Workshop Wednesday: Building Blocks for Success in Spelling

Spelling, like math, is a subject that requires several foundational skills learned in sequential order, as shown in the diagram, beginning at the bottom and building up, one skill upon another. No one is born knowing how to spell correctly, but the individual steps to spelling proficiency can be somewhat tricky to identify by those who have already been reading for many years.

Skill #1 is the first building block: learning to recognize letters both by their names and by the sounds they represent. Since vowels can represent multiple sounds, depending on their combination with other letters, it is simplest to use their names and the short vowel sounds during the recognition phase. I preferred to teach my children upper case letters first, since that provides fewer opportunities for reversals (such as confusing b and d). Once the child knows the upper case alphabet well, the lower case letters can be introduced as the “little brothers” of the first set. Pairing the big brothers and little brothers together also helps avoid reversals, even when they don’t look that much alike—because kids easily understand the concept of siblings who belong together but aren’t identical.

Skill #2 is vital: correct pronunciation of each letter sound, leading to correct pronunciation of words as reading begins. A child must hear and speak the sounds correctly to be able to match those sounds to the appropriate letters. Some children may have already formed bad habits of mispronouncing certain sounds as toddlers (for example: difficulty with l’s, r’s, or w’s, lisping with a th-sound instead of an s, or dropping the initial s from sc-, sl- or sw-blends), but the visual application of learning the letters that represent those sounds can help straighten out the mistakes. However, if family members mimic the youngster’s incorrect pronunciation habits on a routine basis, confusion will follow, since the child who is learning to read won’t know which sound is correct! Take the time to instruct the child slowly and thoroughly so that he can learn to make the sounds properly. It is much better to learn correct methods in the loving security of home and family than to continue incorrect, juvenile habits into adulthood. Elmer Fudd’s manner of speaking may have been funny in cartoons, but if Elmer had been an actual person, his speech may have caused him to be taken less seriously in real life. Some local dialects can also twist the pronunciations of words away from their actual spellings, which is why television news reporters are encouraged to minimize regional forms of speech and learn to speak without a local accent.

Skill #3 consists of learning common patterns of letter combinations and the sounds made those combinations, known collectively as phonics. This level includes many different phonics patterns, from long and short vowels to vowel blends, consonant blends, and digraphs (the new sounds created by certain combinations, such as ch, ph, sh, th, and wh). Silent letters add another twist, but those are usually predictable, since they occur within specific combinations. (The ABC’s and All Their Tricks  is a wonderful reference book, explaining the origins of spelling patterns, giving examples of words using each pattern, and answering the spelling questions that had stumped my teachers throughout my education.)

Skill #4 comes after the phonics patterns are mastered: syllable division is the next logical skill to achieve. Knowing how words separate into predictable syllables helps the student tackle new, longer words and get the pronunciation correct, usually on the first try.

The #5 building block skill for spelling success is learning prefixes and suffixes and being able to recognize them from the root word. We kept our large dictionary handy that showed the meanings of the individual components of each word—a fascinating study. My students loved compiling lists of words that were all based on a common root and seeing how the prefixes related to the words’ definitions—instruct, destruct, construct, etc. We played the Rummy Roots card games to learn common Greek and Latin roots that have become part of our everyday vocabulary. The mastery of roots, prefixes, suffixes, and other syllables was proven by accurately reading the list of chemical ingredients on a shampoo bottle!

As my children conquered each of these skills, I encouraged them to “hear the sounds in order” in each spoken word, so they could then write those sounds in the correct order for accurate spelling. It takes careful listening to spell words correctly, and the visual skills attained through these building blocks will work together with the sounds heard to achieve success.

See also:
ABC Flashcards
Letter and Number Recognition
What Is the Missing Element?
When Children Mispronounce Words
A New Approach to Spelling-Word Lists

Workshop Wednesday: Take It Outside!

Homeschooling does not have to mean exclusively house-schooling. When the weather is favorable, taking a lesson outdoors can revitalize learning, whether you take a nature walk around the neighborhood, sit on a blanket for read-aloud time, or do worksheets at the patio table.

When my kids were old enough and responsible enough to complete an assignment on their own, I rewarded them with the privilege of taking a lesson away from the school table and doing it elsewhere. Sometimes they took work to their bedrooms, but one location my daughter loved was her “reading ledge.” She had asked Dad to use a couple of extra boards to build a shelf in the corner of the fence in our backyard. It’s just the right size for a child to sit and read a while, nestled into the corner, listening to the birds and squirrels and the occasional car pulling up in the neighbor’s driveway. Notice that my husband also added a slim “step” board, about halfway between the ledge and the ground, for just the right amount of a boost to climb up onto the ledge.

For a few years, we had a tree-house in another part of the yard—more of a platform up in a tree, but there were a few boards attached to the trunk for steps, and it was high enough to give a lofty view of the neighboring yards. The kids would climb up there with a book to read or a math lesson to work on, and they were transported from just another homeschool day to the Swiss Family Robinson’s island.

Even a child who is not thrilled about reading can suddenly find it an enjoyable activity when it takes place in a unique environment: inside a tent, under a shady tree, in a make-shift clubhouse in the attic of the garage, or anywhere else out of the ordinary “school” locale. Whether reading for pleasure or reading an assigned passage in a textbook, whether writing a short essay or writing out math problems, taking the lesson outdoors can free the mind to think deeper thoughts and understand greater concepts just because the realm of ideas is not limited within four walls and a solid ceiling. The sounds of birds, leaves, wind, and other ambient noises can actually stimulate more thoughts than a quiet room. Yes, sometimes those thoughts may be slightly “off topic,” but that freedom is why we chose homeschooling in the first place. And there is always the bonus of new lesson ideas that come from time spent in nature: studying the busy-ness of an anthill, learning the names of all those parts of flowers, discovering that bees won’t notice anyone watching them while they work at collecting pollen from every blossom on an apple tree, focusing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass to burn your initials into a piece of scrap wood, and seeing who can bite into the first stalk of spring rhubarb without puckering.

Ready for some learning style applications? A kinesthetic student may be more prone to reading when his surroundings require him to balance or brace himself against the tree limbs or fence corner or while swaying a swing. A tactile child may enjoy the feel of the grass on his fingers and toes, the leaves brushing against his face or between his fingers, or feeling the smooth rocks he chose to use as a bookmark or paperweight while reading his book in the breeze.  The visual learner may appreciate reading his biology textbook in the tree-house because he can look around the neighborhood from his lofty perch and see if he can glimpse an elm, an eagle, or imagine he can see the photosynthesis of the sun on leaves as it happens.  An auditory child may find that the songs of the birds help him to concentrate on his math problems because his ears aren’t busy wondering what his siblings are up to at the moment, or that the music from the radio of the neighbor working on his car will help to remind him of the correct formula when he needs to recall it later.

Homeschooling does not have to mean exclusively house-schooling, and life does not take place between the pages of a workbook. When the weather cooperates, take your homeschooling outside and meet life face to face.

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

A GFHS reader wrote to me, concerned about her student’s lack of interest in doing homeschool lessons, although he showed a wide capacity for learning and retaining facts about sports. The mom was frustrated as to how to get any actual lessons accomplished, since their days were an endless series of disagreements and strife. This is when out-of-the-box thinking can really pay off. Taking the lessons out of the box and away from the textbooks can make a huge difference and ignite the spark of learning in a “reluctant” learner such as this student. The examples given here will relate to football (this particular child’s passion), but you can easily adapt these ideas to wherever your students’ interests lie.

When a child is keenly interested in football or other sports, that can be used as an “in” for other subjects. For instance, put a map of the USA on a bulletin board and have him stick a pin in the approximate places where his favorite NFL players were born. Then have him place another pin in the city where each player went to college and connect the two pins for each player with a piece of yarn. Suddenly he’ll be up to his elbows in a fascinating research project and geography lesson that doesn’t feel like schoolwork to him at all!

Take this in a slightly different direction by challenging him to do some research on the NFL teams, making a chart showing when each team was founded, where it began, and if or where it has moved. Have some of the teams’ names or colors or mascots changed throughout the years? Now he’s found a history lesson that he can really enjoy! Give him more pins for the map (and a different color of yarn) to show the movements of the teams. A little more research can reveal what important world events coincided with significant team events or crucial games for more history, this time linking football to other events. Find inventions or products that were introduced during the years that match up to his favorite events regarding games, teams, or players, and that can bring in some science lessons. Look at how football uniforms, pads, helmets, and other equipment have changed over the years and why for some more science and history.

Challenge him to research the backgrounds of a few favorite players and write “color commentary” that could be used by a sportscaster, and you’ll have a writing assignment he’ll be eager to do! Challenge him to write his own sports “column” or read and critique the sports columns or blogs by professional sports writers, and he’ll have reading material, comprehension studies, and analytical writing assignments that hold his interest. To round out the language arts lessons, focus on his content first, then work on helping him correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar — always examining the rules for each change, not just criticizing his writing without reasons. He may even learn to spot spelling and grammar errors in the professionals’ columns for an important lesson in why accuracy matters!

Players’ statistics can be analyzed for some practical, real-life applications in math. Calculate the total yards of passing or rushing, the percentage of completed passes, or how a player’s averages have improved or declined over his career. Math practice is math practice, regardless of whether it uses random problems on a worksheet or real-life statistics. When the real-life applications mean something to the student, he will have motivation to complete the work. Learning one fact will spur curiosity to learn more facts, and before long, the student will be knee-deep in new information and hungry for more.

The homeschooling mom mentioned earlier took this advice and began adapting lessons to her son’s interest in football. When his curriculum focused on poetry, they searched the internet for poems about football—and were delighted with their results. One poem prompted a discussion, which led to further studies and more topics. This simple substitution transformed a struggle over a single, uninteresting lesson into a day filled with curiosity, researching, exploring, and learning.

Lessons that are based on real-life interests will combine several academic subjects all at once, rather than following the institutional school model of working on each individual subject for forty minutes before switching to the next unrelated subject for the next forty-minute period. Your student can research a given topic, study and analyze the reading material, pursue more research as to the geography, science, or history related to the topic, perform some math calculations to gain better understanding of the data, create a timeline of events, and express his conclusions and personal opinions in a variety of formats. The analysis of the information is conveyed, whether it takes on the form of a formal essay, a news story, editorial column, a poem, song, or rap, or even a personal journal entry. My own student who was reluctant to read assigned stories outside his field of interest became a voracious reader when the subject matter fed his curiosity. (How many adults would waste valuable time reading things in which they have no interest?) Adapting lessons to your students’ interests teaches those students how to learn from every facet of life and sets them firmly on the path to life-long learning.

See also:
The Value of Supplemental Activities
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson
How Can I Teach Out-of-the-Box Thinking?
Is Learning Limited to Books?
Every Day Is a Learning Day, and Life Is Our Classroom

From the Mailbox: Read-Aloud Disruptions

This is part of a series of articles based on actual questions I have received and my replies to them. Real names will not be used, and I will address my responses to a generic “Mom”; if you are a homeschooling Dad, the advice can usually be applied to you as well. The wording will be altered from the original letters (and often assembled from multiple letters) and personal details will be omitted or disguised in order to protect the privacy of the writers while still maintaining the spirit of the question. If you have a specific homeschooling question that you would like me to address, please write to me at If part of your letter is used in an article, your identity will be concealed.

Dear Carolyn,
I am the HS mother of several children, with only two old enough for school. I really want to improve on reading aloud to my kids. They do okay with picture books, aside from the jockeying for position on Mom’s lap and crying about whether or not they can see the pictures well enough, but chapter books just don’t hold their interest. The kids are fighting, playing (loudly), leaving the room, and otherwise ignoring my attempt to read to them these wonderful books that I so enjoy. I am trying to pick age/gender appropriate books. Help! Do you have any suggestions? I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for them to be “ready” for chapter books. Should I have to discipline them into good behavior for listening to a good book? This seems to defeat the purpose for me–I want them to enjoy it! Do I have to wait for them to be older still? My oldest is very hands on, active, etc., and he tends to lead the behavior of the others (for the worst).

“Discipline,” meaning punishment, is probably not required, but “discipline” — by its definition of training — is definitely in order. This will be a fundamental learning experience for your children: your goal is not merely to read them a book, your goal is teaching your children how to listen and how to show respect.

Your older children can learn to enjoy longer stories, but the youngest ones will not be able to sit still for very long or comprehend the extended plot of a longer story. You may need to do read-aloud time when the youngest ones are napping, just to limit disruptions until the older children begin to understand what behavior you want them to exhibit.

Very few people (adults included) are able to sit absolutely still and listen with strict attention for more than a few minutes. Work with your oldest child’s hands-on needs and allow the children to color, paint, play with clay or Play-Doh, or build with Lego’s while you read to them. As long as they have a quiet activity, they can still hear you reading, and they will probably listen for a longer period of time if their hands are kept busy. The preschoolers might do wood or foam puzzles or lacing cards — I am sure you will come up with several ideas from your stash of toys and art materials. It is also a good idea for each child to have his own activity, to prevent squabbles over “I need that piece” during the story. You might also consider designating certain playthings for story-time only, making them more special and keeping the children from becoming bored with them.

Since your children’s behavior has not met your expectations up to this point, consider starting over by laying some ground rules. Allow each child to pick a quiet activity while you spread a bath towel on the floor for each child to sit on. Leave enough space between the towels so that the children will not be elbow-to-elbow. Explain to them that their towel is their personal space while Mom is reading the story, and they are to remain within its boundaries during story-time. Assure them that today’s story has no pictures (or that you will let each child see the pictures in turn), that each of them will be able to hear well from his space, and that, since each child’s arms and legs must remain within his towel-space, no one will be disturbing anyone else. Limit the interruptions by giving each child a chance to get a drink, go potty, and “get the wiggles out” before they all take their places for story-time.

Start this new routine of “personal space” with a short reading time from a book that the children already enjoy (especially the oldest “ringleader”). If anyone disrupts the story, you may allow one or two warnings on the first day as practice, but close the book at the next infraction. Stop reading and put the book, toys, and towels away for the day. It may take several days for them to adapt to the new routine, but your persistence will pay off, and they will gradually learn that leaving their space means that the reading time comes to an abrupt end for everyone.

Once the children have mastered the lesson of staying within their own spaces to listen, you may want to allow the older ones to change their space from a towel on the floor to a seat at the table, allowing them to do a wider variety of quiet activities during the reading. The older children may even be able to work together on a jigsaw puzzle while you read. However, your toddlers may take longer to understand the “space” limitations, so do not advance the older students too quickly, before the younger children are able to understand the purpose behind the concept.

Bit by bit, your children will learn how to sit quietly, how to listen, and how to respect their siblings. Start with a short reading time, and increase it gradually as a reward to your children for their improved behavior. Minor setbacks are temporary: remember that your children are practicing a new skill. Above all else, praise your children for their accomplishments!

[For further insight, see the articles linked below]
Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?
“Parent” Is a Verb
Respect Must Be Earned
Siblings as Best Friends
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson
Social Skills — What Should I Teach My Preschooler?

When Is Reading NOT Reading?

The high school senior was asked to read a portion from the Bible during his Sunday School class. He struggled painfully over nearly every word. His efforts were so halting and disjointed that no one could follow the context of the passage easily. A girl seated next to him followed along in her own Bible, helping him with most of the words. The truly appalling part of this story is not that the twelfth grade student could not read fluently, but that no one in the room seemed to think it was at all unusual to have such difficulty in reading aloud. This young man, who was well known at school and considered a popular classmate and a “good” student, was probably reading at around a 2nd grade level. And none of his classmates in the room was alarmed by his performance.

The techniques that were used to teach reading when my daughter was in public school included identifying words by their unique shapes. “Does the word start with a letter that is taller than the others? Does the word end with a letter that dangles down below the others? Does the word have a roundish letter in the middle? That word is boy.” (Unless the word happens to be dog. Or toy. Hmmm. It could even be log.) Pictorial clues were also used to help identify words: “Let’s look at the picture in the storybook and guess which word fits best in the sentence. Yes, it must be boy. See that little guy sitting on a fallen tree trunk, holding a stuffed cloth puppy? This story is about him, so the word is definitely boy.” (Or not. If you missed the irony in my example, go back and read it again.) My daughter can still testify to the indoctrination of “identifying” words by only a few letters: she recently glanced at a price tag, bearing the code R8052CY, and mistook it for the word “Regency.”

When confusion over the correct word sets in, the popular instruction in today’s classrooms encourages students to think of words that start with the sound of the first letter or two in the word, again guessing a word they are familiar with that will fit with the rest of the sentence or story. I cannot judge your reading ability or your vocabulary, but I know that I occasionally find unfamiliar words in things that I read — now — today. How can a beginning reader be expected to know what all words will look like even before he can read them?

As you may suspect, children who have been taught to “read” using this shape-guessing technique do not become fluent readers. They do not enjoy reading. They cannot read quickly. They do not like to read aloud and, when forced to read aloud, do so slowly and without confidence. They are never quite sure if the letter is a b or a d or if it is a q or a p or a g. Ch- can make several sounds — how will they know which one to use? And do not even bring up a word containing -ough! These students are quickly labeled “dyslexic” and told that they have confusion over letter placements within words, but they are seldom given any instruction for how to overcome this difficulty. These students have little comprehension of what they read: they cannot understand what they read, so they also cannot remember what they read. Is it any wonder that they do poorly in school? Some who act out their frustrations at the inconsistency in their abilities are further labeled ADD, ADHD, and other multi-letter classifications which entitle the school to receive additional funding. And yet the funding does not translate into more efficient teaching methods.

So when is reading not reading? Obviously, the examples given above are not reading — they are guessing. To read, a person must recognize each letter, the sound it makes, and how it acts in combinations with other letters. Letters must be read as their sounds and not as their names, and the sounds of the letters must be read in the order that they appear within the word. Certain combinations of letters appear over and over again in various words, forming patterns. Phonics is the study of the sounds made by those letter combinations and patterns. Guessing at the visual shapes of words has nothing whatsoever to do with the sounds of letters. My daughter had been terribly confused by the difference between letter names and letter sounds: she thought they were interchangeable, since her school readily accepted her spelling of words such as “invite” as n-v-i-t. Incidentally, the “sight reading” method was invented as a way to teach deaf children to read — children who had no ability to sound out words. One would think that “professional” educators could recognize it as a “last resort” method for children who can hear, being far inferior to reading by sounds.

Phonics instruction includes the rules for breaking words into their syllables. (Lesson #1 being that a syllable must have at least one vowel; a word with only one vowel can therefore be only one syllable. I recently had to pull out my trusty dictionary to prove to a skeptic that the word rhythm has only one syllable, since it contains only the single vowel y.) Recognizing individual syllables enables the student to read even long, complicated chemical names as a series of smaller word-parts making up the big word. Learning about prefixes and suffixes and root words as a part of phonics enables the student to separate syllables easily and to understand the meanings of the various parts of a multi-syllable word, bringing understanding along with the reading process. Phonics will successfully teach a student to read, and a student who understands phonics will be able to read any word placed before him. Any word. He may need to consult a dictionary for its exact meaning, but the phonetic reader can come close to the correct pronunciation.

An independent organization that evaluates the performance of various industries recently looked into the performance of the public schools in my state. What it found most surprising was that the “proficiency” standards for each grade level have been redefined. A student who is considered “proficient” for fourth grade only has to measure up to third grade standards. And the gap widens considerably with advancing grade levels, to the point that a graduating senior’s “proficiency” level is several years below what should be expected from a twelfth grade education. That could be compared to going to a store and attempting to purchase your items with a $20 bill and being told that your cash is really only worth $15 in spending power, inflation arguments aside. Regardless of the denomination printed on the currency (or the report card), reality lies far below the appearance. Most of us would be upset to learn that the “proficiency” standards of a new home were skewed to the point that when the builder says the house contains five bedrooms, he really means that it has only enough room for three people to sleep comfortably. I would not want to purchase a 12-pack of sodas and find that the box actually contained only eight cans. And yet, that is the same false advertising that is being accepted from the public schools. Proficient does not mean proficient, and reading does not mean reading.

The real tragedy here is that students are passing through school, not knowing how to read properly. (A young acquaintance recently commented that she “flunked tenth grade, but was still going on into eleventh.” How does that even happen?) These students are being led to believe that they are adequately prepared for college, where they will be expected to consume massive amounts of reading materials and retain that knowledge for future reference. A student who has mild to moderate difficulty reading a child’s storybook will have incredible difficulty digesting college-level texts at the commonly expected rate of one hundred pages per night. Is it any wonder that the average 4-year bachelor’s degree now takes at least five years to attain?

Parents, if you have chosen to homeschool your children, do not neglect a thorough study of phonics in your lesson plans. The time you devote to studying spelling patterns, syllable divisions, prefixes, suffixes, roots, and word origins will set your students apart from their peers and give them a tremendous boost toward independent learning for the rest of their lives. As my husband recently quipped, “Once you’re over 50, if you don’t know phonics, you can’t remember how to spell anything!”

How Did You Learn to Write?

The college professor handed out an in-class assignment to all of the students and then bent down near the two homeschooled students seated in the front row. Pushing their assignments aside, the professor huddled very close to them and spoke in a low voice of the type usually reserved for sharing state secrets. “How did you two learn to write?” she asked.

The two friends exchanged glances and tried to decide how to answer the unusual question. “We read a lot,” they both ventured.

“But how did you learn to write?” the professor continued, “No one else in this class can write — at least not like you two can. I know you were both homeschooled. What program did you use to learn how to write?”

The sixteen-year-old part-time college freshmen were also both still high school students at home, one a Junior and the other a Senior, and they knew that they had not actually used any specific writing curriculum. “We read a lot of books,” one repeated, “so we know what good writing should look like.” “And we learned grammar,” offered the other.

“But who evaluated your writing?” the professor kept probing.

Another glance was exchanged. “You mean… our… Moms?”

“That’s it? You read books, and that’s how you two learned to write like this? I rarely have a first-year student who can write a coherent sentence, and you two are telling me that your mothers taught you how to write this well by teaching you grammar? I am impressed!”

These two students revealed that they had learned by example: reading was their primary source for instruction in composition. Reading a variety of literature and learning the basics of grammar had set them apart from the rest of their English Composition I class and from the bulk of the students that this professor had encountered. The writing experiences of these homeschooled students prior to the college class had included writing a newspaper article and a short novel in group classes, but they had no previous exposure to analogy, comparison and contrast, or the other forms of composition introduced in this college class. Observation and imitation were their keys to success in writing: see an essay — write an essay. The quality of writing that had been observed through reading was easily reproduced in writing assignments.

My recommendation is to start your children out with phonics to teach them reading and basic spelling rules. Add in handwriting and let them practice copying anything and everything that interests them so that they can become confident in their own abilities to reproduce written material. Begin adding basic grammar rules once the students have mastered reading and add more complex rules as the students’ abilities increase. Regard vocabulary as an ever-expanding knowledge base, and use the dictionary daily to confirm suspected meanings, solidify pronunciations, and discover various word forms. Promote their consumption of all manner of reading materials, and discuss passages read to ensure comprehension of concepts and ideas, beyond mere words and sentences. Observation will lead to imitation, and the more they read, the better they will be able to imitate what they have read. Once the student has a broad background in reading a variety of materials, after he possesses a fairly substantial vocabulary, and when he has a solid foundation in grammar, then he can be expected to complete a writing assignment with proficiency.

I did not force writing assignments, such as book reports, journaling, or essays. In our past experiences, the public schools seemed to think that children should be composing stories even before they could spell simple words or form a sentence. The teachers there encouraged “creative” spelling, resulting in some rather curious inventions. If my students wanted to write something, I let them. However, with my students, that did not happen often. If ever. I did have them write thank-you notes when necessary, but that was about the extent of my imposed writing assignments. Grammar study was another story. I did insist on grammar lessons, along with lessons in fundamental spelling rules and proper use of punctuation. If you want to use a skill, you need the proper tools, and those rules are the tools needed for the skill of writing.

I did use a program during high school that taught how to read and analyze, a much-preferred alternative for us to the common creative writing programs for high school students. It was a 3-workbook set called The Elements of Clear Thinking and focused on effective communication and analyzing and revealing fallacies in reasoning. My students were not interested in writing fiction or poetry; they were much more focused on non-fiction, informational content, but not the dry reports or book reviews that usually require no critical thinking skills. The excerpts used in the Clear Thinking books came from authors, politicians, and world leaders, from magazines, newspapers, and biographies. What my students learned in those books prepared them for reading a wide variety of sources as required by their college classes and enabled them to organize their thoughts for writing logical arguments. (If you are interested in purchasing the Clear Thinking series for your high schooler, I highly recommend buying the answer keys as well.)

A student who can read fluently will be able to read a wide variety of literary forms and understand what he is reading. The more that student reads, the more that student will understand and retain about the proper structure of language. Grammar instruction will give the student opportunities to practice proper sentence construction without having to invent his own subject matter (creative writing uses entirely different skills from mere grammar practice). What the student has learned about the mechanics of written language and witnessed through first-hand observation of written language will be reproduced with proficiency. But I cannot promise that the college professors will not be baffled.



The Elements of Clear Thinking series has become a little tricky to find, so these links will show you what to look for:

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Accurate Communication

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Critical Reading

The Elements of Clear Thinking: Sound Reasoning

Note: My kids described some of the excerpts in these books as boring, confusing, or too intellectual, and I agreed. As a substitute for the more complicated passages, we went to the library and found long magazine articles covering topics that were more interesting (one article had to be at least 6 pages long for an amount of text comparable to the longest excerpt). The details are more fully explained in Kids Will Be Kids.

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.