Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Family Literacy Center

Dr. Eldo Bergman brings literacy to life for
struggling readers in the Bayou City and beyond.
About 40 percent of today’s students read and
comprehend below their grade level. Dr. Bergman
is making a difference in their lives.

On a quiet Friday morning in west Houston, Dr. Eldo
Bergman meets with a couple concerned about their
daughter. Their faces are lined with worry and desperation,
but Bergman calmly reassures them that he can help.
You might expect the white-haired, bespectacled
man with the gentle bedside manner to be dressed in a
white coat, and the parents to be discussing a serious
illness in a hospital waiting room. Instead, they sit in
the makeshift conference room of the Family Literacy
Network, a beacon of hope for countless families of
struggling readers.
A pediatric neurologist before launching the nonprofit
organization, which continues the work of the
Texas Reading Institute, Dr. Bergman is the first to
argue that literacy is a serious problem. This problem is
why he’s devoted his time, his energy and, for the past
two decades, his career to helping children and youth
with reading difficulties through an intensive, methodical
program called explicit reading instruction.
“Learning to read English is a beast,” Dr. Bergman
says. “Some do quite well no matter how you teach
them, but about 40 percent of kids just really struggle.”
The statistic he refers to is known as the Nation’s
Report Card, or the National Assessment of Educational
Progress. In the 2013 report, 34 percent of fourth graders
scored “below basic,” which means these children
cannot pick up their science or history book and comprehend
what they are reading.
“If we do the right things, most of those kids can learn
to read at grade level, and almost all of them can develop
reading skills that are useful for self-care, self-entertainment
and job training,” asserts Dr. Bergman, whose highcaliber
staff of reading clinicians currently serves 120
students with challenges ranging from attention deficit
and English as a second language to dyslexia (which
affects spelling and reading), dysgraphia (writing),
dyscalculia (numbers), autism and mental retardation.
The father of five children, Dr. Bergman’s passion for literacy
began as he witnessed severe cases of poor readers
in his medical office. But when two of his own sons began
to fall behind in reading, the passion became a quest.
“I remember when my second son, Philip, was in the
6th grade and I would help him with his spelling,” Dr.
Bergman recalls. “And the tears start coming down your
cheeks involuntarily—you can’t control it. You’re just so
frustrated in trying to be positive, but you don’t know
what to say to make the words understandable. You just
don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Despite Dr. Bergman’s efforts in getting his son’s
school to adopt a systematic phonics approach, the progress
was grim. Philip entered high school at a 5th grade
reading level and by the time he graduated, he had only
advanced two grade levels. Meanwhile, Dr. Bergman
delved through research from the National Institutes of
Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and
made cold calls to Switzerland and Wales to glean knowledge
from the world’s major reading researchers.
Convinced that explicit instruction was the only way
to achieve results, Dr. Bergman worked intensively with
Philip after high school and three years later, he was
finally reading at an adult level. Today, Philip is one of
Family Literacy Network’s reading clinicians and has
been the examiner or teacher in five NICHD studies.
On this particular Saturday morning, Philip Bergman
works with 9-year-old Rachel Payne and her mother,
Tricia. They are situated in a small room with two workstations,
separated by privacy dividers and simply equipped
with a table, several chairs and a few instructional
materials. The walls, a calming pale yellow, have telltale
scuffs from the back of a chair. But a new coat of paint
can wait. There is important work to be done here.
Just outside the room are five other workstations
filled to the brim with children, clinicians, observers
and the steady buzz of one-on-one instruction. Even Dr.
Bergman’s office is occupied with diagnostic testing.
Rachel, a third grader from The Woodlands, comes to a
particularly difficult word: religious. Philip directs her to
break it into “chunks” and “build” the word. But she’s just
not getting it. He brings out a white board to try a different
approach. She keeps trying, but at one point turns to her
mother with pleading eyes and whines, “Mama.”
Her mother and instructor offer patient guidance.
Rachel sticks with it and she eventually gets “religious.”
But it’s seeing this anxiety in her eyes that brought
George and Tricia Payne to Family Literacy in the first
place. They noticed signs that Rachel might learn differently
as early as preschool with the unconventional
way she formed her letters. In kindergarten, it was obvious
she was just memorizing words, not reading with
understanding, Tricia Payne recalls.
“By the first month of first grade, we realized we were
in a crisis,” Payne says. “She was not going to develop
[to the next level] because she did not have the phonemic
The Paynes hired a tutor for Rachel, but a year later,
realized it wasn’t enough. In desperation, they discovered
Family Literacy Network online and had Rachel tested.
The results revealed dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia.
Although Tricia Payne was nervous about the long
drive to the office and the challenge of serving as
“tutor” at home, Rachel experienced immediate results.
After just a few months in the program, she was reading
at grade level and earned her first B.
“That was incredible,” Payne says. “Because we are
diligent about working with it at home, we can see her
success, and she sees her success.”
For Dr. Bergman, leaving medicine was a 10-year process
that culminated in 1992. His focus shifted to the
efforts of his nonprofit and he began a doctoral program
in psychology to “get the statistical tools to be
efficient,” he says.
The instructional materials that the Family Literacy
Network uses today were written entirely by Dr.
Bergman and his staff—a gradual process over 25 years.
“We originally didn’t plan to write our own materials for
our own program,” he says. “We were thinking we could
take books from different programs and mix and match.”
But after reviewing materials from 20 existing programs,
including 906 student readers, Dr. Bergman concluded
that the task was impossible because of the lack
of consistency in scope and sequence. So in 2001, he
began devising his own materials with the cooperation
of researchers, constantly updating and revising as new
issues and challenges arose for his students.
In the meantime, Dr. Bergman participated in a
groundbreaking NICHD study with the University of
Texas, which used brain scans to show how the visual,
sound and language centers of the brain interact while
reading. The brain scans of readers were markedly different
from nonreaders or poor readers, in this case
dyslexic students ages 7 to 17. After the initial scan,
each student began one-on-one explicit instruction, two
hours a day for two months. The follow-up brain scans
showed astonishing results, published in 2002.
“This study was the first demonstration that explicit
reading therapy not only brought reading into the average
range in just two months,” Dr. Bergman says, “but
also led to massive shifts in brain activity, normalizing
the brain scans.”
In recent years, Dr. Bergman has become fascinated
with the study of how languages differ in their reading
demands on students.
The biggest problem with the English language, he says,
is the complexity of the code. “You can show people right
away that you can say the letter ‘o,’ but you have to know
the context of the word to know how to pronounce it.”
In English, many letters have multiple pronunciations
depending on the structure of the word they appear
within. This is not true with most other languages.
Children in Finland, for example, learn to read with
remarkable ease. Dr. Bergman explains this phenomenon
with gusto.
“In Finnish, you have single letters, each representing
a sound, and each sound you hear is always represented
by the same letter. Period. End of the reading task. No
exceptions. No digraphs. After the first 10 weeks of initial
reading instruction, the average Finnish child is 90
percent accurate,” he says.
Learning to read English, on the other hand, Dr. Bergman
compares to climbing a steep mountain—a journey that
takes children an average of 2.7 years, according to Philip
H. K. Seymour in his 2005 research, “Early Reading
Development in European Orthographies.”
Using explicit instruction, Dr. Bergman strives to
“carve a staircase around the mountain” with small,
manageable steps.
“Some kids are going to catch their breath after one
step,” he says. “The important thing is to go up step by
step, whatever the rate is, because as you go up, the view of
the valley becomes more interesting. It becomes motivating
and you want to continue climbing to get to the top.
And, of course, at the top is grade-level comprehension.”
Dr. Bergman’s vision for students and families dealing
with reading challenges is simple: early intervention. He
plans to conduct a study with a local university using
explicit instruction in a lab school kindergarten classroom,
in the hopes that the subsequent findings will
urge all schools to adopt the method
“The best research shows that about 95 percent of
children could learn to read in the average range if they
received appropriate instruction,” Dr. Bergman says.
For now, he encourages parents, teachers and friends
of struggling readers to call Family Literacy Network for
help—the sooner, the better.
Ask Dr. Bergman about his average success rate compared
to other approaches, and he responds not with
statistics but with success stories.
Like the sixth grader, a nonreader with an IQ of 43,
who reads at a mid-first grade level one year after starting
at Family Literacy. Or the child with muscular dystrophy
who moves out of the resource class and receives
a “Ravenous Reader” award. Or the autistic third grader,
homeschooled by mom, who achieves grade-level reading
after 18 months. Or Rachel Payne, whose reading, once
choppy and monotone, is now fluid and full of inflection.
It’s stories like these that keep Dr. Bergman’s passion
for literacy alive.
“I suppose I will never retire until I’m buried,” he says,
only half joking. “You see them responding and that’s
gratifying. You see them not responding and you want
to know why and what can you do about it.”
And thus, his quest continues.

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