Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reluctant Writers

You know if you have one. You can't coax 'em out of the closet when it's writing time. They'd rather eat fried worms than put pencil to paper. And why is it that there are few things we moms worry about more (academically speaking) than this little thing we call writing? Somehow we think if they hate writing at age 10, they'll never get into college, and pretty soon we've got a shelf full of curriculum, a bald head from tearing our hair out, and one very confused and frustrated child.


Time for a break!

As I look back at our journey, I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and some cracks in the proverbial writer's block wall. There's hope! But it does take time (and work!) for these skills to come together. Give your kids time, and lots of encouragement. Here are some steps that have helped us along the way.

One thing I've found is that writing becomes easier for a student who struggles after All About Spelling Level 3 or so. AAS includes a nice progression for writing, starting with sounds and individual words, then short 2-word dictations, then longer phrases and sentences. By Level 3, children are writing twelve dictation sentences per step (not all in one day). (For more information on using dictation to improve spelling skills, read here). Half-way through that level, an exercise called The Writing Station is introduced, where students make up some of their own sentences from a list of spelling words. Now the fun begins!

Truthfully, when I first saw The Writing Station coming up, I cringed. I just knew my kids were going to hate it, and that this was going to be a very bad experience, judging by our past forays into writing. But my children and the exercises surprised me! The kids not only enjoyed it...sometimes they wrote things that were downright funny! The given words often relate to each other in a way that lends to making up a little story, or in some humorous way. And instead of seeing The Writing Station as something to dread--my kids started looking forward to the exercises and saw them as a time to have fun and play with language.

So, slowly over time kids are building up their stamina in writing, they develop some fluency through doing the dictations and by mastering a lot of basic words, and then they get to spread their wings a bit with writing and editing skills through The Writing Station. Because of this, I find that after Level 3 is a good time to introduce a writing program.

Before that you might want to focus on informal writing such as journaling or free-writing. You can take note of their spelling errors that are in words they know from AAS, but don't focus on that in their writing. Focus on those during spelling time instead by putting them back in daily review. Don't worry about words and patterns they haven't learned yet. For a very reluctant writer, I would focus simply on handwriting and AAS along with narration (which is oral writing to some extent--organizing thoughts, being creative and so on). You can even write down their stories or narrations they tell, to show them that their words are worth being saved and savored. Read them to Dad or send them to Grandparents to encourage children to try to share their words more. Email with friends or relatives can be a good way to encourage writing also. Older children can blog on a subject they are interested in.

My kids (12 and 14) are now in levels 5 and 6, and they are much nore confident about writing than they were 3 years ago when we started AAS. My daughter actually chooses to notebook about her science now, and my son freely chose to do an additional rewrite of a paper last week--I was shocked!

So, it really does come in time. Give children time to put all of these skills together--handwriting, spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage issues, organizing ideas, creativity, trying to form ideas into words, etc... When you think about it, there are a lot of complex skills that go into "just" writing, and it's not as easy as it appears to us.

Some students seem to catch on easily and write reams--while others stall out before they even start, overwhelmed with the task in front of them. Walk them through the skills step by step, and they'll get there. (Spoken as a mom who spent too many years freaking out about this, only to realize that the skills really do come together when kids are ready!)

I'll write about some of my failed attempts at teaching writing next time! What things have helped your kids on the journey to becoming more fluent writers?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

First Day of School Traditions

It's that time of year again!  We have two first-day traditions.  The first one is to fill out a First Day Questionaire. It’s fun to look back on these and see previous favorite movies, colors, subjects, meals, holidays, and so on. Here's a form I like to use. There's room at the bottom to write a favorite memory or draw a picture.

The other tradition is to make Monkey Break for breakfast. Here's a great recipe from All Recipes. I wake the kids up and then come downstairs to cut up the biscuits, roll them in cinnamon sugar, poor the gooey sweet sauce over them and pop them in the oven. They’re usually done about the time the kids amble down the stairs in their pj’s, and we read Bible while the cinnamony-sweet goodness cools.

The caramelized sauce dribbles down the sides and between all the sections, and we don’t even bother with plates. We just each dig in with a fork and savor every bite. Anna grins and says, “I wonder why they call it Monkey Bread?” Zach just smiles and says he doesn’t care! Some day I’m sure I’ll have to look that up. We are homeschoolers after all!

What are your first-day traditions?

Monday, August 22, 2011

All About Spelling Deluxe Level 1 Giveaway!

To celebrate my new blog, I've decided to host a giveaway! All About Learning Press has generously offered an All About Spelling Level 1 Deluxe Set to one of my readers, an $80 value!

All About Spelling is a program that has turned not only spelling, but also reading and writing around for my kids. We started over 3 years ago when my kids were 9 & 11, and you can read my original review here. We had tried several programs previously, but nothing seemed to work--and one left my son more confused than when we started.

I thought through what worked in teaching spelling, and what didn't work for us, and spent nearly a hundred hours trying to create my own program. I scoured books and looked for the most effective spelling strategies. Finally an online friend told me that All About Spelling had already done all of this work for me: if I wanted, I could have an open and go program that had done all the research, had mastery-based lessons, customizable review, multi-sensory lessons to help my kids remember, and was based on the Orton Gillingham phonograms.

The All About Spelling Program

I was scared to try it after so many other failed programs and money down the drain, but their 1-year, 100% money-back guarantee convinced me to give one more program a try. Besides, I was burning out on doing my own thing.

After the first year, not only did my kids' spelling improve, but their reading levels went up two full grade levels. I was shocked. We did Levels 1, 2, and part of 3 that year, and they could read harder things than they were covering in spelling, but AAS filled in some gaps for them, helped them develop fluency and made reading easier.

I'll write more about the other ways it has impacted them later this week. For now, if you want to enter the give-away, here's what to do: 1) Check out the All About Spelling Overview and post a comment on my blog about one of the aspects that makes AAS a complete, comprehensive program.

You can enter up to 4 additional times (5 times total) by posting here after you:

2) Post on the AAS Facebook page that Hope for Homeschool sent you (that's my new blog)

3) Follow this blog; if possible, suggest a question or topic you would like me to address in a future blog post when you post that you subscribed.

5) Click to get a free download of Unlocking the Key to Silent E or the 20 Best Tips for Teaching Spelling

The 5 Jobs of Silent E

Be sure to post a comment at the end of this blog for each item to enter your name in the drawing--each comment is an individual entry, so comment multiple times if you do multiple things.

If you already have AAS, you can enter anyway, and if you win, give it away to a friend!

Not sure if your student would start at Level 1? See this FAQ file to help you decide.

The winner will receive a Level 1 Set and a Deluxe Interactive Kit.

Entries must be submitted by Midnight on Monday, September 5th. The winner will be announced on or before Wednesday, September 7th.

Feel free to post a link to this giveaway to your friends! Thanks, Merry :-)

Dear Son...

Dear Son, Please don't burp your spelling words. You can say the letters, whisper the letters, write them in pencil, marker, or sidewalk chalk...but please don't burp them. And to my loving daughter...thanks for the heart-attack when you used your art supplies to make the fake blood dripping off your hand. That was a unique experience for me. Bedtime's at 6 tonight, kids. Me I mean. You can stay up and scare your father now. Love, Mom

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why Homeschool?

“I could never homeschool!” Many of us have heard this—and maybe we’ve even thought it. I did.

My son went to a Christian Preschool. We had talked about homeschooling, but I always envisioned that my husband Dave would pick out the curriculum--I had a mental block and thought I couldn't do that! Then Dave became disabled and had to leave work; I doubted myself and decided to put Zach in school. It was a good year mostly, & he had a wonderful teacher, but I realized, "I could have done this." So I brought him home for K. Anna has never been to school.

Slowly I learned that homeschooling is a way of life--you start when they are babies, and keep teaching them the next logical thing. Walking and talking lead into reading and writing, learning about money, learning about our world and learning about God etc...

I enjoyed the book, Educating the Whole-Hearted Child by Clay and Sally Clarkson, and also The Homeschool Journey by Michael and Susan Card. Many authors quote from Deuteronomy 6, and express that homeschooling is basically talking to your children "along the way" (see verses at end). I find this is true--no matter what struggles we have gone through, it always comes back to walking together through this life.

In this homeschooling journey, I find it helpful to review the reasons why we are doing this from time to time. For us, they can be summed up in 7 main points (not in any particular order--most of these permeate all of life, not just school):

1) Relationships. God created families, and it seems natural that the family be the place where especially young children be taught. Our kids can be with Dave and me instead of being away from us all day. We've developed a strong relationship because of this. And we enjoy it--most days! We all have our days. But I love the books, reading to my kids, seeing their light bulbs go on, and talking about their questions. Sometimes their questions and concerns become the curriculum for the day—it’s a beautiful thing.

2) Academics. Our kids love history and science! I hated history in school. When I first read the Sonlight catalog, I said, “I wish I had learned history this way, I might have liked it!” Our kids might not love every subject, but they have a better chance of enjoying and being inquisitive and engaged in subjects if we Homeschool. Where else can they get one-on-one personalized education?

3) Flexibility. We have the freedom to teach at each child’s pace, whether advanced or remedial, and according to his or her interests. God made individuals. If we want to take a break from our overview of World History and learn more about Rome, we can do that. I listen to my children’s questions and pursue the answers with them—and teach them how to pursue answers.

When my son was hating math in 2nd grade, I asked him questions, listened, discovered why, and helped him to learn methods of self-control (throwing tantrums over subtraction is not helpful!). I also worked with him to find a curriculum that better suited his needs. Together we looked at online samples, evaluated, and then made the switch. I told him my main goal for him that year was to learn self-control—to learn to do math with a good attitude even if he didn’t enjoy it (though I hoped he could also learn to enjoy it sometimes!). He could not have had that kind of attention, training, direction, goal, in public school. He had an “I believe you can do this, and I’m going to walk with you through it” kind of experience—and excelled!

The schedule is mine to determine—I’m not following someone else’s schedule. If we want to play monopoly for math and reading some days in the elementary ages, we can! We have the flexibility of doing work orally when they are younger too.

4) Life Skills! One day Dave had the kids help fill up the car fluids and check the oil. That’s homeschooling too in my book. Too many kids grow up with few life skills—not knowing how to cook, clean, do laundry, weed a garden, paint a wall, do basic maintenance, make a budget, FOLLOW a budget, manage their money, make investments… There’s not much time for all that when you’re in school all day, then come home to activities and homework. This is a real handicap for lots of people.

5) Health. It’s easier for kids to get enough sleep and not eat junk with homeschooling. And there’s no getting beat up on the playground or bus, no fear for your life, no being publically humiliated in class.

6) Character. I don’t think character issues can be dealt with in a large classroom, and especially not on a playground with a few supervising teachers. Peers won’t teach biblical conflict resolution—it takes time and patience and training to walk through the steps of how to deal with others.

7) Spiritual. God is the director of history, the creator of science, the author of language. One time Dave was concerned about a science book we had—generally a good book with great illustrations, but the first 2-page spread showed man evolving from monkeys, and he worried what the kids would think. I handed the book to Zach (then 6.5) and asked him to tell Daddy what he knew. He said, “These people believe we came from monkeys, but God made us out of dust and breathed His breath into us so that’s not true.”

I think this is the essence of homeschooling: 1Thes 2:8 "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." Relationship.

We want to share our faith with our children, and encourage them to teach their children as well. If we only teach the things of God to our children, but don't teach them to pass it down, then our family is only a generation away from leaving the Lord.

Consider Psalm 78:1-8: "O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old-- what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands. They would not be like their forefathers-- a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.

Deut. 6:4-9 "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."

I pray we have many more years to walk along the road together.

(Originally posted on my chatterbee blog on April 19, 2009)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Help With Writing

How can we get kids to use their spelling skills in their writing? I hear this question a lot. For some kids, it's hard enough to translate thoughts into the written word on paper. Add to that the need to think about spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, neatness, how to form their letters, organization, clarity, creativity...well, something has to give! What's a mom to do? Enter the COPS.

COPS is a catchy acronym for editing that I first learned from a copywork and dictation class I took on It stands for:

Organization (includes neatness)

So how do we use our spelling police?
One, if spelling is really tough for your child, you don't have to edit everything they write. Start with editing copywork and dictation exercises. Teach them what to look for in writing that is not their own. Sometimes it's hard enough for a child to put together their thoughts and write them down, and getting a paper marked up with needed changes can make them feel like their ideas were not good, or that it's all simply too much effort. Professional writers don't revise everything they write--some writing is just for fun. Let kids have some "fun" writing too. (I'll have to write more on this another time!).

Two, once you have decided that something is going to be edited, then have them read through their piece with the COPS acronym in mind. I used to write it out for my kids all the time, until they learned it. If the piece is more than a sentence or two, let them work on editing the next day. Some kids might be able to do it quickly, while others may need their whole language arts time just to do this. So gauge whether having an assignment on top of editing is appropriate for your child.

Three, if your child thinks something is wrong but isn't sure, have them circle or underline it in pencil. You can go over that one together. Praise them for any errors they find, and for any they find and are able to correct. NOTE: If a spelling error is because of a rule or pattern they haven't learned yet, you can choose whether to simply show your child the correct spelling, or focus on the other errors and "skip" this one for now. Some kids get discouraged when too many things are pointed out to them at one time, so don't feel you need to make a paper "perfect" if there are lots of errors; focus on the ones that they are ready to figure out now, and know the rest will come in time. If you do point out an error in a word they wouldn’t know, you can say, “We haven’t studied this one yet, so you wouldn’t know it…”

Four, if your child misses some errors that are concepts or patterns that they have learned in All About Spelling, or they are grammatical items they have learned in their LA, put a light pencil X next to the line for each mistake. Don't tell them right away what the mistake is, see if they can find it on their own. This gets them to take responsibility for thinking about the editing process and not just relying on mom to tell them what's right or wrong. Sometimes I'll let them know if they are looking for a spelling, capitalization, or punctuation error.

Five, for any spelling errors they don't find (but do know how to "fix"), get them to analyze the word. If the mistake is phonetic, have them sound it out. Let's say they wrote "firt" instead of "first." If they say the sounds they wrote, they can see what's missing and fix the mistake. Similarly if they use the wrong phonogram. If they can't identify what's wrong, sound it out for them and then ask if they know how to correct it. ie, "This says 'firt.' We want 'first.' Do you know how to change it to first?"

If the spelling error is covered by a rule they have learned, ask them if they know of any rules that might apply to this word. Maybe they write "kat" instead of "cat." Or "kichen" instead of "kitchen." If they know to try C fist, they can correct cat. If they know that we usually use tch after a short vowel, they can correct kitchen. See if you can get your child to think of the rule on his or her own--but if not, then give them more information. ie, "What do we try first, C or K?" or, "How do we usually spell the /ch/ sound after a short vowel?"

Six, if the spelling error is visual, have them use the scratch-paper spelling they learned in level 3, and see if they can identify the correct word. Sometimes I'll tell them they've used a homophone, and ask them if they know what that homophone means. Then I ask if they know how to spell the word they meant to use.

Seven, put any words or patterns that they don't identify as mistakes on their own back in the child's daily review tab. Include the related phonogram, sound, and/or key cards as needed. Something I like to do is to keep several blank word cards in the back of each child's review set. I can usually find a word that I want in just a minute or two--but if I can't, I don't sweat it, I just write it on one of my blank cards with a black marker. These are also handy for putting any new words into their review stack. Marie posted a template for blank cards.

Finally, be patient. You may not see results overnight, but over time you will. After 2 years with All About Spelling, I remember being impressed by my then 7th grade son's lab report. It was neat--no scribbling over mistaken words. It had few spelling errors; he even got some words correct that we hadn't studied yet. If you had told me two years prior that we'd be this far, I'd never have guessed it. Around that same time, he told me long words with prefixes were "easy" to spell. I had to ask him if he heard what just came out of his mouth! Truly--the differences were night and day. He still made some errors (firt vs. first was on his report), but he could often find and fix them, and they continue to lessen as time goes on.

Have fun with your friendly neighborhood editing police!