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

Larry Sanger

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.

How I use SuperMemo with my 6-year-old (video)

Larry Sanger

Comments, discussion, questions welcome.

Update about the boys

Larry Sanger

Since I always begin with 6-year-old H. and never seem to have time (in the same post) to discuss now-2-year-old E., I thought I’d begin with E. this time. Besides, it has been eight months since I updated the blog about E., who is now 24 months old. But I am going to keep this update shorter than the last few, which have been voluminous. The best-laid plans…

Let me begin with how E. is doing at reading. He is able to read most of the simple words found in the most basic readers, such as Starfall’s “Zac the Rat” readers. In the last month or so, he has started whole sentences. I have started writing some readers to go with Reading Bear. Here is the current draft of the one that will go with “short a” (the sentences in parentheses are to be read by the narrator/voiceover, not by the child):

The Rat in the Bag

Pat was a man.
Pat was the dad of Sam.
Sam had a rat. The rat was Tam-Tam.
(They decided to take a trip to the beach.)
Sam had ham in a bag.
(They also packed bread and other things for sandwiches.)
They had gas in the van.
(Then they got in the van and left for the beach!)
Pat had a map.
(The map told them how to get to the beach.)
The map was in his lap.
The van ran and ran.
(At last, they got to the beach.)
Pat had a nap and a tan.
(Sam wanted to see the beach.)
Sam ran.
(While Sam and Pat were gone, the rat climbed into the lunch bag.)
Tam-Tam sat in the bag.
The rat had the ham.
(Sam looked in the bag and found Tam-Tam.)
Sam was sad.
“Tam-Tam!” Sam said. “I am mad. You bad rat!”
“It is O.K.,” said Pat. Pat had some jam.
“Pass the jam!” said Sam.
(He made a new jam sandwich.)
“Sam,” said Pat, “the rat is fat!”
(Then they drove back home.)
The rat sat on a mat in the van.
Sam sat and had a nap.
(The End)

E. read that whole story a few days ago. I had to prompt him on some words, but he read many whole sentences entirely by himself–that was the second time through, though. He liked the story well enough to request it a second time the following day. Now he is bored with the CVC words on Reading Bear. I frequently stop (as I used to do with H.) and wait for him to finish the end of a sentence or some other sentence. As H. was at this age, he is sometimes reluctant to do so, but actually he is usually game and does a good job. He is right about where H. was at this stage.

So what have we been doing to foster his reading? I am now reading to him at two of three meals (I still read to H. at dinnertime, most of the time), usually when we wake up, and sometimes at some other times of the day. I haven’t been reading to him as much as I read to H. at this age, but we do manage to get through several baby or toddler books per day. E is almost always game to read something and in fact often demands to read if I am slow to begin at mealtime. He also is very jealous of H., when I read to him at dinnertime. But E. is pickier than H. was, which is part of the problem with our ability to read as much. The other part, of course, is that I simply don’t have as much time now that I’m dividing my attention between two. Of course, Mama does help; though she usually speaks to the children in her language, she often reads to E. in English at dinnertime when I’m reading to H. It’s a little confusing but it’s OK, and it can’t be helped!

As to book choices, we’ve graduated from baby-concept books to simple story books. The Biscuit books are a favorite. We have had Curious George and Madeleine phases, but Biscuit is easy and enjoyable. Other favorites have included Little Bear and Dr. Seuss books. (These are all series.) Lately he hasn’t gone in for any of those favorites, however, except Biscuit. He has also been listening to lots of other old books of H.’s; e.g., yesterday we tried out Sammy the Seal, which he seemed to enjoy greatly. In addition to all of these, we have tried a number of “decodable” easy readers, the same sort of simple, early-reader-friendly books like the Starfall books. With those, I ask him to read more of the words. But frankly, I don’t like them and don’t use them much. They’re just not as interesting. For his birthday I got a set of phonics-decodable books to use with the LeapFrog “Tag” pen E. has inherited from H. But, just as was the case with H., E. is not that interested in the Tag pen. It’s not nearly as attractive as Papa reading to him; so what’s the point? E. even grabbed my finger to inpatiently use it to tap on the words when he wanted me to start reading. H. used to do that.

Has he learned some phonics? Absolutely. A few months ago, he read the words “tin” and “Jim,” which I’m pretty sure he’s never seen before. Now he is very regularly reading all sorts of words that are decodable, but which I’m fairly sure aren’t in Reading Bear, Little Reader, or Your Baby Can Read. He has actually graduated to figuring out some words, like “monitor,” that are far beyond his “official” phonics decoding level (as measured by our progress through Reading Bear…we’re now starting blends, when E. is interested). I remember H. doing the same thing, i.e., decoding “advanced” words well before we started studying the rules that would allow him to decode them.

So, what tools are we using? Up through a couple of months ago, he was using Reading Bear on a daily basis, sticking to the first seven presentations (short vowels, c, k, and ck). He got to the point where he got 13/15 on the quizzes and could read most of the words–or, actually, all of them, as long as I had his interest. As usual, though, we stopped when he lost interest. But then one day he apparently decided he had enough of Reading Bear, for the time anyway.

Actually, I think it was his discovery of Starfall that inspired the break. He fell in love with Zac the Rat when we started that..about two months ago. As with H., I refuse simply to read the text to him. If we are on Starfall, he must say all the words. This, I now remember, is how H. learned his “little” and unphonetic common words, what people call “sight” or “Dolch” words, like “they,” “is,” “the,” and so forth. E. is doing the same thing. Anyway, clearly, E. is impressed with his own ability to read stories. There’s a funny thing he does. Occasionally, he says, “You read it.” I always reply? “Are you tired of reading? That’s OK, let’s stop.” Then he says, “No, no, I read it!” and he continues on with renewed motivation. He almost always wants to finish the story, whether one that I wrote for Reading Bear or a Starfall story.

We have also been slowly (not daily) going through the Little Reader presentations, which are actually very nice, but he often says “no” to them. I have a lot of respect for that system–it definitely helps and has been part of our solution.

Another tool we have been using (and which takes time and attention away from Reading Bear) are my presentations. In fact, he likes these more than anything else, these days. He especially likes my “Balloons” presentation, for some reason. He’s not ready for all of the presentations; the ones about geography and history are still mostly beyond him. But he likes many of the vocabulary ones, the science ones (which are actually pretty simple, conceptually speaking), and any old family presentations starring Mama and H. when he was a toddler himself. I had forgotten just how much H. learned from these presentations–I was reminded because I am noticing how much E. is learning.

We also use lots of apps on the iPad. I’ll have to do a separate post about those.

In terms of results, well, I’ve already discussed where his reading ability is at. I really ought to document that with a video–I will soon. His diction is improving practically daily, as is his vocabulary. He is able to pronounce multisyllabic words and put together multi-word sentences, although he still hasn’t got all the basics of English grammar. He still refers to himself, sometimes, as “E—“, but usually it’s “I” and “me,” and he’s rapidly progressing in his spoken grammatical correctness, generally. His vocabulary is perhaps his biggest area of improvement lately. He once a few days ago started naming stuff in some concept book, on his own, and got everything down pat. Not just “dog” and “cat,” but slightly more advanced words like “tractor,” “airplane,” colors and numbers, and a lot of things that are common in concept books for toddlers. He can read most of the words for these things as well–but these are mostly sight words, picked up from various videos and books.

If he doesn’t have as much attention from me as H. had at this age, I think having big brother H. around constantly prattling on helps makes up for it at least somewhat, as does the fact that I know more what to do and am using more effective tools (like Reading Bear) than I had when I started with H.

I know some other “early education” parents are already busy teaching math and other skills at this stage. Well, apart from using math apps and reading lots and lots of counting books and books about shapes (and also educational videos), we are not following any sort of systematic program. I think we might, however, in the nearish future. I’m thinking I’ll want to start E. on Jones’ Geniuses for toddlers. As to other things–writing, “physical training,” music, etc.–fuhgeddaboudit. I mean, I wish I had time and energy to do that, but I’ll be honest–I don’t. Mama also feels worn out just taking care of very, very active 2-year-old and 6-year-old boys. She (and we together) do various things, but nothing systematic. I can put in a plug for the particularly excellent Your Baby Can Discover and Your Child Can Discover videos put out by Dr. Titzer. Easily up to the quality of YBCR, and probably the best general learning videos for babies and toddlers out there that I’ve seen, and that would include Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby videos (which are good), Classical Baby art videos, and others. In terms of screen media, only my presentations are better. 😉

Another thing we are doing, which we did with H. and which we do at mealtime, is puzzles. We’re doing the precise same U.S. states puzzles that H. did, and E. is showing excellent aptitude for them, at least as much as his brother had. Apart from being their first exposure to U.S. geography, these puzzles are excellent for teaching fine motor skills.

One other thing. Is E. happy? You bet! He’s a super-cute, very animated, very energetic, very personable little guy. He says hello and goodbye to everyone at the grocery store, and tries to talk to people all the time, even if they can’t quite understand everything he says yet.


OK, onto H., who is now 6. He’s forging on ahead and is reasonably content with his studies, for which I’m grateful. He does resist a few things on some days, but generally he’s happy to do what I ask, and not infrequently dives into things (writing, reading, piano) without my asking. He is turning into a pretty unusual kid–well, you’ll see.

General remarks. We took a month off of studies–even off history reading, and sometimes even chapter book reading at night–for a month (August) or a little more. Then around the start of September we started back in with gusto. We have a schedule we’re following now, with limited success, but it is a schedule and it does provide us with some useful guidance and reminders. Everything discussed below is on it. I also got a book of reward charts, with stickers, and H. seems motivated by that. Not all kids might be, but H. is, so far.

The schedule is generally as follows: Latin and Review #1 (see “Review work” below) before breakfast. I read to E. at breakfast. After breakfast, half hour of P.E. with Mama, which has often consisted of bike riding. We also go to a weekly homeschool gym. Then an hour of literature, a half hour of nonfiction reading, and 45 minutes of math (all of these interspersed by Q&A with me and/or short breaks). Most of this morning work is done by himself, although we do discuss his reading, sometimes making review questions about the nonfiction reading; his Mama or I help with math. At lunch, I read to Eddie. After lunch, we have a daily 10 minute piano lesson, Review #2, and then 15-20 minutes of geography reading–all of which lasts about 45 minutes. Then he’s off writing or doing grammar by himself and other things by himself such as chess study or art. Theoretically he’s done by 2:45 pm on most days, but that’s theoretical. At dinner, most days, I read to him: first a poem, then physics. Sometimes E. insists that I read to him and I relent (it depends on whether I arrive at the table in time to catch the fast-eating H.). After dinner, we sometimes play a game of chess but more often we’re just taking it easy. At 7:15 or 7:30 we start Review #3, followed by history and some other reading. Since H. is quite good about doing an hour of serious literature every day, I’ve been using our evening reading time to read things like the human body, the Children’s Bible, about the Presidents, as well as some chapter books–everything sacred and profane.

Often he runs rampant the whole morning while I’m doing work, and then I have to rein him in (with Mama’s help) in the afternoon. If I didn’t have her help, I wouldn’t be able to get a full day’s work done, and sometimes I have to work in the evening, to do a full day’s work.

Review work. Maybe the most unusual feature of our homeschooling habits, these days, is that we do SuperMemo review three times a day, about 10 minutes per review. Occasionally it’s more, especially if I’ve typed in a lot of questions recently. I just love SuperMemo. H. has 90% recall of over 1,400 questions added in the last five months. Here are some examples of the sorts of questions he is reviewing these days:

What happened at the very end of Buchanan’s presidency?
One by one, the Southern states began to secede from the Union.

Who claimed the territory that would become Brazil, and when?
Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500

Why might a fighter pilot become unconscious when enduring 9 g in a sharp turn?
The g force makes blood rush out of his head, and we need blood in our heads to stay conscious.

What is the substance called which gives color to the skin? (If you have more, you have darker skin; if you have less,  you have lighter skin.)
Melanin.

Who was the first of the great German painters in the Renaissance?
Albrecht Dürer.

Who assassinated Lincoln, and where?
John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C.

Define: anarchist
Someone who believes that all government is wrong, who wants there to be no government at all.

What is the longest mountain range in the world?
The Andes Mountains

Do states’ rights limit (lessen) the power of the federal government?
yes

Complete the series (through 60): 6,  12…
18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60

Our SuperMemo statistics states that we have added on average 7 questions per day (50 questions per week). If we keep this up, he’ll have 90% recall of over 15,000 facts (of the above sort) by the time he’s 12. Before you scream in horror at the pain I must be causing my child, imposing this “rote memorization” of “mere facts” on him, remember that the reviews occupy about 30 minutes of his time, broken into three sessions per day. Also, it’s not rote memorization because I rarely ask him questions about things we have not studied; the questions are about things in our texts or other studies. Frankly, I think this will be the way of the future. I think that, in the future, this will be standard operating procedure in classrooms around the world: just 30 minutes of quite doable, tolerable, and sometimes even enjoyable review will virtually guarantee what we, today, would regard as “encyclopedic” knowledge. It also makes quizzes, exams, and a lot of homework all unnecessary.

Literature. The thing, other than review, that H. does most consistently, I guess, is literature, meaning reading a chapter book for an hour a day. Our routine here has not changed much since last report, although in the last month or so we’ve been distinguishing between “challenging” books and easier books. We have been doing about 50% of each. Since August or September he has been working at the same time on Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer for the challenging books. I sit him down with my iPad, with the dictionary app open, and have him look up any words he doesn’t know. The dictionary app tracks the look-ups, and occasionally I type vocabulary items into SuperMemo. Does he comprehend what he is reading? Reasonably well. We almost always discuss what he’s read afterward for 10 minutes or so. I ask him questions, ask him to summarize what he’s read, ask his opinion/reactions, etc. He says he understands what he’s reading, but of course that’s something to verify. I have subscribed to enotes.com (which at $50/year seems quite comprehensive in its coverage of children’s books) and he seems to be able to handle the comprehension questions there pretty well.

He’s making slow progress through those books because he’s also at work on a much faster-rotating series of easier books. He recently finished The Phantom Tollbooth, The Matchlock Gun (tossed off in a little over an hour a few days ago–no trouble with the enotes questions), The Secret of the Andes, The Horse and His Boy, and The Cricket in Times Square, and for fun reading or re-reading things like Hardy Boys mysteries, the newer Magic Tree House books (he’s read the whole series twice and is now on #44), the Spiderwick Chronicles, and lots of Tintin graphic novels (as well as the novelization of the recent movie, which he just really wanted). Today he picked up his very first book of poetry and read it on his own, cover to cover, which I thought was great: A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. I read him a poem on average 4-5 times a week at dinnertime, if I remember to. These are more “serious” children’s poems, which require interpretation. (I think of “Meeting at Night” by Browning and Shelly’s “Ozymandias” which was actually very fun to read and discuss.) I think our long-term fairly regular attention to poetry has given him a bit of a taste for poetry. He doesn’t seem the poet type, but I think he likes it pretty well, and he has memorized some poetry. Lately he memorized “Star Light, Star Bright,” “Monday’s Child,” and the song “Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” which baby E. really, really enjoys. (Take it away, Joan!)

By the way, I do still read chapter books to him 3-4 nights a week at bedtime, the other nights being nonfiction. Lately it’s been Sindbad the Sailor and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights, and a book that he selected himself from the bookshelf, Roger Lancelyn Green’s very interesting Tales of Ancient Egypt. (We’re doing SuperMemo review of questions from this. Extremely helpful for study of ancient Egypt.) Of course, I’ve read many other things to him…I guess I’ll update that book list sooner or later. The reason I stopped reading chapter books/literature to him every day is that I am now reading much more to E. at mealtimes, and the time I spent reading nonfiction to him was decimated, and sorely missed. Something had to give and it was some of the bedtime literature.

In terms of results: he seems to be doing pretty well in terms of getting exposed to a lot of classics of children’s literature. His taste for fiction is, I think, growing. His ability to handle more difficult and “archaic” texts is also developing nicely. This latter is important to me because so many classics simply cannot be mastered unless you’re comfortable with older-sounding vocabulary, idiom, and sentence structure. Moreover, reading the more difficult children’s classics while he’s still definitely a child will prepare him very well for taking on board original sources from history and, in time, philosophy. I certainly do want him to study philosophy with me before he goes off to college. Now, as to his vocabulary, certain persons might say that he doesn’t sound like a regular 6-year-old. But then his Papa doesn’t sound like a regular grown-up and he does OK, so I figure it doesn’t matter that much. Look, if you give a child an education he’s capable of–and I think the absolutely wonderful Marva Collins showed just how much regular children are capable of–then he’s not going to sound like a regular kid. But what’s wrong with that? If there’s a problem, it’s that he talks too much, and he can be rather mouthy. Being both homeschooled and given a rather free hand in how he spends his time (though we aren’t, of course, Unschoolers), he is a very independent sort who is not shy about making his views and preferences known.

Writing. This continues to be an area of mystery and success, as far as it goes. Sometimes, I think he needs specifically to learn how to summarize texts, so we work on that. Other times, I’ve created specific assignments, such as you might find in a writing program. That all goes reasonably well. I have occasionally been tempted to buy some program for teaching writing, but whenever I see them, I think, “This is going to be a disaster.” Writing, perhaps more than anything else, has to be individualized. I strongly suspect that simply encouraging the student to write a lot, giving him some direction, occasionally giving him some assignments on things he needs to improve, and then simply lightly and gently giving feedback (mostly praise) on his work will be enough to make an excellent writer out of a child. Anyway, my general idea seems to be bearing fruit in H’s case. He has continued to make reasonable progress, although he still writes an awful lot of what I would describe as nonsense. But he is certainly writing better now than he was a year or more ago.

A couple weeks ago, H. got up one day and wrote this before breakfast (revised lightly afterward with a few general comments from me):

Essay on physics

We will talk about atoms, the aie and empty void, and forces.

Section 1: The Air and Empty Void

Empty really is empty. Many scientists also think that my position is wrong.

Section 2: Forces and Energy

Forces

Forces are like push and pull. One kind of force that works against gravity is called positive force. I thought that negative force works agianst gravity, but that is silly. Anyway, think of the negative numbers. They work with gravity, because the negative numbers are the very low numbers. That tells you that empty really is empty. But only in one way it does. I will tell you. It’s because low and empty are sort of related, but they are connected in one way. I will again tell. It’s because empty means low.

Energy comes in more than a hundred forms. I will list some.

Solar
Wind
Water
Chemical

Those are some of our energy kinds. I will now take us to learn about atoms.

Section 3: Atoms

Atoms are made up of different nuclei, which are orbited like all the planets orbit the Sun. The nuclei are orbited by a group of electrons and other things. This might sound amazing, but the atoms can be elecricity atoms, which we will learn about later. Cells contain nuclei that are bigger than that of an atom. In fact, those nuclei may contain atoms.

I sent that text to a friend, a veteran homeschooler, and asked him what the hell I should do with this. His advice made an impression on me:

What the hell do you do with this???? You encourage him to write more of this very same thing! Lots of it! … It makes perfect sense to him—and as long as you encourage it, this faucet will spew forth lots of fascinating and meaningful (to him) prose. Try to control it at this early stage and I guarantee, you will constructively shut off the flow of this incredible explosion of creativity. My friend, this isn’t “nonsense.” If I were to offer advice—and I am not wont to do so—I would suggest that you DON’T rewrite it or shape it or try to “fix” anything at this stage. ([Wife] agrees.) No tutor either. You will send the message to his little, underdeveloped mind that he is doing something “wrong.” And he’s not. … It’s organized, cogent (after a fashion), linear, argumentative. As he is exposed to more critical thinking, he’ll naturally (and through imitation) tailor his writing to a more approved and appropriate style. In due time.

I decided to take his advice, and have been encouraging H. to do more of the same. So he did.

Over the weekend, he wrote a little composition (! I didn’t ask, and it was the weekend) about our trip to Rock House, a great spot in Ohio’s Hocking Hills:

Story of how we went to Rock House

Rock House looked really big, and before we found the cave entrance, I thought that that was not really a cave, like Mama and Papa said. But then we came to a hollow that I thought was actually the cave entrance. It was not. Then I saw what was the cave entrance. Then, as we came closer, I saw the way up. It was a ramp that we used to get up into the cave. We got there and climbed up the ramp. When we got inside, I was the first one to get inside. I looked up to one end of the cave and saw that I had almost fallen off a ledge. I went back after that and had quite a hard time finding the others. I finally found them and found a good place for some rock climbing. I climbed the ledge and then Papa got me down, and then we went over to a place where it was impossible to get down. On the way back from that, I walked on the high part of the cave on the right side. Then Mama found a nice and low place where she could lift me down. Then we left the cave this way:

·         First, we found the cave entrance (which was then the cave exit) and then went back down the ramp.

·         Next, we went back around the Rock House loop and took the rest of the trail home.

To take another example, today, I told him to go write something. I saw the composition-in-progress, which led a few instructions: explain the business about the exhaust pipes, and create separate paragraphs for separate ideas. Making “sections” was his solution to my request for paragraphs. Also, at one point, he had only said, “This is something else I would like everybody to do: Make brick walls on either side and all around power lines.” I told him to expand that. That’s pretty much it–I did correct his spelling of “environment” but I think that’s the only spelling or grammar correction I made.

Here is what he came up with:

How I would like to change how man-made stuff affects the environment

Section 1: About Cars and Gasoline

I would like to let electric power take over gasoline powered devices so that all cars would be electric and why? Because gasoline powered cars give off exhaust and dangerous fumes that may damage the environment.

Section 2: About Nuclear Energy

Another thing I would like to change is nuclear energy. I know that people who run a power plant let all of the exhaust out. So I would like them to send all the exhaust through pipes instead. And let it out at the end of the pipes, wherever the ends are.

Section 3: Another Thing They Can Do 

This is something else I would like everybody to do: Make brick walls on either side and all around power lines. Because I know that in the winter, power lines freeze and that gives them more mass and makes all the power lines fall down. Another thing that they can do is just keep the power lines away from trees!

Section 4: About Car Pantograph Idea And About Car Crashes

I would also like them to make inflatable cars on the road so that people would not feel any shock when a crash happened. And make all cars like that. And also make all cars powered by pantographs like some trains and buses.

We do about 30-45 minutes of writing per day. Very occasionally, I look the other way when H. doesn’t get around to doing writing.

His handwriting still leaves much to be desired, although we do still try to get him to improve it. I’m open to suggestions for radical remediation. His typing speed has improved considerably. I haven’t timed it but it’s definitely along the lines of 10-20 wpm. He strongly prefers typing because it’s easier and faster. It’s hard to argue with him about that, but we still do make him handwrite things. Still haven’t started teaching him cursive, but we do intend to.

One other thing. A week or so again, as I writing this, he started writing a diary, and so far has made four entries. I didn’t ask him to do this, it isn’t part of his writing homework (although I let him do an entry once or twice for his writing assignment), and he has kept it up by himself. He just discovered he likes writing about various trivial things that have happened at home. I doubt it will keep his interest for much longer, but I guess we’ll see.

Grammar. He’s on lesson 8 of Cozy Grammar, which we started not too long ago. We generally do two lessons per week, which can but often don’t replace writing (he often does writing anyway, even on weekends). I don’t think it makes any difference to his writing, but I figure that he ought to understand the language of grammar, because it ultimately does help and at higher levels is even essential. I don’t propose to make it a long-term component of his studies–writing daily is quite enough–but we’ll come back to it at higher levels every few years, I guess. Marie Rackham also has a punctuation program we bought and we’ll be doing that.

Math. Since the last update, H. has finished Singapore Math’s Primary Mathematics 1B. It turns out that his mother, who has been sharing math teaching responsibilities, dislikes the Singapore Math program. In her opinion, it does not explain things explicitly enough, and I have to agree with her on that. It also doesn’t provide enough systematic, step-by-step practice, at least within the Textbook + Workbook combination. One day she was out shopping at Sam’s Club and she got a second grade math book that was more her style, Spectrum Math, Grade 2. At first I turned up my nose at her choice. (You picked up some random curriculum at Sam’s Club?) But I looked at it, and I had to admit that it seemed to be a solid program, and I looked at the reviews on Amazon, which were very positive.

So he dove into the new book and hasn’t looked back–he’s already 1/3 of the way through and at the current rate should be in the Grade 3 book well before this school year is out. So far it’s been mostly review, but there have been some new topics. This book teaches the traditional algorithms that are underemphasized in (or missing from?) Singapore Math. The reason Singapore Math was attractive to me–apart from my impression, picked up when I was originally making choosing math books, that students who use it do very well on math exams–is that it teaches kids how to think “mathy thoughts.” It is supposed to teach many different ways to do problems. I think this is largely true, but as long as we’re doing MEP as well, I guess it seemed a little overkill. MEP does much better when it comes to teaching mathematical thinking.

So, yes, we’re still on MEP, Practice Book 1b, going relatively slow, getting toward the end; I think there’s still 30-40 pages to go. I still love MEP, but these days H. appreciates it best in small doses, which is fine with me. The other thing we’re doing regularly is Five Times Five Is Not Ten; H. is about halfway done with it. He has memorized many multiplication facts.

H. is a bit more enthusiastic about math these days, in no small part due to the switch to Spectrum Math, I think.

History. I wish we had made more progress in history, but due to the summer break and the frequency with which we were late getting ready (which I blame on SuperMemo review more than anything), history often fell by the wayside. As a result, we’re still at work on The Story of the World, Volume 2, now reading about the 16th and 17th centuries. We’ll be done pretty soon. The thing is, however, H. is learning more history than he was before, because he’s committing more of it to memory (that’s thanks to SuperMemo). My general impression is that this makes history more meaningful and more interesting, on the whole.

We’re continuing to follow the same plan, even with the same texts: SOTW, Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, Gombrich’s Little History of the World, and Kingfisher Atlas of World History. H. declares he really loves SOTW, and likes the Usborne book, but the others aren’t so great. He doesn’t like Gombrich at all, but since he goes through this period of history so quickly it doesn’t matter that much. We have read a few other history books, but not too many, except about the presidents. On that score we’re up to Theodore Roosevelt, #26, still reading in both the DK presidents book as well as The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents.

Are we doing anything else, like worksheets or writing assignments related to history? Not really…

Science. Science is one of the few things that we still study at mealtime–4-5 dinnertimes per week we read a few pages (or one page of DK Energy) of a physics book. We’re continuing to use Usborne’s What’s Physics All About? as a “spine,” although it’s hardly meaningful as a spine, because we spend 80%+ of our time reading other things. We’ve been studying energy for a few months. I’d say we’re a little over halfway through physics. So far we’ve studied cosmology, motion and force, gravity, and pressure. After this it’ll be waves, including light and sound, electricity, and finally, history of physics. The Usborne book has a chapter about astronomy but we’ll tackle that with a different spine altogether.

As to what we’ve read, we’ve read a couple, including another “Max Axiom” book, about energy, and now we’re well into DK Energy. The DK science books are very history-of-science heavy, I think (this is only my guess) because DK finds it easy to find cheap pictures to illustrate historical topics, much more than carefully-thought-out, expensive original designs would cost. Still, it’s all good. The history stuff isn’t a bad introduction to science. Knowing how we came to various pieces of knowledge does help us to understand them.

The other science topic we’re studying, a bit, is the human body. A few months ago, practically out of the blue, H. decided he wanted to be a doctor. Suddenly he had a powerful motivation to read about the human body. So that’s what we did. H. has read quite a bit without me, and does rather better on the SuperMemo questions about this topic than he does about other topics. That’s partly because he makes a good many of the questions himself, partly because he’s highly interested, and partly because he gets the same information from several sources. Anyway, I guess we do most of our in-depth study at bedtime, typically twice a week. We’ve been reading the DK First Human Body Encyclopediawhich is not at all history oriented and which is actually an excellent book. By carefully studying every page and producing many questions about each section (at H.’s request), H. has really learned a lot about this topic.

In addition, he read by himself, cover-to-cover, Deadly Diseases from the “Horrible Science” series. We got the whole box set–I’m very happy with the purchase. This is a fairly lightweight and readable British series of chapter books about science, aimed mostly at boys. He’s now well into Fatal Forces, which is an excellent review of many physics topics. He was working on another one as well. He doesn’t make too many questions from this. I suspect it’s mostly in one ear, out the other, so to speak, but some of it does stick. He has spent a lot of his half hours of nonfiction (which we get to only about half of the days) on these and on other books about the human body, including various Scholastic “True Books” (very good selections as usual).

Of course we’re still doing experiments, but to be honest, not as many as we’ve done in the past. In the last few months we’ve done several from Physics for Every Kid. Saturday is, or is supposed to be, experiment day.

Geography. For a couple of months, we didn’t read geography at all, so we haven’t made much progress since our last report, although lately we’re making good progress again. We finally finished reading the National Geographic Brazil book. We’re now splitting our time between finishing up In the Land of the Jaguar–which is now over halfway done–and readings about the Caribbean. It’s nice to be onto a new region. Now we’re into the National Geographic Cuba book, and we’re doing other general readings about the region in general children’s atlases. Of course, we look a lot at the globe, which is right next to the big reading chair, as well as the behemoth Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. At H.’s request we do other things from time to time. For example, he combined writing and geography and did a PowerPoint presentation about Argentina, and recently traced a map of Cuba, and after that photocopied the tracing and labeled and colored it (which is a nice method).

Other stuff. In piano, I got tired of H. falling back on quickly memorizing my demonstrations–which he was able to do, apparently–and I taught him how to read music, finally. We used flash cards one afternoon and got the basics, went back to the second book of Music for Little Mozarts (from where music reading was first taught), reading through the whole thing again, and are now almost caught up to where we were before in Book Three. This time, I give him no clues at all, or rather, the only clues I give him are to help him figure out the notes himself. So that’s solid progress. I’d start him on lessons but, basically, I think it would be a waste of money. H. can get through a lot of material in a week, and most teachers want a student to absolutely master one or two pieces before they go on. As a piano student myself and having seen him in lessons when he was 5, I know how it goes. Maybe when he is playing more challenging stuff, and is able to focus for more than 15 minutes, we’ll find a teacher (other than me).

I often hear H. banging on the piano, playing his favorite pieces, figuring out common tunes, and making up his own stuff. I think that’s all a good sign.

In Latin, H. is well into Rosetta Stone Latin Level 2. He is pretty good about doing it for about 15 minutes every morning before breakfast. It constitutes good practice without being a major time commitment. I guess the plan is to get into a serious Latin grammar book after he’s done with Rosetta Stone–when he’s 7, I guess. He has observed on various occasions, with pride, that his Latin helps him in various small ways. (Of course, when he knows it better, he’ll notice many other ways.)

As to Physical Education, that’s now part of the daily schedule–he goes out with Mama for a half hour after breakfast and they do various things. He’s also been going to a weekly “homeschool gym” and we’re starting Cub Scouts, which has a sports and outdoors component. Of course he’s often doing physical play later in the afternoon after his studies are done, and we often go for family bike rides after dinner. He still has little in the way of competitive spirit, when it comes to sports. I guess I didn’t much, either, and his mother certainly doesn’t.

I’ve been reading a philosophy book to H., off and on, which he enjoys. Once he somehow persuaded me to start writing a philosophy text, and I have almost finished writing Chapter 1 of Philosophy for Children. Your guess is as good as mine on whether I’ll finish or not. But H. was very enthusiastic about it, read it several times, and wrote various unassigned “essays” on the topics it raised.

We’re slowly reading through the Golden Children’s Bible. H. declares he is an atheist and recently express doubts about Santa Claus, too. But due to the obvious historical and cultural importance of the Bible, I think it’s essential that we get well acquainted with it. He doesn’t mind. We’ve started reading the story of David; we’re close to halfway done.

We’re also reading a book about presidential elections for obvious reasons, and he has taken to scanning realclearpolitics.com.

We’re also still making progress in Logic Safaria page or two a week or so.

This isn’t the whole story of H., believe me. It’s just about his education, and I haven’t told you about the zoo and science museum trips etc. Anyway, he’s a pretty happy, if rather unusual, little kid. He generally likes being homeschooled, and hates the idea of going to school. He is comfortable enough with his studies, although he does sometimes complain that he doesn’t want to study, and we often give him a half day off, basically, often Wednesday or Thursday. I rarely must resort to threatening him with sitting in the corner if he doesn’t study. While I sometimes have to get his attention, and occasionally he does have trouble sticking to task, he does a pretty good job getting quite a bit done by himself while I’m working and Mama is busy. Reading in particular is now going very smoothly. Math is more of a struggle; without some external motivation, like a timer to work against, he ends up wasting a lot of time. Same deal with grammar. Writing usually goes well enough, except when I ask him to revise a list of items; he often ignores or misunderstands what I’ve told him to do. I guess it doesn’t matter too much because he makes progress in his writing anyway. I’m still reading quite a bit to him, and I wish he’d do more, but frankly this is the only way I can be sure that he understands some otherwise difficult-to-understand material (science, history, geography, etc.).

**Special note to freelance illustrators: Reading Bear is looking for people who are willing to make cartoons for cheap, for a good cause!

Reading Bear’s First Press Release (Please Share!)

Larry Sanger

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Dr. Joe Thomas 901-484-3347

INNOVATIVE NEW WEBSITE, READING BEAR, TEACHES PHONICS AND VOCABULARY FOR FREE
Wikipedia Co-Founder’s Latest Project Launches to Acclaim

MEMPHIS, TENN., OCTOBER 11, 2012 – The co-founder of Wikipedia has embarked on a new web-based project aimed at teaching children to read in a new innovative, multi-sensory, multi-media approach.

Dr. Larry Sanger has designed a new website called ReadingBear.org.  It is a free website from Sanger and the team from the education website, WatchKnowLearn.org.  The project is funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist through the non-profit Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.

ReadingBear.org takes a phonics approach to teaching children to read.  The site features more than 100 phonics principles. More than 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, each illustrated with a picture.  Each word is also used in a sentence illustrated by a video. The words are displayed “karaoke” style—individual letters flash at the moment that the corresponding sounds are spoken.

Readingbear.org’s word lists were drawn from exercises from Rudolph Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read. Veteran phonics teacher Don Potter declared these exercises “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods.”

Distinguished reading researcher, Dr. Timothy Shanahan praised Readingbear.org’s reading approach and its colorful features. “It sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a workbook),” said Shanahan.

Reading Bear is free to users and requires no registration.

 

Does a social contract require us to put our children in schools?

Larry Sanger

Tony Jones produced an interesting argument against homeschooling. As I understand it, Tony says that we are obligated by a social contract to send our kids to school, and by the fact that we must support society as a whole by not “dropping out.” As he explains, “I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.”

Tony’s argument makes two assumptions. One is that he has a obligation to be involved in (and to help improve) society. The other is that that this obligation forbids homeschooling. For the sake of argument, I am going to concede the first point, although it is very vague. I take it that the point is–very vaguely put–that we should live as parts of society, not cutting ourselves off. A hermit is not a complete human being, and a life cut off from others is impoverished.

The second point is the more interesting. So, does our obligation not to turn our backs on society require us to send our children to schools? Let me give a series of reasons to think this might not be the case.

First of all, U.S. schools are terrible. I can guarantee that my children will get a fantastic education if they stay home with me. Now, while my children will not be so much “part of society” while they are school-aged, they will certainly be part of it when they are adults. Well, it seems to me that they be more socially effective with a stellar education.

Moreover, dropping out of a deeply ailing institution–as the public school system has become, in many ways–puts much-needed pressure on that institution to achieve meaningful reform. As more and more people turn to homeschooling, simply because schools in the grip of bankrupt educational philosophies (like Dewey’s…) are not living up to their promise, more genuine choice is achieved. In a calculus of the extent to which we are meeting our societal obligations, this shouldn’t count for nothing.

The next issue is more to the point: while we might have an obligation to improve society by being part of it, how far does this obligation extend? If you are in a good position (due to career, physical proximity, or connections of friends and family) to fight drug abuse, should you become an addict and live among addicts? Of course not. But by parity of Tony’s reasoning, one might think so: perhaps, by joining the addicts, I can improve society in profound ways that I could not do from outside the addicted fold. This is speculative, however, and I am sure no one believes any such thing, and certainly no one is obligated to act a certain way due to such speculation. The point is that, clearly, there are lines and standards we are justified in drawing: our obligation to improve society by being part of it does not impose endless requirements on us. Another example. I imagine someone (maybe not Tony) saying that I am not being part of society because my family doesn’t watch network or cable TV, and have almost no exposure to televised sports and celebrity news. These things are deeply ingrained parts of our society, and yet my family has almost completely cut itself off from them, because we find them to be a waste, compared to what we could be doing with our time. Am I really obligated to waste my time in this way, simply in the interests of being able to interact more effectively with others who do waste their time that way? Prima facie, no. Does Tony have some reason to think otherwise?

Tony’s argument is, as you can see, woefully incomplete. He hasn’t got a prayer of clinching his argument unless he can explain in much more detail why participating in this particular institution is so important. Getting an education is, granted, extremely important. But why is it so important to our obligation to improve society that we send our children to substandard public schools in order to get that education? If Tony has addressed this question, I am afraid I missed it.

I could go on, and would like to, but I’m being instructed to get dinner. I think I have made enough of an argument for now, anyway.

Reading Bear: Rave Reviews

Larry Sanger

Reading Bear has enjoyed excellent preliminary reactions from a wide variety of online sources. The following is just a selection, most of this in reaction to our 2011 launch, not to the full set of 50 presentations that we completed in August 2012.

Our Favorite Endorsements & Mentions

Larry Ferlazzo added us to three “best of” lists. Phonics teaching expert Don Potter said that the exercises on which Reading Bear is based “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to” those exercises. Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and wrote, “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.” The Next Web called us “a neat online tool” and MakeUseOf called us “very user-friendly” and later put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.” We were profiled in Brandon Lutz’s influential “60 in 60” presentation. We also got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.

Education Blogs

One of the most-followed teacher-bloggers and Twitterers is Larry Ferlazzo, so we were particularly pleased to have his approval, November 3, 2011: “Reading Bear is a new free interactive site for teaching beginning readers through the use of phonics in a relatively engaging way. It doesn’t appear that registration is necessary, and they say it will remain free. It’s from WatchKnowLearn, the well-respected and well-known educational video site.” Ferlazzo also added it to his “Best Articles & Sites for Teachers & Students to Learn About Phonics,” the “Best Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced English Language Learner Sites,” and the “Best Websites to Help Beginning Readers.” Next, an expert about phonics teaching, Don Potter. Don added a linkwith Reading Bear’s scope and sequence all worked out, and emailed us with this unsolicited praise:

Rudolf Flesch [author of Why Johnny Can’t Read] would be pleased to see his method translated into modern technology: readingbear.org

I have dedicated many years to studying and understanding the linguistics and psychology behind Flesch’s 72 Exercises. I have taught them to many younger and older students. The exercises have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to Flesch. I commend you and all the people who helped with the Reading Bear project, which obviously was an incredibly complex and lengthy process. I appreciate everyone’s dedication to seeing the project through to completion. Now we can really get busy promoting it so illiteracy can become a Thing of the Past.

It will prove particularly helpful to bilingual students since the meanings of the words are illustrated in sentences, something crucially important for bilingual students.

Beginning Reading Helpsent us more traffic than any other blog. (Thanks!) They list three websites for “teaching kids to read for FREE” and Reading Bear is placed first, with this comment: “How is this possible? It’s possible, because there are generous people in the world who know what works and want to share it. … I’ve been registered with Reading Bear for almost a year. These reading sites are as good or better than most software and online subscription sites I’ve used.” Now let’s look at some other “ranking” education bloggers, and others who gave us long, detailed write-ups.

• Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and said “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.”
• Paul Hamilton’s blog states, “good phonics resources are always needed.  I believe the one I’m writing about here may have potential to help develop sight vocabulary as well.” He also praises “the exceptional quality of the site as a whole.”
• Another top-ranked ed blog, Free Technology for Teachers, picked up on Hamilton’s link and added that Reading Bear “could be a good independent activity or an activity that children work through with the assistance of a parent or tutor… [I]t could be a great support and practice resource.”
• Oklahoma City Public Schools put us in their February 2012 newsletter: “If you like Starfall, then you will like Reading Bear! … Phonics, vocabulary and comprehension are all presented in fun and interactive ways for students to practice. … This is all FREE!!!!”
• EdSurge Newsletter 039 included a short write-up, Nov. 9, 2011.
• Wired Academic profiled us Nov. 21, 2011 and nominated us for the “Best Free Web Tool” in the Edublog Awards.
• Librarian’s Quest had a very detailed write-up of the site on Nov. 22, 2011 and added “Did you hear that clanking click?  That would be me adding Reading Bear into my virtual toolbox to use with my students.”
• NCS-Tech was full of praise and gives a very detailed overview, complete with multiple screenshots: “an awesome resource for early learners… I immediately knew I wanted to take a closer look and share it here. … [A] very impressive effort. … The graphics are crisp and clear, and so are the videos… I’m really impressed with Reading Bear.”
• Click This was “totally excited about Reading Bear. One, it’s FREE. Two, it’s a product from a company in my home state – Mississippi. … This is a ‘must see and use application’ for educators and parents alike. … I’m certainly impressed.”
•  Crayons & Mice says, “If you like to use Starfall with your students, you will like Reading Bear too! … It is great to present during whole group or small group instruction! … One feature I really like to turn on is the video of someone showing how the mouth looks when saying a particular word. For your visual and kinesthetic learners this could be a very important feature to have on for them to see what their mouth should look like when speaking a word. … Reading Bear is a great website to help young students with their reading skills.”
•  The Education Technology and Mobile Learning blog not only did a write-up, they even did a video review which called us “really awesome.”
The HubPages “Learn Things Web” listed “Websites that Teach Children How to Read,” and at the top of the list came Reading Bear: “This website is wonderful because it actually sounds out a large number of words. If a child is having a hard time with the idea that sounds go together to make words, Reading Bear will be a big help. They will probably start to understand very quickly with regular exposure to this website.”
•  Jimmy Kilpatrick’s Education News reproduced one of Larry’s blog posts about Reading Bear.
•  Technology Tailgate has a post from a literacy specialist who calls us “a fun, interactive website that helps students learn to read. It reviews all the main phonics rules and guides students through hands-on practice.”

Other education bloggers include Technology Links I have found!, Timbuktu to Technology (“worth checking out for those teaching phonics to early learners and beginning ESL students”), Teach Like a Rockstar, Thoughts from the Classroom (on Diigo “I also have some sites that will be great for my students to use such as ‘Reading Bear,’ …”), About.com’s Children With Special Needs, Tech Coach (top link in a “Learning to Read Early” list), College Wood Office Blog (“looks like a cool website”), Technology Ideas for EC Teachers, YES Technology Chat, doug – off the record, Mantz’s Mission (site of the day), FreeStuff Education, EDge21, Educational Technology from REMC12 East, MMcFadden.com, Tech My Class (“Teachers this is a great way to keep young learners engaged in learning to read.  In our digital rich society what an amazing tool for both teachers and children, Reading Bear is a must for early education.”), Beginning Reading Help, Friendship Elementary Media Tech Place, Tadika2U.com, Inverness Primary Media Portal (Inverness, FL; “a real ‘keeper’ …[T]ake a look at this great resource. It will be worth your while!”), and an Italian Bilingual School’s Newsletter (Leichhardt, NSW, Australia) mentioned Reading Bear. Let’s not forget the homeschooling blogs, such as Julie and Technology, a Pinterest pinboard (“Our middle two children go through a lesson on this program at lunchtime daily. This homeschooling mom gives it FIVE stars; it tops the list of all the supplemental online reading sites that we’ve used thus far. … Just went through the tutorial and the first lesson with Will. I’m very impressed and will be using it at school, too! … This is awesome! Very impressed!”), Home School Parent (“My five year old is just starting to read, and we were both super excited to find Reading Bear. … [Y]ou will definitely want to explore Reading Bear yourself.”), My Little Home School (“I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered it was FREE, and even more thrilled to see this is exactly what she needed. We started the lessons yesterday and she loved it.”), twistedbrainfreeze, Mike and Katie (a long write-up explaining how they use Reading Bear with their toddler), Are We There Yet?, Teaching Baby to Read Blog, Wise Owl Homeschool, Project4Peace (“I really like the real object photos the simple but not childish voice and images”), and Sheri’s blog.

General Tech Blogs

Some blogs that focus on new Internet and tech stories also noticed us:

•  The top-ranked tech blog, The Next Web, described us in detail on November 2, 2011, and praised us as a “neat new online tool.” The post was widely reposted and linked. TNW followed up on Nov. 19 with a long interview with Reading Bear editor Larry Sanger.
•   Techie Buzz is another high-profile tech blog and they did an excellent report on the same day. They called us a “great new tool to teach kids how to read. … The project has some strong backing, including its Editor-in-Chief, Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. The website has a beautifully illustrated and child-friendly design. … I believe endeavors like this are worthy of community support. They believe in equal access to education and that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Hopefully, they will gain support and, more importantly, many children will learn to read from this project.”
•   MakeUseOf, another high-profile tech blog, wrote (Nov. 8, 2012) that Reading Bear teaches kids vocabulary and phonics “with the help of creatively crafted media. It happens to be easier for a child to learn stuff when he is shown ‘pictures, presentations and sound clips’. The website is very user-friendly…” The same site later twice (Jan. 23 and Jan. 29, 2012) put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.”

District, School, Classroom, and Library Link Lists and Education Directories

Reading Bear has made its way onto various education listings and directories as well:

  • TeachersFirst, an educational resource directory, profiled us, describing us as “a systematic program” that is “an excellent resource,” and making us a Featured Site for the week of May 6, 2012.
  • Plano Independent School District (Plano, TX) gave us special billing atop their list of language arts web sites for primary students. We got a lot of traffic from this. Thanks, PISD!
  • ICTMagic is another education website directory and there we are described as “A well made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations.”
  • The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of the Austrialian state of Victoria listed us.

Other listings are by Pennsylvania Avenue School (Atlantic City, NJ), Plattsmouth Community Schools (Plattsmouth, NE), Mrs. Turhune’s wiki, Bancroft Elementary School (Minneapolis, MN; #2 spot in the “Language Arts Links”), Wells Elementary School (Wells, ME; Link of the Week), Marion County Public Library (Lebanon, KY), Manhattan Beach Unified School District (Manhattan Beach, CA), The Pike School (Andover, MA), Good Spirit School Division (east central Saskatchewan), Indian Prairie School District 204 (Aurora, IL), Mrs. William’s wiki, Parmalee Elementary School and Greystone Lower Elementary School (Oklahoma City, OK), William H. Rowe School (Yarmouth, ME), Mrs. Bishop’s class, First Regional Library (northwest MS), QZAB Teachers wiki, Spring Mills Primary School (Martinsburg, WV; first link under “Students”), Garnet Valley School District (Glen Mills, PA), Hawk Ridge Elementary (Charlotte, NC), Fort Dodge Community School District (Fort Dodge, IA), Woodland Elementary School (Zephyrhills, FL), Fun Tech Coaches, and Miss Olson’s first grade class, Haw River Elementary School (Haw River, NC). A speech therapist also listed us.

Forums

The homeschool community has begun discovering Reading Bear. From the biggest, the Well-Trained Mind Forums:

•  “This program is great for kids who are visual learners.”
•  “If he knows all his letter sounds and just needs help with the blending I’d probably use Reading Bear with him readingbear.org – it’s free and concentrates on blending initially cvc words and then slightly higher order phonics too…”
•  “For reading, if I had to do it for $0 or as close to that as possible, I’d use the following: Readingbear.org and starfall.com for the fun factor… ”
•  “Amazingly, my DD enjoys doing the ‘flashcards’ on ReadingBear.”
•  “Starfall.com and readingbear.org are two good free sites for reading.”
•  “I really love the Reading Bear site. … It is such a wonderful resource. I am so excited to hear it might be finished this summer.”
•  “If you like media for educational things how about trying ReadingBear.org and/or Starfall.com, Progressive Phonics along with some readers from the library until you get up and going. That might get you through the basic slump of reading.”
•  “BTW I never heard of readingbear.org until this post. WHAT a blessing! I saved it…”
•  “I’ve found using a program like Reading Bear (www.readingbear.org) is very helpful. Its great for visual learners.”
•  “This has been a huge help for my little one to actually learn to blend the sounds. I really like it.”

SecularHomeschool.com: “Some kids have a hard time comprehending how letter sounds go together to make words. Reading Bear sounds out lots of words, so it may help him grasp the concept.” “My youngest is also a visual learner, but so far computer learning has been hit and miss. Right now he dislikes T4L but loves Reading Bear.” Then there are general parenting forums, such as DiaperSwappers.com: “It’s completely free and looks pretty good. … Hopefully some more people can benefit from this.” babycenter.com: “My 5 year old has been enjoying it.” The place where they probably love us the most, however, is the BrillKids.com Forum, where parents congregate to discuss how to teach babies and preschoolers (and where Larry Sanger is “DadDude”). The vast quantity of raves from them is just embarrassing. We’re blushing! Here is only a small sample:

•  “We just started using Reading Bear, and we love it!!!  She calls all of her teddy bears ‘Reading Bear’”
•  “I started to show it to my [daughter], not expecting much… She was INSISTING on the second presentation, after we were done watching the first one. I think what makes it so attractive that the words are sounded out AND their meaning is explained using picture, video, and by using the word in the sentence! … DD  started sounding out letter sounds while using Reading Bear for the first time, without me even explaining her anything! The funniest thing that my 9 month old son crawls with a rocket speed to the computer, one he hears Reading Bear is on.”
•  “I have been using Reading Bear.org to practice phonics with my DD for a week now. (I was showing Reading Bear YouTube video of short ‘a’ presentation every other day; plus a, b, or c part of short ‘a’ presentation once a day.) Today I decided to quiz her. She was right 8 times out of ten! I recommend to everyone to give this program a try! What I like about this program after using it  for a week is that it is Very Versatile! : you can pick your own settings to suit the attention span of your child.”
•  “Reading Bear looks very professional — and it’s amazingly free! The woman who pronounces the words and does the voiceovers nails it, managing to be neither dull nor obnoxiously animated.  Her voice is also very clear and soothing.  The pictures and video are great, and of course each word being underlined as it is pronounced is fantastic.  And then there’s the art and musical interludes — icing on an already delicious cake!”
•  “There are so many products that costs substantial $$$ and have never been quite what we needed. Then you come along with something that is just right FOR FREE!! The quality is amazing. … I really have no fitting words. THANK-YOU!!”

Finally, someone (not us) posted the question, “How effective is the Reading Bear learn to read program?” The response from the three people (we’re not including Larry Sanger) who had actually used the program were all extremely positive:

•  “We have just started using Reading Bear with my daughter who is 2 years, 4 months old.  She loves it! … Since we started using Reading Bear, she has been able to take what she learned on that program and use it elsewhere.  For example, she now tries to sound out words she sees instead of guessing at it by looking at pictures. Reading Bear is designed for older kids, but if your child knows their consonant sounds, it is a wonderful program.”
•  “[My son] can read all the words in the first five lessons of the program. As a parent, the thing I appreciate most (other than the price), is that it keeps track of where the child is. You can choose to pick up where you left off or start with something completely new. As a busy parent, this is so helpful. … [S]ome days Reading Bear is the only phonics instruction we manage to accomplish and there really isn’t an excuse for not doing it because it is just a click away. … My son is now just 2 and knows all the words in the first five lessons of Reading Bear. … The site is user friendly (as in easy peasy) and professional. I can’t recommend it enough.”
•  “I have used Reading Bear for more than just reading! It is great for speech also. My son is 2.75 and possibly on the spectrum. He had 2 major speech regressions within 6 months of each other. Since using Reading Bear his articulation has improved exponentially. And he no longer is dramatically speech delayed. He loves to watch Reading Bear, he loves to say the words. It had also helped his phonics decoding abilities. … Reading Bear has given him increased phonological awareness. He was never able to understand or hear sounds being blended. But now he has no problems with that! He actually balks at any phonics instruction that I try to give him because it is too challenging. Reading Bear is the exception and he often requests it instead. I know that with more Reading Bear time and practice he will be able to blend and decode independently with ease very soon.”

About Reading Bear in other languages

It turns out that Reading Bear has been used for teaching English as a second language. (The following quotations are edited “translations” based on Google Translate.)

•  We got an enormous amount of traffic from a mention in the Spanish-language wwwhat’s new.
•  The Chinese TechWeb had nice things to say (and fetched lots of traffic and reposts): “Reading Bear is a free and lovely website that teaches children how to read. … Opening the site is like entering a fairy tale world…”
•  A top traffic-getter was the Russian lifehacker.ru writeup about us: “The Reading Bear project teaches you how to pronounce even the most complex words. [The site] is simple and clear with numerous examples to explain the basic phonetic rules.”
•  A blog in Tamil sent us a huge amount of traffic.
•   Another Spanish-language blog pointed out the learning possibilities for Latin America: “In Latin America there are millions of people studying a second language. A high percentage is focused on learning English. Undoubtedly, Reading Bear focuses on teaching children. But the platform is a classroom for bilingual teaching, looking for new forms of digital teaching, as well as children beginning to discover the world of the Internet. Projects like Larry Sanger’s gives us the perfect excuse to spend more time in the wonderful world of the web. And while bringing our nephews, cousins, and brothers, why not bring our parents and grandparents too.”

We also received other mentions in Spanish (“It is an easy and enjoyable way to learn some complex principles of phonetics… It is flexible… It could be especially useful in remedial reading programs”), Spanish again, again, again, again, again, again, again, Thai (“It is a very great website.”), Thai again, again, again, again (this one is detailed), Dutch (“Reading Bear just looks very good”), Arabic (“very excellent for every need and suitable for kids and adults…you will benefit from it”), Danish, Russian (“a cool website that you can use to teach children English. Now I use it heavily with the baby, he loves it!”), Russian again (“I’m sure you and your child will like it”), Telugu, Chinese, Vietnamese (“cute, attractive”), Vietnamese again (commenters prefer us to Starfall), Korean, and Korean again.

Miscellaneous

We’ve had a lot of traffic from Gizmo’s Freeware (and here and here too). Reddit sent us a lot of traffic: “Wow! I’m pleasantly surprised by this site! I hadn’t heard of it before, and being involved in ECE it’s going to come in handy. I LOVE that they included videos of people speaking the words.” The website of a phonics book, Phonics Fast, puts Reading Bear at the top of its recommendations: “I’m not a big fan of the free online phonics games and tools out there but this program really does seem to be on the right track. As a interactive lesson Reading Bear is probably the best. I don’t feel it can replace a teacher and it is definitely not designed to improve writing skills but as a interesting activity children can play with it is not a time waster.” Of course, we have also been collected on social bookmarking sites like delicious.com, diigo.com (“a well-made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations”), Scoop.it, and JogTheWeb.com. Last but certainly not least, we got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.

“Infant Intelligentsia: Can Babies Learn to Read? And Should They?”

Larry Sanger

There’s a very good article about baby reading in the latest issue of Pacific Standard, which is what Miller-McClune Magazine is now called. (The magazine is pretty cool–it was described to me as the Pacific Coast version of The Atlantic.)

It starts as follows:

THE VIDEO CLIP [refers to this] on Larry Sanger’s website shows the cofounder of Wikipedia looking both scholarly and paternal with his owlish glasses, thinning pate, open book, and lapful of chubby-cheeked 3-year-old. Sanger’s son is gazing hard at the book pages and pronouncing words with the charming r-lessness of a toddler: “Congwess shall make no waw wespecting an establishment of wewigion or pwohibiting the fwee exewcise theweof or abwidging the fweedom of speech or of the pwess…” It’s not clear whether the boy is working toward a doctorate, like his dad’s, or training to be our future pwesident. But it is stunningly obvious that the boy is sight-reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at an age when most tots can’t tell an a from a b. When an influential philanthropist viewed the video, says Sanger, “he was gobsmacked.”

True, the Sanger child inherited both the genes and home-schooling attention of a high-tech icon. But YouTube now overflows with videos of tiny tykes reading words off of book pages, flash cards, and computer screens. And these images have stirred a Battle of the Experts flinging epithets like “witch hunt” and “snake oil.” Are the munchkin-voiced 2- and 3-year-olds actually reading those multisyllabic words? Or have they merely associated sights of certain words with their sounds? Is a baby’s brain even capable of decoding words and extracting meaning? And if it can, should we program it this way, this early? Or should we channel its effervescing language ability in other directions?

A balanced overview–a good place for open-minded skeptics to start.

Reading Bear is complete! Why it works.

Larry Sanger

After many months of development, I can finally announce:

Reading Bear is complete!

Reading Bear now has a full set of fifty presentations, with an average viewing time of about 15 minutes each. I haven’t added up the time, but it’s around 12 hours total. It covers a huge number of phonics principles, systematically. Over 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, illustrated with a picture, and finally used (often, defined) in a sentence which is itself illustrated with a video. All words are clickable and sounded out. All phonetic words (i.e., the vast majority) are displayed “karaoke” style, with individual letters or letter clusters flashing at the precise moment that the corresponding sound is spoken.

Every second, literally, of those 12 hours was carefully edited: word lists sifted, sentences written and rewritten, word markup crafted (so the words are broken up according to the phonics rules that Reading Bear teaches), pictures and videos painstakingly selected, voiceover done professionally, all media laboriously edited and if necessary re-edited, pronunciation dictionary entries created, then everything put together and edited on the website. It was a lot of work.

Does that mean Reading Bear is complex and forbidding? Of course not! Even though it is feature-rich, it is extremely easy to use and fun for kids. Really!

If I could have produced a better resource for teaching reading in the same time and with the same resources, I would have. This is the best I could do.

It’s a gargantuan resource, and it is all absolutely free! Not just free, either, but non-profit and ad-free. I’ve worked on this project for over a year and a half, with the help of dozens of people. We’ve spent a lot of money on it–or rather, a certain anonymous benefactor from the Memphis area has spent a lot of money on it. My ongoing deep thanks to that gentleman. The images were generously donated by Shutterstock, and we got the videos either free or at a discount. For this I’d like to thank former Shutterstock president and CFO Adam Riggs. Other main players in its development were a group of volunteers, Business Edge for the software, the great Melissa Moats for voiceover, Columbus-based Cybervation for production, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi for funding, and of course WatchKnowLearn is our parent organization and chief promoter.

Why Reading Bear works

What’s so great about Reading Bear, anyway? We’ve gotten excellent reviews and many fans among teachers, homeschoolers, and of course kids. So why does it work?

The way I see it, phonics is pretty simple. It’s just a matter of practice. To read phonetically, you don’t need to learn the jargon and symbols used by reading specialists. You just need lots of clear examples, attractively presented. Reading Bear does that. Each presentation shows 25 words (on average) sounded out or read at four different speeds. That lets the child understand quickly and easily how each word is constructed.

But reading isn’t just decoding. It is also getting meaning. That’s why, after breaking down the word and its sounds, Reading Bear shows a picture specially chosen to teach the meaning of the word. Then the word is used in a very basic sentence, either a definition or some basic fact about the concept, and the sentence is illustrated with a 5-second video. So the student sees the word written and spoken, both by itself and in a sentence, and gets the word’s meaning simply and attractively from multimedia.

Reading Bear is also fun. The bare description of it might sound dry, but I challenge you to sit any beginning reader in front of the program and observe the results. Kids love it. Why do they love it? It’s everything. They love the way the letter flashing clarifies letter sounds. They love the pictures, of course, and the simple sentences and videos. The whole thing makes sense of language. Kids love to learn, and I think that with Reading Bear, and they can sense that they’re really learning. They love the “aha!” moment, and that’s what Reading Bear delivers, over and over.

One way that Reading Bear makes sense of language is a feature that few other programs have. It matches up letter sounds to individual letters, karaoke style, for every piece of text in the program. We didn’t take the easy way out and match up whole words or syllables. We put in hours and hours matching up the audio with individual letters or letter combinations (if the combinations are taught by Reading Bear). And not only are the words read out that way automatically. If you want to focus on a word and see how it is broken down phonetically, you can also click on it and we’ll show a pronunciation from our hand-made 2700+ entry pronunciation dictionary. What other reading program can say that?

Reading Bear challenges students to do only what they’re ready to do. It goes in steps. At first, it’s useful just to see how words are broken down. We have a step for that (passive learning). Then they should repeat quickly what the presentation says slowly. We have a step for that (repeating). Then the student be able to say a word after it is sounded out. We have a step for that (blending). Finally, with practice, the student should be able to sound out a word for himself and blend it. We have a step for that (reading). Finally, you can take an online quiz, which is automatically generated each time you click the quiz button and, believe it or not, it’s rather fun.

This whole procedure very efficient. The student has to do just a simple thing, when ready: watch, repeat, blend, and finally read. Everything else about the program reinforces meaning.

Finally, you might wonder how Reading Bear stacks up against some other reading programs. Here are a few notes:

  • Starfall is great, and it certainly has its place (even in my home). But Starfall simply isn’t as complete in its coverage of phonics as Reading Bear is. It also doesn’t teach vocabulary. You won’t find the carefully-chosen photos, definitions, and videos that open children’s eyes to language. Finally, it breaks down only some of the words. Every phonetic word is broken down by Reading Bear, and you can choose to have sentences read to you or to read them yourself. I think of Reading Bear as unlocking the mysteries of language efficiently and attractively, whereas Starfall is a supplement.
  • Literactive is another of my favorites, and for us was as useful as Starfall. In fact, I will be honest and admit that it is one of Reading Bear’s inspirations. While it does break down words rather better than Starfall does, and does read whole words while highlighting them, Reading Bear does these things better. Literactive also does not teach phonics systematically–its readers are wonderful, but the actual phonics instruction will have to come from elsewhere.
  • Finally, I won’t list them, but there are zillions of programs out there that I think of as simply digital worksheets or games. They’re marginally more interesting than paper worksheets, but in my opinion, they don’t teach nearly as efficiently, and are much more tiresome, than Reading Bear. Reading Bear isn’t a video game, but it’s still fun. When you get to the end of those programs, you’ve won a game. When you get to the end of Reading Bear, you can read.

There is nothing like Reading Bear at any price. Even if you don’t use it as the main tool in your classroom, you can use it as a supplement, and enjoy the results. Try it out. Once you see how your students love it and learn from it, you’ll be using it a lot.

Your Baby Can Read closes up shop

Larry Sanger

The companies behind Your Baby Can Read have, faced with daunting legal costs, gone out of business, according to this Facebook post and, now, the text on YourBabyCanRead.com:

FROM ALL OF US AT YOUR BABY CAN READ!
THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOYAL SUPPORT AND BEING SUCH GREAT CUSTOMERS!

For more than 6 years, Your Baby Can Read! has been enjoyed and appreciated by families world-wide as an innovative reading concept for babies and young children.

Regretfully, the cost of fighting recent legal issues has left us with no option but to cease business operations. While we vehemently deny any wrongdoing, and strongly believe in our products, the fight has drained our resources to the point where we can no longer continue operating.

To our thousands of loyal customers who have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, and particularly to those who took the time to send written and video testimonials about the success stories of their children, we sincerely thank you for being such great champions of our products.

If you have questions regarding an existing order, please contact us at [email protected]. Until August 15, a customer service representative will be available to respond to your emails during business hours.

If you would like to purchase our products, you may be able to find them at Amazon.com.

Based on all available public information, including my analysis of a court filing, I sincerely believe that there was no case. Nevertheless, Your Baby Can Read was proving too successful for the comfort of people whose views and practices of early education the program threatens. I am sure that their “expert” testimony made it possible for this case to gain some legal traction. Still, apart from those who actually support baby reading, I have yet to encounter a single expert in a related area–reading methods, developmental psychology, preschool education, etc.–who has commented on a careful examination even of a single case of a child who was taught to read using Your Baby Can Read, and similar methods like Doman’s or dare I now add, Reading Bear. In short, the people trotted out as experts have no experience and hence no particular expertise in the phenomenon they comment on (baby reading). Sadly, however, such uninformed “expert” opinion can make a big difference in court.

I maintain that Your Baby Can Read played an important role in the very early reading ability of my first son, now six years old and reading chapter books meant for much older children. It is also an excellent and effective supplement to the program my second son, not yet two years old, is using. He is reading quite a few words now, including (but not limited to) those in Your Baby Can Read.

I will be very interested to learn what happens next with the company, the product, and Dr. Titzer. I wish them well, and I sincerely believe that, in time, they will be amply vindicated.

Update about the boys, part 1 – June 2012

Larry Sanger

I’m due to give you an update about H.’s education. (I guess E. will be in a separate post, as before.) He has turned six. I’m looking forward to his being in the first grade (or that age), so I don’t have to defend or make excuses about the amount of educational stuff I do with him. He still plays more every day than he studies. (Against critics, I’ll only have to defend the level of material I present.) I’m also curious about the whole Ohio homeschooling registration process, and we’ll be learning about that in a few months.

Anyway, there are big changes in our approach to many subjects, so here we go!

Our new review methods. About four months ago–I had been thinking vaguely about this for a lot longer–I decided that I wanted us finally to start reviewing what we had learned, somehow, so that H. would remember more. It’s all very well to read a bunch of books, but if you don’t remember what you read, you’re mainly just going to pick up vague impressions, vocabulary, and random factoids. (This is, of course, how a lot of bright, educated people are.) One option, I figured, was the traditional review-and-examination method. I didn’t give that much thought, because it seemed silly. What’s the point of examination when the main thing you learn from is the review? Of course, I wasn’t yet aware of the research that said that answering questions actually teaches things better than things like re-reading books, notes, etc. But on reflection that certainly made sense to me: actively recalling information will solidify memories better than simply passively reviewing it.

Anyway, I talked to Dr. Miles Jones one day about four months ago, and he said the general way to remember anything is to repeat it after you’ve learned it a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, and a year afterward. This sounded intriguing. Dr. Jones said very plausibly that it works, and people who follow this sort of method faithfully find their heads stuffed full of facts that most of us would normally forget. I saw that this was not just Dr. Jones’ idea, but that it was well-supported by research in cognitive science. So I started making recordings, typically 1-3 minutes long, summarizing whatever I read to him. (Nobody summarized the stuff he read to himself.) There were on average 3-4 of these recordings produced per day, and after a month, we were spending 20-30 minutes every day listening to recordings from a day, a week, and a month earlier.

This had a few different effects. First, I really do get the sense that H. and I both remember what we read more keenly. I’m not sure how ready-to-mind specific answers about that material might be, but certainly the familiarity of the information seems to be greatly increased. Second, H. actually liked listening to recordings most of the time. I thought he’d quickly get tired of them, but he didn’t. Occasionally he said he didn’t want to listen, but not too often. He liked being reminded of what he knew. Why not? But, third, the only time in our schedule remaining to do such review was after dinner, and so ended up cutting into the time we spent on bedtime reading, which I find very annoying. (More details here.)

Then, about a couple weeks ago, I finally decided to try something that I have been exposed to mainly but not only through the wonderful BrillKids.com community (see this thread). Thinking that it would save time, I decided instead of recording summaries, to record questions and then use software to test us on the answers, flashcard-style. Inspired by this great article, I started in Mnemosyne, then quickly switched to SuperMemo because I saw no easy way in Mnemosyne to reuse questions with baby E. when he gets old enough to read the same books. SuperMemo is very powerful software, but only a clunkiness-tolerant geek could really love it. (Turns out, I knew the programmer from Wikipedia and we’re in contact.) Anyway, H. and I are sticking with Supermemo because it does the job we want done pretty well. It allows me to save the questions in an ever-expanding outline which greatly appeals to me. After recommendations I considered switching to Anki, but decided against it because it didn’t have the outline feature, so I couldn’t see how we could easily reuse the questions with E.

So the idea is that I write 3-6 questions-and-answers per reading (usually no more than four; very rarely more than six, if it’s a very long and important reading, with many things I think H. should remember). Actually the first step is to record the questions and answers. I get H. to think of the answer just a few minutes after we’ve finished the reading. This, I’ve discovered, is important; if we don’t do this, he simply draws a blank when we review the questions later in the day and doesn’t connect the fact to the reading. It’s like we’re learning the fact from the card rather than from our memory of the reading. Anyway, later, I type the recorded Q&A into Supermemo, and by the end of the day I have added 12-15 cards to the stack. The answers are ideally one word long, but more often a phrase, and occasionally a sentence. I’ve mostly given up asking for short paragraph answers–he can do it, but it takes a long time and it seems not worth the effort. (The Supermemo guy, Piotr Wozniak, recommends against it, too.)

We have two review sessions a day, a longer one in the morning for review of a wide assortment of questions, and a shorter one in the evening which the software calls “final review,” for questions added during the day and for questions insufficiently memorized in the morning session. (The questions are decided on automatically by the software’s excellent algorithm.) The sessions are usually short enough, 15 minutes or so, with a daily time investment of 30-40 minutes, I think. The questions are shown regularly in the first few days after they are added to the database, then less frequently as time goes on, depending on how difficult they were to answer. You grade how well you answer each time: anywhere from “null” for when he couldn’t remember anything on up through five levels to “bright” for quick, confident, detailed answers. H. scores “bright” for most questions that he has seen a couple times before, but the program’s algorithm does a great job of showing questions just when you’ll benefit most from the review. If you answer “bright” consistently, you’ll see the question very seldom. If you forget something you knew well earlier, then you’ll see the question more often until Supermemo is “satisfied” so to speak that you know it again–in which case it is shown less and less.

The result is quite interesting. We are exposed to information about history, geography, science, civics, and a few other subjects, all mixed together. H. and I can now remember things like the dates of James Buchanan’s presidency (what? you didn’t know that? 1857-61, of course!) or what Amerigo Vespucci is famous for (exploring the coast of South America and deciding that the Americas weren’t Asia after all). The impressive thing is that this “spaced repetition” algorithm promises to keep all this information–tens of thousands of cards, in some people’s databases–fresh in your brain at a 95% success rate for any given item. This has made a big impression on me.

I really love this method. But, indeed, it is not lost on me that many educationists decry precisely this sort of memorization. It is not properly called “rote” memorization, because it is based on readings that one presumably understands. It is also memorization of the much-maligned “mere facts.” And yet, it is not memorization of contextless facts, because the facts are learned originally in the reading. Indeed, as we work to remember our answers, we are constantly thinking back to the texts, which we usually understood when we read them.

As I see it, if we are reading non-fiction in order to acquaint ourselves with some facts, it behooves us to try to remember the more important facts among them. If it were somehow wrong to remember the facts, why would it be so right to read the books that highlight those facts (and report many more details, not remembered)?

Elementary teachers should require this daily “spaced repetition” work of all students for a good half hour a day. It could prove revolutionary, really. To experience the real benefits, I gather you have to do it for years, however, so it would have to be organized at the district or state level. Then it becomes a political matter and, well, forget that: we’d need a veritable revolution in pedagogy before it became feasible. But it’s very feasible indeed at homeschools and private schools.

The great thing about this system is that, if we stick with it as I think we will, we really will stay on top of material without traditional tests or homework, just reading and spaced repetition. There’s simply no point in that sort of busywork; spaced repetition is extremely high-grade, efficient learning. This way we can focus our writing and workbook work on more meaningful and gainful assignments.

What does H. think of this? He does complain and resist sometimes, but less and less now (he’s getting used to the routine now), and he evidently enjoys his growing knowledge. Also, after we get started, he evidently enjoys getting “bright” answers. It helps a lot that the method is designed so that most of his answers are “good” or “bright.”

We are, by the way, doing both questions and reviewing old recordings, because we don’t want to stop and lose the benefit of the reviews of recordings, which is not at all trivial. So I can sort of compare the two methods. But I can’t yet say definitely which I think is more valuable; all I know is that we really can reproduce key facts on demand under spaced repetition. Perhaps reviewing recordings would provide a deeper or broader sort of memory and understanding. But I’m inclined to think spaced repetition is better, on the whole, because it solidifies explicit memory instead of implicit memory. We’ve just recently reviewed the last of the recordings made “one month ago,” meaning that from now on we’re reviewing only three-month-old recordings. We’ll keep doing that for three months, or until we run out of recordings. Then I plan to review those same recordings, if I remember, after a year.

I am still recording two things, however, and not making questions on them: poetry (one of the nicer things to review a day, a week, a month, etc. later) and summaries of myths (Norse myths, until we finished). Making questions about the latter seemed to leave too much out of the narrative, and it is easier to pay attention to and benefit from a summary of a story than a summary of a non-fiction text.

Mathematics. First, a digression.

During the past six months I spent a lot of time the Well-Trained Mind forums, which seems to be one of the bigger homeschooling forums, not that I’ve hunted around a lot. I find this to be an interesting community. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that there is so much activity on the forum–I can almost always be sure to get some response to a question or comment. It’s also great that so many people are enthusiastically pro-homeschooling. On the other hand, it’s depressing just how many people on the forum are not actually very big fans of classical education a la The Well-Trained Mind. It’s even more depressing how cool, or even hostile, so many in the community are to academics and to abstract intellectual discussions of educational methods. These are classical homeschoolers, many of whom want their kids to do things like study Latin, and who understand the advantages of the liberal arts. And yet, among all those people, there are quite a few very vocal people who jump all over you if you raise questions like, “What is the purpose of education?”

Anyway, over on the WTM forums, I observed enthusiastic discussions of MEP (short for “Mathematics Enhancement Programme”), a free math curriculum. Free is good. I looked at it and thought, “Hey, this looks very meaty, and yet, not too hard. Actually, wait, some of these things are new to H., like greater than or less than. Maybe it’s moderately difficult, but thought-provoking. Well, I’ll print out ten pages and see what he says.”

So two surprising things happened. First, I discovered I was wrong that it’s “not too hard”; it’s not even “moderately difficult,” it’s actually hard. He’s in first grade Singapore math, but H. often cannot do the Kindergarten level (Year 1) MEP stuff by himself (although he’s getting better at it). Partly this is because the questions don’t spell out clearly enough what they need, but partly it’s because there are new concepts and some of the questions require significant reasoning. The system, to my mind, beautifully teaches mathematical and logical thinking. But that kind of thinking is hard. It’s a good hard.

The second surprising thing is that H. loved it and took to it like a fish to water. As people following his progress know, he is a very geeky sort of kid (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; just wait until I get to the part, below, about Scratch). He likes logic, so he likes MEP. He likes the challenge of the problems and never seems to find them tedious, as he sometimes does Primary Mathematics (Singapore math) and often did Two Plus Two Is Not Five.

So, I’m not sure when–about February, I think–we started doing MEP for a little bit before the rest of math. This expanded to 15 minutes or 30 minutes on MEP, more than originally planned. For several weeks, we were trying to do too much: MEP, then Primary Math, then 2+2≠5, every day. Craziness! But of all of these, we were most “behind” in MEP, farthest “ahead” in the other systems, so I decided we’d do MEP every day, and then switch off, Primary Math one day and 2+2≠5 the next.

How is this all working out? I’d say pretty well. He’s around p. 85 or 90 of MEP Year 1, halfway through. We’ve gone through it quite slowly, often less than a page a day, often doing things in the margins to explain the concepts even better. He’s learned about inequalities (not a typical Kindergarten topic), negative numbers (he impressed me several weeks ago when he stated, out of the blue, that 2-4=-2), and all the ins and outs of addition and subtraction with numbers up to 10. Sure, he’s had some of this information before (Singapore Kindergarten Math and 1A & 1B all covered some of the elements we’ve studied in MEP), but MEP gives it to him in a way that lets him “dig deep” and get the best understanding that he’s capable of at this stage.

As far as Primary Math 1B goes, he’s obviously going through it a lot slower now that he’s more focused on MEP, but he’s 1/2 way through, now actually doing multiplication and division. In that book he’s doing quite well; the material is less challenging than MEP. We could try zooming ahead in this and maybe supplement it with something easier (I don’t think Singapore Math text + workbook system offers enough practice alone) but I say: why? The aim is not to get through as quickly as possible but to get really substantial mastery. The more he has math down really solidly, the better his chances of not blundering through the mathematical parts of science and engineering–which I suspect are going to be increasingly important in my sons’ lifetimes, if a financial collapse or something doesn’t send Western civilization down the crapper–but instead really understanding what is going on, mathematically.

(If this deliberate approach surprises you, since I started H. out reading early, it shouldn’t. It’s always been about mastery. We went through the phonics rules long after he was able to sound out lots of words. But because of that his spelling ability is excellent and we don’t work on it separately. We also read a huge amount–again, with the aim of mastery of vocabulary and phonics, to say nothing of the facts contained in books. You’ll see this again when I talk about our method of studying physics.)

As to 2+2≠5, our addition and subtraction drill book, we slowed down a lot there, too. But he did finally finish the book and was proud to get the certificate that said he knew basic addition and subtraction facts. The final review was necessary to work out some final kinks. It’s also nice that the next book in the series, Five Times Five Is Not Ten, reviews addition and subtraction facts. We’re several pages into that now.

After the books, we frequently use the KidCalc app to review counting by 3s, 4s, and 6s (1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s are already down pat). This has made multiplication work in Primary Mathematics a snap. Our plan is to learn these series through 15 (not 10 or 12, simply because I remember wishing that I knew my times tables through 15 when I was a kid doing more advanced math and science, and I remember engineer types enjoying having the tables through 15 under their belt). It’s passive memorization, but effective and useful.

The last math-related bit of news is an important one in our household: Mama has mostly taken over math teaching. Since baby E.’s nap is usually in the morning, math has moved to the afternoon (it used to be the morning), and so we are now doing our 15 minutes of geography and the hour of H. reading chapter books to himself in the morning. Mama reports that H. is doing very well in math, and as far as I can tell while rarely standing over their shoulders for a little while, somewhat wistfully, she does a pretty good job teaching him–not that that is a surprise to me.

Writing. For most of the last last year, we did writing after we did math. H. practices writing almost every day, and he often does other writing just because he wants to, so he gets quite a bit of practice. We continued to practice “rhetorical modes” for a little while after the last report, but after that I guess I decided that H. could make good progress without me over his shoulder, and I needed to do more work. So I had him choose his own assignments more often, and he continued to write about the same amount. We did do more outlining, which was very good practice, but for a few months, it seemed he was more or less treading water. That didn’t worry me–with the development of every skill, there are always plateaus. I considered that he was making progress in his ability to write longer amounts, to put together complex sentences, and his handwriting was improving a bit. Where he wasn’t improving was in his ability to put together coherent stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. We discussed the concepts involved at great length, and practiced them.

We did quite a few different things. One of the more memorable was when we talked through a story about a lost dog (inspired by Beverly Cleary’s Ribsy), wrote it out in outline form, and then we sort of took turns writing it down (actually, typing it in–more on typing below). Sometimes I would start typing, recording what he said, and then I would go upstairs to work and he would do several more paragraphs. In the end, the co-written story was nice, mostly H., but definitely co-written.

Still, when I stopped and had him do whatever wanted, what he wrote was…well, I’ll give you an example. He enjoyed writing several stories about a gumshoe character he made up called Harry Willman. These required a lot of work. In one story, it seems Harry was walking by a house, when he noticed that $211 dollars had been stolen from it (as if he could glance and see this). After I stopped laughing (I couldn’t help myself that one time–it’s a good thing he’s a very self-confident guy) I asked how Harry knew $211 had been stolen. He said, well, the safe opened out onto the street and he could see that it was gone. So I had to explain that that, too, was unrealistic. I suggested that he have Harry talk to the owner of the house and have the person explain about the theft. In order to make that story make sense, I had to make quite a few such suggestions. Anyway, that’s just an example. But it seems clear to me now that that story was hard simply because he was trying to write a mystery story, and those are a lot more complex than some other kinds of stories.

I know some of you might be disappointed in me for trying to rein in H.’s delightful imagination. Well, he certainly does have that, and be assured that I do give him free rein in many assignments. But sometimes I go through things more carefully and this involves straightening out some bizarre stories.

Generally, I give him feedback on everything he writes, sometimes very detailed and sometimes just some oral comments if the story seems excellent on its own. Today, I just had him add paragraph marks to a quite good retelling of “The Gingerbread Man”; he rewrites only stuff that he has typed in, so that he can edit it on the computer.

At one point a few months ago I basically came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for me sitting down with him one-on-one for a half hour and our working through something together. But just in the last few weeks, H. has produced some narratively excellent work. I’ve simply been giving him a kind of assignment that is a lot easier to handle than the mystery stories he was trying to write. I’ve been having H. summarize fairy tales, and in the latter assignments he’s done very well. When the narrative is relatively simple, easy to follow, it is pretty easy. So he’s written very readable versions of “The Three Pigs” and “The Gingerbread Man,” for example. I think we’re going to do a lot more of that, paying attention to the importance of sticking to stories with a simpler, more comprehensible plot. I’m also going to have him tackle nonfiction reports soonish.

I haven’t yet come to the conclusion, if I ever will, that we need to use a canned writing program. We enjoy the freedom too much to do what we want, and H. is clearly learning plenty along the way, so why not? I don’t particularly see a need to study grammar or spelling yet, either. He picks up mechanics through my comments, and they are naturally rather good anyway. I can easily imagine we’ll switch to a more formal program, if I see something that really catches my eye, or if he seems to be in the doldrums and I don’t know what to do with him. He also obviously learns new sentence structures through imitation of what he reads.

When I take a long view and think about how much his writing has improved in the last year, I have nothing at all to complain about. He gone from learning his lowercase letters and just starting to learn to type, and doing three sentences for a writing assignment, to writing a page of text rather quickly (still not with wonderful handwriting–his Mama can’t abide it but I can read it) and typing fast enough to do most of his writing assignments on his Netbook.

Typing. I’ve decided to make typing a kind of writing assignment. We go through periods where, once a week,  he’ll sit and work with the typing tutor. Then he’ll put the typing tutor down for a few months. He ends up doing more typing practice for his writing assignments, because he has decided he would rather type than use a pencil. He has definitely gotten faster at typing, the software times him around 15 words per minute. The trouble is that he is practicing some mistakes in hand position and goes back and forth between staying on the home row and hunting and pecking with a few fingers. I remind him, “Keep your fingers on the nubs!” but he doesn’t pay attention, most of the time. Anyway, we’ll keep this up and I’ll try to fix those bad habits. I think I have convinced him that it’s better to learn to type faster like Papa (that’s how these posts can be so long!) and stay on the home row, even if he doesn’t always do so.

By the way, in Typing Tutor there are some assignments where the kid simply copies text from public domain stories. Excellent practice all around.

I bought him a cursive writing book and we looked at it and decided the time wasn’t right yet.

Literature/Chapter Books. H. reads 60 minutes a day pretty religiously, now often more, and I continue to read chapter books to him almost every night. Lately he decided to re-read the Magic Tree House series, so in the space of a few weeks he read books 1-30 or so. Then I guess he got tired of them, because he hasn’t read any more.

He also read three easy retellings of Sherlock Holmes books, the Classic Starts one and two from Great Illustrated Classics (can’t praise this series enough). He got all excited about mysteries and crime-solving (hence the birth of Harry Willman). So I looked at the Hardy Boys and figured they weren’t too advanced, and indeed it turns out they are just right for him–he absolutely loves them and gets quite excited about them. He read #1 and #3 to himself while waiting for me to finish reading #2 to him, which I did earlier this evening. He wants #4 now. H. became very interested in crime-solving and forensics, by the way, so he read a few books about that.

In “series” news, he re-read all six of the Henry Huggins books and got halfway through the Ralph Mouse books too. He still carries a “Ribsy” stuffed dog and a “Mousie” stuffed mouse toy all over the place, although I guess I’ve seen less of those two lately. We finished Little House on the Prairie, loved it, and then read On the Banks of Plum Creek. We finished that as well, and I’ve been instructed to order By the Shores of Silver Lake. He also read the Spiderwick Chronicles series and #1 of Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles and now threatens to read #3 if I don’t get him #2, as I haven’t yet.

I started reading The Cricket in Times Square to H. and he loved it, so he took it over and finished reading it to himself in a couple more days. This is getting to be a common practice with him–any good book he just reads to himself, because I’m too slow (just 10-20 pages an evening), so I miss out on the kid lit! But now we’re reading (i.e., I’m reading to him, as bedtime reading) Narnia #3, The Horse and His Boy, and we’re liking it quite a bit. I expect he’ll grab it and finish it soon…

Lately he’s taken a shining to Tintin, and has gone through three or four of those by himself. (This time last year I was reading them to him.) I’m a big fan of them myself. There are some great animated versions of Tintin on Netflix, I was delighted to find, so we’ve been watching those. They follow the books very closely. Still haven’t seen the big-screen movie.

On the more ambitious side I read the first 1/3 or more of Howard Pyle’s Adventures of Robin Hood to H., making copious use of the online dictionary (we used an ebook), but he tired of that–I can’t say I blame him, it is pretty repetitive, and it’s a huge book.

We don’t do much fiction at mealtime, but we did recently finally finish going through the D’Aulaire tome of Norse myths.

In the car (often to and from the YMCA) we listen to books as well. We are a good ways into The Once and Future King, and started re-listening to the wonderful Tales from the Odyssey.

He’s tackled quite a bit more than this, and I’ve read quite a bit more to him, since the last report, but I guess those are the highlights. Another thing he not infrequently does is “take a break” for a day or two from the chapter books and re-read easier, older books that he has by now forgotten, and sometimes history or science. Sometimes he does that before breakfast, as we go back to the “baby book” bookcases with baby E.

I imagine some educators might ask what we do regarding comprehension. I used to ask him questions about the books he’s read, but I confess I don’t do that much anymore–I do some. I’ve definitively determined that he cannot tell back a story that he’s read, if it’s a long and complex story. This is a learned ability, obviously, one that we’re working on by writing outlines. It also takes 10+ minutes and he doesn’t have patience for a difficult, organized, focused, self-regulated mental task of that length. Still, if you ask him nearly any question about what happened in the story, he’ll be able to answer it, often in great detail. You can also ask him reflective questions (“Why does so-and-so do such-and-such?”) and he usually gets it, at least if it’s not far beyond his age level. I occasionally read about how reading teachers spend a tremendous amount of time picking apart simple stories. My unprofessional analysis, based on my experience with H.? A waste of time. Better to use that 30 minutes of class time on 30 minutes more of reading, or 25, with 5 minutes of some Q&A.

I do believe that retelling the main points of a story is important. That’s why we’ve worked on this ability quite a bit in the last six months or so; it still doesn’t come naturally to him. His own made-up stories often make no sense except to the overactive imagination of a 5-year-old (now 6-year-old). For longer stories, I can of course draw a plot out of him with a series of questions, and I guess if I want to train him to retell a lengthy, complex narrative we’ll have to do a lot more of that. He also has enjoyed it when I gave a 2-3 sentence summary of a chapter we have just read, and recently when I did that for a Hardy Boys book I had him try to summarize, a light did seem to go on. I’ll certainly try that some more and get him to do the same.

History. This is one of H.’s biggest subjects. We’re continuing to do the same thing we’ve done for, I don’t know, a year or more: before bedtime chapter book reading, we spend 15 minutes or so reading one of The Story of the World (we’re now 80 pages from the end of Vol. 2), The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, A Little History of the World, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. They match up well enough and it’s great to get the same (and sometimes rather different stuff) from the different sources.

Until about a month ago, we were extremely consistent in that we read 2-4 pages of history before we started chapter book reading, and although it wasn’t a lot, it really added up as we did that seven days a week. I feel bad that we’ve let the ball drop (so that we’ve been reading only half of the time lately–I feel confident we’ll get into more consistently soon).

It’s just as well that we “let the ball drop,” however, because we’ve been doing a lot of other history anyway. Somehow H. got it in his head that he wanted to study the presidents–now I remember, it was because he started playing “Presidents vs. Aliens” on the iPad. So I got a pair of books about the presidents, The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, which I can strongly recommend as being very well-written and engaging, and the DK Presidents book, a typical DK Eyewitness Book. At mealtimes, as part of our rotation of (usually) seven books, we read about the president from one source and then the other; I suspect the DK book either used Look-It-Up Book as a source, or they both had the same source, because sometimes even the phrasing is the same. Anyway, they go together quite well and are very readable. We’re up to #19, Rutherford Hayes, not quite halfway done.

Before starting the Presidents, and even a little afterward, we have read other supplementary history stuff at mealtime and sometimes bedtime, especially the You Wouldn’t Want to Be books that H. likes so much. We’ve also read some Who Was books, like Who Was Elizabeth I? and Who Was Marco Polo? Right now we’re working on Who Was Ferdinand Magellan? They’re rather good books.

Finally, we’ve been exposed to some history when studying civics–see next bit.

Civics. So much of history and geography requires an understanding of law and political theory that I thought I would introduce H. to the basics. I started with the “True Books” about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and we’re now just about finished with The U.S. Constitution and You, which goes into more detail about what the Constitution contains. We’ll probably read one or two more books along these lines, maybe one about different political systems, one introducing law and courts, and one about what the modern U.S. government system looks like. That ought to be enough to prepare him to study U.S. history and 19th and 20th century history, coming up in the next year or two.

I regard this as being the beginning of a very basic introduction to the social sciences, as distinguished from “social studies,” which usually in the elementary grades means history, geography, and civics. So after we get an introduction to law, government, and political theory, we’ll probably read the best sort of introduction to economics that we can find for this level, anthropology, sociology, etc.

Geography. Since I’ve been talking about different “social studies” I’ll say a little about how we’re doing with our geography program. We’ve continued more or less according to the same plan described last time: we read about 15 minutes a day, typically before he starts his hour of chapter book reading. Since then we’ve gone through Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, and now we’re halfway (or so) through a study of Brazil (for this, we’ve read the True Book, and now we’re well into the National Geographic Countries of the World book about Brazil–excellent as the others in the series we’ve tackled so far).

We also started going through a single-volume children’s non-fiction book, In the Land of the Jaguar, a chapter book just about South America, the only one like it I know of about any continent (not that I’ve looked much for meaty children’s books about other continents). At first I thought it looked great, but now I’m not sure I can recommend it. It has a wide assortment of fascinating facts and is well-written, and it tries to follow a sort of historical narrative (it is very history-heavy–so, another source of history!), but ultimately the facts it reports on are pretty disconnected. The author makes a real effort to rise above the usual dry geography book reportage, but still can’t solve the problem of weaving the enormous number of facts about a whole continent into a single coherent whole. It’s not bad, though, 3 out of 5 stars, if I’m going to be honest. Anyway, we’re halfway through and I’m sure we’ll finish it.

Since H. knows the next topic is Central America and the Caribbean, when we started using Supermemo he wanted to memorize the capitals of those countries (apart from the little island countries of the West Indies), so I plugged them in and lo, he has them memorized! He can also tell you the names of the countries of Central America in order from Belize through Panama.

Science. Another of our big changes was our method of approaching science. At our last update, I was operating on the premise that, at this stage, H. wouldn’t benefit much from careful study of branches of science, and he’d get more out of studying whatever we wanted. But I saw, as I read to him, that regardless of his initial enthusiasm level about a given book, or a subject, he had his focused days and his not-so-focused days. For example, he still loves trucks and how they work, and I read a couple of books explaining machines, but his level of engagement was pretty much the same as for anything else. So some months ago I concluded that, actually, when it comes to me reading to him, it doesn’t matter so much that we find books that I hope he’ll particularly love. I mean, yes, I still seek out his preferences and follow them, but I buy science books that I think he’ll like, and he’s almost always on board.

Next, I decided, after reading a Basher book or two about science topics that were rather challenging, that he probably would be able to understand and remember the material much better if we we did more on each topic, if simply read more books, did more experiments, and focused some more on a given topic before moving on. After all, I was seeing that the general method of focusing our studies and reading multiple sources was working very well for history and geography; I could see no reason why it wouldn’t work just as well in science. Finally, taking up the sciences one by one, systematically, is what The Well-Trained Mind suggests, and that counts for something, for me.

So I decided on a sequence of sciences, approximately like this: physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science, paleontology, the rest of biology, probably the natural history of Ohio, health science, etc. Physics is taking a while. We’ve studied the Big Bang, motion, friction, and Newton’s three laws; right now we’re close to the end of a study of gravity; next comes pressure; after that I think it’s energy, electricity, space (I think we’ll save this for later), and history of physics (he’s already had some of that). There’s nothing about subatomic physics but I think at some point we’ll re-tackle the Basher Physics book on that; it seemed accessible to me. This is the structure we’re following as we go through the Usborne book What’s Physics All About?, which we’re using as our “spine.” As a spine it’s OK–it’s missing a lot of information, but it’s suitably lower-level and it’s not badly written. There just aren’t many good general physics books that are accessible at the 3rd-6th grade level, that aren’t textbooks (ugh!).

I pick and choose pages out of several other books to supplement this, which doesn’t take long to get through. We begin a new topic by reading either 2 or 4 pages from the Usborne book, then we spend several weeks reading other books or bits of books. Other of our texts include DK Force and Motion, DK Universe (for the Big Bang stuff) and several others. Generally as we approach another big topic I buy several shorter, accessible books (like this one). The whole idea is that we aim for mastery of the concepts. I explain everything, often explaining as much as or more than I read. We come back again and again to the same concepts, in different books, different words, different contexts, and different experiments, and gradually some pretty difficult concepts seem to sink in.

Coupled with spaced repetition my hope is that he’ll retain his relatively in-depth understanding of things like gravity, centripetal force, etc., even after a few years. When we circle back around to these topics, maybe when he’s 9 or 10, he’ll be at a point in math where he’ll be able to do actual (basic) problems. I think getting a solid nonmathematical grounding will help him grasp the harder stuff later on.

Programming. Until recently this wasn’t a subject of study for H., per se, or not insofar as I taught it formally to H. Anyway, first, some months ago (February, I guess) we downloaded the first chapter of a book called Hello World, a programming tutorial for kids using Python, and worked through that chapter. It was OK and doable, as long as I led him through it, but not terribly exciting for H., and I couldn’t see holding his hand through the whole book. So next we tried a free tutorial we found for SmallBasic. Sorry, I can’t be bothered to find info about it. 🙂 It was better (as a first programming tutorial), and more interesting but still…it was a programming tutorial. H. wasn’t ready for that yet.

So then we downloaded Scratch, maybe back in March (?). Here was a free very kid-friendly programming system. It’s a limited sort of language, because it is highly graphical and involves dragging and clicking together different components and you can’t save data across sessions. But it really is a great introduction to programming. It involves programming how “sprites” (characters, vehicles, you name it) act on a “stage,” a smallish window. You can make them move, sense each other, make sounds, change appearance, etc. You can also control the logic of all this with the usual things like if-then statements and “forever” loops, and use variables (which are defined as belonging to the object or the whole program) that are either individual values or lists (a.k.a. arrays). Programmers will recognize these things as being many of the basic components of a programming language. Since all scripts associated with a Sprite project are attached to a particular sprite, or the stage they act on, it’s also a good intro to object-oriented programming. It even introduces kids to open source, because all scripts made with Sprite and uploaded to the website are open source. The only downsides from a programming point of view is that you’re limited to the stage as your arena of activity and the options for saving and accessing data across sessions are very limited. Also, you can’t edit the “source code” and there are no libraries or other extensions of the language as far as I know. You can only drag and drop (and edit text within) a limited number of Lego-like widget types.

Anyway, for purposes of introducing the basics of programming, it’s really great, especially considering that it’s free. So at first I showed H. the basics, which weren’t too hard for me to figure out as I’d already learned a couple programming languages, and he started figuring out more on his own. I have given him some assignments from time to time, but he has been so gung-ho about just making his own (mostly nonsense) programs that I usually just let him have at it. From me he probably learns the most when I sit down and make some program on his computer (I bought him his own cheap netbook a couple years ago so he could learn typing and other computer things–turns out to have been a good investment). I made a version of Asteroids, for example, complete with splitting-apart asteroids and an alien shooting randomly at your spaceship, and he sat and watched me with rapt attention as I wrote this. Then he made his own, simpler but still pretty impressive, version. (We don’t allow him to upload anything to the Internet yet, though he’s tried.) He’s also figured out quite a few things on his own.

Most of H.’s programs don’t really do anything, and are full of unnecessary but fun (usually noisy) junk, but I often comment and help fix up his productions (he loves when I do this) and he gleans a fair bit. So he understands a lot of the basics of the things he can do with Scratch. The problem is that he really needs to make and follow a plan for a program, and not just watch and imitate me.

So I bought a Scratch tutorial, and so far he’s gone through the first section by himself. (I bought one that came in an ebook version that he could read and switch back and forth from the reader screen to the Scratch program screen.) Not to brag, but I was proud that he could go through that book by himself. And he is making progress at designing useful, purposeful sorts of programs. A few days ago he made his own simple version of Typing Tutor; it would give the user some text to type, then determine if the input was identical to the text and report success or failure, and tally up to six points and then stop. I praised him highly and he was very excited, so I decided to show him how to generate random strings of characters of random length, and also random CVC (and more complex) words, and he again was very excited about all that.

We do let H. continue to fiddle around with Scratch at his leisure, although his mother is getting rather annoyed at how much time he’s spending on Scratch, and I’m wondering if he’s becoming a geek. It’s really taken the place of Legos–which we rarely get out anymore because they never get cleaned up!

I am not trying to get H. into any particular profession and will not be one of these parents who insists on a particular career for his kids. But I do think that programming is an extremely useful and mentally rewarding skill. Not only can you make money with programming, if you do it well enough, it helps you understand and use software in general, and of course it develops your logical, critical thinking abilities. But maybe more than this, I think it is a really good idea to understand computers, because if the last 30 years have been a “computer age,” I think the next 30 are going to be a computer age on steroids. Knowing computers is going to be advantageous for lots of reasons, as it already is. This is not to mention that it is actually an extremely useful skill to have if you go into any technical field, not just programming itself.

Other stuff. I won’t comment on foreign language, logic, piano, or P.E. much. He has finished Rosetta Stone Latin Level 1, before I did, and is now into Latin Level 2. He only does it 4 days a week, on average, 15 or so minutes a day, but he’s making good progress and earning his checkmarks. His mother is now teaching him to read in her language as well, just 10-15 minutes at bedtime. He’s picking it up very quickly. We’ve been doing Primarily Logic, once a week, and are now almost done. Everything other than the so-called “logic puzzles” at the end of the book are easy, and as a former logic teacher, I really like the book as a very gentle introduction. Not sure what we’ll do next; maybe take a break from logic for a few months. He’s practicing piano more regularly now, and he’s making excellent progress (he “officially” played his first chord a few days ago) and I’m finding I can teach him well enough myself for now. We tried a teacher a year ago and, well, that really didn’t work out. We’ll turn to a teacher when he’s a bit farther along. He figured out some simple melodies (“Alouette” and “Twinkle Twinkle”) and is now noodling/”improvising” in ways that are starting to make musical sense. He could be making better progress if I would teach him more often, frankly. He’s starting to practice even when I don’t give him lessons, though, so I guess that’s why I don’t bother. Still, I know I should sit down at the piano with him ten minutes a day or so, at least, or better, two or three five minute lessons. As to P.E., until recently he was going to the YMCA three days a week. We’ll get back into that. He also loves to run around with his little brother, and I occasionally get out there and try to teach him the basics of things like baseball and soccer. He does seem to get plenty of exercise. We’ve tried team sports a few times and, well, H. is completely noncompetitive when it comes to sports. For now, he just doesn’t get the point of chasing after a ball, and would rather stand around, observe, think, and socialize.