Encouragement Corner: My Student Is Trying, but Just Not Learning as Expected

Encouragement Corner is a new feature here at Guilt-Free Homeschooling, sort of a mini-seminar for the busy moms who can’t spare the time or expense to go to a major homeschooling conference, but who still need answers to their biggest questions. We’ll be grouping a few of the most-often-recommended articles around a central issue and making those articles easier to share on Pinterest by adding a photo or graphic as needed.

This is a question we hear frequently. Mom is presenting the subject well, but Student just isn’t picking up on the material, no matter how hard he tries. What’s going wrong?

This problem usually can be attributed to moving ahead too quickly. The student may have been understanding everything quickly up to a certain point, but when that point was reached, he continued on at the same break-neck pace as before, not fully realizing that he had missed something important. As further lessons depended on the missing concept(s), the student became confused, began to work more slowly, and couldn’t catch on to the new material, regardless of how diligently he persevered. I call these “educational potholes,” because the missing information creates a serious bump in the road to progress.

The way to get back on track is to back up and fill in the pothole, but it’s not always obvious where that hole is or what went wrong to create it. A skill can be lacking due to a mix-up or confusion over the information, teaching materials that present the facts incorrectly or insufficiently, moving too quickly and assuming the child is ready to proceed, or from presenting the information in a learning style that is contrary to how the student learns best. The articles linked below will give you some good pointers for checking what your student knows and finding exactly where the insufficient skill is located. Once you’ve found the problem, you can focus on helping your student learn that information correctly. Some of the potholes we found could be explained away in a matter of minutes, while others took a few days or even weeks to adequately reteach (in the case of material not learned in public school that was relearned through homeschooling).

Sometimes we adults don’t remember just how difficult it was for us to learn new things, such as reading, handwriting, or arithmetic. Some of the articles below break those subjects down into smaller segments to help you teach your students one important step at a time.

The most important point to remember in this process is that finding a pothole is a good thing! Your student was obviously hampered by the missing skill, and once he has mastered it, he will be able to catch up very quickly.

For further tips, see:

Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School

Handwriting — Beginning Techniques

Why Does Math Class Take SO LONG? 

Building Blocks for Success in Math

Building Blocks for Success in Spelling

Looking for the Hard Part

Learning Styles

Workshop Wednesday: Texture Dominoes

Textures are a wonderful way to get a touchy-feely child interested in learning. Preschoolers are especially interested in textures, so here’s a little tutorial on making a set of tactile dominoes that emphasize various textures.

This set of dominoes used 7 different textures, mostly because that’s what I had on hand. You can make your set as large or as small as you like. I had 5 different textured papers that I’d purchased a while back from the scrapbooking section of Hobby Lobby, and I added a sheet of ordinary sandpaper (from Dollar Tree) and a sheet of craft foam to complete the set. Long-time readers will know that I love upcycling the cardboard from cereal boxes and similar packaging, and this is one more example of that. The backing of each domino is made from cereal boxes, brownie mix boxes, cracker boxes, and whatever else I had available.

Step 1: Cutting

My dominoes are 2×4”, and each textured square measures 2×2”. For this complete set of 28 dominoes, I cut 28 2×4” rectangles from an assortment of cardboard boxes and 8 2×2” squares from each of the 7 textured sheets (it takes 8 because the double uses 2 of the same texture). I used a paper cutter to make quick work of the cardboard, but only because I treated myself to one a few years ago. I have made dozens of previous projects using a ruler and scissors. Remember that this project is intended as a learning toy for your kids and doesn’t have to meet the accuracy standards of NASA. Besides that, the dog might just try to eat a couple of pieces, so you don’t want to have wasted too much of your limited time on precisely measured doggie treats.

Would you like a few details on the textures I used? White is a sheet of craft foam with a smooth texture. Black is a finely corrugated paper, sort of like the inside layer of corrugated cardboard (only smaller). Green has tiny wrinkles running in rows across the paper (I glued these together so that the lines on the black squares went in the opposite direction from the wrinkle lines on the green squares). Blue has silver stars and dots that almost feel like molten metal that was poured onto the surface of the paper. Yellow has an embossed floral design. Red is a glitter paper with a very fine texture. Tan is a fine-grit sandpaper with a little more roughness than the red glitter paper. Check out the scrapbooking supply stores in your area or talk to a friend who does scrapbooking to find some great materials. The selections vary seasonally, and something I mentioned may no longer be available. Since these papers are glued onto cardboard, the durability of the paper itself isn’t important.

Step 2: Gluing

I prefer ultra-super-thick craft glue that doesn’t readily squirt or drip, and I smeared it onto the cardboard with the side of a toothpick, being careful to coat near the edges and down the middle where the paper squares would meet. Then I lined up the two texture squares, one on each end, and pressed down to be sure they were stuck without bubbles or gaps. (This is when you find out if you’ve used too much glue and get to wipe off the excess from the edges.) Repeat for each domino. It can help to stack the pieces in order before you start gluing, just so you don’t end up with any duplicated combinations.

If you haven’t wasted spent countless hours of your life playing with dominoes and lining them up in patterns (as I have), this photo can help you see how to do it. I’ve used numbered dominoes (1-7) to represent the 7 textures. The top row is “texture 1” with the double-1 first, then 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, and so on to 1-7. The second row begins with the double-2 and continues through 2-7. Each subsequent row starts with its double, until row 7 contains only the double-7. Once the textured dominoes are ready for play, they can be arranged in any order. Since they don’t have numbers, any texture can be assigned the #1 position, and the remaining textures can follow in any order as positions 2 through 7. As long as the order of the first row is followed, the same type of pattern can be produced. The textures I used also just happened to be 7 different colors (making them easy to distinguish here), but a similar set could be made with 7 colors of all the same texture or 7 textures of all the same color… or any combination in any quantity that suits your children’s needs and your own creativity.

With many cereal-box projects, such as homemade flashcards, I ignore the color-printed side and write on the plain, non-printed side. For this project, I put the glue on the plain side, leaving the colored side visible on the back of each domino as sort of a bonus puzzle. The child who wants an extra challenge can sort the backsides of these dominoes by which ones came from crackers, cereal, and brownie mix boxes. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about any printing showing through a rather thin square of paper.

Step 3: Drying

As I glued the dominoes together, they began to curl — a natural effect of getting the cardboard wet, even from my not-so-runny glue. I spread the dominoes out on the table as I finished each one and held them down with cans from my pantry until they were dry. Larger cans could hold down 2 dominoes at once, which was good because my supply of heavy cans was limited!

Step 4: Playing

This set of texture dominoes is made with a double for each texture, so it will work to play a regular game of dominoes. However, I highly recommend just handing them over to the child who has been so eager to get his hands on them all the time he’s been watching or helping you make them. He probably won’t need any instructions — he will instinctively begin matching up all the pieces bearing one specific color or texture. When he’s completed that step, he will re-sort them for another color/texture. As you can see, this step could go on for quite a while, so this would be a good time for you to sneak away to shuffle the laundry or grab another cup of coffee.

This free-play session falls into what I call “stealth learning,” and your little student will be learning very important lessons. Listen closely as he tells you all the wonderful things he has learned about textures and colors and matching. He may enjoy just rubbing his fingers across the various textures over and over again, and that’s another stealth lesson. He might use each double-domino as a catalyst for finding other items in the house that are in the same color family: more stealth lessons. He might line the dominoes up end-to-end to see if they can stretch all the way across the room, or build a house shape or letter-shapes with them, or even try to build a “house of cards” with the dominoes. Even if he isn’t ready for the proper rules of the dominoes game, your child will learn plenty from color-matching, texture rubbing, and imaginative play. Playing is learning, so let learning be play.

For more ideas:

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

Preschoolers’ Educational School-Time Activities


Tactile Learners

When Did I Become an Unschooler???

I went to public school for my education. It was a rural school with Kindergarten through twelfth grade all in one rather small, three-story building. The teacher-to-student ratios were fairly low, since most classes rarely exceeded twenty students. Most of the teachers used traditional methods of oral lectures and reading assignments.

I remember feeling detached from the rest of the class, because I was either way ahead of the teacher or way behind. In Kindergarten, I could already read enough to know what the workbooks said, and I could tell when my teacher was changing those directions and leaving out the parts that I thought sounded like more fun than what she wanted us to do. I had to sit and wait and sit some more, surrounded by a roomful of enticing learning toys that could never be touched. And my teacher insisted that sitting quietly and listening quietly were the best and only suitable ways to learn anything.

In fourth grade, I knew nearly all of the spelling and vocabulary words before my teacher wrote them on the board, but she often mispronounced them. I had my very own personal dictionary in my desk, something I loved to read more than any of the storybooks on the classroom shelves. I pulled it out one day to show my teacher what the correct pronunciation of a certain vocabulary word was, because I thought she would want to teach things accurately. Instead, she just got upset. For some unknown reason, we didn’t get along for the rest of that year.

In sixth grade, I had a very old, very worn out teacher. She had her methods that she had used for decades, and she expected them to work forever and for every student. She also had certain subjects that she didn’t care to teach, so she glossed over them with the same three words for every assignment: “Outline the chapter.” I learned nothing from geography that year, except that I could not possibly produce an outline to her satisfaction.

Occasionally, a random teacher would allow us to do a special project as an assignment, but it didn’t happen more than once every few years and never in more than one subject. Any project was also limited to about a week in length and still had to meet that particular teacher’s expectations. The year I prepared a typical Medieval meal for my World History teacher, I thought he was going to have a stroke right there in the classroom. He seemed very concerned that I had smuggled some beer into the school building, until I whispered to him that his tankard contained cream soda as a visually-similar substitute. Despite all my research into the types of foods, serving utensils, and customs common to the time period, he didn’t know how to grade my beef stew and fake beer. He was much better with salt-dough castles and cardboard armor.

All in all, I hated school. I hated the teachers who treated me with contempt for daring to want something other than outlining the entire geography textbook and droning through random passages from Shakespeare read aloud in class. I hated the endless repetition, year after year of boring textbooks that all said the same boring things. I hated it all.

Once I had my own children, everything changed. I loved watching my kids discover the world for the first time. I loved the expression of recognition on their faces each time something new began to make sense. We played games, we played house, we played dress-up, we played everything we could play. We made forts, we made cookies, we made make-believe. We read stories and more stories until we knew them by heart, and then we recited them together when the books weren’t close at hand. I read them simple stories, pointing out the details in every picture. I read them chapter books beyond their years, allowing them to meet brave explorers like Christopher Robin and form pictures in their minds of what “heffalumps” and “woozles” must look like. I read them the lyrical poetry of A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, and countless others. And then suddenly they were old enough for school.

When I sent my children off to public school, they fit into their classrooms just as well as I had in mine, which is to say “poorly.” They wanted to play with the hundreds of wooden blocks at the back of the classroom, instead of sitting at the teacher’s feet as she did yet another mind-numbing counting-to-ten exercise. They had to endure adding 1 + 2 + 3, being told it was difficult and challenging, when they had already figured out how to do 2-column subtraction in their heads. They had to sit and wait and sit some more, surrounded by a roomful of enticing learning toys that could never be touched. And their teachers insisted that sitting quietly and listening quietly and reading quietly were the best and only suitable ways to learn anything.

When my husband and I made the decision to remove our children from public school to begin homeschooling, I used the traditional school model of textbooks and worksheets, simply because it was the only thing any of us had ever known. There I was, ordering boring curriculum, assigning boring lessons, and grading boring worksheets, doing all the same things I had hated all through my own school years and boring my own children with every step.

My students began stumbling over what I called “potholes”—missing portions of vital information that their former teachers had failed to impart. My 5th-grader was delighted to discover that anything she hadn’t understood at public school could be re-studied at home without penalty or ridicule, and she provided me with a list of math concepts that she wanted to master, including fractions, decimals, percents, and measurements. Specialty workbooks helped us fill in those gaps, but actual practice in real life experiences gave the concepts purpose. We measured dozens of things around the house, maybe hundreds of things. We converted the measurements into fractions and decimals. We converted the fractions and decimals into percentages, until it was apparent that the different forms were just “nicknames” for the same amounts. Manipulating the numbers became fun, and math lessons became less intimidating.

I realized that my children were benefiting from the hands-on experiences that solidified what the textbooks had to say. When a math problem spoke of so many red trucks and so many blue trucks, and my child wasn’t understanding it, we used colored blocks to illustrate the problem in a way she could do over and over again until she got it. When my daughter couldn’t solve an anagram for her spelling lesson, she took the letter tiles from the Scrabble game and rearranged them until she figured out the word. The enticing learning toys gave the lessons tangibility, and the fingers understood what the eyes had missed.

I haven’t met a spelling curriculum yet that I like. Phonics is a systematic method for learning to read, but why should that be followed by repetitive lists of spelling words that anyone with a decent grasp of phonics could spell without difficulty? Vocabulary words were never much different from the spelling words. If my students could break the word down into its phonetic components and learn to read that word, either they already knew its meaning, or we would look it up in the dictionary together.

As a child, I had loved having my own personal dictionary, which I routinely browsed for new words. That was the basis of my own vocabulary expansion. Using the pronunciation guides, I could learn to read any word I came across, and the definitions, origins, and various forms of the words added even more to my personal studies. My son picked up this habit himself and regularly quizzed me with new words he had discovered, trying (usually unsuccessfully) to stump Mom. Reading material is an excellent source of new vocabulary words – if it’s not, then your students are reading things that are too simple for them. Another personal habit of mine is to keep a dictionary and pencil close by while I’m reading. Any unfamiliar words get their definitions written in the margin of the book. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to pencil a definition in the margin of a library book, reasoning that if I didn’t know that word, the next reader probably wouldn’t know it either and would be grateful for the notation.)

No matter how many curriculum programs we tried, nothing was a perfect fit for us. The textbooks were too boring and too far removed from everyday life. We supplemented the textbook studies with activities, games, and field trips, and we always found that we learned much more from the extra activities than we did from the textbooks and workbooks. Even the math texts that provided solid teaching were tedious in their repetition-without-application. Board games could always be counted on for practice in the same concepts, but with much more enjoyment. Although we enjoyed a wide variety of supplemental activities, most of the time we stuck to a pretty structured sequence of academic studies. It was only toward the end of our homeschooling journey that I began to research and understand learning styles and see the full value and effect of alternative types of study over traditional methods.

Today, I’m much more likely to recommend family activities, a video-and-discussion session, or a round of board games instead of textbook lessons. How did I get to this point? When did I become an unschooler? If we had it all to do over again, we would probably be more like that eccentric unschooling family we met when we first started homeschooling—their spontaneous and unconventional approach to learning did not fit into my definition of education at all (but they did seem to be having a lot more fun at learning than we were). We would read more biographies from the library shelves, instead of purchasing over-priced textbooks that barely scratched the surface of any remotely interesting topics. We would spend hours dropping Mentos into Diet Coke, instead of just watching the You Tube videos. We would have all sorts of wonderful fun, we would learn all sorts of wonderful things, and we would enjoy journaling all our wonderful exploits, because we would be making and documenting real history instead of slogging through yet another tedious assignment made up by some stranger who knew nothing about us or our interests.

The way I see it, looking back over many years of actively homeschooling and many more years of mentoring homeschoolers, if a student can learn something well by reading it in a book, he doesn’t need anyone’s help. On the other hand, if a student is struggling to learn from reading and struggling to learn from discussions and explanations, that student needs a hearty dose of unschooling methods. Get elbow-deep in an experiment, work out a physical representation of a math problem with some type of thingamabobs, watch someone demonstrate a real-life skill and ask them to help you learn it step-by-step. Going places, seeing stuff, and doing things are much more valuable methods of learning than just reading about someone else going places, seeing stuff, and doing things. If unschooling means leaving the books behind and getting out there to learn from life itself, then I’ll happily call myself an unschooler. I never did fit into a classroom very well.


[For a further explanation of educational potholes, see Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School]

Workshop Wednesday: Handwriting — Beginning Techniques

Most children struggle with learning handwriting, and yours may currently be having trouble with it. Handwriting is a difficult task, especially in the very beginning. There are all those different letter shapes to remember, and trying to draw them with any consistency at all is tough. Children often wonder how adults write so effortlessly, because they don’t realize that those adults have had years of practice. Beginners can struggle just to hold on to the pencil or to draw the letters—doing both at once is a Herculean effort!

To begin with, young children who are just learning the skill of handwriting may not yet fully understand the need for letters and words to be written in a left-to-right orientation. They aren’t at the full reading stage yet, so (in their view of the world) they don’t yet see the need or importance of a left-to-right progression. Therefore, right-handed students are prone to begin writing on the right side of the paper, a more natural orientation to their pre-reading way of thinking. “Stealth learning” can help here. When reading favorite storybooks aloud to your child, place your finger underneath each word and move your finger smoothly across the page to reinforce the left-to-right movement, even if the child is not yet ready to read the words. Seeing the progression of your finger will help to build that left-to-right idea. You can hold her hand, too, and move her finger from letter to letter and word to word, again casually demonstrating the left-to-right progression as you read each word aloud. As your child learns to recognize individual letters, you can add “Find the letter B on this page” to your visual and comprehension activities.

Remember that reading and handwriting are two separate skills. Reading is much easier, since it’s all in the mind and doesn’t require any new muscle training. “Handwriting” and “composition writing” are also two separate skills: handwriting is the mechanical action of reproducing individual letters and connecting them into words; composition means thinking up the words, sentences, and paragraphs to form a story or essay. This stage is much too early for multitasking, so encourage your student to learn to read words without having to copy them perfectly, and encourage him to learn to copy sentences without having to think up his own sentences. Focusing on each of these skills separately will prevent over-emphasizing handwriting during any composition activities, a distraction that can stifle the creative process that you would much rather inspire.

There’s an important difference between everyday handwriting and special occasion handwriting—I love this analogy. We all have good clothes, and we have play-in-the-mud clothes. We have inside voices and outside voices, and we have indoor toys and outdoor toys. We have our very best handwriting that we use on Grandma’s birthday card, and we have everyday handwriting that we use for the grocery list—just take a peek at Mom’s grocery list! Allow your child to use “everyday” handwriting on daily worksheets that don’t matter as much, and then specify when his “best” handwriting is required, to take the emphasis off of perfection. Discuss with your child how he outgrows clothes quickly and how you can show him that he will outgrow his current handwriting, too. Saving a few copies of both his everyday and his best handwriting will show him that his handwriting is improving over time.

Helpful Tips and Techniques:

  • Start to teach handwriting with all upper-case letters to reduce the likelihood of letter reversals, since there are no b-d-p-q similarities within the upper-case letters. Once the child is confident in all the letters, the lower-case letters can be introduced as the “little brothers” of the capital letters. By that stage, your child will understand which letter is which and be able to discern which sound is needed.
  • When you want your child to copy a word onto paper, try showing her one letter at a time. For example, to write “DADDY,” you write the first letter, D, on the left side of a paper, and have her copy it exactly (both of you should have identical papers at first, to make it even more clear that she is to mimic every action of yours). Then you write the A next to the D, and have her copy it onto her paper. Continue one letter at a time, Mommy writes it first, then child copies. Letter by letter, copying each action individually, your child will learn to reproduce words correctly on the page.
  • Letter cut-outs are an excellent teaching tool for tactile learners. The shape speaks to fingers and transfers the message to the brain in a way that goes far beyond the simple visual connection. Textured cut-outs are even better: sandpaper, textured scrapbooking papers, corduroy or other textured fabrics, foam or chipboard letters, wooden cut-outs, and more can either be made at home or found at craft stores. Some harsh textures may produce a negative reaction, so experiment to find what your student really likes. No matter what texture your student prefers, feeling the outline shape of the letter makes a deeper mental impression than just looking at a letter printed on a flat surface.

  • Students who have hit a roadblock with letter recognition will benefit from using materials other than pencil and paper. Try some of these options for drawing or shaping letters: finger-writing in dry cornmeal, sand, or shaving cream smeared on a window, patio door, or cookie sheet; Wikki Stix; pipe cleaners (chenille sticks); Pla-Doh or modeling clay; Lego bricks; pennies lined up on the table; or lying on the floor and bending their arms and legs into letter shapes (reasonably close, anyway). The important thing to learn is whether a letter uses short sticks or long sticks or half-circles or whole circles and where each of those parts goes. It doesn’t matter as much if they can form the letter perfectly straight or perfectly round or perfectly connected, as long as they know which parts go where. Elegant penmanship is a different skill, and that can be developed later.
  • A great way to practice writing letters (or numbers) is to trace inside the fat letters of newspaper headlines (lots of wiggle room for shaky lines). Letters or words can be computer-printed in a jumbo font (use a light color and/or draft printing mode) for custom worksheets that use the same tracing technique. This is especially good for students who are having difficulty making steady lines or following connect-the-dots methods. Any thickness of writing utensil can be used with this method: pencils, crayons, markers, etc.

  • Encourage students to practice handwriting by copying a favorite storybook into a notebook (the child will already know the story and can focus on handwriting the words letter by letter and leaving spaces between words. No one has to see their work, unless they choose to show it off, and it won’t be graded, but they will learn a great deal about connecting letters into words and words into sentences, in addition to the spelling of the individual sounds that make up the words.
  • Allow rest breaks and hand exercises (like hand massage or squeezing a stress ball) to relieve sore or tired muscles. Imagine learning to play guitar or violin and how quickly your hands would tire—that’s what he’s going through with learning to write. Also let his legs have some exercise before trying to do writing assignments! Restless kids are much more cooperative for seat work when their bodies are worn out from running, jumping, and playing.
  • Pencil grips make pencils much easier for beginning writers to hold. My kids preferred the Stetro grips (see this link), available in educational supply stores or office supply stores. Stetro grips are adaptable for right-handed or left-handed use and teach kids the correct way to hold a pencil, reducing muscle fatigue, plus their jelly-like texture is fun to hold. We also used the foam core from sponge hair-rollers—cheap, easy to slip onto a pencil, and a pleasing texture. Fat pencils, triangle-shaped pencils, and other unique writing implements are also easier for kids to hold than the average pencil, which is awkward for young writers, just because it is so skinny.
  • Mechanical pencils require a lighter touch (or the lead will break) than standard pencils, which can help kids learn to draw the letters without as much fatigue. These helped my kids learn to let the lead do the work, instead of pressing hard and carving into the paper as often happens with a normal pencil.
  • Smooth-flowing writing implements, such as a whiteboard and markers, are another way to make handwriting easier, since heavy pressure isn’t required to make a dark mark. Whiteboard markers can also be used directly on a cookie sheet—just wipe off with a dry tissue to erase and wash the pan well before the next batch of baking. Wet-erase markers write just as smoothly as the dry-erase whiteboard markers, but won’t disappear from an accidental touch (erase these marks with a damp tissue). Found at office supply stores, these are sometimes called “transparency” markers, since they are usually used on overhead projector sheets.
  • Using light-colored gel-pens on dark paper (see craft stores) changes the visual dynamic enough to get the child’s mind off the act of writing and keep him more focused on the subject matter.
  • Try having your student start with writing little bits instead of full sentences—have him fill in a blank in a sentence or write a brief “label” under pictures he’s drawn. He can write longer portions on a whiteboard (effortless surface) and copy a small portion onto paper. Then every other week (or appropriate interval), gradually increase the amount of writing on paper, until it’s no longer such a chore.
  • We had great results from Italic handwriting workbooks. My fifth-grader had learned the standard cursive at public school but didn’t like the way it looked, so she asked if she could learn to improve her handwriting at home. Italic handwriting was simple and beautiful, and to encourage my daughter, I practiced along with my kids and changed my own handwriting, too. My first-grader learned Italic manuscript first and had no difficulty transitioning into Italic cursive.

Handwriting is a skill that takes time to develop and shouldn’t be rushed. As with any other skill, students will get faster as they become more confident in using it. Give them good tools and plenty of opportunities for enjoyable practice, and you should see positive results.

See also:

Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Letter and Number Recognition 

Preschool Is Not Brain Surgery

When Is Reading NOT Reading?


Surviving the Mid-Year Slump

What is getting you down right now? The “We’re Only Halfway Through This School Year” blues? The “This Book Isn’t Working Any More” blahs? Or is it the “After-Christmas and No One Wants to Work” wall? Maybe you’ve been hit by the “Pestilence Apocalypse”? A suitable subtitle for this article might be “Stuck in the Middle with You,” since this is the time of year when homeschooling tends to take on a kids v. mom perspective. We want to turn that around to its proper alignment of us v. the books, proving to the kids that mom really is on their side in this educational endeavor.

Step One, get serious about what you want to learn. More than just getting serious, it’s time to get realistic about expectations. If your plans for the year were so incredibly lofty that your students have barely even completed the introduction to the material at the mid-year point, it’s time for some reevaluating. Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with having lofty goals, as long as you have the means to accomplish them. However, no one can run a 26-mile marathon in 4 minutes. You can make it your goal to run that full marathon or have the goal to run a mile in four minutes, but you can’t have it both ways, especially since either of those goals is still a lot of work!

When it comes to schoolwork, remember that publishers sell all-in-one products that cover a wide variety of needs, which is why teachers rarely use an entire book. (I’ll say rarely just in case there is a class out there somewhere that regularly completes every book from first chapter to last, but I haven’t seen it done yet, except by a few over-achieving homeschooling families who quickly burned out and then wondered why.) Therefore, don’t guilt yourself into thinking that just because the publisher included all those chapters in this book, that must mean that you must push your students to complete every one of them. Absolutely not! This now means that you and your students can browse through the rest of the book, deciding which chapters look the most interesting, which ones are repetitive or boring and can be skipped, and which ones might be included if you have enough time. Textbooks are the least efficient method for learning anything, since someone else had to pick and choose what would be included and what would be ignored. Biographies, autobiographies, journals, and first-hand-account histories give a much more accurate (and more interesting) portrayal of any topic, as far as books go (I like hands-on methods even better). Conquering the books puts you back in control of the lessons. Maybe you decide to skip the chapter on bugs that would have taken several days to go through, and instead you and your students spend an afternoon exploring everything you can find about bugs online. The intensity of the learning is what’s important, not the time involved. (More on this in Step Three)

Step Two, don’t let a schedule bog you down in unnecessary work. If a student gets it, let him move on. A wise mom once said, “If my kid knows how to start a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a period, why should I frustrate him by making him do 12 more lessons of starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a period???” I regularly gave my kids a pep talk, reminding them that if they would take their time and get everything correct the first time, they wouldn’t have to go back over it again and again. Giving them incentive to pay closer attention made them more diligent at their work. By all means, stick with the child until he understands a concept, but once he’s definitely got it, let him move on.

Effective, daily communication requires a working knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and so on, and handling personal finances every day requires a working knowledge of basic math, so I taught those daily. Skills that will be used every day as an adult should be studied and practiced every day as a student, but Google and “Siri” can now supply quick answers for just about anything else that is not needed on a daily basis.

Step Three, get away from the books more often, which does not mean to stop learning. If your students have been learning how to multiply fractions, let them put that knowledge into practical practice by tripling their favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Make them and bake them, or freeze little balls of cookie dough for a quick-to-bake treat another day, but measuring, mixing, and tasting will prove whether or not they did their math correctly (and since it’s a yummy treat, they will be extra careful to get it right, because no one wants to eat cookies with too much salt in them!). Now pick another cookie recipe and double or triple it for more fraction practice. (Bonus tip: freeze some baked cookies in grab-and-go bags for your next field trip day!)

Watch movies related to literature or history as another pleasant diversion from the printed pages, one that can impart basic themes in a quick but memorable way. My teenaged son enjoyed reading books more if he knew what to expect from the story, so we fell into the method of watching the video first, so that he could learn the plot twists and who was connected to whom, and then he wouldn’t lose interest while reading through the book at a much slower pace. There was one day when we rented an action-adventure-movie-made-from-a-book, only to find out that Jane Eyre had accidentally been slipped into the wrong case, the one we had just brought home. He watched it anyway, so as not to lose his allotted video-watching time and ended up knowing the story of Jane Eyre, a book/movie he would never have chosen on his own.

Explore online. Watch a tutorial video. Read a website. Follow a blog. Play a podcast. Find a live webcam. Search for images. Find an out-of-print book in eBook form. Read a review. Zoom in on Google maps’ street-view. Listen to music. Download an app. In this 21st century, electronic age, it’s becoming more and more vital to expand our definition of learning to include paperless forms of information. I can learn a new skill from watching a You Tube tutorial faster than I can find a printed version of the same instruction. And I have. Learning is learning, no matter what the source — it’s not cheating, just because I didn’t learn it from an over-priced, hardback book. A very old but very worthy book that libraries no longer stock can be downloaded as an eBook faster than I can say “for free.” An elderly neighbor can tell personal stories from World War II that will never be written in books, because he was there and lived through it. A great musician no one knows can demonstrate techniques in an online video, reaching students he will never meet. Learning is learning, no matter what the source.

Play games. Board games are an under-appreciated educational resource. If the game isn’t fun, find a better way to play it: drop the score-keeping, loosen up the rules a bit, or add three extra dice to get you around the board faster. Invent your own “house rules” for certain games, such as “Jabberwocky Scrabble,” where any nonsense word is allowed as long as the player can pronounce it and make up a reasonably-acceptable (and probably hysterical) definition for it. Create  “Slumlord Monopoly” by letting each player roll the dice to determine how many properties he can pick from the deck and roll again to see how many houses he can put on them for free, before normal game play begins. Put a simple jigsaw puzzle together upside-down, placing all the pieces face-down on the table. Players will be forced to rely on the shapes of the pieces alone, improving their visual skills.

My kids quickly learned that if they could spend a break playing games together without squabbling, they got to stretch that break into a longer time period — but a frivolous argument would land them right back at the school table for structured lessons. They became very adept at figuring out the rules, solving disputes… and getting along. I called that a Win in every column: they became good problem solvers, they learned how to teach themselves, and mom got more time with fewer interruptions. The lessons still got done, sometimes more quickly because of the lessons learned while playing games: reading the instructions, critical thinking, math practice, and so on. Kids view playing games as just playing, not learning, but the savvy mom knows what lessons are being learned through the playing!

Step Four, schools and colleges create their own special-interest classes, and so can you! Use a child’s unique interest as a mini-class that cuts through the twaddle and gives him a boost in learning something he really enjoys. Maybe Penelope is begging to raise rabbits. Encourage her to do some extensive research first, to guarantee her success, then suggest she enter her future bunnies in the county fair, ensuring her diligence. Stewart wants another bookcase in his bedroom, but he never gets enough time after lessons for woodworking — so turn the project into a lesson by challenging him to design the bookcase, double-check the measurements for accuracy, visit the lumberyard to note the cost of all materials and compare them to the cost of a ready-made bookcase of similar size and quality. His completed bookcase might also make it to the fair, along with the photos of him proudly doing every step. Victoria is bored with her history book, but is intrigued by Abraham Lincoln. Let her have some time away from the traditional books to read his speeches and letters and a biography or two. Listen as she recounts every interesting tidbit, because those are much more exciting than any stuffy book report ever written.


The key to surviving the mid-year slump is to change your methods enough to put the focus back on the learning and not get bogged down in the tedium of the methods themselves. Some families may only need a one-day break from the normal routine; others may need a full week or two of refreshing change; still others may decide to scrap their former routines altogether and adopt the completely new approach as a routine-less routine. The choice is yours, and you’ll know what you want when it starts to work.

See these articles for more slump-busting ideas:

10 Ways to Ease into Homeschooling (great for getting started again after a long break, whether from holidays or illness)

Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup

Redeeming a Disaster Day 

How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive 

Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

Mundanes, Too-days, & Woe-is-me-days

Knowing How to Find the Answer Is the Same as Knowing the Answer 

Troublesome Students

Disrespectful Kids 

Stuck in a Homeschool Rut? 

Workshop Wednesday: Money Land Game

I absolutely love to teach with games. Playing a game transitions a lesson concept from tedious drill to fun and… well, games. My kids might have balked at the idea of doing yet another set of math problems, but they would voluntarily play board games using money, which required the same adding and subtracting as the math problems — only they could do the money problems aloud or in their heads while handling all those tactile game parts, instead of writing them on paper. The ability to do math in your head is a distinct advantage in life, so I encouraged my kids to play money games as often as possible, but they didn’t need much encouragement at all. They loved to play board games of all types, and games with money were a distinct favorite.

I also believe in borrowing equipment from games and combining those components to create a new game or a new variation of an old game. This is how we got here today, coming up with a new variation of an old game (Candy Land) that often falls into disuse once its players begin to read and move on to more complex games. By adding the math component of money, the Candy Land game once again appeals to older students, and with several variations that increase the complexity of the money transactions, this game can help students of all ages hone their mental math skills in a very stealthy way. Every turn provides all players with opportunities to improve their math skills, whether to avoid paying fines or to catch another player in a mistake and collect a fine from him. Winning the game is highly dependent on chance, giving all players an equal playing field. (Notice that the fines are not intended as meanness, they are simply incentive to pay attention during other players’ turns and to make players aware that they are doing their own math correctly. The fines also provide another way for an alert player to make money.  The fines are intended as a sporting challenge, not a way to make fun of other players. Fines may also be optional — see Fines section below.)


Basic Version #1 — Use the game board, cards, and pawns from a regular Candy Land game, but include the money from Monopoly, Monopoly Junior, or any other source. Begin a money “pot,” by placing $5 (in any combination of bills) on the Home Sweet Home area of the Candy Land game board, and give each player a total of $50 in bills of various denominations. Players do not all need to have the exact same denominations of bills, as long as they all start with the same total. (Suggested amounts for each player — standard denominations: 10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 2 $10’s; Monopoly Junior denominations: 6 $1’s, 5 $2’s, 4 $3’s, 3 $4’s, 2 $5’s) Any leftover bills should be set aside and not used.

Assign the following number values to the Candy Land color cards, based on the colors of the Candy Land game board:

  • Purple square = $1
  • Blue square = $2
  • Green square = $3
  • Yellow square = $4
  • Orange square = $5
  • Red square = $6

Place the shuffled stack of cards face-down near the starting square. Play begins with the oldest player and proceeds to his left. Each player in turn draws a Candy Land card and moves his pawn to the nearest square of that color as in a normal game, but when his pawn lands on the square, he must pay the corresponding amount listed above into the Home Sweet Home pot. (The Rainbow Trail and Mountain Pass shortcuts have no significance in this game and are not used.)

Special Plays: 

Doubles card — Player moves to the appropriate square and collects an amount of money from the pot that is equal to double the dollar value of his color square (Example: a double-red card = $12). The player may then take a bonus turn.

Sweet Treat card — Player moves to the appropriate square, collects all the money in the pot, and takes a bonus turn.

There is no limit to how many Doubles and/or Sweet Treat cards may be drawn in succession by a single player, as long as the pot contains sufficient funds. However, if the pot does not contain enough money when a player draws a card that would allow him to collect more, that player collects all the money available in the pot, his turn ends, and play moves to the next player. If there is no money in the pot, the player’s turn ends, and he does not move his pawn.

Sticky Spot– A player whose pawn lands on a Sticky Spot must pay double the amount for its color, but may move on his next turn (he is not required to remain on that square until the appropriate color card is drawn). No bonus turn is awarded. In the rare event that a player draws a Doubles card that lands him on a Sticky Spot, no money is either paid or collected, and the player’s turn ends.

Fines —  If a player either pays or collects an incorrect amount of money, or pays when he should be collecting, or collects when he should be paying, any other player who notices this mistake may point it out at the end of the player’s turn, before the next player has drawn his card. In the case of a player who has earned a bonus turn, the mistake must be pointed out before the next card is drawn. In each case, the player who made the mistake must correct the amount AND pay a $5 fine to the player who pointed it out. If a player catches himself in a mistake and corrects it before the next card is drawn, no fine is required. (Fines may be considered optional, especially when young players are just beginning to learn math facts.  The fines can also be imposed by much younger players against more experienced players, and not vice versa, depending on the skill levels involved.)

Players who need to do so may make change from the pot in order to obtain the correct amount required for their turn. (Example: A player owing $8 to the pot may pay with a $10 bill and remove $2.) A player may also trade a large bill to another player in exchange for an equivalent amount of smaller bills, if the pot does not contain a sufficient amount for exchange.

If a player’s pawn lands on an occupied space, the other player’s pawn is moved backwards to the nearest empty space. The owner of the moved pawn does not pay or collect any money because his pawn was moved.

If the stack of cards runs out before the game has been won, the stack should be shuffled well and turned over to start again.


1) he has drawn a card, moved his pawn to the appropriate square, and paid the correct amount into the pot, OR

2) he has met condition #1 as a bonus turn, following a Doubles card or Sweet Treat card, OR

3) he has collected less than what was owed to him from the pot, because it didn’t contain enough money, OR

4) he pays all of his remaining money into the pot. Any player who runs out of money during the game is out for the remainder of the game.


1) one player ends up with all the money, OR

2) the game is down to the final 2 players and one is eliminated by running out of money, OR

3) one player reaches Home Sweet Home and collects any money remaining in the pot.  Home Sweet Home is considered to be located anywhere after the final square of the trail (no exact count is needed). A player whose pawn lands on the final square is not considered to have reached Home Sweet Home until his next turn, provided he draws any color card and not a Sweet Treat card that would send him back to another location on the trail.

Winning — Winner is the player with the most money at the end of the game.

Basic Version #2 (Dice-Addition) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will add the number on the die to the card’s dollar value. The rest of the rules apply as above, with the only change being the amount of money paid or collected on each turn. Each player rolls the die in addition to drawing a card, and alters the dollar value of the card according to the die. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is added to the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $12 + 4 on the die, collect $16).


Advanced Version #1 — Play proceeds as in Basic Version #1, but players receive a starting total of $200 (Suggested amounts for each player: 10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 3 $10’s, 2 $20’s, 2 $50’s). The starting pot is increased to $20, and Fines are also increased to $20 each. The dollar value of each square changes as follows:

  • Purple square = $1
  • Blue square = $4
  • Green square = $8
  • Yellow square = $12
  • Orange square = $16
  • Red square = $20

Advanced Version #2 (Dice/Addition) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will add the number on the die to the card’s dollar value. Play proceeds as Basic Version #2 (Dice-Addition), but increases the starting value of the cards to Advanced Version #1 levels before adding the number shown on the game die. Pencil and paper may be used for calculating correct values. Starting pot is increased to $100, and each player’s starting total of cash is increased to $500 (10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 7 $10’s, 5 $20’s, 4 $50’s, and 1 $100’s). Fines are also increased to $100 each. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is added to the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $40 + 4 on the die, collect $44).

Advanced Version #3 (Dice/Multiplication) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will multiply the number on the die times the card’s dollar value. Play proceeds as Advanced Version #2 (Dice-Addition), with the only change being the amount of money paid or collected on each turn. Pencil and paper may be used for calculating correct values. Starting pot is $100, Fines are $100 each, and each player’s starting total of cash is $500. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is multiplied times the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $40 x 4 on the die, collect $160).

Advanced players may choose to play subsequent games, continuing with the cash accumulated from previous games (instead of re-counting to starting cash amounts). In this case, no cash is placed on Home Sweet Home as a starting pot. Each subsequent game is started by the next player to the left of the one who began the previous game. Very advanced players may choose to add more than one die to Advanced Versions #2 & 3.

© 2013 Carolyn Morrison. These rules may be printed for personal use or shared for free, but these game concepts and their rules may not be reproduced for sale. This copyright restriction must appear on any printed copies.

Workshop Wednesday: Beanbags (No-Sew DIY)

Who has a child who can’t focus on anything while sitting in a chair? Who has a child who loves playing games and sports, but hates worksheets and written assignments? Who has a child who tries to make everything into an exhibition of physical abilities? You’re in luck! Let us help with some great ideas using beanbags that will enthuse your kinesthetic learner and keep him doing these learning activities on his own while you sneak in a coffee break!

Those energetic students are kinesthetic learners who need to move to be able to learn. Their brains don’t fully wake up and begin to learn until their arms and legs get moving, so these beanbag activities are ideal for getting them involved, holding their attention, and helping them remember what they’re learning.

Inexpensive, no-sew beanbags can be made quickly from discarded socks (no holes or thin spots) by cutting them to an appropriate size and pouring in dry beans or uncooked rice. Tie the ends shut tightly with string, yarn, or plastic zip-ties (trim the ends with scissors), leaving each beanbag about two-thirds full, so that the contents have room to slide around—if filled too full, the bag will be more likely to burst when it lands. Aquarium gravel is a suitable waterproof filler, just in case your beanbags are likely to get left outside in the rain.

What can you do with all the wonderful beanbags you’ll create from your orphan sock stash? Use them for “throwing stones” for hopscotch (and all its variations), whether playing on the sidewalk, driveway, or patio. For indoor activities, hopscotch grids can be drawn with permanent markers onto an old bed sheet or tablecloth, but please use caution when using a cloth on hard surfaces to avoid slipping.

Learning Activities with Beanbags

Matching — If your clothes dryer has given you an abundance of sock orphans, you can mark them with letters or numbers for some preschooler’s matching activities.

ABC’s — Toss a beanbag onto a jumbo ABC-grid and make the sound of the letter selected. Older students may say a word that is spelled with that letter (beginning, ending, etc. your choice). A bigger challenge is to toss two or more beanbags onto the ABC-grid and think of a word that uses all of them.

1-Sentence Stories — Lay out word cards on the floor (sticky notes will stay in place), toss beanbags onto several words, and create a one-sentence story that includes the words selected.

Hopscotch Variations — Make a parts-of-speech hopscotch grid and play the standard hopscotch game with the rules for numbers, but have players give an example of the part of speech selected, such as saying “ticklish” when picking up the beanbag from the adjective section, “skeleton” for a noun, or “angrily” for an adverb. This method can be varied for other subjects, too, such as naming the sections Nations, States, Cities, Lakes, Rivers, and so on for geography. Students would then have to name an appropriate geographical feature.

Math Symbols — Mark some beanbags with math operation symbols and toss them onto a jumbo 100-grid for instant math problems. Throw an unmarked beanbag onto a random square for a starting number, then draw a random operation-symbol beanbag from a sack or pillowcase and toss it onto another square, using that number for the designated operation. Repeat as long as your supply of beanbags lasts. Pencil and paper may be used to assist in calculations, but careful aim and an accurate toss may be the most help.

Target Practice — Use laundry baskets or cardboard boxes for target practice to improve eye-to-hand coordination and tossing skills (just don’t hit the lamp!).

Juggle — Learn to juggle!

These beanbags are quick to make and will add hours of fun to indoor or outdoor playtime, and they are a great way to make lessons kinesthetic for your active students!

See also:

Hopscotch, a Powerful Learning Game

100-Grids & Flashcard Bingo

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Kinesthetic Learners