Anyone who knows me, or has ever set foot inside my home, knows that I love books. Perhaps it’s the bookshelves lining the walls, the hallways, and the insides of the closets. Or maybe it’s the books stacked on the toilet tank, on the floor, on the table, or on any other flat surface not otherwise occupied. At any rate, I love to read and want my kids to enjoy reading as much as I do.
What do you do when your children don’t necessarily enjoy reading? What do you do when they struggle to learn to read—so much so that you wonder if they ever will? Well, take it from me, a mom who has been there and is still there in the trenches: There is hope!
I have six sons and one precious daughter (who has Down syndrome). My second son, Luke, struggled to learn to read. Way back when we first started home schooling, I didn’t know much about learning styles, and I didn’t know much about how young boys approach learning—being a girl and all. After twenty-eight years of parenting and twenty-two of home schooling, I know a little more now. Perhaps our experiences will help some of you.
We dutifully began trying to teach Luke to read at age six, using a sound, proven phonics approach. After all, we had taught his older brother to read at six using the same program. How hard could it be? Well, age six came and went without Luke learning to read. Ages seven and eight came and went, and at age nine we started to get worried. What we did not realize at the time was that we were missing (and therefore depriving Luke of) the greatest benefit of home schooling: the ability to change what we were doing to fit his needs. We were dangerously close to duplicating the one-size-fits-all method of traditional schools. We were continuing to do the same things we had been doing, with no results, foolishly expecting different outcomes.
Often my husband Chris would come home from work to find Luke crying, me crying, or both of us crying. It was not a pretty sight. So Chris asked me if there was anything about school that Luke liked.
“Well,” I replied, “he likes it when I read aloud to him.”
So Chris decided that we would shelve everything else and simply read aloud to Luke. Because my relationship with Luke had begun to suffer from the frustrations of learning to read, Chris recognized that the key issue was rebuilding the relationship between mom and son. Academics were secondary at this point. I read aloud to Luke. Whatever he wanted to read, I read. Wherever he wanted to read, we read. I read books to Luke that were way above what a young boy would be able to read, and he ate it up. The relationship between us began to mend. The pressure was off, and he could enjoy the fruit of reading—even though he was not the one doing the reading.
After about six months of this new school plan of simply reading aloud, we tried again with the phonics, only this time we used a different program—one that combined multi-sensory practice with explicit phonetic instruction. It clicked with him, and he learned to read. (We later learned he was slightly dyslexic and a very kinesthetic learner.) It wasn’t long before he was up and running and reading on his own.
Now, don’t spread this around, but we let him read magazines about BMX (bicycle motocross) racing because that was his hot button at the time. Often we had to pre-read the magazines and take a Sharpie to the potty words, and draw some extra clothing on some of the models in the ads, but he read the magazines from cover to cover. The subject matter interested him, so he was highly motivated to read. For the most part, that’s why we read as adults—to find out about something that interests us. Today, at age twenty-five, Luke still reads! Goal accomplished!
To be reading by adulthood has always been our goal for our kids. Let me ask you this: When was the last time anyone asked you, as an adult, when you learned to read? No one cares when you started. They care if you currently read well enough to do your job properly, but beyond that, no one cares. The only people who care when a child learns to read are parents (whose kids are not reading when they think they should be), grandparents (whose grandchildren are not reading when they think they should be), and possibly a neighbor (who likes to compare the academic prowess of their children to everyone else’s children). In the grand scheme of life, when we began reading is a non-issue. When we first began home schooling, a wise and more experienced couple gave us this bit of advice: “Check your parental pride at the door.” This advice was invaluable to us, as it saved us from completely alienating our son by trying to force him to do something he was not yet ready or able to do (just because our pride smarted).
Our fourth son reached the “teaching reading” age, and we learned right away that he was severely dyslexic and also had an auditory processing disorder. We figured we would be okay, knowing from experience that we could hold out confidently until he was nine, when, of course, like his older brother, it would all click in his head. However, when Seth reached twelve and then thirteen and still was not reading, we wondered when the “reading police” would come and haul us away. We pursued many different phonics curricula, tutoring, specialized therapy, brain training, nutritional issues, and anything else we thought might be a piece in the puzzle to unlock his ability to read. I think the key to finding the pieces to his puzzle was that we diligently, personally researched every option upon which we came. Each “expert” would assure us that his or her program was the only key to Seth’s success and that all the others were not worth considering. We refused to be loyal to any one program or idea; our only loyalty was to whatever it took to help Seth—and that worked.
Research has shown that what works for most kids (nothing can work for everyone) who have difficulty reading is an Orton-Gillingham-based phonetic approach. This approach includes phonetic instruction as well as instruction in recognition of high-use and phonetically irregular sight words. Not everything calling itself “phonics” meets those criteria. To simplify the process as you are researching phonics curricula for your family, look for certain buzzwords. “Orton-Gillingham-based” means a proven methodology of phonetic instruction that encompasses the following principles:
- Explicit or Direct Instruction (rules of how to sound out words are explicitly taught, not magically “discovered” on the part of the student by exposure or taught only by pattern)
- Intensive Instruction (lots of practice in the basic skills of sounding out; decoding)
- Systematic Instruction (step-by-step building of one rule upon another for decoding words, as opposed to teaching rules as they come up in whatever the student is reading)
- Multi-Sensory Instruction (engaging the student’s body through touching, repeating aloud, writing, manipulating three-dimensional letters, etc.)
The program should also exercise fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Simply sounding out words is not reading.
Realize that for some children, reading will come easily and they may practically teach themselves. However, knowing what I know now, my recommendation is to choose the most thorough program that meets the above criteria. Then simply move quickly through the areas in which your child is demonstrating mastery of the concept. It is not necessary to endlessly drill a concept your child already knows, nor should you skip things you assume your child knows. Present all the material, and when your child shows he has mastered it, move on. It may take two minutes, or it may take two days. There is no need to purchase a program requiring extensive teacher training in order to teach it to your children. There are clearly laid out, thorough programs readily available that give the parent explicit directions with no need for specialized training.
Throughout this journey of finding success in reading, we were reminded that each of our kids is uniquely created by God for His specific purpose. We were reminded that it is God who finishes the work He begins in us, and that it is all done in His perfect timing. God used each of the avenues we pursued to add to Seth’s abilities, and they all came together—and are still coming together—in His timing, to help Seth become a proficient reader.
The point in not giving up, especially as it relates to our sons and their academic progress, is that the Enemy would like nothing more than to trap us into believing there is no hope. What better way to handicap a generation of young men and women than to limit them in their ability and desire to read—because ultimately, we read in order to learn what God speaks to us through His Word.
Beverly Parrish is a long-time home schooling mom with a bunch of great kids and a terrific husband. She loves to read and to help others overcome reading challenges. She is also a licensed Davis Dyslexia Correction facilitator. You can find her at learnyourway.biz. Beverly will be a featured speaker at the 2013 THSC Convention and Family Conference in The Woodlands this August.