Written 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?