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Are Literacy Issues the Reason a Kid Doesn’t Come to Sunday School?

Ever wonder why Johnny won’t come to Sunday school? It could be because of a literacy issue. Check out these signs.

All right kids, let’s read the lesson. Tracie, will you begin?”

“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 come.

“They want you to read there,” he explained. “I ain’t too good at that.” And that was the end of his church-going.

Defensive Tactics

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, teachers expected our children 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 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.

Recognizing Kids’ Gifts

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 reading-centered, 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 longterm 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 embarrass 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 return.

How many times has our insensitivity kept a child from hearing the gospel, coming to Christ, or growing in discipleship?

The Welcoming Classroom

What can we do to show Jesus’ love and acceptance to delayed readers? How can we help them feel comfortable, accepted, and safe from humiliation in our classrooms and children’s activities?

Don’t judge.

“Johnny’s” antennae are sensitive to even a hint of criticism. Reading is a highly complex process learned according to different timetables and in different ways by different people. Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Edison are just a few examples of high-achieving late bloomers.

Remember our purpose.

Our job as children’s ministers is to teach the Good News, not language arts. Plan ahead for the reluctant reader, even if all the children who attend now read well. Establish a normal routine that won’t have to be changed when a delayed-reader shows up.

Never set up “round robin” reading.

If you invite children to read out loud, use volunteers only and assign their passages in random order to avoid spotlighting nonreaders.

Provide a variety of ways for children to take part.

At the beginning of class, hold up five or six cards picturing various items. Two or three might depict books, others crayons, paper, glue, or a chalkboard. Ask, “Who wants to help read today?” and give these volunteers the Bible or lesson book cards. Then ask, “Who wants to pass out the crayons? erase the board?” Avoid pitfalls such as asking a potential nonreader to pass out books or assignments according to written names.

Read things yourself.

When tasks call for individual reading or following written directions, read out loud or highlight the instructions verbally.

Provide options.

When asking for a written response, always offer the alternative of responding with a drawing rather than words.

Review lyrics verbally.

When preparing to sing a song, don’t just distribute the words. Include verbal tags when using posters or handouts.

Love and accept each child.

Each child is a unique, beloved creation of eternal value. A child’s value doesn’t depend on accomplishments or speed of learning. Safeguard each child’s dignity based on his or her eternal value, and teach children to treat each other with respect. Protect all children from the ridicule of others both in and out of class.

If we focus on creating an accepting and exciting environment for readers and nonreaders alike, maybe Johnny will come back — again and again.


What’s your attitude toward slow readers? Do you think a delayed reader would feel “safe” with you and the events you lead? Ask God to show you anyone you may have hurt in this area, however inadvertently, and to help you see these children and their potential through God’s eyes.

Ask God to make you an agent of grace in this area.

Think about the children who’ve visited your ministry and seemed uncomfortable or didn’t return. could a reading difficulty have been involved?

Thinking back to the timing of events that’ve occurred in your classroom. Could some of the “bunny trails” that children have offered in your discussions or their sudden requests to change activities have been a tactic to avoid having poor reading skills brought to light?

Beth Greenawalt is a children’s minister in Pilisborosjeno, Hungary.

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