Homeschool Corner

It’s a Process . . .

How and Why You Should Discern Your Child’s Learning Disabilities

By Rebekah Wilson

Is Your Child Having Trouble Reading?

Difficulty with reading is the most common characteristic of a student with a learning disability. In traditional school settings, 90% of children who are diagnosed with a learning disability are first referred for evaluation because of a reading problem. As parents who homeschool, it is vital that we pay attention to the struggles our children encounter during that first year or two after learning to read. This is the time when most processing disorders begin to show up in childhood.

Although a reading problem can be as simple as needing a pair of glasses, it also can be the first sign of a learning disability. Most learning disabilities are caused by a processing disorder in the brain. This is why reading may be the first sign of a problem, but as the child advances through school, other areas such as math or science may become a problem as well.

What Exactly Is “Processing”?

“Processing” refers to what the human brain does when it works—it processes information. Usually that process is instantaneous, especially in relation to information we have already learned, studied, and memorized. For example, when we open a book we not only see the visual page with words on it, but we also begin to pick out paragraphs, sentences, individual words, individual letters within those words, and individual sounds that each letter makes to create the word—we are processing information. For most of us, we never think about any part of this processing; it happens all by itself with no effort from us unless we come across a word we don’t recognize. At that point, we slow down and think it through; we may or may not realize we are processing the information.

On a smaller scale, processing begins within the confines of a simple word. Processing recognizes a symbol, an alphabetical letter, as the first step. The next step acknowledges and remembers the sound associated with that symbol/letter. The brain moves on, putting the symbol/letter/sound together and remembering those three key components. Those components make up one letter in the word. The brain takes the next letter in the word and does the same thing again before moving on to the next letter and the next.

Finally, after the brain acknowledges all the symbols/letters/sounds in a word, it is able to put the letters together to interpret the word as a word and not as individual symbols, letters, or sounds. All this is done instantaneously, without thought or effort on our part once the basic skills of learning the alphabet and reading have been mastered.

How often have you read through an article or book without even fully realizing that you are reading the words? Your processing ability is so fine-tuned that you can read and gain visuals and understanding in your mind without ever really “reading” the words. Your brain simply skims along and you are reading on autopilot. Perhaps you are doing that with this article right now?

Let’s Look at an Example

Try to stop reading as you normally do, and look at each letter in the following sentences. Force your brain to slow down and process more slowly. Look at each individual word and sound it out—letter by letter—as if you were just learning to read. It is a painfully slow process, almost frustrating in the extreme, isn’t it? Now consider what happens if your brain is having trouble processing the symbols/letters/sounds it is seeing. Perhaps the symbols are backwards or upside down; perhaps the sounds mesh together the wrong way or the letters are taken out of sequence.

?pu dessem si ti nehw ecnetnes siht daer ot ti si tluciffid woH (This sentence is backwards, and the letters in each word are also backwards.)

Who iffdciutl si ti to aerd hsit setnnece hwen it si dessem pu? (This sentence contains words in which the letters have been rearranged. A person who has dyslexia commonly “sees” sentences this way!)

The two sentences above should say: How difficult is it to read this sentence when it is messed up?

The distorted sentences above are examples of what many children with processing disorders face when they begin to learn how to read and do math problems. As a parent, it is important to try to place ourselves in our children’s position so that we can see what they see.

How Do Reading Disabilities Affect Other Areas of Learning?

Math, just like reading, uses symbols. If a child is struggling in his attempts to process information, regardless of what the symbols look like or are used for, the child will struggle with putting the information together and making sense of it. As frustrating as it is for a parent to work with a child who is struggling with reading or math, think how much more difficult, even depressing, it is for the young student who is trying to learn to read yet having no success making sense of the symbols/letters.

Reading problems have the potential to affect all areas of learning. Children with dyslexia may struggle with math for many of the same reasons they struggle with discerning letters and reading in general. Solving word problems in math can be a very challenging task, because it requires skills in both math and reading, demanding a great deal of processing skills in finding the solution to the problem. Math also poses a problem for some children with dyslexia due to the use of symbols, math structure, reasoning, sequencing, and other areas where brain processing occurs.

Bible, history, and science naturally demand a great deal of reading and memorization. For the child with dyslexia, those subjects can mean difficulty, because they require processing skills.

What About Dyslexia?

The most common learning disability for problem readers is dyslexia. A greater understanding of dyslexia is slowly evolving. Early on, experts regarded dyslexia as a developmental lag—a “slow” area in either linguistics or reading skills. They are now realizing that dyslexia is a true, persistent deficit, lasting throughout the child’s lifetime. Learning how to recognize and work with a child who has dyslexia gives the child the ability to learn how to cope from the very beginning, instead of learning how to cope years later in his schooling or work experience.

Dyslexia itself has many faces, types, and levels. Dyslexia is caused by impairment in the brain’s ability to receive visual or auditory information and translate that into understandable language. In other words, when a child with dyslexia sees or hears something, it becomes scrambled in his brain, which makes it very difficult to translate the data into an understandable concept. If we took five different puzzles, mixed up all the pieces, then sat down and tried to form one puzzle, it would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to sort through all the pieces to find the correct ones. This hypothetical situation illustrates what a child with a processing disorder faces, especially those who have dyslexia.

What Are Some Signs You Should Be on the Lookout For?

Following are some of the earliest and most basic signs and symptoms of dyslexia observed in children 7 to 8 years of age and older: reversing numbers and letters when writing them, writing overly large letters or numbers, difficulty copying words or math problems from a book to paper, writing that may be disorganized and out of sync, difficulty in remembering information even when it is their favorite topic (points to processing and memory retrieval problems), difficulty with spatial relationships even outside of schoolwork (meaning space between themselves and items or other people may be off), difficulty with right-and left-hand dominance, difficulty with coordination during sports or playtime games (often thought to be clumsy), and difficulty with music and rhythm.

Signs of a variety of auditory disorders may include difficulty remembering or understanding what they hear (auditory processing disorder—very common with dyslexia), difficulty with placing events or items in sequence, difficulty in remembering what they are to do, or difficulty in doing more than one task at a time. The child may ask you to repeat yourself several times, because he has the ability to process only a few words at a time and not an entire sentence (dyslexic children often say “huh” or “what” as if it is a habit—but it isn’t!). The child also may say the wrong words in reply to a question (he knows what he wants to say but can’t get the words out correctly).

The Emotional Effects of Learning Disorders

When children with dyslexia are overlooked, they often become withdrawn, depressed, lazy, unmotivated, resistant to schoolwork, and problematic and distracted during school time, thereby not completing the work they are required to do. Many children whose personalities change when it is time to do schoolwork may be suffering from undiagnosed processing disorders.

Realizing your child may have a processing disorder and is not being difficult on purpose is crucial for your child and your family. With help, the child can begin to enjoy learning and have fewer struggles. But the parent must take the time and effort to have the child properly diagnosed so that both child and parent know what disorders they are dealing with—guessing can do as much harm as good, and not all processing disorders are treated the same way.

How Can These Disorders Be Diagnosed?

Proper diagnosis of processing disorders—especially dyslexia—can be very difficult. A trained psychologist will spend several hours doing specific tests with the child to determine where the disabilities lie and how severe they are, and then he will write up recommendations for the child.

Some private medical insurance companies will pay for this testing; if your insurance company does not, you have the right to request this testing through your local public school. Public schools are required by federal law to test your child regardless of where the child attends school (public, private, or homeschool).

Once you have an official and very specific diagnosis, it is much easier to find ways to work with your child to help him or her learn and enjoy learning. Since we learn throughout an entire lifetime, giving your child the tools and ability to process information is an incredible gift that continues far past his school years.

Rebekah Wilson is a wife and mother to eight homeschooled children. She is currently earning a bachelor of science degree in elementary and special education, hoping to bless homeschool families who have learning disabled or special needs children. Rebekah has gained a great deal of experience homeschooling her own children for over fourteen years. Their disabilities include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, APD, dyslexia, math disorder, processing and memory disorder, PDD, and bipolar disorder. Rebekah and her husband Edward operate Country Christian School (www.CAhomeschoolisp.com) and Hope Chest Legacy (www.HopeChestLegacy.com).

Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Summer 2009.

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