Saturday, 28 July 2012

Homeschooling Hints Part Four - Steady Progress

The "middle years" of childhood, between approximately 6 and 11, are so much fun.  By now, your children are starting to become real people, with distinct personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests and ambitions.  It's so rewarding to homeschool your children for a geat many reasons, but I found it especially rewarding during these "middle years".  That's not to say there weren't obstacles to be overcome, and the occasional challenge for all of us, but the experience was very definitely enjoyable, and I know that our children would agree!

By 6, a child is generally starting to read quite confidently, although the number of words they can recognise will vary enormously.  Each child is different - as I have said previously, don't feel pressured to think that an individual child needs to reach a particular stage by a particular age.  They will get there in the end, and some children will always be more enthusiastic readers than others.  By the time she was 7, Little Bear was able to read silently to herself, and had moved on from the Oxford Reading Tree books to proper chapter books that she read alone.  Cubby Bear took a lot longer to reach this stage. 

Equally, counting and number recognition is normally well established by age 6.   They will understand concepts like "less than" and "more than", though "equal to" may take a little longer.  They will know what half a cake looks like, and will be able to help you to share out that half a cake equally among 4 people.   At this stage our children loved worksheets where they had to fill in blanks with the right number, or draw arrows to match written numbers with pictures of objects.  They also enjoyed number games, and using toys such as those available from the excellent "Learning Resources" range to assist with developing their numeracy skills.

It was at about this stage, at age 7, that we introduced the multilevel workbox system that formed the basis for much of the middle years teaching in core curriculum subjects that we did.  The workbox system was perfect for our very small classroom of 2 because it meant that both children could work from the same source materials at their own pace, independently, but with guidance from me, and all the information and support they needed could be provided by the workbox (the teachers' materials are bought separately).  We liked the way that although the workboxes were progressive, because they were also multilevel and flexible, each child, no matter how many we had and how broad the age range, was able to work at their own pace, quite independently, with guidance wherever necessary.   The workboxes covered a variety of topics, and it was great that each child could pursue interests that appealed to them individually, but still be learning a broad range of applications.  We used the reading, mathematics and science modules of the workboxes.  For geography, history and citizenship we used cross-curricular sourcebooks which meant that all the topics we studied naturally linked in with each other.  We felt this to be a sensible approach to teaching which worked well for us, as it made the progression from one topic to another so seamless, and allowed us to study specific areas of interest in far more detail than we might have otherwise.  For example, for one project, we worked on bread.  Yes, bread!  There were so many ways we could draw different areas of study into this one topic.  Chemistry, physics, biology, geography, maths, social studies, art, cooking, history, reading.  A topic like this can be as easy or difficult as it needs to be, and you can adapt it within one group of children so that the older ones are working on different areas of the topic from the younger ones.

Note - we did not introduce a language until an older age than many parents may prefer.  We are already a bilingual family, speaking as we do, mainly our mother tongue at home between ourselves, and English just to other people, or when out in public.  We felt it would be very confusing to our children to learn a third language too soon, especially since our mother tongue is not a written language.  So we waited until age 12 before introducing a third language - Italian, another family language that was already familiar to us.  

Of course, homeschooling is not always plain sailing - as it is with all aspects of parenting!  There were times when one or other of the children was reluctant.  There were occasions when (as with the Italian) I found the subject as hard to get to grips with as they did!  And there were times when one of them developed a passion for a topic that we didn't know much about, and were not sure how far to pursue this, at the expense of learning other subjects.  Our style of homeschooling was quite formal, probably in part because I was taught outside the home, at a state school, and tended therefore to model the structure of our day's learning around how school had been for me.  Obviously I tailored it a little to suit our needs, but in general, it was timetabled, and we had set times for study within our working day.  For example, at age 8, a day might consist of 1/2 hour reading, an hour of maths, 1/2 hour doing something physical like playing outside, or singing or reciting, then another hour of a more formal subject like history or science.  Then we would break for our midday meal.  In the afternoon we did resume school but the work would be more practical - art, crafts, construction, experiments, baking.  We wound up school in the middle of the afternoon, perhaps 2 or 3 pm.  This allowed me time to finish my chores, and for us to engage in other activities that the day might demand.  It was longer than some homeschool days may be but in our culture, children tend to be expected to be occupied in "work" rather than play from quite an early age, and we regarded their schooling as their work.  And they certainly weren't deprived of plenty of opportunities to play!

How did we deal with the obstacles that we encountered?  Here are some answers to specific issues that we dealt with.

Reluctance to read:  Cubby Bear was not a natural reader.  Like his dad, he has a degree of dyslexia, though not nearly as severe as Papa Bear.  Once we knew this, I tailored his reading materials to match his ability, not his age.  This meant it took him longer to get to the stage of being to read alone, than it did for Little Bear.  I did not push him, but worked at his pace, making it clear that he needed to spend time on his reading even though he was not keen, but that he did not need to be able to read as well as his sister.  Some of the things that helped to encourage him to read were using worksheets rather than reading books, which he could complete independently.  To begin with these didn't even have words on, but maybe pictures where only part of the image was completed, and he had to join the dots, or draw a mirror image to make it whole.  Later he had worksheets that focussed on particular letters, and then after this, words where he had to join the dots, or pick the right one.   I also gave him lots of opportunities to learn practically rather than on paper, as this has always been his preferred way of understanding something - he takes it apart, sees how it works, and then puts it back together!  Once he saw that he could excel in this way, the reading wasn't such an issue, and he began to enjoy it a bit more.  I should add that if you are at all concerned about any area of your children's progress when you are schooling them - or indeed if they are attending school outside your home - then do seek expert advice.  You don't necessarily need to agree with the diagnosis - or even the treatment - but I would strongly advise that you do not try to manage learning difficulties, other than the usual glitches and difficulties that we all have, without seeking the help of an expert.  To start with, this might be a fellow homeschooler, perhaps one who is more experienced than you are, but from our own experiences - both with Papa Bear and Cubby, it is really not a good idea to try to resolve real learning difficulties by yourself, at least not until you know what you are dealing with.

Only interested in one thing: depending on the age of the child, this can be less of a problem, or more.  With younger children, I used an interest in one subject as a motivational tool.  We would do our group work together, then if the child had concentrated and worked well, they would be given a piece of work focussing just on that one topic as a reward.  It might be tractors, or rabbits, or something more generalised - Little Bear went through a "pink" phase when she was around 6.  As long as it was pink, she liked it!  We did not want to overindulge this interest, but on the other hand, we also saw it as a developmental stage, where she was beginning to become her own person with her own likes and dislikes.  That meant that she might get to choose a pink pen to write with, or a pink folder to keep her worksheets in.  She might have a picture to colour with lots of pink things on it, or an opportunity to make something with craft materials that was pretty and frilly.  But she knew that she must still focus on her schoolwork first, just like Cubby Bear, and just as Mama and Papa Bear must do their work too.  The fun bits afterwards were the reward for the hard work first. 

Wanting to take an interest in a subject further than your own knowledge: this is a tricky one, when your
child gets past the 7 - 8 age!  At least, it was in our home.  While it is wonderful when you see that your hard work has really paid off, and a hunger for learning is really instilled in your children, it can also be a challenge, especially if your own education hasn't been very extensive.  There are many approaches to addressing this problem.  It might be as simple as you doing some extra research, perhaps purchasing some second-hand teaching materials focussed on this subject alone, or doing a "field trip" to expand everyone's knowledge.  Nowadays, with the instant access to information from all around the world that the internet affords us, it is so much easier to expand our knowledge in any area of interest.  Just be sure that the source materials you are accessing are reputable and accurate, as there is no "quality control" on the internet in the way that there is with published books (and even these need checking through thoroughly first, before you allow your children access to them).   If it is a very specific interest, and if your child shows a real talent - say, for playing a musical instrument, it may, if funds allow, be worth investing in private tuition in this one subject.  However if you choose this route, I would hesitate to over-emphasise that you are prepared to take the interest so seriously just becuase of the child's percieved talent.  This may lead to problems with pridefulness, discontentment and possibly even disappointment if they later discover that they are not as talented as had been supposed.  It may also be divisive, if the other children do not receive the same level of focus on their learning.  On the other hand, it may just lead to a wonderful career as a musician!    We liked to allow our children's natural interests to guide our teaching curriculum to some degree.  After all, this is one of the great advantages of homeschooling, over a state school education.  You can tailor your teaching to suit the needs - and interests - of your children and in so doing, be guaranteed that they will have a real enthsiasm for what they are learning.  But we also guarded against making our children's education too specialised.  The aim of it, after all, was to equip our children - academically, socially and spiritually, to be responsible, effective and successful adults, decent, Godly people living in a secular, fallen world, and in order to achieve these goals, this meant having to mould their learning to equip them to develop these qualities.  It might mean having to say to a child "I know you feel very keen to learn more about this subject, but while we are at school we are learning about lots of different things, and that's just as important too.  We can help you to learn more about this subject, but it will be after school is finished for today".  That way the interest became a hobby that the child could develop in their own time, in a less structured way.  This has worked well for us, and Cubby, whose great passion is indeed for music, has been able to combine his interest with many different activities, both at home and at Church.

Next time we will be looking at planning for the future, and the differing goals for girls and boys.  We'll also be considering the issue of exams and formal qualifications, and timetabling, both for exam study and more generally.

Phew!  Who would have thought I could have so much to say about homeschooling?  Papa Bear and I have been quite surprised at how detailled this series has been - and how much more we could have said, that I haven't had time to write down!  I suppose it just goes to show how very important homeschooling has been to us, and how very much I have enjoyed having the privelige of teaching our two children, right through from pre-school to pre-college ages!