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It’s been a long time since I gave an update about what I’m doing with the boys, who are now 5.5 years (H.) and 15 months (E.).

I guess the biggest news about H. is that he’s now writing regularly and doing quite well with that, but we’ve made progress and made minor adjustments with nearly everything.

Mathematics.  We’ve finished the Singapore Primary Mathematics 1A, and recently started 1B. I’m very happy with the Singapore system.  The more we’ve studied math, the more I’ve come to understand some of the methodological issues.  I now believe even more strongly that it’s a good idea to expose a child to many different ways of solving a problem.  Math isn’t about coming up with a working heuristic to solve a problem, it is about understanding the relationships between various very abstract numerical concepts.  This understanding, rather than the mere ability to work through a problem, is the goal.  The Singapore method (or at least, if that’s what’s in these textbooks & workbooks) is built on this insight.  We discover that we didn’t really understand a certain concept until we try to tackle similar problems in a new way–and the more ways we have of tackling a problem, the more we really understand what’s going on.  Yesterday (as it happens), H. said that he likes his Singapore books precisely because they give him different ways of doing, or thinking about, the same problems.

At the same time, I also believe it is crucial to memorize certain basic facts in different subjects.  We haven’t started memorizing much yet, but we have started memorizing addition and subtraction facts.  For this we’re still chugging through Two Plus Two Is Not Five, which I can recommend highly–or at least, it’s worked very well for us so far. We spend half our time on the Singapore books and half (or so) on Two Plus Two. H. is now well into Tier 5, which means he’s in the home stretch (there are six tiers).  There are very few simple addition and subtraction facts he doesn’t have memorized now.  But, before you sneer that this is rote memorization–which, of course, it is–you should bear in mind that he has also had an in-depth introduction into different ways of thinking about these same sorts of problems.  So he has both memorized and understands most of his basic sums and differences (I think, or hope).

We also “take a break” once every few weeks by doing a chapter from Life of Fred: Apples. This could be safely skipped, but it’s “enrichment,” and H. likes it.  He also fairly regularly does iPad math apps, just because he likes it.  I also got in touch with Dr. Miles Jones of Jones Geniuses and should be trying out his curriculum sometime soonish.

I’d say math is one of his favorite subjects just now.  He rarely resists or wants to do something other than what I say we’re going to do on a given day.

Writing.  There’s a lot to report here.  First, a little about penmanship.  In the last report (August 2011), I said we were still doing penmanship.  For another month or two, I guess, we were switching off between having him write one sentence with very careful penmanship, and writing three sentences without paying (much) attention to penmanship.  But for the past 4-5 months have worked almost exclusively on writing.  I still do (even recently) make him practice his penmanship from time to time, but not too often.  Mostly I simply make him rewrite certain letters, or practice them over and over if they’re a chronic problem.  (This is the sort of one-on-one attention that homeschooling allows for.)  Simple practice, without trying too hard, has improved his penmanship quite a bit.  He’s faster and a little neater than he was six months ago.

Until recently, we were doing just a couple of different writing assignments.  In one variety, we would agree on some sort of theme (what you’d do with a million dollars, your trip to the park, a story, whatever), I would give him some instruction or advice, and let him go.  In the beginning I hovered over him and helped him (and this was useful).  Soon I found it was fine for me to just go up and work and let him write by himself, although sometimes I’d have to go back and advise him on various things.  In the other variety, I would simply say, “Write at least three sentences” (or sometimes “at least four” or “at least five”), and he would go and come up with all sorts of stuff.  He got into the habit of asking for blank “books,” which were 3-5 pages of printer paper folded over and stapled on the “spine.”  He would end up writing a lot more than five sentences on these, illustrated.  These were usually about things he was interested in, or related to studies.  A couple of times he made a History of the World.  Once, an Atlas.  Frequently, they were story books.  A lot of times these sorts of compositions, stories, and “books” don’t make a lot of sense in terms of choice of topic and relationship among sentences.

Then about a month ago I posted a question on the Well-Trained Minds Forums, and was inspired to rethink how I’m teaching writing.  It occurred to me that H. could benefit from beings systematically exposed, maybe not to grammar at this point, but to rhetorical modes, in a certain way.  So at first I introduced “historical narratives,” because that was (for whatever mysterious reason) what H. picked from a  list I gave him.  Then “dialogues,” and right now we’re doing “character introductions/descriptions.”  In each case, each day, I find three examples that are “pure” examples of the rhetorical “mode,” so to speak, we’re focused on.  So the historical narratives had little or no dialogue or description, etc.–just the recounting of a sequence of events from history.  I would read and discuss each example, explaining their main features.  Then I had H. copy one.  He didn’t like copying much, but it wasn’t too much of a struggle to get him to do this.  After doing that for three days (up to half a page of RediSpace notebook paper per day–which isn’t too much, I think), then we’d switch gears for three more days.  We’d begin the same way, by looking at a few examples of the text type (sitting in the big chair together).  Then we’d pick one, and read it two or three times, discussing its main features.  Then, H. went and rewrote it from memory.  He usually did an excellent job of this.  After the rewriting phase, we’d begin an “original work” phase, in which (at least in the case of dialogue and description) he would make up his own.  He has also dictated a number of original compositions, which I typed in; these could be longer.  In fact, today, we did a 200-word dictation that specifically combined description, then narration, then dialogue.  Here it is (this was heavily guided by questions and corrections from me, but it’s 90% his language and story):

My Mousie

My mousie is white all over, and he has a tail.  He is pretty big, for a mouse.  He is a puppet.  He has a place for your finger to fit in.  His name is Mousie.  I like pretending to feed him some food–especially pretzels.

One day, Mousie went out.  He got into his car, which I made specially for him, and drove to the family room.  I pushed him along.  From there, he drove over to the study table, which is where I study.  Then he saw our math books and our RediSpace notebook.  He bumped into me accidentally because it was time for me to study.

“Excuse me,” I said.

Mousie replied, “You’re fine.  I regret that I need to study.”

“Get the pencil sharpener,” I said.

Mousie climbed up and stood next to the pencil sharpener, and he said, “I need help carrying this.”

He let me move the pencil sharpener down.  I sharpened a pencil quickly and started doing math.

I gave Mousie his own pencil, and he started math too.

The End

Is this “rhetorical modes” work improving his writing?  I don’t know.  I imagine so, but I’m going to let him take regular breaks from this sort of systematic training to write whatever he wants, maybe encouraging him to write some more of his “books.”  (He childishly boasts that he is the best writer in Ohio, and he yesterday said that writing is his favorite subject.  So this shouldn’t be a tall order.)

However the systematic “rhetorical modes” training will work out, in the last six months or so, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in all aspects of writing–penmanship, spelling, grammar, focus of text, etc.  I’ve been frankly amazed at how much progress he made without any systematic training in spelling, grammar, style, or rhetorical modes, before we started the more planned-out work a month ago.  I suspect that what matters more than anything is, quite simply, a good quantity of writing daily.

I do correct his spelling, but in fact I rarely have to make many corrections, and almost always the corrections are of quite hard words.  I am sure that his early systematic phonics training has helped him to pay attention to just how words are constructed, so he knows when a word is misspelled, and so can often figure out the right spelling himself.  So far, I haven’t had any particular desire to train him in spelling–I haven’t seen a need, beyond correcting his spelling and occasionally making remarks like “the <shun> sound at the end of words is often written t-i-o-n.”  I’ve looked at spelling programs and they look extremely basic and dull.  I guess we could try some more advanced ones.  Maybe we will after another while.

It’s the same way with grammar.  I rarely have had to explain agreement or even contractions–for whatever reason, he just writes grammatically excellent sentences.  Occasionally they are complex, too, although usually they’re pretty simple.  I did have to change “did’nt” to “didn’t” the other day, and for the first time explained that the apostrophe meant that a letter was omitted, which is why it’s between the “n” and the “t”.  For this reason we haven’t yet tackled a systematic grammar.  We did read two Basher grammar books, Punctuation and Grammar, and I explained as much as I read (if not more).  He’s asked for another Basher grammar book, but I’m not sure there is one.  Maybe that’s my cue to just break down and get him a grammar book.  I think they did help a bit, and H. liked them both a lot–specifically requesting them for dinner table reading.  So far, I don’t see a lot of need to introduce him to grammar, when he’s introducing himself so well.  Of course, he does make grammatical mistakes from time to time, and I do correct and explain them.  He also have been going through a 3rd grade vocabulary enrichment book, which is kind of fun, and that allows me to explain the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives repeatedly.

There’s one other thing to report here.  Lately I have been writing a lot (mostly just to work things out for myself) about how to teach writing, and so I’ve given serious thought to the classical and Charlotte Mason notion of writing “narrations.”  A narration is basically a writing exercise in which the student summarizes, or at least writes what he or she remembers, from a text read once, carefully.  I started a thread about this to solicit help.  Suffice it to say that we’ve done around ten narrations in the last few weeks.  We’ve approached them in a number of different ways. He has done fine with these, although of course it will take time and practice before he is able to do them well without any prompts. I also don’t think we have time to do them multiple times per day, as some other homeschoolers, with older children, say they do.

Drawing and art.  I’ll talk a little about drawing and art here because we sometimes do that accompanying writing or after writing.  About 90% of the time, when he does drawing or art, he does it without much direction from me.  The other 10% of the time, I try to take him step-by-step through some project, almost always a drawing project.  Obviously, when we do the step-by-step thing, he does much better.  His drawing and art is not better than the average kindergartner’s, I’m sure, and might be a little worse.  I’d like to work more systematically, maybe a couple times a month, on drawing, but I haven’t yet found a good program to follow.  Here I really need a good program because I’m no great artist myself.  We did have a weekly art class at the YMCA, which was great.  We’ll be going back for more of that.  This has taught him about a bunch of art media that I never would have taken the time to touch myself.

Science.  We’ve been reading Basher science books (Periodic Table, Chemistry, Rocks and Minerals, Physics–he greatly enjoys these, though of course he doesn’t grasp all of the concepts yet), and a variety of others, over the meal table.  Since we don’t get science much at any other time, about 40% of mealtime, I’d say, has been devoted to science lately.  Still, it occupies less time than we spend on other subjects, I’m afraid.  In fact, I think I’m probably falling down on the job a little bit on science, especially because we’ve stopped doing experiments and Electronic Snap Kits nearly so much–we’re down to just about one experiment per month or so.  At times in the past, we often did 2-3 per week.  I guess I haven’t had time myself (these are very time-consuming to get ready), and I really want to start going through science more systematically.  I guess I can see some benefit from doing so, and H. doesn’t really seem to care what we read when it comes to choice of science topics.  The main reason we have put science relatively on the back burner is that I’ve wanted to get math and writing off to a solid start in 2011–and that we really did.  Besides, it’s not as though we’re entirely neglecting science, and we have read a lot of science books.

Geography.  After lunch, we spend around 15-20 minutes per day reading 2-4 pages of a geography book and looking at related pictures and videos, as well as the globe, maps, and atlas.  Sometimes he does more than this (rarely tracing maps, for example).  I read this to him, so we’re really learning quite a bit of geography together.  Most of it is new to me, too–at least, at the in-depth level we’re pursuing our geography study.  As to the method itself, I’ll quote something I put in on a couple days ago:

The books mostly introduce different countries, organized by continent.  [Currently, South America.]  Our favorite series are True Books and National Geographic Countries of the World. We’ve done Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and now we’re almost done with Colombia. Chile and Argentina next, to finish our study of Andes Mountains countries, and then we’ll wrap up with Venezuela and Brazil. We’ll skip the small countries (the Guyanas, Uruguay, and Paraguay) and didn’t spend so long on Bolivia. (I wouldn’t recommend doing them in the precise order we’ve tackled them–we did because we started by using a “spine,” and Peru was the first South American country in the “spine.” In fact, we have a couple of spines (children’s atlases that feature a significant amount of text about the countries), and while we still use these, they have become practically irrelevant once we’ve reading whole books. We toss off the sections about the area of South American we’re studying in a day or two, and basically just use it for reinforcement/review. We have also read a couple books about South America in general.

As we read the books, we very frequently look things up, either on maps in the book itself (especially when using the superlative National Geographic books), or on a 16″ floor globe we have (for less-detailed things), or a ginormous atlas we have (for more-detailed things). When there is not a picture of a place or thing in the text, we usually look for one on the iPad. Using iPad to search Google Images is one of the best ways to supplement and make things “visual”–we also do this with history study. We also frequently look for videos to illustrate things like music, ethnic groups, and more about what things looks like in general. The iPad also has a couple of good apps, Google Maps, Google Earth, and a couple National Geographic map apps. I’ve also had him trace simple, line political maps of South America and Colombia using tracing paper. But I’d say 75% of our work is reading the books about countries.

I’ve never seriously considered using a canned geography curriculum. It’s simply not detailed enough and frequently involves what seems to be busywork, which I would like to avoid.

My argument for using books, and not doing so much map copying, projects, or worksheets, is simple: it’s more efficient and I think he’ll learn and retain more in the long run. Of course, it’s impossible for him to retain all, or even half, of the information he’s exposed to–but he’s exposed to so much more, and such a richer and richly interconnected variety of information, that he comes to “live in” a continent. Factual information such as a country’s capital is becomes second nature, because it’s mentioned many times in different contexts: several times in the text, in our study of the globe, atlas, and map apps, pictures, videos, etc. Because of the rich variety of media, our focus on only the best geography books, and our daily (albeit fairly brief) exposure, we have come to enjoy the time learning about different countries. The other day, my son had another 10 minutes of reading to do in his daily hour of reading, so he read six pages of the National Geographic Colombia book–which bothered me, because now I’m not going to be able to read it! We are as it were slowly travelling around South America. Because we’ve learned so much, things that might seem dull, like the varieties of Indian groups or different geographical areas (e.g., “Los Llanos” grasslands in Colombia and Venezuela, or the Guajira Desert which I hadn’t heard about before), become genuinely interesting. It really, really helps–in fact, is absolutely essential–that we look at pictures and videos of things we’re unfamiliar with, or things which we think might be impressive to look at. Combining a reasonably detailed text with lots of visuals makes all the difference.

I happen to think that study of geography is at least as important as modern language study. If a large part of the reason for studying a modern language is to be able to get around in that country and to understand the culture, how much more important is it to study the country itself, head on? Geography is necessary is you want to travel, to understand international news, and to formulate opinions on foreign policy. It also helps a child to understand the wider variety of current human experience, history, landscapes, etc. It makes a child more worldly and less provincial–and hence capable of understanding many things he might not otherwise be able to understand (or, not so easily) when it comes to subjects that really demand an open yet critical mind, such as philosophy, history, and world literature.

“Reading” and chapter books.  H. has continued to read for an hour a day every day after geography.  Last time I mentioned that H. liked to read out loud.  Well, after a while he started reading silently all the time and I’ve never heard a peep from him since.  As a result, he has gone through a fair number of books.  He’s also become much more comfortable doing his hour of reading now–while when we started it was often a struggle, now I usually say, “It’s time to read,” and he’ll just get to it.  I am not going to prepare a list of all the books he’s read recently, but he has read quite a few chapter books.  The highlights included Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, Vol. 1 (314 pages–entirely his idea to tackle this), Beverly Cleary’s three Ralph Mouse books (starting with The Mouse and the Motorcycle), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (I read Harry Potter #1 to him, he read the second to himself, and got halfway through #3 before he called it quits for now), a couple of Secrets of Droon books, six Flat Stanley books, a couple King Arthur books, and others.  I’d say it’s been about 70% fiction, 20% history, 10% science and transportation.  I encourage chapter books.  But when he tells me, as he occasionally does, that he is tired of chapter books and he wants to read easier books, I let him.  His favs there include “Let’s Read and Find Out” science books, various books about cars and trucks and construction, and the giant Richard Scarry books.  More generally, he picks out his reading material himself–although from a bookcase stocked with things I think he’ll like.

I gave him an incentive (something I have done, just occasionally, when it seemed helpful) to finish the Ralph Mouse books: I said we could get him some related toy if he finished Runaway Ralph. So we went online and found a great mouse puppet.  H. has never ever been attached to stuffed animals to the extent that he is to this mouse.  For the first time he is sleeping with it, carrying it around, etc.  “Mousie” sits overlooking math and writing homework, piano, meals, etc.  For Christmas he asked for a motorcycle for the mouse.  So he got one, and though it was not the most expensive present, it was definitely his favorite.

We were reading something from the absolutely wonderful Children Just Like Me where some kid said that he liked math but didn’t like reading, and H. piped up to say that he liked reading.  That was great to hear.  Not only is he now quite resigned to his hour of reading to himself, he really seems to enjoy it.  In fact, I am seeing him more and more picking up books on his own again.

At bedtime I read chapter books to H. for 20-40 minutes.  These are almost always a little higher-level than the books he chooses for himself.  We’ve read quite a few–again, I won’t list them here, but they include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew (more engaging than LWW itself), Little House on the Prairie, a mid-level edition of “Aladdin” and stories from the Arabian Nights, Stuart Little (this was the first chapter book I read to H. after Winnie-the-Pooh–he liked it at the time and loved it again recently), and quite a few others.  We’re actually only 1/3 of the way into Little House now.  We read Little House in the Woods when he was 3 or 4, and half of Farmer Boy. He liked those at the time, but he just loves Little House now, and I don’t blame him–it’s just such a wonderful book.  We also read literature at mealtime, intermixed with other stuff.  This has included D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and The Aesop for Children, The Golden Children’s Bible (an excellent version which I had as a child myself, but which he nixed halfway through–I’m sure we’ll come back to it–he declares forthrightly that he does not believe in God, whenever the subject comes up, and I tell him that he is too young to have made up his mind), about 1/3 of the entire fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson (that was a lot of reading)…and no doubt a few other things.  We’ve done a lot of fantasy-oriented reading lately, as you can see.  I was impressed by the appeal of fairy tales to H. now–in the original versions.  We tried the original versions when he was 2 or 3, and (of course) they were too advanced.  Now he rather likes them.  This is an excellent way to get him used to more archaic language, which he really must if he is going to be really comfortable with classic literature.

History.  History has been another favorite, although lately sometimes not so interesting to H.–he has suggested that we skip history a few times in the last few weeks, for example.  Anyway, we did finish Bauer’s Story of the World, Vol. 1–in fact, as I said above, this is one H. read to himself, but I also read it to him.  We also finished the quiz book about that.  In addition, I read him the matching section of Gombrich’s Little History of the World, and he read some of this to himself, too.  We also listened to the whole thing, all the way to the end, in the car.  We finished the ancient world sections of the Kingfisher Atlas of World History and of the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History. Anyway, as of a few months ago we’ve moved on to medieval history in all four sources (we’re on Volume 2 of Bauer).  We’ve also read a couple books about Vikings and medieval life; he likes the stuff about castles and Vikings pretty well, so we took some detours from our main reading to dip into that.  Apart from the Usborne Cleopatra book and a few others, I don’t think we read as much history at mealtimes, so history too has been somewhat downplayed in recent months, again mostly in favor of “the basics” of math and writing.  We’ve also been reading lots of You Wouldn’t Want to Be series books, which are just great.

Latin.  H. has been doing Latin on average about 3-4 times a week, I’d say, although it’s supposed to be daily.  Latin time is always before breakfast–it doesn’t take long, about 10 minutes or so.  Still we (I’m doing it too–but lagging behind him, always threatening to “catch up”) are making progress.  We’re on Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, almost done with Unit 3 out of 4.  He goes in phases when he likes it and does it without complaint, and also when he says he doesn’t want to do it at all–sometimes I let him skip it in those cases.  Sometimes I just forget to tell him to do it, and he rarely does it without being told.  Already, here and there, we’re seeing the advantages of studying Latin, in vocabulary items.  I’m sure we’ll spend more time on it when he’s a little older and we’re done with all three levels of Rosetta Stone.  At the rate we’re going, it looks like we won’t finish until he’s 7 or 8.  Maybe that’s OK, or maybe we’ll speed it up later.

Typing.  We went through one or two periods in which H. was practicing typing fairly regularly (this software), but since it was always after math and writing, and since these took a lot of time, we ended up giving up typing.  More recently, H. has been practicing typing and writing by writing emails to family members.  He still hasn’t learned what he needs to, to write a standard sort of letter, but it does give him practice on typing and writing (including spelling, grammar, etc.), and also keeps him in touch with his extended family, which is nice.

Music.  I’m rather proud of the work we’ve done in this area.  I believe we first started on the Music for Little Mozarts program just before he turned four, and he didn’t have any motivation to do it, and I didn’t want to try to force him.  So we did very sporadic lessons when he was four, and when he turned five, we tried piano lessons–which we dropped after a month because he wasn’t getting much out of them.  Well, we’ve continued to do two “micro-lessons” (5-10 minutes apiece) per day, and as a result he’s finished Book 2 today (just a coincidence).  He’s excited about Book 3, which it happens arrived in the mail today.  He’s gotten a lot better, sometimes practices (or at least makes up his own little tunes) by himself, and generally has a positive attitude toward piano.  We’re also renting a fiddle, and are threatening to return it since he isn’t practicing and I’m not going to require that he practice it.  But the threat is getting him to practice some, and I’ve given him a couple lessons a week in the last few weeks.  Still learning how to hold the instrument and make a sound, but he’s also made some progress here, too.  I expect we’ll return it and try again in a year or two.  Starting with piano is a good strategy anyway.

Other stuff.  Brief reports on other subjects that are mostly on hold:

Memorization: last year we memorized 10-20 poems or pieces of poems, quotations, etc.  We stopped doing that for the same reason we stopped typing.  This makes me regret, but he’s still just five, and I’m not prepared to ask him to do more; I guess I’d rather that he learn math and writing very well at this point.

Chess: in this time period we finished a chess tutorial book and also joined a chess class/club for 5-7 year olds (what a precocious bunch this was, let me tell you!).  We got a tournament-style chess set, played lots of chess games, and studied the game in various ways.  In the end, however, for whatever reason, he lost interest, or as much interest anyway.  We still play, but not as much, so we won’t be renewing the club.  I think trying again in a year will be a good idea.  At this point he’s getting some of the basic strategy and seeing most of the more obvious threats, but he’s still struggling to understand how to checkmate.

Logic: finished Lollipop Logic, Book 2, which was very easy, but slightly harder than Book 1.  I’m not sure it did him the slightest bit of good, but it’s an interesting intellectual challenge.  We’re skipping Book 3 in the series and going on to Primarily Logic, which we haven’t started yet.

Art history: we studied this quite a bit between the ages of 2-4, but not so much in the last year.  I finally ordered The Art Book for Children, and I think we’re going to try doing some art “narratives,” possibly during mealtime.


One of the big questions I’ve been wondering about lately–as you might guess–is whether we should continue doing math and writing so intensively (i.e., daily) or instead start doing other things more.  It’s not really an option for me to do more educational stuff.  He already gets 3-4 hours of study in per day, and given the quality of the study time, that is quite enough.

Over on, a few different people have hinted that we are trying to do too much, or too early.  I don’t bother justifying our accelerated pace–it’s a ginormous online community, so nobody cares anyway, and I have a feeling it would not come across well.  But I am aware that, just because people are in favor of taking education out of its institutional context, and are otherwise bucking the system, that doesn’t mean they’re terribly open to every option.  A lot of homeschoolers have really bought into the idea of a lot of stuff is or isn’t “developmentally appropriate” when it really has to do with the sort of preparation a student has had.

I find “classical” homeschoolers refreshing in that they are really trying to find the best ways, or at least the best ways they know how, to give their children a full, rich education.  But the only places I’ve found online where people don’t seem to look at you funny (virtually speaking) for doing accelerated education and focusing on learning facts, and simply learning as much and in a high-quality a way as possible, are the baby learning forums like


As to baby E., well, that will have to wait for a separate update.  Suffice it to say that the only reading program that he has asked for consistently every day is…drumroll please…Reading Bear!  Since he turned 12 months (he’s now 15 months) he has had a great interest in seeing it for 10-15 minutes a day.  He’s now actually reading (and saying out loud) some words, including go, cat, ball, dog, and other words that he can say.  Anyway, more about that later.