Friday, May 13, 2016

How do I know when my child is ready to read?

A very long time ago I entered kindergarten as a four year old who would turn five that October.  In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I was far too young and not ready on many levels.  I was very immature and was not developmentally ready.  My mom worried too, but they assured her that there was a reading readiness class between kindergarten and first grade if I needed it.  The consequences of beginning school too soon negatively impacted the rest of my school education.

I have vivid memories of kindergarten.  There were centers set up around the room we could rotate through.  I remember playing house in the kitchen and the  big cardboard blocks the boys liked to build with.  There were puzzles, the memory game and lacing cards.  I remember playing with clay and cutting with safety scissors with rounded tips.  We had story time and singing and dancing.  Every day we played outside on the playground quite a bit and took naps, even in my half day class. We were taught the alphabet and to count to twenty, but the one thing we never were taught was how to read.

All those years ago in the early 1070's, the teachers knew something that we have forgotten today.  They knew that children needed to be ready to learn to read and there were physiological signs that indicated readiness.  Reading was never taught in kindergarten or earlier because the majority of children are not physiologically ready to read until, at the very least, age six and for some children it is later.  My kindergarten and first grade classrooms had balance beams in them.  Why?  Because children who are ready to read can walk on a balance beam without falling off.  I remember my first grade teacher requiring her students to skip and jump rope.  She was looking for the students to be able to skip with opposite hands and feet extended with smooth, flowing movements.  Today we know from modern neurological research that reading requires both hemispheres, the right for the spatial sight words and the left for phonetic decoding.  The Corpus Callosum, the neurological bridge between the two hemispheres that allows bilateral movement, is not developed enough for reading and writing until around age six or seven.  In some children it doesn’t develop until age ten or eleven.

Teaching a child to read before the bilateral pathways have developed can cause lifelong reading disabilities.  Remember that reading is a bilateral activity for the brain.  If the Corpus Callosum is not developed enough then signals cannot travel between the two hemispheres and only one side, the right side which is responsible for sight words,  must do all the work of reading.  The majority of reading must be done by decoding, but cannot be accessed.  For some children who have been trained to read this way, they will continue to access the right hemisphere only when the Corpus Callosum eventually develops.  Math as well requires both hemispheres which may be why so many children struggle with it in the early years.

It is the gross motor movements of the body that develop the neural pathways necessary for reading, writing and spelling.  Think about the untold hours children before the age of six spend sitting in front of a screen.  Their bodies and minds are disengaged from the real growth their neurology and body needs.  Provide your child with plenty of outdoor time running, jumping, spinning, climbing, swinging, riding a bike, throwing a ball, etc.  Your child needs hours and hours of gross motor movement every single day.

There are signs you can look for that will indicate that your child is ready for formal education, and more specifically, to read and write.  Can your child skip, jump rope with an added hop between jumps, walk on a balance beam or log without falling off, ride a bike or stand on one foot with arms out to the sides with eyes closed for a prolonged amount of time?  These are all indicators of the integration of the bilateral pathways.

What if your child is not ready by age 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 years old?  What if they are 10 or 11 years old and still cannot read?  Do not panic!   For these children it is perfectly NORMAL and something that should not concern you.  Your child will learn to read when the neural pathways develop.  You will need to read all of your children’s school books to them during this time and hold off on writing.  If you have a positive attitude of acceptance, your child will not think it abnormal and feel like a failure.  Do not attempt to teach them to read until they show the physiological signs that there is bilateral integration.  In the meantime, offer your child plenty of time each day for gross motor activities.  Bilateral activities like Taekwondo, Bal-A-Vis-X, basketball, soccer, etc. will all help.  The good news is that the late bloomers will catch up with their peers very quickly.  For some children it will only take a matter of months.

If your child shows the physiological signs of reading readiness and they are still unable to learn to read, then there may be a reading disability that needs further investigation, but I suspect that there will be very few of those indeed.  It is this teacher’s opinion that early reading education before a child is ready, has caused the majority of the learning disabilities we see today.

If you would like to learn more about this topic go to the website below.  It is written by a Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrician who has been working in the field for 27 years and contains an abundance of helpful information.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Free Charlotte Mason Seminar

My Charlotte Mason support group is putting on this free seminar.  Seating is limited so RSVP at the email address in the flyer above to ensure your seat.  I hope you can make it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Delight in Handicrafts

“The points to be borne in mind in children's handicrafts are: (a) that they should not be employed in making futilities such as pea and stick work, paper mats, and the like; (b) that they should be taught slowly and carefully what they are to do; (c) that slipshod work should not be allowed; (d) and that, therefore, the children's work should be kept well within their compass.”  Charlotte Mason

Last summer I was looking for a handicraft that I could do to occupy my hands in my quiet times.  I had an idea what I wanted to do and found these delightful, felt bird patterns that you can download for free.

“What a good Christmas gift these would make,” I thought to myself.  “Wouldn't my Christmas tree look pretty with all the birds I see around my house all year, hanging from its branches?”  In the evenings I began to sit down with my patterns and felt, sewing these pretty birdies for friends, family, and myself.

On the second evening my son asked if he could have a piece of felt to make a toy mouse for his kitten, Whiskers.  Without any pattern and very little help from me, he produced his first cat toy. She loves her toy mouse!

Just seeing me work with my hands inspired his desire to do the same.  Often, introducing a handicraft is as natural and effortless as modeling the behavior.  I enjoyed thinking about the person I was making the gift for as I worked on it and so did my boy.

Later, I found a pattern for these adorable, lavender, strawberry sachets.   I bought dried lavender to fill them with, so every time I sat down to sew, the lavender scent wafted around me, increasing my sense of peace and well being.  They were a quick project that I could complete in one or two sittings.  You can leave them next to your bed for a restful sleep or put them in your drawers when they are finished.

In the past we have done many different handicrafts.  It has been challenging finding ones that interested my boy who has always resisted crafty projects.  Here is a list of some of the things we have done in the past.

  • Learn to sew a button
  • Take apart old appliances to see how they are put together
  • Soap and wood carving
  • Whittling
  • Sewing a pouch and bean bag
  • Leather work
  • Weaving on a loom
  • Making a bench, birdhouse, and ramp for toy cars from wood
  • Collecting seeds from produce, making and decorating seed packets, painting paint sticks as garden markers to go with the seeds for a gift
  • Learning to knit
  • Learning electric circuitry with Snap Circuits and creating many projects
  • Creating video movies and stop action films

The key to handicrafts is that they should be useful skills that will bless others and yourself through life.  You never know when a handicraft could become a business.  My sister sells her handcrafted Mason jars and has a very successful growing business, Kelly's Creative Outlet.  You can see what she has to offer on Etsy!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Nature Notebook, A Treasury of Memories

"As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day's walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb.  Innumerable matters to record occur to the intelligent child."

The plants and trees have gone to sleep for the winter, but there was still such beauty to see on our nature walk.  A Hawthorn tree devoid of leaves revealed its long sharp thorns and bright red berries hanging from every branch.  It brought our minds to the crown of thorns our Savior wore as he hung on the cross and the berries a reminder of the blood shed for the sins of the world.  We were enchanted by the Spanish moss hanging from the leafless branches on a Live Oak tree.  On closer inspection we found Oakmoss lichen with its stringy hairs and blue green flakes covering many of the branches.  It was delightful sharing this nature study with friends as we explored the river under the bridge. We brought home a specimen, a piece of a branch from the Live Oak tree and plenty of memories of all we did and saw together.

On another day we pulled out our nature notebooks from the bookcase with all of our paints and brushes to record our nature walk.  Our jeweler's loupe allows us to see our specimen magnified 5x's.  I referred to my Handbook of Nature Study (HONS) by Anna Comstock to see what I could find about Spanish Moss, Lichen, and Hawthorn trees. It is a wonderful source of information, but on occasion our Texas flora and fauna are not found within its pages, so I go to the internet where I am able to identify our specimens. Did you know that Spanish moss is not a moss or a lichen? It gets all of its nutrients from sun and rainwater. On occasion a poem can be found in HONS relating to what we are studying and if we feel so inclined, add it to our nature notebook entry, but mostly it is a treasure of our memories and observations in nature.

I have chosen high quality spiral bound nature notebooks for us with heavy watercolor paper as most of our entries are painted with our paints.  Watercolor color paper seems to take the color very well allowing the colors to stand out without bleeding through to the other side of the page.  You are creating a keepsake to last a lifetime so quality is important.  We have used colored pencils, sketching pencils, watercolor crayons, and markers, but we continue to come back to the watercolor paints.  Why?  Because it allows you to take the time to really see your specimen.  You touch it with your eyes and mind in order to see every nuance of shape and hue.  You begin to know what you are painting in a way that is unique to any other observation.

The classic eight color Prang semi-moist watercolor set in the white box has been a perennial favorite and has produced beautiful colors in the paintings.  This year my sister gave me the Sakura Koi assorted water colors field sketch set for my birthday, which I have really enjoyed.  The variation in colors has allowed me a wider range to better capture the colors in nature.  It is important to have a variety of brush sizes, especially very fine tipped brushes, in order to paint fine detail.  Lately, we have experimented with aqua brushes that have the water in the handle. My boy used one in the picture above, but it was harder for him to control the amount of water.  What often results from excess water is a very washed out picture with little detail.  Below, I used conventional brushes, blending the colors in the pallet, and was able to paint a much more detailed picture.

Each year marches on with rapidly increasing speed, but these precious moments shared in the exploration and observation of God's beautiful creation with each other, will remain in your nature notebooks, captured and preserved.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Privilege of Homeschooling the Charlotte Mason Way

As a homeschool educator I have the privilege to witness things that most parents miss with their children at school and I am very grateful for the opportunity.  This week was our first week back after summer break and I would like to share some observations from our week.

When we listened to Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Firebird, and he listened to the story, I saw my son’s imagination take flight as he played out parts of the story and then he created a new story.

Dull textbooks, busy work, or worksheets have no part in my child’s education.  Instead he is presented with a wide variety of living books with vital ideas written by authors who are passionate about their subjects. His science book is Fabre’s Storybook of Science. This week’s readings sparked an intense interest in pearls and the ocean.  He was fascinated by mollusks, the slimy creature in its shell that would form a protective crystalline coating, nacre, around an irritant and the pearl divers that risked their lives in the days of old, to get them.  We watched a video I found on YouTube about the unique and rare Sea of Cortez pearls and were mesmerized by the beautiful array of colors in pink, blue, purple, green, silver and black.  I pulled out my big bag of shells and we looked at the different shades of mother of pearl and sorted them by their attributes.  It created a desire in him to see the ocean and feel the sand under his feet as he searches out shells.  Yes, there will be a trip to the shore in the near future.

Then nature study happened quite by surprise, while walking home from the neighbor’s house, he found a toad and captured it.   What a joy to observe his desire to care for the toad properly so that he may observe it.  He got out his book, Pets in a Jar, by Seymour Simon to learn about what it ate and how to care for it.  We found his toad on the internet and learned his Latin and common name.  Each day he searched out morsels for his toad, Robert, to eat such as worms and even a baby gecko.  I did cringe a bit at the gecko, but Robert ate it.  Everything was meticulously recorded in his nature notebook, first by carefully painting a picture, working to match the color properly with watercolor paints.  Then, he recorded everything that happened, being sure to include the Latin name, Bufo speciousus, and common name, Texas Toad as well.  I was there to watch his pleasure and satisfaction in a job well done.

While reading in his history books, This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall, George Washington’s World by Genevieve Foster, and Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie Bober, I witnessed his growing understanding of the cost of war in lives, property, and civilization.  He is learning that our freedom was bought with a high price and what happens on our shores or in foreign lands, has a global impact.  He is coming to know that what happened in the past affects the present.

Through his citizenship book, Plutarch’s Lives, he can see that the character of a man can have an impact on others for good and evil. Through our grand conversations I see how he is taking in these ideas and it is growing his character.  We have the opportunity live out our faith by applying what we are reading in the Bible to our lives all day, every day.

We study artists, geography, Latin, grammar, foreign language; we read poetry from the best poets, literature with rich vocabulary and has stood the test of time, Shakespeare, and sing songs.    Every day I see him drink from the feast of knowledge that I present to him and it has created an even greater hunger to know.  I am a witness to how the ideas presented by the best artists, authors, creation, and Creator are shaping his character and equipping him to think for himself, to take in what he needs or what is right and reject the rest.  It is truly a privilege and an honor that I wish every parent could have.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to Choose a Curriculum Part 2

How to Analyze the Curricula

If you have not read my last two articles in this series, I encourage you to take the time to do so before reading this article.  This article only makes sense in light of those.

There are two main approaches to presenting mathematics concepts in textbooks.  One type is a spiral curriculum in which the assumption is that children understand mathematics through repetition.  Mastery of a concept is not expected until it has been reintroduced several times, sometimes over years.  New concepts continue to be presented and then the previous concepts will be reviewed with each progressive lesson.  A spiral curriculum touches on a wide number of concepts in a year in less depth with less time devoted to each new concept.  Saxon Math is an example of this type of curriculum.

The other type of curriculum is content mastery.  The assumption is that learning is sequential and concepts build upon each other.  Foundational to this approach is the idea that children learn mathematics through understanding and mastering concepts.  A concept or skill is presented in many different ways and is mastered before moving on to the next.  Fewer concepts are covered than in a spiral approach and more time is given for each concept because it is taught in more depth.   Mastery of a concept is required before moving on to a new one.  Making Math Meaning by Cornerstone Curriculum is an example of this type of curriculum.

In light of the way in which we know how children learn math naturally as explained in part one of this series, one of these two methods seem counter to that.  Can you identify which one?  If you said the spiral approach you are correct.  What this approach does is to take teaching the new mathematics concepts out of their proper real world context.  If you take a concept out of its context you are taking away the one thing that gives the idea real meaning.    Do you think your child would understand an abstract concept if you use another abstract concept to teach it?  No, the natural learning occurs when you use something your child already understands to explain something abstract.  Each lesson presents a new concept before your child has had the opportunity to grasp the one presented the day before.  When your child is struggling to understand a concept, she experiences the physical effects of anxiety.  If you ask any child how their tummy feels while they are in a state of confusion with a new concept or skill, they will tell you that they feel a knot or butterflies.  When there is mastery of that difficult concept or skill, the anxiety is gone and there is a rush of relief and joy.  Their perseverance is rewarded and their confidence is elevated.  I have observed this over and over again in teaching children mathematics.  With the spiral approach to mathematics, day after day the child is exposed to new concepts with no mastery of that concept.  The amount of anxiety and frustration they are feeling is rarely relieved.  After years of learning with this type of curriculum the student can lose heart and give up.  They believe that they can’t learn math.  It does not have to be this way.

Do you remember what Mason revealed as the practical value of a mathematics education?  Those were the training in reasoning and the habits of understanding, a willingness to work, accuracy, and being intellectually truthful.  Do you think this lofty goal can be achieved through the spiral approach?

So how do you know what a spiral curriculum looks like?  You have to look at how the curriculum is set up.  Look at the scope and sequence from kindergarten through 12th grade if it goes that high.  Look for concepts that are taught, year after year.  Look at a specific grade level text book.  You can look at any grade level textbook table of contents at the Saxon Math website to see an example of how a spiral approach textbook is set up.  Determine how often new concepts are presented and if mastery of that new concept is achieved after it is taught.  Look at the assignments to see if they are loaded with computation problems with little or no word problems? A quick search on the internet for spiral math programs will also be a big help to you in identification of this type of curriculum.

Not all mastery programs are created the same.  They all start with the correct foundation that children learn through mastering concepts sequentially taught, but the way the concepts are taught may be artificial and frustrate a student.  When looking at mastery curricula, keep in mind the foundation of teaching mathematics that it starts with a problem that requires understanding before moving to the abstract symbolic representation of that problem.  This is the way you help the child connect an abstract concept to something real that they already understand.  Be aware, that there are many mastery programs that teach in the traditional method of starting with the symbolic representation of a problem then using objects to make the symbolic real.  Remember that the objects themselves are a representation and can be abstract to the child.  The proper context for mathematics is the real world math problem that needs to be solved first, with objects if needed, and then using the symbolic representation to show what they already know from solving the problem.

Before deciding on a curriculum, read the scope and sequence.  Make sure that there is mastery of concepts before presenting a new concept.  Fewer concepts will be taught with more time given to teach each one.  Read sample lessons to see if you are comfortable with the teaching format.  Look for a focus on word problems first, rather than the symbolic representation of the math concept. There may be some lessons with mostly computation problems, but this should be the case only after the concept has been presented in the real world context with word problems.  At the website for Making Math Meaningful by Cornerstone Curriculum you can find a good example of what a mastery approach mathematics curriculum looks.  It also adheres to the teaching of mathematics that corresponds with how children learn naturally.    You can see the concepts and skills taught for each grade level as well as sample lessons to see how they are laid out.  There are more curricula available like this one, so you have options and can chose one that best suits you.

The curriculum should not require a lot of expensive manipulatives.  Dried beans or centimeter cubes work well as counters, Unifix Cubes work well for making groups and fractions, and some type of place value blocks are sufficient for teaching addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  They can be found cheaply online, used, or in local stores so they don’t blow your budget.

With the growing popularity of homeschooling, there are new mathematics curricula entering the market every year.  Your choices are vast, but don’t be intimidated.  You do not have to be an expert mathematician in order to teach mathematics.  All you need is determination and the knowledge of how children naturally learn mathematics.  You have the knowledge you need to choose an effective math curriculum.  I wish you well on your search and wisdom for your decision making.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How to Choose a Mathematics Curriculum Part 1

Charlotte Mason’s Key to Teaching Mathematics

“Of all his early studies, perhaps none is more important to the child as a means of education than that of arithmetic.”  
Charlotte Mason vol. 1 pg 253-54

Mason’s statement is bold and elevates mathematics to the top of the priority list as a means of education.  This puts choosing the curriculum for mathematics something of the utmost importance and not to be done without considerable thought and research.  Can you make a mistake and choose an ineffective curriculum or one that is very difficult to work with?  Yes, I did in my sons first year of homeschool, kindergarten.  Like most American’s, I grew up and went to college in the public school system.  Although I originally went to college to be a chemist, I eventually switched majors to graduate with a teaching degree and a science major and mathematics minor.  I had been so trained in my thinking about mathematics by this history, that I had made my choice with that mindset. Fortunately, I realized early on, my grave error.  I hope to share with you, the insights I have gained by reading what Charlotte Mason had to say about teaching arithmetic, so that you are fully equipped to make a well informed choice.

“That he should do sums is of comparatively small importance; but the use of those functions which 'summing' calls into play is a great part of education so much so, that the advocates of mathematics and of language as instruments of education have, until recently, divided the field pretty equally between them.”  
Charlotte Mason vol. 1 pg 255

The ability to make a calculation has little importance according to Mason.  In today’s high tech, fast paced culture it is even truer than in Mason day.  Everyone has access to calculators on their phones, computers, tablets, or iPods.  If you can push buttons, you can make a computation.  It requires very little thought or ability.  She goes on to explain that it is the use of these calculations that hold the value to the education of the person.  While easily measured, computational skills are not the goal of mathematics education.

What I am about to share with you I learned, not from my teacher training in college, but instead from reading chapter XV- Arithmetic, in volume 1 of Charlotte Mason’s Homeschooling Series, which in turn caused a monumental paradigm shift in how I understood the teaching of mathematics.

Think about how you were taught to add and then how your child is taught the same concept in a traditional mathematics programs today.  Not much has changed.  If you open a math workbook today, you probably see problems like 2+5=___.  To a young child, addition is a difficult, abstract concept to understand.  He must first understand what the numbers, addition sign and equal sign mean.   In the workbook there may be two objects printed under the 2 and five objects printed under the 5 which the child then counts and finds the sum.  With the new hands on approach to learning, the student is given counters to represent each of the numbers and then he counts them all together.  Either way he is expected to find the sum of seven.  The pictures or counters are the means to make this abstract number sentence more concrete and to help the child understand what the number sentence means.  On an average math page you may see up to 20-30 computation problems.  The child labors and struggles to understand the idea of addition some with more difficulty than others.  This is the traditional approach to teaching abstract math concepts and how, you may agree, mathematics is taught.

Through decades of observing children, Charlotte Mason discovered that this is not really how children learn math naturally. She discovered the missing key to teaching mathematics.

Imagine trying to teach a person to read music.  You show her the notation and tell her the names of each of the notes and symbols, but you never give her an instrument to actually play the notes.  You may be able to teach her to read the notes on the page with much struggle along the way, but does she really know music?  In the same way you may be able teach him to do math calculations with much struggle along the way, but does he really know math?  In the case of the music, the playing of the instrument is the proper context for the understanding of the abstract symbols that represent the music.  Presenting abstract ideas and concepts within their proper context is the key to understanding knowing the ideas or concepts.  Properly framing the abstract ideas or concepts in the real world setting is what makes learning something abstract so natural.  What then is the proper context for knowing mathematics?  Charlotte Mason went directly to real life application.

“Engage the child upon little problems within his comprehension from the first, rather than upon set sums.” 
Charlotte Mason vol. 1, p. 254

All mathematics starts with a real life problem that requires the use of numbers in order to solve it. You cannot go through a day without using math in one form or another.  We use it all of the time. This idea of starting with a real problem is a crucial foundational concept to the teaching of mathematics.  It is also the exact opposite of the traditional understanding of mathematics.    In traditional teaching of mathematics, the symbolic is the beginning and then manipulatives are used to make the symbols concrete.  Remember those long pages of ciphers with two word problems at the end?  This is not how we do math in the real world and this is not how children learn math concepts naturally.  First, start with the problem and offer the use of manipulatives to help solve the problem and make the real world math problem concrete.
For example:

You have two gerbils.  The mama gerbil gives birth to five baby gerbils.  Now how many gerbils do you have?

Next, give him counters of some sort in order to solve the problem.  It is after he has solved the problem and discovered there are seven gerbils that the symbolic representation of the problem he just solved is presented.


It is very easy at this point for the child to understand the meaning of the numbers and symbols.  Do you see the difference?  The symbolic representation now has meaning because it is representing something the child already knows.  The knowing (solving a real world math problem) must precede the representation (the corresponding number sentence).  Mason goes on to explain the need to demonstrate what needs to be demonstrated and here would require the skill of the math teacher to be able to present a concept in different ways if the child does not immediately grasp it in the way you initially presented it.

“The practical value of arithmetic to persons in every class of life goes without remark. But the use of the study in practical life is the least of its uses. The chief value of arithmetic, like that of the higher mathematics, lies in the training it affords the reasoning powers, and in the habits of insight, readiness, accuracy, intellectual truthfulness it engenders.” 
Charlotte Mason vol. 1 pg 255

Mason eloquently lays out the chief end of mathematics, the true value of it for the child.  The result of teaching children in the way they learn naturally as she has described is the training in reasoning.   The habits of understanding, willingness to work, accuracy, and being intellectually truthful are also developed.

When children are taught in a way that is compatible to the nature of learning, it is like paddling a canoe down a river along with the current.  The way is gentle and joyful.  There may be challenging problems to solve, but the struggle is with many rewards.  On the other hand, teaching in a way contrary to how learning is done naturally is like paddling that canoe against a turbulent current.  The journey is filled with frustration and confusion.  Some of you may have experienced this yourselves with the way you were taught mathematics.  The result of teaching contrary to nature is that you and many other people relate feeling that they are not good at math, but what is not good was the way in which you were taught.

Now that you understand the way in which mathematics should be taught and the goal of that education, when you analyze the curriculum choices you will be able to filter the choices by looking for a curriculum that matches this natural way of teaching children.

Look for part 2, my next article on how to analyze the curricular.

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