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25 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

“There is no better time than now, this very Christmas season, for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the principles taught by Jesus Christ.” -Thomas S. Monson

23 December 2011

My Boys

Brotherly Love

The other night I checked on my boys, and this is what I found. They're not usually so cuddly, but this time they'd gone to sleep on my bed. It made me smile to see them snuggle.

19 December 2011

Great Ideals

Pre-K/K at Home (part 2)

In part 1, I talked about a number of things we do that help our little ones learn the language. Both of the boys have been early talkers, and I think all that talk and reading have contributed to that.


With Monkey, teaching letters and their sounds happened very much by accident: He asked to use my mouse one day, so I let him click around Starfall a bit. He loved it so much that soon we were limiting his screen time. (We only used the free parts.) By his second birthday he knew all the letters and their sounds, and not long after I was starting to research phonics in preparation for introducing the next step.  I knew he was young, but at the same time he was starting to show the "reading readiness" signs, and I had no idea what I was doing. I browsed across Happy Phonics and it has been the perfect fit in many ways.

Happy Phonics is an entirely games-based program: all the practice the new reader needs, but in a fun format. No writing necessary. Monkey and I started playing the program's games for about 15 minutes 2-3 times a week shortly before his 3rd birthday. (Now that he's older we've moved to doing it just about every day.) It starts with very basic stuff: letter sounds, matching the upper and lowercase letters, which was easy after Starfall. After a while we moved into the beginning blend games. Blends were hard for us. I wasn't teaching them very effectively at first, and we stayed there for a looong time. I'm also told that figuring out how to make those blends is the hardest part of teaching reading. With Dragon I'm planning to play oral blending games before we move to written blending games. I saw someone else had blogged about doing that and thought it was a wonderful idea that would make that leap into blending a lot easier.
To that point, Happy Phonics was wondeful, but as Monkey got the hang of doing the CVC blends, I started to feel like I don't know what I'm doing. The program assumes that Mom knows something about phonics... and I didn't know any more than the most basic blends. Enter Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading. When I'd checked the book out of the library I'd rejected it because it was so painfully dry. But now I looked again, and I found that the program had something that I needed badly: an systematic approach to phonics. What rules to introduce when, and word lists for practicing the rules, as well as little phonetic stories for the student to read. I still didn't like the format that OPGTR suggests, so I changed it. The word lists I wrote out on 3x5 cards to play with file folder games and the HP games. Works like a charm, and takes about 5 minutes per lesson.

L: Silent E Machine. R: File folder game & word cards.
The other thing I do with OPGTR is a bit more involved, but since I'll be teaching more than one student with it I feel that it's worth my time. OPGTR has little stories that use the words from the lessons to give the student practice at reading. The book suggests using a sheet of blank paper to cover the extra text so it's not too overwhelming, and have the child read right out of the book. Phonics is probably the least favorite topic under study at our house, and I've have mutiny and tears if we did it that way, so I turn those little stories into little books. Over time, the collection has grown. I do not do this for every lesson. But enough to get some good reading practice.

Here's what I do:
  1. Take 5-6 pages regular printer paper and 1 sheet colored cardstock. Hamburger fold them so the cardstock is on the outside.
  2. Open them, and carefully sew down the fold. The color of your thread doesn't matter, and it doesn't have to be perfect. I generally make several of these at once, and often let Monkey choose the color of the covers.
  3. When I'm ready to make the books, I get out OPGTR and count the lines. Sometimes it works out perfectly to match my pages, more often I have to add something to make it fit, or occasionally double up 2 sentences on 1 page. If a family name fits the rules, I usually substitute family names for the generic ones in the book. Monkey likes that, and I like anything that makes him more willing to read the little stories. If I have to add stuff, I usually add silly stuff as it is more fun to read that way. Or ducks. He likes to quack, so there's been lots of ducks in our stories.
  4. Once the words are all worked out in my notebook, I write them into the book.
  5. Last, I draw pictures. We're not talking about beautiful pictures, just stick figures with clothes on them, usually. Or sometimes I'll borrow from the Bob Books style. It's very minimalist, but it does take some time. However, Monkey is soooo much happier reading these little "illustrated" books that it's worth the effort to me. I want him to enjoy reading, but right now he thinks it's tons of work, where so much of the rest of school comes very easily. Those little stick figures make a huge difference in his willingness to put out the effort. 
In addition to reading the story as we're doing the lesson, I use them to review old rules that we have already learned. There's some review, naturally, in the process of reading stories. But I think it makes a difference to go back and re-read the old stories too. Over time his fluency on the older books has really improved. Which is not the same as saying that he's fluent, not at this point yet. But we're not quite halfway through OPGTR, so I'm fine with that. When I asked around on my favorite message boards, it looked like it takes most people about 2 years to work through OPGTR. I think it's going to take us a little longer than that, unless he decides that it's important to him. Right now it's just not. But I'm OK with that. He knows the stuff that we've covered, and he's learning the new rules, even if he's not super enthusiastic at this point. But it's working. And it's thorough.

OPGTR uses very few sight words. If it can be taught phonetically, it is.  I like that. English has a reputation for being very irregular (and is, compared to other languages I've studied), it's still largely a rules-based system. I've seen a variety of numbers for how "regular" English is, but 80-90% seems to be the consensus. Although I've been told that expecting my sons to learn phonics is "too much to memorize," it seems to me that it would be much harder to memorize enough vocabulary, as whole words, to read even close to fluently. And this very phonics-intensive instruction is working. Monkey can read any word that follows the rules we have covered, and has a small-but-growing collection of truly irregular sight words as well.

Happy Phonics puts things into a format that Monkey enjoys. Doing it in a games-based way allowed us to start much earlier than anything else I've seen would have. OPGTR holds my hand so that I'm confident that I'm not missing anything, and helps me put things into a logical order as we progress. I need that. The two of them together are just right for our family.

18 December 2011

Peg People

I've been looking around Pinterest, and found this really cute idea for little peg faries, just in time for a birthday party that Monkey got invited to. We had a fun time getting them ready, and the birthday girl loved them!

15 December 2011

What's a Potter's Wheel?

Today, the question as we're learning more about the Indus River people was, "What's a Potter's Wheel?" I'm clueless about how to explain that in words, so we found some movies.

13 December 2011

Mohenjo-Daro and Some Critters

We've been reading about the Indus River civilizations this week, and it's very interesting. Mohenjo-Daro is a fascinating mystery! In addition to the city itself, as we've been reading there's some other, slightly more mundane things we've come across that needed explanation so that Monkey would understand. I love You-Tube for this sort of quick clarification - and he loves that he gets to watch a little "movie" for school.

This one is an artist's idea of what Mohenjo-Daro may have been like.

This one shows a tour of the ruins.

When we were talking about water buffalo, Monkey was surprised they weren't water animals. Clearly we ought to look at some of those! This one includes a rhino as well, which is nice, because we read about them last week, but didn't go look for any clips.

And here are some domesticated water buffalo.

We also read about camels.

08 December 2011

Art and Artists

We're having another go at learning about art, artists, and drawing. I found a set of lesson plans that go with Drawing with Children, and they have made my life so much easier! I love the ideas in that book, but just could not figure out how to translate them into doing stuff with Monkey. Those lesson plans are wonderful. We're actually making (slow) progress now. And I'm OK with slow: it's so much better than none. One of the first things the lessons plans wanted us to do was make a notebook for our Great Artists Studies. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with this until I saw this idea.

A "smashbook," where order is not so much a problem. One of the blogs I looked at said they'd created a table of contents by numbering the pages- but leaving the first 3 or 4 blank. I like that. Stuff goes in. Learning goes in, and gets remembered because we come back to the book from time to time. So we got those little composition books, and we're going to do it. A little at a time. In Baby Steps. Because small things add up, and it doesn't have to be a huge thing on any given day. It can wax and wane. We can do a whole bunch this week because making a collage to decorate the cover is fun, and then wane as we look at other things, but wax again when we find an interesting artist. And that's OK. Because in several months or even years, when it's done and the book is filled it will be much more than nothing. Which is what we're presently doing. Here are some ideas for what to put inside a Great Artists book.

I made this graphic to go on the cover of mine; Monkey just wrote on the lines on the front of the composition book. When they're done I'll come back and add pictures. But you can  have this "teaser" for now. And if you like it, you can use it on your Great Artists notebook. Drop me a line if you do - I'd love to see pictures of your finished product!

There. The cover is finished. Here are some pictures of mine. Monkey put his name on his, so you'll have to imagine the cuteness. We looked through Usborne's Introduction to Art and picked interesting pictures, which I looked up online and printed out. Then we glued them on our decorated notebooks. And, because our printer ink is very water soluble runs if you look cross-eyed at it, I covered them with contact paper. This will also make the covers generally tougher, which is a plus for a book I'm hoping will be sticking around for a while.

Front cover.

Back cover.
Front cover detail

05 December 2011

Pre-K/K at Home

A couple of friends have been asking me about doing preschool at home: what do I do? How do I know what to teach? This sort of thing. I thought that I'd write down what we did in doing pre-K and Kindergarten at home.

The first thing to do, in my opinion, is seek the Lord's blessing. The prophets have spoken very clearly about the critical importance of a mother's influence on her children, throughout childhood, but especially in those critical young years. President Benson was especially blunt about the importance of mothers for their preschool age children:

"It is a fundamental truth that the responsibilities of motherhood cannot be successfully delegated. No, not to day-care centers, not to schools, not to nurseries, not to babysitters. We become enamored with men's theories such as the idea of preschool training outside the home for young children. Not only does this put added pressure on the budget, but it places young children in an environment away from mother's influence. ... It is mother's influence during the crucial formative years that forms a child's basic character. Home is the place where a child learns faith, feels love, and thereby learns from mother's loving example to choose righteousness. How vital are mother's influence and teaching in the home-and how apparent when neglected!"
-Ezra Taft Benson (Ensign, Nov. 1981, p. 104)

In teaching Hero, I found the distinction between  preschool and Kindergarten to be relatively artificial. The primary difference was the amount of time we spent doing school in a week: as he got older, I expected more. But for the most part, we did the same stuff all along and it worked beautifully. I used preschool as a time to practice the skills that I need to do "real" school successfully, and so it was win-win all around. Here is what we did:


I do my best to speak to my children using adult language. If I don't think they understand a word, I stop and explain. I often talk my way through the day, explaining what I'm doing as we go.

"Turn off the television - half an hour of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood per day is plenty for any child under five. Talk, talk, talk - adult talk, not baby talk. Talk to her while you're walking in the park, while you're tiding in the car, while you're fixing dinner. Tell her what you're doing and why you're doing it. ('Now I'm going to send a fax. I put the paper face down and punch in the telephone number I'm calling... and then the paper starts to feed through like this.' 'I spilled flour on the floor. I'm going to get out the vacuum cleaner and plug it in. I think I'll use this brush. It's a furniture brush, but the flour's down in the cracks, so it will work better than the floor brush.') This sort of constant chatter lays a verbal foundation in your child's mind. She's learning that words are used to plan, to think, to explain; she's figuring out how the English language organizes words into phrases, clauses, and complete sentences."

The Well-Trained Mind, page 27


From the time he was a munchkin, I read out-loud to Hero, and now to Dragon. The first thing I recommend reading is the scriptures. I used this chart to track our progress - and it went in the scrapbooks when we were done. It took more than 3 years to go through the Book of Mormon with Hero for the first time. After that he wanted to read the stories of Christ's life, so we read the Four Gospels. Although it takes a long time to complete the project, I think it's well worth it. I also started him on a scripture box as soon as he could talk well enough. That has been one of the best parenting decisions I ever made. I can't recommend it enough!

In addition to scripture, I try to read picture books to the boys every day. Sometimes I choose, mostly they choose. We snuggle and read on the couch, the floor, in their beds, and wherever. We read at the doctor's office, and I read to them over lunch. They get books as gifts at their birthday and Christmas and as rewards for good behavior. We let them choose books they want to bring home at the book store and the thrift shop, and I write their names in books that are theirs. I try to keep the picture books high quality books, but some twaddle has slipped in from time to time, and a few times it's even become a favorite. We've had a few books destroyed by pudgy baby fingers. We've had a couple books loved to death. We have several books that have been mended with packing tape, sometimes more than once.

"A torn book or two is a small price to pay for literacy." -Susan Wise Bauer

I also read chapter books to the boys. We are reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator right now. We don't do the chapter book every day, but I do try to get it in three or four times in a week. It has always worked best for us to do this reading while eating lunch or getting ready for nap time. We often snuggle under the covers and enjoy a chapter or two. I don't hesitate to drop a book that isn't a good fit; Hero loved "The Secret Garden" but we dropped "An Incredible Journey" after only one chapter. When he was a baby, I read "Treasure Island" to him... but only the first half. Once I realized that the pirates were going to kill a bunch of people we set that one aside for a while. I love the 1000 Good Books list, and have found many old friends on there, and the new titles we've tried have been wonderful. If I can't think of anything to read, that's where I go.

When we read, I occasionally will stop and ask, "What's happening? Why did he do that? What do you think will happen next?" These questions check to see if Hero understands, and they helped him to get ready to narrate when we started moving into late Kindergarten and early first grade work. I stop and explain any difficult vocabulary as we go along.

Nature Study

Charlotte Mason, an 18th century educator, was a huge proponent of nature study - going outside and observing and learning about the world, first hand. We do that, and I love it. In practice, this has been walks in the park, looking for "cool stuff." We've played around with magnifying glasses and binoculars, but mostly we just go look and see what we can see. My plan is for this to grow into a more focused thing, and to use a sketch book to record the "cool stuff" we find, but at the preschool level it's just getting outside. When we do this we often finish our walk at a playground.


Both my boys learned their letters and sounds on Starfall.com. Once they know that, w use Happy Phonics and I keep one eye on The Ordinary Parents' Guide to Teaching Reading. I keep the stuff the kids do looking like games, and we keep the lessons very short: 10 minutes is probably about average, 20 minutes if they're really into the game that we're playing.


I initially used Math Expressions with Hero, but later discovered Miquan, and we ME is a good program, I really like Miquan, so we use that now. It goes to about 3rd grade math, so it's got plenty of stuff for the pre-k/K years. We start with counting. Counting trucks and toys and forwards and backwards. This post talks more about counting, and links to an article with some great insights to how to lay a foundation. We play with Cuisinaire Rods, both formally, and informally, where the kids basically use them like blocks. We are learning Japanese as a family, so a lot of the math we do now Dragon is doing in both English and Japanese, and I've been really amazed at how readily he takes to doing it in both! I'm having Hero participate in some of the "easy math" but in Japanese to shore up his number literacy in both languages - I've learned a few things since we did it the first time!

For the first couple years, this was pretty much it, along with some finger painting and field trips. I don't stress about writing with my littles; we color, and do other things to develop the fine motor skills. We start doing the letters more intently towards the end of the kindergarten phase and into 1st grade.


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