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.

PHONICS

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.

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READING

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!

VOCABULARY

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.

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I’ll buy it right now…

LATIN

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.

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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!

COMPREHENSION

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.

GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION

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!