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Email Conversations With Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner from September 2014

You may share all of this with anyone you wish who might be interested in the process.

Here is a lengthy email conversation I had a year ago last September with Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner from District #6 regarding literacy.

I heard nothing in reply for 5 months after this email conversation, though I tried in many ways to make contact with her several times afterwards simply to ask her opinions and/or her colleagues opinions (she is a very busy person). But eventually we met at her office to discuss the work in February 2015.

Here are our email conversations (I had initially heard her on a radio broadcast with a speech she had made at the Cleveland City Club, late August 2014, and decided to share with her my research and work):

“Dear Senator Peggy Lehner--

I am writing to you because I wish to share my research, findings, explorations, and all of my materials regarding literacy acquisition. I have spent the better part of the last 44+ years in the field of Special Education, and the last 23 years developing a program for teaching full literacy skills to individuals in Northeastern Ohio labeled MR/DD (aspergers, autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, MR, TBI, ADHD, ADD, etc). I have discovered some very unusual things in the process that I wish to share with you here, and in the attachments to this message.

The horrendous confirmation of illiteracy (Jonathan Kozol reported in about 1981 that perhaps 60-90 million adults in the USA were illiterate and/or functionally illiterate, and the numbers were growing exponentially) in our American Educational system speaks volumes about the problems inherent in what we have today, yet all of these problems are not without very workable solutions. First of all, in my explorations regarding literacy and illiteracy, it has come to my attention that most of the problems often associated with illiteracy stem from orthographic difficulties associated with visual field problems (in the "normal" populations, as well as for those diagnosed with disabilities [Also, please, see attachments with reference to Perfetti's comments]). Therefore, I took all of my teaching materials and retyped them into size 28 Ariel font, to increase ease of receptive skills. I also determined that learning how to read was done best by actually doing reading (at least one full hour a week, same time and place), one on one, in a cooperative learning style whereby I would be the advanced learner sharing my skills with the students or the un-advanced learners, exploring contextually rich (language based) materials "in concert." I received written permission from Laubach Literacy International in Syracuse, New York to retype all of their materials in size 28 Ariel Font and I also received permission from Harper Collins in New York City to retype all of Charlotte's Web in size 28 Ariel font to use as my basic initial reading and teaching materials (I am very aware of copyright laws so that none of these materials can ever be sold, as the penalties are monstrous) [I am in the process, at this moment in time, of writing an entire emergent literacy curriculum from scratch for use due to this problem of copyright; it is almost completed, and ready for publication][It is now completed]. What I have also discovered about the literacy acquisition process is perhaps very fascinating: When beginning to actually learn how to read using the very basic emergent literacy materials, all of my students needed to possess 1.) relatively good eyesight (though this is technically not necessary as individuals who are unable to see can acquire literacy through Braille means) and 2.) an ability to carry on a two way (give and take) verbal conversation, being a little above the Piagetian Group Monologue Behavioral Developmental level [also referred to as the “parallel play behavior level”](M.A. [mental age] somewhere around 3.0). As each student is introduced to the visual symbols (printed words) representing the language that he or she regularly uses in conversation, the student begins memorizing maybe three to four to five hundred basic sight words through the repetition of the words in the basic simple stories provided. After a certain number of these basic sight words are absorbed and visually memorized, an unusual process of "phonemic awareness" takes place within the student's observational recording process whereby words like "boy," "book," "be," "by," or "bad," or words like "cup," "car," "cake," "cop," "could," or "can," are all recognized by the student as beginning with the letters "b" or the letter "c," and awareness of what those similar sounds represent at the starts of these memorized words elicits an awareness of the letter/sound correspondences (phonemic awareness). It is a skill that is not taught. It is a skill that is experienced and learned. There is a distinct difference. And all of the students acquire the written language by recognizing whole words, not parts of words initially, because we all speak in whole words, not single letters or syllables (The current "supposed" war between the Whole Language proponents and the Phonics proponents has led to a stalemate in literacy directions, and the only losers in this war are those students who continue to fail at acquiring literacy skills [when in fact, both opposing factions are wrong in their approaches]. Whole language techniques and phonics techniques are both vital and necessary as complementary and supplementary tools but are not the essential directional approaches, as Doing Reading, actually reading, is the single most important aspect of the process...not hard to figure). Progress is totally individualized as the acquisition of memorized new words takes place and "phonemic awareness" develops. As progress through the initial Laubach adapted books takes place, introduction of "Beginning to Read" series of books is possible (Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, Nate the Great, etc., becoming an option for supplementary materials -- easy to see, repetitious, basic sight words, contextually rich, and conversational, with easily anticipated words in sentence formations). I will include here some files for your perusal, information, curiosity, etc. I believe that what I have available would be a great benefit to all individuals within the "national umbrella" of the DD population (as well as the general population) who are not now literate but who possess the necessary prerequisite skills for learning how to read (those who experience any and all difficulties with literacy acquisition, and implementing this well-used and successful system and process for delivery would be quite economically feasible and within the current means of the country's budgets (Consideration should also be made for those residing in all of the prison systems in the US who have demonstrated that literacy is without question by far the single most relevant statistical reason for their being in prison in the first place).

In regards to individuals within the autism/aspergers spectrum that I have worked with, I have also always used full movie scripts, initially, as teaching texts. These particular movies (procured off the Net or from the Studios) that have been discovered as current favorites of the individuals being worked with make reading much easier for them. The continual viewings of such movies by these students has indicated that the scripts were virtually memorized. Reading the written scripts along with the tutor is a simple matching up of the visual text materials with the memorized movie scripts. Reading and its discovery happens as a matter of course.

If you have any questions at all regarding any of this, please do not hesitate to make contact in whatever way that you deem appropriate.

Blessings, Tom Gilbert PS-- Also included (as a file) is a copy of a US patent for a children's learning toy (I call it Rider's Blocks) that I invented and patented. The device is used for teaching orthographic (eye hand brain) skills for the discerning of similarities and differences in letter and word formation so necessary for the acquisition of literacy. This device can now be made by anyone as the patent has gone public and the device can be manufactured by any company now, today, for helping those who struggle with learning how to read (There is also a computerized version of the manual toy). PPS-- I also have a flash drive that I could forward to you that contains all of the extensive literacy materials that I use on it for your perusal."


Thank you so much for materials you sent me on your research regarding illiteracy. I have not read through it all quite yet-although I intend to but I am finding it fascinating. I do have one question that I would like you to try to answer. The recent state report cards really highlight the very sharp distinction in performance among children in poverty and their more affluent peers. It doesn't matter what kind of school, the quality of the school or how much money we are spending-poor kids really struggle. Very disturbing to me is that it doesn't seem to really matter if they attend pre-school or benefit from extensive wrap around services. You may recall in my speech I referred to the need for both and talked about Oyler School in Cincinnati that even has an in school optometry clinic. Well guess what...on Oyler's 2014 report card they got an F. Even many highly performing schools get an F on the subgroups among kids in poverty...same teachers, same curriculum, but very different results.

  • Do you have any ideas based on research why reading skills are so poor about children in poverty...even when they receive all the supplement support we can throw at them. I just find this so discouraging and am really looking for some innovative thought on this.

Thanks, Peggy

-- Peggy Lehner

Dear Senator Lehner

You have no idea how incredibly meaningful it was today to receive your response to my email. I will be forever grateful that you took the time and had the curiosity to respond. Bless you and Thank you.

I hope that I may be able to shed some serious light on your exceedingly important question, for this very question has also baffled me for years. There may be many parts to it, all interconnected; because my own many years of explorations into the causes of illiteracy have brought up some unusual incidents that I will share with you.

Many years ago I was invited along with hundreds of other Cuyahoga County teachers and administrators to become part of a three-week investigative seminar called the Cleveland Literacy Cooperative. We were asked to contribute everything that we knew about literacy and illiteracy. The same questions that you raise were raised there.

Unfortunately, many of the ideas and learned experiences from the many qualified teachers “in the trenches,” from their tireless work in the Cleveland Public School system, were ignored in the final analyses and write-ups that the conference authorities insisted be the final judgments in the report. Such is “expertise” in the hands of a few.

The targets of the study, though, in the analysis of all of Cuyahoga County residents, were in fact the overwhelming number of inner city Blacks and African Americans along with the population of Latinos in the inner city of Cleveland. It was mentioned from the data collected before the final report that, “Additionally, children of professional families hear more than 30 million words by their third birthday, while white children in poor families hear only 10 million words.”

These facts were (are) far worse in African American families and Latino families. And there is a hidden insidious reason for this.

I am 64 years old. I was born in the year 1950. Just 13 years before I was born in the year 1937 the last anti-literacy law in this country was repealed.

In many states in this country, not only in the southern states, as “urban legend” would have us believe, but in many Northern States as well, (New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, as examples, etc.), there were anti-literacy laws that made learning how to read punishable by jail, dismemberment, and/or death for the students as well as for the teachers, regardless of race of the teachers. So, for innumerable generations of African American families (and others of color), mothers and fathers taught their children at a very early age that seeking out literacy was maybe the most dangerous goal presenting itself, and therefore pretending ignorance while embracing ignorance and verbal silence were to be highly valued, for the alternatives were unthinkable.

It does not take a degree in science or genetics or selective breeding to understand that over many generations of inflicting these laws on slaves (and even for those few who were legally free), and also for any and all of color, an almost permanent state contrived investment in all colored families teaching their children a love of silence and an abhorrence for learning, and especially literacy, would eventuate and result in permanent cycles of illiteracy that are still very much prevalent even to this day; for literacy acquisition is, in fact, 100% language based, and if there are laws prescribing indoctrinated and demanded deficits in language and desires for learning for well over a hundred and fifty years (and maybe even more), then of course the results are going to be exactly as the data being collected today demonstrates.

Case in point, from my own experiences:

In the year 2000, I was tutoring full literacy skills to many individuals in the local MR/DD community and I went on Saturday as per scheduled to a group home in Bedford, Ohio to work with one of my students. She had asked me a few weeks before to change her tutoring schedule because my weekend work with her was cutting into her free time at home where she might be better off going on outings with the rest of the clients at the group home. So, could I please work out a deal with the staff and go to her place of daily work during a weekday and spend my regularly scheduled 1 hour tutoring time with her one day a week at the same time there at Maple Heights Adult Training Center? I made elaborate provisions for tutoring her at the ATC in Cuyahoga County where she earned maybe 20–30 dollars a week, at most, doing piecemeal assembly line work.

The director of the ATC told me that I had to get written permission from the owner of the Group Home in order to be allowed to do this. On the particular Saturday in question, I was working as usual with my student there in the living room. It was shift change. An African American staff person (there were four of them at the time during shift change) overheard my conversation about the change in venue. She immediately interrupted our session and demanded to know why I was planning the change. I told her that my student right there had requested the change as my weekend work was cutting into her weekend outings. So I was planning on working with her one hour every Tuesday morning at work, which was acceptable to my student. The woman was joined by the other three African American women who all objected to the new plan and they all stated that my cutting into my student’s work time and pay was not right, as I would be cutting into her pay with the single hour a week lesson in reading. I assured them that it was just 1 hour out of 32.5 work hours per week. They all protested and said that it was still unfair and that I should only work with her during down time at work so as not to cut off her pay. They were outraged and insistent, and so I told them that I would work this out as they requested and with the ATC director. These four women were advocating for their client and they were very, very serious.

The import of this encounter flooded over me on my drive home after I was done for the day like a comet induced tidal wave and clean sweep of the planet. I wanted to search out the person or persons who had orchestrated this irrevocable and irretrievable damage and tell him or her that they’d won. It was over. There’s nothing anyone anywhere can ever do to change or reverse this course of doom. The enforced crimes and punishments towards slaves regarding literacy for several hundred years or so has been so successful, along with separate “educational systems” (separate everything) that despite Brown vs. Board of education in 1954 and the various civil rights laws in the 1960s, the old boy network (What else do we want to call it?) has so completely disabled the possibility of universal fluency of literacy for non-whites that the only remaining functional educational method for most poor blacks in the USA over time has been an oral tradition passed down from mothers to children that 1.) literacy is now something to be feared, 2.) Literacy gets in the way of work or making a living, however menial, 3.) Literacy is of no real use to anyone with sense, and 4.) Literacy is not considered a real work related skill. Whether or not literacy may be, in fact, a theoretical doorway through which all impoverished peoples can go to escape their unpleasant lot is another matter, for that door has been successfully emblazoned with a skull and crossbones for all who can’t read and who choose never to learn how to read. This experience happened to me in May or June of 2000. How is this for the real damage of hundreds of years of Slavery in the USA?

But another experience: In African American households across America today it is still an unwritten and unspoken maxim: “It is better to be seen and not heard,” which is a direct result of the anti-literacy laws so pervasive in so many states for so many years across the USA.

Contrary to the highest levels of illiteracy that Blacks possess (not any fault of their own, ever), the highest levels of literacy exist within the Jewish community. Many years ago my family and I attended a Bar Mitzvah celebration at Temple Israel Ner Tamid off of Lander Road (Maple Heights) on the east side of Cleveland, and also at the family household afterwards where there were several hundred people present, relatives and friends. During the middle of the crowded and noisy celebration, the four-year-old son of the host entered the room and quietly walked up to his father and tugged on his pant legs and asked to speak. The father raised his arms in the air and loudly requested silence, as his son had something to say to him. The whole room went instantly quiet and all present turned to face the youngster and leaned in to hear what he had to say and all with joyous expectant loving smiling faces, to hear that one important thing that this four year old had to say, knowing full well that generations of future important Jews would eventually come from this learned four year old, God willing, from this very special four year old.

Even then I saw in this remarkable demonstration of the allowance, the promotion, the insistence, the expectancy of verbal communication of the youngest and the celebration of it.

If the African American community is to achieve literacy, it must be encouraged to follow this type of example and break the chains of enforced silence that was imposed upon them.

Another thing:

I have a deck of cards called “Authors.” It is a card game that is played with the rules of GO FISH. The first Authors deck ever made was in 1820. It has been made every year since that date with slight modifications in designs and in various authors throughout time accepted into the “club” of great and important authors, but it has been basically the same for almost 200 years.

If I were to gather together in an auditorium in downtown Cleveland a smattering of African American children from the community and I were to take the podium and ask them if they would raise their hands if they could answer any of the following questions: Who knows who Jessie Owens is? Who knows who Jim Brown is? Who knows who Hank Aaron is? Who knows who LeBron James is? OK, this quiz is ridiculous. Then I would ask, Who knows who the Hank Aaron of literature is in the world. What I mean by that is, Who has hit the most literary home runs? Who is the most prolific author in history? Who has written the most successful novels, short stories, plays, essays, and poems in the history of the world? There would be no raised hands in the auditorium. I can guarantee it. The person to whom I am referring is not in the Author’s deck of cards. He has never been considered worthy of that honor. The writing community and literary intelligentsia have always thought of this writer as a hack. In the literary biographies of the world’s writers this author is always listed as French or perhaps Mulatto. It is odd, though, that Hollywood has, within the last 25 years or so produced movie adaptations of three of this author’s most famous works that have been considered financial block busters: The Three Musketeers, the Man in the Iron Mask, and the Count of Monte Cristo. The only other author with equal success recently in Hollywood is Shakespeare. Can you just for a second imagine what it would be like to announce truthfully to all African American incoming nursery school students that the greatest writer in the world, the Hank Arron of literature, was a Black man, Alexander Dumas? Would that have any impact whatsoever on the future of the inner city kids living in the United States of America? Is that a detail that is sorely lacking from our school systems? Can you imagine why it is that this is so? The pen is mightier than the sword, and those who exert power, and influence, and money, and prestige in this world know it.

Let’s change things. Learning now to read by simply reading one-on-one an hour a week, can take a person from ignorance to having the keys for every door available in their possession. It is really that simple.

Another story:

Let’s say I want to teach people how to ski, and I set up a ten week semester course in learning how to ski, and I set it up this way: the first week I lecture on the different events of skiing in the Olympics, and I talk about down hill, Giant Slalom, Slalom, Biathlon, cross country skiing, ski jumping, and I go into great detail about the history of each event. In the second week, I talk about different types of skis, how they are made now, how they were made, what is their history, who developed the techniques for making them, what companies now do this type of work, and what are their costs. Week three is all about bindings, their history, what they are made of, how they work, their safety mechanisms, and their tremendous differences, depending on what type of skiing is available. Week four is about the types of poles that are used and what they are made of, how they work for balance and safety and protection. Week five is all about the skiing outfits, the old parkas and the newer stretchy tight fitting wind resistant nylon and Dacron outfits for speed. Week six is all about the different types of costs that all of the skiing materials will set you back and where to purchase great deals so that you can afford to ski. Week seven is all about the various places around the world where you can ski and how to get there and get weekend passes and special rates at the lodges and the levels of difficulty, of the easiest to the most difficult slopes and trails. Week eight is all about the different types of snow, powder, icy, packed, etc., and what it is like to ski in such conditions. Week nine is all about the types of waxes that go onto the bottoms of the skis and what types work with the types of snow conditions available and how to apply the wax and when to be able to do the most amount of skiing. Week ten is the review of all that you’ve learned and then the final exam, and if you pass you get a certificate to indicate that you are an accomplished skier!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Marilyn Jager Adams, the renowned author of Beginning to Read (It’s a bible about reading, and highly recommended), stated in the late 1990s that with her intensive data collection nationally she discovered that the average amount of time spent in oral reading every day of the year for all classes in all schools was 1 minute per day……………… let me restate that again, 1 minute per day on the average.

If you are not screaming or swearing or pulling your hair out now, I’m not sure what to say in reply.

We can do work sheets, we can teach rules, we can watch videos, we can play word games, we can do word searches, we can take multiple choice quizzes and tests, but if we do not actually spend time reading orally, then we circumvent the learning in preference for activities that are potentially complementary and supplementary, but without actually reading, they are nothing. Imagine learning how to ski in a classroom and being given a certificate that you have become an accomplished skier without ever seeing the slopes. Such are our classes that are supposedly teaching reading when very little reading is ever being done…………….

It is clear to me that literacy for families that have money and affluence and resources is accomplished in their homes and not at schools, because they have books and toys and conversation and literacy events that promote it. And the people in poverty have no books, nor resources, nor toys and no literacy events that contribute to the acquisition of literacy.

As most seniors in the USA are members of AARP, it might be that we could solicit AARP for connections to all of the certified retired teachers and college professors in the USA and where they live and if they would be willing to come out of retirement for as long as they can and help all students to learn how to read, teaching where they live in their local schools and communities, using the very simple methods I’ve discovered, or very similar methods that replicate what I have discovered. Breaking a class of 30 students down and giving each one in the class an hour a week would take two extra tutor teachers, retired, working in conjunction with the classroom teacher to bring the ones who need it up to speed. The program could begin in nursery schools and kindergartens and go all the way through to the fourth grade if necessary. There are also innumerable tools that could be made available for the families so that they could be given an opportunity for literacy events to happen at home.

The important thing to realize is that with the reading one-on-one that I have done for almost a hundred students over twenty years, who all began at the very beginning with their skills in the process, they all not only acquired reading (all except one who refused to speak at all, for her mother wanted her to read and she did not want to do it), but they simultaneously improved with their language skill capacity along the way so that oral reading is exactly like the perfect intervention that makes all aspects of literacy better (orthographic and phonological: reading, writing, listening, and speaking), because oral reading employs and includes three of those four aspects during its utility: reading, listening, and speaking.

Thank you ever so much for allowing me to get out my soap box and present just some of my observations here,

Blessings and Namaste,

Tom Gilbert


Thanks so much for sharing some pretty significant thoughts. I am going to forward this to several friends for discussion purposes. One of my friends is Tom Lasley former dean of education at the univ of dayton. Tom, in retirement now heads up Learn to Earn here in dayton which is an early learning initiative. I am very interested in his reaction. Good stuff. Thanks.


But let me know please what you think of my ideas here.

If the 8 attachments do not come through, let me know and I will send them a different way.

Blessings and Namaste,

Tom Gilbert

Here are a few word attachments:

When (I discovered that I was able to teach folks labeled MR/DD how to read and get them intellectually elevated through literacy, I knew I was sitting on a golden goose. When I invented my children's learning toy, I stupidly assumed that I could just walk into Mattel or Hasbro and have them take a look at it and manufacture it. My original idea was to have a toy manufacturer make the pieces/parts of the toy anywhere and then some of the toys could be assembled by my MR/DD folks in a workshop enclave for sale and then I could also teach them to read on the side with a paid staff that I could hire with money made from my being the patent holder and then have a team of educator scientists study the folks learning how to read and publish the results over a ten year period. Big pipe dream. But I ran into a problem snag when I discovered that all toy companies have in house inventors that they pay salaries to and they never ever take outside submissions for toys for manufacture. So I ran out of money and could not pay the Federal upkeep fees for keeping the patent and the toy went "public" and can now be made by anyone freely.

I still want to show people that teaching those with MR/DD how to read (those who have the necessary pre-requisites) is not only possible but necessary.

Also in my research I figured out how literacy is in fact acquired and my process can be used for anyone who is illiterate anywhere.

I have all of the teaching materials available on a flash drive and will forward them to you shortly.)

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