Corban Coffman and mom Gerrilee featured image

Northeast Iowa Community College program helps student conquer dyslexia

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

DUBUQUE—As students and adults, we often take reading and writing ability for granted, having usually devoted a large portion of our K-12 years to developing English language skills. Yet, for students who are dyslexic, navigating the written word can seem impossible and the longer the struggle continues, the more these students risk falling behind.

Corban Coffman was in second grade when his mother and teachers noticed he was struggling with reading and writing. In hopes of finding answers about his difficulty with language,  Corban’s  mother, Gerrilee, drove him to Iowa City to complete diagnostic screenings.

After learning that Corban was dyslexic, the Coffman family found assistance through the Northeast Iowa Community College Learning Center. Soon, with the help of Judy Giesen, a tutor in the NICC Dyslexia Tutoring Program, the family determined Corban’s specific condition. He had Disorder of Written Expression, a type of learning disability in which a person's writing ability falls substantially below normally expected range based on the individual's age, educational background and measured intelligence. The condition is associated with dyslexia.

“In second and third grade, when children begin to struggle with reading and writing, it becomes very apparent to the teacher and parents,” Giesen explained, who has worked as a tutor in the College’s Dyslexia Tutoring Program for many years. Giesen improves the reading and writing skills of students using the Barton Reading & Spelling System, a structured literacy program influenced by Orton-Gillingham. The phonetic-based lessons use multi-sensory, direct, explicit, structured and sequential interventions to improve students’ skills. 

During the first two or three years of dyslexia tutoring, Corban struggled to write and put together cohesive sentences. Several years later, he made noticeable progress and could write several paragraphs.

“Judy Giesen is an excellent tutor and was a huge advocate for his education. She was great. Extremely nice, good sense of humor and patient,” Gerrilee said.

Corban is one of the few students to complete the 10-book series in the NICC program from start to finish. The texts become increasingly difficult, so that the instruction matches each student’s abilities.

“I’m glad I finished the program,” said Corban. “I’m really happy to have completed it because it’s a long process.”

Giesen explained that at the beginning, Corban could read shorter, basic stories, but he was often lost and had difficulty sounding out words. Some words, like “banana” with the repeated “a’s” and “n’s” were difficult for him to spell. The final books he completed in the last year introduced more challenging words and spellings, such as “gypsy” or “lieutenant.”

“I’ll never forget the day Corban could spell a hard word, like ‘lieutenant,’” Giesen said, smiling about her student’s progress. “When he was a high school freshman, he wasn’t sure he wanted to tackle the last book. It contains much medical and scientific terminology with lots of Latin and Greek roots of words and derivations. He stayed with it, though. At the end of our program, reading and writing was becoming natural to him.”

Corban and the family’s hard work succeeded, and the Dyslexia Tutoring Program arrived at the right time.

“Without this program and Judy as his teacher, we would probably still be struggling with this. I’m thankful the program worked for us. Corban needed help. She really helped Corban to grow in his writing and that gave him so much confidence,” Gerrilee said.

Corban is currently a sophomore at Hempstead High School in Dubuque. He is fascinated by European and World War II history. “I’m considering becoming a history teacher someday,” he said.

For more information about Adult Education and Literacy services available at Northeast Iowa Community College, visit www.nicc.edu/adulteducation. Dyslexia services are offered in partnership with Unified Therapy Services. These services are provided to children as well as adults.