Curriculum Ideas for the Overwhelmed Homeschooler – Part 2 – ELA

This post is the second in a series in which I am responding to a reader who sent me this note:

I wanted to ask you what core curriculum you are using for Molly this year for 3rd grade specifically for Math and ELA. Also, my other child will be starting a bit of Preschool-Kindergarten work. Any recommendations for that age level for learning letters, number etc.? There is SO much out there for, which is a great thing. I am finding it overwhelming at this point, though, to narrow it down. Your recommendations in the past were great. Thanks for your continued help and support.

Feeling a Bit Overwhelmed

Hello again, Overwhelmed!  I hope my last post on math helped you.

Here’s the good news as far as ELA (English Language Arts) goes.  As a Homeschooler, your child already has a ton of the most important resource needed for Language Arts: time.

In my opinion, if you want your child to be literate, she needs to read.  And she needs to write.  A lot.

Maybe it’s because I am more confident when it comes to the liberal arts or maybe it’s just that I have had the luxury of stepping outside the insane Common Core bubble, but I have never really worried that my kids would learn how to read, write, or express themselves rationally.

Remember, ELA is primarily a Common Core term, as it is used to define the standards for getting public school students “ready to succeed in college, career, and life”.  As such, they are learning goals, whatever that means for millions of unique students.  As I mentioned in my math post, I “don’t trust completion (or lack of completion) of a certain level of a curriculum as the last word on competency.”

Even with my doctorate and a great love of reading, writing, grammar, and research, I’d rather poke my own eye out with a fork than than try to parse out how to meet these 66 pages of COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS FOR ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS AND LITERACY IN HISTORY/SOCIAL STUDIES, SCIENCE AND TECHNICAL SUBJECTS.  If that’s what you are looking for, you can stop reading now.

Also, there are many who believe that simply reading, writing, talking and interacting with others will teach a child what they need to know to communicate effectively.  You can read more about that here and here.  If you believe that, you can also stop here.

While I admire the Unschooling philosophy and think about it often, I think I am still not completely de-schooled.  If you read this blog at all, you know I worry that, without the guidance of formal lessons, my children won’t master a subject or skill comprehensively.

We don’t use a text book per se, but I do use a bunch of resources for helping the kids to learn how to communicate.

Here, broken down by specific skill-set areas, are some of the resources we use(d) for getting our kids to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively.  They all overlap so you might find one more useful for a specific skill than another.  Mix and Match.


For this post, I define “phonics” as the system of relationships between letters and sounds. Whether it is knowing that the letter B has the sound of /b/ or how to pronounce the digraphs ch, sh, or th, it’s phonics.  If you can do that, you can chunk a word, which makes reading and writing a lot easier.

For the early years, the Leapfrog:  Letter Factory and Leapfrog: Talking Words Factory  videos cannot be beat.  They are a wonderful introduction to phonics.  Here you can buy a box set with flashcards.

Endless Alphabet, which I’ve written about before here,  is an App that we have used with great success for all three kids when they were between the ages of 2 and 6.

We also loved the LeapFrog Fridge phonics Magnetic Letter Set and LeapFrog Letter Factory Phonics and Numbers.

We also use Starfall for the early years.

Once my kids were ready to sit and do workbooks, we turned to Explode the Code, which has worked really well, especially for Joseph.



We read a lot.  Together, at story time at the library, on our own and with any friend or family member who will read or listen.

We read every night with our kids before bed.  And I have always kept piles of books on the floor, which looks messy, but which are also irresistible to little kids.   Whether they are reading the  book, browsing the book, or eating the book, I don’t care.  I just want them to feel comfortable around books!

Back when we lived in Michigan, very far from our families, I had grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles read stories on camera so I could play the videos for my kids.  My kids loved them!  Not only did my kids love listening to the books, they loved seeing their favorite people every day, even when we were 1000 miles away!


My kids learn a lot of vocabulary just by talking with us!  We do not use any major text, but in reading and writing and talking with us, my kids are always asking what a word means or how to spell it.  For the younger ones I tell them.  For Molly, I make her look it up.  A dictionary is a good friend.  It is outdated today, when you can look up any word on line or in an App but my Dad kept this copy of The OED in his office and to this day, I have such fond memories of using the magnifying glass to find the word I was looking for.  I wish I had his copy.


I’ll buy it right now…


I’ll admit it.  I have an emotional attachment to Latin.  My Dad, an elementary school teacher for almost 30 years, loved language and made Latin a part of his curriculum every year.  Although I was never in his class, I was his sounding board and testing ground for many of the games and projects he used in his class, even after I left town to go away to school.  I have a lot of happy memories of all those word games with my Dad.

Aside from those happy memories, I think Latin is important mostly because it builds vocabulary and grammar. If you know just one Latin root word, you can chunk all sorts of English vocabulary words.

So, knowing Latin makes understanding English vocabulary easier.

As 55% of all English words are derived from Latin (90% of those over two syllables are Latin-based) and about 80% of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese words are from Latin, Latin is all around us!  Latin matters.

Once every week or so we do a few pages out of Getting Started with Latin: Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers and Self-Taught Students of Any Age.  The kids love it and it reminds us to look for roots out in the world.

Molly also keeps Scholastic Vocabulary Packets Greek and Latin Roots  with her other books and every so often does a page or two.


One of the best parts of homeschooling is checking workbooks. I hope Joseph is in a band called “Awesome-osity” some day!

 If you don’t want to do workbooks but still want a reminder to think about words, try a 365 New Words-A-Year 2015 Page-A-Day Calendar.

You can also check out a Pinterest Board like this one for fun ideas on words.

Here also is a quick reference guide on word roots.  It is free and shows you just how many roots there are!


Even though I was pretty successful in school, I did not take it seriously until I hit college.  I just tried to pass tests and get A’s.  Actual understanding didn’t matter.  I just knew I needed to jump through hoops because that was what was expected and that was what everyone else was doing.

We homeschool because we don’t want that to happen with our kids.  We want them to seek information because they are interested in it and we want them to have the ability to grapple with it, understand it, and make informed decisions with it.  That is one of the best tools we could give them in their toolbox for life.

How do you measure understanding?  Tests.  Asking questions.  Watching your kids work.  Reviewing their work.  Being with them and talking to them.  That is how we do it.  I am really baffled by the need to test kids so much because I can tell you where my kids are at just by watching and interacting with them.  They do well on standardized tests but more than their understanding, I think those tests tell how well they take tests!

One of my favorite ways to have fun with comprehension is public speaking.

For public speaking, the Writing with Ease series cannot be beat.  Written by one of my homeschooling favorites, Susan Wise Bauer (with Peter Buffington) Writing with Ease alternates between having the student do copywork and/or dictation on one page and then listen to a passage from a piece of literature and answer questions aloud in full sentences on the next.  Its emphasis on reading comprehension and public speaking is invaluable.  I can see the gears in my childrens’ heads working as they think through their answers.

We have also really enjoyed participating in “Book Wars” with a local homeschooling group this semester.  Two other moms came up with idea:  once a month any kids interested show up at a local coffee shop and take turns presenting reasons why the book that they read that month should win for best book.  After everyone has a turn, each child is asked a few questions.  Then there is a blind vote and the winner wins a prize, which is usually some yummy baked goods.  Speaking in front of strangers is hard and thinking on your feet is even harder but Book Wars has made it fun.  Plus, we’ve gotten some great book recommendations through the group. Even if you don’t have a homeschooling group, you could just have your child present a book to you out loud.  It doesn’t matter if it is a chapter book, a picture book, or a comic book!  It is a non-threatening way to work on these skills.


Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.  You cannot communicate clearly without it.

Along with Writing with Ease, we have found Evan-Moor’s Grammar and Punctuation series easy to use and informative.

This year we have gotten in the habit of using “Daily” workbooks because it allows us to work on each subject a little bit each day.  Evan-Moor’s Daily Language Review series has been a great addition to the two mentioned above.

This post is not meant to be comprehensive but I hope it gives you an idea of some resources you can use for each skill set you may be interested in.

I am still planning to post a piece on resources for Pre-school and Kindergarten work.  And I am working on a post of resources for critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills.

If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!


Can You Guess Who Molly’s Superhero is?


We participated in a Superhero themed 5K/1K fun run this weekend.  Our kids were asked to invite a buddy to run/walk with them.  Here is a mid-way shot of a cape Molly made for one of her heroes.

Can you guess who she is (Hint:  those are a stack of books)?  Thank you to our wonderful, encouraging, children’s librarian!  Eden Unger Bowditch says it best: “LIBRARIANS ARE HEROES! You are the gatekeepers who show us the maps to incredible journeys and fabulous adventures in the worlds of words.”


4 Summer Reading Programs to Prevent “Summer Slide” or Just for Fun

Do you worry about summer slide? According to Reading is Fundamental, “children who do not read over the summer will lose more than two months of reading achievement. Summer reading loss is cumulative. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer will be 2 years behind their classmates.

We homeschool year-round because we don’t separate “learning” much from our daily life anymore, so we don’t worry about summer slide.  We do, however, change up our schedule about every 6  weeks or so.  Starting now, here are four summer reading challenges we plan to participate in.  The kids love charting their progress and “winning” prizes.  Join us!


Joseph, back when he couldn’t read, just listening.

1.  Read any 8 books, record them in a journal you print from their website, bring the journal to a Barnes and Noble store between May 20th and September 2nd, and Barnes and Noble will give you a free book.  Find more information here.

2.  For TD Bank members, they’ll will give K-5th graders $10 if you complete their  form (which you can get here), list 10 books your read, and bring it to a local TD Bank by August 31st.

3.  Kids who read any 8 books from the Pottery Barn Kids recommended list by July 31st will receive a free book at participating retail stores.  Our absolute favorite from their recommendations is What Sisters Do Best/What Brothers Do Best by Laura Numeroff and Lynn Munsinger, which is going for about 1 penny, used, right now on Amazon.  One penny!  We got it when JohnJohn was born and I find us coming back to it over and over because the kids just love flipping it around to read it forward and backward!

4.  Scholastic is trying to set a new world record for summer reading minutes.  Help them by reading and logging minutes between now and September 5th here.  You can win books and other prizes as you go.  Register here.


I Wish Mo Willems and Kevin Henkes had Signed it as Well

reading children's authors

Last week over one hundred children’s authors and illustrators — including Rosemary Wells, Maya Angelou, Sandra Boynton, Jane Yolen, and Judy Blume — signed an open letter to President Obama protesting overdependence on standardized testing in schools.

Unfortunately, they did not illustrate it.

I hope you read a great book with your kids tonight.  When you’re finished, check out the the full text of the letter here.

The #1 Reason Most Parents and Teachers Choose Books for Kids


Take any one you want. They’re ALL apples.

We parents and teachers run the risk of picking books for our kids only for their “educational value”.

Even the funny or fun ones – – the ones with really cool covers – – the ones we just want them to read for fun – –  we pick so our kids will A) learn their letters or 2) learn to read or 3) practice reading.

A promise of “educational value,” no matter how ambiguous, gets us to move that book right to the top of our reading list.

How could it not?   Don’t most of us just want to “prepare” our kids for school, for graduation, for life?

The fact is, our kids have a life now.  Why don’t we let them choose their own books?

Daily Prompt: Reading Material

How do you pick what blogs or books to read? What’s the one thing that will get you to pick up a book or click on a link every single time?

Photographers, artists, poets: show us CHOICES.

Can you Spot the Luxury in This Picture?

Kid Knows How to Relax

The kid knows how to relax.

Luxury is living fire, whether its Joseph (my firecracker), a great book, or a hot fireplace on a chilly pre- Autumn morning.

Having had all three, I cannot live without any of them.

And I wouldn’t want to choose just one.

OK.  OK.  If I had to, of course I would pick the little man.

Daily Prompt: Luxurious

What’s the one luxury you can’t live without?

Photographers, artists, poets: show us LUXURY.

Our Favorite Way to Learn Letters and Their Sounds

Leapfrog:  Letter Factory, originally released in 2003, has stood the test of time in our house.  JohnJohn reminded me of it a few weeks ago when he picked it out of our DVD case.  He has begged for it ever since.

Short and to the point, it goes through every letter of the alphabet and reviews its sound.  We have watched this video so many times because all of my kids liked it and it actually taught them about letters and sounds!  My husband can’t stand the voices and thinks the whole story is a bit hokey but I’m OK with both.   I’m the one that watches it with the kids most of the time.  And, hey, he already knows his letters.

It’s on sale now at Amazon for around $8.00, which is about 1/3 of what I paid for it back in 2007!  How do I know this?  We finally wore it out and I needed to buy a new one!

Check it out if you’re looking to work on letters and sounds.

Seriously, all my kids have loved it almost as much as the Mummers.

Seriously, all my kids have loved it almost as much as the Mummers.

What I Miss About My Niece


Helping out with a word

At our house we read together every night.  It’s my favorite time of day.  Usually, JohnJohn (who is into everything these days when he is awake) is asleep and Molly and Joseph cuddle right up to us on Molly’s bed.   We are (usually ;)) still, silent, and peaceful.

The kids are old enough that now we get to go on some real adventures with our books.  That’s the thing about reading:  if you can read, you can go anywhere and do anything.  What a gift.

My one niece, here with Molly, cuddled right up with us every night to read during her visit.  On her third night here she bravely offered to take a turn reading.  She clearly wanted to give it a try.  Nervous at first, she started slowly and cautiously stumbled over some words.  But she kept at it and so lost herself in The Candymakers, that she ended up reading a chapter and a half!

When they left we immediately jumped in the car for a 10-day trip.  We’re back now and re-starting our routines.  I miss sharing our days with the girls!   And of all the things we do every day, I will miss reading with Sammy.  She cuddled and read and laughed so generously that I will miss her sweet self poking out from her spot on the bed.

My Very Own Belle (Unabridged)

Don't get hit by a motorized carriage, Belle!

Don’t get hit by a motorized carriage, Belle!

I caught Molly leaving the library with a new book and she reminded me of Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast movie.

I love the Disney version as much as any raised-in-the-80s American kid, but there’s something better! I’m talking about an unabridged version of the Beauty and the Beast story.

As you probably already know, unabridged means that the book has been published in the full, original form.  Abridging is done to make a book more concise, easier to understand and/or more marketable to the public.  It’s done to all sorts books, including, disconcertingly, textbooks.

Many readers, like myself, generally object to abridgements because they tend to dumb the originals down.  We don’t want other people to decide the worth of something in a story after the author has published it.  We’ll do that ourselves, thank you ;).

If you agree, look for the word “abridged” in book descriptions and try to order the complete version instead.

Beauty and the Beast, a French tale from the 1700s, has been translated, interpreted, and re-written so many times that it’s hard to keep count.  My favorite version is from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.

The Blue Fairy Book, originally published in 1889, is the first in a series of fairy tale books (I think there are 12 in all) and contains versions of popular favorites like Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin, Goldilocks, and of course, Beauty and the Beast.

They are in old (not very modern) language so you have to do a little extra work when reading them and they most certainly do not come with all the happy endings that Disney provides.  In fact, the stories can be graphic and thus not appropriate for every age.  You may want to read ahead of your child if she is reading alone or omit parts as you read aloud to younger kids.

What’s cool about the Fairy books – – and why we keep coming back to them – –  is that they provide a single source of diverse stories from all around the world that provide lessons in morality.  The tales typically have more grit and nuance than many current children’s books, and always give the kids, Joe and I lots to think and talk about.


Fun Ways to Encourage Reading Right Now

I don't look this cute reading but I still try to do it every day

I don’t look this cute reading but I still try to do it every day

Here’s a fun way to encourage reading.

From the Barnes and Noble’s website:

Step 1.  Read any 8 books and record them in the Reading Journal (PDF).
Step 2.  Bring the completed Reading Journal to your local B&N store.  Find a Store.
Step 3.  Choose a FREE BOOK from our selection on the Reading Journal list at the store… Enjoy reading!

More information here.

Molly did this last year and it was really simple and fun.   Yeah, free books!

This activity also provides an opportunity to talk with kids about companies and marketing, as the whole program is really just a big, albeit positive and healthy, marketing tool for Barnes and Noble.

I am amazed at  how well kids can understand the competing interests in our capitalist society.  Compared to grown-ups, they seem to have a lot less difficulty grasping that the same thing (this marketing program, video games, candy), rather than being innately good or bad, has beneficial or detrimental effects depending on how we approach it.  Critical thinking matters.

Another fun way to encourage reading is the I Read a Book Pad, which lets beginning readers give feedback on books they read on a slip of paper that you can hang up or put in a book.  If you don’t want to spend the money, just make your own.  We like it because it gives a physical manifestation of the books read, which is really great for little guys.  Last summer, Molly loved counting up the sheets and they provided a nice record of more than just reading.  She gave feedback and actually thought about the books she read.  A great habit to start early!