Our homeschool language arts curriculum has changed a little since we discovered that Jasper (7) has mild dyslexia, dysgraphia and fine motor delays. We’ve always had a fairly relaxed homeschooling style, but knowing more about how Jasper’s brain works has allowed us to use the most appropriate tools to bring out his best.
Assessment and Diagnosis
Jasper rarely reads books for pleasure or writes voluntarily. I’ve never been too concerned – he’s only seven, and I know enough about the development of boys’ brains to trust that this will change with time. In the meantime, I knew he was busy developing other other skills.
Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
We took Jasper to see an educational psychologist because we wanted to know how best to leverage the small amount of time we spend doing structured homeschooling with him. The psychologist gave us useful insights into his relative strengths and weaknesses. (I see these as a snapshot of his current development, not set in stone. The brain is more like plastic.) She assessed Jasper as having “mild dyslexic and possibly dysgraphic markers”, and recommended a number of resources specifically tailored to his learning needs.
Sensory Processing Disorder
I had suspected for a few months that Jasper had Sensory Processing Disorder, and this was confirmed in September by an assessment with a paediatric occupational therapist. Sensory Processing Disorder has many manifestations – the biggest challenge Jasper faces is emotional self-regulation. But SPD also tends to bring with it with motor delays – mostly, in Jasper’s case, fine motor delays.
The psychologist and occupational therapist recommended a little-and-often approach to help improve Jasper’s reading and writing. He is having occupational therapy (daily, at home, and weekly with a therapist) to help with his sensory integration and motor function. Because these skills act as a foundation to all higher level functioning, including academic learning, it makes sense for now to focus most of our efforts here.
Despite his mild dyslexia, Jasper’s reading comprehension age was assessed at more than three years ahead of his chronological age (thank you, Dennis the Menace and Zelda!). This type of dyslexia is sometimes described as “stealth dyslexia” because it so often goes undiagnosed in bright kids.
Toe by Toe describes itself as a “highly structured multi-sensory reading manual”. It requires no preparation, you just sit down together and follow the format each day. The pages are black and white, clear, and un-busy, and as it’s designed for all ages (including adults) it doesn’t patronise. As a visual-spatial learner with a good memory, Jasper has always relied on sight-word reading. I knew from hearing him read aloud at poetry teas that he lacked the skills to decode more complex new words, but he’d always strongly resisted any phonics coaching. That is, until we found Toe by Toe.
Phonics rules are introduced and thoroughly practised, and each word has to earn three ticks over three consecutive sessions before it is considered mastered. Phonics concepts are practised using both real and nonsense words – it’s the latter that seem really to cement the learning.
Toe by Toe suggests sessions of up to 20 minutes a day. We do six minutes. I might increase this as Jasper gets older, but we’ve been using the programme for just a few months and are already a quarter through so that may not be necessary.
The other day I snapped this picture of him not only reading a book, but doing so on a car journey next to a bag of electronic games devices!
Thanks to several years of Handwriting Without Tears, Jasper’s handwriting is neat and legible. The problem is, outside of his handwriting sessions, he never writes! The process is just too effortful for him. The occupational therapist told us that because of his sensory processing issues and fine motor delays, he’s having to use big, tiring muscles to write, whereas those of us who’ve developed what’s known as automaticity in writing use smaller muscles.
One of the ways we’re addressing this is by using a handiwriter to encourage Jasper to hold his pencil in the correct position. Although I had shown him how to do this many times, I had come to wonder if maybe there was no “correct” grip and that children should be left to hold a pencil however they please. But if working on a new grip is going to make writing easier for Jasper, I’ll do what it takes to encourage him.
The educational psychologist we saw recommended Write from the Start, “a unique programme to develop the fine motor and perceptual skills necessary for effective handwriting”. The books are full of simple exercises like drawing the spines on a dragon’s back, which Jasper does with enthusiasm. Write from the Start leads onto cursive handwriting so we’ve skipped ahead to Handwriting Without Tears – Cursive Handwriting. Jasper happily does a page a day, after Write From the Start.
The psychologist emphasised the importance of Jasper learning to type well and recommended Nessy Fingers, an inexpensive programme designed for dyslexic students. Cordie (9), (who does not have dyslexia) also enjoys using Nessy more than the other typing programmes we’ve tried (Type to Learn 4 and the free BBC Dance Mat Typing).
Creative Writing and Other Subjects
Of course, there’s more to language arts than reading and writing. One of the many advantages of homeschooling is that delays in reading and writing don’t have to hold a child back in other subjects or from having fun with language.
Jasper can dictate stories, poems and emails to me, and ask me to write down or spell search terms. I don’t put pressure on him to write or spell for himself outside our dedicated sessions. I want him to feel the joy of expressing himself, of seeing his words recorded, unhampered by the fact that other skills haven’t fully developed yet.
I act as Jasper’s scribe when he writes history or science notebooking pages. His French teacher (who has two dyslexic sons) lets him to play or draw in their lessons while his sister writes. He learns the parts of speech playing Mad Libs. He relishes participating in poetry tea, a superb natural opportunity for reading aloud to an audience. He grabs pencil and paper to writes plans, treasure maps and notes to himself, uninhibited by worries about what other people will think. His favourite game is Consequences; it didn’t bother any of us that for years every character he invented was called “poo” :-D . He’s listened to many, many audiobooks, including the complete Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. He’s enjoying language; the skills will come.
How has a Dyslexia Diagnosis Changed Our Homeschooling?
Having Jasper assessed and diagnosed with mild dyslexia and sensory processing disorder hasn’t much changed how we homeschool. When you spend every day with your child, you understand him better than anyone. I’ve always known it was important to trust Jasper to develop at his own pace.
Each of us comes as a unique package. The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain offers an incredible insight into what the dyslexic mind is capable of (I can’t recommend it highly enough). We don’t try to make babies to sit, crawl or walk before they’re ready. We trust that they are born with everything they need to develop at the exact right pace for them. Let’s trust our older children to do the same.