Updated: January 3rd, 2016
Author: Reyn Guyer
Arlene Sonday was a reading therapist in 1973, when my wife, Mary and I, first hired her to work with our daughter, Lisa. Lisa was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that alters the way the brain processes written material. As Mary and I discovered the characteristics of the condition, we recognized the same signs and symptoms in ourselves and in our other children. This was a mixed blessing, as the difficulties of dyslexia are very real, and yet, finally having a diagnosis gave us an explanation for our own academic struggles over the years. We learned there is a genetic component to the condition and Mary and I were determined to help our kids escape the setbacks and negative labels that dyslexia burdened us with during our school years.
Arlene tutored Lisa, and eventually our other kids, Ree, Katie, Cindy and Tom as well. She had trained in the Orton-Gillingham method to reading instruction (named after neuropsychiatrist Samuel Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham), which featured a phonics-based, multi-sensory approach. Her success in getting all our kids back to reading well, was nothing short of amazing.
“Reyn, I know you know my methods work,” she said to me one day in 1994. “School leaders thank me all the time for helping their low-level reading students, but I’m just one person, and I can’t possibly work with all the students that need help. What would happen if you and I worked together to create a tutoring system that could train the average person, to do what I do?” It was a noble goal, but I wasn’t sure that what she was suggesting was possible. Arlene Sonday had forgotten more about teaching students to read than most teachers would ever know. She was the first President of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and had a Master’s Degree in Special Education. Teaching “the average person” to do what she did, seemed impossible. But Arlene is an expert teacher and she soon taught me something: Never doubt the power of a clear goal!
When Arlene first approached me about trying to create a new product for the people who were failing to learn to read, I took some time to think of who would be the person to work with Arlene on such a project. In the end I chose my daughter, Cindy. Since Cindy was once tutored by Arlene, she knew the material from the student’s perspective, and more importantly, she has vast depths of patience. I knew this would be a crucial attribute in helping Arlene work through the tedious task of writing out the entire system, lesson plan by lesson plan. I also felt that Cindy’s detail-oriented mind would be essential and this too proved true. We discovered in the development process that Arlene had a tendency to skip instructional steps that she had mastered and performed intuitively, jumping unaware, say, from step #1 to step #5. Cindy slowed things down and coaxed steps #2, #3 and #4 from Arlene. It took them a year of intense effort but, in the end, the results were amazing. They developed the first step-by-step program that gave an untrained tutor the tools to teach a struggling learner to read. Their work has become the model for the Sonday System and all of the succeeding training programs of the Winsor Learning Company.
When we released The Sonday System, I was certain we could emulate another seemingly very successful reading system that was claiming in paid TV advertising that if anyone bought their product, they could learn to read. I was sure our product was better than theirs, so I convinced our team that making our own commercial to sell the product would be the fastest way to get The Sonday System into the hands of the public and turning a profit. We created a fine TV commercial and worked with a group that was very experienced in direct response TV advertising. We conducted a test-run and the conclusion was that our TV ad did not create enough consumer response to warrant a larger roll out. Suddenly our goal became very blurred. Fortunately, our team still believed that we had developed the best product on the market to help non-readers read. So, we turned the Winsor Learning sailboat around and started over. Our goal had not changed, but the course we charted to get there had to. Instead of trying to sell our system directly to consumers, we re-designed our business model to introduce our learning methods to school systems.
We thought long and hard about becoming a non-profit corporation and trying to get our financial support from major national foundations whose purpose was to focus on education. But, finally we decided that, in the long haul, a for-profit model would not leave us forever dependent on begging them for money. We were aware that a for-profit, start-up company, would require more patience and a lot more capital to get it going. And we were right. So, undaunted, we proceeded to approach one school district at a time and slowly our success has become known to ‘special learning’ teachers across the country. Winsor Learning has proven to have the most effective methods for remediating students behind in their reading skills…bar none.