Teaching children to read can be a stressful endeavor for many homeschool families―but it doesn’t have to be! To help empower more homeschool parents and caregivers to help their child find success as readers, we sat down with Diane Duff, Founder + Director of The Reading School. At The Reading School, Diane works to improve the quality of early reading instruction and remediation hand-in-hand with schools, independent teachers, homeschooling families, and parents.
In our LIVE, we discussed how children learn to read, what it looks like when a child is truly struggling, and what parents can do when they suspect their child might need the help of an expert. Here are the six biggest learnings we took away from our conversation:
Children must be taught to read.
Unlike walking and talking, which are developmentally-based skills that all humans will eventually learn (barring a more serious issue), unless they are taught, most human beings will not learn how to read. While a few children are spontaneous (or self-taught) readers, the vast majority require instruction to learn first that the symbols they see on a paper or in a book have meaning and then to learn how to decipher the code of what written language is saying. “You have to break the code,” Diane said. “And it’s different in every language. To break the code, most of us have to be taught the code. One of the keys to helping children read well is the scope, sequence, and pace that this is taught.”
Children don’t all learn to read at the same pace.
For children educated outside of the home, a common difficulty for children learning to read is that they are all held to the same standard—a child must read at a certain level by first grade because their teacher isn’t trained on how to teach them to read and has to teach them the next level of language arts to keep up with the state or provincial standard. For home educated families, though, there is much more flexibility and children can be taught to read when they show interest and in a way that brings more joy to the process. Home educators can also avoid the potential pitfall of teaching children to read too early. “Bear in mind the pacing,” Diane said. “Once you begin teaching to read and write, and if you’re doing it at a pace that’s slow enough, if they’re not getting it—forgetting it, getting frustrated, and their self-concept is being affected—it doesn’t mean there’s a problem in your child. It may mean that there’s a problem in your approach.”
Adults can sometimes be fooled into thinking a child can read when they really can’t.
A common issue for many families is that they think a child can read until they get to a certain level, and then they realize the child doesn’t actually have the skills needed to read more complex literature. Diane says this happens often when benchmark or easy readers are the primary source of literature used to practice reading. In these simple (and often boring) books, the same line of text is typically repeated with a few changes that are reflected in a picture above. The child can memorize the basic sentence syntax and then adjust the changed word based on the picture—none of which are actually reading or decoding skills. “[They move on to the next level], and then in grade three the quality tends to improve and be more difficult, and the simple words they ’knew’ from the reader, they don’t recognize them,” Diane said.
A very important thing Diane emphasized was that a reading struggle does not necessarily mean a reading issue. Often, many struggles are really an indicator that the approach is not the right fit for the child.
How to find the right reading program for your child.
Diane says it’s much less likely that a child will really learn to read with a program that follows a structured literacy program, often previously referred to as an Orton Gilligham approach. These sequential, progressive programs are designed to be responsive to the child, making it clear when something is or isn’t working. They’re also cumulative, constantly providing opportunities to review what was previously learned instead of simply spending on lesson learning about a part of grammar or phonics and then moving on to another rule. Finally, this approach also helps make children aware of the process of reading, pointing out the phonological rules as they read so they can learn the reading code and continue using it in any setting.
(At L+L, we stand behind this approach as well! The program we recommend for reading is All About Reading, which not only takes this structured literacy approach but also incorporates hands-on activities that pair well with our unit studies. Learn more about it here!)
How to know if your child is dealing with a reading issue
Three common reading issues Diana deals with often at The Reading School are dyslexia, dysgraphia, and orthographic processing difficulty. She said there are many misconceptions and misunderstanding about what each of these, particularly dyslexia, can look like.
Dyslexia is a difficulty learning how to decode written language, despite sufficient intelligence and instruction, based on a difficulty with phonological awareness. While many people often associate it with mixing up lowercase Bs and Ds, Diane said that’s actually a common issue nearly all children have until they train their brain to know that mirror image letters are not the same thing. (If your child struggles with these letters, Diane recommends keeping cue cards for each letter on the table next to what they’re reading so the child can reference them without taking their eyes too far from what they’re working on!) With true dyslexia, though, having difficulty recognizing letters they’ve seen many times before and having difficulty remembering the sound those letters represent can both be warning signs. A child with dyslexia will struggle to put the sounds together or have difficulty holding onto the order of sounds in a word.
Dysgraphia is also a neurological issue where the student has difficulty with written output, from the mechanical to the cognitive aspect of being able to put their thoughts down into writing.
Orthographic processing issues also affect a person’s ability to read fluently. “When we learn to read, we look at those letters and think about the sounds that we’ve learned. Then we start to blend it,” Diane said. “Typically with enough exposures, the better you get at seeing those words instantly. The more I read, the more words I have collected in my ‘brain bucket’ of words. The next time I see the word, I go right to the meaning and pronunciation.” With orthographic issues, though, Diana said readers have a bigger difficulty creating that neurological visual impression of the word. Those with the disorder have to go back to decoding often, relying on it long past the time we think they should. What that looks like is a child who’s decoding scores stall [in testing], and fluency has a hard time developing because they spend too much time stopping and figuring out each word. Parents might notice that one day, their child knows a word, and another they have to stop and think about it.
She also stressed that a single sign of reading difficulty does not inherently mean there’s a problem. That’s why it can be so helpful to have an expert evaluator assess the child in a holistic way to determine if more intervention is needed.
What should you do if you think there’s a problem?
Diane encouraged parents to trust their gut when it comes to their child’s reading ability and to reach out to an expert for support if they think a more serious issue is at play. The Reading School offers a variety of services that support children learning to read, including assessments, structured literacy programs, individualized learning plans, subject tutoring (because difficulty in reading can often cause children to fall behind in other subjects), and (launching November 2022) a grade one readiness program.
If you suspect something is holding your child back from reading confidently and fluently, you can contact the reading school for help to put your mind at ease and bring joy back to reading for your child on their website.