Reasons We Do Not Have for Homeschooling, and a Reason We Do

Here are several reasons we do not have for homeschooling:

•  We are religious "nuts" who want to shield our children from the theory of evolution, etc.? Nope. I'm a nonbelieving rationalist.

•  We are social climbers? Nope. I don't especially care if my boys go to the best colleges. I am not preparing them for Harvard (or even Reed, where I went). I want them to succeed, of course, but by their own lights, not according to society's common notions of success,  or even mine.

•  We are just generally competitive and want to be ahead of other kids? Nope. Already, there are plenty of kids who are ahead of H. But I'm not going to push him. He'll find his level and I'm sure I'll be proud of him regardless. I just want him to learn all he can, while still having a happy, reasonably relaxed childhood.

•  We want to shelter our boys from the bad influences at public schools? Nope. H. actually attends "specials" twice a week (art, music, P.E., and computers).

•  We can't afford private school? Nope. We probably could, if we sacrificed. But no, there isn't any private school in the area that would help our boys achieve the goals we have for them.

Here is the main reason, far and away the single most important reason, we do have for homeschooling:

•  We want our children to get a solid liberal arts education, which means:

In literature, I want them to know, appreciate, and understand the classics, and to be morally improved for having wrestled with them. I want them to be able to write persuasively, creatively, and thoughtfully, with flawless grammar and spelling, so that they could enter any writing-oriented profession. They should also be able to speak well. In math, I want them not only to study math through calculus and statistics, but to understand it; they will also study logic and, probably, mathematical logic. I want them thoroughly familiar with history, both U.S. and the rest of the world; I want them to know about the world itself, so geography and foreign languages are a must; so in general, I want their understanding of human society to be filled with facts and nuance. I want them to be able not only to do scientific calculations with facility, but actually to understand scientific concepts—well enough to succeed as science majors, or at engineering, if they so desire. I want them to be able to become excellent scholars, and to be able to understand their own language and the roots and nature of western civilization, so we'll probably study Latin and Greek for several years at least. They'll learn philosophy with me, reading and digesting a half-dozen of the main classics, such as the Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations, Locke's second treatise, and a few others. I want them familiar with music and other fine arts.

Of course, they'll have plenty of opportunity to pursue interests of their own choosing. H. is really into programming and I'll continue to support that.

Public schools can't provide this sort of education, because:

I've looked for private and charter schools in the area that I thought might be able to support these goals; I couldn't find any, except maybe St. Charles Prep for high school, and that's Catholic...


The opportunity costs of progressive education

 

 

I have created a video version of this post!

There is a surfeit of great ideas in education. They are "great ideas" for various reasons: children will learn a lot; they'll be really happy or enthusiastic; they'll have vivid memories of what they are taught; or they'll learn very efficiently. It is easy, as an educator or homeschooling parent, to get excited about ideas for education. Heck, every good (level-appropriate) book and every good experiment is a "great idea." Yet there is such harsh disagreement over educational methods that debates could be called a "war over educational reform." Why?

There's a conundrum here, but I'm not explaining it well enough, so I'll elaborate.

Goals and opportunity costs: what the war over educational reform is about

Theorists have posited many different goals for education. The explicit purpose of progressive education is to "socialize" students by teaching them practical knowledge, and to do so as equally as possible. The purpose of liberal arts traditionalists like myself, by contrast, is something like developing the liberating potential of as much knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual skill (reading, writing, calculation, etc.) as possible. Of course, as you can see in any number of laundry-list "goals for education," educators love to endorse all goals. If asked, they will say, "Of course we want your children to learn as much as they possibly can. What, do you think we're stupid or crazy or something? We're doing our best at teaching them, using all the latest techniques. We're professionals, of course!"

This sounds very reasonable. It is difficult to contradict.

Here's the thing: as a critic of public schools and a supporter of liberal arts education, I don't need to contradict it. I believe the professional teachers completely. I think they want our children to learn as much as they can. Of course they do. And of course they're doing their best (many of them, anyway), with the latest techniques, and they're professionals (mostly). All true.

The problem is not with their willingness to endorse the goals of a liberal arts education, their intentions, or their professionalism. The problem is with overriding goals: contemporary U.S. teachers want their students above all "engaged," to be motivated and paying attention and excited—and, in the interests of equal educational opportunity, to be following roughly the same curriculum as other kids in the same grades following the same standards. This too sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. It's so reasonable-sounding that it sounds radical, or at least unreasonable, to object very strongly to it.

Therein lies the problem. On the surface, everybody agrees. If we're not thinking too hard, we can endorse a huge variety of educational tasks, methods, and goals. But beneath the surface is a little thing called opportunity cost. This, of course, means basically "what you're missing out on by doing this rather than taking another opportunity."

Every time Mrs. Brown's third grade class puts on an exciting, interdisciplinary, highly educational drama project—great idea!—that occupies two hours of class time for two weeks in a row, she's choosing not to let her students read twenty easy picture books, or a half-dozen easy chapter books, etc.—another awesome idea. But that's only one example. There are many, many more.

The opportunity cost problem is about much more than individual tasks. It's really about the entire system. As I said, a core feature of education systems that make Deweyan "socialization" an overriding goal is that all the kids have to follow roughly the same curriculum in the same grades. But this means that, for example, even if Jack read Tom Sawyer last summer, he will still have to re-read it if the class is reading it, or maybe he'll just twiddle his thumbs. Or if Sarah is two years ahead of her peers in math, because she loves math or because her parents are afterschooling her, maybe she'll be supported by her teachers and principal, but it's also very possible she'll be made to do work that is two years behind her current skill level, suffering in boredom.

I've mentioned some examples of opportunity costs in education. Let me elaborate.

Example 1: the benefits of Latin as the opportunity cost of doing anything but Latin

Consider this. I know talk of Latin sounds ridiculous in the 21st century to some people, but please hear me out. A very strong case can be made that getting several years' worth of Latin under one's belt produces a much better scholar. Latin improves English vocabulary and grammar, teaches mental discipline and acuity, gives students an intimate familiarity with Western civilization, and in particular, the origins of its core concepts, its intellectual and rhetorical traditions, and the works that originated many disciplines and written forms. I might go on, but suffice it to say that setting time aside to learn Latin in some depth will make much better scholars out of many students. If the goal is to foster academic skill, learning the classical languages is among the very best of ideas.

But there is today virtually no chance that public schools would, in any great numbers and anytime soon, introduce Latin except as a high school elective, mostly for honors students. I suggest two reasons. First, Latin is a "dead language" and has no obvious "practical applications." So it runs counter to the Deweyan emphasis on practical knowledge, on "know-how." Second, it is too difficult for many ill-prepared students, who already struggle with more difficult, technical subjects like math, hard science, and grammar. So it also runs counter to the goal of equalization.

We could teach our children, or at least some of them, Latin when they're ready for it; it might be difficult, but it's also extremely efficient to do so; but it won't happen because progressive educational goals make the suggestion completely untenable.

Example 2: "language arts," or the low-literature costs of basal readers

One educational practice I love to hate is the use of basal reader systems. You know—that series of "language arts" textbooks you suffered through from first grade through fifth or sixth grade. These are written with the very best of intentions, I'm sure, and they look impressive. Crack some open and you might find a first grade explanation of what a noun is, a third grade reading selection that seems perfectly reasonable and interesting for that grade, a set of challenging fifth grade vocabulary words, and various explanations of the conventions of poetry and drama. All seem like meaty, necessary, excellent topics for study. What's not to like?

Yet, when a child emerges from careful study of such systems, do they end up knowing about all those things? Not very often.

Suppose instead that you were to take the same ten hours per week spent on language arts and instead do just two things: read books chosen by the students themselves (perhaps from a list), and write daily on topics of student choice (with some specific assignments mixed in). This is essentially what I've done with H., age seven, since he was five. As a result, he is now reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a children's book usually assigned to high school students, and writing things like this composition (randomly selected) that I was rather surprised to find in his writing folder, which I reproduce here verbatim:

Grammar

An adjective is a describing word. Here are some examples: thin, tall, short, long, wavy, soft. These words can be used to describe a great many things. Now, there is something special about adjectives: they come in 3 forms, which are called positive, comparative, and superlative. Here are some examples:

Positive

Comparative

Superlative

quick

quicker

quickest

small

smaller

smallest

speedy

speedier

speediest

great

greater

greatest

circular

more circular

most circular

big

bigger

biggest

frightening

more frightening

most frightening

 In advertisements, superlative adjectives are used to exaggerate the quality of things that are on sale: books, toys, video games, or even rides (rides aren’t for sale) or circuses (they aren’t for sale either, rides and circuses just cost money to ride or look at)! Here are some examples of the words they use: biggest, greatest, fastest, cheapest.

 Nouns are words that mean a person, place, or thing. Here are some examples: library, Jane, John, garbage dump, house. Nouns are very important, too. Without them, you couldn’t even say your name (because all names are nouns)!

Verbs describe action, possession, or existence. Here are some examples: throw, catch, mine, yours, his, hers. [sic!]

Conjunctions are used to connect strings of words and make sentences make sense. What sentence is really a sentence if it doesn’t have a conjunction like, for example, and?

I was surprised to find this composition in my second grade son's writing folder, I say, because I didn't assign it and in fact I don't think he ever even showed it to me. As you can see, he was correctly using (and explaining) some pretty advanced words, in excellent grammatical sentences, with flawless spelling. (Although his examples of verbs did contain a couple howlers.)

My point is that after we assigned an hour of reading many classics and other high-quality books, while assigning 30-60 minutes per day for daily writing (mostly on topics of his own choice), our son's abilities in reading and writing have blossomed, and he has quite naturally picked up everything taught in the basal readers, and more.

We could slog through basal readers and grammar workbooks and do long, regular, boring spelling and vocabulary tests. But it would be a comparative waste of time. Instead, he spends a substantial amount of time reading excellent books, and writing a lot; the result is a far better and more efficient method of learning "language arts" than school language arts programs provide. His intuitive grasp of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and spelling results from extensive reading and daily practice writing hundreds of words. He does study grammar from time to time, albeit not from workbooks that (in the early grades) teach students what proper English is. Our son already knows that from copious reading. Instead, he studies the fundamentals systematically, as older students do.

Example 3: the high costs of grade tracking in math (and other subjects)

One more example.

The equalization goal of education entails that we teach the same level of math to most students, that we don't let them work at their own pace, and that we don't tailor our textbook choices to them. If our overriding goal were to teach our students as much math as possible and as well as possible, then we would toss grade levels and track students by ability. As soon as a student passes a test on some material with a 90% grade, the student proceeds to the next level. Meta-analysis reportedly shows that ability grouping works wonders.

This makes sense. Kids finish stuff at different speeds. Grade level tracking, especially in subjects like math, ensures that smarter kids will spend much time in class bored, while slower students will constantly be playing catch-up, naturally getting discouraged, and not getting the help they need. Consider this: homeschooling parents tailor textbook choices to their children, of course, who are not forced to complete exactly one grade level in exactly one year. Just look at the average math scores of homeschoolers, who are naturally tracked by ability in each subject: 84th percentile, on average.

One guess as to why ability grouping is so rarely tried.

As this NEA page helpfully explains, ability grouping discourages more poorly-performing students, never mind that those students benefit from extra time and help where it is really needed. Are they really much more discouraged than in classrooms where they are constantly trailing their age peers, rather than doing as well as others in the room?

Grade level tracking might support the overriding progressivist educational goal of equalization, but the opportunity cost is students that are learning less, and less well, than they do when forced to learn all at the same time.

My point here is that the "war" over educational reform is not about whether various practices are good ideas, and whether various goals are worthwhile. In education, ideas and goals are abundant and easy to endorse. The war, instead, is ultimately about the enormous burden in terms of opportunity cost that contemporary educational practices place on the student. If you think education should be about knowledge, wisdom, and academic skills, the situation is appalling.

The bottom line for me is that the total opportunity cost associated with the overriding progressivist goals for public schooling (and this would also apply to a lot of charter schools and private schools) means that most of our students are simply not learning nearly as much as they could be.

We could see to it—if we were committed first and foremost to teaching and not just entertaining students, if we wanted to help each student achieve his or her best potential and not just equalize them, and if we chose the most efficient methods for making learning happen—that all of our students would learn far more than they are now.

Some day, I think we'll look back at the period from the 1920s or so until the early 2000s as a sort of "dark ages" of education. I just hope real change comes sooner rather than later.


Report on the boys (March 2014)

It's been a long time since I updated blog readers about H. & E. Once again I start this with a resolution to keep this short. Ha ha.

First, H., is now 7 years old (8th birthday rapidly approaching). Many things to report. He's officially in the 2nd grade and after slightly lighter work in the summer and a bona fide two week break, he went back to full time study...usually, more or less. H. is often fun to work with, although sometimes he has trouble staying on task, and has a tendency to interrupt me every single sentence when I'm reading to him. Obviously he has a very active brain. I haven't always been able to support his homeschooling as much as I'd like, since I've been working on my startup, Infobitt.

Gym1

Since my last report, I put an indoor gym together (from a kit by the unfortunately named "Limikids"; why not "Unlimikids"?) for the boys.

It's extremely sturdy and we got a nice thick mat (direct from a local factory, just a few miles away from our house) underneath it. The boys never had so much gym time before we got this. It was money extremely well spent. They really enjoy it and have clearly improving their strength and agility. It has my complete recommendation.

Gym2

Anyway, on to mental development.

Subject notes

Math. I was idly browsing reviews of homeschooling stuff, as I am wont to do, and was re-reading positive reviews of Saxon math. Now, the system we had going before--Spectrum Math, MEP, and Splash Math on the iPad--was not badly broken. H. was learning math pretty well. But...well, I did have a couple of misgivings. One is that H. was not exposed to some of the details and depth that Saxon provides. Another is that he simply needed more practice. H. frequently forgets how to do some math problems, and I did not look forward to having to having to constantly go over how to do old stuff. It just seemed inefficient.

Saxon's approach, by contrast, exposes kids regularly to old problem types, but subtly builds on those abilities by throwing them harder and harder examples of those types. The traditional "learn a topic in-depth in a chapter, then move onto the next topic" method is called the "mastery" method, but Saxon's approach (a "spiral" method) strikes me as much more likely to create mastery.

Saxon was appealing to me also because it is very systematic. This is very good for H., who has an extremely logical brain, and who actually doesn't mind (and sometimes enjoys) careful, slow explanations. So Saxon is pretty good for him.

So, H. started on Saxon Math 5/4 (fourth grade math) at the beginning of the school year (last September?) and initially made good progress. Also, he started reading Life of Fred again and read a few of those books, but hasn't looked at it in quite a while. Splash Math and MEP are now on hold indefinitely.

Why? It's the downside of Saxon--which I knew fully going into this--namely, the sheer effort the system requires. It began with a very simplistic-seeming review of old topics. At first, I thought we'd be able to do what some other people apparently do, namely, skip half of the problems, do only the odd problems, whatever. But it quickly became clear to me that H. really needed the review, considering the number of problems he was getting wrong. He simply needed more practice. The old system we used explained the basic concepts extremely well, and did enable him to do the problems all right, but it definitely didn't give him enough practice, and particularly not enough systematic review of old topics. Now I have the sense that when H. is faced with any problem he's been exposed to adequately in Saxon, he's got it down. But the price of this mastery is about 50% more effort, and all in one big program.

I thought we could skip ahead in Saxon 5/4, but then I saw the number of mistakes he made on stuff that I thought he had mastered. He sped up after several months.

At one point for 2-3 months we went back to the old Spectrum/MEP/Splash Math system, I think because we couldn't handle the extra work Saxon was throwing at us. But then we returned to Saxon because it had become clear to me (and even H.) that the old system simply wasn't teaching him everything he would be learning with the Saxon system. As a result, we lost time and right now, H. is only about halfway through Saxon. He'll be done with 5/4 by summer at the rate we're going now. H. and I are both pretty committed to doing a lesson, "investigation," or test per day, and so we can do it.

Even though it's taking him a while to get up to speed in this new, more rigorous system, I don't regret switching and in fact I still think it was a great change. All the reasons I had for switching seem to have been borne out by H.'s performance. H. himself likes it, most of the time.

It's not lost on me that Saxon follows a system of review not very different from SuperMemo's (spaced repetition), about which, more later on.

Literature. At bedtime we finished The Lord of the Rings, Macbeth (if you can believe that—see below), A Christmas Carol, and we started The Time Machine (might not finish) and Huckleberry Finn. We worked on various other things at bedtime, which I'll discuss in other sections. LOTR was great fun; we both enjoyed it. A Christmas Carol was challenging both in terms of language and sentence structure, and wasn't that much fun for us, but I don't regret it; it's a good story and excellent vocabulary work. Huck Finn is just awesome. We both love it, and it's probably H.'s favorite book we've read together in a long time. It has copious use of the n-word (I'd say it, I just don't want this blog to be blocked!), but that's easily finessed simply by explaining how taboo it is today—something H. was extremely impressed by. He has absolutely no trouble understanding Jim or Huck, and most of the hard-to-understand words are words that neither of us know, because they're dialect or regional or specialized. The story itself is a children's adventure story. When things get really difficult we consult the free Sparknotes "No Fear Literature" gloss of the book.

As to Macbeth, yes we actually read the original. Let me explain. (All this happened before bedtime in 30 minute increments, but 7 days a week.)

At first we were reading selections from Nesbit and Lamb, and then probably just to give examples of the original, I got a couple of free Shakespeare apps. We had been glancing through the originals of different books we've read easy versions of--the Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Shakespeare. One of the apps was Shakespeare in Bits, which turned out to be an awesomely conceived and developed app--hats off (but then it should be good, as each play is $15). Anyway, it has the text, with clickable glosses and commentaries next to the text, and a simple (but complete) cartoon with audio version available. So we tried out the Romeo and Juliet sample, and H. really wanted me to get a version of the Tempest, because we he had just read the Nesbit or Lamb version and he liked it. We also had watched some simple Tempest videos on YouTube, like the BBC cartoon.

But Shakespeare in Bits didn't have the Tempest so H. decided he'd like Macbeth instead, and I agreed, on the assumption that we could return it if we couldn't get into it. (I didn't expect we could.) Well, the witches and spooky war and murder stuff was very exciting to H., so he started asking for Macbeth every day, and we were at it for 2-3 months straight, in small chunks, reading 1-3 sections of the app per day. I never ask him to do it, he asks me.

So here's how we do it. First, I read the section aloud to H. slowly and carefully, paraphrasing everything I think he might not understand. We look at (and I explain as necessary) all notes and glosses from the app, too. Occasionally we look at the online reference info about characters, summaries, etc. As a result H. is getting his first introduction to the language of literary interpretation ("theme," "motif," and the rest of such bullshit—which is what I think of most of it). After we read the section, then we watch the corresponding video. After a few weeks H. discovered the "My Notes" section, and he started writing notes, imitating the app's comments and mine. Now for about half of the sections he insisted on writing 2-5 sentences summarizing what went on.

I can't recall another time when H. was so committed to and naturally interested in doing something so hard and advanced, unless it's programming. But he gives glosses of the sections, and I give instant feedback, which is extremely useful because it allows me to refine his understanding and correct misunderstandings. His notes are actually pretty good--sometimes a little half-baked, but more often actually insightful. I'm very proud of my little Shakespeare scholar!

Anyway, for a while we were doing that I found another awesome site, "No Fear Shakespeare" from Sparknotes, and so after we read a scene (several sections' worth) we went back and read the easier version. I find I have to correct my own glosses of the text sometimes. Another thing we did is go back over several scenes' worth of the video, just to remind ourselves of it. So we got Macbeth several times, taking notes, discussing, etc. H. wouldn't be able to study it by himself but the two of us together can handle it.

What else? As to reading to himself, well, over the summer we let him read whatever he wanted and he chose to re-read the whole Beverly Cleary Henry Huggins series, among various other things. When the school year started, he went through Harry Potter 3 pretty slowly, then My Side of the Mountain (which he enjoyed quite a bit), Anne Frank's diary for "serious literature" reading, which he did a couple of times per week until he gave up, about a third of the way through. This was his idea and I wasn't going to insist on his finishing. Let's see, he also read a few more Hardy Boys books. He recently finished Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I read to him when he was five, but he had almost completely forgotten the story and I knew he'd like it (because he loved it when I read it to him) so I recommended he read it. He also re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which he had read about 18 months before, but had mostly forgotten. He enjoyed and evidently got more out of it the second time. He also read The Black Stallion, about which he wrote answers to questions, and he declared it's one of his favorite books ever. He also read The Cay to go along with our study of the Caribbean, and started but didn't finish a book report about it. He probably read a few other things, I just can't remember. He hasn't read as much as I'd like, mainly because I have been too busy to be on his case about it, and he prefers to read nonfiction, especially the "Horrible Science" series he enjoys so much.

Writing and Grammar. We continue to experiment with different writing assignments and I still expect some writing (or much more rarely, grammar, or spelling & vocabulary) daily. For a while we were doing something we called "flash writing," in which H. is supposed to write 100-150 words in 20 minutes or less. He sometimes wrote over 200 words in that time, about a few sections of The Story of the World. At first it was hard for him to understand what was going on, but eventually I impressed on him that he's simply doing for other books what naturally came to him  for Shakespeare. He was having trouble figuring out what to write about a book he read about Henry Ford. But he more or less got the hang of it.

For a long, long time he was working on a summary of this excellent edition of Gilgamesh. He finally finished that last year. For a while he was working on a fantasy adventure with knights and monsters, "The Lord of Power" and the word count got up to 2000 or something. It was pretty half-baked but it was a good excuse to practice, well, various stuff.

He continues to write random stories and essays, all sorts of random crap (I use that word affectionately). A lot of the energy that he used to put into writing was channeled into programming on Scratch and Python, and on various creative projects connected to his imaginary (he insists it isn't imaginary) business, "ComputerGenius."

As far as grammar goes, he took a very long break from watching the Cozy Grammar videos and exercises, but then came back and did some more, then took another long break, and did some more. So now we're up to lesson 22 or so of 27. We stopped using Spectrum Writing, Grade 4 last summer and never got back to it. He's been working on that for a long time, but took a long break, and is now back at it.

Science. We finally finished physics. We worked on it for over 1.5 years, steadily going through all sorts of different books, using What's Physics All About as a spine. We probably used too many books, more than necessary, but in the end I think H. learned a lot, especially when combined with SuperMemo (more later on that). By the end we were definitely doing science at the upper elementary level.

We've finally, as of January, moved on to chemistry. For this I decided not to use a "spine" text (a term homeschoolers use to refer to books used to organize the rest of the study). Since most of what we do is read anyway—with occasional experiments and science writing—and since I at least got annoyed at how we were chopping up other books into relatively incoherent bits in an effort to match them to our "spine," I decided we'd read chemistry books mostly serially. We did get some shorter "True Books" and "Max Axiom" comics (these are great), and we'll read those concurrently. Anyway, we're started with the first two sections of the Usborne Science Encyclopedia. The first is about materials and so covers the atom, states of matter, the periodic table, and different elements, with a lot about metals. The second is about "mixtures and compounds" and covers chemical compounds, bonding, types and properties of chemicals like acids, bases, salts, etc. After that I think we'll tackle What's Chemistry All About, which covers a lot of the same material, but that's OK: the whole idea is to get concepts from several sources. Finally I think we'll hit the DK Eyewitness Chemistry book, which is slightly more advanced and probably has a lot of history of science, like the other DK Eyewitness science books we've read or dipped into. Another thing we've started,

For the last year or so we've been reading science (mostly physics, but lately chemistry) about three days a week at dinnertime. In addition, before bedtime we found an excellent middle school-level text, the CPO Focus on Physical Science, which has some math problems that are over H.'s head, but everything is no problem. Frankly I have no idea where we came across this, but it appears to be free, so we downloaded and tried it out, and it's perhaps better written than some textbooks. We're just reading it, and doing the problems (most of them) in our heads together, and not adding questions about it to SuperMemo, so it's OK. We've just read the first couple of chapters. Maybe after he's done sixth grade math I'll have him go back over the text by himself and do the problems. I'm a strong believer in reading worthwhile books twice.

At some point in the not too distant future we're going to buy H. a practical, educational chemistry set, if we can find one. Sadly, the rather insane obsession with making everything as absolutely risk-free as possible has meant that old-fashioned chemistry sets of the sort I had growing up are not readily available anymore, or not without considerable hunting.

The other major way H. learns science is through his very regular reading of the "Horrible Science" series. He's probably read a half dozen or more of those, and has dipped into most of them to some degree. While it looks pretty lightweight, he seems to enjoy them, and he often comes out with tidbits he's learned through reading the series, so I guess they're doing him some good.

Geography. We finished studying the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, and are now into the United States. As usual we began with a National Geographic "Countries of the World" book, only this time it was about our own country, and started reading a book about sights around Ohio. He's drawn a map of the country or two, and will do more, I'm sure. We're just about done memorizing the states & capitals (not hard because he already knew most of them) using SuperMemo, and next we're going to read about a half-dozen books about the more important states (e.g., California and New York), or states we have personal connections to (e.g., Alaska). As usual we continue to watch videos, look at atlas apps, get out our giant atlas and globe, etc. After that of course we'll tackle Canada for a while and then we'll be done with the western hemisphere, although maybe we'll take the opportunity to study the Arctic and Antarctic. Then I guess we'll move on to Europe.

We did switch geography-reading time to the evening so we could concentrate on history.

History. We were taking it pretty easy on history for several months. I think we actually stopped altogether for a while, while I was working hard on Infobitt and while we were reading some history stuff at night. Anyway, we still haven't finished The Story of the World, Vol. 3, although we're getting close now. We're still reading the same three supplementary books, A Little History of the World, Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. Now we're reading about the Enlightenment and the period leading up to the American and French Revolution.

We also have finally started reading American history systematically for the first time (we did read about presidents up to 1928 last year, so I guess we had an introduction before this). For this we do have a spine, or rather, one main text: The Landmark History of the American People. This is a really well-written general history. I spent a long time picking it out and I'm very happy with it. H. seems to like it, too. Although it has short chapters that in formatting resembles a textbook's, it is not "textbooky." There are no sidebars, no boring writing, vocabulary items are explained in footnotes, and best of all, each chapter forms a narrative—not a personal narrative, but a connected recounting of closely related events.

Since we're mixing American history with world history now we're going through SOTW more slowly...or, we would be, if we were continuing to read history at bedtime instead of after lunch. We used to read geography after lunch and history at bedtime (each ~15 minutes at a time); now we've switched, and we've been read history virtually every day, so we're making steady if not huge progress with both American and world history.

Latin. I started looking at Latin texts last year at some point and decided that Rosetta Stone was just not doing enough for him. I think he did get exposure to the sound, structure, and some vocabulary from Rosetta Stone, but on the whole, because the vocabulary was focused on typical language program stuff and not ancient Latin text vocabulary, it was probably a mistake. Maybe not, though. It wasn't a major time investment and, even if he remembers very little specific from Rosetta Stone as he studies Latin from textbooks, he did get started on a new textbook very quickly and easily.

The new Latin text is very easy, however, so I'm not sure the Rosetta Stone made it much easier. The new text is Getting Started with Latin, which is so ridiculously gentle that, if he could write, my 3-year-old could use it. We've been much better about doing this every morning, for 30 minutes before breakfast, that we've got up to Lesson 54 in about two months. The typical lesson consists of translating 10 easy sentences, so it's not as impressive as it sounds. The whole book is equivalent to maybe the first three chapters of D'Ooge (i.e., a traditional grammar-translation Latin book, free online, called Latin for Beginners).

Anyway, the combination of Rosetta Stone and this brief introductory text (which I think we'll have finished by this summer) should make it possible to start working through D'Ooge with me. H.'s interest level in Latin, which is moderate, not intense and not hostile, together with hand-holding from me should make it possible for us to get through D'Ooge in, well, as long as it takes. It's supposed to be one year's worth of Latin but maybe we'll take two.

Why D'Ooge? I actually made a spreadsheet with pros and cons. There are a number of texts that are a little too slow and easy, like Prima Latina. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with them, but I think we can learn more faster, especially if I'm working with H. on Latin 30 minutes a day, which is what I've been managing. On the other hand, there are some wonderfully reviewed texts like Wheelock, but it's actually used in high schools and colleges, and it would take too much hand-holding from me to get him through that. Then there are texts that are written for something in between. There are two main methods for learning Latin: the grammar-translation method, which focuses on learning grammar systematically, so you actually understand it; and the reading method, which gives you just enough grammar to read a reasonably interesting text. Guess which I like the most. We'll try D'Ooge's relatively gentle grammar-translation method, but if that turns out to be too hard, we'll probably try the Cambridge reading method.

I read for an evening or two about the benefits of Latin, not that I had never heard of them before. The main thing, to my mind, is not learning about language, or about grammar, or the roots of English words, etc. Those are good reasons to learn Latin, but we could learn those things (albeit not as well) by studying French or German.  Rather, the main reason to learn Latin is to learn the concepts, style of thinking, and classics that shaped Western thought. To learn Latin and Greek is to understand ourselves better, or so I'm told, and through what little exposure I've had to the languages, I find the claim very plausible.

BTW H. is now reading and translating in his mother's language now, thanks to 10-15 minutes every night at bedtime (which sort of cuts down on my time with him, but that's OK).

Piano. Although we started just before H.'s fourth birthday, he has never been terribly interested in piano, and I haven't had the discipline or desire to push him. Nevertheless, he finally finished "Music for Little Mozarts" and we have moved on to Alfred's Basic Piano Prep Course, C level. He's now finally playing both hands together regularly, starting to read music with a little less help from me, etc. Guess I'm just too cheap to get a real piano teacher. More likely it's because I don't want to waste my money if he loses interest, and I don't want to inflict H., who can be somewhat difficult to manage, on a piano teacher.

Philosophy. Every Saturday we pretty faithfully read at least two pages out of DK's introductory Big Questions (see my review at that page)...for I don't know how long, maybe 9 months? There's no rush to get through and topics are barely connected from one spread to the next, so it's OK to go through very slowly. I find the book tedious and annoying, but it is one of the few children's philosophy books out there at this level—accessible to H.—and whenever I threaten to stop reading it, H. objects and insists we go on. On the bright side, it does introduce many, many interesting topics that children might not otherwise be introduced to, not just about philosophy but also psychology, occult-type questions, UFOs, whatever. This is at least the third book of its sort we've read. The other two were Really, Really Big Questions (my favorite of these three) and The Little Book of Big Questions (the first one we tackled), which had less content. I wrote a chapter of a philosophy book for children myself, and H. really liked that. Wish I had time to finish it!

Logic. H. has been doing 1-2 pages of logic workbooks for quite a while now, once per week, since he was 5 or so, with extended breaks now and then. Most recently he fairly quickly went through Logic Countdown and is now into Logic Liftoff. It's another one of those things: it's pretty lame, but there isn't really anything else out there like it, so you takes what you gets. Once he's done with the next book in the series, Orbiting with Logic, we're going to start a real logic text, probably one written for junior high or high school students.

Programming. H.'s hobby has been programming. I've given him some Python lessons with Hello World! the Python primer, but we only got up to Ch. 7 and he just sort of figures stuff out. In the last year he's spent more time on Small Basic and continuing on with Scratch. He hasn't exactly written anything useful to adults, but he enjoys himself and he's definitely practiced everything I've taught him. Wish I had time to teach him more steadily but of course there are only so many hours in the day.

Chess. We're working through puzzles in Chessmaster, which is absolutely fantastic for learning chess. It has so much educational material—it's wonderful. We don't do it that often but he's gotten quite a bit better. He can actually beat easy players without help now, and now understands about checkmating. But this is my hobby more than his so he doesn't play much unless I offer to play him. Still, I have a feeling he's going to get good when he's a little older.

Art. He's been taking a class, and greatly enjoying it. As a result he's gotten quite a bit better.

Methodological notes

SuperMemo. Last year, one of the reasons we slowed down in both history and science was that I wanted to make SuperMemo questions about the main points studied, but if we read much new material, it would mean we had way too many questions to review. So we ended up doing side-reading about which we didn't make any questions, which is fine, but still, it felt like we were treading water.

But we had a breakthrough in how we use SuperMemo, right around the first of this year. Last year we were doing around 60 questions per day, which ended up taking around 45 minutes per day. The breakthrough allowed us to do 100 to 200 questions per day in anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes (it depends on H.'s mood and the number of new questions).

When I describe it, it's going to sound ridiculous, I'm afraid. Basically, I get on one computer, and H. gets on another computer. We share each others' screens via join.me. We then start a Skype call so we can talk. I have a timer on my screen, which he can see. He keeps track of how many questions he went through in the previous minute. I start the timer and tell him when the minute's up, and he writes down the number he did. The "minimum" is three per minute, and the most he can do on average would be his average for today: about 7. So today he reviewed 171 questions in 23 minutes. It's ridiculous, but it works!

I've made a few other changes to how we use SuperMemo. The most important is that I now rarely have answers that are more than one word, and I never have answers that are one sentence long. This makes the questions much easier to do. Probably he doesn't memorize as much about each fact; but he does get reminded of the main, important part, and we can cover more material.

We—or rather, I—have occasionally considered dropping SuperMemo. It would, after all, give us 30-60 minutes per day more to read or do whatever, and that's not insignificant. But H. resists, very strongly. Yesterday I deleted some questions that I thought were very badly written, and he actually cried when I did so. He doesn't always love doing review, but he rarely dislikes it; and he consistently believes, and I think he's right, that he won't remember what he's learned nearly as well unless it goes into SuperMemo.

A few notes now on how SuperMemo interfaces with particular subjects. I rarely put math questions into SuperMemo; if there are some particularly stubborn math facts he keeps getting wrong, I put those in. On the other hand, I put every item of Latin learned in, from the new book (I didn't bother, with Rosetta Stone), and I plan to add all new vocabulary and grammar bits into SuperMemo when we start the next book.

Time management. As usual, we've continued to drift back and forth between time management methods. Sometimes I let him practically manage himself, with a little guidance from me. But then he ends up wasting a lot of time. Sometimes I have a "flexible schedule," and that works a little better, but then often we end up not doing anything well. And occasionally, we adopt a stricter schedule. Then we get a lot done, but it requires more attention from me. I have to be 100% on, or I end up doing less work on Infobitt.

The way we found to do a stricter schedule is to schedule plenty of breaks, but be absolutely strict about both starting and stopping an activity, regardless of how much we've done. It's discouraging when we barely get started with something and the time is up, but overall we get a lot more done. And the great thing is that when study time is over, H. has a large block of absolutely free time.

School. He goes to school two days a week for an hour each day, doing "specials," meaning art, P.E., music, and computers. We have him there for a little extra socialization but he does learn a few things in these classes. He's also been doing an art class lately and greatly enjoying that. Last year he was doing Cub Scouts, but this year we dropped it because basically his heart was not in it and I didn't want to push him. So now we're hunting about for new outlets. He has little interest in sports but he loves climbing constantly on the indoor gym with his brother.

Classical methodology. In homeschooling jargon, the method we most closely resemble is definitely the classical method, as described for example by the Bauers in The Well-Trained Mind. This involves having a schedule, doing quite a bit of work, focusing on memorization in the earliest grades (but this changes quite a bit later on), and making Latin and, later, Greek part of the curriculum, along with other works of classic literature. It's a traditional sort of education in the sense that the main subjects are covered, Latin is one of them, and things are scheduled.

That said, I give H. a lot of freedom in what precisely he wants to read when it comes to the literature, history, and science he reads to himself. When it comes to writing assignments, half of the time, he's deciding entirely by himself; much of the rest of the time, I propose and he decides. If he doesn't want to practice piano or do anything extra, I don't make him. So in those respects our approach is a little like "unschooling." But I try to get H. to do math every day, whether he wants to or not, and Latin, etc., so it's definitely not unschooling in general.

I'm trying to get H. to write more about what he's read. For example, recently I produced a question about superstition in Huck Finn, and he wrote a decent brief composition about that, arguing that we should be tolerant of people who are superstitious, even if they are silly the way Huck and Jim are. So in this regard I'm trying to get H. to start writing more thoughtful pieces about his reading, and this practice resembles one of the core features of the Charlotte Mason method. And we do read a lot of high-quality books. But we also do use a number of reference-type books and textbooks, so we're not 100% Charlotte Mason, not to mention the fact that I don't give H. the entire afternoon off (just half of it).

====================

OK, now about E., who is 3.

E. is different from H. They both are early readers, but I think E. has more aptitude in math and handwriting than H. did at the same age, and H. was a little more interested in books than E. has been. H. is a little more serious, and E. is a little more sociable and a little less of an "intellectual" (for now!).

Reading. I've been reading books like Mr. Popper's Penguins to him at bedtime (although, unlike H., he isn't always interested in reading chapter books at bedtime). Pretty much anything I read to him at bedtime, he can and does occasionally read to me. Not infrequently he will interrupt me and insist on reading to me. That book has a grade level equivalent of 4.9, so that's around where his decoding level is. I guess his reading-on-his-own comprehension level is a couple of grades behind that. I do give him second grade level science books to read on his own, and he'll read them, although I often bribe him with this or that. If he's reading to me, he needs no bribe, but he needs some sort of special reason to read on his own.

Writing. As with H., E. is just not motivated to learn how to write, and I am not motivated to make him. He does ask to write stuff much more often than H. did, and as a result he's learning quite a bit better than H. did at the same age. He's also learning to type in the same way H. did: I write out what he dictates, and then he writes words and short sentences with help from me (or H. or his Mama; Mama helps a lot here, and actually insists on doing at least as much as I do, because she thinks I did a terrible job teaching H. handwriting, which I freely admit). Anyway at this rate I think E. will be handwriting sentences when he's 4 rather than 5, which is when H. started, I believe.

Math. H. didn't have the iPad when he was E.'s age, and E. has definitely benefited from all the math apps. He can count up to 20 and is right now interested in learning to count to 100 so we're doing that. He has started learning to add and subtract and is basically learning Kindergarten math stuff right now. Thanks to all the Kindergarten math apps we've done, he seems to be almost ready for first grade math.

Subjects/vocabulary. I don't have any particular scheme with E. at this point. I do try to give him a wide variety of early elementary nonfiction picture books for science, history, and geography, and he does seem to be getting quite a bit that way. He also loves my presentations, the ones I made for H., so he's seen most of those multiple times (except for the Music and Art ones, which we look at less often). His vocabulary and grasp of basic facts seems quite good for a 3-year-old, although he doesn't sound quite like the little professor, the way H. did. He's getting there, though. I'm just a proud papa so this is pretty meaningless, but he strikes me as being quite clever; he's often producing clever and witty answers to questions, and he's also excellent at explaining the meanings of words, just as H. was able to. This, in both cases, I attribute to the fact that I explain all words they don't know, whenever we read. E. is a bit better than H. was at asking, "What does that mean?" H. used to jus t look up from the book and stare at me, waiting for an explanation; E., by contrast, proactively asks more. But he doesn't really have to so much because, as I said, I explain pretty much everything.

P.E. He's pretty strong and agile for a little guy, hanging upside down all the time from the gym, climbing up and down, spinning on the trapeze, etc.

Music. He's been going to a music and dance class with his Mama, and I occasionally give him piano lessons, when he asks; he asks, because he imitates big bro all the time.


Please read: my challenge to kindergarten and first grade teachers

Dear Teachers
(and those who support teachers, please listen in),

I will buy your class $100 worth of books, and donate whatever anyone else pledges below (more on that in a bit), if you successfully execute the following. (I can do this for only one teacher. But if more people pledge money for other teachers to use the program, then...)

(a) Set up your classroom so that you can spend about 25 minutes per day showing ReadingBear.org presentations and then a class quiz. The quiz (done by the class as a whole) should usually be over the day's words, but occasionally it should be a "big" quiz, over the previous five days' words.

(b) Do this every day for 16 weeks (I'll forgive a few days off), or if you want to show Reading Bear for less time, until your class has finished going through the material and most students can get 13/15 on the last quiz on the page, over all the words. (Note, the last is required only if you stop short of 16 weeks.) Make sure you are logged in as you show this to your class. A schedule would go something like this:

Week 1: "short a" (3 days); begin "short e" (2 days)
Week 2: finish "short e" (1 day); "short i" (2 days); "short o" (1 day)
Week 3: "short o" (1 day); and "short u" (2 days); two reviews and big quizzes
Week 4: another review and big quiz; "c and k"; "ck" (both 2 days)
Week 5: blends 1 and blends 2 (1 day each); adding s (2 days); review and big quiz
Week 6: now you switch to 1 presentation per day; "digraphs and x" to "two syllables"
Week 7: review and big quiz; then "long e" through "or"
Week 8: "er, ur, ir"; review and big quiz; then "oy, oi" through "aw, au, al"
Week 9: "ai" and "ay, air"; review and big quiz; "y, ie, ind, ild" and "o, oa, oe"
Week 10: "old, olt, ow" to "2 & 3 syllables"; review and big quiz; "a_e and "e_e"
Week 11: "i_e" to "ing"; review and big quiz
Week 12: "y and more" to "ge, dge, etc."
Week 13: review and big quiz; "the, se, etc." to "ph, gh"
Week 14: "ea and ear"; review and big quiz; "ie, ui, u" to "si, su, ci, ti, tu"
Week 15:  "ive, or, ence" and "3 & 4 syllables"; then review and big quiz

Note: it doesn't matter if you spend more time on the early stages, and you only get halfway through the presentations in 16 weeks, as long as you look at at an entire presentation, or an entire review, every day. And also note: I don't care if your students can't pass many of the quizzes by the end of that time, as long as you stick with the program for 16 full weeks. I think they will be able to, but we'll see, now won't we?

(c) You may show the screen to your whole class at once or, if you have the computers, you can have the students look at the presentations individually (which is actually better, but not required).

(d) Send the kids home with the ReadingBear.org URL and the instructions to review the lesson at home each day, preferably (but not necessarily) until they get at least a 13/15 on the quiz.

(e) You have to agree to answer some questions from me, honestly and accurately, about how you used the program and how well your students are reading at the end of it.

So here's the deal: I really believe in phonics. In particular, I believe in the Rudolf Flesch method, which I used with both of my boys, who learned to read using this method when they were 1 year old. (My 2-year-old is now decoding at a third grade level, according to this--I'm not kidding.) And in even more particular, I believe in the Reading Bear program. I think we need some evidence that 21st century tools, like Reading Bear, can be used to quickly and easily teach kids how to read. (By "read" I mean to decode text, of course--the hardest part of starting to read--although Reading Bear teaches an awful lot of vocabulary.) I think kids can learn phonics quickly and easily using the right tools. I think that there is no reason why our poor first graders should be made to suffer through those awful, boring basal readers for three or four years. Ugh! They should be reading easy, grade-appropriate, transitional chapter books like My Father's Dragon and The Magic Tree House. So, teachers, won't you take a half hour out of your school day next year and help me (a) teach your kids to read, and (b) prove that your typical school kids can be taught to read in four months using Reading Bear? I really think they can be.

I doubt $100 in books is enough to motivate anybody who is not already motivated. But it is a way to get your attention, to commit publicly to a program, etc. And besides...others might kick in more. Maybe we'll make the prize "stone soup"...

Note for non-teachers: do want to support this effort? Pledge, in the comments below, money for teachers. $100 would be nice. More would be awesome. It's all unorganized by any organization at this time. I will personally provide an escrow service (you'll have to trust me!). I'm just doing this because I have something to prove personally...I don't own the website (the Community Foundation does) and I don't even operate it, I've moved on to Infobitt.com full time. I just want to prove that Reading Bear works. The real winners will be the kids, who learn to read quickly and painlessly (Reading Bear is fun!).

Available money will be split up as follows: $100 per teacher who successfully completes the program, based on the teachers who sign up first below and the available money. If there is more than $100 per teacher available, then all available money will be divided equally among all teachers who finish. To prove their bona fides I must be given the teacher's Reading Bear login ID. My interpretation of this policy will be final!


Update about the boys, April 2013

In the past I've given mammoth updates about the boys, because I do enjoy writing such updates; but I really can't afford the time now. Still, I will take a little time and share the highlights.

First, H., age 6, almost 7.

UPDATE: he has continued to do Supermemo every day, usually twice a day. I don't always add questions every day, though. He still seems to like it well enough and it's now a rock-solid part of our routine.

He's been following a schedule for most of the last six months, although in the last couple months not so much. For a time we let him make his own schedule (with my help), but that turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. My current view is that the best approach (at least, with H.) is to try to follow a fairly strict schedule.

He finally finished Treasure Island a couple months ago. It has been difficult but I think he understood it well enough, as long as he also read an easier version at the same time, watched movie versions, etc. He's also mostly done with Tom Sawyer (similarly challenging, and similarly understandable with a dictionary and helps) and finished The Secret Garden (much easier--we've been through it before a few times). He reads from one or another of these books twice a week or so as part of "serious literature" period. After Tom Sawyer is finished (in the next few weeks, probably), we'll be sure to pick more things like The Secret Garden that he definitely likes. He hasn't hated the other books, and I think he's learned a lot, but I don't think he's liked the others so much. He says he'll look forward to reading them again when he's older. The other three days he typically reads literature of his own choice, lately finishing Harry Potter #2 and starting #3, and various other things of course. For the "serious literature" I make him look up at least 10 words in his hour of reading, which ensures better comprehension and also gives him great vocabulary practice. I've noticed his vocabulary improving, using words I know I've never explained to him. I assume they come from this practice. After reading we almost always do a Q&A session--a crucial and interesting part of the exercise. We lately tried BigIQKids.com for vocabulary and spelling practice...for both, anything below the 7th grade was pretty easy for him.

As to bedtime reading, we've gone back to history-then-literature, and as to literature, since we started The Hobbit, it's been that, then The Fellowship of the Ring, and last night we finished the first half of The Two Towers. It turns out that The Hobbit is not really easier than the others, and the others aren't that difficult for H., as long as I stay aware of what he's likely not to get and explain that as we go along. He really loves all these books.

We also started him reading more nonfiction than before. He's gone through a half dozen Horrible Science books, and lots of books about the human body and crime and detection, medicine and detective work being two of his favorite topics these days.

As to geography, we're still at work on the Caribbean countries, having finished a couple books about Cuba and being almost done with two about Jamaica. Our progress is slow, but usually steady. I imagine we'll get to the U.S. by the end of the year, maybe sooner. Knowing so much about South American and Caribbean history has been very handy as we've read about the Age of Exploration. We still do some fun things like look at YouTube videos of Cuban dances.

Math: he's almost halfway through Spectrum Math Grade 3, near the end of the entry level of MEP (haven't actually worked on that in a while), and finished with Five Times Five Is Not Ten. He's not too bad at math, although he makes careless mistakes, and he just doesn't have any special motivation to do it. That said, he did 28 pages of Five Times Five a few weeks ago, and recently did 10 pages of Spectrum Math, both pretty unusual. The combination of Spectrum and MEP ensures that he is exposed to the concepts in a traditional way (which is easier and teaches him useful ways of simply doing the problems) and then a much more in-depth, logical, difficult way, which ensures a deeper level of understanding (or so I hope). MEP has gotten easier, although not always; the simple algebra problems, of which there are many, are still challenging, but a lot of the pattern-type and logical work is getting easier. He's also occasionally doing a 2nd grade math app (a full curriculum, it seems), for review and fun, called Splash Math. He does some sort of math every day.

Writing and grammar: most of the time, H. is simply writing on the computer. About half the time, I assign him things. E.g., he's doing a long (over 4 pages now, will take a few more weeks to finish) book report about Gilgamesh that he does off and on. This is challenging, but not too bad--it's great, it will be his first high-quality extended piece of writing, it introduces the idea of a book report very well, it practices his narration skills, etc. He's done a fair number of shorter "book reports" and Q&A using enotes questions as prompts; I'm still struggling to get him to do "narratives" Charlotte Mason style, and in that he is making some slow but recognizable progress. He's also done a very long, excellent, but somewhat random presentation of Cuba facts, now that we're basically done with studying that country. Most of the rest of the time, I just let him write about whatever he wants. Often they're stories, sometimes they're "essays," sometimes they're "reports." The essays tend to be semi-nonsensical ramblings about scientific topics, the reports are about things like pets and Legos. He has had a recurring character in his stories, "Harry Willman." For more systematic exposure to writing concepts, we started going through Spectrum Writing Grade 4, which seems about right. We were doing that about once a week for a while. Some months ago we were doing grammar (Cozy Grammar) twice a week, then once a week, and now it's more like every other week or less. But we're still doing it and intend to finish. There's a Cozy Punctuation series after that.

As to science, as I said, he's read quite a bit of that during nonfiction reading time, having read books or parts of books, mostly in the Horrible Science series, about physics, the human body, and most recently chemistry (last night he declared he wanted to be a chemist). Theoretically I'm reading physics to him still every dinner, but toddler E. has become increasingly shrill in his insistence that I read to him, and only him, and now Mama often takes his side, so H's exposure to physics has slowed down. But we're still at it and should finish within a couple months. We got him some videos too...Magic School Bus and Popular Science for Kids. But I'm keeping it going and I'm not going to let E. win completely!

As to history, we finished The Story of the World, Vol. 2 (which I'm having H. re-read during his non-fiction period) and are now a third of the way or so into Volume 3. We're following the same method, still: reading four books concurrently, supplemented by other, shorter books such as the fun ones from the You Wouldn't Want to Be series. But we did read at least one rather longer book, an old biography of Sir Walter Raleigh that was rather good. Actually in the last couple of months we've slowed down on the four-books-concurrently method and read randomly from old public domain books like Our Little Spartan Cousin of Long Ago, which isn't that great but it is very educational and keeps H's interest. It's really not that bad. He also enjoys stories from James Baldwin's Fifty Famous People.

Piano: well, we've taken it easy for some months and then got into it again. He's well into book 4 of Music for Little Mozarts. Basically, he lacks the discipline/motivation to practice a lot himself--although he has done some--and I don't want to force him. I do sit down with him a few times a week and give him short lessons. So he's making slow but steady progress. At some point we'll start him on traditional lessons...or maybe I'll break down and get some fancy software teaching system.

Latin: he's plugging slowly away, almost every week day, on Rosetta Stone, still on Level 2. Not a serious study at this point (10-15 minutes a day), I'm afraid, but I'm very sure that when we get around to starting Latin in earnest, with texts, he'll have a much easier time of it. Because he had ambitions to take over the country of Cuba, he decided to start studying Spanish with some old software I had lying about, but of course nothing came of that. I didn't buy him anything better because, frankly, he's doing quite enough as it is.

Programming: he's gotten pretty good at Scratch, so I suggested that he start learning Python, so he has. He got up to Chapter 5 in Hello World! but I have to insist he does the exercises; if he doesn't he won't understand it and actually be able to use what he's learned. As a result he's stopped his progress through the book, but I expect he'll get back into it.

Chess: we have finally, after a break of a year or so, gotten back into chess study. I'm making him do the hard stuff, but he doesn't mind, and he asks to do puzzles and games every so often.

OK, now on to E., age 2.5! I'll be briefer here.

E. is reading very well, despite having lost his taste for almost all of the reading videos, presentations, and software (including, I'm afraid, Reading Bear). I have no doubt that all the work we did in Reading Bear, Your Baby Can Read, Starfall, etc., etc., had a definite effect of teaching him how to sound out words. Most of his practice now, however, comes from me putting my fingers under the words as we read; he does love to have me read books to him, and as long as I don't ask too much, he's game to read the occasional sentence or word when I ask him to. I'd estimate his reading (decoding) ability at around 1st, maybe 2nd grade level.

(Update: right after posting this E. saw the Little Reader logo and wanted to do that. That led to the "Books for H. & E."--meaning my powerpoint presentations. He loves them now and asked me--I checked after each one--to read all three of my long "United States" series. I'm not surprised he likes them now, because he's now the same age that H. was when I wrote them for him, and they're close to the same level of development. We also re-tried some Reading Bear and he liked that, too.)

Based on what he requests, his comprehension level is about the same. He requested The Wizard of Oz repeatedly until we finished it--it was an abbreviated, but not adapted, version, still pretty long. We also made it all the way through Winnie-the-Pooh and are now working on Dinosaurs Before Dark, i.e., the Magic Tree House series #1. We've also just started H's much-loved Oxford Picture Dictionary.

While I read all sorts of paper books to E.--we haven't even gone through all the ones at his reading level that I bought for H.--we read an awfully large number of books in app form. He especially likes the "Disney Classics" and then watching the corresponding movies.

The biggest surprise recently is E.'s ability to count and do simple addition and subtraction problems in the TeachMe: Kindergarten app. He had been going through the TeachMe: Preschool app, as well as a certain counting app which we used pretty religiously since he was very small. So I guess I shouldn't be too surprised: he was exposed to counting so much that it comes naturally to him. Anyway, since the TeachMe: Preschool app seemed too easy for him, I figured, what the hell, we'll try the next one. Lo and behold, he was able to do addition and subtraction with no problem, the first time we tried it, with just a little explanation. He was very proud of himself and I was proud of him. We've been using the app for a little over a week, I'd guess, and he's made good progress just in that time. I think it will be some time before he is able to do many math problems on his own, without the app-y tools of the great TeachMe series, but I think he'll get there sooner rather than later. Already he looked at, e.g., 1+0 and thought that was a silly problem and immediately said "1." So he's definitely glomming onto math concepts faster than H. did.

We look at a world map a fair bit and he can identify countries, as H. did at the same age, although probably not as well as H. did because we haven't done this so much. But he really enjoys doing geography puzzles of Europe and the U.S.

Yesterday I tried giving E. a piano lesson (this was as much his idea as mine--he wants to be like big brother H.). He was much better behaved and engaged than H. was at that age and did everything that I asked. Similarly, he's more game to trace numbers and letters, so I think he might learn to write faster. I credit H. himself with being an example to his little brother.

We also do all sorts of logic-type puzzles in the really excellent MyFirstApps series. We are a big consumer of that series.

His mama, by the way, insists that I read and otherwise engage E. at the meal table. If I don't, E. doesn't eat.


Ask DadDude: spawning analytical thinkers

Someone emailed me this question. Since it was asked so nicely, I thought I'd answer.

I have a question for you and I hope you have time to reply to it. I admire your essays and the indepth analysis of topics. You put a lot of critical and analytical thinking in your writing. Even when you argue, your ideas are coherent and well-thought out. I want to give this gift of analytical thinking and critical writing to my children.

Can you please let me know what I should basically cover in my homeschooling curriculum to touch those factors. I am basically an engineer and I can do all those magic in maths and science but not in humanities and arts. So, it would be highly beneficial if you can list out your thoughts on this. What are the major factors you consider when you are adapting a writing curriculum for your sons? What kind of reading will help my children to achieve that critical thinking and analytical mind?

My answer:

Well, since you ask so nicely!

I don't have any magic or cutting-edge method in mind when it comes to getting H. and E. to be excellent critical thinkers. It's simply called getting a liberal arts education. By reading "the best that has been thought and said"--since the best tend to be very thought-provoking--as long as the child is ready to be meaningfully challenged by it, they learn at the knees of the most brilliant minds of history. They learn to think well by regularly seeing good thinking. That's what's contained in the classics and in good books, both fiction and nonfiction.

It is also very important, I think, that children get lots of practice in writing. They should write every day, when they are able, 45-60 minutes a day, or that's how long I have H. writing these days. What they write about and whether they systematically go through a program or something like that is not nearly as important as that they be motivated to formulate words in paragraphs. It is also very important that they get feedback and revise.

The combination of challenging (but not inappropriately so) reading and very regular writing with feedback--and, later, going through increasingly difficult science and math problems on a wide variety of science and math topics--are enough to make anyone capable of careful analysis.

It becomes especially important later on, from junior high school level on or so, that they get increasingly challenging feedback on their essays. The only effective way to learn how to write in an organized, logical, coherent fashion is to get copious critical reaction to one's own writing.

I also learned a lot, myself, from 3.5 years of debate and forensics in high school  and lots of reading and study of philosophy (and study of logic as part of that surely didn't hurt). More than any other subject, philosophy (in the classic tradition, and in the Anglo-American tradition) encourages analytical thinking and writing.


Reading Bear improvements

Here's our latest Reading Bear update.
We're not done working on Reading Bear--which will always remain a non-profit, free website to teach reading through phonics and vocabulary. Here's a quick progress report.
Alternative reading systems soon supported. We're putting finishing touches on a feature allowing us to reorganize our words into the order in which they appear in other reading systems. HeadSprout will be one of the first, but if you're interested in giving the Reading Bear treatment to your reading system's list, please let Joe know at joe@watchknowlearn.org. (See "Changing of the guard" below.)

Illustrators needed. Larry has written the text of some e-books to go with the first 15 presentations, and we're calling for volunteer illustrators. If you are an illustrator, and you are interested in supporting a great cause and getting a prominent byline, please email Larry at sanger@watchknow.org.

New media mentions. We had some great mentions in the press and blogosphere after our launch, especially a front-page article in Memphis, Tennessee's biggest newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, and a story by WREG, the local CBS affiliate. Top education blogger Larry Ferlazzo wrote that a BBC site and Reading Bear are "clearly the two best sites on the Web for phonics reinforcement." And we were on TheNextWeb's list of 12 "best educational apps of 2012."

We still want to get the word out some more. We're available for press interviews. We think Reading Bear is big news!

Changing of the guard. Finally, we're announcing that Larry will be departing from Reading Bear and WatchKnowLearn soonish, although he will remain on board as a consultant. His work on Reading Bear is pretty much complete and he's excited about a new venture he's pursuing. Dr. Joe Thomas, CEO of WatchKnowLearn, will take over as manager of Reading Bear, as the team focuses on getting the word out about these free resources.

Larry Sanger & Joe Thomas
Reading Bear/WatchKnowLearn

E.'s reading progress

(No, that's not a picture of E. He doesn't have glasses.)

Just a short report here. I'm delighted with 25-month-old E.'s reading progress. We are not studying phonics nearly as carefully and systematically as we did with H. We have been going through (more or less randomly) the two ending blends presentations, adding s, and digraphs and x. More than that, we've been doing various quizzes. When I open up Reading Bear, E. insists on doing quizzes (about 75% of the time).

We continue to read several books per day. The level of the books is now decidedly beyond the baby books, and now we're into the toddler books. To take a few examples, we've been reading quite a bit of Curious George, as well as the little-kid versions of fairy tales from Mary Engelbreit. He still likes the Biscuit stories, which are incredibly annoying.

We're also doing stuff on the iPad, including Reading Bear on iSwifter, the Starfall app (which is great), some vocabulary apps, some counting apps, etc.

When looking at screens, he's been spending at least as much time on Starfall and Literactive as on Reading Bear. I still haven't found any other free sites with decodable stories that can be sounded out with a click, like Starfall and Literactive. Have you? Please tell me about them in the comments. Anyway, I've been delighted at how well he's been reading beyond the level that he is at on Reading Bear. Like H., his ability to decode words in the context of a story is a few steps beyond his nominal phonics level. My hypothesis is that he has been figuring out unfamiliar phonics principles on his own. There is no reason to be too surprised at this, it seems to me; once you know the letter sounds and have some modest experience viewing how letters and sounds match up, there are usually a few obvious ways to decode an unfamiliar sequence of letters, and it's just a matter of mentally trying them out and picking the one that matches a word you've heard. I wonder if research supports this hypothesis.

Another thing we look at quite a bit on my desktop are my presentations. He is crazy about my "Balloons" presentation (still) and likes many others, like "Kids," "The Mind," "Chemistry 1" (not as hard as it sounds), etc. These are all available on Slideboom. I made a new one, too, called "Bubbles," which he likes. (Unfortunately, funding for new presentations is not forthcoming at this time.)

I think E. is a few months ahead of where H. was at this age (not surprising, considering that I started teaching E. phonics earlier), but at this age H. was a little ahead of where E. is in terms of books he prefers. This also shouldn't be surprising considering that I was able to spend more time with H. on his reading.

But all in all I've used similar methods with my two boys and in terms of their educational outcomes, they're very similar so far. I'd definitely say that E. is reading now, at age two, in the sense that he is able to decode most, probably all, of the words in certain stories that he can understand and enjoy.

I've made a video of E. reading, but it shows his face and all and Mama can't have that online. I'll make another one soon.


A challenge to first grade reading teachers: read in one year! No excuses!

In the course of responding on the "readbygrade3" mailing list (I'm a subscriber), I came across this page on ReadingRockets.org. I was greatly struck by the fact that, here in 2012, professional advisers to reading teachers state that, by the end of first grade, a good student "has a reading vocabulary of 300 to 500 words, sight words and easily sounded out words." This, I think, is a travesty.  At the end of first grade, students should be able to read whatever words they can comprehend, meaning (of course) many thousands of words.

Rudolph Flesch maintained, on the basis of a great deal of first-hand experience, that there is no reason why the vast majority of first graders should not be able to read--period!--at the end of the first grade. At the end of that year, they ought to be able to pick up any book, as long as the vocabulary is comprehensible to them, and read it. Decoding should present zero difficulties. Period. And so by the end of first grade, they have no need for contrived basal readers. They can start reading actual literature. For what it's worth, my six-year-old is downstairs reading The Secret Garden--his choice--in the original version right now. I fostered his literacy from babyhood and he started reading when he was two.

I'm using Reading Bear and other resources to teach my second son to read. He is 25 months old. We started seriously when he was around 18-20 months. He's up to presention #11, capable of getting 13-15 out of 15 on the quizzes on that material. He can read (with a little help) any of the first 8 or so stories on Starfall's excellent Learn to Read page, as well as any of the stories on Literactive's level 1. I fully expect my two-year-old to get through all of the word lists on Reading Bear and to be decoding (not necessarily comprehending) at a 3rd grade level by his third birthday. My first son developed in a very similar way four years ago.

If my two-year-olds can do this, your six-year-olds can do it. Teachers, now that Reading Bear is complete and 100% free, you have no excuse. I understand that your districts impose a lot of top-down control of curriculum. But you still have some freedom. Reading Bear's presentations are 15 minutes long, and you can definitely take that much time out of your busy day for this program. Let's say you don't have access to a computer lab. Fine, but surely you have a projector. If all you do is show Reading Bear's presentations for 15 minutes each day for the 180 days of first grade, you'll be giving your students the gift of literacy.

To begin with, spend a week on each presentation for the first 10-15 presentations (or better, four days on a new presentation and one day on review). After that, students will catch on much faster, so you'll be able to spend less than a week on each one. You'll also discover that you don't need to show the full, 15-minute "Sound It Out Slowly" presentations; as time goes on, you'll be able to go on to the "Sound It Out Quickly" and "Let Me Sound It Out" presentations.

Teachers, your first graders can be decoding at an advanced level by the end of the year. Being able to do that now, rather than after the third or fourth grade, opens up the whole world of books to them, and not just easy, decodable picture books, either, but chapter books. Prove me wrong--why not give it a try? What could you lose? It's easy to do--you're just showing and reacting to a presentation. Your students will be exposed systematically to over 100 phonics rules, according to Flesch's time-established method, as well as vocabulary. I personally guarantee that, at the very least, you won't be wasting your time.