How Dyslexic Kids Learn to Read When Removed From School

Parents say removing pressure is the key to their children’s learning to read.

Posted Dec 12, 2020

 Pixy/Creative Commons CCO
Source: Pixy/Creative Commons CCO

I am often asked if self-directed education works for children who are diagnosed with dyslexia. The usual assumption, in the special education world, is that such children cannot learn to read without rather intensive direct instruction, even more intensive than that offered in a typical school curriculum. But some of my observations, and observations of others who have long been involved with unschooling or democratic schooling, suggest that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, the pressure associated with such instruction may make the problem worse.

Many years ago, when my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted our initial study of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School (where there is no curriculum and students follow their own interests), two of the graduates told us that they had come to the school at age 15 unable to read, with a diagnosis of dyslexia. Both told us, independently, that they learned to read within a few months of being at the school. When we asked them why they were able to learn to read there when they had not learned before, both said, in different ways, that they learned because the pressure was off. One put it this way: “For the first time in my life nobody cared if I could read.” With pressure off, they could relax about reading; and with this new mental set, they learned. Daniel Greenberg, who was one of the founders of Sudbury Valley 52 years ago and has been a staff member there ever since, claims that he has never seen a student at Sudbury Valley who couldn’t learn to read.

I have also found, in informal surveys of unschoolers and democratic schoolers, that there is a huge range of ages at which different children learn to read (here). Most learn to read within their first 7 to 8 years of life, but a few don’t read until they are in their teens. My guess is that many of those would have been diagnosed with dyslexia if they had been in a traditional school, where everyone would have been very concerned about their reading. Harriet Pattison, in a book describing her research into how homeschoolers learn to read with little or no teaching, likewise found a huge range of ages for reading.

A few months ago, I conducted an informal survey on dyslexia, through this blog. I asked readers who had a child diagnosed with dyslexia while in a conventional school, who was then removed from that school for homeschooling or unschooling, to tell me about their child’s experience with reading. Twenty-one readers responded. Of those, 10 fit the criteria I had specified—the child had been in a conventional school, received an official diagnosis of dyslexia, and was removed from school and homeschooled or unschooled. All of the stories are interesting (and you can read them in the comments section to that post), but here I will limit the discussion just to those ten who met the stated criteria.

The primary message that came through loud and clear from the respondents is that their children began to learn to read when removed from school because the pressure to read was reduced or removed. The pressure to read, and the sense of failure accompanying it in school, had in some cases been traumatic. Some stated clearly that their child developed a hatred for reading and wanted nothing to do with it. Dyslexia is usually described as a cognitive or perceptual disorder, having to do with letter or sound recognition or ability to sequence the lower-level elements of reading (graphemes and phonemes) properly, but these stories make it clear that the more serious problem was an emotional one.  Only when the pressure was off, did the children begin to calm down when faced with the task of reading. In some cases, they then learned to read rather quickly, in other cases more slowly but steadily. In three of the ten cases, the parent reported that a special reading program for helping people with dyslexia was useful, but only when the child could relax about reading was the child willing to embrace the program.

What follows are excerpts from the ten responses, which I think you will find interesting. I’ve taken the liberty of bold-facing bits in each excerpt that have to do with anger and fear about reading and the role of reduced pressure in overcoming those. I am very grateful to those who wrote these descriptions.

And Now Here Are the Quotes:

  • Michelle describing her 8-year-old son who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, ASD, and ADHD: “I pulled him out of school late last year as I was deeply concerned for his emotional well-being. I have only been homeschooling him for the past 6 weeks. At the moment I am still doing some structured work in the morning but leave the afternoons and evenings free for unschooling. Whilst at school he hated reading and writing, and I struggled to get him to read anything. In such a short space of time he now asks to read to us every night for up to half an hour. He started with some of the ‘Dog Man’ series, which he loves, and he is currently reading Roald Dahl’s ’The Magic Finger’. …. Although he needs help with a few words, he surprised himself that he could read it so well, and he is now glowing with delight. … I feel the real reason for his improvement is that the pressure from school has been removed and that it is coming from his own motivation and innate drive to learn. 
  • Vicky: “I pulled my daughter with dyslexia and dyscalculia out of traditional education at 7.5yrs, after 3.5yrs at school. … She could read no better at 7 than she could when she started school and it was a constant battle, tears always being the end result and no progress made whatsoever.  … When I made the decision to pull her out, we fell into unschooling, not just with education but all aspects of life. It removed every pressure to read and I never even mentioned reading. She's now 9 and a fluent reader, with zero input from me. She just picked it up, because she wanted to and no one was forcing her to. She still avoided reading like the plague for the first six months as she recovered from what I genuinely now think of as reading trauma at school. But I watched from a distance as it passed, and she found herself again. Yes, she trips over certain words, and has to concentrate, but she needed that space and freedom to fail on her own to get where she is.” 
  • Zoe, describing her son, diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ASD, whom she removed from school for homeschooling at age 10: “I started off trying to do home ed in a semi-structured way…. I quickly realized that he was functionally illiterate and innumerate…His anxiety surrounding anything which looked like school was through the roof and he had no self-esteem and no confidence about his abilities. After a few months of struggles and tears and meltdowns, I came to accept that my way of doing things was not going to work. I changed tack to an unschooling approach.  We then spent just over three years on an amazing journey of discovery: in all that time he literally never picked up a pen at all. What he/we did was lots of trips, visits, days out, camping, festivals, …[etc.]. I continued, as I had all his life, to read to him every day; he always loved stories in any form. After about 6 months, he was able to understand short texts (self-taught primarily through Minecraft). At the end of this three years, he was properly reading, a bit slowly but fluently. He is now 16 and successfully attending a mainstream college. He has an advanced vocabulary, loves Shakespeare and poetry and has ambitions to be a filmmaker.”
  • Lenore: “My son went to public school through 4th grade. We pulled him to unschool. It’s been 3 years now. He is diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia and with dyscalculia. He reads pretty darn well now. Won’t pick up a book but reads from electronics, games etc. I’m convinced that learning just cannot happen in the high-pressure environment of school.”
  • Crystal, describing her husband, an electrical engineer with a bachelor’s degree, who attended public school until 6thgrade and was diagnosed with dyslexia: “He did very poorly in school, really struggling to read and was put in the slower class. His mom took him out to homeschool him during his 6th grade year…. She did unschooling and delight directed learning, meaning he got to explore all the topics that interested him. He took apart computers, did math with legos and rebuilt cars. Reading is still very difficult for him, although he said, when he was at home, in a non-pressured environment, he felt so much more confident and interested in reading. When there is pressure of any kind, his reading becomes significantly impaired…. Unschooling was invaluable to his learning as a child and he appreciated it immensely, so now that’s what we do with our own children, too. 
  • Lizzy: “My daughter completed 2 years of kindergarten at a private school where we were repeatedly told that she was not learning to read to the expected standards for a child her age. We pulled her to homeschool at age 7. She completed a year of visual therapy to no avail, and received a formal dyslexia diagnosis around age 8. We enrolled her in tutoring for approximately 8 months. She hated it and resisted the program with every ounce of determination she had (which was considerable). She was bored by the phonics rules and even though she learned many of them, it never really translated over into more fluent reading for her, just a very stilted, slow sounding-out of each word that was, frankly, painful to listen to. She swore she would never learn to read and would always hate reading. …I wanted so badly to unschool, but could not find any research on dyslexic children learning to read without this type of intensive 'help' and was fearful that I was not acting in her best interests by quitting the tutoring. I finally found the strength to follow my instincts after reading Frank Smith's 'Reading without Nonsense' and Gerald Cole's 'Misreading Reading: The Bad Science that Hurts Children'. Both books present a case against phonics-only reading remediation and promote the importance of content understanding and informed prediction as essential elements of reading. We began by stopping tutoring but continued to encourage her to read books of her choosing, and to 'guess' words she did not know - a big no-no in conventional dyslexia remediation. And she began to read with an increasingly fluency. For a long time, she maintained her position on hating reading, but as she began to build confidence that this was something she could do after all, she began reading more and enjoying it more as well. Now, at age 11 she is reading chapter books aimed at children her age and older.”
  • Angela, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and taken out of school during a teachers’ strike, at age 8, and subsequently homeschooled, wrote: “I started excelling at reading the moment I found The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe on [my mother’s] bookshelf. … It was only when I found that book I truly loved that I began to fall in love with reading…. When I was homeschooled, [my mother] showed me which sections [in the library] had what books and encouraged me to search for subjects I was interested in.  Subsequently when I went to an online high school I began to excel.”
  • Donna: “My 11-year-old son has been home educated for the past 2 years. He's quite severely dyslexic, and also dyscalculic with other learning difficulties….  When he first came out of school he was terrified to even try to read, although he loves stories and being read to; the smallest suggestion that he might try to read for himself was met with total catastrophic meltdown. Our response was first to simply remove the pressure. We never put any demand on him to read and will still always read for him if he wishes us to. After about 6 months, when he'd begun to be less stressed about books and reading in general, we introduced the dyslexia program Toe by Toe. He does this for at most 10 mins a day, usually only 3 or 4 days a week. He doesn't enjoy it, and it's very taxing for him, but as long as we are sensitive to his mood and vary the amount to suit, he can usually cope, and he is making progress with it. ….We still never make any demands for him to read, but he's now beginning to do so for himself. At the moment it's just short phrases off signs, magazines or packets and he still obviously feels threatened by large amounts of text; but he has begun to show an interest in junior story books. … I think the first most important thing has been to remove the constant pressure from others to read. Secondly, I think he needs the input from Toe by Toe to embed the decoding process... I don't think that he would have simply absorbed this information or been able to work it out on his own; but then he doesn't just have dyslexia! … He surprises me daily with how his reading skills are expanding, and how much more willing he is to try. … I'm convinced that had he remained in school he would have become more and more stressed and scared by reading, to the detriment of his mental health and wellbeing.”
  • Amberly: “My son was diagnosed with dyslexia in grade 1. He was at a private school that did not have resources for him to succeed in reading. ... We hired a private Orton Gillingham tutor to work with him twice a week during school hours. We also provided a guided leveled reading system to him through my mother's guidance (Ph.D. in developmental and educational psych with specialty in reading). Through these two interventions we were able to support him and get his reading level up. … By end of grade 2 he was only about 1/2 a year behind reading level. I decided to send him to public school as we didn’t want to continue paying tuition and for a tutor. He attended public school for 6 weeks and it was a disaster for him academically and socially. We decided in order to keep his confidence up and for him to succeed academically that we needed to pull him out and homeschool him. … His OG tutor came back and my mother continued to help with the guided reading. … After we initially pulled him out, he started to read for enjoyment for the first time in his life. It was so nice to see him ease into what literature could offer him instead of being totally paralyzed by it. It’s still not his favorite thing to do, but at least he isn’t frozen when it comes to reading the written language. … He is excelling at karate, an activity he wouldn’t have time to do if he were in school as he would be exhausted from the day and homework would indeed be the entire afternoon in tears.  … Do I think he would have learned to read, write, spell without interventions? No. Do I think he would have been emotionally crushed if he had continued in school? Yes.
  • Jenny: “My 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with severe dyslexia 3 years ago when she was in 2nd grade. She and I have both loved her school the last 2 years (3rd/4th grades). … However, she was making little to no progress reading and was hovering at a beginning 1st grade level. … She was very vocal about the fact that she hated reading and getting her to do any type of practice usually produced a complete meltdown. Then COVID happened and she came home. I was not ok with the kids being on screens to do schoolwork 5 hours a day. So, I ditched the school curriculum except for math. I started using All About Reading with her (THE recommended reading curriculum for kids with dyslexia) every day. … At the beginning she would only get through a little bit of a lesson before getting overwhelmed. We would have a calm down jar (water and glitter you shake up and watch sink to the bottom) at the ready when that happened, and she could take as much time as she needed to feel regulated again. Within the first few weeks she didn't need the calm down jar anymore and would tell herself out loud that she could do it. Two months into using AAR she turned to me during a lesson one day and said, "Mom! I can read!" … I'll find her up in her room actually reading Dog Man books. She's started to sound out street signs, food packaging, etc. … She herself said that there was just SO much pressure at school. At home she can do her 20-minute AAR lesson and then just read whatever else she wants in the course of the day.

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And now, what are your thoughts on this? Do you know of other examples of homeschooled, unschooled, or democratic schooled children who learned to read despite a label of dyslexia?  Do those examples fit, or not, with the generalizations presented here?  This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your thoughts and questions are appreciated by me and other readers, whether you express agreement or disagreement. I ask only that you treat everyone with respect in your responses. Please present your thoughts and questions here, in the comments section (by clicking on the little comments balloon below) rather than send them to me by private email. By presenting them here you inform and may be informed by other readers, not just me. And, I get way more emails than I can read.