Early success inspired life's work Career: Margaret Rawson, 98, is honored for her contributions to the teaching of dyslexic students. Her study grew from her efforts in the 1930s.


Margaret Rawson remembers her first encounter with dyslexia. It was in the late 1930s, an era long before the term "learning disorder" was in fashion, and she was the librarian at a private school in Rose Valley, Pa.

"There was a boy named Peter who was having trouble with reading," she said, "so they used to send him to me during reading class to keep him out of the other students' hair."

Rawson was determined to help the frustrated youngster. Her quest led to Samuel T. Orton, an education pioneer who had developed a teaching method to help dyslexics overcome their language-processing difficulties and learn to read -- and to work that would take up much of her life.

Now nearing her 99th birthday, Rawson was honored recently by the Maryland chapter of the International Dyslexia Association for her contributions to the field -- including a landmark study examining the lives of dyslexic students over 55 years.

During an interview at her Frederick farmhouse, Rawson told how she used what is now called the Orton-Gillingham method -- a structured, multisensory linguistic approach -- to help that first student. "He learned very quickly this way and was soon up to the seventh-grade level of his classmates."

Buoyed by this success, Rawson used the method with other students.

In 1947, Rawson and her family moved to Frederick -- her husband to work at Fort Detrick, while she began teaching sociology at Hood College. After her husband died in 1963, a friend at the National Institutes of Health encouraged her to revisit her old records, follow up on her dyslexic students and publish the findings.

The result was "Dyslexia Over the Lifespan: A 55-Year Longitudinal Study," which brought Rawson national acclaim and offered assurance for parents of dyslexic students that the learning disorder does not have to be a bar to success.

Rawson examined the lives of 56 boys who had been at the Rose Valley School for at least three of their elementary years and had varying degrees of dyslexia. For a control group, she used a similar number from the school who had no trouble learning to read.

"By the time I was doing this, they were all grown up, through school and college, mostly through graduate school and established in various jobs," Rawson said.

What she found did not surprise her. "The study shows that if you identify children between the ages of 6 and 12 and give them the right kind of systematic teaching or interactive therapy, there's no reason they should fail because of dyslexia," Rawson said.

Her study showed that all but two members of the study group earned bachelor's degrees. Both men who chose to work instead of pursuing higher education rose to positions of responsibility in their fields, she said.

All 56 dyslexic men were never able to read as fast as they would have liked, Rawson said. "But they read well, and they read themselves through any kind of graduate school."

All reported having trouble with spelling. Many with the most severe dyslexia were found to have learned to talk late, in some cases only with extensive professional help, Rawson said.

In 1995, when she updated her study, all members of the study group said they enjoyed reading. And many had to do so frequently because of their jobs, she said.

Although the diagnosis of dyslexia is more common today, Rawson said, educators still don't have a handle on the full scope of the problem. "We don't have enough teachers who know how to teach children who have trouble learning by the current methods -- or lack of methods," she said.

She compared the "whole language" method of teaching reading that has been in vogue to the difference between learning to doggy-paddle and learning to swim. "You can doggy-paddle your way to the shore, but it's easier if you learn to swim," Rawson said.

Rawson, a co-founder of the Jemicy School for dyslexic children in Owings Mills and a consultant to the Frederick County Dyslexia Project, is quick to note that separation of dyslexic children is not always necessary, especially if they can get extra help in a traditional school setting.

Educators, she said, should take a "whole child" approach that allows leeway to tailor their teaching methods to each child's needs.

"One of the things I've tried hardest to do -- and often succeeded at -- is to give hope to parents by showing them what the men in my study did," Rawson said. "I tell them, 'If they can do it, your child can, too -- if he gets the right help.' "

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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