Learning to read without books: Supporting your dyslexic homeschooler

shawnapicmo2Written by Shawna Wingert of Not the Former Things.

My youngest son is nine years old. He is technically in the third grade. He loves animals, building structures in the woods, and jumping on our trampoline as often as possible.

He can do complex math in his head, and knows more about Ancient Greece than I do.

He is also unable to read even the most basic book.

He shies away from any activity that he thinks might possibly have anything to do with reading, including Sunday School, homeschool co-op classes, and has even asked me not to read aloud to him anymore at night.

My son has repeatedly said, over and over again, that he wants to learn to read, but not with books.

I believe my response has always been something like, “No way Jose. We love books in this family. You have to learn to read with books.”

My son is profoundly dyslexic. He wants to read – desperately. He has been asking for years to learn. This is not about reluctance. It is about his brain’s ability to decipher and comprehend the code we call the English language.

And the more he has tried and failed, the more I have researched and read books about dyslexia, and the more I have freaked out and pushed harder.

One day, as his reading lesson once again went down the path of tears, resistance, anger and frustration, I sent my son to his room to calm down. I sighed to myself and looked down at the page he had been struggling to get through in the story book that accompanies our curriculum.

The sentences in this book were essentially along the lines of, “The six foxes jump.”

He is nine. He can name half the elements on the periodic table, and has regularly told me all about how he would survive in the Amazon Rain Forest. (Between you and me, he probably could).


It struck me in that moment that my child has interests, and on some level maturity, way beyond the books we were using to help him learn to fluidly read.

It also struck me that he never resisted learning when we were using other tools (i.e. flashcards, air writing, 3D letters, etc). It was only when we pulled out the really basic primers that he lost his mind and quit.

Could he really be on to something?

What if I allowed him to learn to read without the books themselves? Would he gain back his natural joy and curiosity about reading? More importantly, would he actually learn to read?

Although everything in my heart screamed, “No way!” I decided to give it a try.

Here is what our new lessons in “reading” look like:

1. We read, but not for “reading.”

Although we still read books, I read them aloud and they are not part of our dedicated time for “reading” lessons. They are books about historic figures, and age-appropriate chapter books that he enjoys.

What I love is that he no longer associates books with pain and frustration.

We also use wordless books. He creates stories to go along with the pictures, and he narrates them to me, using age appropriate sentence structure and vocabulary. Finally, audio books remain a regular part of his routine.

2. We use the trampoline.

We draw words on the trampoline in sidewalk chalk and he jumps to them on my prompt. We practice sight words and create sentences, without so much as a book jacket or pencil in sight.

Sometimes, when reading practice is over, I will climb in with him and complete the rest of the day’s learning. (He thinks it is more fun sitting on the trampoline. I think it is more fun to get it done without fuss and before 1 p.m., so it works.)

3. We modify the curriculum to be multi-sensory.

Because repetition and consistency are so important in helping the dyslexic child learn to read, we still use our All About Reading curriculum, but I modify it to allow for greater flexibility.

For instance, in practicing the program’s sight words, he will often say and spell the word, then tap out the letters or sounds on his forearm, then “air write” the word, and finally write the word in his notebook.


4. We incorporate my son’s interests for practice.

My son loves Minecraft. He LOVES it.

Did I mention he loves it?

There are signs that one can create in Minecraft – like a blank sheet of adolescent approved paper. He asked me one day to help him write out a sentence (this never, ever happened before.)

Once I realized this was an option, I decide to try and put it to good use. Now, as part of his learning, I write out a word or sentence, and he then inputs it into the Minecraft screen.

Every day, we go through the signs he has created, and he practices reading the sentences. Some of them are the ones he came up with, and others are the ones I suggest (which also happen to be from the All About Reading practice list).

Please smile with me and say “Win-Win!”

5. We are working our way back to actual books.

I know I will need to help my son move back into practicing reading fluency. Whether he likes it or not, the best way to do this is with books.

In trying to be intentional about this goal, I have started to read him age-appropriate, fun books in which he is genuinely interested.

What he doesn’t know is that these books are on the reading level just above where he is currently performing. I imagine a day, in the not too distant future, when he will be able to read these same books aloud to me, without fear, shame, and frustration.

These changes have not required all that much (I am so happy to say). Our day-to-day learning is actually easier for me, now that he is not fighting it.

More importantly, although I did not think it possible, my son has made more progress in the last couple months, than in years prior.

Most importantly, he now has a sense of control (small and measured, but control just the same) over how he learns to read.

It has been a learning curve for both of us, but the results have been so encouraging. There is more learning here than ever before.

I just might have another reader in this family after all.

Do you have a child who is dyslexic or struggles with reading? What sorts of outside-of-the-box learning techniques have you used?

About Shawna Wingert

Shawna Wingert is the creator of Not The Former Things, a blog dedicated to homeschooling children with learning differences and special needs. She loves finding out-of-the-box ways for out-of-the-box learners to thrive. She is the author of two books, Special Education at Home and Everyday Autism. You can follow Shawna and Not The Former Things on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.


  1. My almost 9yo dyslexic son sounds so very similar to yours! We also use AAR (after MANY other failed attempts at reading) and are having more success in the past few months than ever! He used to enjoy the story days, but has recently come to dread them after things became harder. I don’t know if you deal with the same thing, but for him some days he will sail through, and others will be extremely hard just reviewing from yesterday! Suddenly, it seemed like he flipped, and reading the individual words were easier than decoding the sentences. (And not being able to read fluently, he was getting discouraged because he would forget what he just read if he couldn’t read fast enough.) So I came up with an idea that when we do the stories, I would read a sentence or two from the page first, then he would read the same sentence! Success! Initially, I felt like I was just “giving” him the answers, but he is still READING….. it is just taking some of that pressure off. Plus he gets to actually enjoy the story because he can comprehend it. A simple thing, but just wanted to share! We are excited that he will be finishing level 1 tomorrow.

    • Melissa, thank you so much for sharing. First of all, congrats on finishing up Level 1. We still have quite a few lessons to go, but I can’t wait to move on.
      I love that mentioned how all over the place our children’s abilities can be. My understanding is that is just part of dyslexia – some days reading works, some days even the most basic is a struggle.
      Thank you for sharing the reading tip! We will try it for sure.

  2. One of the best things we did in our family was to get the child/children with dyslexia (two actually at our house) signed up in the National Library of Congress. On the site there is a spot for learning disabilities- print out the forms, have a doctor sign them, and send them in. The library sends you a digital reader and you can check out up to almost 10 books at a time!! The shipping back and forth of “books” and everything is free- no cost involved on your end, but the chance to listen to almost any book they could imagine is PRICELESS!! It gives them the freedom to gain a love of books on their own. It is very empowering and has encouraged reading of print books at our house too, although that is still a VERY VERY long process! It is a wonderful thing, especially if mommy has to read to others and the dyslexic child wants to read a different book, or if you are traveling, the players can be transported easily. We have had ours for almost 10 years now and it has made a world of difference!! Such an incredible program that many people are unaware of!

  3. We have been through this 3x’s over to various degrees for various reasons with all three of my children. I found & used The Spalding Method with my first two, now I am using Logic of English with my youngest. Reading, or learning to read has been so, so hard for my children. Even more so because people automatically seem to assume it’s because we homeschool. I love these suggestions!!! Thank you for writing this post, praying for the rest of your school year.
    Sunshine’s latest post: Vacation, weight yo-yo, and the best decaf coffee I have had

    • “People seem to assume it’s because we homeschool” – exactly! Thank you for saying it, because it does add to an already immense pressure. I love hearing from other mommas who have children struggling with the same thing. Thank you for sharing and for saying it has been “so, so hard”. Something about having another person say it and understand it is so encouraging.

    • Yes, thank you for saying that people assume reading is bad because we homeschool! Because I was having so much trouble helping my son learn to read, I tried a public charter school this year. When I went into the meeting to tell them to test my son, who is in first grade, I could practically HEAR the eyes roll. One person in the meeting told me, “We don’t like to test kids until the END of first grade…ESPECIALLY if they’ve been homeschooled.” They actually said that. That said, it is very encouraging to know that we are not alone in the struggle to educate our kids that process things differently. Thanks again!

  4. I do not have a dyslexic child, but I have come across this font made for dyslexia that might help. http://www.dyslexiefont.com/ It is designed by a person with dyslexia who realized that the similarity of the letter shapes impeded learning. This font gives each letter more variety so they are less likely swapped in the brain. I don’t know if this would help your son, but I thought I’d offer.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share! I have heard of the font and it seems to make sense (making b, d, and p look different would certainly help my son!).

      • My dyslexic son really likes the Dyslexie font. I convert almost everything he reads to this font. I also increase the font size to 18 – 22, depending on the day and material. By increasing the size, his eyes don’t have to converge as much, they can stay in a more neutral position. This saves some energy and allows him to read a little longer before before fatigue sets in.

  5. I’m not dyslexic, but I learned to read very, very late (I quip that I much improved in my reading after college). Homeschooling made this possible — rock high school and do well-enough in college despite my weak reading. I listened to audio books. My mom read out loud to me. I liked books and stories; I hated the mechanics of reading (because it was really, really hard for me).

    Hang in there. Keep up the great work of customizing your son’s learning experience. That is one of the biggest blessings of doing things outside a “system” that needs you fit its mold.

    Luke Holzmann’s latest post: Moral Relativism and How NOT to Teach the Difference Between Fact and Opinion

    • It is so good to hear from you, Luke. Thank you for sharing what it was like for you, and giving a glimpse into my son’s reality (and possible future!). You have no idea how encouraging that is for a mom who wonders every day if she’s doing enough or doing it well.
      Thank you again,

    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Luke! Very encouraging for mamas in the trenches.

  6. My daughter was classified as dyslexic at 8 years old after 2 years of homeschooling and still not being able to read “The cat sat on the mat” . She could read me 50 sight words on flash cards but a page with sentences she looked at in sheer terror. She could do math in her head, but not on the page. I refused to give up in my search for a solution, she was FAR, FAR, FAR too smart to have have a panic attack looking at a page of writing. I found Vision Therapy. Thank god I found vision therapy and we had someone in town who specializes in it. I wrote an entire blog based on what my daughter went through. In 6 months she went from “dyslexic” and so low on the reading that she did not have a reading level they could assign her – to no longer dyslexic, and a reading level that was one word away from 3rd grade. (we had been working on 1st grade material at the time) She is now in 4th grade. Her reading is still slow, but she reads silently for an hour every day. We started Vision Therapy 2 years ago, it took 6 months, 170 hours of in office and at home therapy and cost $2000 and I would pay $10,000 if we had to do it again. It changed my daughter’s life.

    You might be interested in reading this page of my blog and then decide if you want to read more of it. I think it might be of great interest to you.


    much luck, I was in your shoes for so long. I still cannot talk about my daughter’s changes without crying. It has given her a new path in life.


    • I have heard about this before, but have never really looked into it. I will take a look, and really appreciate your sharing the information, and your daughter’s story as well.

    • Thank you for sharing this. Our son is supposed to be retested in June and may begin vision therapy at that point. We are excited about the possibilities that can come from successful vision therapy. His IQ tested very high, but he cannot read. I believe a huge piece of the puzzle is related to his vision issues. Thank you again for sharing about vision therapy; I believe others may be encouraged to seek it out as well. Happy reading!

  7. This is such a beautiful testimony to the freedom and power of homeschooling our kids who learn differently Shawna. After homeschooling (with varying degrees of success) 7 of our 8 kids with dyslexia, I know there is no one answer or curriculum or program that works for everyone. If we teach ourselves about what dyslexia is (and isn’t) we can begin to tailor our teaching to truly meet the individual needs of each of our kids. When successful dyslexics were asked what factor most attributed to their success, the #1 most helpful thing was the support and advocacy of just one adult. Thanks so much for sharing what teaching and parenting our kids with dyslexia is really like!
    Marianne’s latest post: The Best Spelling Apps for Dyslexia

    • Hi Marianne! Thank you for your comments. It means so much to me that you took the time. I have learned so much from you, your blog, the videos of your son practicing – I am so very grateful for all you do to help families who homeschool with dyslexia.

  8. About 10 years ago I attended a church with a large home school co-op. We had a number of students with dyslexia in our church. (This is due, in part, to the fact that we had several large families since dyslexia is genetic and also simply because statistically, 1 in 5 will have dyslexia.) One of the moms discovered a program which really helped her children. I was blessed that she asked me to train in it so I could help tutor some of the students. I have since used my understanding to help students in a classroom setting as well as teaching reading to my own children (who are not dyslexic).

    This program teaches reading and spelling in a very slow, systematic way. I like the manipulatives, so there is a tangible aspect. They are color-coded (vowels versus consonants) so there is a visual aspect. But the the key to this method which is so helpful to those with dyslexia is the auditory aspect. You break each word apart, sound by sound to help the student hear each sound.

    We think of learning to spell as phonics. But actually, it is even more basic than that, it starts with the sounds (called phonemes). If a person struggles to hear each sound — because it all sounds like one sound — then he/she will be very frustrated as they try to read and write. For instance, “cat” may sound to them as one sound, but it is actually 3. A word like “brat” is even harder because the “b” is spoken so fast you hardly even hear it. It’s hard to understand how this can be if you picked up reading skills easily. But students with dyslexia really struggle with deciphering the sounds.

    I also LOVED the spelling rules taught. Suddenly *I* understood the English language so much better! But more importantly, the rules are catchy and easy to learn. Like “watch out vowels” which tend to mess up/aid all the exceptions to our spelling rules. (This is why “gate” has a hard g and “giraffe” a soft one. It is why “kite” is spelled with a k not a c.) It is cheer complete with hand motions:
    E I and Y
    E I and Y
    E I and Y
    What are they called?
    Watch out vowels!

    So if you are looking for a system to help teach your child, I would highly recommend the following Orton-
    Gillingham influenced program: the Barton System. http://www.bartonreading.com/

    • Thank you so much for sharing the Barton program. I have heard really great things about it as well, so I appreciate your giving real life, practical examples of how it is used.
      Great info!

  9. What great insight into a parent’s path to a different perspective about learning to read with our creative children! I was also blessed with children who were later readers because of their creative minds. I have since wrote about what I discovered about these types of children’s reading process. Like you discovered, I found that if I (what I call) “promote a positive relationship with print,” as you discovered, it goes a long way to a more positive reading acquisition at their own developmental timeframe (which tends to be 8 to 10…as normal for them!) I wrote a post sharing many ideas on how to promote a positive relationship with print until our creative children are ready to tackle the decoding process:
    Hope something is helpful!
    Cindy’s latest post: The Universal Gifts

    • I love your quote – “Positive relationship with print.”
      Thank you for sharing your experience and success! I am super encouraged.

    • Excellent post. Our son loves to “read,” and we have decided to foster the love of books instead of pushing reading. Right now we are focusing on building his physical & mental platform through OT, PT & soon vision therapy. He has several challenges but creativity and the love of story is not one of them. Our goal is help him learn his letters & numbers while enjoying books, so when everything clicks, he’ll still love to read. Building a positive relationship! Love it!

  10. Wonderful article Shawna. I wish more would write about learning without books. It would help so many moms. I have 4 kids, 3 of which are dyslexic, one is still a non-reader at 13. It’s so important to embrace the learning process in whatever method that works for the child. I love that you included Minecraft here. Also, looking things up with google or with youtube, or in gaming has been huge for my kids, especially my 13 yo. Audio books were great for my oldest but won’t work for my 13 yo, but video does. The trampoline activity is genius…. For my 13 yo, anything he needs put into working memory needs to be accompanied by movement. Wish I had thought of that years ago, he’d have enjoyed it. We used the trampoline a lot for skip counting, but never thought about writing on it with sidewalk chalk. awesome. Please keep sharing your journey.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Shannon.
      Your 13 year old sounds a lot like my guy. He HAS to move as he learns. If he doesn’t, it’s like we never even covered the subject matter. The trampoline has become one my of greatest resources in homeschooling (something I never thought I would say!).

  11. I feel so encouraged by this post and by all the positive comments. I have a 13, 11 and 4 year old. We began homeschooling three years ago when I was concerned about my oldest with Asperger’s falling through the cracks at public school, and even more concerned by my middle son who seemed to have lost all interest in learning and reading. Up until then, my guys were enthusiastic learners, particularly eager to learn about world history and bizarre animals. My 11 year old may be slightly dyslexic, or perhaps with a slight case of dysgraphia. We have not had him properly diagnosed. Since having him home with us the last few years we have seen a gradual, but marked improvement in not only his ability to ready but also his desire to do so. In short, he was bored stiff with the reading material they were giving him. We have kept up a steady diet of history, biographies and other high interest topics. Even incorporating some of these things into grammar and journaling. It has made a world of difference. The other day I even caught him typing up a short paragraph on the computer and telling me that he could tell he had become a better speller. Music to my ears. Thank you for writing this and validating for us all that we are on the right track.

    • Thank you so much for sharing. I am so encouraged by your story. (I too have the guys who love the bizarre animals, so I can relate!)
      It is so good to know we are not alone.

  12. I love how you are following his lead and allowing him to be joyful about books again. The reading will come, I’m sure. It will be a harder road for him but he will get there. He is clearly motivated and extremely bright. Bravo, mama!
    Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: DIY Calm Down Play Dough

  13. Shawna, your post made me cry! I feel so much for your son, and for you, because that was me 4-6 years ago. My two youngest children are dyslexic and when my middle child was in kindergarten (homeschool) it was a nightmare! It was our first year homeschooling, I had zero confidence, was using A Beka of all things (NOT gonna work for a dyslexic!), AND my mother is a public school teacher of 40+ years with a masters degree in special ed – and she did not like my decision to homeschool! For two and a half years I had no idea why nothing I tried worked. Then it got to the point where I felt she was too far behind to put back in school. Fast forward…she’s in 6th grade (still homeschooling!) and proudly wears a tshirt that says “Will work for books.” Thankfully, the Lord led us directly to Barton Reading, with no snake oil pitstops on the way (oh! There are so many out there!). Now I’m a tutor, not only for my children, but also for other kids. I’ve never done any work so satisfying. 🙂

    I wanted to mention to you, that while AAR/AAS are EXCELLENT programs, they simply do not have the depth and built in review that moderate+ dyslexics need. It’s too “light.” It’s a wonderful fit for non dyslexics and possibly extremely mild cases. But especially not for profound dyslexia. Obviously Barton is not the only option. Haha! 🙂 But it IS the only big name Orton-Gillingham program that was designed for a non-teacher parent to use at home with the student, without thousands of dollars worth of inservice training. And it is by far the best Orton-Gillingham program out there for spelling.

    Whatever you use, I pray your son learns to read and regains his confidence and self esteem. Sweet boy. My youngest will be 9 on Saturday and your account really touched me.
    May God bless you and your son on this journey.
    Much love

    • Now you made me tear up, Leigh… thank you so much for sharing your story and how you have found such success. I am going to look into Barton today for my little guy.
      Your prayers bless me more than you can possibly know.
      Thank you!

  14. Shawna,
    We went through this with my dyslexic son. We tried so. many. things. All About Spelling is excellent for dyslexics. (All About Reading wasn’t around then – he’s 15 now.) Far and way the best thing that ever happened for us was discovering Lexercise (www.lexercise.com). It’s online dyslexia therapy that’s done through Skype and Adobe Connect with a dyslexia therapist.

    I was so afraid that they would be negative about homeschooling, but they never were. Josh quickly developed a rapport with his therapist and was always comfortable because we were at home in a familiar environment. He improved drastically in a matter of a months and finished the program in 7 or 8 months.

    Seriously – the best thing I could have ever done for him. He was 12 at the time and we’d been beating our heads against the wall for years. I only wish we’d found Lexercise sooner. No, I’m not an affiliate and I don’t work for them. I do have their ad on my site, but only because it was an answer to prayer for us.

    Wishing you the best!
    Kris @ Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers’s latest post: Weekly Wrap-Up: The one with all the review

    • I have never heard of Lexercise. Thank you so much for introducing me to it.
      We tried a dyslexia therapist in the area, but it was not ideal for my son. Perhaps something like this (a kind-of homeschooling/therapy hybrid) might be a good fit. I will definitely look into it!

  15. Elisabeth says:

    My daughter is seven and she says daily that she hates reading (a homeschooling parent’s worst nightmare). We loosely used All About Reading this year, but it was such a battle. She is so bright and so articulate but completely freezes when it comes to reading the fluency pages. She also becomes so angry and has tantrums if we are reading together. It just seems so hard for her. So I am exploring dyslexia and would love anyone’s thoughts on where to start. I should also mention that for the summer I read to her and she listens to audio books – and she loves it. She could listen to an audio book for hours and can memorize like crazy.

    • Hi Elisabeth, have you read my post about Core Phase and/or checked into Leadership Education? It could be that your daughter just needs more time/a different style of learning. In the big scheme of things, seven is still very little and the most important thing is that you retain her natural love of learning. Hang in there! More here: http://simplehomeschool.net/core-phase/

    • Hi Elisabeth,
      I am so sorry things are tough for you and for your daughter right now. Please know, you are not alone!
      I agree wholeheartedly with Jamie. I think taking some time to really find what works for her, especially now that she is young, is a great way to calm things down (for both of you!). It can seem so daunting, but you know her best, and I am learning that it matters more than we think.
      Shawna@nottheformerthings’s latest post: Getting Ready For A New Homeschool Year

  16. This article was so helpful thank you, and the comments below have given me a lot of information which is so helpful. I have an 11-year-old dyslexic on my 4th year of homeschooling I use AAR and we start CC this year. I really struggle to find readers that he can do that are too hard and I’m really interested in the Library of Congress information, does anyone have more info I’m lost on their website😉. And I’d love to hear from people using audiobooks I almost signed him up this year but I assumed they would have the words where they can follow along and just seems like it would be pretty boring to listen to a book and not follow along with words and pictures for the younger age . Ideas.. Love all the Info☺️

  17. Thanks or sharing your story; we’re just now embarking on this journey as we’ve recently learned our daughter may have dyslexia (no firm diagnosis yet); the learning specialist in our little mission run school (we live in Cameroon, Africa) suggested we look into the Davis Dyslexia method when we return to the US in a few weeks. Have you ever heard of it and do you have an opinion on it? http://www.dyslexia.com.
    Joy’s latest post: Flashing a heli

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