Homeschooling with Dyslexia (with Marianne Sunderland)

Homeschooling with Dyslexia Homeschool Conversations podcast interview learning differences Marianne Sunderland

What do struggles with tying your shoes, using correct prepositions, and telling time have in common? They are all early warning signs of dyslexia. These and other signs can help you discern if your child is just a late reader or is dealing with underlying learning challenges. Today’s Homeschool Conversations guest Marianne Sunderland is a veteran homeschooling mom of 8 children, 7 of whom have dyslexia and learning challenges. She brings her personal experience and expertise to today’s chat. If you want to know how to homeschool your children with dyslexia or other learning challenges, you won’t want to miss today’s episode!

Be sure to check out all the other interviews in our Homeschool Conversations series!

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Homeschooling with Dyslexia Homeschool Conversations podcast interview learning differences Marianne Sunderland

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Who is Marianne Sunderland?

Marianne Sunderland is a homeschooling mother of eight outside the box children ages 10 to 29, including adventurous and homeschooled sailors Zac and Abby Sunderland, known for their world-record setting around the world sailing campaigns. Because 7 of her 8 children are dyslexic, Marianne is a passionate dyslexia advocate with a passion to educate and encourage families, not only to understand dyslexia but also to discover and nurture their children’s God-given gifts and talents, in and outside of the classroom. Marianne’s website, Homeschooling With Dyslexia, provides weekly articles on homeschooling kids with ADD, ADHD, and Dyslexia that will bless and encourage you.

Homeschooling with Dyslexia Homeschool Conversations podcast interview learning differences Marianne Sunderland

Watch my interview with Marianne Sunderland

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Amy Sloan: Hello, everyone. Today, I’m joined by Marianne Sunderland who is a homeschooling mother of eight outside-the-box children ages 10 to 29, including adventurous and homeschooled sailors Zac and Abby Sunderland, who are known for their world setting around the world sailing campaigns. (So fun.)

 Because seven of her eight children are dyslexic, Marianne is a passionate dyslexia advocate who wants to educate and encourage families not only to understand dyslexia but also to discover and nurture their children’s God-given gifts and talents in and outside of the classroom.

Marianne’s website Homeschooling with Dyslexia provides weekly articles on homeschooling kids with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia, that will bless and encourage you. I am so delighted to get to talk with you today and hear your perspective.

Marianne Sunderland: Thanks, Amy. I’m glad to be here.

Marianne Sunderland’s Homeschooling journey

Amy: Could you just start, Marianne, by telling us a little bit about your family and why and how you started homeschooling?

Marianne: Actually, when we first started homeschooling, we were living in Los Angeles. We live in Southern California. At the time, people were talking about enrolling your infant, signing your infant up for kindergarten to get into the good schools. We were like, “What?” Our kids didn’t go to preschool. We just really initially wanted to homeschool because we wanted to be with our kids and we wanted to travel. My husband is British and Australian, so we knew we wanted to go back to Australia. We were thinking of moving there.

When my oldest turned five, we just started homeschooling. [laughs] Then over the years, there have been more reasons. Your educational whys change over time. It’s changed from having a Christian worldview and wanting to impart that and then realizing that our kids had learning difficulties that we heard in the schools, the schools weren’t dealing with them very well. We felt it was better to stay at home. We’ve been homeschooling ever since.

All About Reading

Realizing her children had learning difficulties

Amy: Wow. How did that progression of homeschooling philosophy and approach change over the years? Can you tell us a little bit about how you first realized that your children might have some learning difficulties?

Marianne: It just made me think of a funny story of our educational philosophy, or mine. Gosh, my oldest, we read a lot. There wasn’t even TV anyway. We just didn’t watch TV. We traveled a lot when he was young and read a lot. When we started kindergarten, we had fun. Then I went to my first homeschool conference between his kindergarten and first-grade year. I’m a total like, “just tell me how many pages to do and I’ll do it.” I love workbooks and the stack of matching textbooks and workbooks.

I’m walking through this convention hall and I have the whole curriculum and the extra seatwork and stuff for this kid. I brought it home and it was like a lead balloon. He just struggled so much with anything that was written or any kind of reading. I went from a school-at-home, which most people do, to more I think I landed on a Charlotte Mason book at some point. You know who it was? It was the Moores, Raymond and Dorothy Moore. We had gone to Australia and a friend of my husband’s homeschooled their kids, and they gave me a couple of his books to read while we were there.

I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” I got this idea of life could be school. We got our son tested when he was about seven. The test results came back with all the classics markers of dyslexia, which I had no idea dyslexia even existed. It was so crazy to– I just didn’t know.

Then as we learned more, my husband was like, “I think I’m dyslexic.” [laughs] Then he remembered how much trouble he had growing up. He went to school in England, and they’re very not child-centered. Where America might seem very child-centered. He would get the slipper. They would spank him with the ruler. He would get hurt at school because they would say he wasn’t trying.

Then it became even more of a motivation to homeschool because my husband kept saying, “I don’t care how bad business is.” He’s self-employed. “We are homeschooling these kids. We are not putting them in there.” He’s like, “I’d rather live under a bridge than put my kids through what I’ve been through.” That’s how we started. Then really the more I learn and the more I experience, homeschooling is such a great way to homeschool outside-the-box kids.

Early Warning Signs of Dyslexia

Amy: Definitely. I would like to talk a little bit about the early warning signs of dyslexia because I think there can be some confusion. I go into the Facebook homeschool groups and you have earnest, concerned moms who are homeschooling their little one who’s two or three and can’t remember their letters, and they’re all worried. They’re like, “Do you think they have dyslexia?” Everyone’s telling them, “You should go get them tested,” and blah, blah, blah. [chuckles] I’m just like, “Whoa, okay. My five-year-old still forgets his letters sometimes. Let’s calm down a little.”

At the same time, it can be dismissed, where you can have someone who has that Mom gut feeling, something is just not quite right, and people dismiss it. They say, “It’s fine. Just keep reading aloud to them, they’ll get it eventually.” I see those two extreme reactions, neither of which are really helpful.

If you’re talking to a mom, what are some of the early warning signs of dyslexia, and how can we distinguish between maybe a child who’s just not quite ready to read, because that normal period can vary, or someone who maybe needs a little bit more intervention or some extra help?

Marianne: I love that question because whenever I– Sometimes I’ll speak at a homeschool conference, and I’ll read all the lists of signs of dyslexia, and I’ll see people in the audience tearing up like, “Oh my gosh, I’m dyslexic.” They didn’t realize how many signs there are.

Yes, people with dyslexia do flip numbers and letters sometimes. That’s normal up to about first-grade. Then, if you’re seeing a lot of flipping, that’s a sign.

But in the younger years, it could be delayed speech, although my oldest spoke early, but that’s probably because I spent more time with him than the other kids.

Also, having difficulty learning, say, your full name, how old you are, learning colors and shapes. That can be difficult for kids with dyslexia.

Telling time is very difficult. Tying shoes can be difficult.

Mixing up directions. I remember my three-year-old putting his arms out to get picked up and saying, “Down, down.” [laughs] They just mix them up.

Yesterday and tomorrow is a very common one, before and after. Prepositions are tricky for them.

Then one of the telltale signs is not being able to rhyme. When you said read, read to your kids, that’s actually a really good thing to do for a child who’s not school-aged. It’s really, really good to read a lot to them because what is really going on with young children with dyslexia is that they don’t have good phonemic awareness. They are not able to differentiate the sounds in a word. If I asked you just what are the sounds in cat? You would say C-A-T.

A child without phonemic awareness would just not hear different sounds. They would just hear cat. While that could be common for a younger child without dyslexia, with teaching it’s still hard. Helping kids to recognize rhyme is really important. A great thing to do is get Dr. Seuss books or something with lots of rhyming and read them a lot. Then you leave off the last word that’s rhyming and then see if they can fill it in. That not only is a good phonemic awareness exercise, but it’ll help you to see where your child is at.

It’s also important to note that dyslexia comes in degrees. You could be mildly dyslexic, you could be more moderate, and you could be profound. I have all three, the full range of them. Some kids might be able to slide through school with some struggles but maybe they’re able to get by, but usually about maybe fourth, fifth grade depending on if they’re in school or homeschooled, they’ll start to hit a lot of walls, especially with spelling. Spelling is always difficult. There’s not a single dyslexic person that spells well without a lot of intervention. I hope I’ve answered your question. That was a lot.

Homeschooling with Dyslexia Homeschool Conversations podcast interview learning differences Marianne Sunderland

Helping children with dyslexia in our homeschool

Amy: No, that’s really helpful. So if a parent is noticing some of those maybe warning signs, the lack of phonemic awareness, the rhyming, the prepositions, the confusion of some of those things, which I think is really helpful to understand that it’s not just maybe what we have as a stereotype, seeing letters backwards or something, I think there can be some stereotypes about it and it’s broader than that. We’re noticing some of those warning signs, what are some of the first steps we should take to address it with our children and move forward from there to help them?

Marianne: Well, so the first thing if your child’s school aged or even like four years old, I would get an extensive list of signs of dyslexia. I have it on my site, you can google signs of dyslexia and get a good list.

If your child has a lot of the signs, like trouble with telling time and trouble tying their shoes and things like these little signs, and you have a family member, maybe an aunt or an uncle, or your husband or your wife, grandparent, brother with dyslexia, then it’s genetic. We don’t necessarily need to go in and get tested for dyslexia at a young age. We can talk about maybe when that would be appropriate later, but at a young age, if you feel like your child could be dyslexic, they have the signs, there’s a dyslexic person in your family, the best thing you can do is get educated about dyslexia, because kids with dyslexia are smart, sometimes super smart.

They have unique strengths, and unique weaknesses. In fact, the weaknesses that they have actually cause the strengths. They’re not very detail oriented at all but they’re great at not only seeing the big picture, but connecting, so they’ll connect ideas from science and art, or gardening and math. They’re just very creative that way. Their brains just work differently and so it’s really important to get educated, because there’s a lot of myths about dyslexia, like that they’re just not smart, and that’s just not true.

But if a child grows up struggling in school and there’s no reason that they can think of, then they just assume they’re dumb.

I feel like for parents, the best thing you can do is to learn as much as you can about dyslexia and understand your child so you can teach them the way they learn, because there’s modifications that you can make.

They can listen to audiobooks. You can delay teaching spelling until they’re reading better and delay teaching writing. There’s so many ways to nurture their strengths, while allowing their weaknesses to grow gradually, because they do. They all learn to read unless they don’t get any instruction. Do you know what I mean? You got to get educated, take a deep breath. Because they’re smart but they’re different, and so if you’re not familiar with it, you need to relearn some things.

Dyslexia Resource Library

Amy: I think that’s really important just to start not to freak out and start thinking of all the what ifs, but start just by educating yourself as the homeschool parent, and then you understand your child better and for any child, neurotypical and neuro diverse, understanding them and the way they think and process in their own unique strengths and weaknesses, can only make you a better, well, not only homeschool teacher but parent too. It helps you mentor them through that.

Marianne: Definitely.

Misconceptions about dyslexia

Amy: You mentioned a little bit about some of the misconceptions about dyslexia. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Marianne: Well, we talked about intelligence, I think that’s the first one or the most common one. Another one would be that they’re not trying, because as a teacher or parent, you can see that they’re intelligent. They can communicate, they understand things, but maybe when they’re taking a spelling test or taking a test or staying focused, ADD is very common with dyslexia. It can look like they’re not trying hard, and that’s trying harder than everybody else. They’re trying so hard to keep up and so hard to pay attention because most kids want to do well. They want to please their teachers, so that’s really important.

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It’s not caused by junk food or watching that too much TV, not caused by v*******, it’s genetic. It is passed down within family, so that’s a nice way to actually encourage kids. If grandpa’s got dyslexia or dad has dyslexia and he’s done well, it encourages them. I’m trying to think of some other ones. There’s no vitamins you can take to cure it. It’s a difference in brain wiring.

Back in the early ’90s, Sally Shaywitz, she wrote the epic book called Overcoming Dyslexia. She did a bunch of research out of I think she’s at Stanford, or Harvard, Stanford. Anyway, they did functional MRI. So they scan the brains of people while they were reading and what they found was people who are normal readers, the input would go in through the eyes and go right to the reading center of the brain. Whereas the dyslexic readers or the weaker readers, they would read and the input would come in the eyes, and then it would go all over the place, and then get to the reading center of the brain.

Then, this is crazy. This is the whole idea of neuroplasticity, that brains can change. They studied some brains of children who were given the Orton Gillingham method of teaching reading, which is like, multi-sensory, systematic.

That’s your All About Reading, your Barton, Logic of English, Reading Horizons, they are all Orton Gillingham based. It was designed by some early educators and it just really works. When they followed these children for like six months, and they had this tutoring like maybe three days a week for an hour a day, the brain wiring actually changed in their brains. So when the input went in, it was going directly to the reading center of the brain.

Children with dyslexia can learn to read. It’s not that they’re disabled. I don’t use that word anymore and I know there’s different nuances to it, but it’s a learning difference, I strongly believe. That’s why homeschooling is so awesome, because we can know that and we can modify things to meet our kids needs.

Amy: I love that and it’s so fascinating just to hear about the way the brain works and is designed and can change and grow. That’s just fascinating.

Marianne: Yes it is.

Encouraging the Love of Learning

Amy: How can we take some of these strengths? You talked earlier about how a dyslexic kid has a weakness, but it’s actually because they have this different set of strengths. How can we teach to those strengths and encourage a love of learning, even if some of their learning is more challenging? What does that look like in a normal, regular family? What does that look like in your family?

Marianne: I do believe that it’s important to teach reading to children when they’re young. I believe that it’s important, it’s considered early intervention. I believe it is important to use an Orton Gillingham program or hire an Orton Gillingham tutor of some sort to teach your dyslexic kids, because like most kids will learn to read eventually. I have one child who’s not dyslexic and she’s like number, what number is she? She’s number six. I would give her Bob- not Bob books- explode the code books, and she would do these because she loved workbooks.

She learned to read from doing explode the code, and I was like, “What.” All of a sudden, she’s like, “Look, Mom, I can read.” I actually cried. I went in my room and I cried and I was in a funk for like two weeks. I was like, “You have got to be kidding me. That’s how kids learn to read?” Because honestly children with dyslexia, even with good intervention might not read independently till 10, 11, 12, 13. But they do. I’m sorry, your question, what was your question? I got off on a tangent.

Amy: No, that was a great tangent. I loved it, but my question was about encouraging the love of learning to their strengths. They have these other challenges, but playing to the strengths.

Marianne: We’ll do lots of read alouds or listening to books, but I just observe them and try to find out what they’re interested in. One of my sons was really into sharks for a long time. We would get books on sharks and watch videos on sharks. He would do copy work about sharks. That interest of his would cause him to want to read books. We’d go different places like aquariums around. It’s like they’re sponges and so that it’s interesting to them. If I sat him down and told him, we’re not studying sharks, we’re studying the geological rock formations or whatever, I mean it. That’s one thing, using interests.

I don’t know if it’s an educational theory, but it’s multiple intelligences. Have you heard of that?

Amy: Yes.

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Marianne: Kathy Koch, she’s a Christian writer who wrote 8 Great Smarts. Then there’s another guy. It’s a yellow book and it was like How am I smart? I have found a lot of truth in the idea of these eight strengths. I see it in all of my kids. For example, one of my sons is very people-oriented, very social, and I’m not particularly. He would go to boy scout camp and he had a little composition book and he would write down everybody’s phone numbers. When he got older and he got a phone or got Facebook or whatever, he would contact them. If he was in San Diego, for some reason, he’d contact them. He’s brilliant. For him, being social and being in groups and learning together was important.

Now he’s a super successful entrepreneur. That’s his strength. He connects people and sells things to them. One of my kids was really into animals and she’s number two. I had all these kids and we’d get these books at the library. I didn’t really have time to read them to her, but she would, or I would start them but not finish, which is actually a good strategy because it gets them hooked. [chuckles] She basically taught herself. We were doing reading instruction, but she persevered because she wanted the information. I encourage letting kids follow their interests. As you observe them, they might want to– A lot of my kids have been business-oriented.

Not only did they like to bake, but they want to sell this stuff at park day. Just observing those things and then facilitating them, because there’s a pro–When a kids get to be like the tweenie age and they’re not good at something, if there’s not something that they can be proud of, it can be a very difficult stage of life. If they’re just taking classes and they’re struggling all the time or their whole life is defined by their struggle, it can be a really depressing wake-up call [chuckles] when you’re starting to go, “Well, what am I good at?”

I think pursuing interests and allowing that to guide your extracurricular. I do reading and math with my kids. I’m not a full-on unschooler. Other than that, I like to let facilitate their learning and other things to keep them motivated.

Amy: I have found with my own children too, each of them has their own area that’s a challenge and so to try to balance out even of a week or even a day, to try to make sure everything isn’t super, super hard. You have one thing maybe that’s challenging that you have to really work hard and it’s not the most fun thing in the world, but not to have everything have that same weight of a burden. I remember a couple of years ago, one of my daughters who was a later reader and it’s just harder for her. It’s more work. Some of the other children, they can just read and read and read, but for her, it feels like work.

We had a math program I had used with the older students and I was like, “We already have it, save money. You’ll be fine.” Like, “You’re good at math, this will be fine.” It had so many words on the page that she would get exhausted just trying to read the words. By the time she got to the math, her brain and her emotions were just overwhelmed. She started crying like every day. She was like, “I hate math.” She had always loved math, she’s really good at it. I was like, “We’re not doing this.” I would sit with her and just read the math lesson out loud to her because I wanted her to be able to focus on the actual subject that it was, not get distracted by the reading part.

Marianne: That’s a great example of an accommodation. An accommodation is something that allows your child to learn at their intellectual ability despite having trouble with that much reading. Audio books is a fantastic way. I remember my oldest son doing physical science or biology or something, and the vocabulary was so difficult. There’s so many words he didn’t know and concepts he didn’t know. He was really struggling and it was Apologia Biology. They have the MP3, you can actually buy it. As soon as he started listening to it, it was like, “Oh, okay.” It was such a beautiful thing because he’s so smart, but he was really hindered by having to read with his eyes.

They call it ear reading. If you’re reading with your ears, what’s the difference? What’s the purpose? People will say, “Well, that’s not fair.” I was on that bandwagon for a while, like, that’s cheating. My son, he’s 23. The one who’s super social and had so much trouble in school. He’s an Eagle Scout. To be an Eagle Scout, you have to do your project and you have to create this whole binder full of documentation of your project and stuff. I was like, “Dude, if you’re going to be an Eagle Scout, you’re going to have to type this yourself.” He was like, “Mom, I can’t spell it.” I was like, “Well, type it into Microsoft Word and get the corrections.” I was going to make it really, really hard for him.

His tutor was like, “Are you kidding me?” I talked to all these other parents and they’re like, “I totally typed his stuff.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I don’t know. That’s okay. He organized his project. He really earned it. He organized it. He was detailed. He did a fantastic job with the whole thing. Not being able to document it really well, it’s not that big of a deal.

Amy: Totally. Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, so he dictated it to his daughters. I just think about that all the time. Paradise Lost is one of the great pieces of English literature and he didn’t actually do the physical writing it out by hand himself. I think we’ll be okay if we help our kids along the way.

Marianne: Yes, for sure.

Homeschooling with Dyslexia Homeschool Conversations podcast interview learning differences Marianne Sunderland

What Marianne Sunderland is reading lately

Amy: Marianne, I’m asking these two questions to all of my guests this season and the first one is just, what are you personally reading lately?

Marianne: It’s funny that you should ask because I was looking for my book before we talked. I’m reading this book it’s called Unschooled by Kerry McDonald. The subtitle is Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom. I started reading it online. I have a subscription to scribd I think. You could get all kinds of books for free or for that monthly fee. I started reading it and it was so good. I’m always fascinated with unschooling. I don’t think I’ll ever be like– I’m not convinced my kids would ever want to do math. So I’m like, “We’re just going to do math and reading,” but then you can unschool. It’s a fantastic book because it has a lot of research. The benefits of doing really interest-led learning is what it’s about.

Amy: That sounds really fascinating. We follow more of a restful classical approach to education. Part of that is I leave plenty of just white space in the day. I feel like that’s the time, or then in the summer. I jokingly call my summer my unschool days because it’s just like, “Learn, do whatever you want to do. Pursue interests.” Granted, for some of my children that just means a lot of Ninjago, but I’m sure they’re learning something.

Marianne: One of my sons learned a lot about history from, can’t remember the game he played. It was on the computer. It was like you’d build an army and then you’d go and you invade, but there was all this history and he loved history. He had to type words in like to communicate. He said he learned how to spell really well from playing this video game.

Amy: Sneaky. We can’t tell them what they’re learning.

Marianne’s tips for when the day seems to be going completely off the rails

Well, the final question I have for you is, what tip would you give to that home school mom when the day just seems to be going completely off the rails?

Marianne: I would definitely say to stop and go outside. That is something that just– I used to talk to my husband and I’d be like, “I just can’t handle it.” He’s like, “Honey, just stop schooling and go to the beach.” We live near the beach. I was like, “We can’t go to the beach. We’re behind.” Then, eventually, it would be so bad that it was like, “Okay, we’re going to the beach,” and we’d go, and it was like everybody had space and it refocuses you on like, “I guess learning decimals isn’t that important.” [laughs]

Amy: It’s not the end of the world today.

Marianne: Right. We can try again tomorrow and it will be fine.

Amy: Well, unfortunately, not all of us can go to the beach, but maybe we can go to the woods.

Marianne: Exactly. Just getting outside. I just ate lunch outside today and I was like, “I really just needed to go outside.” [laughs]

Amy: I think sometimes mom needs to go outside too.

Marianne: It’s a whole new world out here. [laughs]

Find Marianne Sunderland Online

Amy: Well, Marianne, where can people find you all around the internet?

Marianne: I think the main place to find me is at my website, There’s a lot of free resources there. I have some parent classes, some parent education classes that are great if you’re just getting started and you want, “Just give me what I need to know.” I have a little group called Beyond the Box Learning, and that’s actually where we’re reading Unschooled. We have speakers and we have chats once a month where we get together and talk. It’s just a group of people who are still learning and wanting a community, I guess you could call it. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, but not that much.

Amy: Well, I will have links to those things over at the show notes for this episode at Thank you, Marianne, very much for chatting today.

Marianne: My pleasure.

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