All right kids, let's read the lesson. Tracie, will you
"Th-then a Samaritan..."
Johnny, the boy next to Tracie, fidgets.
"Johnny, do you need something?"
"Um, can I go to the bathroom?" he blurts out. He darts from
your room. Next week he doesn't come back.
Any given Sunday, this scene is repeated in classroom after
classroom. Several years ago, our 12-year-old neighbor, Jacob, came
to church with us -- a large, active church with a superb
children's program. When we invited Jacob back, he refused to
"They want you to read there," he explained. "I ain't too good
at that." And that was the end of his church-going.
For several years our missionary family traveled the country
speaking in churches of various denominations. Our three children
probably visited 100 different Sunday schools. And in almost all,
our children were expected to read. Ours are bright, intelligent
children who do well in school -- but all three struggled with
delayed reading. No matter how welcoming the teacher or how
friendly the students, our children learned to dread attending
church or youth events.
Often they had a choice of humiliations.
"Do you want me to talk privately with the teacher ahead of
time?" I'd ask.
The kids debated the possible consequences. Would this teacher
react with surprise or shock like one teacher, who began treating
them like freaks of subhuman intelligence? Would the teacher handle
the situation with sensitivity as one nice teacher had done? But
what if the teacher was like the one who announced, "David can't
read, so Patti,
would you go ahead?" as the other children gawked. Perhaps, as in
one church we attended, the teacher might take the situation as an
academic challenge, deciding it was her job to force reading; to
attempt to succeed where school teachers had failed.
"No, don't say anything," the kids usually decided. They then
resorted to a series of private evasions throughout class, ranging
from "not hearing" the teacher ask them to read to suddenly
springing an intriguing question designed to take up the rest of
the class time in verbal discussion far removed from the written
text. If silent reading was expected, the kids worked to pick up
other cues to survive by "reading" a situation rather than the
text. As a last resort, they flatly refused a request that involved
reading, thus appearing stubborn and uncooperative.
Beyond the Letters
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, as
many as 4 in 10 American children have literacy problems. That
means that nearly half the students in an average Sunday school may
have reading issues.
The effects of delayed reading skills aren't limited to the
academic realm. Kids' overall confidence and self-esteem are also
at risk -- usually because of how they react to other people's
perceptions rather than how they deal with their reading
challenges. Most nonreaders desperately want to fit in, to be
accepted, and to be admired -- as do all children. And because our
culture often equates intelligence with reading ability, children
who can't read well don't want others to realize their inability.
This is especially true when a visiting child is asked to read
aloud in a classroom of strangers. Often the majority of the time
these children are in Sunday school is spent in fear of
humiliation. And often they don't return.
"There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same
Spirit is the source of them all," says 1 Corinthians 12:4. The verse goes on to tell
us that each person is uniquely created to make whole the body of
Christ. Nonreaders don't always feel included in our classes.
In the book Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius (Jeremy P.
Tarcher/Putnam), Thomas Armstrong, a well-known learning
specialist, observes, "A growing body of research suggests that
many kids who've been labeled learning disabled are actually
superior to so-called normal children in certain types of nonverbal
creative behavior, in three-dimensional visualization (the kind of
ability that a good architect or mechanical engineer possesses),
and in a host of other skills, talents, and abilities. . .it
appears these kids are most gifted in precisely those abilities and
skills that our schools place least emphasis on, including music,
art, dance, drama, graphic design, mechanical repair, and other
creative and hands-on pursuits."
In a culture less readingcentered, children with these
alternate gifts would likely be valued leaders. Sadly, too often
the church culture mirrors society at large in its valuation of
reading-delayed children. As long as the child feels acceptance and
support, delayed reading will not normally prove to be a
problem, according to a reading specialist at the Moore Academy in
Camas, Washington. Yet all too often, our Sunday schools and
church-related children's programs are among the worst offenders
when it comes to embarrassing slow readers.
Rachel, 10, went to a Christian sports camp several summers ago.
Beforehand, her mother mentioned her delayed reading skills to the
administrators. "No problem," the camp director promised. A few
days later, though, another staff member became angry that Rachel
hadn't completed a written task. "What, is she retarded or
something?" she demanded in earshot of several kids -- including
Rachel. Humiliated and disheartened, she left the camp never to
How many times has our insensitivity kept a child from hearing
the gospel, coming to Christ, or growing in discipleship?