Using AmblesideOnline with a Special Needs Child

Short Lessons

Special needs children often have short attention spans. Keeping lessons short and moving onto a new topic is exactly what these kids need the most. The advice given by an aunt to Inconstant Kitty's mother in Formation of Character (Volume 5) is perfect:

     You must help her to gain the power of attention.
     Go slowly; a little to-day and a little more to-morrow.
     Her lessons must be made interesting.
     But do not let the lesson last more than 10 minutes.
     Use dominoes or the domino cards . . . to add or subtract the dots.
     Vary the lessons; now head, and now hands; now tripping feet and tuneful tongue.
     Put a premium of praise on every finished thing.

Her wisdom in addressing children with short attention spans can be very helpful for some "diffabilities." Short lessons are the key to developing attention which Charlotte Mason considered the most important intellectual habit!


Special needs children can be very easily overwhelmed by too much too soon. So, having a disciplined atmosphere and developing habits slowly, one habit at a time, are gentle ways to learn. Parents might need to be aware of various challenges unique to the "diffability." They may need to find resources targeting children with that "diffability." For example, experts generally recommend calm, quiet, non-stimulating environment for children with autism because of sensory overload, meltdown, and shutdown. However, they generally recommend a highly stimulating, engaging, over-the-top environment for a child with Downs' Syndrome. Often the steps required in learning a habit have to be broken down into very tiny, baby steps. Over the long-run those baby steps can add up to some very meaningful, very powerful habits. Her strategies on developing habit are very wise. Focus on one habit at a time. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Work to prevent some bad habits (meltdowns, inattention, frustration) by staying attune to the child's body language. Be consistent in your efforts, firm yet encouraging. Target the most meaningful beneficial habits first.

Small Steps

Rather than overwhelming developmentally young children with expectations of early creative writing, Charlotte Mason broke language arts down into different tasks in a progression. Listening to a book read aloud and learning to read lead to reading aloud to others and finally reading silently. Copywork, dictation, recitation, and oral narration lead to written narration and finally composition and grammar. Punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and proper grammar are modeled and absorbed visually, kinesthetically, and gradually through copywork and dictation. These skills are addressed for many years before the child must apply them all in written narration.


Education is the science of relations, and Charlotte Mason students related to things and books. As special needs children tend to be very concrete learners, relating to things usually comes naturally. An aunt told Inconstant Kitty's mom to teach adding and subtracting with manipulatives like dominoes and domino cards. In her explanation of teaching arithmetic, Miss Mason emphasized using manipulatives, practical examples of math in real life when it came to operations, money, measuring, weighing, etc. Yes, there is often a need for adaptation, breaking tasks in working with things into very small steps. A child might require special exercises to work on the fine motor skills, but those can be made into games. Handicrafts, drawing, musical instruments, and life skills are much more pleasant and practical ways to refine fine motor skills.


Some special needs children are very scattered in skills, advanced in some areas and yet delayed in others. A Charlotte Mason approach is perfect for them because you focus on developing habits. Without an emphasis on grade levels or test scores, the special needs child is not faced with knowing how far ahead or behind (s)he is compared to other children.


While special needs children might not be able to draw as much out of the classical literature featured in AmblesideOnline as typical children, it goes a long way in making them aware of our cultural legacy. Knowledge builds on previous knowledge. When they come across classical references in life, they will have connections upon which to attach new knowledge. They have a right to enter the world of living ideas and participate in our cultural heritage as does every other child. I have seen experts recommend only functional and lower level reading materials for special needs children. I am so thankful we ignored such ideas with our special needs daughter. She enjoys the AmblesideOnline literature unabridged and has found ways to connect to books, even highly challenging books, in her own way! She clearly relates to these books with very strong connections in some cases and she is able to associate and generalize information from one book to another.


At the Second Annual ChildlightUSA Conference, Dr. Carroll Smith related the neuroscience of learning to narration. For information to be stored in long-term memory, the child must make connection (the science of relations), take it into the mind, and reproduce it in some way. Thus, the process of reading and narrating (either orally or in writing) sets up a complete cycle required for learning to occur. While children with delayed language may not be able to orally narrate, it is important to find a way for the child to give back the information. To complete the cycle, a child may need to draw, point to pictures and places on a map, dramatize, etc. As children with special needs may struggle with writing, answering multiple guess and true/false questions, etc., oral narration is an efficient and personalized way for them to tell what they know. Comprehension questions point out glaring deficiencies, while narrating gives them a chance to tell what they remember. Success stimulates more success, building a pathway to confidence. For children with delayed language, narration becomes an opportunity for speaking and reinforcing speech therapy. The varied ideas from books and things encountered in AmblesideOnline gives a child many topics for practicing speaking. Children with dysgraphia may need a longer transition into written narration. They can build a foundation for written narration orally and avoid the habit of frustration often caused by cutesy programs that encourage early writing, creative writing, copious writing, etc. for children who really have nothing to say.

Read Aloud

Some children have various reasons why they might remain in the stage of listening to read aloud longer than typical children. Charlotte Mason recommended getting children into reading their own books as soon as possible. Some disabled children may find reading (either silently or aloud to another) so laborious that hearing books (either read to them or via audio books) is their only option. That is okay. The key is to find the most accessible way for children to take in books and give back information from those books. Some "diffabilities" have challenges in auditory processing (autism, dyslexia, hardness of hearing, etc.) and a read-aloud program can help improve auditory processing. I have seen my daughter go from not processing one thing heard in a conversation to eavesdropping from another room thanks to an extensive read-aloud program with AmblesideOnline books. And, she is now able to read some books aloud to me and is finally started the transition to reading silently (with careful supervision to make sure she doesn't fall into the habit of skimming).

Tammy Glaser
See Tammy's Home Page and her Reflections on CM's 20 Principles.

See Donna-Jean Breckenridge's article on using AO with her son.

Read an article from a 1897 Parents Review article on "backwards" (disabled) children

Response to question about using the Charlotte Mason method with children who are hearing disabled but read independently:

I note you say later in your post that they do read independently. Let me assure you that reading aloud is not required by CM or by AmblesideOnline. Reading aloud (of school books) is recommended for certain situations: to expose the children to challenging, quality books before they would be able to read them for themselves, to edit content when inappropriate (a dab of white out can also do this for you), or simply for logistical purposes - as when you have several readers and only one book. CM thought it very important for the children to do the reading for themselves as soon as possible - so, if yours will read independently, I say let them. =) If they cannot do the reading independently, then I would choose a simpler book, while still keeping in mind quality of writing. If you use sign or lip reading at all with them, drag it in as much as possible, and perhaps reduce the amount of reading in each subject to the point where the frustration level is at tolerable - even if that is only one paragraph each day.

What about sharing poetry with a hearing disabled child?

Just some thoughts here (in fact, most of this post is just my thoughts, please don't feel bound to try something you, with your greater experience and knowledge of your children, sense is just dumb for your kids) - focus on the word pictures of poetry and don't worry about the rhythm or rhyme schemes - this is actually what CM suggests for the hearing kids with whom she worked! Hunt around and find a poet who offers word pictures they like, where the beauty of the poem has more to do with the words than the rhyme scheme. Try some Haiku, which does not rhyme and doesn't have a rhythm in the sense we usually mean. Maybe free verse is more their speed.

The years roughly correspond to grade or age level, but to the age/grade level of children who have normal hearing, vision, processing, etc AND have been schooled using CM's methods. Many children are using year one when they would be in fourth grade in school. So if you need to step down a level, make a substitution, take two years to do one year - whatever - please feel free to do so. It's not at all equivalent to demotion or holding back a grade or flunking. =)

Reading aloud is not the foundation of CM's method, or even a major part of it - it's a tool for certain situations. It's find and dandy if people want to read all the books aloud to their students, but it's not CM and we shouldn't tell people that it is. I've looked the above paragraph over several times, and I don't feel it's communicating quite what I want - it's not anger I feel, but sorrow and sympathy, and some frustration - not at you, but for you. Honey, drop the read-alouds. =)

Several AmblesideOnline members do have children with special needs, including me. My daughter is profoundly retarded, nonverbal, and has slight Cerebral Palsy. In CM's day, there weren't many special needs children outside of attics, institutions, and so forth. CM does give some advice useful for those with issues like learning disabilities or ADD, but not for anything more profound. However, some of her principles still are useful, depending on the situation.

How can one do CM with children who are almost completely visual learners? If you can get it, you might try looking through volume 1. There are activities there for helping children learn to picture things that I think you might find useful. For example, before you ever read a geography book, CM suggests that your child should be thoroughly familiar with his own neighborhood, so as to have hooks upon which to hang later information. He must know a puddle before he knows a pond, and a stream will help him later to visualize a river, and a real lake will help him picture an ocean. She suggests drawing simple maps and diagrams in the sand or dirt (with sticks), making geographical features in a tray of sand, and more. The early years of CM are very hands on. =) She has a suggested activity where some time when you are at a park or looking over a scenic view, you take turns looking at it as carefully as possible, and then describing it back to each other - trying to look at it so carefully that a mental image is stored up in your mind forever. When I first read a book by Annie Sullivan (Helen Keller's teacher) on her methods, I was struck with how similar they were to what CM is advocating in the early years, if that helps at all.

When you do read, you might try sketching many little simple outline drawings of the scene, of the events and characters from the reading. These can be stick figures, as the point isn't the illustration, but simply a medium to aid in transferring the information from book to mind. The kids can draw their narrations sometimes, as well.

This is also just more of my own guesswork, but if they can read independently, I think I might just let 'em rip, let them give you narrations either orally or through some other medium (drawing, sketching, models, mapwork, clay, etc) - and not worry about their pronunciation. That can be the focus of another lesson or time.

This is very long, and my eldest girl has been waiting patiently for the computer all this time, so I'll have to close. I hope something here has been useful, if only to give you some idea of what you don't want to do, or a platform from which to dive on to something greater and better.

Blessings, Wendi

(If you would like support and comradeship with other AO parents dealing with special needs, there's an area on the AO forum for that. details are at the bottom of this page.)

My daughter is 16 and has a profound hearing loss. We have been homeschooling for 11 years now. I remember the days when we were reading out loud and she was frustrated. When she was small, we did not do very much reading out loud. It was much easier after she learned to read. I would read a book and she would follow along with me by looking at the written words. I have also read out loud and signed at the same time. (This is difficult because it's hard to hold a book with no hands!) :-)

We don't do dictation with her as CM would have done. Most of the time, she just uses that time for copywork. Other times, I will tell her which paragraph and let her study it for several minutes. This gives her a chance to look over words that she doesn't know. Many times she will ask how to pronounce a certain word or if I will give a "sign" to a word so she will understand what I am talking about.

I have two other children and my older son (15) does dictation normally and his passage is usually much longer than my daughter's.

I wondered when we began our homeschool adventure how in the world I would be able to teach a "deaf" child phonics. But you know what? It really helped her speech!

I hope this helps, Sylvia

CM says on page 9 of volume 6, "The appeal is not to the clever child only, but to the average and even to the 'backward' child."

I know I've shared this story before, so here's the very condensed version--one of our children came to us at almost four. She came from an impoverished, barren background, and really struggled to learn to read, to learn how to listen to other people (she really didn't know, having had few conversations with others).

I put off using harder books with her because I thought if she was having so much trouble understanding the easy, straightforward stuff, she'd be lost with more advanced, complex imagery and vocabulary. But one day, for no reason I can remember, I read her King Midas and the Golden Touch, retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was only an experiment, attempted almost with a shoulder shrug of dismissal.

She was enchanted, wanted more, listened intently, wanted to know what happened next. She cared about that story, that literary tale.

We dove deeply into the CM sea at that point, and it has been a rich experience. She has blossomed in ways that at one time I thought impossible for her. She will probably never be as academically inclined as some of her sisters, but when I look at where she came from and where she is now I am just gratefully glad.

--Wendi Capehart

From the Parents Review, 1890's, mailbag, edited by Charlotte Mason:

In Vol III, No. 6, is this letter:

"Will any of your readers say what course they would pursue to improve the dormant intellect of a child of ten who is too idle, mentally and physically, to trouble even to listen or think, consequently to remember anything he is taught, without the fear of some punishment or the offer of some reward? The reader must realise he has been for at least two years at good schools, where he absolutely learned nothring and is now under private tuition, beginning, for the first time, to make any knowledge his own. He has as yet neither habit of attention, nor memory, nor accuracy.


In volume III, No. 9 is the following reply:

"as to Mater's difficulty with the boy whose intellect has remained dormant through his school-life. Something of the same nature occurred in my own family, and my suggestion would be to seek earnestly for the child's strong point whatever it may be (in the case I speak of it was affection) and to link your instruction to that. To illustrate what I mean, say the child is warm-hearted. Draw out his love of hearing about "father and mother's young days." Tell him stories of their early home. Then you have a centre of geographical interest from which to start on that subject of study. I found this method answer in the case above alluded to. My own early life was spent in India, which fact offered a fine "basis of operations" for creating an interest in geography.

Then treat history in the same way. If the parent had a relative or ancestor who was connected with any stirring or important event - such, for instance, as the Battle of Waterloo - what a help that would afford to making history real and interesting to the child.

Tell him stories about this ancestor or relation (biography should precede history), and thus link the historical event of world-wide interest to that which he knows and cares for, and which is felt to belong to his personal life. Show him anything which may have belonged to his relative - a picture, a letter - so making actual that of which you speak.

As you say so truly in "Home Education," we only remember, as a rule what interests us; and I think in this sort of way interest can be awakened in a dormant intellect through the medium of the affections.

I have instanced affection as the strong point in the case in my own experience, and it surely is so in most cases where home has been made a nursery of love; but where it seems feeble in a child, other characteristics will do to work on. Whatever its special taste may be, that will afford a starting point. The great thing is to let one subject which is of interest to the mind lead on naturally to another with which it is seen and felt to be connected. Who that has had much to do with little children has not noticed how, when some new word has been added to the child's vocabulary the mere recognition of it in a book or in conversation, soon after, will call forth a bright look of pleasure, and the small discoverer will point out the new friend with evident delight?

I am dear Editor, yours sincerely,

"A mother of England's Children"

There's an area for parents of learning challenged and special needs students on the AO Forum. This is a private subforum that's only visible to approved parents who are already members of the forum.

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