This page is sure to have far more information than any others because this subject area is my passion. Don’t feel like you need EVERYTHING you see here. A few well-chosen items can cover so much more than what you think. Of course, if any of your students struggle with any type of SLD (Specific Language Disability, sometimes the term “Disorder” is used for the D), you will want to carefully evaluate your options.
The main offering from Excellence in Writing (IEW), Teaching Writing: Structure and Style has got to be my all-time favorite homeschool product. While I now have the Premium Edition linked here because it includes access to monthly webinars that are very helpful for first-time users to understand the methodology, when I started with this method, I had the first edition of TWSS and the original version of SWI-B with the old four-day lesson plan. That’s going back some time! IEW takes a bit to wrap your head around, but it provides excellent results! The version referenced in the above link includes the disks, but there is a less expensive version that provides the video content streamed to your device for one year. Personally, I think the disks are worth having so you can review them each time you teach one of the units (structural models). Most families new to IEW really appreciate watching either the older Student Writing Intensive DVDs along with the Teacher DVDs because the student ones provide the teacher with essential training in how to teach writing -OR- the NEW version of this, Structure and Style for Students, which takes the original information and greatly expands it. WOW! There’s just something special about watching a master teacher in action that you don’t get via a lecture on how to do it. If you just can’t go that way due to costs, and you can’t find a tutor who has room in her schedule for you, give one of their Theme-Based writing books a whirl. The color down the side of the cover tells you what age group the material is geared toward (Yellow=Primary; Green=Elementary, or approximately grades 3-5; Blue=Middle school, or approximately grades 6-8; and Purple=High school, or approximately grades 9-12), but they all can be overlapped or sized up or down to adapt to a crowd. Many first timers like the ones written by Lori Verstegen because she provides a lot of help throughout the teacher’s pages. You can do this program with just their flagship product, though, using cross-curricular content. This is how I learned it years ago and how I prefer to work with it even today. I also like their Writing Source Packet in hard copy (which, sadly, may be discontinued), especially for when you teach the report units for the first time. The Blackline Masters from the TWSS serve the same purpose, though. You can make photocopies for your family or for the students you teach in your classroom. The reason I have loved using the Writing Source Packet is because it is easy to pop it in the document feeder and have the pages oriented correctly. (It’s the minibooks section that is tricky to print. I hate doing that in Landscape Orientation on a home printer, even with autofeed enabled. Something always prints wrong.) While you navigate around their website, be sure to sign up to listen to some of Andrew Pudewa’s best talks. He generously makes several available each year for free. You’ll be glad you did. If you purchase, please do so directly from IEW because they have a 100% FOREVER guarantee, which is unheard of in this day and age. This is a product that I have used over and over again for more than a decade. I think I started in 2005 with it, and it’s never disappointed me. It truly is the best money I’ve spent on a homeschool product.
This is another wonderful find that I have been using steadily as I hold my monthly book clubs: Teach the Classics by Adam Andrews at the Center for Lit. Until I discovered this product, I would dive into the deep end of the literary analysis pool every single month and plod through a variety of question options to guide our discussions. Now that I have this, that pressure has eased a bit. While I don’t always use their Socratic questions and I certainly don’t simply read them off the page as I guide our group’s discussions, the information I learned in the original seminars years ago have held me in good stead. I’m a better teacher for learning this information and the students have benefited greatly.
If you have trouble deciding which wonderful books to read, here are a few options that can help you navigate the library stacks: Timeline of Classics, Reading Roadmaps, BiblioPlan (Click the Book Lists tab), Rosalie Slater’s Family Program for Reading Aloud and 1000 Good and Great Books. The various non-traditional curriculum providers (Veritas Press, Sonlight, Tapestry of Grace, WinterPromise, Book Shark, etc) all boast numerous books in their catalogs and their websites. The list of excellent titles really is endless. While considering how you want to spend you reading time, it’s worth looking over Rosalie Slater’s Seven Loves of Literature (scroll about halfway down the page) to learn what she means when she says the term “classic literature.” If your child struggles to read, check out audiobooks! With those, your struggling reader can follow along with the text, which helps build fluency and cadence while adding to their decoding skills. When I tutor dyslexic students, I always add this to their homework once their reading has progressed to a point where they can handle this without tears.
When you teach as many English classes as I do and grade tons of papers that run the gamut from very early elementary writings to post graduate work, you need grammar and usage information you can trust. While you can certainly find most everything you can possibly need on OWL at Purdue, I also like having a trusted resource on hand for when I have to look up something pesky. For that, I turn to Gregg. This is the newest edition, but you can probably get away with the next earlier one–unless the reference you need is for a college student. In that case, buy whatever the student’s English professor tells you! If you are working on research papers with your high school student, for the first several efforts, you can use MLA or APA with the guidelines on OWL. Once your student settles on a college, you will want to teach your child that school’s preferred style choice, whether MLA, APA, Chicago, or something else. Be sure to ask, though, because different departments may use different style guidelines. While these formats are all similar in the fact that they all cite sources and give credit for where information comes from, how they do this differs enough that you will need to have the latest style guide on the particular format on hand. Once again, buy whatever the college professor tells you. College costs too much to not follow directions on this. You don’t want to play games that will end up with your student earning a lower GPA.
For learning how to spell, read, and write, especially for the average to advanced learner, I love Spell to Read and Write by Wanda Sanseri. You would need the Core set of materials but there are also some great additions to be had. I strongly recommend the McCall-Crabb’s Comprehension Passages. Sadly, the correct individual booklets are no longer in print. You want the ones from the 60s, not the updated ones that Rainbow sells.
For dyslexic learners, you can either learn all the things I did and do the whole thing yourself, hire a tutor to teach your child, or go with several great curricular options that are now available. All About Spelling (and the sister product, All About Reading) is great, as is Barton. Both are scripted so that the student is able to be tutored by the parent. If you are going to try to handle the remediation of dyslexia on your own, and create your own lessons, you will want a copy of the Gillingham Manual. There is so much more to learning the Orton methodology than what one particular program can provide you. There are some amazing books out there that I’ll address more fully in another section of the website. For now, here is more information about what’s needed in order to use the Gillingham Manual: S-og_manual. I don’t like to use phonogram cards that have cue pictures, but that’s because I was originally trained through the Rigg’s Institute’s version of Spalding’s work and some things just stick with you. I also tend to begin O-G with slightly older-than-average students, so that could also have a bearing on why I avoid picture clues. When teaching phonograms, teach the lowercase letters first! That’s what kids see most of the time. You can teach the capital letters they need for their names and the ones for the people in their family as needed, but spending the bulk of the time with lowercase letters pays off in the end. Just so you know, Orton-based curricula and/or tutoring can get expensive. You need to read up on it so you can make good decisions regarding your child’s education. You CAN do this!
While Spell to Write and Read is a complete language arts program (SWR-in-a-Lang-Arts-Program), if you elect to go in another direction, you will need to piece together all of the components that round out what is called “Language Arts.” IEW takes care of composition in such an amazing manner that I really don’t have another option there–I am THAT sold on its merits. (No monetizing here, remember; I’m just a major fan!) About the only thing I’d add to it–and only much later in a student’s career–is The Lost Tools of Writing from the Circe Institute, which helps kids learn how to develop their ideas and builds on the structures and stylistic techniques previously learned through IEW. For the student who wants to major in English or be a “real” (read that as “paid”) writer, these things will give him or her the leg up that they need. Beyond these, there are tons of reference works devoted to helping writers hone their craft, all of which circle around the idea that it is CRAFT and needs to be PRACTICED on an almost daily basis. (Perhaps this topic deserves a blog post one day too!)
CQLA (which stands for Character Quality Language Arts) is another complete language arts program that some homeschoolers may like. It is the same as the WBLA program available for ATI families, but with all of author Donna Reish’s extensive updates over the years. You can check out samples of this consumable product by heading to her website. She does not teach beginning reading through this program at all because most families who choose her program come from Christ Centered Curriculum for early learners which includes phonics/reading and arithmetic with a strong Scriptural background. I need to caution you that some of the cloze passages in CQLA are tough to do without having read the original works she cites. (Cloze is a specific testing strategy that asks students to insert the missing word into the sentence. Sometimes this is an obvious word; other times, not so much.) Also, the curriculum is deeply Christian, so people from other faiths will not be satisfied with this. So thorough is this LA curriculum and its accompanying Teacher’s Guide that you could build your own curriculum for all of the content areas with this serving as your spine.
So, what else do you need to make something a COMPLETE LANGUAGE ARTS program? I probably should organize the following things in a more logical manner, but for now I’m just going to list them in a more age appropriate manner and by subspecialty.
Contrary to popular opinion, the first thing a pre-reader needs to learn is not the ABC song. Nope, kids really don’t need to know the names of the alphabet letters until they are going to learn to alphabetize. What they REALLY need to know are the sounds that letters make when they “talk” much like the sounds that animals make. In fact, for little children, this is the best way to approach this, as a kind of game. Get a deck of phonogram cards that correspond to the phonics program you have chosen or are leaning towards. The reason for this is each program differs in exactly how many sounds there are. They are all pretty close, but they do vary–even among Orton programs. Dyslexic learners can learn all the sounds a letter can say. It will be hard though, and it will take time! The idea behind teaching all of the sounds a phonogram can say at once is that you want this information in the brain in as uncluttered a manner as possible. If you want to do the first sounds of the letters first, you can follow the progression of letters listed in the Gillingham Manual (pg. 36, then in more depth throughout chapter 2). This is fine, even if you choose SWR as your base program. (When I tutor dyslexic students I usually override SWR with O-G for a better outcome for the student. Try it both ways to see what’s best for your particular student. Children are unique!) Remember, teach lower case letters first. If you already have Explode the Code on hand for your child, then follow their progression of the letters. The people who created and promoted these different progressions all have solid reasons behind their particular choices. One of them is bound to be just the right thing for your particular child. Remember that children are very resilient. Although you will make mistakes when homeschooling them, these mistakes will probably not scar them for life. Now, if you are outside allowing them to demonstrate what happens with explosives, that’s not going to be the case. Seriously though, when you love your child–and you must or you wouldn’t be considering homeschooling–you want what is best for them. When you act in their best interests, that love covers a multitude of problems, or sins, as the Bible puts it. What this verse means is that when you work hard at loving a person, even when you mess up, that love shines through the mess and makes you come alongside and fix it. Don’t worry so much!
Along with learning the sounds that letters say–and uttering them without an accompanying /uh/ at the end of the sound–you should be working on Phonemic Awareness. What this means is that you want to ensure that your child is actually hearing sounds, able to isolate them, and able to manipulate or change them. Phonemic Awareness is so important that a child who lacks this will definitely have a hard time learning to read. All children need this critical skill. One way to encourage phonemic awareness is to play with rhymes and rhythms through poetry. Do you remember in the movie, The Princess Bride, when Fezzic (Andre’ the Giant) did his “Anybody Want a Peanut?” schtick? That’s what you want to encourage. Yes, it will get old, but so will the umpteen million times you need to read Good Night Moon or Green Eggs and Ham. Rhyming stories and activities are what pave the way for Phonemic Awareness. If your child needs help manipulating sounds, the best book I’ve seen for this is: Equipped for Reading Success by David Kilpatrick. I use this one with great success in my tutoring. Unfortunately, this book is sold out right now at The Reading League and on Amazon, but I’ve heard that the author has copies for sale on his website. While you wait for that (if you NEED it, that is), here’s a PAST assessment that can help you understand what you are looking to do. Here’s a great article about Phonemic Awareness from Reading Rockets. I encourage you to play with sounds. If you need some game ideas to play with your child, the award-winning Phonemic Awareness in Young Children curriculum will help this along. Ruth Beechick’s book, Language and Thinking for Young Children, although outdated in some instances, like where the telephone is discussed, has many natural activities that you can easily incorporate into your day to day activities–almost without thinking about them. Children with more extensive speech problems will probably benefit from the LiPS program by Lindamood Bell and/or sessions with a Speech Therapist. If your child is a late talker or if they are beyond 4 years old and most people still can’t understand him or her, I urge you to have the child tested by an SLP (Speech Language Pathologist). Ask your family doctor or pediatrician for a referral. All this goes to say that phonemic awareness, along with speaking and listening, are critical in the development of reading and writing.
Beyond building an awareness that the print a child sees on paper correlates to word they hear spoken, you need to teach your child how to form these letters for himself. This is where the art of penmanship comes into the picture. This is a foundational skill that really is best completed in the early schooling years. Further refinement of penmanship happens over time as the child continues to write things. There are great arguments on both sides of the manuscript vs cursive fence. Read them and consider them carefully so you can make a decision about what font type (style) you are going to teach the beginning reader and writer. Once that’s done, learn how to form the letters yourself. I mean REALLY learn them, so you can tell your child exactly what to do, how to “walk” through the forming of the letters. You do not want to encourage tracing or copying because neither provides as strong an imprint on the mind of the child. You want to impress on the child’s neural network exactly how to create each letter, while simultaneously anchoring it into his memory with the sounds that the letter makes. In this manner, he will be able to make this letter with more and more automaticity as he writes. The more memory resources he must devote to how to create the letter, the less that is available for him to think about how to spell the word. This carries over later into spelling and writing when the more memory resources he must devote to how to spell a word, the less that is available for him to clothe his ideas with words. When this is happening, you will see a student write at a much lower level than what he can speak at because he is limiting his written compositions to only words that he can spell. I’ve seen this more than you know. These skills are vital, but they can indeed be taught! Don’t despair. The thing to remember about this truth is that these skills really are incremental, and when you try to jump ahead of them, something will be sacrificed. Better to follow the progression from the beginning so you don’t have to undo bad habits later. If you are coming into homeschooling later, and you have a child who already has some of these issues, you can fix them, it’s just harder to retrain the brain to form a new habit than it is to form the right habit from the outset. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons behind the idea of “deschooling” your life for the first bit of homeschooling. It allows for time to clean up, so to speak. I guess the topic of habits would make a great blog post as well!)
So, what do you do for penmanship after you have decided on your font/style? Well, put simply, you practice writing, first by doing letters, then syllables, then words, then sentences, and finally whole paragraphs and passages. You can go two ways here. You can buy penmanship books, otherwise known in some circles as “copywork” books, and assign a section or a page a day. If you do this, you will not have the freedom of choosing what your child is writing about; it is obviously already chosen by the publisher. There are many “out there” that are quite lovely. Some even integrate an additional subject area, such as art or something else (like this example from Classical Conversations). Another way to go is to create your own copywork by crafting your own penmanship sheets. I use the software program Educational Fontware to handle this job, but before I discovered them, I would write on a piece of paper, hand it off to the child, and have him write (copy) whatever I had written on lines below the model I created. It is best to teach how to form the letters through the proper dialogue before going in this direction though. EFI has a set of fonts that has the loops and strokes for cursive, but without explicit instruction in how to form the letters, the child is pretty much left tracing or copying, which isn’t the real goal.
If you want a workbook to handle this skill set, here are a few ideas: PAF, which stands for “Preventing Academic Failure” is wonderful. There are even directions for the teaching dialogue. Their books cover Manuscript, Cursive for right handed kids, and Cursive for lefties. The Handwriting Skills Simplified series teaches the necessary strokes before getting into single letters, then connections, then words and finally sentences. Book C is where Cursive instruction begins. Books A and B focus on manuscript. The above link is to Book C. If you did choose to use Spell to Write and Read (SWR), you can easily and seamlessly include Cursive First, which has some wonderful background information about why cursive is ideal for the first handwriting “font” a child learns. Other popular choices for handwriting options abound on the ‘net. A quick search in Google will yield far more options that you will ever need. Plus, nearly every curricular provider has a handwriting program that it can bundle into its program. Sometimes there is some corollary among the topics, sometimes not.
One last thing about handwriting–a proper grip is essential! Do not allow your child to color with a fist grip. Muscle memory is tremendously difficult to retrain. If you need help in this area, consider a pencil grip. Here’s a great site I found about pencil grasp written by an Occupational Therapist. Here’s another, also written by an OT, that provides instructions and pictures!
That deals with the basics. Now let’s get into the other areas that make up what one thinks of when they say “language arts” such as grammar, usage, mechanics, vocabulary, and other things. First of all, it is extremely rare for ONE provider to bring ALL of these strands, not to mention including reading, comprehension, spelling, penmanship, and composition, in ONE holistic thing. A great tutor can integrate these things. Remember the adage about only being able to choose two out of the three things: inexpensive, good, fast? Nowhere in the field of educational curricula is this more apparent than in the language arts world. Even publishers who regularly box together full grade level packages will provide several workbooks to cover these areas. Often the grammar book will include information on usage and mechanics as well as composition conventions. There may even be some information about spelling rules, but they may not be correct, complete, or consistent. Bad rules are bad news! This is why I love the way Wanda Sanseri words the rules in SWR. They work! Spelling is usually handled in another book, often giving way to vocabulary study once either middle school or high school begins. Handwriting sheets are provided in yet another book. This subject area almost always finishes up by around 6th grade. Comprehension is not covered well in most curricula and is often limited to basic who, what, where, when, why, and how questions rather than deeper, more thought-provoking discussion. Finally, composition is definitely not handled wonderfully by most of these providers. This is not surprising given that teaching people HOW to write is much harder than telling them WHAT to write. Basically, the philosophy of “for reading, we read; for writing, we write” is indeed the best way to get these things done in a manner that actually sticks and makes a real difference in the student’s skills, but doing this can be tricky!
Let’s keep exploring the various strands of language arts and the options that are available to help you teach them. Remember, you CAN teach all of these with just paper and pen/pencil. You don’t HAVE to use consumable workbooks. This strategy refers back to the “two out of three things” we’ve been stating to throughout this whole Getting Started tab. Sometimes it will be worthwhile for you to buy consumables, just don’t rely on them for the whole curriculum! Remember that curriculum should be a tool, not a taskmaster.
For more in-depth phonics, if your child needs more work on anything specific after about the “learning to read” stage is usually complete (around 3rd or 4th grade), look to MegaWords, which follows an O-G progression but using multisyllable words, which is often a stumbling block for many struggling learners. If, when you listen to your child read aloud, he misses the little words in the sentences, substituting other words, or she butchers the middles of longer words, you can bet that there’s a critical piece of the code missing from their understanding of how English works. They may or may not be dyslexic. It’s possible they may just have missed some vital instruction and subsequent practice.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that reading instruction ends once your child can read a book containing controlled text! Too many homeschoolers stop reading instruction at this point thinking that their child is reading, so all they need to do is read and they will improve. This is not usually the case. The teaching of reading really does encompass much more than that. In fact, Louisa Moats wrote a great article that explains it much better than I could. Most schools continue reading instruction only until about 8th grade, but really, there are things that students can and should continue to be instructed in long after that. In fact, most of today’s college students do not have the necessary foundation to be able to fully enter Chall’s higher stages of reading. Most students stall around the 3rd stage, some even earlier. This is unfortunate. The upper levels deal with the analyzing and synthesizing of information. When dealing with the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” it is enough to know that there is substantial evidence that students can and should continue to practice the subject area known as “reading” in whatever curriculum you choose. You may or may not need “curriculum” to tackle the subject of “reading” though, once you learn what it encompasses.
For vocabulary, some people really appreciate the Wordly Wise 3000 workbooks. The link references the newest edition. Even though many homeschoolers use this series, there are folks who don’t like some of the stories and articles provided within the covers of that series. Sometimes people just don’t like the predictable busy-work approach that this series provides. Another useful workbook series, also published by EPS, is Vocabulary from Classical Roots, which has a slightly different format than Wordly Wise. There are also a variety of Roots-type programs available that are nice. English from the Roots Up is a bare-bones curriculum that comes in two volumes. I’ve only linked to the first book. Know that you don’t need to get both the books and the cards. Either/Or is fine. You will; however, want to get both volumes if you go with this tool since they do not overlap. Both volumes follow the same format and list the variety of roots, each one’s meaning, and several words that use the root. That’s all there is to it. Another option, Vocabulary on the Vine, is especially nice if you choose to do the first level of it when the student is in middle school because there is a second level, Science Roots, available that directly correlates with Apologia’s Biology, which is a popular science course for early high schoolers. Truth be told, Science Roots works with pretty much any biology curriculum. Actually, using biology as an example, when your student gets into the higher mathematics and science courses, you can often speed up their comprehension of the subject area by studying the vocabulary from the glossary before even beginning to study the course. The procedure in the next paragraph, although written with an eye toward coming across unfamiliar words when reading novels, works equally well within the content subjects.
For families who would prefer something more natural, purchase a great dictionary, an etymological dictionary, and a reference work defining affixes. Even though there are digital editions available for these, you are better off with print versions for this sort of reference work. I’ve referenced my favorites for you. Then, whenever your student comes across a word they do not know (whether when they are reading or they are working on derivatives in spelling), they can look them up. When that’s done, they can create a card for each word. On the front of the card, they should list the word and the sentence where they found it. On the back, they should define it, including the part of speech as it is used in the demonstration sentence. If you wish, they can also list some of the history of the word as well as its derivatives. For some words, you would want to write all of this on a sheet of notebook paper rather than an index card, especially if you add all of the derivatives and how they vary–even ever so slightly–in meaning. Using cards or notebook paper and writing all this information down my hand seems like “old tech” but research shows that when you physically write something with a pen or pencil on paper, you remember it better than if you simply typed it into a Word doc.
You may notice that I did not include a link to “a great dictionary” in the above paragraph. This is because there are so many differing opinions on what makes a dictionary great. Personally, I have a few on hand that I use for different reasons. Here’s a useful article written by regular people about what they want in a dictionary. Here’s one from the people who published a reprint of the 1828 Dictionary on why an older version is needful, but you can easily access the dictionary itself online as well. I’ll add more here soon.
Grammar, usage, and mechanics–what I refer to as GUM–are what most people think of when they think of the term Language Arts. Additionally, most people think they really need a workbook series or a textbook to teach these things. The reality is that you don’t need year after year of consumables or even a series of textbooks. You can simply buy a reference work and teach your child how to follow these conventions through what they write. This isn’t as daunting as it seems!
When my oldest son was a fairly young child and seriously considering a military career that included his hopeful attendance at West Point, we called the admissions officer there to garner tips about how we could structure this boy’s high school experience in such a way that would give him a leg up on USMA college work. We were told several things that were very different from what we expected. Among other specific considerations, we were introduced to what this man explained is known as the Thayer Method. I’ve included a couple of articles about this here and here, but the gist of it is that student needs to OWN his education. We want to work ourselves out of a job! Yes, we must guide the student; but we want the student to do the bulk of the work! This stands in direct opposition to what happens in most schools–even homeschools. The person preparing the material to be learned is the one who gets the best education. This is why so many homeschool moms feel like they hadn’t really had any education until they begin homeschooling! It’s not that they didn’t have an education; rather, it’s that they were spoon-fed information which was called “getting an education.” How far from the truth this is! As I mentioned before, you can see this phenomenon at work when a homeschool mom prepares an in-depth unit study. Who gains the most for her hard work? Often it is the mom herself. While I certainly don’t want to disparage the work a mom puts into creating fabulous studies for her children, the fact remains that if the students themselves were to create the unit, they would be the ones making such fabulous leaps in their learning.
How does the Thayer Method lend itself to the teaching of English, you may wonder? Well, consider that the things we study and write about are the things we tend to learn best. When we write, we are forced to order our thoughts and consider the various facets before coming to a logical conclusion–or at least that is what we are supposed to be doing when we write informative and persuasive papers. Part of the writing process is to revise and edit our work. It is within that editing and revision process where Thayer is most applicable. In fact, at West Point, cadets are not told what their errors are, rather they are directed to a particular point or subpoint in their GUM reference manual. Perhaps the student forgot to put in the Oxford comma (something that we utilize here in America, but much of the rest of the English speaking world no longer uses). Instead of inserting the comma for him and explaining why, you would direct him to the appropriate section of his reference work, which he would then read and apply the proper correction. If he still didn’t “get” that he’s missing a comma before the coordinating conjunction that joins all the items in the series, you could direct his attention to that section, essentially leading him to find the information on his own. This is the essence of the Thayer Method–that of leading the students to learning the information for themselves. You can do this too, especially if you have a concise English handbook on hand. There are several. The Handbook of Good English is fully available online in PDF. If you want something that is more prescriptive in nature, try The Blue Book. Assign pages that deal with the issues you see in your student’s writing. I have a few style guides on hand, Gregg, which I mentioned in the composition section above, and many others including the ones from Rod and Staff, Abeka, and WriteSource. If you use the Thayer Method, all you need is a handbook. If you want your child to have more practice in this area or you are not sure how to scale down what you read in the handbook to an appropriate level for your child, then you have more options to consider and decisions to make.
You can also go with something like Abeka’s God’s Gift of Language series, which are slated for grades 4 through 6. When I recommend this, I usually tell parents to just do books A and B OR book C alone. In fact, I will sometimes assign book C to a parent who doesn’t feel she has enough background in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, or usage to adequately teach her child. It works. If you do this, though, skip their composition sections because IEW (see the top of this page) is far better. You will get similar results from Bob Jones’ English Grammar books or the ones from Rod and Staff. Weaver’s Wisdom Words and High Way to English Grammar are quite good as well. (Because of the intricate diagrams, nearly everyone will want the accompanying teacher’s book for High Way.) All of these offer solid work in the GUM areas. They also include diagramming, which can be helpful for some students and a bane to others. Other comprehensive texts on all things English are Warriner’s English Complete Course (usually located in a used edition on Amazon), Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Revised Elementary Grammar (reprinted by Mott Media and easy to find on Amazon), and the old standby by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (included here in a PFD but you can also grab a print version).
Sonlight sells a few good options for prescriptives, including Keys to Good Language. You would likely only need one of these, either the grade 5 or 6 version, to be done as needed and not just in those grades. Both would be overkill for all but the most serious issues. Winston Grammar is another favorite. In fact, it’s great for your dyslexic students because of the tactile aspect of the cards. You can manage with JUST the cards if you like. Rainbow Resource and CBD sell the cards on their own. Finally, the Grammar Ace program uses those fun Schoolhouse Rock ditties that were interspersed between Saturday morning cartoons in the 70s, including their beloved Conjunction Junction song! All three of these choices can be found in other places rather than Sonlight, but SL does have the advantage of having some samples you can peruse.
The main detractor to using these types of products is that you rarely see carry-over into the child’s own writing. On the one hand, it’s hard for people to learn how to edit their own writing. That’s part of why Editors exist! On the other hand, the better people get at handling the GUM skills, the better their writing should be. I once read a little book on writing the best first draft you can, which emphasized this concept. The author was quick to point out what all composition teachers, professional writers, and editors know–that there is no such thing as a first and ONLY first draft. However, he did say that you could indeed write a good first draft and that as a professional writer, it would behoove you to do so. After all, time is money when you are a self-employed/freelance writer. To help with this crucial skills, I refer people to IEW’s Fix It Grammar. I have yet to find anything that works as well to help kids learn to edit their own writing. You don’t need to begin this the very first year you get into IEW. In fact, I personally tell people to wait until 5th or 6th grade the earliest to start this. Here’s why: There are 6 books that get progressively more difficult as you go through the whole program. Ideally your student is doing or has just finished up that last book the same year as he is sitting for his SATs or ACTs because many of the issues that crop up on those high stakes exams are covered in the last two books of this series. The first one starts out quite easy and students who have already done Abeka’s God’s Gift of Language for just one year won’t even need to begin with book 1. Here’s the placement test. What’s really genius about this product line is that it takes all of 5 minutes a day to do it! That’s right–just 5 minutes. You can do this in several ways. If you have students in several grade levels, you could put each one in his own book, but you can also keep them all in the same one. If you opt for the “family approach,” put the sentence of the day up on the white board–with all of the mistakes still there! Throughout the day, have the kids, from youngest to oldest, apply the fixes they have been taught to find. Then, over dinner, discuss all the issues that were discovered. This way everyone learns at their own level. On the fifth day of the week, you can choose to have your kids use the corrected sentences as copywork and write them in a notebook. You can also skip this if you don’t need extra penmanship practice. Each day’s fixes include a vocabulary word that can be utilized n some way in your homeschool. For example, you can keep a jar for beans, adding a bean whenever someone uses the vocabulary word that day. When the jar is full, enjoy a special treat. Homeschool doesn’t mean life is full of drudgery!
Sometimes, though, teaching GUM is more than one homeschool mom can stomach in a given year for one reason or another. Or, perhaps you don’t feel up to the task yourself. If this is true for you, there are options. (There are always options!) This is a test that will show you the areas where you are weak and need to study for yourself before you can help your student with automaticity. Don’t neglect guiding your child while you learn! There’s something to be said for a child seeing his or her mom and dad learning new things. It shows them the value you place on education. If you need more help with GUM areas, you can work through one of the various worktexts or textbooks on the market, such as the ones referenced two paragraphs up from here. If you choose a hardcover (non-consumable) item, so much the better because you can easily us it to teach your son or daughter once you are done with it!
For speech, you can simply follow IEW’s recommendations and build into your regular schoolwork a time for your students to share what they are learning with others. Take a look at the The Four Ds Es and Rs Compared. All of the last sections of these letters include a way for your students to share what they have learned. This is the basis of speech. You can do more as your kids get older. IEW’s Speech Bootcamp is a popular choice. You will want to do this sort of thing in a cooperative environment because it’s much more fun that way! You could also study great speeches and fabulous orators to learn what they do (or did) that made them so successful. Hewitt’s Lightning Lit-Speech course does this. The skill of Rhetoric is best saved for later on in a student’s career because there are seasons best suited for different things. Older high schoolers and college students are better at being able to analyze and synthesize information and then repackage it in some way. This lends itself to giving great speeches as well as writing interesting essays. There really is a time for everything under the sun!
Coming back to the reading end of language arts, there is another aspect that must be addressed–comprehension. This skills can be done in a very natural manner much of the time. If your child is listening to a story, you can stop occasionally to ask the 5W and an H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) questions of that lie at the basic level of most comprehension tasks. At some point, though, most kids need to learn more advanced comprehension skills in a very explicit manner. Some kids just don’t “get” subtleties and need to be shown specific strategies. Most need help with those upper stages of reading that we discussed earlier. (I really have to revise this “stream of consciousness” themed page into something more logical!)
What do you do to help kids move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” (from stage 2 to 3 of Chall’s hierarchy, and beyond)? One of the things you must do is go beyond the basic questions about who is doing what in the story or when or where the action is taking place. Kids need to move beyond the first level of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning and into the higher levels, beginning with ones that explore the purposes. Why did this or that happen? What else could have been done? What is the author really saying about the BIG ideas through this work? All of these types of questions ask the child to consider what they read and make connections to other things he knows. One way to teach this is by thorough discussion over the years using Teach the Classics, as mentioned above. Its sister product, Worldview Detective, will help with those tough questions about the author. Unfortunately, when an author is already dead, we can’t go back and ask him what he was thinking! For more information on how to grasp some of these deeper issues through classic works, look no further than Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book on Amazon, which is well worth the slow digestion needed.
Another way to increase comprehension skills–while often increasing fluency for many students–is to assign timed passages. This only works well if you take the time to teach the student what he needs to be doing while he is reading. If he is still putting most of his brain power into decoding the words, it is too soon to begin anything but the very bare bones of basic comprehension work. You can ask a child who was in the story and what they did, but anything more will result in tears because it is hard work to decode every single word. By the time the child gets through a string of words, they have often forgotten what the sentence is about. For children who are at this stage in their “learning to read” they will benefit more from fluency practice than comprehension. However, you can certainly encourage this type of comprehension during your read aloud times! (Just so you know, nobody ever outgrows read aloud time!) You can also add layers of comprehension to those stories that your new or struggling reader has built sufficient fluency in, but not for stories that they have only approached once or twice. Dyslexic children need substantially more exposures to words and print before they will build fluency. Don’t give up!
For students who are ready to build comprehension skills, I love the McCall-Crabbs booklets. You can purchase a hardbacked version of the proper McCall-Crabbs version of these stories in one volume from Wanda Sanseri because the stories are added to the student’s workload at Step 31 of the Spell to Write and Read program. In the earlier levels of McC-C, students most often practice learning subtleties by deciding on the main idea or possible titles for the stories. Spalding International had a great teacher’s manual that includes much more than just the answers to the questions, but it is out of print. You may not always agree with the provided answer on these titles! As students progress through the levels, they encounter more and more subtleties that require them to think through their answers. Some of the questions get pretty misleading too, so careful reading is essential. Grade levels can be accurately assessed by averaging every ten stories when the sessions are timed (3 minutes maximum for the whole thing). You can arrive at a good approximation with just one story though. These little stories are wholesome. I have yet to find any that are disturbing in any way.
Another lovely option that I have used to good success for comprehension is Walking with Jesus published by the same people who reprinted the 1828 Dictionary, FACE. What’s nice about this program is that you don’t have to do it in 4th grade as recommended by the publisher. In fact, with my dyslexic children, I took one quarter’s objectives and assignments each year over the course of 4 years, working to ensure that the student thoroughly understood the various strategies. We did this by following the curriculum for the first 9 weeks of a term, then applying those lessons to other works across his whole curriculum. So, if we were learning a K-W-L chart, I made sure that we used this in more places than just the passages directed in this curriculum. We did it with his science, his history, his geography, even his English. Walking with Jesus is sort of along the lines of a study skills program because it is meant to help ease the transition into the “reading to learn” stage of reading development. This page has samples for the teacher resource CD, which you definitely want, and the student book. In this curriculum, the student is guided through many different graphic organizers to help plan what he will write about on various topics. As I explained, while the title of the book and its chapter lessons focus on passages from the Bible, you can easily move from these into any information in the content areas. It’s a good find. Similar to Walking with Jesus is Writing Aids, from Tapestry of Grace, which could be effectively utilized by any student who needs to figure out how to organize his thoughts so he can write about a topic. I don’t recommend either of these before about 4th grade level. Wait longer if your student really isn’t reading fluently yet.
The above information on the Arts of Language will get your child through most of his or her school years. All that remains is to read great works of literature, discuss them with someone, and write about what you have learned–all while backing up what you say with specific insights gleaned from the work in question. That’s pretty much what high school, and to an extent, early college literature teachers expect of their students. If you need guidance in these areas, you will want to go with one of the classical curriculum options, such as Omnibus from Veritas Press, which combines literature, history, and theology into one huge “class” each year for 6 terms. Personally, I feel that 7th grade is too early to begin their courses, but I’m a mother of sons, and it is well documented that boys mature at a slower rate than girls. This is another area when you are best served by waiting for puberty to be well underway before launching into the higher order thinking required. If you don’t, you will just spend a lot of time bashing heads! Another option for literature at this level is Janice Campbell’s Excellence in Literature series. Hewitt’s Lightning Lit is another strong choice. Of course, Sonlight and Tapestry of Grace are wonderful options as well. Ambleside Online is fabulous too. I have pros and cons for each of these as well (I’ll do a review of each of these on another page someplace), but when you come right down to brass tacks, what’s best for YOU and YOUR children will depend on YOUR family’s needs, goals, and preferences. One way to tell whether you might prefer one of these options over another is to look at their book lists. As stated earlier, there are so many wonderful titles “out there” and there’s no way any one person could tackle all of them. We have to choose! So I leave you with that–choose. Then give yourself the freedom to enjoy your choice. Homeschooling really is about the journey not the destination!