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When I first began teaching our son Matt at home, I marked his mistakes in red like my own teachers had done, to help him notice his mistakes and try harder next time. He seemed oblivious to his mistakes, though. Matt disliked penmanship, for example, and our lessons failed to improve his attitude.
Then I read some good advice and quit marking mistakes. Instead I started drawing a red circle around Matt’s best work on the page. Then we talked about why those letters and words were his best. He had disliked having me tell him why his mistakes were so bad, but now he enjoyed hearing me tell him why his best work was so good. Matt started looking forward to seeing red marks when they meant success instead of failure. His penmanship improved, and so did his attitude.

After a few weeks of this new strategy, I started asking Matt to circle his best work himself. Once he began evaluating his own work, he found his mistakes himself, and his penmanship improved dramatically. The eye opener for me, though, was not how much the new approach changed Matt’s attitude, but how much it changed mine. Grading penmanship was irritating when I focused on finding what was wrong. When I focused on finding what was right instead, I cheered up and had more patience.

Later I was able to apply this new understanding to Matt’s spelling lessons.

Matt was a late bloomer who didn’t really “click” on reading until he was 10. Once reading clicked for him, his reading skills shot far above his grade level. But his spelling skills were poor, and he seemed unable to progress. He could make 100’s on his spelling tests using a traditional spelling curricula, but he could not seem to transfer what he learned in those lessons to the same words when he needed to spell them for original writing assignments. He behaved as if he had never seen that word before, and he could misspell the same word three different ways in one paragraph. He had great trouble proofreading as well. He could not catch his own mistakes.

He was so frustrated with his spelling difficulties that he began “dumbing down” his vocabulary in his written work to avoid writing words he didn’t know how to spell. His writing was way below his grade level and even further below his vocabulary level.

We finally had him tested at the local public school when he was 13. They said he could read at a college level, but he spelled at a second grade level. So he was “learning disabled in spelling.” I tried their suggestions for helping improve Matt’s spelling, but they didn’t work.

Then a schoolteacher friend of mine told me about a method for helping kids learn to proofread. I modified that method and came up with a good system that worked well for Matt. He began picking up two years in spelling improvement during each year that we used this method.

Today Matt has a Ph.D. in cancer research. He still struggles with spelling, but it is no longer an obstacle that prevents him from expressing himself in writing.

Here’s the method:

1. Use a spelling curricula that includes sentences for dictation, preferably a curricula designed for problem spellers. Teach the spelling lesson and do the exercises.

2. Then dictate three or four sentences using that lesson’s spelling words. (Use your judgment to discern how many sentences your student can do without feeling overwhelmed.)

3. Show your student the correctly written sentences that you just dictated and allow her to correct her own work before you even look at it. (Learning to find her own mistakes and correct them will be her key to learning to spell correctly.)

4. When your student thinks she has corrected all her errors, go over the paper with her. Make a little red mark for every correct word or punctuation mark on her paper. For example, if she capitalized the first letter of the sentence, make a red mark. If she spelled that first word correctly as well, make a second mark. When you come to an error, don’t make a big deal about it. Be matter of fact. Simply explain why it doesn’t get a mark and move on.

5. When you finish correcting the paper, count up all the red marks. Give your student a reward – a raisin or chocolate chip or other small reward for every red mark. (Chocolate chips worked wonders for Matt. He was disappointed when he missed a little red mark, and he tried harder next time to spot his errors himself. As his proofreading skills improved, his spelling improved.)

You can modify this system for original writing projects. If your student is too stuck on spelling to produce a writing flow, let her dictate to you what she wants to say (Dictation #1). Then dictate Dictation #1 back to her as she now writes down her own words (Dictation #2). Give her a corrected copy of Dictation #1. Allow her to check Dictation #2 using Dictation #1. Then proceed to steps 4 and 5.

Use good judgment. The important thing is to work with your child at her learning level and avoid her frustration level. Some horrible spellers, like Matt, are incredible story tellers who can dictate far more words than they can manage to write when those words are dictated back to them. In that case, dictate back only a paragraph or a few sentences – whatever your student can manage without becoming overwhelmed.

© Becky Cerling Powers 2012

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Our son Erik was a visual learner who picked up the skill of reading quickly as a kindergartner after only two or three weeks of simple home phonics lessons. Once he “clicked” on reading, he read all the easy reading books he could lay his hands on. He usually read them through several times.

I thought he was ready for something harder the summer after first grade. By then he read easy books fluently, and he had a hardy attention span. He could sit attentively for a half hour or more at a time while we read him long children’s classics at bedtime like C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So I suggested he try reading The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, a book he was familiar with because I had read it aloud to him.

He was ecstatic to find out he could read a novel length book. Every day he reported his progress: “Mom, I’m on page 67!” or “Mom, I’ve read 200 pages!!”

Not every child is ready to tackle such hard books at age 7. Two children, both equally bright, may reach reading readiness at different ages—even five or six years apart. Our son Matt was a late bloomer who finally “clicked” on reading at age 10. Yet he, too, was reading novel length books within two years after he really began reading.

For both boys the key to moving on to the hard books was twofold. First, as parents we built up our children’s vocabulary by reading them many stories that were written well beyond their reading level. Second, as novice readers the boys developed fluency in reading by reading many easy books over and over.

Author and educator Ruth Beechick states that encouraging reading fluency is an important step that parents (and schools) tend to skip by pushing children on to harder and harder reading materials. This is a mistake, she says, because reading lots of easy books helps developing young readers in several essential ways. First, it gives them practice with decoding skills until these skills become over-learned and automatic. It also helps them learn and relearn the common words that make up a large percentage of all books, including difficult ones.

It helps children read more smoothly and rapidly. It also helps them develop comprehension, instead of losing the sense of a passage while struggling to deal with difficult vocabulary and decoding at the same time. Finally, reading lots of easy books helps youngsters find out that reading can be fun. But what is an easy book? The answer varies from reader to reader.

Beechick explains that every child has three reading levels at all times: a frustration level, a learning level and a comfort level. (These levels provide a way to rate books, not a way to rate individual children.) (more…)

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The Hundred Chart is a simple tool that parents can use to help their children learn math. There are as many ways to use it as there are numbers on the chart, from teaching simple number recognition to learning addition, subtraction, multiplication and figuring out basic math patterns.

Recently I gave my friend Mellissa a few copies of The Hundred Chart along with a few suggestions for using it with her children’s homeschool math. A few days ago told me that she posted a copy at the breakfast table and now, after a couple weeks, her 6-year-old daughter is counting to 100. 

The chart looks like this: (more…)

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Note: a shorter version of this post will be published in the September 2009 issue of the Southwest Homeschool Network newsletter

“My son has trouble with division,” a young mom told me once. “I think it’s because he hasn’t memorized his multiplication facts.”

She explained that her child had figured out his own method for getting the right answers to multiplication problems. He just kept adding the multiplied number mentally until he had added it enough times for a correct answer. His multiplication method was slow, but it gave him right answers. Division had him stumped though. He couldn’t figure out the problems.

Although it may not appear that way, this boy’s trouble with division was the same problem that 5-year-old Elias had with addition the day I asked him, “How many places should we set for lunch today?”

First Elias counted himself and me. Then we talked about the other people who would be eating lunch with us – my husband (who was working in the garage), Grandma (who lived in a mobile home on the back of our lot), and Daniel (who was asleep in the loft). This talking wasn’t enough. Elias still couldn’t figure out how many places to set. If all five people had been there in the room, he could have easily figured out the answer by counting them. But since he couldn’t see the people, he couldn’t count them.

I tried to help him by showing him how to count people in his head, using my fingers to represent each person : “You (thumb), me (index finger), Dennis (middle finger), Grandma (ring finger), Daniel (pinkie) – one-two-three-four-five – see?”

His face went completely blank. Obviously, to Elias, a finger did not represent a person. He could not count people by counting fingers.

This is a developmental characteristic. (more…)

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The Southwest Homeschool Network asked me to give a presentation for parents of Reluctant Readers for their conference last weekend. I don’t live with a reluctant reader anymore (he turned into a book-lover, grew up and left home) so I am lucky to have one who comes and visits me to remind me all about it. J is a first-generation American 12-year-old from a Spanish-speaking home, and he recently had to make the switch from a bilingual program at school to all-English. He told me once how discouraged he felt with it, so I said he could come once a week and we’d see what we could do.

J spent the whole evening here last Wednesday. A lot of that time didn’t seem to have a thing to do with reading, but as I recalled that evening in the light of preparing for my presentation, really it ALL had a lot to do with reading. For example, when J’s mom drove him to my house, she had most of the family with her – four kids and her 80-year-old father. She and her teenage daughter needed to talk to me in the kitchen, so Grandpa stretched out on the grass under the mulberry tree in the front yard, and J ran off to the back yard with his two little sisters. There they found our granddaughters’ abandoned makeshift sandbox, their plastic containers, and a bucket of water. So they made a fancy cake out of wet sand in one of the plastic containers. They smoothed it and decorated it with pinecones – very artistic. And then of course, they had to show it to me when I finished talking to their mom. And of course, we conversed about it.

That’s where the first reading connection came in. (more…)

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