What do you do if you dropped out of high school and didn’t learn to read fluently until the age of 32? If you’re Erv Carpenter, you devote the following decades of your life to teaching struggling readers to read.
Carpenter was identified with dyslexia in 1983, and he’s been focused on reading ever since.
As an adult, he learned to read fluently. He graduated from college and became a special education teacher. He opened a large tutoring center in Madison, Wisconsin. And he developed a method of reading instruction, based on , that’s bringing hope to the kids he teaches.
His journey wasn’t easy, though. Carpenter was in public school in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, his school taught reading using a “see and say” approach instead of teaching phonics.
The theory was that if you exposed kids to simple books with pictures and words describing what was happening and had them read aloud, they’d learn to read printed text.
“In school, we were given Dick and Jane reading books,” explains Carpenter. “A lot of other kids just picked it up, but it didn’t work for me.” In fact, he never learned to read or spell fluently in school, and he grew up thinking he was “stupid.” He ended up acting out and got in trouble as a juvenile delinquent.
“It was horrible because I was blamed for not being able to read,” he says. “Being a bad kid was my way of getting past the ridicule.”
At 17, Carpenter was arrested for truancy and had to appear in court. The judge told him he had a choice—either go to jail or enlist in the army. Carpenter chose the army and shipped out to Vietnam in 1968.
When he returned Carpenter married and started a family. He also got a GED, since he’d never finished high school. And in 1982, after being medically retired from the army, he decided to give college a shot.
Carpenter started with a full course load. He stayed up night after night studying, but at the end of the first semester, he had failed every class. That’s when his Veterans Administration counselor asked, “Have you ever been tested for learning differences?”
Once he was identified with dyslexia, he was eligible for a program at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh called Project Success. Through that program he received tutoring and instruction. Eventually, he became a fluent reader and speller.
The experience transformed him so much that he decided to study . He graduated with three certifications in teaching.
Since the 1980s, Carpenter has been both a special education teacher and a private reading specialist. In 2005, he and his wife founded the Wisconsin Institute for Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia (WILDD). As part of his work at WILDD, Carpenter produced and has continued to develop the Carpenter Language Achievement and Strategies System, or CLASS. CLASS is a reading instruction system based on Orton–Gillingham methods.
Looking back, Carpenter is reflective.
“Someone taught me as an adult to read and now it’s what I wish for all these kids,” he says. “This is my mission until I’m no longer on this earth.”
Looking for more inspiration? See a collection of dyslexia success stories.
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.