We're delighted to kick off our first specialist of the month feature with Nicole Vella
, an Orton-Gillingham tutor from Atlanta, Georgia. Nicole has her associate level certification from the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators,
and she's also part of Learning Ally's tutor network
. We sat down with her earlier this week to find out why she got into the field, and to get her tips on helping others. Our full interview is below.
Nicole, it is so nice to meet you! Let's get started with finding out why you got into this field?
My oldest son, who is now 16, is dyslexic. He’s mildly dyslexic, and he’s doing just fine. When your kids are first diagnosed, it really makes makes you take pause, and you dig a little deeper and to try to help them. As you know, dyslexia is on a spectrum. I had friends who’s children were more severe, and we'd often connect over long discussions.
Language always came very naturally to me. My undergraduate degree is in English, and I would often find myself pondering “why is this so natural to me, but not others?" It bothered me. I wanted to crack the code.
I know you were working in Human Resources, doing a lot of copy editing, at that time. How did you go about completely changing your career path?
I’m very lucky to be in Atlanta. Around me I have the Schenck School
, the Swift School
, the Howard School
, and many more fabulous schools for children who learn differently. So, I started looking at these schools and trying to figure out what they do. After talking to them, I signed up for a course lead by the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. After that, it became an obsession. I do anything I can. I take every single course that I can.
You've been a tutor for several years now. What are your thoughts on Orton-Gillingham?
For me, I think that when you first start learning about dyslexia and reading all of the books that everyone knows about, it seems almost surreal. The things that are said about Orton-Gillingham are almost too good to be true. It makes you wonder if it actually will really work, especially when a student comes to you who is greatly struggling and at risk for failing a grade. You start to doubt.
After doing it for 3 years, I get to see the results and the data, and I’ve had great success with what I’m doing! It really does work! You can trust what you learn from a training perspective and what you read - Anna Gillingham and Samuel Orton were right, this method really does work! The key is honestly direct, explicit, systematic, multi-sensory instruction. You have to be both diagnostic and prescriptive.
What I’ve learned, through this process, is you meet your student where they are, currently. What do they know? What processing deficits do they have? I make an individual lesson plan for each student. You literally are designing a program for a person when you are tutoring one on one. If they don’t understand a concept, you don’t move on, you find a different way to teach that concept.
What's your favorite part about being a tutor?
I love it because there are no two kids who are alike! Dyslexia is something that is so individualized, so one single lesson plan never works, never ever, but that’s the fun of it too. You’re on this mission with this child, and you’re on this journey together. It’s fun because you get instant feedback; you get to see how the student is processing the information. It’s up to you to figure out how they are processing and how to teach to it.
We know that dyslexia is a life-long learning difference. How do you know when a child is finished with tutoring?
Fluency is what gets you, even if you can decode accurately. In the 4th grade and up, kids have a heavy reading load. Even if you (students who have dyslexia) are accurately reading, you’re typically slow still. Fluency is tricky. There’s lots of debate about that. If I had to summarize that, it’s literally when you have a fluent reader. Are they able to read in that automatic mode to where their comprehension is strong? They must be able to decode fluently and accurately.
How do you use Learning Ally audiobooks as part of your practice?
audiobooks, for me, greatly helps with the love of reading. If kids are struggling through books, and it's very difficult for them, they may eventually decide they don't like to read (even if they do love stories!) Audiobooks are also incredibly valuable in their ability to build vocabulary, comprehension and background knowledge.
For my kids, we work on decoding and fluency during tutoring time. If a kid is going to read on their own for fun, in my opinion, they need at least a 95% accuracy rate. Honestly, I don’t really want them reading on their own, for fun, at even a 90% accuracy rate. What I’ll do is open the book, then say read a page to me in one minute. I keep a tab of the words that were read. How many were right? How many were wrong? Did you read 95% of the words accurately? If so, you can read it with your eyes accurately. If you did not, then that’s a good one for Learning Ally audiobooks.
For my kids with high comprehension, I’ll push them with audiobooks beyond what they can be read with their eyes. Can they comprehend it well? What is their ability to understand the complex language? I love Learning Ally! I think it’s such a great resource for dyslexic kids. It helps on a lot of levels.
resides in Atlanta, GA with her husband and three children. She is a full-time tutor who is also pursuing her master’s degree in reading science, in an IDA accredited program, at the University of Mount Saint Joseph. To learn more about Learning Ally, please visit Learning Ally.org
. Also, find a link to more tutors, like Nicole, in our Learning Ally Tutor Network