Like all children, dyslexics breathe a sigh of relief when summer begins: no more schoolwork, homework, or assigned books. They celebrate summer because it offers a break from the daily tensions inherent in school that leave them feeling as if they never have enough time to do the things that they love. Sadly, for most parents of dyslexics, their child’s initial relief leads to troubling adult dilemmas.
"Can my child afford the time to play?”
“How much unstructured time should be factored into my child’s summer?”
“How should he best use this unstructured time to address school issues?”
“How urgent is the need for remediation?” “What kind is best?”
These are difficult questions with no simple answers. How should each concern be weighted? One thing is certain: keeping an eye on balance is important.
The Importance of Balancing Summer Time
Balance is important to all children, but one could argue that it is particularly important when a child feels that his life has been hijacked by a learning disability. The amount of time, energy and thought aimed at coping with dyslexia is significant. Since dyslexics spend nine months out of the year grappling with difficult school tasks that frequently lead to despair, summer is a relished opportunity to refuel and recharge. Summer vacation is also an important time for a child to pursue activities that are fun and fulfilling, not frustrating.
A Total Break is Not a Great Idea
As much as most parents want to offer their exhausted and frustrated dyslexic child a couple months off from their academic skill building, most parents instinctively know that a total reprieve is not in their child’s best interest. Scientific data clearly show that many children, especially dyslexic boys and girls, lose reading skills over the summer. In a dyslexic child, written words are often still transient, temporary. It is common for a beginning reader to read the word correctly and yet find that five minutes later she will not be able to decipher that very same word.
"Why?" says Dr. Sally Shaywitz. "This gets to the heart of a major problem for the dyslexic child; the word has not found a permanent home within the automatic reading system (the word form region) of the neural circuit for skilled, fluent, automatic reading. With more practice and experiences reading the word correctly – this (and other words as well) will become permanently instantiated or represented in the word form region. Once that happens, the word can then be read correctly and quickly each time the child sees it. Especially for a dyslexic child, this process takes time. If a child has been practicing a given set of words and word families during the school year, representatives of the word are beginning to find a permanent home within the word form area. However, if this process is interrupted before the word is permanently represented in the child’s brain, it often means having to learn the word all over again."
But how much of the day should be spent focused on academic remediation? What is the most time-efficient and effective method of delivering remediation? And who should deliver it? How does one balance a child’s academic growth with play, rest, exploration and pursuit of the child’s passions?
These questions are further complicated by the necessary considerations of cost and convenience. Even families who live in urban areas are faced with the daunting task of coordinating transportation and scheduling of summer support. It seems that help is never close enough, and, like every other service, bringing help to one’s home is accompanied by increased cost. How much time should children spend being shuttled around in a car to tutors and specialists during precious summer time? Some families visit relatives or move around a lot during the summer and can find it challenging to provide academic support. Ultimately, parents of a dyslexic child will have the best sense for how to navigate these time tensions. Each child is different and each family has different considerations.
The “Homeschooling” Option
Summer, and its more flexible schedule can provide a great opportunity to keep your child reading and enable them to get a jump on upcoming schoolwork in a fun and leisurely way. Parents should ask the child’s teacher for a list of books that she will be reading next year and preview them as an audio book, a recorded book through Learning Ally or during their family read aloud time.
Content wise, if Ancient Egypt will be studied in the upcoming grade, children can go to their local library and check out some videos about Egypt to watch. This will help the child preview the subject and develop knowledge about the content, vocabulary, pronunciation of names, places, and themes she might encounter. It might also give her an opportunity to learn something her classmates may not know about the pharaohs and pyramids. Giving the child a chance to preview content might also spark her curiosity and compel her to check out some easier reading books about the subject. You might want to check with the school about curriculum and reading lists for the upcoming year before school gets out.
Exposing children to resources and information they might not otherwise know exists is just one of the many ways parents can support their child’s understanding and expertise about a subject. Summer can give the child (and her family) an opportunity to explore subjects through excursions to museums as well as local, state and national parks, historical landmarks, and libraries. Families can use the less structured summer to do science experiments and practice math/measurement in the kitchen, workshop, or garden. Project-oriented learning can grow a child’s sense of competence and confidence. For working parents there are lots of low cost summer programs that offer these types of enrichment activities.
Hobbies can also spur the child’s learning. If baseball is a child’s passion, there are so many great ways to leverage the love of the game to connect to the world of books and reading. There are countless autobiographies, biographies and fictional stories set in the world of baseball (or the favorite sport or subculture) that might hook a reluctant reader. Math facts and sporting averages can be a way to connect a passionate fan with numbers. Additionally, fan sites that offer children a chance to learn more about their sports heroes are available on the Internet. Some sites even post children’s stories about their heroes so children can be published on the web. Publishing for a real audience can make a child feel like a “real” writer.
Individualized Process and Pace
Exploring interesting subjects within the more relaxed context of summer offers a wonderful opportunity for a child to learn, at his own pace, about what interests him and to discover that learning doesn’t have to be stressful. He can realize that there are many ways to gain access to information and many means of expressing and growing his knowledge. Freed of school pressures, learning can be fun. A dyslexic learner benefits from opportunities that spark curiosity and offer opportunities to demonstrate his abilities and understanding.
Expose your child to as many words as possible
Even though reading is harder and slower for dyslexics, it is imperative to find ways to expose them to the empowering world of words. There are many ways to create a word-rich life, and they are not all dependent on independent reading:
Special Summer Programs and Camps
Many parents look forward to summer so that their child will have additional time and energy to pursue academic remediation offered through a camp or school unavailable to the child during the busy school year. There are many summer camps and special schools that offer specialized instruction for dyslexic students. Dyslexics often have to operate in a mainstream school cultures that rarely wait for anyone. Because they are expected to keep up with an unrealistic pace, canyon-sized holes can develop in a dyslexic student’s knowledge and skill base. Attending a summer camp can give a child an important opportunity to learn on his own terms while addressing any deficits that are troubling him in school. Connecting with other students who share his learning profile can also help to normalize his school challenges.
Summer camps can also be important for dyslexic students who have deep interests that get sidelined or shortchanged because of academic demands during the school year. Those students eagerly wait for summer so they can attend a special overnight or day camp that allows them to seriously pursue their hobbies and build friendships around common interests. A summer camp experience that offers opportunities to excel in non-academic areas can offset the humiliations a dyslexic child suffers in the classroom.
Knowing when enough is enough:
The decision to stop remediation is an individual one. Some dyslexic children both require and benefit from some boost during the summer. They may need to work with a tutor or do some reading exercises provided by the child’s reading support/tutor. It needn’t be for hours on end; an hour or less is sufficient for this kind of support activity.
A mother writes...
After second grade, I wanted to enroll my daughter in summer school, because it had helped her so much the summer prior. The principal looked me in the eye and said, “Last year she really needed it, this year she needs time to put the skills together and explore reading on her own.” She gently reminded me, “Development is a beautiful thing”.
It is hard to know when to let a child have full reign and gallop away on her own. I’m not sure I had that wisdom or the courage to stop her instruction at the time, but after an educator I trusted and respected confirmed that there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to reading instruction, I gave myself permission to stop her special instruction. My daughter had reached her potential with remediation. More isn’t always better. She was right: My daughter ultimately benefitted from having time to read and develop her own relationship to reading.
Parents of a dyslexic, regardless of economic status, often find themselves in the unfortunate situation where recommendations are made for their child without any explicit references to the financial costs associated with the program, specialist, camp or school. The assumption seems to be that parents should chose to do anything to help their children. Learning specialists often avoid important conversations regarding the trade-offs related to interventions. Anyone who has waded into educational support knows that the financial, time, and energy costs can be significant. Parents have to consider questions like, “Is this the most efficient use of our financial resources? If we choose to do this camp, will it preclude our being able to afford tutoring next year? Which option will be more helpful?” Many parents have found it helpful to list the child’s needs for the summer and next school year and next to each place a priority (number from 1 to 5) and then the estimated cost along with the uniqueness of the opportunity. Having this all down on paper or on a computer allows parents to make the optimal choice for their child and their family.
Parents also have priorities and concerns beyond the academic success of their one child with dyslexia. How about other children in the family? Even if the other children are competent spellers, writers, and readers, they will probably require parent attention and resources as well. It would be helpful if more specialists addressed the financial and logistical costs associated with interventions and gave parents permission not to choose every one of them.
In an ideal world, specialists would only highlight the most efficient and effective strategies and therapies to prevent anxious moms and dads from blindly diving into every option available. Unfortunately, the experts don’t always know what is best. Sometimes they have not had enough experience with a new intervention, program, or technology to know whether it will live up to its promise. That is why, as much as possible, it is important to research interventions by asking teachers, learning specialists and other parents what they know about them. Parents should not be shy when it comes to asking for references. Other parents of dyslexics can offer the best referrals and resources for important information and advice about whether or not something is worth an investment of time and money.
Parents of children with dyslexia have to pace themselves financially. Educating a child with dyslexia is a marathon, not a sprint. A dyslexic child will make real gains with interventions, but he will always be dyslexic. Consequently, it is wise to think in terms of long-term strategy instead of a “fix-it quickly” approach that threatens to bankrupt families and exhaust their dyslexic children along the way.
Ultimately, dyslexics may have to be more deliberate with their time and resources, but they deserve playful, engaging and leisurely summers as much as (or more than) anyone!