Language Arts Suggestions for LD Children

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions from the past 12 years and my answers.


        Does my child need to learn phonics? - Contrary to popular belief, phonics is not always the "only answer" to the teaching of reading. Only 70 percent of English is phonetic (would you get on a plane that had only 70 percent chance of landing safely?). “Come home,” is a good example of a non-phonetic sentence. If your child used come as the rhyming word/rule, home would be hum. If your child used home as the rhyming word, then come would be comb. Neither “comb home” or “come hum” is correct. And these are just two common words; your child must learn thousands! Imagine trying to explain to your LD child that one out of every three words will be an “exception to the rule”. It’s enough to make one want to quit before they even start.

        Phonics is merely a tool, a complex skill to be learned. English uses 26 letters to make its 44 sounds and depends on approximately 88 different rules. When was the last time you looked at a 3 letter word and tried to decide which of 88 rules applied to it? Children can’t “sound out words” all of their lives. Eventually, those sounds must become “automatic”, so a child will know immediately that “c-a-n” is the word “can”.

        Let’s look at Matt. Matt has difficulty in auditory processing. He doesn’t follow oral directions well. He can’t remember what letters make which sounds and can’t blend these sounds together to come up with the right word. You’ve bought him the best tapes on the market and reading has quickly become the most dreaded time of day - for both of you. Choosing a reading program that depends on phonics-based tapes probably will not be an effective approach for teaching a child like Matt to read. Hopefully, his visual memory is better than his auditory processing. This would indicate a sight vocabulary/whole language approach. Tapes might work better if he made the sounds himself (his regional accent may be different from the person on the tape).

        Don’t totally give up on phonics; just realize its limitations. Some words can’t be “sounded out” (like come; home was phonetic because it followed the silent “e” rule). Children have a maturational learning spurt about 10 years of age and again at puberty. These are good times to take the words Matt knows and show him the phonics rules that apply to them.

Common Reading Difficulties and Some Suggested Activities

        Suggestion: First, the child must learn individual sounds. These sounds must then be blended together to form a syllable or word. This sounds easier than it is for LD children. The sound blending cubes, like those included in F.L.A.G.S., really help.  Have the child read real and nonsense syllables (the nonsense syllable may become a syllable in a real word someday). Cube games provide more variety than work sheets, but require your listening time (set a 5-10 minute timer). Making learning "fun" leads to more enjoyable practice - for both of you.

        Suggestion: Find pictures of objects or animals which have these sounds. Have the child tell you which vowel they hear. To avoid using the same ones over and over, say nonsense syllables using these sounds and have the child tell you which one they hear. Write out 2 consonants with a space between them (example: b__n). Have the child tell you how they would sound with each vowel. Begin with letter combinations that would make real words and work towards nonsense syllables.

        The cause for this may not be a learning disability. It may be a dialectical difference. Here in North Carolina, people say pin and pen the same. You must listen to the rest of the senctence to know which word they mean.

        Suggestion: Using prefixes, roots, and suffixes for reading and spelling work well. Children who cannot sound out individual letters can often use a controlled group of letters to help them read and spell (like the prefix pre). Teach them as units and give many examples. The Spelling Squares of  F.L.A.G.S. also teach the meanings, leading to more advanced word analysis skills. Be aware that pre is not always a prefix (preview and president). Again, the word analysis approach of prefixes, suffixes, and roots is just a tool. Sometimes you need a garden trowel for digging and sometimes a front end loader. All tools have limitations.

        Suggestion: Few LDs are good oral readers. In fact, they often read a story better than the author wrote it. Without  sounding rude, does oral reading proficiency matter enough to lose sleep over? Comprehension is what matters. Children may or may not grow up to be a radio announcer. First, make sure there is no correctable visual problem causing these reading errors. Then work on the skill by allowing him to read more to you or younger siblings.

        Though not ideal, fingers can be used to keep one’s place. Using the single pointer finger under each word is not recommended. This method requires more eye-hand coordination, with children spending more time making sure their finger is in the right place than reading smoothly. Instead, use all four fingers, slightly curled, under the line being read. This larger finger "underliner" encourages a smoother eye movement while keeping their place. If needed, slide these four curled fingers down the line. When that line is completed, slide the fingers down to the next line.

Another option is index cards. Cards should be placed above the line, covering what has already been read. If you place the card beneath the line, it is too hard to control as you lower it to reveal the next line. In deciding between fingers or card, remember that you always have your fingers with you, where index cards might be harder to locate.

        Read, read, read. Oral reading will improve, given time. Remember that understanding what is read is far more critical than how it is read orally.

Other Reading Ideas

Personal Experience

        I never heard the term "phonics" until I was in college. They weren't taught when I was in school. I was taught the “look-say” approach, today known as sight reading or whole/language. Even though my vision was 20/20, I experienced reading problems. My eyes took turns, not focusing together. As I read, the eyes switched, causing me to jump ahead or reread what I had finished. Consequently, I was a very poor oral reader (a very highly prized skill back then). People generally read faster silently, but not me. I never read a paragraph orally without a mistake and speed reading was not an option. I did muscle strengthening eye exercises for some time, took remedial reading in Jr. High, and was told I would fail college because I read so slowly. I only tell this story because I graduated with honors and became a proficient radio newscaster.

        We did not use a computer when my daughter, Laura, was learning to read. As a moderate to severe stutterer, phonics did not look very promising. My question was: if she couldn't say sounds in conversation, how could she blend them into words? Therefore, I taught her using the following “sight” method for reading, beginning at age 4. First, I showed her a common word and told her its “name”. We put our fingers under each letter, spelling it and then saying the word. We spelled it together, closing our eyes, each time saying, “d-o spells do”. We wrote it in the air. We talked about the tall letters and short letters. We searched for others on the page. Then I read, pointing to each word, until I came to “her word.” I stopped and she had to say (read) her word. The next night, we reviewed a few times and introduced a new word. Now she had two words to watch for. And so it went.

        Our first textbook was a brightly colored picture Bible. My mistake in using this specific book was its comic style lettering  - all capitals. The capitals made it more difficult for Laura to read words in other books (regular books use both upper and lower case print). Recognizing this early, I moved us into one of my former teaching series, now out of print, which introduced one word per story. We read Books C through G together, mastering a several hundred words. And then I did a usual thing - I got too busy to listen on a daily basis. In fact, several weeks passed. One day, I asked her if she had been reading any lately. She replied that she was now in Book I. I didn’t believe her, so I listened to her read. Sure enough, she had taught herself new words through context clues and read it very well. Needless to say, at age 5, we started first grade readers, with little credit due to Mom.

        Teaching special needs children for nearly 10 years in public school confirmed several of my assumptions: While no one method is correct for everyone, combining phonics with sight vocabulary is the better method. Successful teachers do what they need to do to help children reach their potential. Don’t give up on your child and don’t let him give up on himself. Keep expectations practical and realistic. Sometimes children learn because of you; other times they learn in spite of you. You will make mistakes, but in the end, God uses your goofs to make goodness.


        Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your child could spell everything he reads? But that is not the case, is it? Visual memory is very necessary in spelling. Remember writing your words 5 times each to practice? Your teacher wasn’t being mean; she was involving your tactile/kinesthetic mode to help your visual memory recall the correct spelling.

        Think about your spelling habits. Do you repeat each syllable as you write it? Do you write a word two ways before you can decide which is correct? Do you sometimes write a word and say, “that feels right so it must be right.” Each of those are methods your brain may use for accurate recall.

        Phonics seems to help more in reading than in spelling. The reason is simple. There are about 3,000 core spelling words that you use 98 percent of the time. Of those 3,000 words, 75 percent are NOT phonetic. That is just one of the reasons a child can be a good reader, but a terrible speller. By now, you also know that passing a word on a spelling test doesn’t necessarily guarantee it being spelled correctly in his written work later today.

        There are many types of spelling mistakes. A few include: incorrectly learned words; letter transpositions; spelling words the way they sound, not the way they look; thinking/writing so fast you miss entire syllables (telescoping) or skip entire words; writing all of the letters, but in the wrong order. Children with spelling problems have greater difficulty with: syllabication (breaking words down into syllables),  an inability to hear short vowels or sequence sounds, and can’t write as fast as they can think. The “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of a learning disability is so typical in spelling. Spelling requires drill, drill, and more drill - but with using as many senses as possible.

        In researching current studies on spelling remediation, I found an interesting fact - experts don’t know what makes a child learn to spell well! They did find out that a maximum of 3 new words per day worked best. They also discovered that saying each letter aloud after it was written helped (auditory feedback). Having the child analyze his own mistakes seemed to be a worthwhile activity (visual feedback). And I personally discovered typing versus handwriting had additional merit because it forced the child to pay attention to letter order (visual with tactile/kinesthetic feedback). Activities that were not statistically useful included: writing your new words in a sentence; finding the correct spelling among several misspelled words; and writing the word in the air (not enough tactile feedback).

        To me, these findings describe a flexible computer program, one that allows you to edit the packaged word lists or make up your own. Computers present the words (visual feedback), pronounce the words (auditory feedback), require typing (tactile/kinesthetic feedback), and check his work (you can wash dishes). The right software program provides excellent drill and puts up with the monotony of “over and over” practice. Once the child has learned to keyboard correctly (type), turn him loose.

        Again, word analysis (prefixes, suffixes, and roots) is an excellent way to go. Many, many words are composed of one root with a prefix or suffix attached. And for the first time in your ‘spelling challenged’ child’s life, he can spell long words like un/frag/ment/able. What an exhilarating feeling - to be good at something!

        Your goal: functional spelling. If he can’t remember how to spell a word, get him close enough so he can recognize the correct spelling from the computer’s spell checker. This is not a cop-out. Your child is growing up in a world of technology. Think of the spell checker as a pair of glasses, through which he can be proficient. After all, he may grow up and hire a secretary. All CEOs have one.


        Ah, now it is time to get all of his wonderful thoughts on paper. Children with learning disabilities have difficulty expressing themselves in written work. (My daughter used to tell me, “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”) They have difficulty in:        

        When is a complete thought complete enough to be a sentence? If you can’t determine where the sentence starts and stops, you can’t punctuate it. If you can’t punctuate it, you can’t capitalize correctly. So one problem (recognizing sentence fragments) affects punctuation and capitalization skills. They may be able to correctly punctuate a work sheet, but show no evidence that they have even seen the skill in their own written work. In other words, they know the rules, but can’t make it work for themselves.

        Suggestion: Practice, practice, practice. Provide “sentence fragment recognition” practice. You present a fragment or a sentence. Raise and lower your voice for fragments as if they were a complete sentence. Make fragments long enough to be a sentence (The day God made the earth stand still with Moses’ holding his arms up high). Ask the child to identify whether it is a sentence or a fragment. If it is a sentence, ask (1) whether it is a statement or a question and (2) what punctuation mark should be used at the end. If it is a fragment, ask (1) what part is missing, the subject or the verb and (2) how would they change it to make it into a real sentence. You can discuss who or what the sentence is talking about (subject) and the action taking place (verb). Be sure to include verbs of being (is, are, was, were, etc.) because their action consists of just existing and isn’t as obvious as running and jumping. Also include exclamations with an “understood you” (“Look out!” has ‘you’ as the subject even though the word is never stated).

        Then have the child create fragments and sentences for you. Either of you can analyze his fragments and sentences. If it is your turn, only analyze them correctly sometimes. He must catch your errors. Also practice with run-on sentences, since they are just sentences with too many babies. Break these down into more than one sentence.

        Somewhat, depending on the child’s level. It may not be needed at the early age most language arts program introduce it. In my opinion, the goal of written expression is clarity, not deciding whether a word is a noun or in a phrase. ‘John yelled at his dog as it ran down the street’ and ‘As his dog ran down the street, John yelled at it’ express the same idea. The first sentence might be written by a 3rd grader; the second by a middle to high schooler. Children’s reading levels often influence their written language. As they read harder material, their sentence structure often increases in complexity.

        Personally, I find it helpful to use the abstract grammar terms in discussing my child’s writing, but I also find myself giving the term’s definition in my explanation. (Your subject, John, needs a descriptive adjective. ‘A red-faced John’ tells the reader John has been running for some time or is very angry.) One word of caution: avoid too many pronouns in your explanations - especially the word ‘it’. This little guy confuses children because they must remember which word ‘it’ refers to back in your last sentence.

        Suggestion: May I use another personal example here?  Linda Hurst, author of  The Classics, recommends writing 5-10 minutes every day - be it grocery lists, a few sentences, a paragraph, or a short story. From these, allow the child to choose his favorite and edit it Friday. With your help, ‘the favorite’ is then corrected for spelling, punctuation, and capitalization errors, moving it from a rough draft to final form. It should be rewritten (or typed) and may even be illustrated.

        We built upon her idea for our language arts. I had my daughter write me 20 story starters that she wanted to write about (The day my hamster escaped, I...). We made them into a check list since she was allowed to use each one only once. Each day, she picked one starter and wrote a story. On Friday, she chose her favorite from the four she had written that week. We made the necessary story edits/corrections, and saved them. She loved to illustrate her masterpieces by hand and with clip art. After she finished about half of her story starter list, she often had no interest in the remaining starters. So she just made another list.

        On her rough drafts, we marked them up like crazy, finding complete subjects/predicates, simple subjects/predicates, and other parts of speech. We underlined subjects, circled verbs, and boxed in prepositional phrases. We put triangles around letters that should have been capitalized, etc. Please understand that we didn’t even try this approach until 5th grade, hence the emphasis on grammar. For us, it worked. My child, who spelled so poorly that she refused to write a word on paper for fear it would be wrong, made progress. Were we wrong to wait nearly five years for serious attempts at written expression? I don’t think so. She loves to write now - and her spelling has improved tremendously with the prefixes/root/suffixes approach (each syllable may not be spelled correctly, but at least they aren’t missing.)

        I grappled with which was more important - correct spelling or Laura’s need to express herself in writing. I chose personal expression and surprisingly received improved spelling as a byproduct.

         If you want more structure than these ‘hit or miss’ ideas, Winston Grammar comes highly recommended by several friends. Never having used it myself - and not wishing to get into trouble by endorsing one curriculum over another - I have examined it briefly and found it quite suitable for LDs.

        YES, especially if his handwriting and spelling are poor! Around age 10 is a good time to start the keyboard clicking. The 'Bible method' I use (Seek and ye shall find) is not efficient and will penalize your child the rest of his life. You will get the added benefits of quick corrections on the computer, spell checking, and legible papers with no eraser holes. While you wait for him to achieve these life changing keyboarding skills, consider trading your typing services for work around the house. Clean cars are something few home schooling Moms have without student assistance :)

        Occasionally, I became Laura’s secretary. I typed it just as she dictated, but with no capitals or punctuation - the ultimate run-on sentence. She then broke the many words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. She liked this approach, being easy to perform on the computer. If I was busy, option #2 was to have her dictate into a handheld tape recorder and transcribe it for her later, at my convenience - again with no breaks. Since she types well now, this is no longer a task I perform (unfortunately, my car is dirtier, too.)

Other Ideas


        This leads us to our final category - vocabulary development. To increase reading comprehension and written expression complexity, students must learn new words. ‘Sarah has pretty red hair’ sounds pretty tame compared to ‘Sarah’s auburn hair glowed in autumn splendor.’

        The easiest way to develop vocabulary, in my opinion, is with a computer program. It provides the repetitive drill necessary to learn new words. Wordly Wise is also an inexpensive alternative in consumable workbook format. New vocabulary may become spelling words, dictionary practice, or word game ideas. Require these words to show up sometime during the week in their written work.


        Be realistic in your expectations and goals. Not every child will tell great stories like Will Rogers, write like Mark Twain or read like a professional. Identified LD college students are offered the support services of readers and note takers. Maybe art school, apprenticeships or the PGA are a better goal than college.

        Decide which skills are necessary for a functional adult and work toward those. After all, this special child of yours steps closer to adulthood with each passing day. God has given you the responsibility of accompanying your child on this journey, making his way the smoothest path possible. One day, you must let go of his hand and he must have the necessary skills mastered to stand on his own two feet.




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