about special needs, Jewish Homeschooling

Homeschooling a Child with Dyslexia

When one of my children was eight years old, she was diagnosed with severe to profound dyslexia. The person who tested her suggested that I lower my expectations, focus on the basics of English reading, and give up on Hebrew altogether. Fortunately, we had already been homeschooling all of our children, which gave this child the optimal environment to learn at her own pace and in her own way. Now she is in high school and, thank G-d, doing well academically. She especially enjoys Judaic studies and is able to study Hebrew texts in the original.

Many parents of children with learning differences find that their children thrive when homeschooling. Without the pressure of school and the need to conform to a standardized curriculum, children with dyslexia defy all expectations and, in the long term, are no less successful than typical learners.

Here is what I learned in my experience of homeschooling two children with dyslexia.

First off, a dyslexia diagnosis is not a tragedy. Your child is not defective and does not need to be fixed. He or she just learns in a different way. It’s not better or worse. It’s different. In fact, Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide wrote a book entitled The Dyslexic Advantage, where they argue that dyslexia is not a disability but a unique learning style that creates certain advantages in school, at work, and at home.

Once your child is all grown up, nobody will care when they learned to read. It makes no difference long term, as long as the child is given the space to be themselves and learn in their own way. My completely unprofessional opinion is that the worst consequence of dyslexia is not the learning issues themselves, but the reaction of the people surrounding the child. When people constantly comment, with a deep sigh, that this child is 7, or 8, or 9, or 10, and is still not reading, that’s what hurts the child. Not only in terms of self-esteem, but in terms of motivation. If the rest of the world feels that they’re not measuring up, then they’ll internalize this attitude and believe that they’re not capable. And then they’ll stop trying. And then it will be much harder to get them beyond kindergarten reading level. Kids learn to read when they believe they can learn. Instead of bemoaning dyslexia or comparing their reading progress to other children their age, it’s very important to explain to these kids that they will get there eventually, just in their own way and at their own pace.

That’s probably the most important point, more important than which reading program you use. Normalize the child’s experience. Put them in touch with others, especially adults, with dyslexia, who can reassure them that they’ll do just fine. Tell them about famous people with dyslexia who were tremendously successful. Talk to them about the advantages of dyslexia that can help them succeed in life. Note that in order for your words of encouragement to reach your child’s heart you must truly believe in them yourself. If you still feel that dyslexia is a tragedy, you might want to read some relevant books, like The Dyslexic Advantage mentioned above.

Next in importance: capitalize on the child’s strengths. Reading and spelling do not define your child. There is a lot more to your child than their learning difference. Get to know them and truly appreciate them for the amazing young people they are. Point out their strengths, give the child time and space to pursue their talents, encourage them to spend time on the things they are good at. That will build up their confidence and resilience and give them the strength to tackle those areas where they are struggling.

A word of caution: do not praise your child for succeeding in pursuits that you do not truly value, especially in contrast to their difficulties with something that is more important to you. Do not tell them that even though they are struggling with reading they are good at cooking, unless you truly value cooking as much as you value reading. Be sincere in expressing your appreciation for what your child does well. If you can’t think of anything your child is good at that is at least as valuable to you as reading and spelling then perhaps you should spend more time with your child and discover aspects of them that you’d previously missed.

Next: exercise patience. No matter which program you choose, it might take a looong time for the child to get to grade level in reading and spelling, even if they are above grade level in other subjects. Find other ways for the child to get access to other subjects and things they’re interested in. This could be audiobooks, videos, hands on activities, and my personal favorite: read aloud to your child.

That should be a point on its own: in order for your child to be motivated to learn to read, they need to love books. They develop this love by spending much time with parents and siblings listening to books read to them. They must be good books, engaging enough so that the child can’t wait to listen to the next chapter.

Another advantage of reading aloud and audiobooks is that the child develops an advanced vocabulary, which makes it easier for them later on to recognize words they read.

Next: look into underlying issues of your child’s struggles and address them if necessary. Test the child’s hearing. If hearing is fine but the child still has trouble distinguishing between different sounds, speech therapy could make a big difference. Also test the child’s vision. If vision is fine, but the child sees letters as wiggling bouncing, they may benefit from vision therapy. Also look into symbol processing and see if your child could use extra help with that.

Finally, which reading program is best? There is no one answer. Each child is different, and choosing the right program often involves trial and error. And more patience. In my experience, more important than the program is the child’s readiness for it. Learning to read proceeds in a certain sequence. As long as you’re doing the right things — talking about sounds and syllables, rhyming, and other pre-reading stuff — you’re on the right track.

For the daughter I mentioned above, we hired a tutor who worked with her twice a week using the Orton Gillingham approach. For another child with dyslexia, we were fortunate enough to get a free trial of CAPIT Reading, developed by fellow Jewish homeschoolers Tzippy and Eyal Rav-Noy. It was still in the development stage then, and we got lots of support from Tzippy and Eyal. They’ve been very helpful and encouraging. Their website is capitlearning.com

But really, all these programs just give the kids the tools. It’s up to them to pick up a book and put these tools to good use. And for that they need motivation and self-confidence, as I mentioned above. My daughter is now reading the same thick books for pleasure as her non-dyslexic siblings. She came so far because she was very motivated and worked hard on her own.