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.


  1. Hi Merry, thanks for writing this article!

    I am currently confused as to how my 4th grade son will do his Language Arts this year. This is our year 2 homeschooling (with 3 kids).

    We used Total Language Plus last year (1 book only though, The Courage of Sarah Noble) (TLP has spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing) Since my son didn't enjoy the program, we tried a literature study with lapbooking (Mr. Popper's Penguins) from - it was ok but, overall, I feel like he needed more structure in his Language Arts curriculum.

    And my biggest concern is that he hates reading.

    So this year, one of my goals for him is to develop a love for reading, and that's what got us into trying Sonlight (we are just about to start next week)...

    So I am now drafting his LA schedule (following your advise in creating a routine post) and so far, he has the following

    1. SL read -alouds,
    2. readers (and I plan to employ "buddy reading" like you suggested)
    3. Wordly Wise online to help with vocabulary
    4. All About Spelling
    5. A Reason for Handwriting (independent work)
    6. SL Language Arts (I think this covers Grammar and Writing)

    On one hand, I'm thinking of focusing first on #1-5 - to help him fall in love with reading first, and so he won't get overwhelmed with the load this year too, since last year's schedule burned us out. (So I wonder if grammar and writing could be delayed to next year and focus on reading first.)

    On the other hand, since I know we didn't have at least a full-year grammar/writing lesson on our first year, he might get delayed for his 5th grade year.

    (On a different note, I'm also seeing a preference on non-SL LA programs like EIW so I'm also thinking of having our SL LA returned to get EIW especially if this incorporates grammar already.)

    I would greatly appreciate to hear your advise, thank you very much in advance :)

  2. I hear your concern about his reading. Honestly, until my kids could read easily and fluently, they didn't like it either, though my daughter didn't mind the process of learning to read. My son abhorred it. There was such a disparity between the type of book he was capable of reading and the type he was interested in, and the process itself frustrated him. So, don't give up hope there yet. Have you looked at All About Reading for filling in gaps for him? I'd consider it if that's your #1 goal. I so wish that had been out when my kids were in elementary grades!

    I think your plan to focus on #1-5 could work well.

    I actually never did a vocabulary program, and my kids always tested really high there from all the read-alouds we did (we still read aloud--my kids are 16 and 18, and we're reading Silas Marner right now). If he enjoys Wordly Wise (sometimes kids just want something on the computer), it might be helpful, but if not, I'd focus his energy and yours on reading, handwriting, spelling first, (plus read-alouds!) and then order your priorities after that.

    As far as writing/grammar goes, a few thoughts:

    It's hard to write when you struggle with reading, spelling, or both. I found my kids were not really ready for a writing program until after AAS 3. At that point they had mastered about 1000 common spelling words, which seems to be a tipping point. When you have to think about how to spell almost every single word, you can't really hold a train of thought in your mind and get it down on paper. AAS also has a gradual progression that helps kids build up stamina and working memory so that they can write longer things. It starts with words and dictation phrases, then adds in sentences, then longer dictation sentences, and in level 3 it adds in a writing station activity where kids write sentences using words they have been learning. So, I find it builds up nicely to prepare a student for writing.

    If he's not overly reluctant or showing a lot of struggle, try writing, but otherwise, you may find it helps to wait. (And he'll probably go through AAS 1-3 fairly quickly--I find many older kids can do 2-3 levels the first year, and then 1-2 levels per year after that. Did you see the "fast track" start for spelling?)

    SL LA--many people do enjoy the program, so since you have it, you may want to try it or look through it more before deciding. It didn't work for us because my kids needed more direct and incremental instruction.

    Essentials in Writing--yes, it has grammar in the elementary years (I've used levels 7-10, am using 11 right now--those levels don't have grammar, so I don't have experience with how he teaches grammar). From what I understand, about the first half of the year is grammar-focus & 2nd half is writing-focus. They have online samples you can view on their website. He's really good at breaking things down into doable parts, and my kids responded well to the assignments. Here's a review I did part-way through 7, if you haven't seen that yet: The sound was not an issue after that year, so I think he got that fixed (I should update my review!)

    With writing and grammar, know that you don't have to do both daily, or both every year. You can do things in units, or alternate years--so don't feel pressured that you have to do it all at once if you find programs that are not all-in-one but have approaches that work for you.

    HTH some!

  3. Thanks Merry, appreciate all your help! You're, I should probably try out the SL LA first before deciding, to complement what we already have. The idea on waiting until after AAS3 for writing was helpful too. I took note of all the rest your insights for future reference. Thanks again! :)