CHAMPAIGN — These days, it's not uncommon to hear about dyslexia or other learning disabilities.
But when The Reading Group began its work to help children with dyslexia and other challenges, people tended to think of it as a disease for a doctor to treat, said Marilyn Kay, the organization's founder and its former executive director.
Research and common knowledge about the subject have come a long way in the last 40 years, she said, and so has The Reading Group.
It will celebrate its 40th anniversary with an open house from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at its facility at 3011A Village Office Place, C. Former students, teachers and board members are encouraged to attend, as well as current reading teachers and families interested in The Reading Group's programs.
The Reading Group prides itself on serving preschool-age children through adults, coming up with individualized plans to help them and one-on-one time with certified teachers, said Executive Director Jennifer Bell. There's no time crunch for students, so they can learn at their own pace.
It also helps students with a multi-sensory approach to learning, including Phonics You Can Feel, which Kay created.
For example, students can hold an apple to help them understand the sound "A" makes.
The organization doesn't label children, but it serves those who have dyslexia, autism and other challenges, as well as those who just need a boost or enrichment, Bell said. It also offers help in English as a second language and basic math.
The Reading Group is a nonprofit organization, so it has a board of directors and offers scholarships for students who can't afford its services.
The organization started in 1972 when Kay began a pilot reading program with the Urbana school district.
After that, she and Urbana residents Lou Brown and Mary Hart began working one-on-one with kids in their homes.
They moved to free space at First Presbyterian Church the next summer and by 1978, moved to a storefront at 900 S. Race St., U. The Reading Group became a nonprofit in 1988 and moved to a room in the lower level of Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana in 1989. It remained there until the center moved to southwest Champaign in 2008.
Bell said The Reading Group works with parents and classroom teachers in order to help them understand and accommodate students.
Kay said the organization teaches students to become their "own best teacher," to help children feel "that take-charge feeling, and that takes a lot of work."
Former Champaign resident Andrew Mitchell was a student at The Reading Group in grade school and then went back to get more help as a high school student.
"It helped to have a place outside of school where I could really sort of advance my reading skills, far beyond what I was getting just from school," Mitchell said. Working with a specialist really helped, he said.
But perhaps the most important contribution of The Reading Group to Mitchell's future came after he scored a 17 on the ACT.
He returned to The Reading Group and was going over strategies he learned in grade school. He was experimenting with different colored overlays over reading material, to see if that helped. With the latter, he realized he couldn't see because of the glare of fluorescent lights.
So he turned off the lights and found he had a much easier time reading.
He retook the ACT, this time with no fluorescent lighting and scored a 27.
With this realization in mind, he earned a bachelor's degree, worked as a motion graphics artist in Hollywood and now is studying to earn a master's degree in visual effects for games and movies at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
"In the long run, it has been a huge help," Mitchell said.
White Heath resident Kelsey Chitwood is a 19-year-old graduate of Monticello High School. She works full time at a medical office and is studying to become a medical assistant at Parkland College.
Her boss sent her to The Reading Group for an evaluation. It turned out, Kelsey had gone through her high school career without knowing she had severe dyslexia with ADHD and was reading at the same level as a second-grader.
Since attending The Reading Group, she has been studying phonics and is getting ready to graduate from a third-grade to fourth-grade reading level.
"Right now, I'm reading a book a week," Chitwood said.
At The Reading Group, she's learned strategies to think of things that are three-dimensional and doing lots of practice. She's learned to put cheat sheets all over her office to help her as she works and has learned tricks as well.
"I always have to double-check everything I do," Chitwood said.
She has learned about study habits at The Reading Group and about what accommodations she needs. She also works on Reading Group work from home, on her computer.
She said she likes that, after her evaluation, she was paired with the teacher who specializes in the help she needs.
"You don't have to go through so many tutors," she said.