Illiterate adults learn to read – Teacher finds successful method

By Donna H. Eliason
Staff Writer, Evergreen Times

Change can be difficult. Yet relocation from New York City to San Jose brought a fresh start in l984 for Patty Lear and her two children, Tammi and Tom.

Patty Lear of the Villages holds one of the books in her series, “Sight Phonics.” She is anxious to get her reading program out to anyone who needs it. 

With a teaching certificate focused on the educationally handicapped and a bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s College, she accepted a job over the phone with Twelve Acres School for developmentally handicapped adults in San Jose. 

This resident of The Villages in Evergreen eventually transferred to the San Jose Unified School District, in which she still teaches today at Gunderson High School.

A way with special students
“Special education kids always found me,” Lear said. “It’s a natural thing. I just seem to understand them.” She remembers going to the library with her own children for story time. “I looked down thinking I was holding my daughter’s hand. There was a four-year-old special education child clutching my hand. I don’t see them as different. That’s what they pick up on.”

Lear accepted a position teaching the severely handicapped at Pioneer High School for l5 years before moving to Gunderson High School. “I work with some of the funniest kids in the world.” 

She continues, “With three teachers to l2 students, we worked hard to help students learn counting and to read basic survival words. Everyone wanted to learn to read, but this was very difficult because all learning had to be individualized.”

Over a l2-year time span Lear developed techniques that emphasized repetition, letter and sound recognition. Trial and error eliminated ineffective methods. She retained motivating elements that ensured student success by learning the maximum amount of information within the least amount of time.

Helping students who fail every test
A teacher came into Lear’s classroom holding her new class list. She was very upset to see four students enrolled in her Adult Basic Education class who she had the previous three semesters. Since she had already tried every reading method she knew, what was she going to do with them for another semester?

Lear offered her materials, even though she said the self-taught reading program was repetitious and without “fluff.” 

The teacher, desperate for a different strategy, agreed to try. Six months later, all four students passed the state benchmark tests.

“This is the reading material that even surprised us,” Lear says. From this experience she realized her program could help illiterate adults as well as special education teens. One reason for the success is that students can read 500 “adult level” words such as “hospital” and “catalog” after completing the first book.

Self taught, self-paced program
“Sight Phonics” is a color-coded series of l5 books, supported by audio CDs. Colors show the breakdown between letters and letter sounds forming words. Adult functions and life skills are emphasized through tactile, auditory and visual clues. 

Lear’s son-in-law, a Web site designer, prepared a site for the program five years ago at Now her son is computerizing the materials, with a plan for a multi-language format.

Her first sale was to a woman whose son in prison couldn’t read. From her and others, Lear heard the heartfelt overwhelming appreciation that comes when people learn to do what they thought was impossible—to read.

Peoples’ dreams, aspirations changed
Another woman brought her 24-year-old son, Joey, into her friend’s Adult Basic Education class. Her friend said, “I asked him why he wanted to join the class.”

“I want to read,” he replied.

Within a short time he moved from being a non-reader to a basic vocabulary reader. His teacher asked, “Joey, what are you doing?”

“I’m reading this newspaper,” he answered, “I’m reading this article.” Both he and his mother were overjoyed with how learning to read changed his life.

Another lady called saying, “I’ve been living by numbers. The only job I could get was delivering newspapers. Since I can’t read, I’ve remembered the third house or the fifth house gets a paper.” She continued, “My husband bought your program for me. Now I will be going to college to be a chef, and the first meal I cook will be for you.”

A stroke victim doctor said, “I love your program. The only thing I lost from my stroke was the ability to read. I’ve regained that by going through your program.”

Lear is looking for ways to sell her program to adults and teens with literacy difficulties. Since it already has changed lives and given people hope, she knows there are many others who could profit from this experience. 

“I’m hoping to get this program to everyone who needs it, because to suddenly be able to read after a lifetime of being illiterate is a life-altering blessing,” adds Lear. “Reading doesn’t have to be hard if taught properly. In fact, it can be very, very easy.”

When Lear isn’t teaching or marketing her reading program, she carves out time to do what she loves: baby-sit her grandson and new granddaughter, who was born Christmas Day in Santa Cruz.