Letterland inventor holds court at Raleigh celebration

dkane@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2014 

Nearly 50 years ago, Lyn Wendon, as a part-time literacy teacher in England, came up with a new way for kids to learn letters and the sounds they make – the first steps toward reading. Working with kids who struggled to read, she discovered she could help them by tapping into their imaginations.

She created a fantasy world called Letterland that has become so popular it is used as a reading tool for kids around the world and throughout North Carolina. On Saturday, the Wake County Public School System celebrated its success with Wendon’s reading strategies by turning Raleigh’s Pullen Park into Letterland so hundreds of developing readers could meet the characters that launched them on their way.

The event had the look of Disney World as kids ran up and hugged characters such as Clever Cat and Talking Tess, who were stationed about the park. Little did the kids know that some of those donning the often furry costumes were the teachers and administrators who embraced Letterland as a teaching tool two years ago.

Over at a pavilion next to the park’s gleaming carousel sat Wendon in a stuffed chair, playing the role of Quarrelsome Queen. She’s now 85 and was completely out of character as she sweetly sat for numerous parents who wanted their children in pictures with the pioneer.

Lori Houston of Greenville appeared on the verge of tears when her son, Cole, 6, a kindergartner, sat next to Wendon for a picture.

“We love this, absolutely love this,” she said, asking Wendon to sign her son’s paper crown.

Houston said she had a learning disability as a child, and it made reading a struggle. She won that battle, but she feared her son might face the same circumstance, until he started talking about Letterland.

“Now he does better than everybody in his class,” she said. “It’s wonderful. He’s reading above a first-grade level.”

Malia Newsome, 6, of Raleigh, is another kindergartner fired up by Letterland. Here’s how she describes Quarrelsome Queen: “She doesn’t like it when people are loud,” Newsome said. “She goes qua, qua, quiet!”

Her mom, Yentel Newsome, beamed at her daughter’s recitation.

“At kindergarten, when I was in school, I wasn’t learning letters and sounds, and now what they are accomplishing in kindergarten is really amazing,” she said.

Since the letters are characters, stories of how they interact help show how letters combine to make different sounds. Wendon said one of her students many years ago, a 7-year-old girl, came up with a story to help explain how the A sounds different in the word “saw” from others such as “sat” or “cat.” An apple, representing the letter A, was splashed with water, representing the letter W, that was salty. As a result, the apple tasted AW-ful. Get it?

Sherri Miller, the Wake school system’s director of K-12 literacy, said she and her predecessor, Sherri Phillips Merritt, came up with the idea of turning Pullen Park into Letterland shortly after they saw how the concept was helping young children learn to read. Merritt died suddenly in her sleep at age 43 nearly two years ago, so she missed her dream’s fruition, but her parents and children were at Pullen Park to experience it.

Wendon continues to live in England, in the town of Dorking just outside London. Her son, Mark, is the managing director for the Letterland company, which publishes books, CDs, games and software, and grandson Tom is director of marketing. Both were also at Pullen Park, taking on roles such as Harry Hat Man.

Miller said the plan is to have a Letterland day at Pullen Park every year. The Wendons have been visiting the Tweetsie Railroad in Watauga County for eight years, giving kids from the western part of the state an opportunity to experience Letterland over several days in the spring, making it logistically achievable to add a second stop in Raleigh.

Wendon admits she didn’t envision her Letterland creation reaching the level of event days. But that development has become an important part of the Letterland experience that she wants to support as much as she can.

“What may look like just a day of fun and games is actually a very powerful way of validating their learning,” Wendon said. “It really is a kind of a celebration of their achievements.”

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando

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