Learning to Read: How My Unnatural Reader Began Reading

– I have four children who have always been homeschooled. They learned to read in four very different ways, though there are some important similarities too (all four have me for a mother, after all). This is the second in a series of posts examining how each of my children learned to read. –

unschooling readingColter didn’t talk. Between his second and third birthdays, other than a tiny handful of very basic words, he added very few words to his vocabulary. Instead he learned to mimic all sorts of animal sounds, assigning them correctly to all of his little zoo. When he began making a funny sound something like “ayo,” after hearing it repeatedly I told my husband he was saying “elephant.” He pooh-poohed my insight, but guess what? The stuffed elephant Colter got for his second birthday, and which still sits on his bed, is still called Ayo.

He began gaining more words after his third birthday but still slowly. I used to joke that I could see the gears turning when he tried to express himself verbally: an elaborate thought would form in his head, go through several twists and turns and slowly make itself out in a much simplified two- or three-word format.

Despite the fact that he didn’t solidly grasp which was his left vs. right hand until he was at least ten years old, he showed an early and strong grasp of visual-spatial cues. I think he was three when he put together a wooden hands puzzle, the kind where each palm and finger is a separate piece. On ours the finger colors coordinate so both index fingers are red, both thumbs are blue, etc. As he put the puzzle together he began saying he needed a blue piece and looking all over for a blue piece; he didn’t want any of the other pieces I offered him. (He was sitting on it.) I didn’t understand what he was doing until I looked closer and realized he had one hand put together, and was assembling the second hand based on methodically matching the color scheme from the first hand.

When he learned to write his name, he wrote it in mirror letters for the longest time, and honestly couldn’t see the difference when I pointed it out to him. He didn’t even begin to understand the elaborate rhyming games Noa and I delighted in playing.

What Does This Have to Do With Reading?

Why do I tell you these stories, interesting only to a mother, at the beginning of a story on how Colter learned to read? Because all of the above behaviors are strong signs of potential dyslexia. These are some of the symptoms Colter showed (the entire list of possible symptoms is longer):

~ Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking.
~ Trouble with writing or copying; pencil grip is unusual; handwriting varies or is illegible.
~ Clumsy, uncoordinated, difficulties with fine and/or gross motor skills and tasks.
~ Can be ambidextrous, and often confuses left/right, over/under.
~ Had unusually early or late developmental stages (such as talking).
~ Excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations, and faces.
~ Difficulty with rhyme and letter recognition.
~ Computing math shows dependence on finger counting and other tricks; knows answers, but can’t do it on paper.
~ “Word blindness” where child can be drilled on a word on one page and then won’t recognize it on the next page.
~ Reading or writing shows repetitions, additions, transpositions, omissions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words.
~ Reads and rereads with little comprehension.
~ Spells phonetically and inconsistently.
~ Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.

Some of these symptoms persist for Colter at age fourteen – he still holds his pencil like a gorilla (and writes like one), his spelling is mostly by guess, and under stress he still has trouble expressing himself verbally – but the most critical symptoms, those that would prevent him from reading well or enjoying reading, are not a problem.

Just as it was clear that his older sister Noa would be an early and easy reader, it was clear that Colter would not be an early reader, or even an on-time reader (as if there is any such thing). I am perhaps most thankful for the early childhood emphasis of my elementary education degree in that it helped me to realize that my son was at risk for dyslexia, defined as a developmental reading disorder “that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols.” (PubMed Health)

Early Intervention for Dyslexia

All the school experts say start early, persistent intervention to give the dyslexic a jump on his reading difficulties:

Though it is not a cure, stepping in early with targeted intervention could prevent reading problems from derailing a child’s education. (Dana Foundation)

The good news is that recent studies indicate that 90% of children at risk for reading problems can become at least average readers by the second grade if they are given intensive training in kindergarten and first grade. (Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities)

If his testing indicates that he is not quite ready to read, you have the choice of delaying kindergarten or allowing him to enter kindergarten and receive intensive, evidence-based prevention programs. Our recommendation is not to delay kindergarten; waiting another year will only delay needed help. (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity)

Recent research shows that the reading delays of dyslexia are a merely a symptom of the way the child’s brain processes information. This brain process is not a delay or a problem to be solved (although preventing reading difficulties should be a paramount goal) but rather grants the person a different way of perceiving things that turns out to be very useful to society: dyslexics, as a whole, are some of the most creative thinkers, due to the way their brains process information.

As dyslexia is not a developmental lag but a different mode of brain organization, it cannot be prevented or cured and does not go away over time. (Dana Foundation)

Intervening on Intervention

Interestingly, despite the new understanding that the reading difficulties of dyslexia are a sign of a brain that processes information differently than most, conventional wisdom on preventing or treating dyslexia remains “more of the same.” Keep teaching reading the same way it is taught to other children, just more: start at least a year early. Practice reading every day. Work on letter recognition every day. Practice writing every day.

Learning to Read

So I took a deep breath and … left him alone.

I continued to read aloud to him and to Noa extensively (she is two years older than he). He occasionally would read aloud to me, haltingly and without comprehension. I would help him work out a word on one page, only to have him stare at the same word on the next page with no recognition whatsoever. So we would leave off having him read aloud, and I would read aloud the more.

I made sure, as best I could, that he loved stories. I read aloud every day. Dad read aloud to him most days. Noa even read aloud to him. Family members who dropped by read to him. We listened to Jim Weiss tell us stories in the car. We made up stories and played games with words. There was a permanent box of sturdy board books in the car. (Well, those had been there since Noa was a toddler.)

And gradually … nothing happened. Seven years old. Eight years old. The halting letter-by-letter sounding out. Not recognizing the same word on the next page. I reread for myself stories of children blossoming into their reading abilities at eight, nine, ten, even into their teen years. I reread Better Late Than Early and reminded myself that I was refraining from requiring from him something he was not developmentally ready to achieve. I read out loud some more and practiced my calm and cheery voice in case anyone asked the dreaded question: how’s his reading going?

No Reading Instruction

Learning to ReadThat fall kids his age were starting third grade, and he couldn’t read worth beans. He could puzzle out the sounds of each letter and sometimes make it into a comprehensible word, but at the end of a page of ten or fifteen words he would have no idea what he had read.

For all of his early elementary years, we had done no worksheets and no reading lessons. No charts or stickers for improvement. No handwriting practice or letter recognition exercises. No phonics instruction other than reading aloud and occasionally (once every month or three) encouraging him to read aloud with me: I would read a sentence, then he would read a sentence, letter by letter, slowly and haltingly, as I cued the letter sounds for him. We would stop very quickly.

Ninth Birthday

The summer before his ninth birthday was unusually busy. We traveled several times and had out-of-town visitors as well. We always take advantage of the many summer classes offered to keep schooled kids busy during their vacation, so I was driving them hither and yon. By this time our family had expanded to include a younger brother and sister (four and six years younger than Colter). It was a summer when we didn’t do a lot of sitting down and quietly reading.

So a month or two before his ninth birthday, when our summer schedules had slowed down, after months in which I hardly read aloud to him, much less asked him to read aloud to me, we sat down to read together.

For whatever reason, I picked up a book at a reading level slightly above anything I had asked him to read from before, a first chapter book: Mr. Putter and Tabby. He was certainly familiar with the story as Mr. Putter and his cat were popular read-alouds at our house; but he had never attempted to read aloud from one before.

After rolling his eyes at me for requesting he start our read-aloud, we opened the book and he began to read.

Mr. Putter and his fine cat, Tabby, lived in an old house …

And read.

… with an old porch and an old swing and lots of old things inside.

And read.

Mr. Putter and Tabby didn’t mind old things.

And read.

They were old too, so they felt right at home.

He read the entire first page aloud. Not smoothly or without stops, not perfectly.

Better than that.

He got through his bumps and bumbles. He read with meaning. He understood and comprehended and remembered.

homeschooling reading
Showing a proper pride in attaining readership.

His eyes met mine as he reached the end of the page, looking as astonished as I felt. We stared at each other wordlessly, then I watched his chest begin to swell out to almost painful proportions as he assimilated what he had just done: he had read independently.

His chin came up in a would-be nonchalant gesture and he tried to speak in an offhand voice as he said, glowingly, “I can read you another chapter later, if you want.”


I didn’t know he could read.

More remarkably, HE did not know that he could read. Something had literally gone *click* in his brain over the summer. Something had jelled. Some point of maturity had been reached.

He could not read. And then, with no instruction or practice … he could.

Learning to Talk, Learning to Read

Think about this: you talked to your baby. You talked, you talked, you talked. You didn’t define your words. You didn’t quiz her on the words she learned yesterday. You didn’t grade her or consult a checklist. Instead you encouraged her to join the conversation. You talked with meaning and expression. You showed your joy at her achievements when she mastered new or difficult words. You talked and made sense when you talked, and gradually she began to make sense of what she heard, because the human brain is uniquely wired to find meaning in language. In fact it is wired thus in many places, not just one, so that it can find meaning in every sort of language or grammar, whether it is perceived through the spoken language, hand signs, or writing.

Children, even children with reading disabilities, can learn to read in the same way they learned to talk. Reading is language. Barring physical difficulties with vision or hearing and issues such as mental retardation, humans can learn to read with the same ease – and with the same wide variety of “normal” ages – as they learn to talk.

Colter, The Reader

He didn’t turn into a fluent reader overnight. He still had to sound out his words and was more likely to read the first few letters and guess at the ending than try to sound it out phonetically. I just encouraged him to read, and I kept on reading aloud to him. (And yes, I corrected him when he guessed the end of the word wrong, and showed him how to read the letters that were actually there.) He remained an emerging reader for about a year; he didn’t love it or pick up books as his first choice of activity, but he could read, and he could enjoy it when he read.

Then he saw The Spiderwick Chronicles movie and when I told him it was a book, he was interested to read it. He read the entire series in a very short while. (They are very short books.) He told everyone he could get to listen that he was reading The Spiderwick Chronicles, a “real series.”

With one big achievement under his belt, he was raring to go. I was a little worried about him straining his abilities with his next choice but he was very insistent, so I let him go for it.

Less than eighteen months after he started reading, my ten-year-old son read all seven books of the Harry Potter series in under two months.

My boy who was sure reading was too hard, my son who could easily have been tutored into dyslexia by teaching him to read at the “normal” age of six when his brain couldn’t make sense of it … was a reader.

He still has the interesting brain functions that give him amazing creativity and allow him to know exactly where we are, almost anywhere I drive in our great big city. But he doesn’t have the reading disability that so often comes with it.

Colter loves to read. He is now fourteen and has read too many books to count, many of them above his “grade level” at the time. All of the Artemis Fowl series. All of the Percy Jackson series. Lots of big, thick series: Fablehaven, Gregor the Overlander, Hunger Games, Charlie Bone, Cirque du Freak, Ender’s Game. He doesn’t just read, he writes, and sometimes reads his stories aloud for friends.

Allowing Ability to Develop

I remember being in my child development class during my teacher training days. The teacher was telling us about his little son, who loved to be in their tree outside but couldn’t reach the low branch to climb up by himself. One day he heard his son shout, “Look at me, Dad! Look what I learned how to do!” He had reached the branch and was swinging from his arms.

The teacher smiled at us and assured us that he had congratulated his son and not pointed out to the boy that he had not learned how to grab the tree branch, he had instead matured in his development to a point where his natural ability to reach the branch was allowed to express.

If you have a child who is having difficulty reaching the tree branch of reading, please don’t try to force him to reach the branch before he is tall enough to do so. Just as children may reach their physical height anytime in a wide range of years, they may reach their “reading height” in a wide range of years too. Dyslexics need more time to mature, not more confusing instruction before their brains are able to sort out those types of abstract symbols. Their brains will naturally reach an age where decoding the symbols of written language becomes easy.

Learning to ReadReading doesn’t have to happen at age six. If you give him the desire to reach the branch, then when he is old enough, when his body and brain are grown enough, when his visual and auditory and cognitive senses are matured and working together well enough … then one day, you’ll hear, “Hey Mom! Look what I learned how to do!”

If you’re paying close enough attention, you might even hear the *click*.

This is the second in a four-part “Learning to Read” series telling how each of my children learned to read. You can see the first story here: How My Natural Reader Learned to Read.


More learning to read naturally stories from unschoolers.

42 thoughts on “Learning to Read: How My Unnatural Reader Began Reading

  1. :0) I really am glad to read this post today.This past week has seen me re-adjusting my expectations for my second son who is 7 and not reading.I just purchased “Better Late Than Early”.I know he will read when he is ready.Its my job to support him and read to him wonderful stories!

    Thanks again!

    1. You are welcome Christina! Your son will thank you some day for honoring his joy in reading rather than forcing him to an arbitrary deadline that would quite likely make him hate reading.

  2. My thought by the middle of the first paragraph was AUTISM. Without saying that to anyone, I showed it to two mothers (my daughter..the mother of an aspie daughter and autistic son; and a friend who has an autistic son). Both of them, within the first paragraph said “Autism”.

    1. My first paragraph referred to his delayed language acquisition, and you are absolutely correct that autism is one big reason for delayed language. There are other causes of delayed language, however, and thankfully my son Lock is not on the autism spectrum. I’m very familiar with it, as I have an aspie too.

  3. Thank you so much for this article! My son is turning 9 next month and can barely read… it’s been so frustrating because one moment he knows a word, and then the next he has no clue. I’ve suspected dyslexia for a while now, and we decided to have him tested by a psychologist (and I had been clear, I thought, that I specifically wanted him to test for dyslexia). Well, we got a diagnosis of severe ADD and slight ADHD, but he ended up NOT testing for dyslexia. When I asked why, they psych stated that there’s no point in testing it, because if he does have it, he’ll always have it and there’s nothing to do but if we just put him on Ritalin, then all his problems will go away… oh, and he also told us to send him back to school. We were soooooooooooooo mad.

    What DID help is that we went to a special optometrist that had been recommended to us and she determined that he should have glasses (previous optometrist had said no) and to use colored sheets when he reads. She also tested his visual-spatial skills and some other stuff, and helped us confirm that my son is a kynestetic learner, and gave us some exercises to use with him. The glasses alone made a big difference, as the words no longer “move across the page” for him.

    I also purchased a remedial reading program called “Road to Reading” that we are just about to start, upon the recommendation of a friend. I’ve been so stressed with getting him to read properly! Your article just took a weight of my shoulders. I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

    1. I’m so glad you followed your instinct in figuring out your son’s vision problems! Good job on the glasses + colored sheets – I’ve heard they can be very helpful.

      Too often pressuring this type of child to read before they are ready ends up forcing them to develop strategies that (I think) hinder them later, even after they reach a point of readiness. So relax and just make sure he ENJOYS reading, whether that is his own reading or simply you reading aloud to him!

  4. Love this! I have seen this “click” happen with at least 3 of my kids. The other two…I think they were born reading. LOL. And I call it a “click” too. It is like a switch suddenly gets flipped in their brain and they go from not reading to reading. In an instant. The key for parents is to not stress over when this click happens. It will eventually. Some at 3, some at 12 and some at all ages in between.

    1. If I could give one message to parents everywhere, whether homeschooling or public schooling, it would be: there is a RANGE of ages when your child might learn to read, and learning later rather than sooner is not a big deal AT ALL. Just like nobody cares if your teenager potty trained at 18 months or 4 years, no one will care if your adult child read at 3 or at 13.

      Joyce Fetteroll has a brilliant insight: “Schools place emphasis on [early] reading not because it’s the best way to learn but because it’s the most efficient way to run assembly line learning.”

  5. I should write about how my son learned to read but unlike you, I am not really sure how he started to read. All I know is that sometime around his 9th birthday, he picked up an old, old book of mine (Thornton Burgess’ “Mrs. Peter Rabbit”) and read. All of it. And it wasn’t an easy early reader because the characters in Burgess’ books speak with a hillbilly accent. When he finished it, he wanted to read everything Mr. Burgess had ever written that we could get our hands on (most of it quite obscure to the modern day reader). After he finished all of the Burgess Early reader books we could find (10 or 11 of them at a nearby library that still had old, old childrens’ books), he turned to “Watership Down” and read that before he was 10. And understood it. Turns out, he pretty much loves the same genres in fiction that I do and we have recommended books back and forth to each other through the years. He’s 25 now.

    1. You know there was a click in there somewhere, even if no one heard it! Isn’t it wonderful when they know ONLY the joy of reading, and none of the heartache of trying and failing because they are too immature to learn what they are being “taught.”

  6. I think you have a wonderful story and some wonderful information to share. However there are some things that concern me and I do feel the need to speak up about it. I am the mother of two children with dyslexia. So as I was reading your description of your son of course I was thinking about dyslexia. I am also glad that you thought about it as well and listed the signs and symptoms of this diagnosis. I also agree that it is not a disability in the sense that these kids are very bright, have a unique way of thinking and because of that have some of the greatest potential for creative inventions and problem solving. It is said that Edison and Einstein were dyslexics. Their way of thinking gave them their special abilities. It is also true that in many cases if a child struggles with reading the approach is to just batten down the hatches with more of the same method of teaching. And this is a terrible wrong to do to the child. It only frustrates more and “proves” their “stupidity”. It is self-defeating in every way. Your approach with your son was excellent. Read, read, read and read some more and make sure he loves stories and lots of hands-on experiences. Right on! So here I come to the point where I disagree. I do think that early intervention is crucial. But it must be the *right* kind of intervention. In other words, not more of the same mumbo jumbo that they use to teach other “normal” kids. The right kind of intervention is an orton-gillingham based method. This method is evidence based and very effective. So early intervention is key but even more important is the method of intervention. My firstborn showed signs early on and though I was aware of them I allowed myself to be swayed by “experts” (teachers) that poo-pooed it away as just immaturity, or a boy thing or developmental. This could be true but the problem is you don’t *know* that for certain until later. So because I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me he did not enter an evidence based intervention (for us it was the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children’s reading program – offered for free here in Texas) until he was over 10 1/2 years old. However, my daughter had the benefit of being second born and with a mama who already had the right information. So her intervention (same program) started at almost 7 years of age. The difference between them is startling. She has completely taken off and doing very well. This program teaches them a method of coping with their unique way of thinking. It doesn’t change them or make it go away. So I think for her, dyslexia will become a non-issue. My son is just ok. And for him it will continue to be an issue. I often wish I could go back in time and give him the intervention he needed earlier. I am sincerely glad that your son was able to have the lightbulb moment on his own without intervention. But not all children are this lucky. I cannot emphasize enough that early intervention is crtitical and does make a difference. But so is the method of intervention used. Thanks.

    1. Jennifer, thank you for responding here! I’m so glad you found something that works for your daughter and that has helped your son at least somewhat. You didn’t say specifically but I am assuming your children are in school rather than homeschooled, since you refer to his teachers.

      I will agree with you regarding children WHO ARE IN SCHOOL and are being forced to read on the school’s schedule, before they are ready. I’m sure that they need extra help or intervention of some kind (though I don’t think 7 is considered “early” intervention) and that it is critical for them, because traditional reading instruction can seriously mess them up for life.

      But for a child who is not under any time constraints for learning to read, DOING NOTHING is just fine. They WILL mature as my own son did, and get to the point where the abstract world of letters begins to make sense. I am actually working on a follow-up to this post to talk about the differences between children in school (who are forced to try to learn to read whether they are ready or not) and children at home who can take it on their own schedule.

      1. No, we homeschool. Sorry I wasn’t clear. My son was in school at the time. I felt that something wasn’t quite right and I pestered his teachers and that was their response. Their lack of response was a primary reason we started homeschooling. (This is now our fifth year homeschooling)
        I think waiting to see if the child will just get it on their own is taking a gamble. Maybe they will. But maybe they won’t. The problem is you will not know which it is until the time to begin intervention has passed. My daughter did not have time to notice she had an issue or make any decisions about her situation. My son had already decided he was stupid and there was no more point to try. It is burned into his brain. Perhaps being in school did have something to do with that part of it. He had already noticed what everyone else could do easily that he couldn’t. But my point is that his intervention came at an older age and therefore was not as effective. It did help. Certainly his reading is greatly improved. But the progress my daughter has made is far greater. She had the benefit of being homeschooled from the begining but also the intervention program came sooner. Perhaps the two combined made a difference.
        I don’t think waiting to intervene is wise. I don’t think advocating delayed reading instruction is good advice. I do think intervening in the ways that you chose as well as an orton-gillingham based method are important. An example of a gentle and orton-gillingham based method is Explode the Code. I am very familiar with multiple methods and curriculums primarily because I was on such a hunt for what would work for my son. I have read quite a lot on this topic. I have read Better Late than Early and agree with many of the ideas presented. There are many homeschoolers who swear by methods that are not the best ways of teaching reading to any child but much less a dyslexic. Abeka is a prime example of this. So really my point is that early intervention is important but I agree with you that a lot of what is advocated is actually damaging. So the *type* of intervention is very important.
        If I had it to do over again with my son I would have homeschooled him from the beginning AND used an orton-gillingham based method.

  7. Sorry, I thought I was done…. But I had a few more thoughts on this topic 🙂
    One of the major myths with dyslexia is that it is something that goes away or they will outgrow. This is not true at all. Dyslexia is neurological. It has to do with HOW the brain functions. Recent research has actually been able to use MRI to detect differences in how dyslexic brains and “normal” brains function to do specific tasks. It’s not a visual or auditory issue. It has been found to be a language-processing disorder.
    So it really isn’t an issue of pushing something before readiness. They will not be ready according to a conventional method at any age or developmental ability.
    For a dyslexic the problem with the reading instruction really is all about the method used. Ironically enough, the method that works for them is a great method for teaching all children to read. Why the schools (or some homeschoolers) would use a system that only works for some kids and not others will always be a mystery to me.
    The method does not change them or take some special gift away from them. It is just a very exact and concrete way to teach reading. They have to be taught very specifically what the rest of us would just pick up easily. Again, this has to do with the way their brain functions. In many opinions it is actually a more gifted way to function. Though they have a weakness in getting to the sounds of language they have strengths in conceptualizing, thinking out of the box, and seeing the big picture.
    So teaching them the methods to cope with the way the rest of the world thinks is the intervention that makes a difference. We can talk all day and night about how it is unfair that they have to learn how the rest of us think. And it is. But that’s just the way the world works.
    Also, you didn’t say specifically but could I safely assume that your son was not tested and officialy diagnosed? If that is the case it’s possible his reading issue really wasn’t dyslexia. Though I would agree that the signs and symptoms seem to point in that direction there are other things that have similar issues and overlaps and could be the explanation.
    Bottom line: dyslexia does not go away or get out grown.
    For anyone interested in reading more about dyslexia Shally Shaywitz M.D. is an excellent source of information. One website is http://www.childrenofthecode.com
    But if you google her name there will be many articles that show up.

    1. Jennifer, as I said before, I am truly happy that you have found something that works so well for your daughter, and I wish with you that you could have found it earlier for your son’s benefit as well. And thank you for the link; I’m sure many people will find it helpful.

      Certainly there are several things that can cause reading delays. As I have a degree in elementary education with an early childhood emphasis, I feel comfortable in saying my son’s delays were pretty clearly the risk of dyslexia. You are correct that he does not HAVE the reading disorder of dyslexia, since I allowed him to grow into written language at his own pace. He certainly has not outgrown his “dyslexic brain” (meaning, the different way he has of perceiving and understanding the world) and I’m very glad of that, as I can see that he has all the benefits from it without the giant drawback of reading difficulties that often accompanies it.

      Dyslexia is not a neurological problem per se. Dyslexia is the reading disorder that springs from a neurological difference in the brain, a small but important point. The neurological difference in the way the brain processes information does not go away, but the reading disorder in many ways is just perspective: if you have a seven-year-old who isn’t reading and has word blindness, you can say, “he has a reading disorder!” or you can say “he’s not ready and needs a few more years to mature.” Using traditional methods on an unready child can, indeed, set the reading disorder in stone for life.

      The neurological difference means that the child processes some things, including language, differently than most. ALL language, not just written language, which is why these children speak so much later than normal. And yet, they DO learn to process spoken language, it just takes them more time to learn to organize that part of their brains. And, because reading is just another form of language, they WILL learn to process written language, it will just take them more time to learn to organize that part of their brains.

      There is nothing magical about the age of six when learning to read, so there is no reason to start interventions at that age; it’s just more convenient for schools to dole out mass education if all the children can read, so that has become the norm. There are children without dyslexia who aren’t ready to read at age six! Just as no one asks a ten-year-old when she potty trained, no one asks a twenty-year-old when he began reading. The important thing is that they learn it and love it. If they need a little help along the way once they have reached a stage of readiness – and I assure you, everyone who goes through teacher training knows there are reading readiness stages that do not apply solely to dyslexics – then by all means, give them the help they need!

  8. Thank you Carma for your article and Jennifer for the comments which bring balance. I appreciate hearing both sides.
    I have a 14 year old daughter who just began reading less than a year ago. Though she was never officially diagnosed dyslexic, she has two half-brothers who were. I pulled her out of school mid-way through 1st grade, when I saw that she was nowhere near showing any signs of reading readiness and her class continued to advance far beyond her. My approach was similar to Carma’s. Periods of attempted gentle instruction, followed by backing off, but continuing to read to her and learn about this wonderful world in many other ways. I surrounded ourselves with communities which were supportive. We tried a tutor around age 9 who in the end suggested that maybe she’d never read. I didn’t agree, but was willing to accept it if that were the case.
    Near the beginning of last summer, she announced that she could read, though when she tried to read outloud, I didn’t see any improvement. Of course I didn’t say so, I was just thrilled that something had clicked, and she considered herself a reader. After a few months of letting her be, she became frustrated again and stopped trying. Her mind had figured out it’s own way of reading, but needed something to help fill in the gaps. I asked her if she’d be willing to try a phonics program again and she agreed. She’s been doing “Explode the Code”online for a few months now and I see huge improvements, but I believe it is only because she was ready for it. She is finally able to read without prompting most of the time.

    I think that if we had done early massive intervention, she would’ve been reading sooner, but I’m still not convinced it would’ve been the right thing to do. Instead of spending countless hours in reading instruction, we learned about the world, we drew, we spent a large part of her childhood out in nature, she played with friends- all things that to me are all greater learning experiences, and way more stimulating to the brain than reading instruction.
    Years ago I read a book, “The Alphabet vs. the Goddess” that showed how when societies developed written language, they became more logical and technologically advanced, but at the expense of also becoming more violent, less cooperative as a community, more controlling and patriarchal. I do feel that my daughter wouldn’t be the amazing spiritually connected artist and critical thinker she is today if I had forced her to read before she was ready.

    In the end, yes, I wish she had read sooner and been spared the embarrassment it’s caused her, but it wasn’t her natural path and I wasn’t willing to force her into a box that didn’t suite her. She’s retained her curiousity and love of learning, something I think would’ve been hampered if I’d forced her on a different path.

    1. Amy, that’s a very good point! They can spend the intervening years before they begin reading doing a lot of tedious sit-down work that they aren’t really ready for, or out doing “real things” that will in fact increase their readiness to read! Congrats to you for doing what was right for your daughter even if there was some embarrassment along the way.

  9. I just want to add that using an orton-gillingham based method to provide reading instruction does not exclude all of the wonderful hands-on activities and experiences we provide our children. We read great stories, visited parks, zoos and children’s museums,had lots of play time and all of those wonderful things. I am not at all advocating some kind of mind-numbing, worksheet driven strap you to a chair experience. One of the reasons this specific program works is because it is mutli-sensory and incorporates phonemic awareness games with kinesthetic activities. That is really the point I am trying so hard to make. Reading instruction does need to happen without delay. But (especially concerning a dyslexic) the method of that instruction is crucially important. Here is a website that has a list of phonemic awareness games:
    There are also great games in the Explode the Code A,B,C books.
    A lot of these we already do naturally as parents.
    I really just want to emphasize this because I don’t want the method I am advocating to be confused with methods of reading instruction that we all already know are fruitless. Like I said before, this isn’t just a great way to teach dyslexics how to read. It’s a great way to teach all children how to read.

    1. Jennifer, I just want to say thanks for posting all these great resources! I think both you and Carma make good points. And it’s funny, I identified that my son was “likely” dyslexic, and that he’s a kynestetic learner, but I never realized that they go hand in hand!

      I’m curious of what you think of the Montessori methods… would that be similar to the Orthon-Gillingham you are suggesting?

      1. I think there are definitely similarities. Here is a quote I found about OG:
        “The application of the Orton-Gillingham philosophy is based also on human neurophysiology and psychology which indicate that it is appropriate to use a multisensory approach in teaching language. Each phonetic unit and sequence in spoken and/or graphic form is learned through hearing, speaking, seeing, and writing; these skills are learned and practiced simultaneously and in coordination with one another. Auditory, visual, and kinesthetic patterns reinforce each other for optimal learning, and provide flexibility for accommodating individual learning differences. This educational methodology embodies teaching strategies which are biologically and linguistically sound and beneficial to all language learners. As a general principle, knowledge for understanding and sufficient practice for mastery promotes efficiency of language acquisition. For the dyslexic person, the emphasis on step-by-step development of skill has proven essential to both early success and lasting results.”
        It was from the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators
        I hope that helps.

    2. Jennifer, I think we agree more than we disagree. 🙂 I have no problem with using a well-designed program to help a child who is past his personal age of readiness, if he needs some help. What I did with my own son, above, counts in that. Once he was reading, I sat with him and had him read aloud more than I did with any of my other children because I knew that he was looking at the first couple of letters and guessing the rest of the word, so I worked with him on getting over that hump. Developmentally appropriate assistance for a child who needs it is great!

      The only point we seriously differ on is when to start helping. You say “reading instruction does need to happen without delay” and my question is: what is “delay”? Beyond age five? The arbitrarily selected school-approved age of six? An extra year to be sure at seven? Or just beyond the age of reading readiness for that particular child? There is a very clear set of reading readiness factors which applies to ALL children (I linked in my last note, above) and once those are achieved by your child then go for it. Once they are ready, they’ll learn in a few weeks or even days, or even in the space of a click as my son did. Before that they may slowly progress over months and years to learn to read.

      1. I also think we agree more than we disagree. So, I guess the place we disagree then is wether or not in the case of your son we are actually talking about dyslexia. You said he learned to read when he was developmentally ready to do so. Fantastic! So, like I said before, dyslexia is not a developmental issue. It is neurobiological. They are born with it. It does not go away. I did ask before if you actually had a diagnosis and you kind of side-stepped that with well I am a teacher and I can tell what dyslexia is. I agree that we all can read information about it and look at a list of signs and symptoms and think golly gee whiz that sounds a lot like what we are dealing with. But you nor I have the credentials to *make the diagnosis*. I have actually met Reading Specialists (this is a master’s degree level and special certification) that have incorrect information about dyslexia. So if there are parents out there who suspect their child’s difficulty with reading might be dyslexia then they should have it evaluated and begin intervention promptly. There are other causes for speech and reading delays other than dyslexia. If it is not dyslexia and it is developmental then of course not much will change until the child is ready for it. So if you are advocating a wait and see approach then please be clear to your readers about when it’s ok to wait and when it’s necessary to intervene. In the case of true blue dyslexia it is not ok to wait. The earlier the intervention the better. I am not making this up. This information is well supported in dyslexia research and fairly easy information to find. And research has determined that it is indeed possible to identify dyslexia as early as 5 or 6. I was very sad to read the commenter above who was mislead by an educational neuropsychologist regarding dyslexia testing. We have been down that road with the school system and a private practicioner. I have heard many similar stories from other parents at the Learning Center. One parent had already spent $20,000 on tutoring that absolutley did nothing before she found the Learning Center. It’s a shame really but it does appear that this is a common practice. For Texas residents I can say that the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas will do dyslexia testing for free. They have learning centers in Austin and San Antonio that will do testing for $500 (much cheaper than private practice rates). I wish I could give people in other areas some resources for testing but it is important to find a reputable place. Do your research well. http://www.tsrhc.org/dyslexia.htm

        1. I’m sorry you felt I side-stepped. I thought I was very clear as to what led me to suspect a possible dyslexia problem and exactly what I did about it (dealt with it myself). While I agree it takes an expert for a final diagnosis, I am better qualified than most to have a strong suspicion turn out to be correct on a topic such as this (and, as you say, “experts” themselves can be wrong in either direction). I find my education degree to be very little help in normal teaching situations, but it is good for helping me spot potential problems.

          As I stated in my response to you below, all the research you are referring to is done by people who believe that if a child is not reading by age seven, the child has a problem and needs intervention, so they give intervention. They have no experience with what would happen if a child is left alone without therapies – they know only children who have difficulties caused by attempting to teach a child too early and with the wrong teaching methods, and their interventions are designed to counteract the damage caused thus. They don’t know what would happen if a child was left without forced teaching (good OR bad) and without intervention, because they’ve never seen it or studied it.

          I am very aware that these reading specialists would say that because my son is reading, he was never dyslexic (or at risk of dyslexia, as I prefer to say). And I’m sorry, but that’s a cop-out. I am as sure as I can be that he would have been diagnosed dyslexic if I had had him tested earlier, and I would have been pressured to start interventions.

          I have a friend in a similar situation with her son, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. Not just autism, severe autism with every classic symptom possible. He had no language for years and anyone who saw him knew he had a problem. My friend struck out on her own with nutritional and occupational therapies to help her son, and blessedly, her son has lost his diagnosis – he is no longer considered autistic. Now she has to deal with doctors who tell her he was NEVER autistic, he was just misdiagnosed.

          It’s a cop-out. I know that these professionals mean very well and are trying to help children; I also know that there is often a blindness to the fact that parents sometimes know better for their own child and to the fact that alternative or holistic therapies and methods can in fact help a child as much or more than their own therapies. They have a vested financial interest in “proving” that parents cannot do it on their own.

  10. Sorry… I forgot to add a response to the reading readiness list.
    “Phonological Awareness. The ability to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.
    Letter Knowledge. Refers to learning the sounds and names of letters, and the ability to recognize them in their environment. ”
    These two are specifically listed in the definition of dyslexia.
    Refer to the link above and the download entitled “Dyslexia Defined” pages 6, 8-9
    A child with dyslexia will never reach those readiness markers without intervention. By your advice (that is, waiting until they show the signs of readiness listed), a child with dyslexia would be waiting forever.

    1. That’s our biggest point of disagreement. Perhaps children with the severest affectation might not reach that point, but as with everything, there is a continuum of severity with dyslexic-brained children. Most affected children will reach that point between nine and sixteen. Since professional educators aren’t willing to leave them “untreated” that long, they have no experience in whether or not they would, in fact reach that point unaided.

      You are basing your statements on the experience of professional educators who think reading at age seven or eight is “too late” and use that as “proof” that they will never reach the point of reading without assistance. While I’m sure most of them have good motives, these “experts” also have a vested (monetary) interest in making sure that their dyslexic reading protocols are used for the largest number of children possible.

      I know others besides my son who have been FORMALLY diagnosed with dyslexia, who pulled their child out of school and LEFT THEM ALONE just as I did, and their children did, in fact progress to reading just fine without professional assistance.

      1. Professional educators do leave them untreated all the way through graduation. It happens all the time. It would have happened to my child had I not yanked him out. Their “proof” that it continues on into adulthood is from the millions of adults with dyslexia who went untreated. It’s really unfair to make a blanket statement that their research is only driven by monetary gains. The Texas Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas provides testing and treatment for kids AT NO COST. The Scottish Rite Learning Center provides 2 years of daily intervention classes FOR FREE. I can speak with authority that In Texas the school system is very reluctant to provide any testing or intervention for dyslexics. They of course would completely deny it but story after story from parents shows that it does happen and not in isolation. In texas this is because they receive no extra funding for dyslexia as they do with some other learning disabilities. I cannot speak for what occurs in other states. I do think it is unfortunately necessary to view research (in any topic really) with discernment. I also think that disregarding reputable research is unwise.

        1. First: I said the exact opposite than that their research is driven by monetary gain. I said I believe they have the best intentions, but that the fact that they DO have a monetary interest (not to mention professional pride) can blind them to the fact that other things work too.

          Second, and much more importantly: by “untreated” you and I mean very different things. A dyslexic child who is in an institutional school, or in a homeschool where the parent is teaching him on a school schedule (learn to read by age six or seven at the latest) is going to have his reading difficulties set in stone, just as you say. I already agreed that for a child in that situation, the best thing is for him to receive intervention of the kind you described earlier, Explode the Code or something similar. You are 100% correct that a child in that situation will NOT grow out of it. Being forced to try to read before he is developmentally ready will screw up his reading forever and he will need assistance.

          What I am talking about, and what the dyslexia experts have no experience with is exactly what I described myself doing with my son: no early intervention and NO READING INSTRUCTION AT ALL. “Waiting until the child is developmentally ready” means just that: WAITING, without any pressure to read. I didn’t teach him phonics. I didn’t teach him how to hold a pencil. I never asked him to spell anything. I didn’t do anything but read to him and read to him and read to him and occasionally ask him to read aloud with me to see where he was developmentally.

          THIS is how they reach reading readiness without acquiring the ingrained difficulties of dyslexia. It can work. It has worked for my son and for others with similar reading difficulties.That is why I shared my story. You are worried that I’m telling them it’s okay to wait, but there are already enough people saying they must have early intervention. I’m an advocate of the parent as the expert on her own child. If her gut tells her he needs assistance, she should get it. If her gut tells her he needs more time, she should make sure he gets that too. Either way, information is good and that’s why I’m glad we’re having this discussion here: people will come and see both opinions and be better equipped to make up their own minds.

  11. This brought tears to my eyes! My son has always been homeschooled and I noticed early on that he was different, but since I don’t have any other boys, I assumed much of it was simply because he is male. As he got older though, I had more and more concerns. We had him evaluated when he was 7 and he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Suddenly, so many things made sense! We have always mostly unschooled, but I felt pressured away from this, thinking that maybe he needed to be pushed to learn. I tried a special reading program but he cried every day. He HATED reading. I saw his confidence start to suffer and I couldn’t put us through it anymore, so we stopped. I still doubt myself all the time. My son is 8.5 and is still not reading and like you, I read constantly how early intervention is SO necessary. My instincts tell me to just let him be, but everyone around me says I need to intervene. I have meet dozens of parents with children who have dyslexia and you are the first person I have come across who supports and believes what I am doing. So thank you!

    1. {{{Leah}}} I know, it can be nerve-wracking, especially making a choice the “experts” disagree with. My take is always: YOU know your own child best. Follow your own instincts. If you feel there is a problem, then seek the best help possible. If you feel your child just needs more time, then defend him against the “experts!” Either way, keep on educating yourself and looking for ways to help him.

      Decide on your goal and keep it at the forefront of your mind. What is your goal? To get him to read at any cost, even the cost of despising all reading? Or waiting until he can get it and LOVE IT?

      You can read more encouraging late-reader stories (including some dyslexic) here: Learning to Read Naturally. Best wishes to you and your son!

  12. I read your article on “Why I Homeschool” and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so that I posted it to my facebook page. One of my favorite quotes was “I do have a big advantage over homeschool moms who don’t have a teaching degree. My advantage is this: I know that trained teachers don’t start out knowing any more than you do.”
    I think it was one of your favorites too because you put it up there all big and colorful.
    But then, you just said “I am better qualified than most to have a strong suspicion turn out to be correct on a topic such as this”
    That seems like a contradiction to me.
    Since true dyslexia never goes away it can always be tested. Even the intervention does not make it go away. It simply teaches them how to cope with the unique way their brains process information. My daughter had already completed a full year of the training course and was doing fantastic. They still were able to evaluate and diagnose her dyslexia.
    It’s not a cop-out.

    1. Since I followed that statement with “I find my education degree to be very little help in normal teaching situations, but it is good for helping me spot potential problems” I think my meaning in both instances is perfectly clear. A parent does not need a teaching degree in order to teach her child and my teaching degree conferred no special abilities on me that I use in teaching my children at home.

      I also said in my Why I Homeschool article that there was one helpful class during my education that all parents would benefit from, and that was childhood development class, which would naturally encompass normal (and abnormal) reading development, but there are plenty of books that can give the same information.

      I essentially repeated that here when I said it was helpful in spotting potential problems. I don’t think I contradicted myself. It did help me spot the problem, but the methods I used to overcome the problem are the exact opposite of what I learned in teacher training.

      As I said, I’m glad we’re having this discussion on this page. More information and seeing an open discussion of both opinions will be helpful to those seeking to make up their minds.

      1. Then let’s agree that neither one of us can really prove our point. I cannot take my son back in time, try it your way and see what happens. You cannot take your son back in time, try it my way and see what happens.
        I still don’t think that you can say your educational degree didn’t help you know how to teach your children but it does help you assess problems. I don’t need an educational degree to assess problems. I don’t need an educational degree to do my research and then make a conclusion about where to proceed from there. Child devleopment information is commonly available from books (you referenced some good ones on your site), baby magazines and the internet. No need for a degree there either.
        I also don’t see how you can assert that teaching reading before they are ready burns dyslexia into their brain. That is like you are coming up with your own etiology for dyslexia. The incorrect method of teaching certainly helps nothing whatsoever. But it doesn’t *cause* dyslexia. That is misinformation and a formula for blaming parents (and schools). What I meant to say that had been burned into my own son’s brain was his frustration. The incorrect method of teaching frustrated him (of course!). As I type this out then I think that your method probably is much better than a fruitless reading program. I am glad your son was spared that pitfall. But even better than that is an effective method for teaching reading.
        You also said that the problem with education isn’t the theory it’s the inability to put theory into practice in a classroom setting. This is a perfect opportunity to put theory into practice.
        What is wrong with lots of reading aloud, lots of stimulating experiences, lots of hands-on learning, lots of good healthy play, lots of fun and educational games *along with* a short time each day to build phonemic awareness and decoding skills using an orton-gillingham (very multisensory and active) approach? I have emphasized several times already that this is not a seat work, worksheet monster, the same old way they do it in school method. So I hope there is no lingering confusion there. This method is completely in line with the most prevalent educational paradigms in the homeschool world. There is an article (somewhere in one of the links I have already given – and of course I can’t find it right now) giving parents instructions for “what to do with their dyslexic kids”. If it isn’t a description of homeschooling then I don’t know what is! The link above for phonemic awareness activities is chock full of super fun games and activities. I just don’t understand why you are so passionately opposed to my suggestions. I just don’t get it.
        Ad yes, it’s great that we are having this discussion. There’s tons of information here for any parent to consider and tons of links for further research.
        I think we have done our job.

        1. Without a degree I would have known that he wasn’t reading, certainly. I just meant I knew quickly what the most likely problem was, so I guess I should have said it helped with potential diagnosis, not “spotting” the problem. And of course I did more research – I am always for for more information!

          I don’t mean that incorrect teaching causes the problem, but it can *cement* the problem. If the brain doesn’t process written language right, it seems to me (yes, this is my opinion) it comes up with a variety of tricks and workarounds that eventually become crutches that the child can’t let go of. Or just possibly, the child finds reading so distasteful and difficult that he quits reading beyond a certain point, and never learns that it can be easy and enjoyable. This brief story seems to support the latter opinion, since it refutes both of our previous statements in showing a lifelong dyslexic who taught himself to read properly and fluently. 🙂

          “I have emphasized several times already that this is not a seat work, worksheet monster, the same old way they do it in school method. So I hope there is no lingering confusion there.” And I have several times affirmed that for formally schooled children your method is probably best, so I hope there is no lingering confusion there either.

          “I just don’t understand why you are so passionately opposed to my suggestions. I just don’t get it.” I have not been passionately opposed to your suggestions, I have several times affirmed that for kids in schooling situations your method likely is best. On the contrary, I feel that you have been passionately opposed to my suggestion that some children can be dyslexic and can learn to read with the "let them mature" method. I think what we've argued about more than methods is definitions. I'm a fiend for semantics. 😉

          There you have it folks! Lots of good information to chew on!

  13. Carma and Jennifer, I’ve read most of your comments, and I have a few little things to add. My mom had a school for learning disabilities in the Dallas area for 23 years and was closing it when my child (an only) was 3 so she kept curriculum for me. At 2 we had early intervention for speech. I worried that I hadn’t talked to her enough, and the early intervention taught me how to gently require her to talk. I think she also had to enunciate for us to understand her. Then we chose to homeschool and used Primary Phonics, Explode the Code, Clues to Meaning, all of which were good but not fast and clear enough for her. What worked was (Jump) Right into Reading, and she needed the whole series because she is, as Don McCabe says in AVKO Sequential Spelling videos online, “someone who believes what she is told but hasn’t been adequately told all the rules.” I would have said she could read at 6, but she (comparing herself to mom and dad, her main read aloud environment) didn’t think she could until after she finished the Right Into Reading books at end of 3rd grade. Then spelling was an issue. I finally asked for testing by the local school to find out what kind of dyslexic she was so I could find the right speller (turned out a homeschool mom recommended Sequential Spelling). What did come out was that she had vision problems, and we took her for vision therapy which dealt with her eye focus, tracking, and her reversals. During this process I read Gift of Dyslexia and so much of that made sense I read it aloud to her. She was so happy to have a story that explained how she sees the world, but resistant to do his techniques. Ok. So then I also found in the Big Book of Home Learning a section on what to do if there are learning problems: check vision, hearing, allergies, trauma, nutrition, relationships, sleep amounts. Wow, so many of these needed work! But now, having worked on them we are doing much better! She still sees an unfamiliar word to be blurry in the middle (because her brain doesn’t recognize it, see Gift of Dyslexia) but she learned Latin and Greek roots by drawing pictures as well as the word on 3×5 cards. Her own idea, to draw the pictures, it reminded me of the word cards with pictures my mom had played with, with her, preK, and I didn’t keep using! Spelling linked to picture, bingo. Now we still struggle with blended consonants, I say something is hiding there, but she’s come a long way, spelling str and such.
    Dyslexia is such an umbrella word and I realize you both have defined it over and over, that it is in risk of being thrown out. We do well to research the many types of intelligence and affirm that everyone is unique, having different strengths and weaknesses. My daughter picture thinks but her solution is drawing or singing, not clay working, and Suzuki music is the obvious choice for instruction (reading music also improved with the eye tracking exercises last spring).
    Early intervention right or wrong? It can be good.
    Anxiety defeating the kid’s self esteem? Can only be bad, a call to help.
    Being calm, learning together? I love it.
    Have you read Patricia Palocco’s “Thank You Mr Falker?” I read it before I knew we would be traveling this road, and I highly recommend it.
    Well, thanks for this discussion and for reading what I wrote.

    1. Beth, thanks for joining the discussion! And thank you for pointing out that every child is an individual and needs individual attention. So very true! My oldest daughter (her reading story here) needed vision therapy as did my youngest child (I haven’t written her story yet) but this son’s vision was tiptop, so that did not contribute to his reading delay, but that’s a great reminder, that often other things such as a mechanical visual problem can cause reading delays.

  14. Oh dear, I wrote a comment last night and for some reason it didn’t “stick” – well, the Lord knew it was’t what was needed I guess. So today, I share this: It is good to be open to reading all perspectives and making the right decision for you and your family. I believe that God will direct the heart and it’s important to really tune into that heart instead of making decisions based on fear. I think the fear of doing things wrong or fear of the future or fear of what others think are what creates a lot of unnecessary stress and for both parent and child.

    What I mentioned last night was that I do believe people can shed “dyslexia” in time just as God heals diseases that were once thought incurable. I knew a woman with severe dyslexia. She had been in and out of 14 foster homes, abuse of all kinds. Was told by teachers and peers that she was stupid and wouldn’t amount to much. She couldn’t read. She dropped out of high school at 14, ended up in juvenile detention centers and jail, but worked up enough strength to want to go back to college when she was in her 30s. She was a new person by this point and still thought the dyslexia might get in her way. In her earliest classes she was amazed that now with the freedom she felt to pursue her dreams, choose for herself and support from her community, she no longer had dyslexia! She did have difficulty communicating, very shy and low on self-esteem as you can imagine, but someone told her she shouldn’t take communications courses b/c of it. Well, she proved them wrong too. She took public speaking. In the end she has Aced all her classes and was the valedictorian of her college at 35! So yes, I believe one can outgrow dyslexia. I believe that undue stress and pressure gets in the way of all those rods and cones and when the pressure is taken off, the dyslexia is fixed. There are vision problems sometimes, and all the reasons ought to be investigated, but for HEALTH’s sake, not b/c they are deficient in reading. We should just want our children to have a fully functioning healthy brain and we’ll feed them well, let them be in touch with nature and give them exercise and healthy air and water, all we can do to the best of our abilities as parents.

    Thanks for sharing your personal story, Carma – I loved hearing the different ways your children learned to read!

    1. Thanks for posting, Krista! I totally agree that fear is rarely a good reason to do anything. Whenever someone tries to scare me into something with a horror story, my first response is to dig in my heels and decide to do some investigating on my own. 🙂

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