Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Master Teacher

Grace Vyduna-Haskins '49 found new ways to help children decipher words on a page.

Grace Vyduna-Haskins’s first students were the confident children of baby-boom suburbia. In the fall of 1956, she was given charge of a classroom of fourth-graders in a just-constructed elementary school in the sprouting bedroom communities west of Chicago. She was fresh from her teacher’s certification, brimming with a rookie teacher’s ardor for her new job. Her students belonged to the first wave of a generation that was supposed to be more affluent and better-educated than any other in American history. They would transform their country by dint of their preparation and their numbers.

There was just one problem. Some of these fourth-graders could not read. Vyduna-Haskins was surprised and unsettled. Worse yet, when she tried to help some of her struggling students, she found herself at a loss as to how. “It was frustrating,” she recalls. “I knew the children needed something to help them decode the words in front of them. I just didn’t know what it was.”

The prevailing methods of teaching children to read at that time had changed little since Vyduna-Haskins was a grade-schooler in a one-room schoolhouse in west-central Minnesota. She and her classmates had been handed the then-new “Dick and Jane” readers, with their seemingly endless variations on the same simple sentences: “See Dick run. See Jane run....” Students were expected to gobble up the words whole and learn, by sheer repetition, to recognize them on sight.

That “whole-word approach” to reading (as it is called) worked for Vyduna-Haskins and for plenty of other young readers. But it left other kids marooned and stumbling, with no real techniques for cracking the mystifying code of words on a page—“nothing to help them break it down,” as she says.

Her early experiences in front of a classroom set her on a search for better ways to teach kids to read. Over the next four decades or so, her search led her into countless consultations with other educators at the conferences she seemed always to be crossing the country to attend. Eventually, it led her to graduate school, where she probed the history of reading instruction in America and tested the effectiveness of innovative “multisensory” teaching methods that enlist the child’s sense of sight, sound, and touch. It led her to contribute articles to teachers’ journals, full of insights and practical advice accumulated over her years at the head of the class. It led her to conduct workshops for other teachers in her home. Finally, in 1996, not long after her retirement from the classroom, it led Vyduna-Haskins to set down some of what she had found in The Spel-Lang Tree, a reading and spelling program for students in their first years of school.

The Spel-Lang Tree combines elements of phonics, old-school rote spelling instruction, and multisensory learning methods—tracing letter forms on textured paper, for example. It has become a favorite of many teachers. “When I substitute, I see the Spel-Lang Tree booklets on the desks of every first- and second-grade teacher,” says Louise Gilmore, who taught with Vyduna-Haskins at Johnsburg School in McHenry County. “It’s direct, and it hits exactly what the children need to know to be good readers and writers.”

Kim Lengning, a teacher in the Wilsona School District in California, learned about Haskins’s program at an online forum on strategies for reading instruction. “Grace told me to teach my first graders to read by teaching them to spell,” says Lengning. The Spel-Lang Tree program worked for her students, she says. “I believe in it.”

Vyduna-Haskins’s approach has not always been in step with the fashions of the moment in education. At times, phonics advocates have clashed with devotees of “whole language” instruction, and phonics-heavy strategies have been unwelcome in some school districts. Many districts make little room for such pedagogical variations as combining phonics with spelling, or the sort of tactile exercises often associated with remedial instruction. Vyduna-Haskins had to fight for the right to teach her way, in the process alienating some colleagues. She recalls storming out of a staff meeting to plan reading instruction, amid cold stares. “When you put yourself on the line to that extent, there’s always a cost,” she says.

But her methods were unassailable on one point. They worked.

“Her results were amazing,” Louise Gilmore recalls. “Grace’s children were always the best readers.”

“Grace’s children” have become numerous over the years. As a classroom teacher and private tutor, Vyduna-Haskins has helped to introduce about a thousand kids to the world of words on a page.

She can cite her classes’ test scores and is always ready to make the pitch for her program. But she also is forthright about the frustrations she felt when, despite her best efforts, she seemed unable to help a struggling student. That is a lesson that has remained with her since her first year as a teacher. Sometimes the search for a better way to teach has no end.

“You just do everything you can to help them learn,” she says.

In the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a girl growing up near Barnesville, Minnesota, Vyduna-Haskins sometimes dreaded reading lessons. Not because she had much difficulty with them, but because she felt so intensely uncomfortable watching some of her classmates struggle and fail in their attempts to read. “It made me want to crawl under my chair,” she recalls.

Some of her first reading and spelling lessons came at home, courtesy of her mother, who would cut letters out of cardboard boxes of Puffed Rice at the family breakfast table. She got to be pretty good at forming words out of the jumble of letters, though the game could only hold her attention for so long before she would abandon it to go in search of fun on the family’s farm.

Her mother was a teacher. Grace did not plan to follow her lead. “If there was one thing I knew, it was that I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says. But her mother had attended a leadership training school at Elmhurst College, and came away impressed. When the time came to plan Grace’s college education, it was simply understood that she, too, would be traveling to Elmhurst.

Her college classmates knew her as Grace Janssen. She majored in Christian education and worked with an instructor named Clara Loveland. One day, Loveland mentioned a promising new educational approach called the Orton-Gillingham Method. It was designed to help remedial readers break down words into more easily consumed bits, and it involved multiple senses of the reader. “Visual-auditory, kinesthetic-tactile” was a kind of Orton-Gillingham slogan, and Grace recalls writing “VAKT” in her class notebook over and over. It would be another thirty years before she would encounter the terms again, but they would eventually become part of her program for helping young readers.

Vyduna-Haskins did not launch her career in the classroom until after she had married and begun raising her first child. With her husband, she settled in Chicago’s western suburbs, and began looking for work she could walk to. Conveniently, a new public grade school was under construction near the family home, and she walked in and applied for a job as a teacher. When the administrator pointed out that she lacked teacher certification, she promised that she would have it by the fall. She kept the promise and landed the job.

“I didn’t question whether I would make a good teacher,” she recalls. “I just saw an opportunity for a job.”

Over the next ten years, Vyduna-Haskins alternated between stints in the classroom and time at home raising her growing family. By the late 1960s, she returned to the classroom to stay, in Johnsburg, a town about fifty-five miles northwest of Chicago on the cusp between suburbs and farmland. Noticing that many teachers complained about the poor preparation their students had received in the lower grades, she decided to teach first and second graders. It was where she figured she could make the biggest difference.

Her students’ reading performance usually equaled or surpassed those of any other teacher. But Haskins was bothered by the few students she was unable to help. What about the ones who could read a word one day, yet stared blankly at the same word the next? She had to find a way to help them.

She created packets of home-made reading materials, compiling lists of words and word parts, and creating exercises to meet the students where they most needed help. Her personalized program succeeded in at least one crucial task: it engaged the attention of a roomful of easily distracted six-year-olds.

“I was amazed by the silence in the room,” says Gilmore, recalling the first time she observed one of Grace’s classes in Johnsburg. “I had student-taught first grade and was well aware of the high levels of noise and activity. But this room was totally quiet, except for the sounds of a child reading to a teacher. There are two kinds of silence in a classroom: a tense, forced silence that comes as a result of intimidation, and a busy, comfortable silence that comes from being motivated and involved. This was obviously the latter. They were totally immersed in their activities.”

Not everyone was as impressed with Vyduna-Haskins’s methods. She admits to having been “a strict teacher, more task-oriented than nurturing.” The parents of her students tended to either love her or hate her, with little room for indifference. Her approach also put her at odds with other teachers and administrators at her school.

When she was transferred across the district to Ringwood School, she found little support for her methods. The teachers at Ringwood relied on basal readers, which de-emphasized phonics and favored a “look-say” approach to reading. When her principal told her that the school would be mandating basal readers in all grades, Vyduna-Haskins rebelled.

“I said, ‘No thanks. You can all teach from that basal reader, but I’m not going to. It didn’t work before and it won’t work now. When all of you get higher reading scores than I do, then I’ll change.’”

Her stance antagonized many colleagues, to say nothing of her supervisors. When her principal continued to press her to change, Vyduna-Haskins was shaken.

It was only after going home and talking to her children that she concluded that she could not give in. Her kids reminded her that she had taught them to defend what they believed in. Reassured, she told the principal that she was ready to take her case to the district superintendent, the school board, and the local newspaper, if necessary. In the end, the superintendent decided that it might be useful to allow Vyduna-Haskins to use her “eclectic” methods.

For Vyduna-Haskins, it wasn’t so much a victory as a chance to test her beliefs. She would use her methods; the other teachers would use theirs; and they would compare their students’ test scores. “I was ready for the challenge,” she says. As it turned out, so were her students.

Vyduna-Haskins wasn’t always satisfied with her students’ progress. They consistently read one or two months ahead of students from other classes, but more than a third still read below their grade level. She began to fear that her program was failing.

“I was upset,” she said. “I got on my knees and I said, ‘Lord, change me or show me the way.’”

As if in response, she soon heard of a conference to be held in Champaign, of the Reading Reform Foundation. The meeting would attract some of the leading figures in phonics education. Vyduna-Haskins went, hoping to find answers.

At the conference, she was reintroduced to Orton-Gillingham methods of reading instruction, the multisensory approach that she’d learned about thirty years earlier from Clara Loveland at Elmhurst. Back home, Vyduna-Haskins tailored the method—which had been designed mainly for dyslexic students—for general use in the classroom.

Each day her students read lists of patterned words on the chalkboard while their teacher demonstrated the blending of sounds. Then the students built sound upon sound to form entire words. They traced out words on pieces of textured wallpaper, absorbing lessons through the sense of touch. They spelled out words on paper from their teacher’s dictation.

Vyduna-Haskins monitored their progress, assessing the results in a project that she turned into a master’s thesis at National-Louis University. The results were striking. Her students achieved dramatically higher test scores. Only 8 percent tested below their grade level, down from more than 33 percent. The students who had once scored the lowest improved the most. She concluded that multisensory teaching held great promise.

At the same time, Vyduna-Haskins noticed another phenomenon. Without fail, her students were at their most focused and successful during spelling lessons. Something about the activity seemed to captivate them. “If they can spell it, I thought, they can read it. It just made sense to me.”

She began to research the history of reading instruction in the United States. For much of the nation’s history, she learned, American kids had been taught to spell before they had been taught to read. A professor suggested that her research would make an outstanding doctoral dissertation. So, in her fifties, Vyduna-Haskins began working toward her doctorate in education at National-Louis. She soon was digging deep into archives at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, examining antique primers that seemed ready to fall apart in her hands.

Her dissertation, “An Historical Investigation of American Reading-Spelling Relationships: 1607-1930,” concluded that for much of the nineteenth century and even earlier, reading and spelling instruction had gone together in America’s schools. She quotes from a Franklin primer of 1830: “And if you can’t read well, pray endeavor to spell. For by frequently spelling, you’ll learn to read well.” Her research showed that at least some of the activities she had introduced to her classroom, over the fierce objections of administrators, were as old as the nation itself.

In 1991, Vyduna-Haskins completed the project and took her doctorate, thirty-five years after she had taught her first class. Her mother, 101 years old, saw her graduate.

Vyduna-Haskins’s zeal for teaching is never far from the surface. Lengning recalls a cross-country road trip to a teachers’ meeting in Virginia, with Vyduna-Haskins, then 75, at the wheel. (The license plates on her car read SPEL WEL.) The two spent the entire drive discussing phonics and spelling, then continued their conversation late into the night.

Vyduna-Haskins retired from the classroom in 1994, just three years after completing her Ed.D. She enjoyed traveling with her husband, Robert, but found herself searching for a new outlet for her hard-won professional expertise. “I was left with a lot of knowledge and nothing to do with it,” she says.

Ten years ago, at the urging of teachers who wanted to use “Grace’s program,” she compiled The Spel-Lang Tree, her series of teachers’ guides for reading classes from kindergarten through second grade. It aims to help students master spelling as the basis for an understanding of phonics, an enriched vocabulary, and improved comprehension. She markets The Spel-Lang Tree at teachers’ conferences and on the Web ( The proceeds fund a scholarship for a student at Johnsburg High School. An early recipient was one of Vyduna-Haskins’s former students.

For someone who is supposed to be retired, Vyduna-Haskins spends a surprising amount of time at the head of the class. She assists in teaching a course for Spanish-speaking adults in English as a Second Language. She also tutors grade-school students who are having trouble reading.

For the past two years, she has been working with a boy, now in eighth grade, who has been diagnosed as severely dyslexic. Vyduna-Haskins is leery of such diagnoses. “Many times, it is a case of ‘dysteachia’ rather than dyslexia. Many of these children have been taught in ways that don’t match the way they learn best.” But in the case of this student, she accepts the diagnosis. “I believe he is one of the true dyslexics.”

When she started working with the boy, he was in sixth grade and did not know all the letters in the alphabet. Vyduna-Haskins says he still confuses w and y, d and b. When he mixes up a letter, she has him trace its shape on his body to help cement the symbol in his memory. When they find time in their hour-long sessions, they roll Yahtzee cubes to form words or use flip cards to help the boy learn simple two-syllable words.

The approach is not unlike the multisensory phonics and spelling instruction that Vyduna-Haskins once introduced to her classrooms. But she says the boy poses the most difficult teaching assignment she has ever encountered. “This has become my challenge, to see how far I can move this boy on the road to reading.”

For Grace Vyduna-Haskins, it comes down to one question, the same one she has been asking about her impact on her students throughout her life as a teacher: “Can I make a difference in his life?”

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