Bright Spots: Rebecca Tolson, Keystone Literacy

Rebecca Tolson considers teaching reading as complex as rocket science.

Rebecca Tolson considers teaching reading as complex as rocket science. “And to teach all children to read, we (teachers) have to be skilled,” she said. Tolson, an educator for 25 years, has spent the past five years helping teachers navigate the complicated layers involved with language and literacy so they can help their struggling readers. She and her sister, Vicki Krnac of Concord, started Keystone Literacy in 2013 to share their innovative reading strategies with hundreds of teachers primarily in Cuyahoga and Stark counties.

Tolson, who lives in North Canton with her husband, Todd, the treasurer for North Canton City Schools, began her career as a fifth-grade teacher at a private school in Fairlawn. She quickly realized that her students’ academic performance relied heavily on their ability to read—and that she lacked the knowledge and skills to help her lagging readers.

“You don’t come out of the box (college) knowing that,” she said.

Tolson sought training to learn how to teach her students to read and says she “stumbled” into the world of dyslexia, a disorder that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language. Between 15 to 20 percent of the population exhibits some degree of dyslexia symptoms, whether they struggle spelling words, reading quickly, writing sentences, pronouncing words or understanding what they read.

“We don’t want to confuse a reading disability with a thinking disability,” said Tolson, who has become an expert in the field of dyslexia. “They can think, they just can’t decode the text.”

To train classroom teachers on how to teach reading, Tolson goes back to the roots and studies the sequence of basic reading skills from recognizing sounds to decoding words, oral language, listening, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Tolson also shows teachers how to use all of their senses to teach students to read.

She described the process she used with a girl she’s currently tutoring who needed to identify the subject of a passage. Instead of simply telling the girl to find the subject, Tolson said, “I want you to skim, looking for what’s repeated” while holding her hands up to her eyes like binoculars to signify “look” and rolling her hands to signal “repeat.”

“The hand signs help her remember that what is often repeated might be the subject,” she said.

Tolson also taught the girl how to extract important facts by coding, such as marking “M” next to a sentence that discussed how it was made and an “O” next to where it originated.

“Eventually, when she reads, she can see it in her head,” Tolson said. “But right now, she has to physically mark it.”