Monday, February 8, 2016

Language Arts Options For Kids Who Like Variety

I've hard such a hard time sticking with one Language Arts program.  Because of this, we've tried a variety of approaches and materials.  Maybe one day we'll find the perfect fit, but until then, it is trial and error. I like getting a taste of the different approaches because:
  •  I don't think there's one single "perfect" way to teach Language Arts-there's many learning styles and many different needs among all kids. 
  •  I don't think there's any program that will 'teach everything' that encompasses Language Arts-some will focus on writing, others on spelling, or vocabulary or grammar. Honestly, I tried teaching spelling separately and gave up. It just got too be too much, when adding writing on top of that, and grammar, and we only recently started adding vocabulary formally. 
  • I don't think that there's any one program we could always stick with forever for any one child, because the child's needs change over time. Maybe they need work on grammar one year, maybe an emphasis on writing another year, and maybe creativity in yet another year. 
This is what we've used/currently use:

Writing Strands, Level 3 : The text is written to the student so it can be done independently. It gives specific assignments, how much to write, what order to write it in, but doesn't give much guidance in making it sound good. We used it for about a year and then switched to IEW for writing. 

Learning Language Arts Through Literature, Purple Book :  This is a very gentle approach to LA. It covers copywork, spelling, grammar, a little bit of writing and vocabulary, all based on a literature passage. There's some passages which have a whole book study included in the book, and some passages are just passages from another book that the student may or may not have read. We intended to read all the books referenced, but found that 1-2 were not easily found (not in the library). Each day's lesson may only be as short as 4-5 practice words/sentences to practice that day's lesson. It didn't seem very systematic in presenting the spelling or grammar rules, it's just based on what is found in the literature passage. It makes it less 'rote' and 'dry', but may seem a bit haphazard to do '-es' plurals one day, and prepositions the next day, then 'research this person' the next day. But at the same time, it gives variety so keeps it from getting repetitive or boring. The kids thought it was too easy though, but at the same time, these were new lessons to them in terms of various grammar rules or spelling. I think that just speaks to the fact that it makes grammar and spelling seem not-so-out-of-reach. I liked that the spelling words are picked from the passage and chosen by the student based on what they don't know yet.

Institute of Excellence in Writing (IEW)- This is a GREAT writing tutorial! We did the Student Intensive A, which has a video that teaches how to structure various styles of writing (e.g. reports vs fictional narratives), and also how to make it sound good with what they call "dress-ups" (sentence openers, adverbs, clauses, transition words). It's VERY specific about asking students to incorporate certain techniques, giving them practice in using them. My kids didn't always enjoy writing this way (being told they HAD to use certain "dress-ups"), but they definitely expanded their writing styles and sounded much more polished after going through this. We are currently using American History Volume 1, but they chose not to write on the topics given. We were still able to use the techniques being practiced, but they chose their own topics to write about.  The topical guides include vocabulary so we have been using this set of words for vocabulary this year. 

Grammar Land - Very old story with the parts of speech as personified characters in a court case. It was pretty amusing and a good introduction to the different parts of speech. I think some of the older language style was difficult for the kids to grasp, but overall, I thought it was a fun way to learn about parts of speech.

Brave Writer, Writer's Jungle - We used elements of this writing approach. It's almost the opposite of the IEW approach, but I think both have valid points about the teaching of writing.  While IEW focuses on specific methods to create structure and style, Brave Writer's approach is more 'question driven', personal, and free-flowing.  The premise to her approach is that writing is an expression of yourself, so you want to be gentle and let students find their voice, and become comfortable expressing themselves in the written language, rather than force them to write on topics they are not excited about and using specific structures that feel awkward to them. I think you need both, so for some periods of time, we use the IEW lessons, and other times, we use the Brave Writer approach, with a lot of 'free writing', and copywork and limited 'must add these things in your writing'.

The Word Snoop - This is a fun book that explains all kinds of interesting tidbits about the English language-palindromes, anagrams, lipograms, malapropisms, oxymorons, etc., plus a history of the evolution of the English language-where it came from way back in history, to current day text-speak. We all loved this-very informative, yet fun to learn about. 

Life of Fred Language Arts - My kids love Fred. He's quirky and smart and talks about a lot of random facts that the kids find very amusing. Even though these are supposed to target high schoolers, my 4th and 6th graders have been doing OK with them. The first one definitely is OK for younger kids, but I've read that the other three books are much harder.  We are now in the middle of the second book, and it does introduce a lot more concepts that may or may not be above their heads, but so far, they are still absorbing the information, if not mastering it.  I believe these books are meant to be read and re-read, so I don't mind them not mastering it all on the first time through, as they will encounter it again later, and at least now, they have been exposed to the information.  This, like the Life of Fred math books, does not go in any particular order and does not present anything as a straight-foward 'lesson', but as Fred's story unfolds, he throws in all kinds of grammar lessons in the midst of telling the story. The downside of this series though, is the lack of practice questions (this would be a 'plus' according to my kids though, as they hate repetition). But because of this, for additional practice and correcting errors, I've started using this next product.

Editor-in-Chief , Critical Thinking Company - We are using Level B1 right now, using their software package rather than the printed book.  This product gives a variety of passages with errors that need to be corrected (grammar, spelling, punctuation, and I think later on, content matching the illustration), The student acts as a 'detective' in searching for these errors and marking the corrections, based on a series of options which they select.  I love the concept, but I think I would go with the book next time. The software is interactive and has 'bonus games' as a reward for completing the lessons, but trying to click on the right reason for the error has been very frustrating for my kids (does the subject/verb agreement fall under 'Usage'? or 'Grammar'? or 'Spelling'?).  They know it's wrong, but can't find where to locate the reason in the menu system.  Both of my kids need a lot more practice in detecting errors in their own writing, but, going by the 'Brave Writer' approach, being critical of their own writing is disheartening, so I like the idea of searching for errors in SOMEONE ELSE'S writing.  

Total Language Plus Study Guides - This incorporates reading comprehension, grammar, spelling, and vocab all based on a piece of literature. There's many guides for specific book titles. We used the one for "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch".  I was drawn to it because it covers reading comprehension, as well as the other areas of LA that LLATL covered, but it includes the entire book in depth, chapter by chapter, not just short passages. I like that this includes vocabulary/spelling with words found in the book, and discussion questions/reading comprehension questions for each chapter. The grammar is mostly dictation and 1 'activity' a week of correction, underlining parts of speech, etc.  I felt that having more direct grammar teaching would have been more useful. I don't know if other study guides are similar, since I only have experience with this one. We ended up skipping a lot of the spelling exercises, just because I don't feel like it was all that necessary. Some kids may enjoy the various spelling practice though (my kids don't).

With all these options, we tend to mix it up every few weeks. Some weeks, we do 1 day a week of copywork/cursive, free write, Editor-in-Chief, Latin/Greek roots(just looking up 2 assigned root words on wikipedia and making an index card for their notes), and 1 chapter of Life of Fred.  Other weeks, we do a week-long writing assignment from IEW. Some weeks, we focus on a single book, like the Word Snoop or doing a study guide from Total Language Plus. I think breaking it up makes it more enjoyable for the kids and keeps them from getting tired of the same thing week after week. 

I'd love to hear any other suggestions of what has worked well for other people and perhaps we'd add it to our medley of choices!

Celebrating Chinese New Year

We don't do many Chinese cultural traditions around here. I cook Chinese food maybe once a week sometimes not at all in a single week, and when I do, we don't even use chopsticks! Maybe it's a product of being raised here in the US; the cultural traditions become more and more diluted the longer people are away from the origins of those traditions.

Every now and then though, there are occasions that prompt me to bring back some traditions, and be purposeful in sharing them with the kids. I want them to know their heritage and have memories of Chinese traditions, even as a half-Asian.

Most of our closest friends are Asian (is that coincidence? is that my own tendency to lean toward common experiences in choosing my friends? and if so, why doesn't my husband have his own tendency toward Caucasian friends? ), and they are in the same 2nd-generation-boat that we're in...grew up here in the US, sprinkling a few Asian traditions in here and there.  We don't sit around talking about Asian-American issues or send our kids to Chinese school, but we DO like to celebrate Chinese New Year together, reliving fond memories from our own childhoods.

Making dumplings as a group is a memory I specifically wanted to pass down to my kids. I remember family gatherings where my parents and the my aunts and uncles would all work together to make lots and lots of dumplings together. They always asked us to help, and occasionally we did, making funny-shaped dumplings, laughing at our awfully mis-shapen results, and then we'd run off and play with the other kids.  It was like history repeating it self when our group of kids do the same thing...but over the years, they are getting more proficient at making dumplings.

We used's Asian Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Recipe for the filling, and my dad's dough recipe, which is 6 cups flour, 2 1/2 cups water, 1/2 tsp salt (knead together until thoroughly mixed and workable). 

We also had a hot pot, with plenty of meat, fish balls, seafood, and noodles, which is another favorite tradition of mine. 

For dessert, we had a huge assortment of Asian treats-egg tarts, pineapple cake, rice cake ('nian gao') in 2 flavors, almond jello, oranges, and sponge cake (not sure that was specifically Asian, but it's reminiscent of the lighter, fluffier cakes that are common in Chinese bakeries)!