Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Smiles for a Moody Teen

"Imagine the harmony in our homes if we were to give encouragement a place of prominence.  Think of what might happen if smiles and hugs for a moody teenager were a more natural response than critical words."
~ Sharon W. Betters
Treasures of Encouragement:
Women Helping Women in the Church 


Maybe I'd even be a less-moody mom!

Lord, help me to be a loving mom, attentive to the needs of my children.  Help me to really listen, to parent without fear and keep my eyes focused on you.  Help me each day to dwell in your word, to sup on rich fare at your table, to come to you empty, ready to be filled.  Fill me, that I might have something of eternal value to give my precious blessings.  

In Jesus' name, Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Planning Language Arts Part 2

Last time I covered how to set up a language arts plan by thinking through your child's skill level.  This time I'll describe in a little more detail some of the things you might work on in each of these areas, and some of my curriculum choices:

Beginning Reading

Reading instruction will start with basic phonics instruction and your child reading to you single words (perhaps on a word list, cards, or from words built from letter tiles).  When my son was little, I had letter cubes and would build "word rockets" that he liked to pretend blasted off!  Then they'll read simple books to you.  As they get into longer books, you might employ a technique called "buddy reading" where they read a page or paragraph and then you read for awhile.  Eventually this time will become an independent reading time.  

For beginning reading we used a combination of materials:  Reading Reflex, readers from Sonlight, Bob Books, Christian Liberty Press K readers, DK readers--pretty much anything I could get my hands on used or borrowed until they were reading more solidly.  

Reading Reflex uses the Orton-Gillingham phonograms and was helpful for the first half of the book, but when it got to what they call the "advanced code" (letter teams that make up one phonogram such as OA for the long O sound), the program felt very disorganized and didn't work well for us.  I would use All About Reading instead if I had another child to teach now. AAR includes research-based instruction in decoding, fluency, automaticity, vocabulary, comprehension, and phonemic awareness. Sonlight has supplied most of our readers and has usually been a good match here.

Reading and Literature

Some of reading time (or some of read-aloud time) might also be spent in literary discussions. A wonderful resource to help with this is Glencoe which has free literary guides for older students, or the book Deconstructing Penguins for all ages.  Even if you are clueless about literary terms like protagonist, climax, theme, and plot, just having normal, every day discussions about books and poetry can teach these concepts (and it's not hard to learn what these words mean, a little at a time, over the years.  The aforementioned book can help and makes it easy and enjoyable).

As you move into high school, you can make this a more formal learning time.  I have not yet used the following, but like the look of Teaching the Classics from IEW, and Learning Language Arts Through Literature Gold.  Sonlight has a nice combination of award-winning books, and always includes a poetry book as well.


Handwriting doesn't have to involve putting pen to paper to start either.  You can do things like writing with an index finger in sand, pudding, on carpet squares or other tactile surfaces.  There's a great description of air-writing near the end of this article about preventing and correcting reversals that is a wonderful tool for young students.  Writing involves both gross and fine motor muscle tone as well as neurological involvement and working memory, and is fairly complex.  I remember thinking that pre-writing types of activities were not all that important, when in fact they are very important.  I was too anxious to get to "the real thing" (pencil to paper) and if I had it to do over again, I'd spend more time doing fun pre-writing activities such as these.

Handwriting Without Tears is a favorite here because the methods help to prevent reversals (or help you retrain a child who is doing reversals).  Letters that are commonly reversed such as "b" and "d" are formed differently and contained in different sets of letters ("b" is a "diver" letter and "d" is a "magic C" letter).  I didn't like the look of the letters at first, but then I learned that my kids didn't make letter that looked like the samples anyway--each person develops his or her own personal style.  I really like their Can Do Cursive book for 5th grade as it includes some light grammar and some basic Greek and Latin word roots too.  (I like things that do double-duty!).  My kids also enjoyed a year of A Reason for Writing, which has some nice border papers to write Bible verses on.  We sent the verses to Grandma sometimes, for her refrigerator, or to a friend who was a shut-in. 

Some people use copywork for handwriting practice, but that didn't work here in the early years.  (See mistake #2 for more on copywork).  But this year my 8th grade daughter decided she wants to improve her penmanship, and she is using America the Beautiful from Queen Homeschool for copywork.  Lovely selections!


I've tried a lot of programs over the years:  Spelling Power, Natural Speller, Tricks of the Trade, Sequential Spelling, Spectrum, Apples Daily Spelling one point I gave up and started writing my own curriculum!  I've also used dictation to teach spelling.  With dictation, you choose a selection from your child's reader that has 5-10 words for the child to learn.  At the beginning of the week, you show the child the passage and spend time pre-teaching the phonics involved in each of the words.  Point out things like various reasons for silent e's, letter teams that are working together, patterns like AY that are generally used at the end of words (while AI is used mid-word), rules for adding suffixes, and so on.  Of all the methods we had tried up to that point, this was the most helpful.  However, it wasn't systematic enough for my kids needs, and it was time-consuming for mom!  

Then I found All About Spelling and that changed everything for us.  After two weeks my then 5th grader told me it was the most effective spelling we had ever tried, and both children begged me not to ever change programs again.  After a year, both of their reading levels had gone up two full grade levels.  You can read my review here.  AAS includes dictation (no having to find your own sources) and some sentence writing starting in Level 3.  After level 3, students have mastered around 1000 words, and it's a good time to start a formal writing program.

Writing and Grammar

In the early years I like to do informal writing and grammar work.  Things like thank-you notes or making little books, letting them tell me a story that I scribe for them, having them narrate back to me about something we read together or a movie or what happened in Sunday School are all various ways of working on writing and pre-writing skills.  Kids work on organizing their thoughts, summarizing (a very difficult skill that can take years to master), presenting ideas in an interesting way, "hooking" their audience and so on without the pressure of putting pen to paper.  I also like to do interactive journal-writing with my kids--I write a note to them and they write a note back to me in the same notebook.  The notebook  might put in a special place like in front of the door to one's room, on a pillow, or in a "mailbox" made for this purpose. 

Informal grammar is something many of us do naturally.  When our children use the wrong form of a word or state something in a way that doesn't make sense, we might gently restate what they said and have them repeat it.  In our house, this is second nature and we really don't even realize we are doing it!  Later, a formal grammar program can be used.  I like The Writer's Jungle approach of covering grammar 3 times--once each in elementary school, junior high, and high school. You can do a quick refresher as needed. (I'm doing a capitalization and punctuation refresher with my kids this year for the first 8 weeks, and then we'll focus on writing for the rest of the year--which of course requires them to use all of their grammar skills.)

Another way to study grammar at the high school level is through a foreign language.  There's nothing like a language difference to help one understand the grammar in one's native tongue!

For a formal program, again I have tried several things for writing and grammar.  Early on I was drawn to Charlotte Mason type programs like Primary Language Lessons.  I also used Sonlight D LA. Spectrum and Steck Vaughn have LA programs that cover grammar and writing both.  One year I used Jump In from Apologia for writing.  None of these worked "great" for us, so I would use a program for a year or so and then look for something else.  Over the years I learned that my kids needed more incremental and explicit (direct) methods.  My oldest especially doesn't learn from implicit or discovery-oriented methods.  

My daughter did enjoy Karen Andreola's Story Starters for creative writing.

The best choices for us have been Easy Grammar and Essentials in Writing.  Easy Grammar starts off teaching the prepositions and how to find prepositional phrases in a sentence, which then makes it easier to identify the other parts of speech.  Students are taught how to identify one thing at a time, and then given exercises to work on that.  Things like irregular verbs and noun-forms are taught, plus capitalization, punctuation, clauses, how to identify run-on sentences and fragments, etc...  My son really likes this program, while my daughter jokingly calls it "Not Easy Grammar!"  However, she shows more understanding of grammar through this program than through any of the things we tried previously!

Essentials in Writing includes grammar in the elementary grades, but I haven't used those levels, so I can't comment on that.  I like this one so much that I included a complete review here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Planning Language Arts Simplified

Why is it that Language Arts seems to be the most difficult subject to plan?  One reason is that it encompasses so many subjects--phonics, reading, penmanship, listening skills, spelling, grammar, writing, poetry, literature, vocabulary, speech...  It's overwhelming at times to consider all that we could do, and to try to figure out what we should do.

Another reason is that it can be an area of struggle for some kids.  34% of children struggle with learning to read.  (As a side note, if you are dealing with a child who struggles, here's a free webinar on that topic).  Many struggle with spelling or complain about writing.  

I remember in my early homeschooling years, longing for an all-in-one language arts curriculum.  I knew if I chose separate curricula for all the various topics that I would either miss something or end up with 3 hours of work per day for my kids to do!  The trouble was, I could never find an all-in-one that fit us.  Kids tend to learn to read faster than they learn to write or spell, and programs that lined up these subjects frustrated us by being too slow for reading or too advanced for writing.  

So, I decided to come up with some basic goals.  Why do we teach language arts?  What are we trying to accomplish?

At the basic level, language arts is all about communication.  Taking in information, and being able to communicate with others.  We've actually been working on these skills from babyhood.  We have already taught them a lot about how to speak and to listen, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, all before they even hit school-age.  We don't really think about it, but we've been busy! 

Practically speaking though, I needed a plan for moving forward.  What order should I teach skills, and what priority do I give them?

Reading Aloud

For all children, 20-30 minutes minimum reading literature aloud to your child is a wonderful way to naturally build language arts skills as well as pass on your values, character training, and just enjoy some snuggle time. 

You can cover so much through this.  It's a great way to teach vocabulary (I often stop to see if my kids know a word, or they will stop me and ask for a definition.  If I don't like the one I come up with, I pull out the dictionary and we look the word up together.)  Syntax and grammar and the flow of our language are taught informally.  Poetry can teach rhyming, alliteration, and the musicality of language.  You can work on listening skills and oral comprehension by asking simple questions like, "What do you think will happen next," or, "Why do you think the character did that?  Would you have done that?"  Most of all, reading aloud can help your child develop a life-long love of learning.  I still read to my high school and junior high students, and will as long as I can get away with it!

Building a Plan for Daily Work:

To reign in our budgets (both time and money!), I recommend some basic time limits for daily work.  I like to do 30-60 minutes or so for kindergarten and first grade, and 60-90 minutes for second grade and up.  

To fill this time, set your priorities.  A basic beginning plan might start like this:

Phonics and reading instruction:  20-30 minutes
Penmanship: 10 minutes

When a child becomes somewhat fluent in reading simple three and four sound words, add in:
Spelling: 20 minutes

When a child can read chapter books fluently, then that Phonics/reading instruction time becomes:
Silent Reading:  30 minutes  

You may still want to have your children read aloud to you on a daily basis.  We cover this during our Bible time, but you could also choose to have them read a paragraph from a reader to you each day.

When your child is ready for more, you can add in grammar or writing instruction.  I start off working on these topics informally, as I find it easier to add in a formal writing program after a child can spell around a thousand words.
Writing or Grammar: 30 minutes

Writing and Grammar do not have to be taught simultaneously.  You can choose to focus on one per year, do units in 6, 9, 12, or 18 week segments, alternate days, or use a program that incorporates both.  

Eventually Speech can be woven in to that writing/grammar time slot.  

So that's it!  Think through your goals, the skills of your child, and step by step build your plan.  You don't have to do every language arts topic every year.  Next time I'll cover what each of these topics might entail, and some of my favorite curriculum choices.