How Winsor Learning was Founded
An excerpt from Right Brain Red, a book by Reyn Guyer.
We formed our educational company, Winsor Learning, with the intention of designing an educational product line that would help struggling readers get back on track. It all started with a remarkable woman who had a clear goal.
Arlene Sonday was a reading therapist when, in 1973, my wife, Mary, and I first asked her if she would work with our daughter Lisa. Lisa was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that alters the way the brain processes written material. As Mary and I began to understand the characteristics of this condition by observing Lisa, we soon recognized the same signs and symptoms in ourselves. This was a mixed blessing: The difficulties of dyslexia are real and substantial, but finally having a diagnosis helped us understand our own academic struggles over the years. We learned that dyslexia has a genetic component, so Mary and I were determined to help our kids escape the setbacks and negative labels that dyslexia had burdened us with during our school years.
Arlene tutored Lisa and, eventually, our other kids Ree, Katie, Cindy, and Tom, as well. Arlene had trained in the Orton-Gillingham Approach (named after neuropsychiatrist Samuel Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham) to reading instruction, which uses a phonics-based, multisensory strategy. Her success in getting all our kids reading well was nothing short of amazing.
“Reyn, I know you know my methods work,” she said to me one day. “Educators thank me all the time for helping their struggling readers, but I’m just one person, and I can’t possibly work with all the students who need help. What happens if you and I work together to create a tutoring system that could train the average person to do what I do?”
It was a noble goal, but I wasn’t sure that what she was suggesting was possible. Arlene Sonday had forgotten more about teaching students to read than most teachers would ever know. She had a master’s degree in special education and had served as the first president of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. Teaching the average person to do what she did seemed impossible.
I took some time to consider who would be the person to work with Arlene on such a project. In the end, I chose my daughter Cindy. Since Cindy was once tutored by Arlene, she knew the material from the student’s perspective. More importantly, Cindy has vast depths of patience. I knew patience would be crucial in helping Arlene work through the tedious task of writing out the entire system, lesson plan by lesson plan.
I also felt that Cindy’s detail-oriented mind would be essential, and this, too, proved true. In the development process, we discovered that because Arlene knew the material so well, she had a tendency to skip instructional steps, jumping unawares, say, from step one to step five. Cindy slowed things down and coaxed steps two, three, and four from Arlene.
It took Arlene and Cindy a year of intense effort, but, in the end, the results were amazing. They developed the first step-by-step program that gave an untrained tutor the tools to teach a struggling learner to read. Their work has become the model for The Sonday System and some of the subsequent training programs developed by Winsor Learning. It took a great team to make it happen.
When we released The Sonday System, I was certain we could emulate another seemingly successful reading system whose TV advertisements claimed that anyone who bought the product could learn to read. I was sure our product was better than theirs, so I convinced our team that making our own commercial would be the fastest way to get The Sonday System into the hands of the public and turn a profit.
We created a fine TV commercial, collaborating with a group that was very experienced in direct-response TV advertising. We conducted a test run of our commercial, and the results showed that it did not quite create enough consumer response to warrant a larger roll out. Suddenly our goal had met a very strong headwind. But, despite the setback, our team still believed that our product was the best on the market for helping struggling readers. And, as it has turned out, we had the good fortune to have Tom Guyer commit himself to the daunting task of taking the helm of our fresh new ‘start-up’ company.
So we pushed on the tiller of the Winsor Learning sailboat and reset our plan. The goal for the project had not changed, but the course we charted to get there was dramatically different. Instead of trying to sell our system directly to consumers, we designed a business model that would take our learning methods to school systems throughout the country. It was an intuitive move and we knew it would take time and much more capital. But we trusted our product and we held true to our goal of giving struggling readers the gift of reading. Today we are fortunate to be able to say, ”We still do.”