In one of my homeschooling groups last week a mom was asking about homeschooling a child with dyslexia, so I wanted to share Ann Lambert Stock’s experience of eventually homeschooling her son with dyslexia which she wrote forin Issue One of Fitra Journal. It’s not exactly a how-to, but a wonderful look into how one family did so. Thanks Ann!
It was in Cairo that I had my first glimpse of the inner workings of the mysterious homeschooling underworld and the mothers who dwell within them. They are an unusual bunch, which is good because I have always liked unusual people. I resisted the common sense reasoning of these moms and the evidence of success they provided me for many years because… it was just… well… you know not my cup of tea. “But I don’t wanna…” came out of my mouth every time I was approached about one of their alternatives to traditional schooling, especially that zany idea of unschooling. It wasn’t until I had been pushed into a corner that I even considered homeschooling for my children. It would be more accurate to say that I held onto the door frame as I was dragged kicking and screaming into the homeschooling underworld.
The biggest problem with homeschooling, I thought, was giving up my freedom. There is something normal and comforting about saying good-bye to your children in the morning and having the whole day to do what you need to do, like taking those Qur’an classes you have always wanted to take, getting back to your career, perhaps picking up the house and having it stay that way for longer than five minutes, or meeting friends for coffee. I had a lot of self doubts too. I couldn’t visual myself setting up a classroom and running a school from my house. How many hours would that take? Also, class preparations and organizing a syllabus seemed overwhelming. What if I didn’t know how to teach the math lesson? Who would teach him Arabic and Quran? Maybe I wouldn’t be patient and I would do more harm than good. Would I be consistent or would I get lazy over time? What if I hated it and my child missed out on a year of his education? Moreover, Middle Eastern countries do not recognize homeschooling, which meant that my child attending a university in Egypt would not be an option. The risks seemed too big. No, I was pretty certain homeschooling wasn’t for me but no one knows what tomorrow will bring.
My son, who is the youngest of my seven children, gave me a hard time from day one when it came to his school work. Throughout early elementary his performance was dismal. He was having difficulty reading, writing and generally trying to keep up with his classmates. His teachers and I felt that he would eventually catch on if only he would work a little harder. However, I knew deep inside something was wrong. I fought these natural feelings because I am a big worrywort when it comes to my children and I kept reminding myself not to overreact, yet again. After all, when speaking to him he seemed just fine. He was bright, curious and always off having adventures on our farm. He was normal in every other way. Surely he was just a playful boy.
When my husband was hired in Jeddah Saudi Arabia, we needed to transfer our children to new schools. It was a teacher, in charge of entrance exams, who first noticed my son’s problem for what it was. After years of struggling to get him to read and write properly, after having his eyesight checked and his hearing tested, the obvious reason lay so clearly before me. He wasn’t lazy about work and just playful. It wasn’t that he didn’t try hard enough. His brain was wired differently. After we had him tested it was confirmed, he had dyslexia and dysgraphia.
I felt guilty that I had not identified it myself, but I felt relieved that there were people out there who are willing to explain what the problem is and how to help me help him. Dyslexia is often misunderstood. It is not a lag in the ability to understand. Dyslexics are often very bright. It is a chronic condition. It is the way in which the brain is wired, and it has to be dealt with in a systematic way to enable the person to have a functioning reading level. After all, reading is a learned skill not a natural ability like speaking. There are many ways to teach someone how to read but schools don’t have time to cater and are slow to change.
Phonology, the smallest unit of sound like ‘a’ as in “apple” for example, is exactly the source of the problem for a dyslexic. They are not able to break a word apart and see its individual sounds. So if they see “cat” they do not see it as c-a-t. They see it as a solid picture “cat”. Kind of like seeing the building but not realizing it is made of individual bricks. In particular, they have trouble distinguishing the different vowel sounds. To compensate, they often look at the first letter and retrieve from their mind any word starting with that letter. According to Sally Shaywitz, MD, who works with dyslexia at Yale University, “70 to 80 percent of American children learn how to transform printed symbols into phonetic decode without much difficulty. For the rest of the students it remains a mystery.” Those 20 to 30 percent are the people with dyslexia, and that was my son.
After extensive research, it has been discovered how to accommodate the dyslexic brain. There is a system and a process they have developed enabling people with dyslexia to learn the steps needed for reading, but it needs early intervention and lots of repetition until the word is properly stored in the brain. This manual method works but it time-intensive. This presented a problem for my son and me.
At first I tried to work with him in the evenings after he came home from school, but he was often too tired to cooperate with me. As a result, he kept falling further and further behind. The school systems in the Middle East generally do not recognize learning differences like dyslexia. It became self evident that homeschooling was his best chance to regain his confidence and have a real education. After years of labor and out of pure necessity, a new homeschooling mom was born into this world.
Homeschooling moms are great at networking, helping each other in various ways, and even encouraging being good Muslims. Their unique bonds of sisterhood make their relationships even tighter. This was a huge help and a great gift to me because once I knew homeschooling was the option I had to take, then I needed to see what exact direction I wanted to go. I needed expert advice and there is plenty of that to be had from most homeschooling moms who are more than happy to give advice to anyone who will listen. Through this process of asking lots of questions from everyone I knew of, I met a sister who also was a homeschooling adviser/coach. We discussed the options that were available. Did I want to unschool? What about a traditional homeschooling program like Calvert or others like it? Or should I use one of the online home schools in which the assignments were arranged by the school and graded by a teacher on the other end of cyberspace? Or should I use an eclectic approach, which is selecting and using what I considered the best elements of all systems? There was a lot to consider, so armed with an assortment of books and a head full of advice, I began to sift through things until I came up with what worked best for us.
Living abroad presents itself with a unique set of problems which my new friend and homeschooling adviser had already plowed through. She filled me in on her research and the solutions to the unique problems of sisters homeschooling abroad. Our problems are multifaceted including: a lack of public lending libraries, unreliable postal service, high import tax on equipment and books (I experienced this in Egypt, but not in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), lengthy screening of imported books which often leads to their confiscation for unknown reasons and with no apologies either.
An online homeschooling program was the best solution for us. Our family lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia during the academic year and back in Cairo for the summers. It was a big benefit to not have actual textbooks taking up space and weight in the luggage. I also didn’t want to come up with my own syllabus because I too am a student and felt I wouldn’t have time to do a good job. The online school had a syllabus and would grade assignments and give feedback from within one to three days. This allowed me to focus on my son’s reading and writing. The best aspect of having his textbooks online is the ability to manipulate the page on the computer screen. We are able to enlarge the print and use readers for difficult passages which has given my son a little more independence. He also developed a little self-help system for confronting his dysgraphia (problem with spelling). After he writes a passage, he goes through and looks at the spell check suggestions and grammar corrections, then he opens the reader and listens to what he wrote to see if it is saying what he wanted it to say. When he has taken it through those three steps, he brings his work to me for a final check.
To make our homeschooling program more interesting, we often go off on tangents. For example we were studying rocks and one of the rocks mentioned was flint which can be used to start fires. Knowing that my son loved survival programs and equipment we began to explore more facts about flint rock and how to use it to make a fire when you are out in the wilderness without matches. This research and experimentation lasted a few days, giving my son a much needed boost as schooling is not his favorite thing.
My fear of homeschooling was unwarranted. I thought I would lose eight hours of every day but in fact schools don’t actually teach students for eight hours. We are able to finish most of my son’s daily work in just two to three hours. He takes an additional hour to work on assignments and to submit his work. He actually studies more than he would if he were in school in less than half of the time. According to long-time homeschooler Reagan Ramm, “Of the 7 hours spent locked away inside a public school building, approximately only 2 and a quarter of those hours are really spent being given instruction. Nearly 5 hours are wasted.”
In the beginning I was afraid of not being able to pursue my studies. With my son in need of help with his reading, he is not always able to study when I am not home or when I am too busy. We killed two birds with one stone by solving this problem. I arranged for my son to attend a Qur’an memorizing school for the three hours while I am in class in the mornings. We come home together and begin his school work. Because we work at our own pace, if I have an exam or need time to do a heavy assignment, we can take a day off. The school provides video instruction for difficult concepts which means he doesn’t always need me. If that doesn’t work, there are so many resources which can be had at the touch of key on Youtube. Although I am not always patient, as I feared, homeschooling has given me the opportunity to learn how to be more patient. I was worried that I wouldn’t continue the commitment with my son but so far, a year and a half later, we are still on track.
I wanted to share our journey and what we have learned through tears, compromise, and adjustment. It isn’t easy teaching a child with dyslexia and it isn’t easy being one either. My son’s experience in school was unpleasant at best. He still has a lot of confidence issues from the emotional abuse that he and other challenged children often face at schools by teachers and peers alike. We have had a lot of ups and downs but we have learned so much about each other and how to study, motivate and organize ourselves this past year. It hasn’t always been easy and it still isn’t, but it has always been worth it. My only regret is that I didn’t homeschool all of my children using an eclectic approach.
[i] Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, M.D. (Codirector of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, First Vintage Books Edition, January 2005
Ann Lambert Stock lives back and forth between Cairo and Jeddah with her Egyptian husband. She is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to SISTERS magazine and is working on a four-part caliph series with Learning Roots to be released summer 2016. You can follow her at Musings of a Muslimah umameerblog.wordpress.com
Issue One ‘Getting Started’ is available in both print and digital through all Amazons or directly through us here.