Organizing Theory & Artistry

A Peek Inside Our Homeschool Classroom: Language Arts

A Peek Inside Our Homeschool Classroom: Language Arts

Developing a love of reading is the best education any parent can give their child.
Developing a love of reading is the best education any parent can give their child.

Growing up, it was common knowledge that English and language arts were the “easy” subjects in school. There were no hard and fast answers like in math or science classes so grading was more subjective and lenient. As a homeschool teacher, however, I have had to reevaluate this assessment.

Teaching English to young learners poses several challenges:

  • Because English doesn’t have hard and fast “rules” like math, it is hard for children to grasp some of the complexities of our language. English draws from so many other languages that we have a multiplicity of grammatical rules. For example, why do some plurals end in –s, some in –es, some in –ies, and some are completely different words like “mice.”
  • Spelling is a huge challenge in English because we have so many letters that have multiple sounds like “c’s” that sound like “s’s” or the mysterious “silent e.” The Barenaked Ladies song “Crazy ABC’s” is the ultimate example.

  • The English alphabet is remarkably simple compared to languages like Russian or Chinese but we have so many reversible letters like b and d, p and q, and reversible numbers like 6 and 9 that it is easy for children to get confused.
  • Getting children to write has always been a challenge but at the young ages, it is especially challenging because writing feels so constrained by trying to get the right spelling and handwriting. Yes, you can allow for phonetic spelling for early writers, such as “I lik crs.” but you ultimately have to start insisting on correct spelling and my children seem to want to get it right the first time rather than correct it later.
  • If you don’t speak formal, college-educated, non-colloquial English in your home, English will be even more of a challenge for your children. Many of the test preparation workbooks we have used seem designed to identify use of slang or regional language patterns (“ain’t,” “gonna” etc.) or common errors made by foreign speakers of English.
  • If your child happens to have any sort of reading difficulties on top of this (fortunately none of my children so far have struggled with this and have all been natural readers) multiply the difficulty factor by 2 or more.

So English for young learners is by no means the “easy” subject. My children have found English far more difficult than math at this age.

For the past few years, I have mostly focused on reading good books with my children and using the Daily Language Review series of workbooks to learn basic rules of grammar and punctuation. I still am using these this year because they seem to help tremendously for end-of-the-year testing.

At a homeschool convention two years ago, I was introduced to Julie Bogart and her “Brave Writer” curriculum and was intrigued. The Brave Writer curriculum is about fostering a love of writing, the type of writing that professional authors do. A love of writing runs deep in Ms. Bogart’s family. Her mother is the author of numerous books and has the license plate “WORDY.” Her husband is an English professor. They love all kinds of writing from poetry and quotations to sports columns. Ms. Bogart also has a great sense of humor and a deep understanding of the psychology of children and writers in general. I bought The Writer’s Jungle curriculum right away along with The Wand supplement for children ages 5-8.

…And, then it sat and I didn’t use it! Why? Well, for starters, there is a lot to read! The Writer’s Jungle manual is 218 pages long and it isn’t a step-by-step curriculum so much as it is a set of general principles to encourage good writing. Likewise, The Wand issues are around 20 pages each and combine both theory and lessons.

I joined The Brave Writer Facebook page and Ms. Bogart began writing several tough love blog posts about why you should not be intimidated by learning a lot of theory.

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This year, I was determined to use the curriculum and made a goal that over the summer I was going to read The Writer’s Jungle cover-to-cover and write out a plan for The Wand lessons. It was difficult to fit into our summer schedule but I did it! The Writer’s Jungle had some very interesting things to say but it was mostly geared for children who are at least 9-10 years old. Many of the suggestions were a bit too advanced for where my children are now but it did give me a road map of where our curriculum should head next year or later.

The Wand lessons took more time to get through than I thought they would. I started with the first month of lessons. It was only 20 pages of reading, which sounds simple, but it took some time to figure out how to translate those 20 pages into day-by-day lessons we could use. This is the difficulty and the brilliant part of this curriculum. This curriculum forces you to be a “real” teacher. You have an outline of what to do but you need to fill in the holes yourself. I wrote out a lesson plan for each school day for September. It took some time. Sometimes I had to come up with my own assignments to fill in when there wasn’t quite enough material. This is where The Writer’s Jungle provided some ideas and resources.

And so far, a half a month in, my children are really loving it! There are some terrific multi-sensory activities for spelling that my children are loving. Even though we read the same book each day over and over for 10 days in a row, they don’t tire of it. We are all learning to appreciate different things about the book with each reading. As a bonus, my 2 year old son, loves the book choices and will sit and read with us too!

My daughters love the Post-it note spelling exercises in The Wand.
My daughters love the Post-it note spelling exercises in The Wand.

I was concerned about how I would teach two children of different abilities but this curriculum is fairly easy to adapt. I teach the same lesson to both of them. My eldest will adapt her assignments on her own to be more difficult (and she also gets more advanced practice in grammar in her “Common Core Language Arts” daily review book). For example, she chose more difficult words in our “plurals” exercise.

Adapting the plurals exercise to different learners.  Notice the difference in vocabulary words selected.
Adapting the plurals exercise to different learners. Notice the difference in vocabulary words selected.

I also liked the ideas my girls came up with in our exercise to write the missing pages to “Hop on Pop.”

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Finally, there was one page in the The Writer’s Jungle manual that has really stuck with me. It has to do with special concerns when teaching writing to boys. My son is only 2 so we won’t face this for several more years but given recent events in the news and the Navy Yard shooting yesterday in particular, I wanted to share this excerpt with you:

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After the Newtown shootings, if any boy in the public school system were to write an essay about guns and violence, he would likely be suspended or referred to counseling. Yet, Julie Bogart tells us that violent thoughts are perhaps “normal” in young boys and that we need to find ways to allow that violence to be expressed in appropriate way.

As a society, we need to learn more about this uncomfortable subject. How do we allow boys to be boys but yet identify the boys (or girls) who are really and truly threats to themselves or others? Today, in my email, I received an editorial from psychologist Dr. Wendy J. James that I thought provided some excellent advice on developing a healthy relationship with violence in boys.

How To Teach & Talk To Your Children About Violent Video Games
Dr. Wendy James

We are not going to change the Internet, video games or technology. It is not the playing of a video game that is the problem. It is the misunderstanding that the violence of a video game, where the children see shooting a target, is just a game. Violence is acceptable and desirable in the rules of video play. The problem lies in the potential of blurring the lines between what is a game and what is reality.

My suggestion is take them to a gun range where a qualified instructor teaches them gun safety. On the gun range they learn shooting is a serious business, it has real life rules and is not a harmless video game.

On a gun range, one learns how to safely handle a gun; what a gun can do; the sound, noise and smell the gun makes, when you pull the trigger and the seriousness of real life consequences. Finally, and most importantly is learning the responsibility of using a gun, because the target represents a real person. In real life, you do not get a “do over” and start the video game over. This is for real. There are real bullets in a real gun that have the potential to kill people.

Responsibility develops with clear knowledge of danger. Making sure your child understands what a gun does and the safety rules involved gives the child knowledge. They learn to assume all guns are loaded and to never point a gun at another person. This knowledge may prevent the death of a playmate or sibling. Real guns are not toys. Children, if taught, understand this.

Video games are also a concern if the contribute to the isolation of the child.

When children are spending all their time alone with computers, playing video games or on the Internet, they fail to learn socialization skills. Therefore, isolation and lack of socialization is a mental health problem.

Parents need to limit amount of time their children spend on video games, Internet and TV and be aware of what games their children are playing. Spending time playing videos with your child will enhance the parent/child relationship and parents will know what their children are playing. It might even turn out to be fun.

Socialization is achieved at school through learning to get along with others, playing team sports, experience winning and losing and being accepted and, sometimes, rejected by a group.

As children, we learn by socializing with other students. We learn to respect others. We learn to discover what groups are best for us. We learn that, yes, we will be rejected and, yes, we will be accepted in certain circles and groups. We learn that it is a normal part of life and prepare us for dealing with rejection and acceptance in jobs and careers without becoming psychologically devastated.

Who knew that English is the key to unlocking and expressing our innermost thoughts? Perhaps encouraging more writing and personal expression could help us cope better with a variety of social problems.

In summary, here are the curriculum tools we are using this year for language arts.

Daily Language Review - Grade 1 at amazon.com. (I bought my copy used at a homeschool convention.)
Daily Language Review – Grade 1 at amazon.com. (I bought my copy used at a homeschool convention.)
Common Core Language Arts 4 Today - Grade 3 at amazon.com.
Common Core Language Arts 4 Today – Grade 3 at amazon.com.

The Writer's Jungle and The Wand, available at bravewriter.com.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on learning English in the comments.