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.

Reading
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.

Handwriting
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.

Arithmetic
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.

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