Sometimes little brother joins the homeschool action . . . especially if it involves Danny and the Dinosaur!
Last fall, I gave a peek inside our homeschool classroom, showing a little about what we were learning. It was my first year homeschooling two children at the same time, one in kindergarten and the other in third grade.
I am pleased to report that in general, our year was a success! Teaching two at a time didn’t pose as many challenges as I anticipated. With the exception of math, I generally taught all subjects concurrently to both children. I generally taught at the third grade level and assumed that my younger daughter would probably not pick up all of it and we would adjust as needed. To my surprise, she generally kept right on pace with her older sister!
While I went into teaching third grade completely oblivious to its importance, I learned later on that third grade is a high stakes year for most kids. Time magazine calls it “the single most important year of an individual’s academic career.” Researchers can predict the likelihood of high school graduation based on how well a child reads in third grade. As a result, many states will hold children back if they are not reading on level by third grade. The common maxim is that before third grade, you are “learning to read” but that once you hit third grade you must “read to learn.”
Reading ability was not a concern for us but I must say that in general, our homeschool ramped up for third grade. We tried to teach more material and more complex material. It was challenging at times but we stuck with it.
With apologies for length, here is the subject-by-subject breakdown of our homeschool year:
We continued using the Singapore Math curriculum we have been using for the past several years. This was the first year we completed the full curriculum on time by the end of the year and I was thrilled with that progress.
My kindergartner blew through the kindergarten math books and then proceeded to blow through the first grade math books ahead of schedule.
My third grader had a bigger challenge ahead of her. Third grade is the year to learn the multiplication tables. Memorization of math facts is not something that comes easily to her but she is very good at adding numbers in her head. So, for example, rather than memorizing 8 x 4 = 32, she often had to count, 8, 16, 24, 32. I did not feel it necessary to emphasize speed at this stage so we just made it through the year with the counting method. On the plus side, with the concept of multiplication firmly in her head, she could calculate answers to questions beyond the scope of the course, such as 20 x 5. She also gradually began to memorize the facts after calculating them so many times.
We learned that there are many ways to teach third grade math. In our local public school, it appears they require students to memorize up through the 12 times tables and the corresponding division facts and then answer story problems based on these facts.
Other math curricula have different approaches. With Singapore Math, after we had learned the 2, 3, 4 and 5 times tables, we then had to learn how to multiply ANY number by 2, 3, 4 or 5, such as 55 x 5 or 555 x 5, by learning how to carry numbers in multiplication. Next, we had to learn long division so that we could divide any number by 2, 3, 4, or 5, including remainders. After we had learned all of that, then we progressed to learning the 6 times and higher times tables up through 10. Singapore Math (and it seems more commonly in Asian math curricula) emphasizes breadth of concepts whereas U.S. math seems to emphasize memorization of facts first and then teaches concepts like long division later on.
Comparison of public school and Singapore Math teaching methods for third grade.
The only challenge for us with this mismatch in strategies is that U.S. standardized testing frequently has questions requiring rote memorization of the 11 and 12 times tables, which we didn’t properly learn. My daughter had to work a little harder to answer those questions but generally did fine using her counting method.
We also used the Common Core Math workbooks to prepare for standardized testing. In general, the math in these books was easier than the Singapore Math curriculum but helped us prepare for the format of many test questions. We found the Common Core Math to be a fairly accurate guide for each grade level of testing.
Brave Writer: The Writer’s Jungle and The Wand.
We used Julie Bogart’s Language Arts program called The Wand. The curriculum was developed in conjunction with Rita Cevasco, an expert on childhood language learning. There were 10 months in the curriculum. Each month we read 2 books. Each book was read 10 times before moving on to the next selection. Daily lessons included learning of complex phonics such as c’s that sound like s’s, the –tch letter team and unusual vowel combinations. A brief history of the English language was also included. We learned about Latin, Greek and other language roots. We copied quotes out of the assigned book and did dictation. At first, I couldn’t imagine teaching some of this to a kindergartner and third grader but I pressed on. This curriculum took me a lot of time to plan in advance and to create my own worksheets to go with the material. I was not a big fan of it at first due to the time commitment.
However, about mid-way through the year an amazing transformation happened in my children. I started getting spontaneous writing! My girls would write me notes or comic strips or all kinds of things without being asked! I realized that some of the more tedious parts of this program, like the spelling practice, were very important in building their confidence in writing. Now that they knew how to spell many words properly, they were happy to write things. They also were more willing to take chances on guessing at spelling, since they had a background in the different phonics and an understanding of when certain spellings are used. So, this curriculum was an amazing success and I would recommend it to anyone willing to put in the time.
One quirk about this language program for us, however, was that it appeared that Rita Cevasco might be a Brit. A few of the phonics lessons ended up requiring some modification because they didn’t make sense to an American speaker of English. Brits pronounce certain vowels differently than Americans. For example, the word “aunt” has a short “a” sound in American English but a short “o” sound in British English. The adjustments were minor, however, and as avid PBS watchers we found the differences more amusing than frustrating.
||To prepare for standardized testing, we also used the Daily Language Review books for first and third grade. These books ask questions about grammar, punctuation, reading comprehension and other common testing subjects. The third grade edition also required several short writing projects, which was a good supplement to The Wand curriculum.
||For our science curriculum, we used the School Zone Giant Science book. I liked it because it was colorful and included fun activities such as word searches and simple experiments in addition to reading the text and answering questions. Hands down, the experiments were my children’s favorite. The book covered a wide variety of topics from weather to plants but the main focus was on animals. We learned about insects and ocean life, lizards, snakes and mammals. Animals are a natural hook to science for most children and this book understood that well. I was surprised at how many animal facts were new to me!
||Our goal for Spanish last year was to find some way to move beyond the stereotypical memorization of numbers, colors, days of the week and a few vocabulary words that is the default elementary foreign language curriculum. We found the Read and Understand Spanish series which is designed primarily for bilingual classrooms. We started off doing once a week Spanish lessons reading the story of the week and completing the 4 worksheet pages. That was not giving us good results as the children were exhausted with Spanish by the end of the lesson and weren’t retaining much.
We switched to shorter daily Spanish lessons with repetition of the story each day and completion of 1 worksheet per day. The worksheets required a combination of writing, cut and paste exercises, word searches and drawings. Coincidentally, many of the stories complemented our other learning in other subjects. Story topics included Jane Goodall, spiders, and fictional stories about children having birthday parties.
Foreign language is one of the most difficult subjects to teach in my experience. While we made progress in terms of learning to understand Spanish phrases and sentences (as opposed to just one random word here and there), my children do not “speak” Spanish to any measurable extent. The lack of immediate progress can be frustrating. However, I do notice subtle progress, particularly in my third grader. She seems to understand more and more and occasionally will write Spanish words herself before I have the chance to spell them out for her. Both girls made good progress learning to write down spelled words in the Spanish alphabet, which is particularly confusing because the Spanish “e” sounds like the English “a” and the Spanish “i” sounds like the English “e.”
In general, I liked this curriculum and would consider using it again.
||One of the areas that needed attention last year was handwriting. One of my children had a dysgraphia resulting in frequent letter reversals. We began the year with Dianne Craft’s figure 8 handwriting program and did that daily for the recommended 6 months. I used the program for both my girls. I wouldn’t say that the program was an immediate magic bullet for dysgraphia but it did seem to help. After using the program, the reversals seemed far less frequent.
After 6 months, we moved on to worksheets from the Handwriting Without Tears program that I had picked up used at a homeschool conference. The biggest benefit I received from this text was learning from their suggestions about how to format a handwriting practice page for maximum results.
About three quarters of the way through the year, I realized that I was wasting a lot of time using pre-printed handwriting practice worksheets. I was missing out on the opportunity to use handwriting as a reinforcement for our other learning. So, I began to create my own handwriting practice worksheets using our spelling words. This approach worked very well and I have continued the practice.
Both girls made significant strides in handwriting. Today, the dysgraphia issues are almost non-existent and all the hard work we put in seems to be paying off.
||I thought I was going to love my art curriculum but I found myself struggling to want to use it. I found it hard to get excited about many of the art projects we were doing and my children did too. After a while, we found ourselves not using it. For me, it was the extra effort required to look ahead and gather all the needed supplies (on top of all the other learning we were doing) and also the lack of excitement from the children when they were doing the assignments. These weren’t like craft projects. They required focus, attention to detail and appreciation of art history. My children seemed to rush through them in 5 minutes, although they did enjoy them and were proud of their work. I am disappointed that I didn’t do more with art and wish I had finished the curriculum. Fundamentally, I think it is a good curriculum but you need to approach it with some of the same seriousness you would use when teaching a subject like math or science.
History was another area where we didn’t quite meet the expectations we had for ourselves. Our goal was to give the children a broad concept of what history is, how old the earth is and how old people are. My husband did most of the history reading to the children. The year started out well but gradually as we all got busier and busier history just seemed to slip through the cracks. It was also a hard lesson for both me and my husband to learn that it is quite difficult for young children to listen to the non-fiction books we had selected. Many teachers prefer historical fiction for this age group and I can see why. With history at this age, it seems to be an “exposure” subject where children may not absorb it fully the first or second time but with each exposure they start to appreciate more and more. As a teacher, it is hard to stay motivated when your students are staring at you blankly or fidgeting and hoping you will finish soon!
Overall, I think we can call our school year a success. We attempted more subjects than ever before and learned a lot about teaching strategies for this young age group. Repetition is key for these young learners. Going over and over and over a concept seems to really drive comprehension.
In my next post, how we fared with standardized testing this year.