Not much breaks a mother’s heart more than hearing her dejected, defeated child fold her arms on the table in front of her, drop her head onto her forearms, and mutter, “I’m so dumb.”
I never thought I’d hear that again after I embraced unschooling.
I heard it a lot from my oldest daughter when she was younger and I was still trying to make sure she learned what she “needed” to learn...and at the time, that was reading.
I was confounded.
It was abundantly clear to me that this kid was really smart, but reading just wasn’t happening for her.
“Blending” was an excruciating experience for both of us. She was baffled by phonics. She’d read a word just fine in one sentence and come to a screeching halt when she encountered the same word a sentence or two later.
The only explanation I could come up with at the time was that she either wasn’t trying very hard or she was just being lazy. Nothing else made sense.
To my enormous shame, I told her to stop being lazy. I told her to focus. I told her to try harder. I doubled-down on the lessons.
Reading is a basic skill. She was certainly old enough to learn. She needed to be able to read. I was panicking. Afraid I was failing her.
And then somehow I pulled myself together. I realized my blind allegiance to school standards was destroying Erica’s confidence. I wasn’t going to give her a single other reason to sigh and say forlornly, “I’m so dumb.”
I backed off reading all together. It wasn’t a popular decision with other people in our lives who were uncomfortable with the idea of a kid who was old enough to be reading well, not able to read much at all.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, Erica managed to teach herself how to read. I don’t know how she did it. She can’t explain how she did it.
But other seemingly inexplicable oddities kept plaguing her. Her spelling was atrocious. Her handwriting was awful. Her written compositions were far, far below what I knew she was capable of. Math remained a mystery. She wasn’t able to retain spelling words or math facts at all.
In hindsight, it couldn’t have been more obvious that Erica was dyslexic. But I missed it for years.
As soon as she was diagnosed at 12 ½, it was like all the pieces of the puzzle that had been jumbled up fell right into place. All the things I just never understood about her all of a sudden made perfect sense.
But this isn’t a story just about Erica.
Flash forward four years, and here I was again, with yet another dejected child who was insisting she is dumb because the reading just isn’t happening for her, either.
Fortunately for this child, a lot changed in four years. She gets to reap the benefits of a complete paradigm shift about education that I’d undergone in the year she was born and all the mistakes I’d made with her sister.
Like her siblings, Jillian asked me to teach her how to read when she was five. I pulled out the first in a very long series of “learn-to-read” programs. We’d start...aaaaand, it didn’t go well.
Unlike before, this time I backed off.
Outside of school classrooms, where teachers need their students all reading at more or less the same level for the purposes of crowd control as they move those large groups of children together from class to class and grade to grade, the age range for normal, healthy children to learn how to read is actually quite wide.
I’d didn’t have that same sense of panic about homeschooling a “late reader” this time as I did last time.
I figured she’d get it when her brain was ready.
But Jillian kept asking me to teach her how to read. She hasn’t been content to sit and wait.
So, out would come the next program with a slightly different take on teaching reading.
Aaaand, it still didn’t go well. Over and over again, with a break between whenever the scales between interest and frustration would tip in favor of frustration, we tried.
I’ve done everything I know how to do to make Jillian’s weak reading skills a non-issue in our homeschooling. I keep conversation about it positive and encouraging.
The one thing I have not been able to do is protect Jillian from the same damaging effects of demoralization that ravaged Erica’s confidence as well.
Kids aren’t stupid: they know when their friends know things they don’t, and they know when their friends are better at things than they are. In this case, the discrepancy there is huge. It just is. There’s no getting around it.
If you’re reading this post, the odds are good that you too have a struggling reader. The odds are good that you are at your wits’ end. That you have no idea how to help this child of yours learn how to read. That your heart is breaking over the frustration, disappointment, and despair your child is feeling.
I feel your pain, sister. I’ve been there. I’m still there right now, muddling my way through it with yet another child who insists she’s dumb.
Lemme tell you, though, I’ve found some things that work as buffers against the voices whispering lies into my daughter’s ears.
The truth is, Jillian is not dumb. As it turns out, she’s dyslexic, just like her sister. But even if the evaluation yielded nothing to explain why learning to read was such an ordeal for her, I’d still insist, loudly, to her: You’re not dumb.
Over and over again, I repeat the truth. Whenever possible, I point to actual demonstrations of her intelligence. It’s not uncommon for an adult to meet Jillian, spend a little time with her, and then tell me later how bright she is.
I don’t know what your religious beliefs, if you have any, are, but mine is a Christian family, and of all my kids, Jillian is the one most deeply grounded in faith. She’s a little prayer warrior, and speaking life into her lifts her spirits.
God knew Jillian before she was formed in my womb. Before she was born, she’d been set apart to do something amazing in God’s kingdom that she was created to do.
I let her borrow my confidence. I tell her how proud I am of her, and I give her specific examples of why.
We actually had quite a long conversation about this in the car the other day. She mentioned to me that having my mom quiz her and ask her about reading makes her uncomfortable.
I told her in no uncertain terms that it was perfectly acceptable for her to (respectfully) tell my mom that she’s trying very hard to learn how to read, but that it’s been a very frustrating process and having her quiz her, buy her workbooks, and ask her about reading regularly isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making her feel dumb.
I explained to Jillian that my mom wasn’t trying to make her feel dumb. My mom’s heart is in the right place, but she’s very “old school”. She doesn’t really understand how I do things or why I do them that way.
Every.single.time I hear “I’m dumb” or “I’ll never get it”, I immediately get on that. I give her “the look” and she knows.
If she doesn’t change her self-talk on her own, I give her the words for it and insist that she tell herself - out loud - those more empowering words. “I’m smart. I’m just having trouble getting this right now” or “It’s hard for me, but I’ll get it eventually.”
Then, she gets a reminder about how powerful the words she tells herself actually are.
I ask her if she’d say to a friend who was struggling with reading the things she says to herself. The answer is, “Of course not.” I just keep sowing those seeds.
On our way out to the consultation she had with a Davis Method Practitioner to see if the Davis Method was something that might help her, Jillian asked me what we’d do if Mrs. Kress said she couldn’t help her.
Without missing a beat, I reassured my child that we’d turn over every rock and look in every cranny for information that might help me help her. I expressed my absolute faith that she would learn how to read...in her own time and in her own way.
We in Western societies have elevated reading to some idol-like status. It’s the most convenient way for one teacher to teach a large group of students. It’s not the only way; it’s just the easiest way.
It’s the way standards-based bureaucrats assess student learning. It’s the way educators determine how successful a child will become as an adult, as early as third grade. It’s also big business. Lots of money in textbooks and tests.
Here’s the thing, I explained to Jillian: her ability to access information she wants or needs in order to continue growing as a person and pursuing her interests is the important thing.
Reading is a tool for accessing information, but it isn’t the only one. Technology has expanded our options for accessing information. There are videos, audio files, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and new technology is constantly changing and evolving.
I know. It’s heresy to challenge the value of reading. I don’t care, though. Sometimes sacred cows need to be slaughtered.
I’m not saying reading isn’t important. I am saying that being a strong reader isn’t the end all, be all that many claim it is.
Everyone has things they’re insecure about. Everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. It’s normal, and expected. The world would be awfully boring, I tell Jillian, if everyone was the same.
Jillian is a gifted little mathematician. She’s also got an incredible spiritual gift: that girl is going to lead many people to Christ in her lifetime. Her prayers are going to be a powerful force for building God’s kingdom here on earth.
Reading, on the other hand, is proving difficult for her. She’s set to work with a Davis Method practitioner in mid-February. We’re hopeful that the tools and guidance Mrs. Kress will provide her with will make a world of difference for her.
I did warn her that reading may never be a strong suit of hers. Her sister can read well enough to do what she wants and needs to do, but she isn’t a great reader. Her gifts lie elsewhere. Jillian’s may as well.
And here’s the thing: successful people leverage their strengths, and they mitigate, accommodate, or delegate their weaknesses.
If you need another person to proofread your 200 page manuscript, neither one of my girls are going to be your girl. I will be, though.
On the other hand, if you need a fast answer to a math question, Jillian is your girl...and if you need a beautifully crafted piece of art, Erica is your girl. I wouldn’t be the one you’d want to task with either of those.
Being able to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses is really important.
After Erica’s diagnosis of dyslexia, the neuropsychologist told us she'd need intensive remediation immediately. We got all sorts of doom and gloom reports of what we could expect if we didn't.
By that time, I'd already embraced unschooling, and I disregarded those messages of doom and gloom.
We didn’t spend much time remediating her reading skills because she didn’t want to. Instead, I turned my attention to teaching her how to advocate for herself, to leverage her strengths, and to mitigate, accommodate, or delegate her weaknesses.
Regardless of the outcome of Jillian’s sessions with Mrs. Kress, I will be continuing to work on those skills with her, too.
Happily, it appears to be paying off. Jillian was able to speak frankly - on her own, I might add - with the leader of her Wednesday night youth programming at church about her dyslexia and what she'd need in order to successfully complete that evening's activity.
This is another “rinse and repeat” from the weeks following Erica’s diagnosis. On one hand, having a reason why reading, spelling, and writing were all so difficult for her was a huge relief. On the other, she was still embarrassed by her shortcomings.
As is Jillian.
And here’s what I tell them: other people will take their cues about how to treat you from you. If you act like dyslexia means you’re dumb, if you act embarrassed, if you hang your head and feel insecure, other people are going to assume there is something wrong with you.
If you get out in front of it, if you’re honest and upfront with other people about having dyslexia, if you act confident, if you express the positive attributes dyslexia brings into your life, most people will just accept it and move on. It won’t be a big deal.
Getting Erica to the point where it’s no big deal to her, where she has integrated her dyslexia with her view of herself and she wouldn’t change it now if she could, was an enormous victory. I’m not sure it would’ve been possible without the transformation of my beliefs about education.
I’m hopeful that the journey to self-acceptance will be less bumpy for Jillian.
After Jillian spoke to her leader at the Wednesday night children's programming at church, the leader paired her with another child to help her read the material and take some notes. Jillian told me that the other child happily paired up with her and just shrugged like it was no big deal.
YES!!!!! Another victory. Another step closer to that full self-acceptance we're striving toward.
If you're struggling with homeschooling - whether your child is a struggling reader or not, click on the link below to access your free guide to help you get back on track.
I'm a married, homeschooling mama of three who is passionate about self-directed learning.
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Before you buy this booklet, you need to know that I am an unabashed proponent of self-directed learning and that will be reflected in everything I share about my own experiences as a homeschooler.
I’m giving this disclaimer so you aren’t surprised by the clear bias I have toward unschooling.
I want you to know, upfront, what you’re getting and what to expect from me. The advice I give and the questions I ask you to ask yourself are all valuable and valid no matter what style of homeschooling you ultimately embrace, though.
About the Author
Becky Ogden has been homeschooling since 2003, and graduated her oldest in the spring of 2017. In her early years of homeschooling, she too struggled with feeling overwhelmed and inept. In trying to do right by her children, Becky found herself embroiled in battle after battle with them over their schoolwork. Until…
Until she found a better way. One that empowered her children to self-direct their own educations. One that respected their autonomy. One based in “right on time” rather than “just in case” learning.
Without many veteran homeschoolers around to serve as mentors, Becky had to muddle through it on her own. She spent hours of time in research and reflection.
In the years since then, helping other homeschoolers find their own way and solve their problems has become a source of great joy for her.
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org