A 24-Year Career in Reading Intervention: Q&A With Former Teacher Betty Lewing

It’s the 20th anniversary of our READ 180 literacy intervention solution. What better way to honor the occasion than by speaking with somebody who used the program in her classroom in the very beginning?

We recently chatted with Betty Lewing, who taught the original READ 180 curriculum and then piloted the enterprise edition. Her career as a teacher at Lufkin Independent School District in Texas and Windham School District (for prisoners in the custody of the Texas Department of Justice) lasted for 24 years; she used READ 180 for seven of those years. She recently answered questions for Shaped not only related to the program itself but also some of her greatest student success stories and why teaching this population of students was so meaningful to her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Shaped: As a reading intervention teacher, you used READ 180 over several years, including the original version that debuted 20 years ago. At the time, what was so unique about it?

Betty Lewing: It was great to see how quickly the kids in high school who struggled could turn things around. READ 180 had every aspect of learning. They could see it, they could touch it, they could hear it, they could do everything. Some of my students were dyslexic, and it was like suddenly, for the first time, some of them were able to get it. I just saw such outstanding results, and that’s what made me fall in love with it.

Shaped: What is your greatest student success story with READ 180?

Betty: Well, of course Jorvorskie Lane is one—he played football—because he struggled. I saw him come through and turn things around. He was very, very good at playing football, but his grades were not so good. He tried to take the SAT test. Colleges all over the Unites States were offering him scholarships, but if he didn’t pass the SAT, that wasn’t going to be good. The athletic director saw that he hadn’t done well and that he was struggling, so he told him to come and see me. I had him work diligently, and the rest is history. He came up tremendously on the SAT test. His grades got better. He started reading and winning that battle that he had struggled with. And he also is dyslexic. He then went on to get a college scholarship and play football and went on to the NFL. That in itself is certainly a success story.

I also had one little girl who had zero self-esteem. I would take my kids to read to elementary schools and nursing homes and daycares and special education classes. I was just trying to get them reading and get their self-esteem changed—to believe that they could do it. One little girl would cry because she couldn’t read out loud. For this particular child, we would go to a daycare near the school. She was so afraid to read.

What I saw change in this child was amazing because she went in and she said, “What if I mess up?” I said, “Baby, if you mess up, these are little children. It’s okay. They’re going to love the fact that you’re reading to them. If you mess up on something or don’t remember, look at the pictures and tell the story.” I was sitting there with her, and by the time we left that day, this little girl who was so shy asked the lady if she could have a job there. She just started coming out of her shell. That’s two totally different ends of the spectrum, but to me, that was what READ 180 was doing. It was changing her whole aspect on how she saw herself, on believing in herself, on being able to read and share with others. Even though she messed up some, it just turned things around.

Shaped: Why do you think having intervention students read to younger students is so effective?

Betty: Because when you feel like you’re less than everyone else—when you, all the way through school, have sat in classes where other students would read out loud but you would never, ever raise your hand or read out loud because you had no confidence in yourself, because you did not want to be embarrassed, because you didn’t want to mess up—all of a sudden, when you go and start reading to little children, they’re so forgiving. They’re so excited.

To have someone read to you is such a beautiful thing. It just made them begin to believe they could be like everybody else. You just had to put them in a position where they could be successful, and once you show somebody that they can be successful, then they begin to be.

All the aspects of READ 180 just enhanced that. They listen to the story and have to read back into the computer, and then they could hear themselves. You just have to start somewhere.

Shaped: What other types of strategies did you use to encourage your literacy intervention students?

Betty: They would pick two simple children’s books and read to themselves, and then they would pick a friend in the class to read to. That’s a hard thing to do because you’re reading to someone else, but your friend is your friend. They’re going to help you if you mess up.

Then, the student reads the story out loud to the class. Every time, you’re reading rote. Then, we would go somewhere else to have them read. It’s just putting them out there over and over again but in a safe environment with safety nets so that they cannot fail. That’s just proof that “Yes, I can do this.” It showed them how and gave them the tools they needed to be able to do it.

Shaped: I know you also used READ 180 to teach prison inmates in Texas. Can you tell me a little about that?

I [used] bits and pieces of READ 180. [There were] no computers, so we didn’t have those elements, but I still had books and things that I brought in that were mine. I know that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it, but I used what I had, and I’m telling you it made a difference. Once in a while we would have a day where I would just put the books all out. Those men were quieter on that day than any other day because they would sit and read books.

They loved the nonfiction ones. They could learn so much information without a lot of struggle. So that was a positive. And then, I had the books that had the leveled stories: levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. ... I would use those sometimes with the men as far as teaching them and getting them writing. 

Shaped: How did helping students in general make you feel?

Betty: Well, that was the paycheck in itself! I mean, the paycheck is important, but the big paycheck was seeing these kids totally turn around. Again, just to believe that they could do something that never before had they thought they could do. And see them do it!

Shaped: Do you have any general advice for those who are considering becoming a reading intervention teacher, either on specific strategies to use in the classroom or just working with this population of children?

Betty: One thing that I connect to READ 180 specifically about is that if they are just learning and struggling, they don’t want to read baby stuff—what I mean is, the typical things that you would find to teach someone to read. But, through READ 180, you’re able to get things that are easy readability but a higher interest rate. I think that’s very important, because they’ve got to buy into what they’re doing. Once they can feel like they’re reading “big people stuff,” they really enjoy it. They put more effort into it.

You just have to find what works, even if you have to turn on the soft music and hand them these books and let them take their shoes off and lay on the floor on their bellies—whatever it takes to take the stress away from the fact that they’ve got to learn to read. It’s got to be a comfortable feeling rather than a threatening feeling.

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Learn more about READ 180 Universal, which is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration.