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Two weeks ago, the neighbourhood children went back to school and ‘proper’ home education began at our house. On the first day, I learned that it can take 30 minutes to encourage a child through 10 minutes of arithmetic or reading. I began to wonder about the scale of the task I’ve taken on! On the second day, I learned that my 9-year-old daughter has a physical issue with reading. So far I’m learning plenty, though I’m not so sure my daughter is!

I had become frustrated, for the umpteenth time, with my 9-year-old daughter’s apparent unwillingness or inability to read a page of text. She wiggled, she squirmed, and the book wiggled and squirmed with her. The words, which started out fluent, became more and more disjointed, till I had no idea what was happening in the story.

As usual, I tried reprimanding her. Sit up straight, pay attention, I said, crossly. But this time, something in me clicked. I could see that this path that we had travelled so many times before was not leading anywhere interesting or pleasant.

I could see that there was no way her eyes could be following the text, with all that wiggling and squirming. She hadn’t been squirming before she started reading. Maybe the wiggling was an attempt to align her eyes with the text? Maybe all the text on the page was distracting her from the line she was trying to read? So I took a piece of white paper, cut a rectangle the size of a line of text, placed it over the page and asked her to read. I moved the paper down the page as she read, line by line.

Suddenly she sat still. Suddenly she was fluent. Suddenly, she could easily read a whole page. Suddenly, her attention was on the story rather than on her distress and resistance.


I mentioned this to a friend, who pointed out that tools like my makeshift paper rectangle are often used to help people with dyslexia, as are coloured overlays. I don’t think my daughter has dyslexia, but now I had something to Google: coloured overlays. Immediately I learned about visual stress and tracking difficulties, conditions I had never heard of before. I learned that there is such a thing as a developmental optometrist, an eye doctor who specialises in how eyesight develops in children.

A quick call to the local optometrist revealed that he could do some basic tests to see if my daughter might have a visual issue that was affecting her reading, though further diagnosis and treatment would be farther afield. Last week we discovered that when my daughter used a coloured overlay, her reading speed doubled and her error rate fell to zero. What I noticed most of all was her emotional state. During the first test, her voice was small, halting, and increasingly distressed. During the test with the overlay, her voice was quiet but confident and there was no trace of distress.

It was an emotional moment for me. It will take a while to process the information that four years of reading misery may be nearly over. But here are my first thoughts:

Viewed through the blame, recrimination, and half-empty glass:

* Why didn’t her school pick up on this? Her reading was poor enough that she had extra reading support for years. Her reading level was far below her intellectual capacity.

* Why didn’t I pick up on this sooner? Cue massive mama guilt. I should have paid more attention. I should have trusted her more. I should have questioned the school more closely, challenged the anodyne responses I received to the questions I did ask. Why didn’t I try the rectangle trick four years ago??

* OMG, no wonder we had so much conflict, strife, stress and tears over reading. And OMG, I am SO SORRY for my part in that, for believing that she just wouldn’t try. This breaks my heart. My beautiful, intelligent, creative, unique little girl has suffered, and I do mean suffered, for four whole years. Which is a very long time indeed in a child’s life. She has felt stupid, pressured, judged. She has definitely not felt supported, by me or anyone else, but especially by me. Me, with my tales of reading chapter books all the way through at the age of 5.

* Why don’t ‘they’ screen for this?

* Why does this happen? Are there exercises for it? Can it be ‘cured’ or only treated? What happens in adulthood – will she always have a coloured overlay or tinted glasses?

Viewed through the half-full glass:

* Thank God we have found the beginnings of an explanation for her reading difficulties. They did not make sense. She is intelligent, articulate, has a huge vocabulary. We have read aloud to her at least once a day since she was tiny, and at great length. She loves stories. My house and her father’s house are bursting with books. She watches us read constantly. (Well, not while she is around. As an only child, she views us as primary playmates. But she can see that we’ve both always got a book open and frequently several at a time.) So how could she dislike reading?

* It feels as if her academic life can begin from here. What could be possible, now that the words don’t blur and wiggle about on the page? Tentatively, my original hopes and dreams for her academic life revive. Simultaneously I remember the importance of accepting her as she is, and accepting her path in life for what it is, and accepting that it might not include the kind of academic experience that I had.

* I almost dare not hope that her resistance to education may diminish now. As a home-schooling mum, that would make my life a whole lot easier.

* Isn’t it interesting that in the end, as in so many situations, a mum’s intuition is what makes the difference.

Reading and education are a big deal to me. It has been painful to watch my daughter struggle so much with reading. For me, reading is the gateway to the world of ideas, information and recreation. I grieve(d) for my daughter when it seemed that this world was not going to be accessible to her. I was having trouble accepting that other media (television, video, computer games, goodness-knows-what) could take the place of the printed word. Now I don’t have to!

A cautious note sounds: this breakthrough is unlikely to solve all our problems, much as I would like it to. It doesn’t change my daughter’s strong will, her contrary nature, or the emotional damage I may have inflicted through inadequate parenting when she was little. But oh, if she can begin to enjoy books! My heart sings at the prospect.

Thank goodness I chose to home educate. (And maybe I’ll only have to do it for a year!)