Late Reader or Learning Disability?

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Why the wait-and-let-them-learn-to-read-naturally approach can be harmful to some homeschooled kids.

 My oldest child was nearly 8, and still, he couldn’t read beyond cat-sat-hat. We made our way through reading curriculum but by age 7, he was still not reading and I was worried. And then one day, he picked up a Harry Potter novel and slowly but most certainly, he read.   

It was a beautiful moment, one that caused my jaw to drop.  I quickly recovered so that I could summon my husband into the room to show him this amazing event. 

late reader homeschooling

Then I waited for our daughter to do the same, but by age 9, she was clearly memorizing short books, not  reading them. And her confidence was plummeting. 

“I’m the only one in Girl Scouts who can’t read, Mommy,” she told me one day. Although her scout leader and the other girls had been kind and helpful to her when it came to reading, she knew. She knew she was different. My heart broke for her. 

“I’m not smart.”  “I’ll never learn to read.”  These statements began to come with more frequency and no amount of encouragement from me would convince her that she would learn to read one day, that she was in fact, in the process of learning to read.

With both my oldest son and my daughter, I clung to the words of my homeschool mentors,  influential, experienced, knowledgeable homeschool moms who now had teens and adults who could read perfectly well, but who were also late readers. I was grateful for their words of encouragement, even as I wrung my hands with worry and googled yet another reading curriculum option.  

In fact, I soaked up these words and I used them to reassure myself that my kids were okay. 

One was. One clearly wasn’t. 

And here’s why:  There’s a difference between being a late reader and a child who isn’t reading because they have a learning disability.  

The Path to Reading While Homeschooling

It’s common in the homeschooling world for seasoned parents to tell the stories of their late blossoming readers; kids who did not read until they were 9, 10, 11, even 12 years old.  Parents who appreciated the benefit of not pushing kids to read too early, as they would have been in public school, instead waited until their child’s brain was ready to transform into a fluent reader. Some stories are about kids leaping grade levels ahead with no instruction or intervention, or maybe in spite of it.  

While these parents may have worried if their child was ever going to read, they are on the other side of it now.  I was right there with them as I fretted about my oldest son. Then he read, and I rejoiced. What a relief! I, too, began to extoll the virtues of letting kids read when they are good and darn ready. 

No amount of waiting, however, was going to lead to fluency in reading for my daughter. She has a learning disability, as do 15 to 20% of the population. And of those with learning disabilities, 75 to 80% have a disability that affects reading. [Source: International Dyslexia Association]

In my daughter’s case, she has dyslexia, the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties. Dyslexia is a neurological condition that results, simply, from different brain wiring. It is not curable but most people with dyslexia do learn to read with the right type of reading instruction.

Auditory Processing Disorder can also affect children learning to read. Children with APD struggle to distinguish similar sounding sounds in words and can confuse the order of sounds. They require specific accommodations during reading instruction time. 

In the case of dyslexia, most reading curriculum used in homeschooling is not the type needed for dyslexic kids to become successful readers. It simply won’t work.  Not providing formal reading instruction at all will not allow dyslexic children to learn to read either. Exposure to books read aloud and looking at books in print will not result in a child who reads if they have a learning disability that affects reading.

How the Brain Learns to Read

For most children, learning to read happens like this: A child learns to read a new word. He is using a part of the brain near the center, which is slow and methodical, to analyze the word. This is called the parieto-temporal area of the brain.

When he begins to correctly identify these words several times, his brain makes a neurological model of the words, which includes how to spell it, how to pronounce it and what it means. This get stored permanently in a location near the back of the brain, called the occipito-temporal system. This allows him to see the word in print and immediately access all the pertinent information about that word. [Source:  Shaywitz, Sally, M.D., Overcoming Dyslexia, Chapter 7, “The Working Brain Reads”, 2003.] 

Soon he is using this part of the brain to read new words quickly. This is the super highway of reading. Skilled readers use this part of their brain to read. They add more and more words.

But for children with dyslexia, even with extensive reading instruction, they continue to use the methodical part of their brain to read. It takes longer but they do indeed read and they can read quite well. It just may take a bit longer. And, most importantly, they benefit from a specific type of learning instruction called the Orton Gillingham method. There are numerous reading programs that use this method and can be used by homeschooling families. 

Homeschooling a Child With a Learning Disability

As hard as it is to think about these diagnoses, I discovered that homeschooling a child with a learning disability is actually one of the easier academic options. Public schools notoriously under-diagnose and under-serve children with learning disabilities. Parents of publicly schooled children with learning disabilities spend huge amounts of energy advocating for their kids. Often, families with children who have dyslexia find they must pay for outside tutoring or go without the services their children clearly need. 

Having advocated for my oldest child, who has some other learning disabilities that are not related to reading, in the only years he was in public school (Kindergarten and 5th grade), here is what I know:

The amount of energy it takes to advocate for a child with a learning disability in a system that isn’t willing to give them what they truly need, that dismisses parents as less than credible and whose goal it is to meet the needs of the greater system rather than each child is far greater than the energy it takes to homeschool. And when you homeschool, you have the option to stop doing something that isn’t working without convening a meeting of professionals who you must convince. You can go at your child’s natural pace of learning. You can reach for outside help when you need it. 

Once I found out that my daughter had dyslexia, homeschooling actually got easier.  We no longer spent hours on reading instruction that simply wasn’t working and was never going to work. I no longer spent hundreds of dollars  per year on curriculum that wasn’t going to work. We found a program specifically for kids with dyslexia and it is working. She is reading! (I know some will ask what program, so I’ll tell you it is Barton.)

Dear Homeschool Mom Mentors

To my homeschool mom mentors, I say this with the utmost respect. Some kids read late because they have a learning disability and they need a different approach to learning to read, an approach that they will not discover on their own. Your encouraging words influence many but please don’t stop at “don’t worry, momma”. Please empower homeschooling moms to be information seekers for their children, to gain a clear and true understanding of why their child is a late reader. To know for sure if it is just a wait-for-it situation or one that requires more. 

I love your stories, I value them. I am so happy that your child had this experience of learning on their own timetable. That you could give them this gift is a valuable, wonderful thing. I feel this way about my oldest son. He, too, had the gift of learning to read when he was ready. 

But what if there is something more? Because sometimes there is. And waiting costs families time lost and money wasted on curriculum that simply isn’t going to work. 

Learning disability or late reader? 

So how do you know if your child has a learning disability or is simply a “late” reader?

Dyslexia:  This list breaks down dyslexia symptoms by age and is very helpful.  In addition, here are some more red flags. If you see any of these, consider as assessment for your child. 

  • There is a family history of dyslexia or difficulty learning to read
  • You have a gut feeling that this is more than late reading
  • Confidence issues arise in your child with regard to reading
  • You’ve tried several different reading curriculum and seen little or no progress
  • Vision issues have been ruled out and your child continues to struggle with reading. Vision issues include the need for glasses as well as the ability to track words on the page. An ophthalmologist can screen for both. 

Auditory Processing Disorder: This list breaks down symptoms by age. 

Where to Get Help

There are several ways to have your child assessed for a learning disability that affects reading. Families often choose different options based on what is available in their area, what they insurance will cover and so on. Testing by an educational psychologist, child psychologist or neuro-psychologist are all common options.

Testing by a reading specialist or tutor who is also educated about dyslexia can be an option. Be sure to ask. Most school-based reading specialists are not trained to assess or treat dyslexia. 

For Dyslexia, the Scottish Rite organization provides assessment and intervention for free to children. There are many locations around the U.S. 

Auditory Processing Disorder can be assessed by a certified audiologist with a specialty in APD. You can read more about diagnosis and treatment at the American Speech Language Hearing Association website. They also provide a database of qualified professionals. 


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