How we tried 11 different programs and therapies before we found a reading program that worked and that didn’t make my son hate his life.
My parents started the original literature-rich homeschooling company about thirty years ago. Students learn history and English and science and language arts using incredible books as the foundation. It’s amazing. I used it as a girl, and I loved it.
So when I had my five boys, I looked forward to a marvelous time homeschooling them, all of us sharing great books together.
And the homeschooling part has been awesome. As long as I’m reading aloud, life is good.
And the learning-to-read part worked perfectly with my older two sons. One learned to read at five with minimal help, and the other learned to read at five overnight with just about no help at all.
I knew I didn’t have much to do with the process, but how enjoyable! Reading is easy!
Then I started to teach my third son to read. And that was not so easy.
But it didn’t stress me out too much. We were homeschooling, which meant I had no parent-teacher meetings, no stress from testing or school districts, no tears from being put in the “slow” class.
It was fine for my son to be slower to read. I figured all children are on their own journeys. And my third son continued to make progress. It was just slower progress.
He eventually fell about three years behind grade level. Again, though, I figured that was within the range of normal. My brother didn’t learn to read well until middle school, and my brother graduated valedictorian of his high school class. Maybe reading difficulties run in families. (Side note: I know now that they totally do!)
Even so, with all my mental justifications and minimizations of stress, the first time I saw my third son pick up a book on his own to read — at age twelve — I almost cried.
A Bigger Challenge
But my fourth son — he was an entirely different challenge. I’m a pretty relaxed parent, and I had read all the books that promote later school starts. So I wasn’t too worried when my son didn’t learn his alphabet sounds the first week . . . the first month . . . the first year.
Not too worried.
Of course, these were only the 26 basic letter sounds. We’re not talking about ph, th, ch, or sh. Not talking about long vowel sounds.
It took three years of daily effort for him to (mostly) master the 26 basic sounds. By that point, he was almost 8 years old. And I wasn’t quite desperate yet . . . but something needed to change.
We needed to find something that worked.
What Was Happening
And I didn’t need him to read so much for me. I have enough children, I knew that his difficulties in reading were not a huge reflection of my teaching ability. He had access to the same methods, the same diet, the same gene pool as my other sons.
And I have a supportive and understanding family. My in-laws weren’t calling to berate me. My husband wasn’t yelling at me, wondering why I couldn’t just do my job.
As a homeschooler, my son wasn’t getting picked on in school.
But as the weeks and months passed, I started to be mindful wherever we went. Make sure the club leader knew not to ask him to read aloud. Make sure the judo sensei knew that memorizing names of throws was tremendously difficult (if not impossible) for him.
I could, for the most part, manage his environment, for the moment, so that he was not insecure and unhappy.
But even with his protected environment, I could see the signs of strain. A casual or teasing comment, even when not intended to hurt, could be unbearably painful. And this was just the beginning.
I needed my son to read for himself.
But how could I help someone who struggled so much with something that most children find so simple?
And so we kept trying things. We had worked through ten different programs and therapies when I spoke with a reading specialist in the public schools who had decades of experience.
The False Hope
She confirmed that I should be using an Orton-Gillingham method program. So even though I had used one or two Orton-Gillingham programs already, without much result, I was willing to try another. Maybe I just needed another flavor.
Because, really, I didn’t care that the new program cost $3000 and required, ideally, five hours of tutoring for a week for the foreseeable future. I just needed my son to read!
I was willing to do whatever it took, and happy to feel like we had a way forward.
So we started the eleventh program, and faithfully did our five hours a week.
I put my third son through the program, too, for good measure.
My sons soldiered on. We struggled through lessons day after day, sometimes for an hour and a half each. My third son worked through the whole program, but I noticed that it didn’t translate into real-life improved spelling or reading.
And as we neared the end of a year, my fourth son had made basically no real progress. Reading The Cat and the Hat was still an impossible dream.
I was desperate. We were desperate.
A Total Wall
We had invested thousands of dollars in programs and therapies. I had invested over a thousand hours of my life in one-on-one tutoring, using materials that worked for others.
And my son was still barely at a kindergarten reading level.
It was about this time that we started to face the possibility that our son, though he seemed smart enough in many ways, was never going to become literate. In fact, my husband started to look into businesses that didn’t require much reading in order to earn a living, and he ended up starting a business with a lot of manual labor and minimal reading, figuring that this would be a way to keep our son employed, even if he couldn’t read.
We felt entirely out of options. We had exhausted all the possibilities — homeschool programs, brain training therapy, the best recommendation from the public school.
It was a dark time.
A New (Reading) Hope
Then my mom heard a talk by Dr. Karen Holinga, a Ph.D. reading specialist. Dr. Karen had made it her life work to help children like my son. When my mom approached Dr. Karen and said that her grandson couldn’t read, Dr. Karen said, “Sarita, send your grandson to me, and I will get him to read.”
Dr. Karen had complete and total confidence that she would be able to teach my son to read.
She had never met him before. She knew nothing of his family life or background, and of the eleven prior programs and therapies that had failed us.
But because she had the experience of helping over 25,000 struggling students with 100% success, she had no doubt that she had the skills and the program to get him what he needed.
So I became one of the beta testers for Dr. Karen’s Happy Cheetah Reading System. My son’s reading immediately transformed from a drag and a failure to a pleasure and a success. My son laughed his way through his lessons. He progressed past kindergarten work in a month, and worked through first grade in a couple months more.
It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. He hit a roadblock after a few months, unrelated to the program, that we had to deal with.
And he isn’t a fluent reader . . . yet. But he has actually made progress over the last half year.
He continues to chuckle his way through his lessons.
He doesn’t sound words out.
Reading takes us twenty minutes, not an hour.
He’s not frustrated and sad.
I’m not despairing.
We have hope.
I have confidence now that we’ll get there.