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.

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?