Maggie has some great ideas for giving your student’s writing a boost with a combination of project-based learning and community service.
Fix It! Grammar by IEW is a practical, no-frills elementary grammar program that competently covers the essentials.
As many as one in every five people may have some kind of dyslexia — here’s what you need to know to be an ally and advocate for dyslexic homeschoolers in your circles.
IEW’s Student Writing Intensive is a practical, step-by-step writing curriculum that works great for kids who think they hate writing.
Understanding the rules of grammar is great, but knowing how to put them to use is what is really important.
When early readers feel overwhelmed, there are practical things you can do in your homeschool to help them build their reading confidence.
When you use writing as a form of punishment, every writing assignment can make kids feel like they're in the homeschool version of detention.
Our culture needs the lessons of great literature like never before. In 2018, let’s resolve to elevate literature back to its position in the humanities.
A love of reading comes naturally for some kids and not-so-naturally for others, but you can do a lot to make your home a space where reading is an important part of everyday life.
Curate Book Baskets and Shelves
Especially for younger kids and reluctant readers, walking into a library or confronting a full bookshelf can be intimidating. A sparse bedroom shelf lined with books whose covers face out can help a child locate a book for independent reading time that matches up with that week’s interests. Curated book baskets are wonderful for giving kids choices within limits that help reading seem friendlier.
A few book basket ideas:
- Teething-friendly books for the youngest readers
- A selection of readers—any of which would work for your emergent or beginner reader’s current level
- Books about trucks, puppies, bugs, or ponies—whatever your child’s current interest
- A selection of books that fit bathroom reading criteria—books divided up into short selections that are funny or interesting (like comics)
- A basket of WWII historical fiction choices to complement WWII history study
Never Leave without a Book
Richard Larson, a professor who studies queueing theory at MIT, says that the average person spends a cumulative 1 to 2 years of life waiting in lines. Startling statistics aside, I think we can all agree that we spend lots of time waiting—waiting at the dentist, waiting for takeout food, waiting in the car for a train to pass. Sure, that time could be spent playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Facebook (or picking a fight with your sibling), but wouldn’t it be better spent reading? Make it a rule that everybody leaves the house with something to read.
Celebrate with a Bookstore Visit
You may think I’m a monster, but I told my kids at the outset that there is no Tooth Fairy. Of course, they still want to cash in on their discarded teeth, though, so I like to offer them a trip to the used bookstore instead of money. While we’re there, I’ll offer to pay for a few 75 cent readers of their choosing. There are a million little things in life that we celebrate as families. It’s wonderful to attach some of those small celebrations to books.
Institute the Weekly Library Visit
Make Library Day a thing that happens every week on the same day. Not only will regularity make it a valuable part of the routine, but it will also help you stay out of trouble with overdue fines.
Subscribe to Magazines
We adults get inundated with mail, but getting mail is so special to kids. Tap into that feeling of specialness and create positive connotations with reading by getting a magazine subscription for each child.
Make Readaloud Time Part of the Routine
Readaloud time is one those things that’s easy to let slip past, so we need to build it into our daily routines. At our house, we have two read-aloud times. We start the school day with historical fiction related to our unit of study and read fiction that’s more focused on entertainment value at bedtime.
Make Independent Reading Time Part of the Routine
We all want our kids to spend time reading, but sometimes we forget to make time for it to happen. Just like read-aloud time, we have to make independent reading time a family norm that has its own space set aside in the day.
Listen to Audiobooks in the Car
I will admit that I resisted audiobooks for a long time. I didn’t have the right technology in my car, the library didn’t have the best selection, blah, blah, blah. I actually decided to suck it up and give audiobooks a try in the name of taming backseat squabbles. It worked to a degree I didn’t even imagine possible. Oh, and now we’re all digesting about two more quality books per month than we used to. Seriously, try audiobooks even if only for the peaceful car rides.
Read and Talk about Reading
This is directed toward the adults. If you want your kids to believe that reading is important and worthwhile, you have to model it. Make sure that kids have opportunities to see respected adults of both genders reading and valuing reading.
Geek Out as a Family about a Story
Later this summer, we’re (finally) visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Obviously, the day at the theme park will be magical in all senses of the word, but leading up to it, we are having so much fun immersing ourselves in the story together by reading the beautiful illustrated editions of the books, coloring Harry Potter coloring books, crafting wands out of mismatched chopsticks, watching the movies, and assembling Harry Potter jigsaw puzzles. Geeking out over a story as a family goes beyond just telling your kids that reading is important. It shows them that the world of the imagination is important, that reading is cool, that they can get lost in stories even when they grow up, too.
How do you go from reading together to talking critically about books? It’s not hard to do, but a little guidance always helps.
Rethink Your Reading List: Get revved up for the coming year by throwing away all your preconceptions about what and how your kids should be reading and focusing instead on creating an environment where reading is a pleasure, using the choice-based method recommended by Nancie Attwell in The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.
Let Imagination Run Free: Reading is all about imagination, and Mac Barnett’s Ted Talk about letting the magic of imaginary worlds infuse everyday reality. If you’re longing for more whimsy and play in your literature studies, this talk is a great place to start.
Brush Up on Your English: It’s possible to study literature without digging into the English language, but it’s really not as much fun. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue is a witty reference guide to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the language we speak, from the origin of swear words to weird syntactical tics.
Shift Your Emphasis: Sometimes, you feel like you should be doing more as a reader—how do you teach your kids to read critically, intelligently, and thoughtfully when you’re not really sure how to do that yourself? How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading walks you through adapting your reading to a more rigorous bent—without sucking all the fun out of it.
LISTEN TO THIS
Make Poetry a Habit: It’s nice to think about making poetry part of your everyday life—and it’s easy to actually do it, thanks to the Poetry Foundation’s poem-a-day podcast, which features a poem (usually read by a poet) every day. Add three minutes to your routine, and make poetry part of your schedule.
This list is excerpted from our Summer Boot Camp Guide in the summer 2016 issue of HSL.
Encourage your young writers to fill in the blanks, doodle in the margins, and make these six getting-to-know-yourself journals their own. Not only do they make fun writing exercises today, they’ll likely be treasured memories down the road.
- My Listography: My Amazing Life in Lists :: Even kids who swear they hate to write will get caught up in the fun of making lists of their favorite cartoon characters or what they’d do if they had the house to them- selves for a day.
- 642 Things to Write About :: Sometimes, you just need a little writerly inspiration, and this lively book— which encourages creative works such as an ode to an onion or rewriting the plot of the worst movie you’ve ever seen—delivers.
- Q&A a Day for Kids: Three Year Journal :: What’s cool about this dated journal is that kids can see how their answers to questions (like what’s your favorite book or tell the funniest joke you know) change over time.
- MemoRANDOM :: Ideal for teens, this book poses curious questions, like “what are your favorite insults” and “what are the most truthful songs about love” in an easy-to-pick-up-and-put-down format that’s pretty much pressure-free.
- Wreck this Journal :: Kids with perfectionist tendencies can learn to let lose with this journal, which encourages them to spill glue, paint with coffee, and throw things in the pursuit of creative fun.
- Just Between Us: a No-Stress, No-Rules Journal for Girls and Their Moms :: Though it’s annoyingly focused on girls (a book like this would be great for boys, too), this journal’s do-it-together premise opens the door for meaningful conversation and connection.
This list was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home/school/life.
Julie Bogart’s popular Brave Writer resources are favorites among homeschooling families. One enthusiastic mom told me, “Brave Writer is more than a curriculum; it’s also a guide to maximizing all of the joys and rewards that come with the homeschooling lifestyle.”
I finally had the opportunity to check out Brave Writer for myself, and I’m absolutely hooked! We’ll be using this program in our homeschool this fall, and I can’t wait to get started.
Brave Writer products include both home-based and online learning resources ranging from kindergarten through to high school. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing Jot It Down!, a year-long language arts and writing program for children ages 5 to 8.
Bogart encourages parents to cultivate learning environments in which young writers feel comfortable taking creative risks. By establishing a cozy, supportive space to practice reading and writing, she explains, creativity blossoms and an organic love of language evolves.
Jot It Down! opens with fun ideas to help readers create just the right learning atmosphere—light candles while reading poetry, bake brownies, sing, play, and dance. Bogart’s writing is warm and inviting; it is a celebration of the magic moments made possible through homeschooling.
Before the age of five, writes Bogart, children acquire and develop language skills simply by engaging with others. Family and friends listen appreciatively to toddlers offering them gentle feedback and modeling correct grammar patterns. Throughout this stage of learning, instincts guide us as we help our children master verbal communication.
Writing skills, the author points out, can be developed using the very same painless methods. We enjoy watching young children experiment freely with vocalization and sentence structure. Rarely do we feel a need to edit their words. We recognize this is a valid part of the learning process. Bogart believes that young writers should be encouraged in the same ways. Resist the temptation to pull out a red pen, she urges. Let kids experiment and play with the written word.
Jot It Down! is divided into three areas of learning: Language Arts, Oral Language, and Writing Projects. Although Bogart offers scheduling suggestions, parents are encouraged to work through the program in a manner that best suits their child.
Handwriting, reading skills, and basic punctuation are introduced in the language arts section. To teach these mechanics, Bogart relies heavily on copy work and dictation. Here it is important to note that parent’s must provide all copy work materials as none are included in this resource. For those unfamiliar with copy work and dictation methods, additional research will be required—a guide to these approaches is not provided in Jot It Down! For information about copy work and dictation, the author suggests referring to Brave Writer publications The Wand or A Quiver of Arrows, which are sold separately and as part of a Jot It Down! bundle.
Oral language development is an important feature of the Jot It Down! curriculum. Narrating ideas aloud facilitates vocabulary development and helps children develop their “internal writing voice.” Bogart playfully exchanges the term “narration” with “Big Juicy Conversation.” She refers to parents’ transcription as “catching your child in the act of thinking.” Jot It Down! provides ideas to encourage impromptu storytelling as well as worthwhile extension activities that maximize the value of narration activities.
Ten writing projects are featured in this final section. These projects can be easily simplified or expanded depending on the needs of the child. One writing project per month is recommended, with each project taking four weeks to complete. These hands-on projects are creative and include appealing project themes such as fairy tales, animals, and art appreciation. Activities include topic selection, research, content development, transcribing, revision, assembling, and sharing projects with friends and family.
Jot It Down! is a 79-page digital download that is visually appealing and printer friendly. It is available to purchase online and retails for $39.95.
Jot It Down! is the sort of resource that appeals to all kinds of families. It can be easily modified to suit a variety of learning styles and can be used with multi-aged siblings. Bogart’s writing is full of reassurance and warmth that parents will appreciate. Kids will love the program’s emphasis on joyful learning and creative self-expression.
I teach a creative writing class at our homeschool group. It’s one of the best parts of my week because the class always comes together like an explosion of creativity. (Also all my students are just fantastic humans.) I’ve been lucky to watch the students I’ve taught get accepted to college, find professional writing jobs, and even go from mumbling that they hate to write to telling everyone that writing is their favorite class. I like to think that my students have picked up some knowledge over the years, but the truth is, I’ve probably learned more than they have—and all these lessons have proven helpful in helping my own kids to be better, more engaged writers.
- It’s smart to go back to basics. The first time my class turned in a story assignment, I realized that some of them had never turned in a written assignment before: No one wrote names on papers, and some kids wrote on the back side of the paper instead of the front. Obviously that’s no big deal in a class like mine, but I made a mental note that I wanted to be sure to talk to my daughter about how to set up a paper that she’s turning in to someone else.
- Deadlines are your friend. My first class, I didn’t want to risk curbing creativity by being hard-core about deadlines and encouraged kids to submit work on their own timeline. But I realized that my writers did better when they had a firm deadline—otherwise, like me, they would just keep poking and poking at a piece until long past its best-by date. Setting deadlines gave them permission to finish a story and call it done-for-now. I still believe writer’s block is a legitimate excuse to miss an assignment, but now I set lots of deadlines and students consistently rise to them.
- Spelling and grammar are easy to fix. I don’t worry much about about grammar and spelling in creative writing—that’s not really the point—but I do mark recurring errors in spelling or grammar, no more than two or three per story. And you know what? Probably 80 percent of the time, students don’t ever repeat an error after I mark it once.
- Good writing does not only happen on the page. When I was planning my class, I envisioned kids bent over their notepads, the sound of their furiously scratching pencils echoing through the room. Instead, I found myself surrounded by non-stop conversation. (I even attained a dubious level of fame for having the loudest class in our group.) But I soon realized that all these conversations—even the ones that seemed the most off-track—found their way back into what the students were writing—and their work was better because of them. Lesson learned: Creativity doesn’t have to happen in vacuum.
- You cannot give too much positive feedback. My students like to tease me about all the little green comments I leave on their work. (Also about my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s another story.) When I was a teenager, my papers would usually come back with As scrawled on the top and sometimes “nice work” or “good job.” But I wanted more feedback—I wanted to know where my word choice had been spot-on and where my arguments had been particularly strong. I wondered if my teacher had caught my allusions or gotten the joke I’d tried to make in my conclusion. So I mark up papers with that memory in mind, making a point to note great sentences, smart ideas, and interesting constructions. If I think there’s a place where something could be stronger, I definitely note that, too, but the majority of my notes focus on what the writer is doing right—which is usually a lot.
Two hundred years old and going strong, Charles Dickens still deserves his spot on your library list.
It might seem like a stretch to compare the venerable novelist to Kim Kardashian, but the most photographed man of his day could barely walk outside without attracting a crowd. (Once, celebrity-crazed crowds literally ripped Dickens’ coat apart as he walked down the street.) Dickens was the first real pop-culture celebrity, though it was his hilarious sketches and unflinching social criticism that earned him the obsessive adoration of his Victorian peers. The late 20th century, however, was less kind: Though his books have never gone out of print, Dickens missed out on a Jane Austen-style renaissance and ended up relegated to sophomore English classes. In recent years, however, events have conspired to bring the Victorian novelist back to center stage.
It started in 2012, when more than 3,000 volunteer editors signed on to help bring digitized editions of Dickens’ weekly magazines to the web. Hailing Dickens as “the first blogger,” academics lauded his incisive, anonymous indictments of Victorian society and politics. Director Mike Newell raised eyebrows in 2012 when he announced that his film version of Great Expectations (starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes) would have neither of Dickens’ original endings, eschewing the original gritty conclusion and the somewhat unrealistically romantic rewrite in favor of a new ending that the screenwriter says will fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Even 2012’s big hacker attack on the networking site LinkedIn has a Dickens connection: A computer security expert in Utah tests password strength using selections from A Tale of Two Cities. There’s never been a better time to get your Dickens on—even if you can’t hop across the pond to Dickens World in Chatham, where the big attraction is the Great Expectations Boat Ride.
The Essential Dickens: Books
The Pickwick Papers (1836)
Surely I’m not the only reader who discovered Dickens by way of Little Women. But Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy were not the only 19th century folks to get caught up in the laugh-out-loud antics of Samuel Pickwick and his friends. The book—a collection of humorous sketches in a narrative framework—sparked a craze in the 1830s and 40s, complete with spin-offs, character roleplay, and all the other fun you’d associate with a pop culture sensation. Dickens biographer Robert Douglas-Fairhurst compares Pickwick and his “assistant” Sam Weller to famous comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello.
Oliver Twist (1839)
Memorable characters like Fagin and the Artful Dodger make Dickens’ no-holds-barred satire on early Victorian attitudes toward poverty a classic. Darker and less hilarious than The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist is still eminently readable and a good transition between shorter works, like A Christmas Carol, and Dickens’ bigger—in scale, scope, and page number—novels.
Great Expectations (1861)
he story of young Pip’s coming of age as a gentleman in Victorian London is vividly drawn, and Pip is a genuinely likable hero, sympathetic even in his obsession with the uninterested Estella. Dickens tackles the corrupt emotional landscape of a world where wealth is the most important asset by illuminating the redeeming power of love. If people read this instead of A Tale of Two Cities in high school, they’d probably have much fonder opinions of Dickens.
Bleak House (1853)
A vast cast of characters and complex plot line make Bleak House a better choice for older readers, but it’s worth waiting to dive into this richly detailed, fictional account of one of England’s most famous court cases. What happens when two decidedly different Last Wills and Testaments come to light and a nice little estate is at stake? Many depressing years of argument in the British Court of Chancery and a twist ending that’s genuinely shocking.
Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd (1992)
Equal parts novelist, critic, and historian, Ackroyd is just the man to tackle the complex and fascinating life of the creator of Miss Havisham and Augustus Snodgras. It takes Ackroyd more than a thousand pages, imagined dialogues (in which Dickens dismisses biographers as “novelists without imagination”), and a plethora of facts to capture Dickens’ life story, but it works. You’ll close this odd and enormous tome feeling like Dickens is an old friend.
The Essential Dickens: Film
David Copperfield (1999)
Harry Potter fans will be thrilled to recognize Professor McGonagall, Dolores Umbridge, and a very young Daniel Radcliffe in this faithful but fast two-part BBC production.
Dickens purists may complain that this musical take on Oliver Twist simplifies the book’s complex plot more than they’d like, but the film captures the novel’s spirit and pays appropriate homage to its most unforgettable characters.
Bleak House (2005)
This exquisite, fifteen-part BBC serial is the kind of literary adaptation readers dream of: lavishly rendered, textually faithful, and brilliantly acted. Gillian Anderson gives a particularly nuanced performance as the tortured Lady Dedlock.
Whether or not you are familiar with the wonderful, wacky world of young Fred Gauss, made famous in the unique Life of Fred series, I’m beyond excited to share with you details of Schmidt’s newest work, Life of Fred Eden Series for Beginning Readers. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading other Life of Fred books, please be sure to check out my review of Stanley Schmidt’s curriculum in the summer issue of home/school/life magazine.
The Eden series is an eighteen-book collection of reading primers, which takes you through one continuous story. This review looks at the first six books in the series (with a guarantee I’ll be purchasing the rest of the books this afternoon!).
When your littlest learners get their hands on these primers, you’ll likely be delighted by their enthusiasm as well as their immediate desire to connect with these offbeat stories. At last, just like their older brothers and sisters, beginning readers can finally enjoy Fred’s offbeat world first hand.
The 32-page books do not teach phonics or specific concepts. Instead, this fun-filled romp takes readers on an absurd trip with Fred and his doll Kingie to Fall River Lake, where the two intend to enjoy some R-and-R. If you are familiar with Mo Willems’ Gerald and Piggie books, you’ll be struck by the similarity of tone and style of the two series. Simple text scattered on uncluttered pages is mixed with illustrations that provide meaningful context clues to help readers puzzle out new words. Both sight and phonemic words are repeated throughout the texts. The stories are engaging and full of quirky fun.
I tested this series out with my 4-year-old. When his 6- and 9-year-old brothers (both die-hard Fred fans) joined us on the couch to read along, my youngest guy beamed with pride to find the “big boys” sitting in on his learning time with Fred. The text is easy enough to keep early readers challenged, but will generally not be frustrating. The stories are colorful and will entertain older children (and their parents) as well. This versatile series is appropriate both for early readers and older struggling readers. Another nice feature of the Eden series is that in between the laughs, Schmidt succeeds in unobtrusively including lessons about time, counting, nature, and basic shapes, among other things. An emerging trend of intelligent, effective readers is a genre I’m eager to see expanded.
These volumes manage the same high quality and affordability as the rest of the Life of Fred series and retail at about $6 per book.
Once upon a time, I looked forward to arriving on the other side of this unschooling journey. I thought that if I would only wait and watch and learn long enough, I would eventually reach a point where I could fully articulate how a child learns.
In the fall issue of home/school/life, Amy shared a list of books on writing. I believe she was right on target when she wrote, “The best books for young writers inspire as much as they instruct, giving kids enthusiasm for writing as well as tools they can use to improve their stories, essays, poems, scripts, and other work.”
Inspiration, enthusiasm, and tools are all words that have been common to my vocabulary over the years, and I have learned that it is as important (maybe more) for me as mom to be inspired and enthused as it is for my kids. The tools for gaining knowledge are the ultimate goal, after all. It is not nearly as important that kids pick up the various facts and figures that are so commonly thought of as scholarly matter as it is that they gain practice and skill with the many tools of knowledge acquisition.
I now live in a house with three young people who are certainly independent writers and I’m still not sure I can explain it exactly. They are three very different kinds of writers even though they have enjoyed many of same introductions to reading and writing activities over the years.
I thought I would share a few of those activities and my thoughts about growing writers here:
Read, read, read, and read some more. There is no substitute for reading together and reading out loud. Every day you should be reading together, and don’t stick to age-appropriate books alone. Read the stories you remember loving as a kid. Read the stories your kids pick up at the library. Read even the bad ones, and when somebody says, “I really don’t like this book,” stop and have a discussion about what makes it a bad book. Put that book down and start another. I read to my kids from the newspaper, from news magazines, and often from the books I was reading for my own pleasure. As soon as they began reading on their own, we took turns reading out loud together. Books on tape are great, too, but the real power comes from reading with your own voice.
Make your own books. Starting as early as ages 3 and 4, I encouraged my kids to tell stories that I would write down. I returned these stories to them in booklet form. Their stories would be divided by scenes that they could illustrate. We made copies of these books to share with grandparents, aunts and uncles. The books we made went on the shelves beside other books and we were just as likely to read the stories they had written as others. This taught them that they had the power to manipulate words and that their efforts were legitimate.
Play word games while on the go. Mad Libs is the bomb. It is simply fun and no homeschooling family should be without a book or two of Mad Libs. It is easy to keep in a copy in a bag to pull out when entertainment is needed to fill some time. Most word games, however, require nothing more than your imagination. Time in the car, for our family, was typically filled with word games. Make it rhyme – I have a pet snake, his name is Jake; I have a pet flea, his name is Larry… Add it alphabetically – I’m going to the store and I’ve got an apple in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple and a banana in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple, a banana, and a cucumber in my cart… Tell round-robin stories!
Give them reasons to write. Here’s the thing about writing. The power of words can quickly be diminished when they are turned into worksheets and steps you are required to learn. My kids learned about punctuation when they asked, “Why do they put those dots in there? Why does the dot sometimes have that little tail that drops below the line? What’s that squiggle mean?” If I had to name the single most powerful tool my children received early on, in regards to their development as writers, it was power over the list. We moved our grocery list to kid height and announced that everyone in the house should add to it when they saw there was something we needed from the store. The list was one area where I didn’t take dictation, at least not throughout the week. If you wanted it, you had to put it there.
But don’t force them to write. I just wrote that the list was the one area where I didn’t take dictation. I should emphasize, however, that I did take dictation. I took a lot of dictation when my kids were young. I wrote whole stories as they were told to me. I typed letters that they mailed to their cousins. I encouraged storytelling, both fact and fiction, and I preserved those stories in printed form until they had mastered the skills to preserve what they wanted on their own. And gradually, as they did begin to write, I found myself taking less and less dictation (though occasionally they still came to me because I typed faster, or perhaps they just felt the need for some one-on-one time with mom…) There were times in my life where I was writing by hand for one kid and spelling words out loud for another while reviewing the third kid’s email because she wanted it to be “all right” and I thought my brain might explode from all the different directions it was going. Then, almost as quickly, I realized that nobody was asking me for help anymore. Last week, I proofed one college composition paper the morning it was to be turned in and reviewed an email my son had written for an event he was organizing. That was it. An entire week, and nobody needed any real help with writing.
Withhold judgment, at least until they ask for it. When you homeschool, it is tempting to turn every moment into a teachable lesson. Learn to bite your tongue. If your child brings you a handwritten note, a love letter, a book they made, a poem, whatever… simply observe and appreciate. Don’t point out the words they have misspelled, or the fact that it’s hard to read because they haven’t really put any spaces between their words. If they ask what you think about it, start with what you like. Then ask what they think about it. Children will often recognize their own mistakes, and if you start a conversation about the work they have written, the conversation becomes the lesson they need at that moment.