Classical Conversations and Dyslexia

by | Mar 16, 2016 | By The Grade | 42 comments

Classical Conversations, should you consider this for your child with dyslexia? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of CC with a special needs child.

After homeschooling kids with dyslexia for 20 years, I’ve tried just about every homeschool curriculum out there.  At least it feels that way and a quick look at my bookshelves pretty much confirms it.  Trying, tweaking and switching out homeschool curricula is just part of the homeschool experience whether your kids have dyslexia, as 7 of my 8 kids do, or not.

One thing I never considered for more than 5 minutes, however, was Classical Conversations.  If you aren’t familiar with Classical Conversations (CC) it is a homeschooling approach based on the 3 phases of the classical education model;  Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetorical.

When most people think of CC they think of children of superior IQ chanting long lists of Latin verbs and reciting elaborate passages from memory.  Knowing the inherent working memory weaknesses that kids with dyslexia have, no sane parent of dyslexic child would dare to consider such a rigorous program, right?

Then a friend of mine, whose son is dyslexic, started a CC group in our town.  I emailed her and asked her how her dyslexic son managed such a rigorous academic load, full of foreign language, grammar and {gasp!} memory work.

He was doing great and here’s why.

Classical Conversations is designed to teach according to the particular level of brain development at each age.  In the elementary years, or the grammar phase, children learn the grammar or vocabulary of  a wide variety of subjects because that is what their brains are naturally wired to do.

The Stages of Classical Education

Grammar Stage (roughly grades K-5): This stage is called the grammar stage because every subject has a grammar to it; that is, the basic building blocks of that subject.

  • In English, it is the parts of speech; in literature, memorized poetry.
  • In history, it is names, dates, battles, events.
  • In geography, capitals and countries.
  • In math, addition and multiplication tables.

The elementary years of a child’s development are unique in that it is the one time of life where memorization is both natural and fun.  During the grammar stage of learning, the goal is to fill students’ minds with large amounts of information through tools such as songs and chanting.  My kids with dyslexia love this very kinesthetic learning with the added bonus that this memorization lays a tremendous foundation for future learning.

Logic Stage (roughly grades 6-9): In the logic stage learning to the think the primary object.  Students ages 11-13 are growing new neurons in the part of the brain that controls reasoning ability.  As middle schoolers begin to want to question and argue (ahem), the Logic stage takes advantage of this development, and equips them to think and argue soundly by training them in formal logic, paragraph construction, thesis writing, the scientific method, and the criticism and analysis of texts. Students begin to apply logic by assessing the validity of arguments and learn to view information critically with a more discerning mind. This stage of learning takes advantage of a student’s need to know how and why in addition to what.

Rhetoric Stage (roughly grades 10-12): One of the most valuable tools in our modern world is not simply knowing information (massive amounts of information are available to us easily on the internet), but to be able to synthesize information and then communicate it in a compelling manner.   A classical education focuses on equipping young people to communicate with others effectively.  In addition, students study the Great Books of the Western tradition, as they learn from authors whose words and ideas have transformed cultures and history.  Learning from these cultural giants, they themselves begin at a young age to develop their own voice.

Our Experience With Classical Conversations

This post will focus on the Grammar Stage of CC – Foundations and Essentials.  If you’re looking for information on the Logic Stage of Challenge A and dyslexia, read this.

Foundations and the Dyslexic Student

Our four youngest kids are in the Foundations and Essentials programs of CC.  In a Classical Conversations Foundations class, students meet once a week in classes of no more than 8 kids.  Parents stay with their kids during this time.  The morning co-op is made up of five 30 minute sections.  A trained ‘tutor’ introduces the week’s new memory work in Geography, History, Science, Math, Latin, English Grammar and a section of a timeline of world history.  During each 2 1/2 hour meeting the tutor will also teach a lesson in Fine Arts and Science and kids will do a 3 minute presentation on a particular subject.

Because all of this new memory work is learned to songs and chants often with hand motions, my kids with dyslexia are easily able to remember.  Are they the quickest kids in the class?  Not always.  We practice each week’s memory work for about 10-20 minutes a day.  That is all it takes!

Since starting CC 2 years ago, I have noticed a huge growth in my kids vocabulary and ability to talk and understand a wide variety of subjects from History, Geography and Science.

Essentials and the Dyslexic Student

Essentials is an English grammar and writing program for kids in 4-6th grades that meets in the afternoons for 2 hours after Foundations.  Essentials is a complete language arts course but there is surprisingly little writing that goes on in class.  Students compose sentences and learn the rules of writing by talking about them (called the dialectic model). Parents learn about English grammar and writing, too, because they sit in class with their kids. They watch the parent tutor (teacher) model the lesson and then teach as much or as little as they want their kids to learn from the lesson at home.

Writing and Grammar
My initial reaction to Essentials was to be completely overwhelmed.  There is a lot of detailed grammar information presented in the first weeks that was completely over my head even as a college graduate with 6 total years of foreign language study!  However, we stuck with it and as time has progressed our tutor (teacher) has been systematically laying a foundation of grammar knowledge and usage that is making more and more sense.  The dialectic model of discussion takes the pressure off of kids.  They can participate if they want to and I have found that my kids both are inspired and encouraged by the dialogue and are eager to participate.

Math Drill
Grammar instruction lasts for 45 minutes followed by 30 minutes of math practice.  During the math drill, kids practice mental math computations  by playing games with numbers. Using dice, whiteboards, cards, and fun games, the games drill students in multiplication tables and other operations in order to gain speed and improve accuracy in math computation.  As a dyslexic student this looks like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?

Dyslexics are known for having difficulty memorizing rote information such as math facts.  The use of mental math games forces them to rely on and push their infamously weak working memory.  Yet my two daughters in Essentials (one dyslexic and one not) enjoy the game format and competing against their classmates.  Proponents of using exercises to improve working memory know that it is a matter of using it or losing it.  I see the math drill section of Essentials as a much needed exercise in improving working memory as well as math facts – two areas of great need for most dyslexics.

Writing
Using the writing curriculum from the Institute for Excellence in Writing, kids are taught to write paragraphs and essays, and practice using stylistic techniques in a fun environment.  Students write papers about History topics they are covering in the Foundations program, so the learning is connected, which I love. Tutors model a few writing techniques in class, allow students to practice the techniques, and then suggest a writing assignment to complete at home.

A typical writing class looks something like this:

The tutor demonstrates a writing technique such as using metaphors.

She gives several examples of metaphors, then goes around the room and asks each student to make up his or her own metaphor.

She may also model the structure of a good paragraph and ask students to compose sentences together to construct a paragraph that she writes on the board as they go.

Students are asked to write a paragraph at home the following week using that structure and a metaphor for further practice.

This interactive setting has been tremendously helpful for our kids.  Kids with dyslexia have great, creative minds that get bogged down when required to read and write.  The dialectic method of discussing information being learned relieves this burden and frees our dyslexic kids to really focus on learning.

Classical Conversations in Middle and High School

We have one dyslexic child in the junior high level of Classical Conversations, Challenge A.  For information on how to help a dyslexic student thrive in Challenge A, read this.  We’re committed to CC though and will continue to post about our experiences there.

How about you?  Have you participated in a Classical Conversations Co-Op?  What was your experience?

42 Comments

  1. Christy Ojile

    I am a director of a Classical Conversations community and have two sons with dyslexia. One is now 17 and the other is 10. We have been doing CC for 5 years and it has been a huge blessing for all of my children but especially my son’s with dyslexia. My 17 year old has gone through the Challenge program and credits it with him being a life long learner and lover of books!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Thanks for sharing Christy! That is encouraging to hear since we will have our first dyslexic child starting Challenge next year.

      Reply
    • Cheryl

      Hi
      This is encouraging to me because I am thinking of enrolling our 11 year old for next school. To Know that you began your eldest at an older age and he has felt successful is wonderful. Thank you for posting.

      Reply
    • Megan

      What curriculum do you use alongside of classical conversations?

      Reply
      • Marianne

        Hi Megan. We use Teaching Textbooks for math. We use Story of the World and historical fiction to supplement history. Other than that we have various Bible studies and extra curricular activities and that is all!

        Reply
        • Cheryl

          Hi
          Thank you for posting and answering our questions:-). I noted with the History of the World there are audio and activity books supplements. Do you find these helpful with the dyslexic student? Thank you

          Reply
      • Christy Ojile

        We use Righthe Start math and All About Spelling and Reading.

        Reply
  2. Summer

    We are in our 6th year of CC. My oldest is dyslexic and currently in Challenge I. It’s a phenomenal program that fits well with him. I highly recommend it! Most of the required literature books can be found on Audible or Librivox. The program can be tailored to the child and they can still engage in meaningful conversations in the classroom. I highly recommend it!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Thanks for your feedback Summer. I think, as with any program, there is no one size fits all. I, too, love the flexibility of the program!

      Reply
  3. Tamra Millikan

    Thanks for sharing this post about your experience with CC. We have a dyslexic son, and are doing CC at home this year (last year we were in the CC co-op). I would love to know how you do all the memory work in 10-20 min a day? We narrowed our memory work down to just CC science, history, and timeline, so that it wasn’t so time consuming (we are easily spending 20 min a day now with just these subjects). We practice the current week, and some of the previous weeks so that they retain what they learned earlier in the year. I find, if we don’t review the earlier weeks, they forget. Would love to know your thoughts on how you do this? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Hi Tamra. We review the current week’s memory work daily and one other subject back 5-6 weeks. It usually doesn’t take more than 10-20 minutes. We do larger reviews in the car using the CC CDs.

      Reply
      • Tamra Millikan

        Thanks for clarifying. I appreciate the information!

        Reply
  4. Karen

    My son is in Challenge A and has mild Dyslexic tendencies (we’ve never had him tested for it, but I see many things that indicate a milder case of it). My biggest concern was how he would do with all the reading/writing CH A requires. He has had a wonderful year! It has truly been challenging, but he has grown and matured so much. I highly recommend to get as many of the books on tape for any slower or unmotivated reader. Since they have about 3 weeks to read each book, he’s learned the importance of “budgeting” his time. He knows his reading speed, so we look at each book to see how many chapters he needs to read per day to get it finished in time. (He’s learned the hard way when he’s had to read over half a book during his “free days” because he didn’t follow the schedule, but that’s part of learning and growing.) Ch A seemed like a big scary monster at the beginning of the year (and honestly I’m nervous about my slower motivated second son starting in two years) but it’s been WONDERFUL even with all the challenges. It REALLY is about the student taking ownership of his studies!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Thank you so much for your feedback Karen. My dyslexic daughter will be in Challenge A next year. I know that it will be challenging in ways but I am hoping that it will be worth it!

      Reply
  5. Michelle

    Can kids start CC for the high school years and do well with it or will they have missed to much of the earlier work? How long a day is it for them? Is the parent required to be there the whole time?

    Reply
    • Marianne

      They can definitely start in the high school years. The program began as a high school program. The early years help but are not necessary. Junior high and high school are drop off programs although the parent is always welcome to sit in whenever they wish. The elementary ages require a parent to be on campus at all times. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  6. Kate

    Thanks so much for this article. You addressed many of my questions regarding the program and the areas of difference a dyslexic faces. My son has dyslexia co morbid with auditory processing differences, which makes differentiating sounds or hearing what’s being said in a group (competing sounds) sometimes a challenge. I love that most of what I’ve observed of Foundations is auditory, but wonder how others have adapted CC for APD, if necessary. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Hi Kate. Last year, my 7-year old would get overstimulated by the movement and music at times in CC. When I saw him getting wound up, I would take him for a quick walk around outside – maybe out to the car to get my water bottle. The short break and time outside was enough to help him settle back in to class. This year, at 8-years old, he is much better able to handle the noise and busyness of the classroom. Whether that is age or experience or a little of both I’m not quite sure. 🙂

      Reply
      • Kate

        Thank you! This is really helpful. We’ll do the same. 🙂

        Reply
  7. Tesha Davey

    Thank you SO much for this.
    First of all: we have been in CC for three years now, and I wouldn’t change a thing but looking forward to next fall when my daughter should enter Essentials, I have been unsure as we just got a diagnosis for dyslexia. I’m only beginning my research so to actually find this is a huge confirmation that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, not that I ever doubted it, but what a great affirmation!

    Secondly: I’m a director of F&E and I’m not sure I’ve read a better more succinct description of a Foundations class than this – well done!

    Reply
  8. Jennifer

    Thank you so much for this article. I have three kids and we’ve been in CC for almost 5 years. My oldest is dyslexic and has completed Challenge A and enrolled in B now. We’ve been so pleased with the program and the amount of material that she has learned. I was concerned about Latin, but she has been able to stay with the class. I believe the 3 cycles of Foundations were instrumental for us to understand how she memorizes. Lots of memory work in A. Your blog has been very helpful for me. My youngest is also showing many signs of dyslexia, however I don’t have the same panicked feelings I had when my oldest was diagnosed. Thank you for all the work you do to help us moms!

    Reply
  9. April Graney

    My son has dyslexia and we joined Classical Conversations this last year for the first time. I could not agree with your article more! He absolutely loves learning this way! With the songs and repetition with motions, he is able to recall information and this does wonders for his confidence! CC has been worth every penny for us this year. Dyslexia has been hard on him, and we are still struggling with reading, but it has also been a gift. He wrote about his dyslexia as a gift here: http://www.aprilgraney.com/2016/03/how-dyslexia-is-making-my-son-into-hero.html

    Thank you for this article and may God bless your writing and your influence for his glory!

    Reply
  10. Tamra Millikan

    I know you like Classical Conversations and Logic of English. We are planning to start CC Essentials this year. Is this a complete program, or do you recommend using Logic of English as a supplement? Thanks for clarifying how you use these two programs.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Hi Tamra. You could definitely use LOE for a supplement to CC Essentials. CC Essentials is a great program all on its own but it covers a LOT! Using LOE for a gentle review would be good. 🙂 So excited for you! Let me know how it goes!

      Reply
      • Cheryl Nelson

        Hi Marianne;
        We too are going to be in CC for the first time!! Foundations and Essentials..and I was asked to tutor Foundations…yikes! We are following your footsteps:-).
        My question is… is this LOE?

        The Logic of English: A Systematic Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Writing… Denise Eide
        Thanks!

        Reply
        • Marianne

          Yes! You will love CC. I found it a perfect balance of accountability with freedom. 🙂

          Reply
  11. S D

    Thank you so mich for this. We are in our fourth year of CC but first year of essentials with my dyslexic daughter. How did you scale back and modify it for your child? I have been through it with my older son but didn’t have the same challenges. She loves IEW but is having a harder time with EEL.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Hi Shannon. In the first year of Essentials, I wrote all of the sentences in class, gave all the answers where needed and focused primarily on building my child’s vocabulary and familiarity with the intense grammar of EEL. I quizzed the charts orally because of severe dysgraphia. I kept it light knowing that I could keep my child in Foundations and Essentials for an extra year if needed. My daughter who is in Challenge A now is in 8th grade but needed that extra year of F/E to mature and really grasp the concepts. SO far, I am super glad that we did that. I also use Winston Grammar cards as a supplement to his EEL instruction. There are colored parts of speech cards that have images on them that help him remember the different parts of speech. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  12. Shari Schwind

    Our family has been in Classical Conversations for 9 years. 8 out of our 9 children are dyslexic and we will see if the last one will be in the next year or so. I also have tried many different programs to help my kids. Classical Conversations has been a tremendous answer to prayer for our family. Many of our children have learned to memorized better while in CC.

    I have had so far 4 children start Essentials as a non reader. I have had all of them still be able to diagram sentences even though they couldn’t read it. They were picking up so much just from attending community day of Essentials. Most of my kids have begun to read late in 2nd year of Essentials or mid 3rd year of Essentials. I would work very closely with them to write all of their IEW papers. They class members were so gracious with them.

    After having 5 children in Challenge levels and now working on my 3 high school graduate I am amazed at how well my kids have done during their challenges years . My kids have listened to most of the audiobooks as they followed along in the book. They have been able to participate in class. On a few occasions I have altered their work with the assistance of their Challenge Directors. It may take them longer but they are still getting most of the work done. I truly believe they have been challenged to a higher level because of CC.

    I am so blessed as a Mom seeing my kids succeed! I truly believe my kids have gone farther and done so much more because of Classical Conversations!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Thanks so much for sharing some of your story Shari! My 9-year old isn’t reading well yet and I am concerned because the boys in class seem to be on the more competitive side. My son is very sensitive to criticism, so I didn’t sign him up for Essentials next year. I am encouraged by how you walked through Essentials with you non readers. Thank you!

      Reply
  13. Kim Wolfe

    I’m encouraged reading all of these posts. We just finished our 3rd year of CC and absolutely love it. I have one who just completed Challenge A and another finishing 2nd year of Essentials. My son is the youngest (9), and has just completed 3 years of Foundations. He has profound dyslexia and is still a non-reader, even after spending the last year with an NILD Therapist 2 times a week. I am now researching like mad, thinking CC is not a good fit for him and even thinking public school will be a better option for him, where he can be totally immersed all day. He will certainly qualify for an IEP. Now I’m thinking maybe we can continue CC and I’m liking what I’ve newly discovered – the Barton Reading System. Has anybody used that?

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Barton is a great program but in my experience, NILD is far better for the profoundly dyslexic child. Public schools usually aren’t a good fit for kids with learning struggles. My almost 10-year-old son will be in Foundations and Essentials next year. We plan on using a lot of accommodations and some modifications for him. I know of other parents who have done that successfully.

      Reply
  14. Mountain Momma

    I am so very delighted to have found your website, article and this conversation, Marianne!! Thank you so much! The timing and content are just what we needed! Sigh … it’s like He knew ??

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I’m SO glad!! 🙂

      Reply
  15. Tammy

    Can we start a group on facebook for CC and dyslexia? This will be our 3rd year. ( Cycle 3) we started essentials last year and I dropped it half way through. I was overwhelmed so my child was as well. We did continue with foundations and this year I am going to just do foundations. I am working with a tutor which has been wonderful. I am just trying hard to integrate everything.

    Reply
  16. Laura Imlach

    We are 5 years into CC (only program we’ve ever used) and as my eldest began ChA this year, I became concerned for the first time about my younger daughter with dyslexia. My eldest, who does not have dyslexia, works 6 hours+ on her ChA work, and I am concerned about how much time my younger daughter will need when it’s her turn in ChA. My younger daughter tends to take 1.5 – 2X as long as others to complete tasks…I don’t want to put her in a position where she is putting in 12 hour days on her ChA work, but I also am reluctant to remove strands or reduce expectations if that prevents her from fully participating on campus days. How has ChA worked for your dyslexic kiddos? Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I think it depends on the child. My dyslexic daughter is now in Challenge 1. She is not enjoying it as much as she used to. She does have trouble keeping up. I know that if I had more time to spend with her that she would accomplish more. I do not think my younger son who is profoundly dyslexic would do well in Challenge. He has a low threshold for frustration as well so the constant frustration of the intensity of Challenge will likely not be a good fit. I love the CC program but we are looking for another program for both of them now.

      Reply
      • Laura

        Thank you! I appreciate your help tremendously. We are praying and researching too – we saw that Memoria Press has a “simply classical” program that allows us to change the pace and customize to her strengths, so we are considering. Just passing along in case it’s helpful. Thank you again and again.

        Reply
  17. Kelly Hawthorne

    My oldest went through CH 1, 2nd went through A, 3rd is finishing A and going into B. My 4th is dyslexic and is just now reading at almost 12. I do not see how she could ever handle the amount of memory work in A or Latin. 7 years of CC and she memorized very very little. She did Essentials this year and did very well, my plan is for her to do it another year. I honestly don’t see how she would benefit from Challenge. I feel like I’d have to scale it SO much that it would be a waste of money and maybe she would be better served doing something else. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I’m at the same place with my now 11-year old. He is profoundly dyslexic. He could do Challenge A but it would require so much work and scaling. We are not planning to do it next year. His reading is improving but writing is so hard for him. He is not independent in much yet. We joined a local homeschool group for next year and will hopefully sign him up for some smaller classes.
      Every child and every year is different. Our dyslexic daughter who is finishing Ch 1 now will not continue with CC next year. Her ADD makes it hard for her to keep up and she needs a lot of accountability. We’ll sign her up for more traditional courses through our homeschool group for next year.

      Reply

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