Especially difficult to her were words that looked or sounded alike, such as "death" and "deaf," "bell" and "ball," and "left" and "felt."
By eighth grade, only gym and home economics made life bearable.
After 12th grade, having received just one "A," she graduated 267th out of 272 students at Fort Hill High School in Cumberland. Her IQ was 69.
"Retarded," she said.
After school, she married, but had difficulty filling out job applications. She convinced a family member to fill one out for her and was hired as a file clerk.
"I caused annoyance and confusion" among co-workers, she said.
"My fear and guilt grew. Each day I was hiding from those closest to me, including my husband," Howell said.
Relief came when she was 32 years old, after she was told that not being able to read did not mean she was retarded. She then learned that she had dyslexia and a learning disability, possibly caused by childhood malnutrition.
As her reading skills improved under guidance from Temple, Howell began tutoring a boy named George.
"George and I struggled along together. It helped me retain what I was learning from Jean," she said.
George is now a psychiatrist.
Some of the audience members asked questions about proper tutoring techniques. Around 85 active volunteers tutor 85 to 90 adult English and non-English speakers in the community, said George Miller, president of the Literacy Council.
Howell said using phonics is crucial, as is repetition. She said she is impressed by tutors now, who have to deal not only with illiteracy, but discipline problems as well.
One woman in the audience asked Howell how she learns to spell new words.
"I don't even try," she replied.
Not even the word antique, the woman asked. Howell and her husband, who live in Boyds, Md., are in the antique business.
"I know it by sight quickly, but I could never spell it, never," she said.