Success is open for children from ages 5 to 18. Fowler worked this summer with two youngsters on the lower end of the age bracket.

"We had three 6-year-olds," she says. "Writing was the more difficult thing (for the children) to do. We worked a lot on writing. They were all at different levels, too. Some would draw pictures. If they could do words, we would practice words. We worked on word families and putting words together in individual sessions. In group sessions on writing, we would target those word families we were working on. It's neat to see their journals at the beginning and then at the end and see things they've learned."

Fowler, a first-year graduate student in speech language pathology, became interested in the field after facing an issue of her own.

"I have a small hearing loss in my left ear," she says. "When kids are younger, they have to have tubes. Oftentimes, they'll grow out of that after a while, and their eustachian tube will become more vertical so the fluid is able to drain easier. But with my ear, it never did that, so I still go get tubes every two years or so."

A native of Abilene who received her bachelor's in communication sciences and disorders from Baylor in May, Fowler believes her hearing loss "stimulated my thinking toward speech pathology. I also have a cousin who went through the program and loved it and recommended it."

While Fowler gained experience in a clinical setting over the summer, she's now serving an externship at Waco's South Bosque Elementary School and will work at a hospital next summer to earn medical experience. Every graduate student is involved with serving children at three or four different sites before finishing their degree.

Ritter says the graduate students do an outstanding job making the students feel welcome each day.

"They decorate the whole place, so when you come over to Camp Success, it looks like you're walking into Disney World," she says. "Everything's decorated and we've got music going. The grads are really so creative making hard work look like a lot of fun."

"We make it fun," explains Fowler. "Every Thursday was dress-up day. We had a sports week. Cowboy week was fun. Everything we do, all the stories we read, all the curriculums we do, are geared around the week's theme."

BIG HELP TO KIDS

The young clients have such fun at Camp Success, they "would be jumping up and down before our sessions waiting to see what we were learning that day," Fisk says. "One of the parents told me that she had never seen her son excited about learning before."

"I didn't realize how much of an effect [Camp Success] would have on them," says first-year graduate student Kelsey Cline of her young clients. "Both of my kids started out not really enjoying meeting. But by the end of it, they both loved reading; they both loved coming to Camp Success."

Cline, a University of Kansas graduate, worked this summer with Benson Offit, whose father Thomas says that Benson "just adored" his teacher, and that Cline, Ritter and others showed the kind of enthusiasm "I wish I could bring to my own parenting."

"To have a 7-year-old in three 60-minute intensive study work sessions is a daunting task, but they did it with ease," he says. "They loved it."

Audra Denniston reported similar success with her children.

"My son was afraid to speak and would hide behind me instead of communicating with others," she says, "but he has come out of his shell since beginning this program. My kindergartener can even write in cursive while the other students in the class can only write in print."

Ritter says attendance at Camp Success is capped at 80 students simply by logistics. With 80 clients, 30 graduate students and 10 faculty members who help supervise, there just isn't room for any more children. The camp is held in Baylor's Neill Morris Hall, where other clients of all ages are visiting the clinic and graduate and undergraduate classes are being held as well.

"We would love to [expand]," Ritter says. "We're at capacity, and there is a two-year waiting list as well."

UNIQUE APPROACH

Regardless of the setting, the camp's goal is to develop language skills.

"That's the crux of it. All of those language skills come before a child being able to be a good reader," Ritter says.

Fowler notes that the curriculum used at Camp Success--most of it based on research conducted by Ritter--is distinctive.

"The language basis of all of it and the links to literacy are new to our field. It's not looked at as often," she explains. "The fact that Baylor focuses on it so much and has programs like Camp Success and the language and literacy clinic, which goes on during the semesters, makes our program really unique. It's up and coming and is showing that the foundations of language affect the literacy of these children. Right now, it's really a new thing."

Fowler says one of her favorite parts of the program deals with vocabulary issues.

"We start with word family," she says. "You'll take a word like bat, the 'at' words. If you know bat, then you know cat, hat. You can make all these words. We would work on all the 'at' words and putting them all in order. They also worked on the writing and reading part. Writing was really reinforced. We started with the 'at' word families. She would read all of them. Then the 'ap' word family, all those. We would start with the basics and write those words and move on from there."

Fowler also says that the students are shown how to break stories up into components to bring about easier understanding.

"There are all kinds of techniques and manipulatives that we give them that break the story into different symbols," Fowler says. "We read books and we work on different parts of the story, the characters and the setting and the feeling of the characters and every action that takes place. When the child reads a story, they're able to use that, and it simplifies it instead of it being all this information that gets confused in their brain. They're able to break it apart."

Ritter says the curriculum is distinctive enough that her department secured a $92,000 Congressional grant to train teachers and speech pathologists from school districts in the Waco area in the program.

"Once a month, we would have training. We gave them the tools," she says. In return, each of the teachers and speech pathologists agreed to work for one week at Camp Success.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback on that," Ritter notes.

While a Congressional grant funded the training aspect of Camp Success, another grant allows children to attend the program at no cost. Waco Scottish Rite has chosen to fund the camp each year since the first Camp Success was held in 2003. That year, Scottish Rite gave about $25,000 that allowed 24 children to attend Camp Success. This year's grant was about $86,000. The check presentation each year is a big deal to the parents and children of Camp Success, and each child receives a medallion as well. Scottish Rite has donated more than $250,000 to the program since its inception.

"We are so thankful for the partnership that we share with Scottish Rite," says Ritter. "The generosity of the Scottish Rite has allowed us to treat more and more children every year, and we are very grateful to them.

"Camp Success has had far-reaching results meeting the needs of children with language and reading difficulties, but the financial demands required by such a program are vast. These children need critical help with their language and reading difficulties. However, the rewards of working with the children, seeing them succeed, and seeing the benefits for the entire family are monumental."

Ritter says she is also appreciative of Shipley Do-Nuts, Dr Pepper, Blue Bell and Oak Farms for donating snacks to Camp Success.

"We have lots of treats around here," she says. "In fact, some of the parents say that after Camp Success, their kids have gained a little bit of weight. They're happier and they can read better and they can talk better and they've gained weight."

Her kids' weight gain notwithstanding, Denniston doesn't mince words in her praise for Camp Success:

"Baylor has been a gift sent from God. We couldn't ask for anything more."

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