Church Literacy, Part Two: Welcoming Kids and Adults with Reading Difficulties

Last week in Church Literacy, Part One, we heard from a Christian mom who dealt with dyslexia in her son.  I hope that gave you a little insight into what a family faces when they deal with something like dyslexia.  Of course, dyslexia is only one of the many reasons roughly 20% of any given population experiences literacy challenges.  And today I hope we can go a little deeper into what churches need to know to make families like Molly and her son feel more welcome.


joni 2If you’re a pastor, Sunday School teacher, or church member with a heart to reach kids and adults with disabilities, you’ll want to check out Joni and Friends, an organization started by Joni Erickson Tada to be an “international disability center.”  In addition to web resources, books and church curriculum, they have local ministries around the nation and online courses that can help your church minister to people with disabilities.  One particular section of their website, Kids’ Corner, has some great resources for children, including videos kids can watch to sensitize them to the needs of children with severe disabilities.  Something as simple as smiling at those who are “different” can make a huge impact in the life of the church.

Ruth Stieff, a volunteer with Joni and Friends in the Chicago area, was kind enough to speak to me about her own experience with children with reading difficulties.  For starters, she helped clarify some of the groups affected by reading disabilities:

1.       Those with learning disabilities

2.      Those with cognitive disabilities

3.      Those with vision impairments (*Emily’s note: this includes those struggling with Irlen Syndrome, which is sensitivity to light, as well as elderly people with declining eye-sight)

4.      Children adopted from overseas

5.      Sometimes those adopted or in foster care in America (a huge group in many churches)

6.      Immigrants of all ages (particularly females from cultures where they did not receive literacy training in their first language because they were females)

She also added that people dealing with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome may have reading or comprehension difficulties: “Since I work so much with autism I see the problems that certain people have with comprehension.  If a child or adult can’t comprehend the meaning including figurative language and language the represents a greater spiritual truth…literacy becomes an issue.  The student isn’t understanding the message.”  In other words, just because you can read the individual words doesn’t mean you understand the meaning of text.

Ruth was able to make some suggestions as to how churches could address these issues, and I’ve incorporated a few of them into my comprehensive list below.


Another important resource is Barbara J. Newman, a school and church consultant for the CLC Network.  A frequent helping kidsspeaker at national education conferences, her books include Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities and Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Barb was kind enough to correspond with me on this topic, and I hope she’ll be a great inspiration for those of you who’d like to go deeper.  She says, “I often speak about struggling readers and writers in a church setting. One resource we have is a training DVD called “Inclusion Tool Box.” I give a brief description of AD/HD and ideas to try in a church setting. I do the same with struggling readers, struggling writers, and those who have sensory integration issues. Many churches have appreciated this 60 minute training for their volunteers.”

Hopefully in the months and years to come, Redeemedreader can share more of her insights with you on this subject.


For now, though, let’s get into a few baby steps that any church can make to help kids and adults with reading difficulties.  It will be tempting for some to suggest we simply move away from the written word.  Wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems?  Actually, because there are so many different learning styles, if you take away the written word, some will benefit but others will be negatively impacted.  And because God has ordained the written Word as central in our knowledge and worship of Him, we would be remiss to simply toss it out.

Still, are there some things we can do?  Definitely!   Here are a few suggestions I’d like to offer:

  • Use Natural Lighting: When possible, use natural light in your church spaces.  Often fluorescent lighting as well as other artificial light can exacerbate reading difficulties.  Natural light–not glaring–can minimize eye discomfort.
  • Use Black Letters in Simple Fonts on White Paper.  For those with light sensitivity, some literacy groups recommend black letters on white paper as less difficult to read.  plus, simple fonts are always best.
  • Use Resources that Cater to Various Learning Styles.  There is a limit to how much hands on learning can go on in a worship service, but a lot of the older worship styles did cater to an illiterate audience.   For instance, a church using kneelers communicates something about God simply through the act of kneeling to confess sins.  The real place that this idea can be instituted, though, is in our Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools.   In that context, offering auditory learning opportunities, modeling/acting, crafts, and illustrated stories all allow you to read different kinds of learners.
  • Offer Bibles  and Songs in Large Print.  If you have pew Bibles, you might replace some of them with large print Bibles.  These are typically thought of as Bibles for elderly people, but they are great for anyone who is struggle to read–or even young readers who are just learning to read.  If you use an overhead projector, make sure the words are in large print.
  • Offer Audiobook Bibles:  If you want your members to leave church and steep themselves in the Word, especially for churches that offer libraries, an audiobook option may be especially helpful.
  • Don’t put anyone on the spot–especially kids–to read a Bible verse unless you know for certain they can read very well.  Ask for volunteers instead, and then offer other ways for those who aren’t good readers to participate in the service/class.  Letting some children read while other act out the story is a good way to incorporate different learning styles.
  • Read the text slowly:  If you choose to have your congregation read a corporate confession or prayer, know that there will be some who will be left out.  Make every effort you can to make the other accommodations–such as using natural light, large print, black letters on white paper in a simple font, and read the text slowly.
  • Use Familiar Creeds/Songs and Publish them Ahead of Time:  If you have large written sections in a particular worship service, complement them with familiar creeds and songs on a heavy reading day.  That can help reduce the strain for those who can’t read well.  You can also put your hymn selections online for families to practice beforehand.  (Our family did that when our kids couldn’t read, and we’ve continued the habit to help our kids learn the melody.)
  • Host a Speaker on the Topic:  If you’re serious about changing the way you and your church members think, consider hosting Barb Newman (above) or another speaker on the subject.  If you can’t do that, perhaps invest in her video or resources at Joni and Friends to help your church focus on including those with disabilities.
  • Offer English as a Second Language classes or host literacy classes.  If you want to go big, here are a couple of projects for you!  If you don’t know where to start, find a church that is already doing these things, or contact your local literacy program to see if you can partner with them.
  • Consider Inter-generational Sunday School:  Inter-generational Sunday School simply means that instead of breaking up families into age-divided classrooms, families would meet together to study with other families.  coleThis kind of setting benefits people with many kinds of disabilities, because it allows more mature believers (i.e. adults and older Christians) to develop spiritual relationships with more immature believers (i.e. kids and new Christians).  The shepherding this affords could really impact kids and adults with disabilities, said Cameron Cole, Director of Youth Ministries at Birmingham’s Cathedral Church of the Advent and chairman of the Rooted Conference.  He added, “We do kids a great disservice when we sequester them and limit their interaction to both older and younger generations. Inter-generational ministry communicates a good, biblical view of the church as all of God’s people, regardless of age.  For older parishioners to work with younger students with disabilities can edify them greatly…Students with disabilities can bless older volunteers with the way that they are transparent about their special needs. They free older people up to acknowledge their common need for God’s grace each day, in a way that we often cannot see in our comfortable routines.”


I know this has only scratched the surface as to ways the church can reach out to people with reading difficulties.  (I’d really like to do more research on how ipads and other tablets are helping families like Molly and her son…maybe next time!)  But I hope some of you will give some thought and prayer as to how you could make a difference in your church.

I’d also love to hear your stories….do you know children or adults who struggle to read in your church?  How have you tried to meet their needs?  What other disabilities or challenges to you see facing your local body?  Most of all, I pray that the Lord would help us to reach out to families and individuals who struggle with reading and perhaps lighten their load.


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  1. Betsy on April 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Great suggestions, Emily! I know some churches also do large-print bulletins (in addition to having large-print Bibles). Like you said, they usually have older people in mind, but they are great for those with reading difficulties no matter the reason. (And we used to photocopy the hymn pages–and enlarge them–for some, too, since hymnbooks have tiny font)

    One other thought to piggy back on what you said about reading clearly when you read from Scripture–I’ve noticed that some pastors and worship leaders, when reading from a text, will not only read quickly but will intersperse commentary as they read. This is very challenging for some readers who are struggling just to make sure they are following along.

  2. emily on April 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Thanks, Betsy! Great point about not getting side-tracked during reading. It reminds me that my kids really appreciate having the same translation as the minister; they just can’t keep up otherwise.

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