Monday, July 23, 2012

The Language Wars

It is always so exciting to me to meet another home schooler, especially one who has been doing it for a decade.  I actually feel sorry for them.  As a newbie, I have a zillion questions and can "talk shop" with them for hours.  One of my neighbors, a very experienced home schooler who uses a literature based curriculum, suggested I read some books by Ruth Beechick.  My local public library had a copy of The Language Wars, which I loved.
This book is a quick read and very easy to pick up and put down, because it is a collection of essays she has written over the years.  I found lots of great ideas and advice:

- She cautions against being a servant to the curriculum.  As an example, she relates a story of a substitute teacher in a first grade classroom.  Each morning the teacher was supposed to put several single digit addition problems on the chalkboard for the children to do.  On the second day he substituted in that class, he forgot to write the problems on the chalkboard before the children arrived.  The kids asked if they can make up their own problems, which he allowed.  The children began with single digit problems, but then grew bolder and wrote two digit addition problems on the board.  As a group, the children calculated the answers.  They even expanded their morning math problems to three digit addition, within that substitute teacher's week of teaching!  All of this was accomplished in a few minutes in the morning, without lesson plans, without worksheets, and at the instigation of the children.  Thus, curriculum, when followed too ardently, can limit students who are ready to expand their skills and knowledge.
- Children need to master the idea of counting backward for BC dates.  This is a difficult concept, because it goes against logic.  It is hard to understand that 400 BC is after 500 BC.  Using a timeline to visually teach this concept is usually effective.
- Beechick prefers phonics programs that present the information incrementally.  I have not studied any phonics programs, so I am trusting her investigation.  She says that some phonics programs teach all the sounds and rules and then introduce the children to reading.  She prefers a program which teaches a handful of sounds, then has the children read material with those sounds, then teaches another handful of sounds, then has the children read material with the first set of sounds in addition to the second set of sounds.  This system creates oddly written material in the beginning stages.  For example, a story following the introduction of the short A sound  could read: "Nan can fan.  Dan ran.  Stan has a van."  Obnoxious, from an adult standpoint.  But, this method will empower children ... they learn fairly early on that they can read. It also allows then to practice a few sounds until they learn them.  Learning all the sounds and rules first, before being exposed to actual reading, may be overwhelming for some children.  Many kids cannot remember an enormous set of rules which they have not learned how to apply yet.
- There is no need to teach the letters in alphabetical order.  The song does that.  Instead, a phonics program should teach the letters with easier sounds to learn or which are used most frequently.
- There are three stages to reading: phonics, fluency, and information.  Phonics is the stage where the children learn the sounds and rules.  After that is mastered, the children need a relaxed time to develop reading fluency.  This stage takes a minimum of a year and possibly two years. Children read the same books over and over again, which reminds them of the words they know.  Seeing the word "that" 1000 times helps drill it into the children's head.  It is like me doing 1000 sit-ups.  I will improve.  By fourth or fifth grade, children should be in the information reading stage.  At this point, they read well enough that they can read a book for the purpose of gaining information.  Of course children do gain information when we read them picture books or when they read beginner readers to themselves, but once their reading fluency is established, their ability to read for information is significantly enhanced.  Many kids, especially home schooled kids, read more books during this time(the information stage) in their lives then they ever will for the rest of their lives.
- During the fluency stage, children may be better at reading bigger words like helicopter or dinosaur.  What we think are easy words, like who or what, may trip a reader up in this stage.  This is because helicopter and dinosaur evoke mental images for children.
-  There are four stages of creativity in writing.  (1) Copying sentences, etc. which we have preselected. (2) Dictation - writing sentences which we have preselected and read to the child. (3) Conversing - guided writings, answering questions, etc.  and (4) Creating - determining the content and method of the writing.
- Math texts repeat a lot of the same material.  Beechick quotes one study.  These figures show the percentage of pages in math textbooks which present new material to the children.  Kindergarten earns a 100% because no other textbook precedes it. 
               K - 100
               1 -  75
               2 -  40
               3 -  60
               4 -  45
               5 -  50
               6 -  38
               7 -  35
               8 -  30
               9 -  90
Is all of this repetition necessary?  Perhaps for some students who didn't get it the first time.  But some students may be bored and lose interest in math with so much repetition.  Perhaps worse is the inability to present more advanced math to students due to the enormous amount of time repeating skills which have already been taught.  Of course as home schooling parents, we can pace our students based on their abilities, or inabilities.  Schools are bound to use the textbooks and curriculum chosen by the local school board.  We have freedom to repeat information, present it out of order, or accelerate the student through grades.

I highly recommend this book, which is an easy read and presented some interesting theories and ideas for me to digest.

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