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

If you are just beginning your homeschool journey with a Kindergarten student, you may be wondering how much to teach him (or her; I use “him” generically). Many Moms who are eager to homeschool are busily planning lessons far in advance for elaborate historical reenactments or highly involved scientific experiments. I have often advocated that families just beginning to homeschool their wee ones should focus on just the “Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic without worrying about supplemental subjects until the mid-elementary years. Incredulous teacher-moms let a gasp escape from their open mouths and ask me if I am serious. I am.

I am also assuming that you have not allowed the past five or so years to slip by in silent inactivity. I am assuming that you have read books to your child, colored pictures with your child, sung songs, made crafts, played with puzzles, gone shopping and baked cookies together, and had all manner of delightful experiences together. You have most likely already taught your child how to count to 10, print his name, tie his shoes, sing the ABC song, and identify the colors in a box of eight crayons. You taught these skills without even thinking about it being “formal education.”

Now that you are ready to tackle “school,” you may find yourself wondering if history should come in chronological or geographical order. I say wait on the history. Wait on the geography and the science, too. Wait until at least fourth grade before introducing these more complex subjects. Your child needs to have a foundation of learning skills to build his education upon. Those learning skills are what you need to teach first — now.

Teach the ABC’s, if your child does not already know them. Teach your child the sounds made by each letter, not merely the letter “names.” For example, the letter “H” makes a “hah” sound, which is not really apparent when you simply call it by its name. Once your student knows the basic sounds made by each letter, he can understand how to string those sounds together to form simple words. Phonics lessons (free, downloadable lessons are linked here) can help you start with a simple order and progress in a manner that is not confusing to your child. Small, short-vowel words are the typical starting point, since they have no silent letters or other complicated rules. After your child has begun to read simple, short-vowel words, he will be able to comprehend the complexities of silent letters, consonant blends, and diphthongs (the new sounds made by combining consonants, such as “th” and “sh”).

Do not over-simplify learning to read (from your child’s perspective, it is difficult), and do not become frustrated if your child does not catch on immediately. You have probably been reading for at least fifteen years, so you have likely forgotten what a stressful experience it can be if rushed. Take it slowly, allowing plenty of time for your student to grasp each step, and encourage him for each accomplishment. The confidence you instill at this stage will serve your child well as he tries to read each new word, page, chapter, and book. Readers are made, not born. A child who becomes discouraged while learning to read is not likely to become a bookworm. A few children are eager to learn to read at four years of age, but also a few children (most often boys) may have difficulty grasping the concepts until age seven, eight, or nine. If your child does not respond well, put the lessons aside and wait a couple of days, a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, then try again. When you teach at a pace which allows the student to fully understand each component before moving on, the student who is ready to learn will show quick results. (Remind yourself that one of the reasons why you chose to homeschool was this exact one of working at your student’s pace, not forcing your student to comply with a scheduled academic calendar.)

Once your child begins reading, continue to expand his reading ability through advanced phonics studies and vocabulary-building exercises. This is a good time to introduce the dictionary for any unfamiliar words he finds in his reading material. I preferred to teach this by example, looking up a word with my students at my side, showing them the entry, and briefly explaining it. After a few repeats of that, I switched to asking them to get the dictionary for me, and before long, they were flipping through its pages, racing to be the first to find the word. Handling the large dictionary was a privilege that instilled in my students a fondness and longing for the secrets of knowledge it held. I did not want them to view “look it up” as a punishment, so I made sure they saw me using the dictionary often for personal reference. (I also kept the dictionary on a bookshelf in the kitchen, since that was where we usually were when a question arose, and it helped to remove the stigma that can accompany large, imposing reference books.)

Encourage your young reader to explore a variety of subjects through reading and let trips to the library become adventures in exploration, but hold off on the formal lessons in other areas until he has a firm grasp on the basics of reading, handwriting, and arithmetic, usually around fourth grade. Allowing your student to read as much as he wants on a subject will only whet his appetite for more information, providing you with an eager student who is already learning how to teach himself.

Along with visual recognition of letters comes the child’s natural attempts to reproduce them, but do not expect shaky fingers to produce beautiful calligraphy with the first try. As with any other life-skill, practice is necessary to develop excellence. Once again, discouragement can be a confidence-killer, but the wise parent will praise every legitimate attempt to train those fine-motor muscles to accomplish this new task.

When my children were in public Kindergarten, it was a common practice of their educational establishment to have “mentors” visit from the older classrooms. Students from the third or fourth grades were paired with the youngest learners for the purpose of being scribes: the younger student dictated a story while the older student wrote it down. While that works well in theory, I felt it did not work well in practice; most adults cannot write (or even type) as quickly as someone can dictate. The activity was intended to link reading skills with handwriting skills, but often limited the imagination of the younger child’s mind to the note-taking ability of the older student and resulted in a story that the Kindergartner could not read for himself. I heard many youngsters proudly proclaim to their parents, “I wrote this story!” When the enthused parents asked, “What does it say?” the confused authors had to admit, “I don’t know,” because they could not read the words that had been written for them.

In my opinion, beginning students should have opportunities to practice handwriting that do not involve creating stories… yet. We allow children to learn to read each letter/sound before we teach them to string those letters/sounds together to be read as words. We teach them to put those words together into short, easy-to-read sentences before we assign entire books for reading. We provide them with many beginner books before we offer them their first chapter book to read. I think the same system should be applied to handwriting — copying many letters, and then words, and finally simple sentences to gain mastery of the physical skill of handwriting — before the brain-exercise of creative writing is added into the mix.

I remember taking one of my favorite storybooks as a child and copying word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page into my Big Chief tablet. It was not assigned homework; it was my own idea, in order to practice this new skill called handwriting. Thinking up an original story requires an entirely different set of skills than the ones needed to put that story onto paper. Attempting too many new skills at once can leave the student muddled in confusion.

Children need to have a solid understanding of number concepts before adding and subtracting will make sense to them. Most adults can quickly recognize the amount of money represented by an assortment of coins, but few five-year-olds have achieved that ability. Your Kindergartner will benefit from much practice in counting and sorting, learning to associate digits with their values. Once the basic concepts of 1-10 are mastered, the average child is ready to understand eleven, twelve, and so on, and the foundation is laid for understanding our numbering system based on units of ten. Carrying, borrowing, and even decimals are merely extensions of the basic unit of ten. Addition and subtraction are easily mastered by the child who fully understands number values.

Continuing practice and expanding the skill levels in each of these areas will fill the majority of your homeschool day. Obviously, the child working on these skills does not need to spend hours and hours at them each day. Most public school kindergartens operate for 2 1/2 to 3 hours each day, and large portions of that time are spent in recess, bathroom breaks, learning to stand in line, being reprimanded for talking out of turn, and the other necessities of large-group crowd control. It is common for a five-year-old child to complete a full day of homeschool classes in under an hour, and that time can be divided up into smaller blocks throughout the day, depending on the child’s attention span and the other needs of the household (for example, if Mom’s attention must be shared with an infant sibling).

No one would consider building a house by starting with the roof: the foundation must come first. So it is with education: learning to read is the foundation for education. That base must be securely in place before other things are attached to it. Reading is the visual recognition of language; handwriting is the physical application of that language. Understanding the values represented by numbers and using them to count are the equivalents of understanding the sounds represented by letters and using those letters to form words. Patiently wait until your child is reading fluently to add other formal academic studies, such as history, geography, and science. Help your child develop a love of reading first, and then let the pleasure of reading lead him into other areas. And, by all means, please continue to read books to your child, color pictures with your child, sing songs, make crafts, play with puzzles, go shopping and bake cookies together, and have all manner of delightful experiences together.

A New Approach to Spelling-Word Lists

I despise the way spelling is taught. I managed to get through the spelling workbooks that I had in school only because I was a word puzzle aficionado. When it came time to teach spelling to my own children, I became terribly frustrated. They did not instantly share my fascination for words or word puzzles. In fact, they found spelling workbooks to be very confusing and incredibly boring.

I remember spending hours as an early reader compiling my own lists of rhyming words and noticing that foot and boot appeared the same, but did not sound the same, which generated more lists. Writing all the possible combinations of certain sounds led me to a deep understanding of phonics rules and their applications. Exploration of prefixes and suffixes took me even further.

The public school method of test and retest used in the books we tried simply did not teach how to spell. Over the years, we abandoned the workbook pages and came up with our own methods for a spelling class. I emphasized prefixes, suffixes, Greek and Latin roots, and spelling patterns. Too often, the published spelling curricula grouped together words with nothing in common, ignoring the obvious patterns to be found.

I think that focusing on those patterns is an excellent way to learn spelling. Public school teachers have been told repeatedly in their college training classes that there are too many exceptions to too few rules. I disagree. I found a marvelous book called The ABC’s and All Their Tricks, which shows the patterns, the words sharing those patterns, and explains the origins of those patterns. It is a wonderful reference work — which finally explained to me how “w” can be used as a vowel.

Your lists of words can follow phonics rules or come from pre-prepared lists, such as the weekly lists found in spelling workbooks or from grade-level-specific lists. Another possibility for the avid reader is to compile his own list of unfamiliar words from his regular reading. Encourage your student to look up those words in the dictionary for origin, meaning, and pronunciation, and then incorporate them into your own customized spelling and vocabulary study program. My son expanded his own vocabulary by routinely browsing through the dictionary looking for new words.

My personal preference for learning a list of words would be to print out the chosen list (the time period for learning the words should be based upon your student’s ability) and post it in a prominent place where it will be seen multiple times throughout each day. Study the spelling patterns and then use repeated observation to cement the correct spelling into the brain. The student can use those words as the basis for exploring various art mediums: alphabet rubber stamps, calligraphy pens, or paper collage (cut and paste letters from newspapers and magazines). Bring out the letter tiles and cards from various table games and assemble all of the words from the current spelling list. If you have students who share my love of word puzzles (bless them!), challenge them to create their own puzzles — making the puzzles will teach much more than simply solving a puzzle will.

Daily observation can teach much more than we realize. Frank Gilbreth, the real-life father of Cheaper by the Dozen fame (stick with the book or 1950’s movie), painted information on the bathroom walls for his children to absorb while they performed their daily bathing and brushing rituals. After completing Morse code charts, Dad painted silly coded messages in various places around the house, fully expecting his children to translate them — and they did.

Repetition and drill by themselves are painfully boring, but when used creatively can become an enjoyable way to learn without wasting endless hours in rote memorization. Use what you have around your house and come up with clever new ways for your students to study the words they are learning.

Ignorance Is Not Forever

There are some things that I just take too personally. For instance, I recently heard about a woman whose now-adult son had been diagnosed as “Learning Disabled” all through his public school education. Despite her protests, despite her insistence on closer examination of the problem, he was dumped into LD classes and left there.

The root of the problem was that, as a boy, he had never learned to read. No teacher had ever taken the time to investigate why he had difficulty in class. Teachers repeatedly tested him year after year, always with the same result: he was at grade level and should be moved on to the next grade. When Mom’s persistence succeeded in inquiring as to how he was being tested (since the results strongly contradicted his at-home behavior), the current teacher confessed that her tests had been given to him orally. “He has so much trouble… it’s just easier to read it to him… reading it to him keeps him from becoming frustrated… ”

Now the boy is an adult, and the scene is being repeated with his child. The mom/grandmother is concerned that this time will have the same undesirable result. She was inquiring about homeschooling, probably wondering if it could rescue her grandchild, and whether it is too late for her son. As a former student of poor teachers myself and as the parent of a student whose early education was similarly neglected, I know first-hand some of the frustration these people are going through. Therefore, I tend to take these stories personally, flashing back to my own bad experiences. I find myself offended when students are purposely neglected, parents are intentionally ignored or pacified, and we are all expected to believe that this public education system is something sacred that should not be questioned. As Dorothy was instructed by The Great and Powerful Oz, we also are advised to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
If I were to purchase a car and drive it until it ran out of gas, would anyone think I was justified in calling the junkyard to come and get it because it no longer ran? Hardly! I would be laughed at as the new village idiot. Even a child could tell me I only need to buy more gasoline to make my car work. Yet, here we have a car (student) which has used up its supply of fuel (knowledge) and cannot proceed without more. However, rather than simply adding more fuel (knowledge) to the car (student), the chosen method of propulsion is to push the car manually to the next block (grade level) instead of enabling it to move under its own power.

Is it so difficult to teach a child to read? I did not think it was when I taught my children to read. Millions of children throughout history have been successfully taught to read, whether by “professional educators” or by their very own parents. Yet, we have here the unfortunate account of professionals too baffled by their own system to diagnose (correctly) a child who had not learned to read. This problem is easily remedied through homeschooling — avoid the “professionals” altogether and do it yourself, one on one. It is not too late for the man in the story above — he can still learn to read with an intensive phonics program and the assistance of a caring friend or family member, and he will probably learn this much more quickly as an adult than he would have as a child. Illiterate adults have conquered reading in as little as 3 weeks. His child should also be taught intensive phonics to avoid a repeat of his tragic scenario.

I once tried to discuss phonics-based reading programs with some local professional elementary educators, only to discover that we had words in common, but meant different things by them. They sincerely believed that using a few starting-letter sounds and contextual hints made their program “phonics.” Buzzwords, such as “decoding,” were used to lull curious parents into thinking their children were learning to break down words into syllables and letter patterns. Creative writing exercises were required of students who had not even conquered handwriting, again to persuade the unsuspecting parents that their children had a reasonable grasp of the reading-writing connection.

The evidence that reading has not been learned phonetically will show itself in the inability to spell. A person who understands how to break down a word into syllables will repeat those syllable-patterns when trying to spell a word. Fluent reading ability will also prove itself in composition: elegant sentence structure is easily mimicked. If you are reading good sentences, you will be able to write good sentences. A person who cannot read will not be able to spell consistently. A person who does not consume quality reading material will not be able to write well.

Perhaps I should pity the educational system that is pawning off such methods to future generations of teachers. I see it as a prime example of “the blind leading the blind” — those who do not understand are trying to give understanding to others. The contemporary axiom, “Ignorance can be fixed; stupid is forever,” has been altered: ignorance is no longer seen by them as being fixable. I am here to testify that ignorance is not a life sentence: ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge. Once a person has been taught the skill of reading, a world full of knowledge is there for the taking.

A Homeschool Success Story: Teaching a 5th Grader to Read

We had pulled our children out of public school with my daughter starting fifth grade and my son beginning first grade. My daughter had been taught to “read” with this farce: when you come to a word you do not know, think of a word that begins with the same sound as the first letter of the unknown word, and if it fits in the sentence, it is probably right. Wrong. As I evaluated her reading ability, I realized she was guessing at more words than she was reading — and guessing incorrectly. She would use most of the letter-sounds in a word, but pronounce them in random order, a process which could lead the unsuspecting to cry “Dyslexia!” But I knew better. She was a very bright child who had grown slower and more despondent with each year of public schooling. She caught on to activities done at home with lightning speed, but the formal education lessons just did not take.

I had learned to read in first grade through a very thorough phonics program and was teaching my young son phonics as well, so I quickly recognized that my dear daughter had not had the benefit of learning to “sound out” entire words, even though she obviously knew the letter sounds. Her government school had pushed reading activities, using the read-as-many-books-as-possible-this-month rallies. Whenever that came along, my daughter would go back through the little children’s storybooks we owned, rereading them year after year, instead of pursuing new reading material. Reading familiar things was obviously much easier and more comfortable for her than the effort involved in tackling anything new.

Trying desperately not to bruise the psyche of this sensitive 10-year-old, I suggested that perhaps we needed to expand her reading capabilities by teaching her a new method for discovering how to read unknown words. Our supervising teacher that year was a close friend and (coincidentally) special education teacher who recommended her favorite remedial phonics system — a 2-week “crash course” in phonics for older students. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the “special ed” kids eventually get taught phonics, but the “normal” ones never do?) Although I knew my daughter’s capabilities well enough not to suspect learning disabilities, I knew she needed help — and fast, before she got discouraged with homeschooling and a mom who corrected her whenever she read a word incorrectly. It was a complete shock to me at that time that she had gone so many years in public school without anyone noticing that she was not reading at grade level (in 5th grade, she was accurately reading only the words for 2nd grade level). That revelation was the point when whatever faith I had left in free government education went swirling down the drain.

I bought the recommended book (Mary Pecci’s At Last! A Reading Method for Every Child), took my daughter through the 2-week crash course, and then thought “Now what?” Seeing she needed more practice to reinforce her newly learned skills, I grabbed my son’s phonics book for a guide and wrote my own remedial phonics practice sheets for fifth grade “beginning” phonics. I made up word games and puzzles to make the lessons fun and yet challenging. After I felt she had gained enough skill and confidence (and could actually read big new words), I challenged her to go back to one of the books she had “read” several times and read it again, this time sounding out the difficult words. I was confident that she would see the change in how many words she had guessed at before, but I was not prepared for her response: “Mom, you ruined this story! It’s a whole different book now!” However, her emotion was based more in surprise than anger, because she also realized how poor her reading skills had been. She also saw that her newfound ability to break a word into syllables and sound them out meant that no word in the world was too difficult for her now. We pulled long words out of the dictionary and chemical names from shampoo labels and she correctly read them all. Her desire to read Little Golden Books was quickly transferred to long chapter books, and the bookshelves in her bedroom grew heavy with her expanding collection of favorites.

Once reading was no longer a struggle, her schoolwork became a challenge for me as I was pressed to keep up with her, checking her work and reading over her assignments. During Christmas break of her 7th grade year, she calmly asked if I had ordered her 8th grade English book yet. Baffled as to why she would care nine months early, I said that no, of course I had not ordered next year’s book yet — why would she ask such a silly question? Her reply left me speechless: “Because I just finished the 7th grade book and I’m ready to start the next one.” I ordered the book.

She continued at that pace, to graduate from high school ten days before her 17th birthday — sixteen years old, with 7 credit hours at the community college in chemistry and English composition. She has now graduated from a 4-year college with a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration — at age 20. Another day I will tell you about my son who just graduated from Homeschool High with 26 hours of college credits.