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Homeschooling with Dyslexia: What You Need to Know | An Interview with Marianne Sunderland

October 16–20, 2017   |   Vol. 132, Week 6

Are you homeschooling a child who is considered “behind” because of his or her learning challenges? According to Marianne Sunderland, the best way to help your child thrive might be to toss those conventional expectations right out the window. Hear why on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • Why you can homeschool with a child with dyslexia
  • How to discover your child’s learning style
  • How to harness the power of your child’s interests
  • How to embrace your child being “behind”
  • How to create a positive learning environment

“Having good expectations is really important. You cannot do it all and you need to prioritize.” — Marianne Sunderland

(This is the first in a three-part series on homeschooling children with specific learning disabilities. Click here to listen to our program on dysgraphia, and here to listen to our program on dyscalculia.)

This Week’s Offer

Are you homeschooling a struggling learner or a child with special needs? In this free booklet, HSLDA’s special needs consultants provide answers about evaluating your student, crafting an education plan, finding support, and more. Follow the link to request your free copy!

Are you homeschooling a child with dyslexia? Stay tuned to hear author and blogger Marianne Sunderland offer guidance and insight from her experience homeschooling 7 children with dyslexia. That’s this week on Homeschool Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Marianne Sunderland. Marianne is a writer, blogger, and founder of the website Homeschooling with Dyslexia. She’s also a homeschooling mom of eight children, seven of whom have some degree of dyslexia—so she knows what she’s talking about. Marianne, welcome to our program today!

Marianne Sunderland: Hi Mike, thank you. I am really excited to be here. Sharing my experience with homeschooling kids with dyslexia is just a passion of mine, since we have learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I like to give people the hope and encouragement that they need that this really is a very viable option for their family.

Homeschooling with dyslexia [0:55]

Mike: That’s great. Marianne, can you briefly explain what dyslexia is and what its symptoms are?

Marianne: Yes. So there’s been a lot of research in the last 10–20 years about dyslexia, and the current definition is that it’s a genetic and brain-based condition that makes the processing of language difficult. The results are difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, and sometimes even math. So while a child may have 20/20 vision and average to above average IQ, the images that they are seeing are not getting to the language processing centers of the brain efficiently.

Mike: Marianne, do you believe that homeschooling is a good way to instruct a child with dyslexia?

Marianne: I absolutely do. Unfortunately in the schools today there’s just not the level of education about dyslexia or the appropriate services being given and so homeschooling really provides families the opportunity to give their kid that individualized instruction that they really need with the methods and accommodations, assistive technology that helps them to excel despite their learning glitches.

Mike: So would you say it’s the one-on-one instruction that’s most important or most helpful?

Marianne: Yes. Kids with dyslexia don’t learn on the same trajectory as other kids. They often get a slower start and they need a lot of review. They need time to process and time to assimilate the information that they’re learning, they need a lot more practice. But because they have the regular IQ, they need to still have their brains challenged with grade-level-type things, even though a child may be in fourth grade and reading at a first grade-level.

Discovering your child’s learning style [2:51]

Mike: Marianne, when teaching a child with dyslexia, it’s especially important to know how the child learns best. Can you explain the different elements that make up a child’s learning styles?

Marianne: Yes. There’s been a lot written about learning styles in the past 20–30 years, but a learning style or learning difference is really affected by a lot of different factors and we’re all affected by them.

A lot of us have heard of the kinesthetic, auditory, or visual learners, but there’s a lot of other factors like environmental factors. How are they affected by sound and light or clutter, say?

There’s emotional factors, like some kids lack motivation or need external motivation, some kids are more persistent, some are more responsible, some need more structure.

There’s sociological factors: some kids really like to learn by themselves, others don’t; some need to be with a parent.

And then there’s the physiological factors. That’s where the auditory, visual, and kinesthetic factors come into play; but this is things like time of day—very important with teens, the time of day that they are doing school—or level of mobility allowed. Lots of little boys being diagnosed with ADD and ADHD because they just need to move more.

And then psychological factors: some kids are more impulsive, some are more reflective.

And so we have a lot of different factors affecting how our kids learn, and being with them all day long, we can observe those and teach to the way they learn best.

Mike: Marianne, what types of learning methods generally work best with dyslexic children?

Marianne: In general, science has shown that people with learning disabilities or learning differences tend to have more right-brain strength; these are things like big-picture thinkers as opposed to detail thinkers. They’re really strong in the inventive and creative, entrepreneurial categories of thinking, connected thinking, and so if we can give our kids the big picture first and then have them connect subjects where possible, it really helps them to form that picture in their head that helps them to understand. They often have a strong need to know why, not just memorizing and regurgitating. That’s why the traditional textbook workbook approach doesn’t work well with kids with dyslexia.

Mike: Are there learning methods that generally are typically students struggle with?

Marianne: Rote memory is difficult for kids with dyslexia although with music and motion, hand-motions, multi-sensory type of teaching—that definitely helps. Again, it’s any time they can experience hands on learning, multi-sensory learning—these are the ways kids with dyslexia learn best.

Harnessing the power of your child’s interests [5:40]

Mike: Marianne, how can parents use their children’s interests to help them work through challenging learning situations?

Marianne: That is a great question, Mike. I think it was Andrew Pudewa who said that kids like to do what they can do and hate and will violently resist what they think they can’t do. And I have seen that to be very true, probably with all kids, but never more so with a child that has learning difficulties. And so when we can tap into their interests, it really taps into motivation to learn.

I have a really neat example of that. At the time, I wasn’t sure what we were doing, but as I look back, I have this unique perspective. Our oldest daughter loved animals and she was avidly looking at library books and we had a lot of kids—she was number two out of eight—and so she would get books and I would read some of them. She really wasn’t able to read them on her own, but we would go to zoos and farms and shelters. We did a lot of nature journaling; she would dictate or narrate back to me and I’d write in her nature journal. We watched a lot of documentaries, even noticing animals in history, and it was pegging history in her mind to this animal love that she had. Eventually we joined 4-H in our area and she bought a rabbit and eventually began breeding it and selling them, and in the end [she] ended up buying a horse with her savings from going to the fair and so forth.

And so that was just doing life in my eyes, but really it was doing school. We had handwriting, art and drawing, composition, observation, library skills, reading, biology, business, and she eventually cracked the code of reading—trying to read the library books that I didn’t have time to finish.

Embracing “behind” [7:38]

Mike: Marianne, how can homeschooling parents effectively use schedules and plans to meet the needs of their dyslexic children?

Marianne: Something that parents of dyslexic kids will notice right away is that it takes a lot of time to teach kids with dyslexia basics with reading, spelling, handwriting, math facts. And because dyslexia is genetic, it often affects several of our kids.

And so what I tell parents that I talk to is that having good expectations is really important. You cannot do it all and you need to prioritize. And in the early years you really do need to prioritize teaching reading and the basics.

I also recommend to parents to delegate by hiring a tutor if they can afford it. We can teach them ourselves, but there comes a time when you just need to delegate some of that responsibility to somebody else.

Mike: Do you have any tips for setting realistic goals in homeschooling, particularly for children that are having learning challenges are considered maybe to be behind?

Marianne: Yes, absolutely. It’s really important, again, having the right expectations here. We really need to be looking at where our kids are at the very moment. So if your child is in fourth grade and reading at a first grade level you can’t teach them at a fourth grade level. That’s what the public schools do, and that’s why these kids are becoming anxious and depressed. We need to teach them where they’re at and use accommodations, like audiobooks or reading aloud or having them dictate their papers to you, so that they are able to keep up with their studies at their intellectual ability.

And what I have found is that our kids do eventually catch up right when it really counts—usually around middle school they’ll be able to manage their workload mostly on their own. And so keeping that big picture in mind that they will get there, but their trajectory looks a lot different in the early years.

Creating a positive learning environment [9:40]

Mike: Marianne, one of your e-books mentions the importance of creating a positive learning environment for your child. In your experience, what does that really look like?

Marianne: Well, we talked before, Mike, about different learning styles and the factors that affect learning like their environment or how they like to learn. I wanted to really encourage parents because a lot of parents, especially new homeschoolers, tend to want to recreate school at home, which can be good for the parent because they feel organized but maybe not so good for the kids. It really is okay to rethink where you do school. Can you do it under the trampoline? Can you do it in your fort? Can you do it on the couch? How long do you do school? We school all summer, a couple days a week, just because the kids will forget everything if we don’t. We can modify what we teach and what we don’t teach and how we teach. Home is really supposed to be a place where kids are free to be themselves, and learning at home can be the same way.

Mike: So Marianne, talking about this learning environment thing—for parents who are pulling their children out of school that are struggling learners, what would you advise them to do?

Marianne: I talk to a lot of parents who are pulling their kids out of school because they’re getting anxious and depressed in school and they’re not getting the help that they need to really learn. And so the first thing I tell them is that it’s really okay to back off on academics for a time, even though that’s sort of counterintuitive because they’re “behind.” It’s important to rekindle that love for learning that they’re confident that they can learn and ways to do that are just experiencing life together, paying particular attention to exploring their interests, helping them to see that learning can actually be enjoyable. Reading aloud, even if your kids are older, and just taking time to focus on your relationship with them to let them know that they can trust you to look out for their best interests.

Mike: Well, Marianne, I really want to thank you for sharing your insight and experience with us this week. This is going to be very helpful to many parents. It’s been wonderful having you on the show and I hope to have you back again.

Marianne: Thank you.

Mike: So thank you very much. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Marianne SunderlandPhoto of Marianne Sunderland

Marianne Sunderland is a veteran homeschool mother of eight unique children ages 7 to 26—including adventurous and homeschooled sailors Zac and Abby Sunderland, known for their world-record-setting, around-the-world sailing campaigns. Because 7 of her 8 children are dyslexic, Marianne is a passionate dyslexia advocate with a passion to educate and encourage families, not only to understand dyslexia, but also to discover and nurture their children’s God-given gifts and talents, in and outside of the classroom. Marianne’s web site, Homeschooling With Dyslexia, provides weekly articles on homeschooling kids with ADD, ADHD and Dyslexia that will bless and encourage you.

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