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Music Teacher Hopes to Tune U.S. Into Reading

February 20, 1988|IRIS KRASNOW | United Press International

WASHINGTON — With her fine-pitched ear and keyboard smarts, Wynn Baxter could have been a concert musician. Instead this feisty lady took her rhythm on the road and into the dictionary.

A former schoolteacher disgruntled with illiteracy, Baxter applied her talents as a professional organist to create "Magnetic Patterns of the English Language," a tape and text program based on the acoustical relationship between music and words.

Since its 1980 inception, Baxter has targeted her program to federal agencies, community colleges and correctional institutions. The step for 1988 is to reach homes across America.

"A lot of the problems in this country are simply because people can't read properly," said Baxter, who stands tall at 5 feet and speaks in a rapid-fire rasp.

'It's So Simple to Cure'

"I just saw this thing on TV about pharmacies filling out the wrong prescriptions. I bet those pharmacists can't read. It affects every bit of our society, and it's so simple to cure."

Baxter, a speed-reader with a photographic memory, devised magnetic patterns around the shared qualities of music and words--sound waves, overtones, pitch, accents and rhythm.

Students of "Magnetic Patterns" are presented with a dozen tapes and six write-in workbooks. The emphasis in the 30-hour course is on breaking down the entire structure of the English language by understanding its relationship to music and how vowels affect other vowels, called the "magnetism of vowels."

"Students start out learning simple words like 'dragging' and end up knowing how to read, spell and analyze 'perspicacity,' " Baxter said.

Baxter's suburban Virginia company, Education Training Concepts, boasts an impressive track record around Washington. Fred Todd, a former high school English teacher and now the branch chief for the U.S. Forest Service Job Corps, said: "I've never seen anything like it before."

8,000 Passed Tests

Upon completion of the course, 8,000 Job Corps members from the Departments of Interior and Agriculture passed the GED (Graduation Equivalency Diploma) tests with higher scores and greater frequency.

"It's the best program that I've seen in Job Corps since I've been in," said Todd, who joined in 1965.

"Normally in the public school system, reading programs are boring, especially for the type of students we have in Job Corps--dropouts. So we pilot-tested 'magnetic patterns' and found out that the educational gains were about 2 1/2 years for every 25 hours of study. It works, and it works for Ph.Ds also, because it's fun and students see the results relatively quickly."

Peggy Swift, an instructional methods specialist from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also gives Baxter's program an enthusiastic approval: "We have a lot of people who came in without high school diplomas who have managed to work their way up to professional jobs. I really credit Wynn's course with an awful lot of their success.

"I hope her materials become institutionalized across the board."

Baxter, a native of Los Angeles and longtime public school teacher, fanned her passion for music by playing an organ. During World War II she got a job in a recording studio and later became an organ instructor.

Hungry to master the mechanics of sound, Baxter immersed herself in heavy research. The result was the development of a methodology for teaching music based on "scale number," enabling performers to progress rapidly.

Became Reading Specialist

"Under the GI bill, I went back to teaching elementary school and found my third-graders were reading like my first-graders used to," said Baxter, who took on the problem by becoming a reading specialist.

Her curiosity about the English language was further amplified by a teen-age son who joined the military and wrote letters home laden with "hideous" spelling errors.

"One morning at 2 a.m., I sat up and thought, 'Do you suppose vowels have sound waves like notes?' (and) came up with 40 creative exercises thanks to my son." By the early '60s, she was running her own reading center.

An educator approached her with this advice: "If you don't come to Washington, you're crazy because that's where everything happens." She listened, and by 1969 Baxter was under contract to the Army to teach a summer youth program at the Pentagon. "It changed my life, it really did," she said.

Baxter moved on to run adult education programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as the Agriculture and Interior departments. Now she's eager to tackle mainstream U.S.A. through mail-order home-study courses.

Amazing 'That I've Survived'

"Frankly, I'm a squeak compared to the giant publishing agencies out there," Baxter said. "It's amazing that I've survived. But I won't be satisfied until I've reached the place where there is the greatest need: the 40 million Americans out there who can't read."

For Baxter, a widowed grandmother of eight, the rewards are ample.

"One student told me, 'I am so much brighter now after taking magnetic patterns because finally I have the words to think my thoughts.' If you don't know enough words, you keep thinking the same thoughts."

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