Learn the 8 ways you need to change Charlotte Mason for your dyslexic child.
My husband and I stared at the reading specialist on the other side of the Starbucks table, a mixture of relief and apprehension in our eyes.
The whir of the coffee machine and soft ’90s music faded to the background as the diagnosis rang in our ears.
Dyslexia: severe to profound.
A thick stack of papers lay in front of me, filled with test results and recommendations. I tried to concentrate on what our reading specialist said, but a million thoughts swirled in mind.
First the relief: I’m not a terrible teacher.
And it’s not that my child isn’t trying. She struggles so much with academics for a reason.
But hot on the heels of the relief rushed the panicky thought, “Can we still continue to homeschool with Charlotte Mason? Is it even possible?“
And if it is possible … how?
Modifications for dyslexia
While a Charlotte Mason education is well suited to students with learning differences, you’ll need to make some adjustments.
Don’t worry– these alterations are painless but effective. Think of it as fine-tuning your child’s education.
What can you keep? The books, the writing, handwork, art and music, reading …you can keep everything!
But you will need to tweak how you use them.
Let’s walk through the eight changes you’ll need to make to your homeschool.
#1 — It’s not “cheating” to do this
Even if your child can read, the sheer number of books in a CM education can be overwhelming. For a child who is a slow reader, who struggles to decode, or with comprehension, audiobooks can be an education-saver.
We often think of using audiobooks or readers as cheating, because the students aren’t doing the “work” of reading for themselves.
But three kinds of reading exist– reading with your eyes, reading with your fingers, and reading with your ears.
If a person is visually impaired and uses Braille to read a book, would you ever tell them they weren’t really reading?
Of course not.
And yet this is what we think when we let our kids use audiobooks.
“It’s not legitimate reading.“
New research has shown that audiobooks activate the same areas of the brain as reading with the eyes. That’s because it’s all in how language is processed.
Your child will get the full benefits of reading. He’ll activate the same language centers, develop vocabulary, gain cultural and background knowledge – all while keeping the actual reading instruction separate.
Audiobooks can be used both for instructional books and for the lighter, literature portions of the curriculum.
Good places to get audiobooks
- The first stop is your local library. Ask how to access their digital collection if you aren’t already familiar with it. I can access OverDrive, Hoopla, and Freading through my various local libraries, but every county is different.
- Learning Ally — if you have a diagnosis of dyslexia or a visual impairment you’re eligible to use this huge collection.
Learning Ally has professionally produced books and costs $135 per year, but also requires verification of a print disability.
- You can also use Bookshare. Bookshare uses good computerized voices to read the books, so if you want professionally read audiobooks this isn’t a viable choice. They require a diagnosis of a print disability that interferes with the ability to use traditional print materials.
- Audible is a division of Amazon and has many books that are professionally produced. The membership costs $15 per month, and you get 1 audiobook plus 2 “Audible Originals” for the price. You also get discounts on additional books and access to member-only sales.
- For ebooks that don’t have a professional audio version, if you can get them in .epub format you can use a computer program like Natural Reader to read them to your child.
My non-reading daughter relies on the free Natural Reader browser extension to figure out the print on web pages.
# 2 — Change the way you teach reading
A combination of sight words, phonics, and word-building form the basis of the reading instruction in Home Education (Charlotte Mason’s first book). While this can be a fine way to learn to read for 80% of the population, students with dyslexia need something different.
They need a reading program which is specific, sequential, and explicit.
Orton-Gillingham is a research-backed approach to teach reading, not a method, system, or program.
We can buy several Orton-Gillingham based programs for homeschool. They vary in the speed they move through the material, how explicit the instruction is, and how scripted they are for the parent.
Examples of Orton-Gillingham based programs are
Logic of English and All About Reading are good for most mild-moderate dyslexic kids, but they moved too fast and made too big of leaps for my child.
Rooted in Language has online workshops that teach you how to teach your child with an Orton-Gillingham approach.
Barton is considered the gold standard for dyslexic students who are tutored at home. The downside is the cost, which seems exorbitant when compared to other reading programs.
Even Logic of English and All About Reading look downright cheap in comparison.
To bring the cost down, buy used and resell when you’re finished with the level. Or if more than one student in your homeschool group needs Barton, pool your money with those other families and share the program.
Before you buy any of these programs, it will pay to give the Barton Student Screening to your child. If your student can’t pass this screening, he’s not ready for any reading program and needs more work on the phonological parts of language.
More reading instruction
For ages 6-9, all of the PNEU timetables scheduled 10 to 20 minutes per day for reading instruction and practice. If you use an Orton-Gillingham based program, you’ll need to spend 20-30 minutes per day.
They often recommend an hour per day several times per week.
But since we follow Charlotte Mason’s guidelines, we want to keep the lessons shorter.
#3– How to Handle Spelling, Copywork, and Dictation
Another area where we need to veer from Charlotte Mason’s method is in spelling, copy work, and dictation.
You won’t skip these, but you will do them a little bit differently.
With Charlotte Mason’s method, you would choose a paragraph, passage, or pages from the books your child reads, then use them for spelling, copy work, and dictation. The length of the passage depends on the age of the child.
A student would copy the selection, paying attention to the spelling of words and to punctuation, with the help of the parent.
Students visualized words to learn their spellings, but those words, in general, were ones the student didn’t know how to spell. They were not taught “explicitly and sequentially,” and a student didn’t always learn the spelling rules.
Instead of those passages from your literature or reading books, to modify for dyslexia you will use the spelling, copy work, or dictation provided with your reading program.
If your child reads well but the dyslexia shows up in spelling (this is more common than you might think!), use a spelling program for dyslexic students like All About Spelling or Sequential Spelling.
Sequential Spelling unlocked the spelling code for my two older children who could read but couldn’t spell.
Rooted in Language has an online workshop for parents about Intentional Copywork and Dictation. Though I don’t have experience with it, it looks like it would mesh very well with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy.
#4 — What About “Readers”?
One of the draws to Charlotte Mason is the wonderful living books, and the “readers” are no exception.
But when you teach reading with an Orton-Gillingham based program, you use leveled readers. These are not living books, but they are necessary for a student who struggles with dyslexia in the earlier stages of learning to read.
You will not be able to use readers recommended in Charlotte Mason curricula for “reading with the eyes” until your child has reached a certain level of proficiency in their OG reading program.
It’s so easy to feel like if your child isn’t able to read the assigned books in a curriculum, he will be “behind”.
Get rid of that thought right now.
We have to meet our children where they’re at, not where we think they should be.
And not where someone who has never met your child thinks an “average” child will be. Remember, homeschooling means we get to tailor the education to our child, not the other way around.
We don’t want to eliminate those wonderful “living books” readers, though. They are (usually!) engaging and full of adventure, and just plain old good stories. They’re also full of rich vocabulary and background knowledge which is the hallmark of a living book.
How do we get these benefits not have a child in tears? Go back up to modification #1 and use audio versions. The same areas of the brain are stimulated, your child still is exposed to the vocabulary and adventure, but the physical act of reading is separated.
# 5 — Narrations and Composition
One innovative aspect of Charlotte Mason’s method is she separated the mechanics of writing from composition.
Little modification is needed if your student is early elementary age. Do narrations orally, which is what a student that age should do.
Occasional written narrations were begun in Upper 1A at about age eight.
We’ll delay this even further though and wait until the student is strong in both reading and the physical act of writing before we expect written narrations.
As your child gets older, she’ll work on composition through oral narrations, but don’t expect her to write them down by hand until she’s a proficient reader and able to physically write with ease.
But we still want to reap the benefits of written narration. To get those benefits, once your child is about 8 or 9, add in a few other things.
Read up on the Natural Stages of Growth in Writing and the Absolutely Free Program at Brave Writer.
Introduce graphic organizers if your student is able to read well enough that he can understand them.
Do sensory awareness exercises, like those in this post from Nature Mentor. (I share several of these same exercises in my emails, because we had the same mentors)
Help your child come up with words to describe what they sense, or smell, or feel.
#6 Writing and Composition
As with reading, students with dyslexia need explicit and sequential instruction in writing or composition.
Charlotte Mason didn’t begin specific writing instruction until Form 3 (ages 12-14). For children younger than 12, written narrations and whatever creativity flows out of them fulfill the role of composition.
Two of my favorite programs for the elementary and middle school years are Brave Writer and Write On!
Writer’s Jungle from Brave Writer will teach you how to develop your writer, while Write On! uses a guided method of explicit instruction to teach your child while using plenty of word-play and giving as much support as they need.
They are both for grades 3-8.
For both programs, do as much as you can orally.
At the junior high level, I would deviate from Brave Writer. Not because I don’t like her material, but because it wasn’t sequential or explicit enough for my dyslexic student.
The program expected her to infer too much about the structure of various forms of writing at the high school level.
When they are in high school, some students just need help editing their papers, and if you show them a model of different kinds of writing that will be enough.
But for our students who struggle with reading and writing, it’s not.
They need to work through a solid writing program.
What are other good options then?
- use the modeled and guided Write On! through jr. high
- Michael Clay Thompson (begin with Writing of Literature before moving into Academic Writing)
- Beyond the Book Report from Analytical Grammar)
#7 — The Tech Solution
The physical act of writing can be very difficult for a dyslexic student, so consider using dictation software.
Dictation software is best for middle school and up.
One good free option is to enable Google Voice Typing used in Google docs. You can do this through your computer if you have a microphone, or you can do it with a smartphone.
It’s not perfect.
Because it doesn’t have an option to learn your voice patterns, sometimes the transcription can range from weird to downright funny.
The best thing to do is proofread as soon as you finish, while you still remember what you said. Otherwise you’ll chew on your bottom lip as you gaze at your screen, saying the gibberish words out loud and trying to figure out what you meant when Google heard “the dog is raining”
While the work still requires editing, sitting next to your child and going through their paper to edit is a valuable learning tool.
If you’re willing to pay for dictation software, this blog post writes about how using Dragon Naturally Speaking helped several dyslexic and dysgraphic students.
Finish it off with Grammarly and you’re golden.
#8– We’ll Always Have Paris
I’ll admit it — this modification stuck in my craw. Oh, how I resisted it!
Foreign language is such an integral part of a Charlotte Mason education that I felt like if we stopped we would throw out a large part of what makes a CM education, well … Charlotte Mason.
But our reading specialist, also a homeschooling mom and familiar with Charlotte Mason, explained two things:
First, adding the sounds of another language when my child struggles with the sounds of English just delays her progress in English, and second, someone who is dyslexic is dyslexic in all languages.
Dyslexia’s difficulties “typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language” (from the International Dyslexia Association).
It’s difficult for people with dyslexia to learn to read, write, and spell in one language.
It’s very, very difficult for them to learn to read, write, and spell in more than one language.
People with dyslexia process language in a different way than the rest of the population.
But what about Charlotte Mason’s method of learning oral language first?
If your student struggles with the sounds of English, adding new sounds from a different language will hamper her progress in English.
A good alternative is American Sign Language (ASL). If you’re not in America use whatever your local sign language is.
ASL allows the student to learn a different language without having to process new sounds or learn to write a new language.
If your child is mildly or moderately dyslexic he can try to learn a foreign language orally. But be prepared to stop if it’s too challenging or if his progress stalls in learning to read and speak English clearly.
If you notice either of these, then you should delay work on that second language until your child reads and spells well and at grade level in English.
Besides American sign language, one foreign language that might work is Esperanto. As a created language, Esperanto is phonetically regular with no exceptions to spelling or pronunciation rules.
The problem with Esperanto? Very few materials for children exist, and the materials for adults are pretty much all print-based.
If you as a parent are not already proficient in teaching a foreign language, you’ll need to translate a children’s program from a different foreign language into Esperanto.
That takes a lot of time and effort, time we often don’t have because we’re doing additional instruction in reading.
I thought translating a Spanish program into Esperanto was such a fantastic idea, I tried to do it.
Because apparently, I’m not a fast learner.
Both times I gave up a few weeks in. It’s not something I recommend.
The Most Important Thing to Remember
When our children struggle in one area, we have a tendency to focus most of our attention on that area until they can be “brought up to speed”.
But remember: a Charlotte Mason education is a liberal education, a broad education.
Don’t neglect the other areas of a Charlotte Mason education – the arts, physical education, work, music, drawing, and nature connection- to focus on reading and writing.
Here are my favorite video resources I’ve found very helpful:
- The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind
- What is dyslexia by the International Dyslexia Association
- How Difficult Can This Be – The F.A.T. City Workshop
- Videos by Susan Barton from Bright Solutions
While we can do a Charlotte Mason education with students with dyslexia, we do need to modify some portions.
- Use audiobooks and audio screen readers
Resources: Learning Ally, Bookshare, public library digital collection, Audible, Natural Reader
- Use Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction
Resources: Logic of English, All About Reading, Rooted in Language, Barton, Foundation in Sounds, sightwords.com, LiPS
- Spelling, dictation, and copy work should be those provided in your reading program
- Use readers from your reading program, rather than those assigned in the CM curriculum. Use audiobooks for the readers in your curriculum
- Composition and narration should be oral until physical writing is strong.
Resources: Write On!, Brave Writer
- Explicit, sequential writing instruction in Form 3 and above
Resources: Write On!, Beyond the Book Report, Michael Clay Thompson
- Dictation software like Google Voice or Dragon Naturally Speaking
- Wait on foreign language until your student is reading well, and consider using American Sign Language instead of a spoken language
Can you homeschool with Charlotte Mason with a dyslexia diagnosis?
Yes. Yes, you can.
It is possible.