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Profiles in Special Education:
Lindamood-Bell Co-Founder Nanci Bell Speaks Out: Reading Integration is the Key to Success
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes’ co-founder Nanci Bell has always thought big. The for-profit network of learning centers that she created to improve student literacy in 1986 with partner Patricia Lindamood (now deceased) has spiraled from its original 2000 square foot space in San Luis Obispo, California to 39 centers nationwide and one in London, successfully breaking through reading barriers for students struggling with dyslexia, auditory/sensory processing disorders, ADD/ADHD, and autism.

“We always had a mission,” reflects Nanci Bell when reached by phone at her San Luis Obispo headquarters. “Back in 1986, we were given advice to rent the cheapest space available in an industrial area. I said, ‘No, we’re going to be somebody someday,’ and we rented a bigger space.”

Lindamood-Bell’s initial growth spurt was almost accidental: “We had parents bring their kids to us from surrounding states. We never did any marketing so they heard about us entirely through word of mouth. One summer we had a couple families staying with us from Alaska. They said, ‘All the people in our neighborhood need Lindamood-Bell. We need you to be in Alaska,’” recalls Bell. So Bell started a six week intensive clinic in Alaska, with staff vying for the opportunity to pioneer this new outreach approach to reading intervention in the land of Northern Lights. Success breeds success, and Lindamood-Bell was on its way to becoming a nationally recognized name: “We did a number of those intensive clinics, and pretty soon parents would say, ‘We need you to stay here; we don’t want you to leave.’ And that’s how we ended up opening a center in Georgia, and a center in Colorado....So it was all grass roots. We didn’t do any marketing at all,” recounts Bell with the same sense of wonder she had two decades ago. 

Bell’s can-do attitude has defined not only Lindamood-Bell’s business model, but also its academic intervention strategy. “We provided a more balanced approach because we were looking at both decoding and comprehension,” explains Bell, who was trained as a reading specialist and worked as a teacher before teaming up with Lindamood.  The company’s intensive 1:1 teaching model – following a four hour evaluation, instructors work with students four hours a day, five days a week for an average of eight weeks, often during the summer—was “very innovative at that time…To take eleventh graders who were reading at a second grade level, we knew that we had to see them intensively in order to get two to four years’ gain in a matter of weeks. Otherwise we would lose those students,” she adds with a note of urgency.

Key to Lindamood-Bell’s success is a trove of scientifically tested (and carefully copyrighted) reading strategies that have been demonstrated to improve literacy. According to Bell, pedagogical trends in reading instruction have shifted from phonological to “look-say” to whole language and now back to phonological. “But there is no one silver bullet,” she argues, debunking the one-size-fits-all approach to reading remediation. “When [schools] have an emphasis on phonological awareness as their primary strategy for readers, if you don’t get to orthographic processing [word recognition], then you’re going to have children sounding out every word. That’s why it’s important to see reading as an integration of all of these processes.”

While Lindamood-Bell points to the success of its integrated approach with individual learners, its school services projects like the one in Pueblo, Colorado (district scores on the state achievement tests for third graders skyrocketed from abysmal to the second highest in the state after contracting with the learning company) and, more recently, the Vista Unified School District in southern California validate its potential for wider impact in closing the achievement gap. To date, the biggest impediment to working with more school districts is the time and early expense involved in certifying teachers, a process that can take up to a year. (Lindamood-Bell will not train trainers under the premise that it would undermine their accountability.)  “I would like to figure out a way to certify teachers faster…Maybe do a summer institute here?” ponders Bell.

Ever the long-range planner, Bell ticks off a laundry list of projects she’d like to accomplish to insure that Lindamood-Bell’s reading strategies reach a broader market. The company is doing more research on autism and hyperlexia (a condition wherein students demonstrate a significantly higher ability to read words than comprehend) to improve literacy for these learners. And in the category of thinking big, Bell envisions opening more centers in Europe one day and even embarking on a global literacy initiative within underdeveloped nations. (“We have the infrastructure to do that,” she adds.) Then there’s family literacy to tackle: “I would like to take all of our 40 learning centers and do group instruction for family literacy in the evenings for very little charge…I’m really interested in giving back to our communities,” says Bell with a sense of purpose that makes it completely clear that she’ll accomplish what she sets out to do. Stay tuned for lots more from the reading specialist who refused to think small in 1986: when Nancy Bell plans big, big things happen.#
The New York City Lindamood-Bell Learning Center is located on 26 East 64th Street (64th and Madison). (212) 644-0650.



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