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Learning To Read With Special Needs

My youngest son is eleven years old.

He has been trying to learn to read now for almost seven years.

Day in and day out, practicing the sounds, the sight words, the letters and the blends.

Seven years.


I have been trying to teach him to read for seven years.

Day in and day out, practicing the sounds, the sight words, the letters and the blends.

Seven years.

Learning To Read and the Child With Special Needs #readingdelay #dyslexia #specialeducation


I suspected it early on. Dyslexia runs in our family.

At first, everyone said not to worry.

“He’s a boy. He’s fine.”

“Every child is different.”

And they were right – he is a boy and every child is different.

But over time, the gaps in his ability became more apparent. Suddenly, right around eight years old, the messaged changed dramatically.

Everyone said I should be worried.

“He can’t write his last name yet?”

“He still doesn’t know the word ‘the’?”

And they were right – he couldn’t write his name or read the word ‘the’ consistently.

By nine years old, however, I was less concerned about his reading ability and more concerned about other, more pressing issues.

Intense Anxiety

Violent Meltdowns

Declining Speech Intelligibility

Processing Difficulties

Reading suddenly felt like a luxury, when compared with my son’s struggle to simply make it through the day.

Learning To Read With Special Needs

Diagnosis after diagnosis soon followed.

In addition to dyslexia and dysgraphia, we added generalized anxiety disorder, sensory processing disorder, panic disorder, and finally, bipolar disorder to the mix.


His body and his mind are completely overwhelmed most of the time – no wonder learning to read has been so challenging.

The road to reading fluency has been long and hard for my son.

The truth is, he is still on it, right in the middle of the journey – sometimes stuck in a big pit of mud, sometimes running down it with a determination and tenacity I am impressed with every day.

There are a few things I’ve learned in the past seven years. I am not an expert in anything, other than my kids.

I am just a mom trying every single day to figure out what works.


Please know, affiliate links may be included below.

Reading With Special Needs

Slow is Fast

Oh my goodness, this is more important than any other recommendation I have to share. For my son, a slow (painfully slow) and consistent approach is how he retains what he is learning.

I used to panic when he needed to review the lesson, again, for the fifth time. I used to try to rush him, or even just skip it and move on to the next because I was worried about “falling behind.” (I’m not proud of this, but it is the truth.)

When I finally just accepted that we would be working on the Level One curriculum for more than two years, it was so much better – for me and for my son.

Reading is a complicated process for the brain in any child. Add in differences in brain function, and of course, it takes more time. In my son’s case, a lot of time.

What I’ve learned is that the slow and steady approach is what allows us to progress.

For my son, slow is the fastest way to learn.

Hunt Down Resources

Teaching my son to read has required a ton of learning of my own.

Because I am the one who knows my son best, I have also had to be the one to coordinate the resources that work best for him.

One year, it was reading every single thing I could get my hands on about dyslexia.

The next, it was weekly visits to an educational specialist with Orton-Gillingham training.

For the past few, it’s been combing through Marianne Sunderland’s Homeschooling with Dyslexia site and taking her parent classes.

Although my son is not just facing dyslexia, I have found that dyslexia resources have given me the best tools for helping him learn to read, despite his special needs.

Hands-On Helps

We started to see real progress when I made it a point to incorporate a hands-on activity into every reading lesson. Something about movement and touch creates a greater pathway for learning and more importantly, retention, for my little guy.

We have used All About Reading for years, precisely because it incorporates hands-on activities with every single lesson. I credit this curriculum with all of the progress (however slow) my son has made.
Make Your Own Fabric Alphabet

Perspective is Key

There have been many times when a well-meaning friend or therapist has expressed concern over my son’s reading ability. In the past, it would cause me to worry, maybe buy a new curriculum and really “crack down” on my son’s learning.

It never, ever worked.

The only way I have been able to stay focused on what my son really needs to learn and grow in reading, is to stay focused on what my son needs to learn and grow in all areas of his life.

When your child has special needs, there are gaps in ability across many categories. Reading is simply one of them.

There are countless websites, podcasts, and books about the importance of reading for children (especially if you homeschool). At times, they made me feel a bit desperate – like reading is the most important thing in my child’s life.

Reading is important.

Listening to wonderful stories is important.

But it’s not the most important.

Remembering this has allowed me to relax a bit, and just focus on helping my son learn at the pace he needs and in the manner that works best for him.


Seven years later, countless reading lessons done in 15-minute increments over the course of so many seasons, so many tears shed, so many victories celebrated, and my son is still learning to read. This is our lesson yesterday.

I have watched this 15-second video about 17 times now.

I tear up a little every time.

He has worked so hard, against so many odds.

And he is reading. 


For more encouragement and support:

My Ultimate Guide To Hands-On Learning Activities

When Your Ten Year Old Can’t Read

How My Dyslexic Son Became A Writer

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  1. This is my son too. I researched and researched, and tried so many different things. He couldn’t remember the sounds after two years of review and phonemic awareness activities. Finally it was Dianne Craft’s method that worked for him to simply remember which sound went with which letter. Her special phonics cards did the trick. Yay! Then we continued to struggle with blending those sounds, but continued with Dianne Craft and her methods. Slowly but surely he progressed. But it was hard. Finally I found a lovely lady who offered Fast ForWord at a cost I could afford. It was wonderful. That auditory processing piece needed more than Craft’s brain exercises. He could finally remember words he saw from one line to the next, and his reading became more fluent. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Then we went through Logic of English Essentials and that appealed very much to his logic side (Aspergers). He read out loud to me every single day through 11th grade, but he can read!! I wouldn’t let him quit. He persevered with me and has turned into an incredibly strong young man. I’m so proud of him. He continues to face struggles but keeps going. He’s been attending a career/tech school for his junior and senior years and will graduate in May. I am very proud of his tenacity and character to rise above life’s struggles. I tell you all this to say… You can do it. Keep going. It is worth it.

    1. I am so encouraged by your story, Cindy. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Your story is mine. I taught 4 children to read and write with no problem, but my daughter just couldn’t get it. It took 6 yrs for us.
    She struggled with dyslexia and dysgraphia. 6 reading programs later, I began teaching her by sight words. Index cards were taped on pretty much everything in our house.
    After 2 years of looking at these words day after day, they made sense. When she was 11, she began reading. We did phonics in junior high. Only once she understood the word could she grasp the phonics part.
    She said the day she learned to read was the happiest day of her life.
    Praying for you and for your son.♡

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Ruth. Oh my goodness – I just love that she said it was the happiest day of her life. <3

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