Discipleship for Non-Readers

When my husband started pastoring an urban church, we began talking about how to help people follow Jesus when they do not read.  The initial queries were related to English Language Learners who may not be literate in their primary language.  Well, twenty years later I actually have a few answers to those questions.  I live with dyslexics; I educate dyslexics, and I still find it beautiful and somewhat surprising how much learning happens separate from books.

Dyslexics make up 10-15% of the human population, so if every human had access to education, there would still be 700,000,000 – 1, 050,000,000 humans whose primary learning does not include reading.  Yes, at least a billion people, realistically many more, on our planet do not learn by reading.

Realizing this moves me.  Discipleship for non-readers not only entails the dyslexic, but the undereducated, the visually impaired, the kinesthetic learner.  Teachers often teach from their own mode of learning. It can be stretching to incorporate new modalities into our practice.

Jesus, the model teacher, the model communicator had a simple and profound teaching style.  He did not send the disciples to a university, rather he shared life with them.  And later when he had been crucified, resurrected, and ascended, other people, initially not interested in the message of Christ, noticed these disciples.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.  Acts 4:13

The good news of Jesus spread throughout the world prior to the printing press (1400’s) and widespread literacy.  Truly it is only in the last one hundred years that literacy has been pervasive in any society, but Jesus has been known and the Scriptures understood for thousands of years.

When I began to be taught how to teach dyslexics to read and write, simultaneous multisensory learning was the key, and it felt a bit mysterious to me. Trying to use the whole body in learning basics was a new way of teaching. I was already an energetic teacher, but learning to intertwine


learning became vital.


Soon I began to explore how to implement what I was learning in the context of Christian education.   Let’s look at what Jesus did.  I started at the beginning of Luke, and discovered Jesus  implementing multisensory teaching – always.   If you don’t believe me, go to the gospels, and chart out what was happening visually, auditorially, kinesthetically, and tactilely.  It’s amazing.


So the instruction of any topic, physics to philosophy, can be taught multisensorially. Christian educators, parents, Sunday school teachers can take a topic or a passage and think how to incorporate visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile work that allows the brain to recall the lesson.  Give it a try:


Below you will see a chart from Adrienne Gear’s Reading Power.  She observes that Reading has two components:  decoding and comprehension.  Decoding is the stuff that we think of in reading difficulties, and I would suggest tackling decoding has virtually no place in Sunday school or when the Scriptures are taught.  Even if I/you know how to instruct in decoding, that is better suited for private tutoring or classroom.  When we teach the Scripture, we are looking for people who can put it into practice and become doers of the word. (Matthew 7:24-27 and James 1:22) Students, even children, can be taught to ask questions, wrestle with meaning and application.  Loving God with our minds, and obeying Him can happen without decoding the text.  How?

Listen to the text from another reader

Listen to the text on an electronic device

Act out a Bible story while an adult reads it

Use songs with the Scripture in them

Watch a video based on Scripture

Talk about the Scripture while you are living it out

What other ideas do you have?


Let me reiterate if you want to help a struggling reader, do it at a different time than when they are learning the Scripture.  (Pay for an Orton-Gillingham tutor, introduce direct decoding instruction outside of Sunday School.)  Don’t correct spelling (Major melt downs recently happened in the kids’ class I teach over one child correcting another child’s spelling.)  Teach God’s Word and save reading instruction for another time and place.  The truth of God’s teaching can be accessible to anyone, and reading may not be easily accessible for many.  Choose your priorities.

I know a dyslexic leading a major Christian organization, and he says his morning devotions are usually through his iPod reading the Scripture to him.  Now he has a seminary degree; he can read, but it is still not his preferred method of acquiring spiritual nourishment. Neurologically speaking a remediated dyslexic, one who can read, still processes information differently.  Let people learn in their area of strength.



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