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Homeschooling 101, Part 4: Teaching Language Arts

In the last post in this series, I promised to help you navigate the subject of reading in your homeschool. Actually, I decided to broaden it out to Language Arts in general. But I’ll start with…



I have a confession to make: reading was my favorite  subject when I was the student; it was my least favorite subject when I was the teacher. Why?

I didn’t get it. First of all, I didn’t get children who struggled with reading. I was reading by the time I was four years old. What’s the problem?

Second, I didn’t get all the comprehension questions and having to Bloom’s Taxonomy the BLEEP out of every single story I read with the students. A good teacher can tell by how a student is reading aloud whether or not she is comprehending the material…assuming the vocabulary isn’t way over her head. Which it would not be out of a leveled textbook.

So I despised teaching reading. I loved the year I taught fifth grade…MATH. And that was it. Just math.

So if you are looking at homeschooling, and are feeling intimated by the prospect at having to teach your child to read, join my club! But the truth is, for most children it’s not as hard as you think.

A gentle warning

I need to state this first: if you encourage or (I hope not!) force your child under the age of seven to engage in more than fifteen minutes of reading (and that includes reading numbers, too), more than a couple of times a day, you will increase his risk of developing vision problems. I refer you to Raymond Moore’s book, Better Early Than Late for more information. It has to do with the physical development of the eye, which is not complete until after the age of seven for most children.

Many children who are homeschooled who don’t have any sort of symbol interpretation disability nevertheless do not learn to read until they are nine or ten years old. Children who go to school are forced to learn to read early because all of the other subjects revolve around reading. As a homeschooling parent, you can be a lot more relaxed about the timing as to when your child begins to read.

Good news about most children

That said, unless your child has a condition that brings on difficulties with interpreting symbols, she will likely learn to read without too much extra effort on your part, as long as you introduce the letter sounds to her and read aloud a lot of books such as Dr. Suess and the “Level 1” early reader-type books you can find at the public library. Children who seem to need more structure to pick up phonics tend to do well with books like Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons or The Reading Lesson (both available from Amazon).

If your child has been attempting to read for two to three years, and is over the age of six, and is still flipping letters or telling you that they look like they’re moving on the page, and can’t seem to progress beyond a Kindergarten level, she probably has a condition that is causing a symbol interpretation disability such as dyslexia or ADHD (the two conditions are really different manifestations of the same brain quirk). Read the book The Gift Of Dyslexia by Ronald Davis and go through the program as provided in the book.

If that does not seem to work for your child, you might try the books that Sarah Brown provides at http://dyslexiagames.com. These are especially helpful for children who are naturally artistic and would draw all day long if you let them.

I encourage you not to give up on homeschooling if you discover your child is dyslexic, ADHD, or Asperger’s. Many homeschooling parents have successfully educated their children with learning differences (this includes Sarah Brown of the Dyslexia Games website). Do your research, and perhaps see a professional for guidance if you try the above approaches and still don’t see progress.

What’s working for us

My son has ADHD. While he seems to be mildly dyslexic, like my husband, his main problem is that he forgets symbolic information quickly. After my beating my head against the wall for a couple of years, I finally realized two things:

  • If he was going to learn to read at a pace faster than a snail stuck to superglue, I was going to have to insist on him reading, spelling, or writing something three times a day. Sitting down once a day with The Reading Lesson was absolutely not going to cut it.
  • I had to make it as fun and/or interesting as possible. One way is to create picture patterns that include the words in a sentence. He needs to spell and say the words out loud as he writes them. Another is to cut up a sentence into individual words and have him put the words back in order while reading them.

I also give sight words an equal amount of time. Children with ADHD and dyslexia think in pictures. So they learn words best if they can visualize the whole, not just the parts. In addition, I encourage my son to form pictures in his mind to go with each sight word that I introduce.

Another trick to help children who have trouble remembering words and letters is to present the word above their eye level. Start with three-letter words, and have them say-spell-say the word while looking at it. Then they write the word in the air with their finger. Finally, you remove the word from their sight and they read and spell the word while still looking up where it used to be.

Just because your child is “behind” in reading compared to her “average” peer doesn’t mean that you have to send them to a Special Ed. program in a school. It just means that you have to allow for more time for them to learn to read.

A couple of years ago, I thought my son would never get beyond reading at the early Kindergarten level. But we’re making progress. Slow and fairly steady.

Once your child learns to read…

Once your child actually learns to read, do you need a curriculum that contains age-appropriate stories for improving vocabulary, figuring out new words, and learning comprehension? No, no, a thousand times no! Once your child is reading, make sure that she reads a couple of times a day for a set period, fifteen minutes at a time for younger children, and thirty to forty-five minutes for older. She may not need you to tell her to read – you may end up having to pull her away from books to get her to do math or to go outside in play!

Whatever your child’s enthusiasm level for reading, he will enjoy it much more if he is allowed to read real books, not textbooks. Comprehension will happen if he’s engaged with the story or information. It may be the only money you ever spend on your homeschool reading program is a $20 phonics instruction book. The rest of it can be had for free at your local library!

Also, have a read-aloud time every day, from fifteen to thirty minutes. You might read a work of classic children’s literature, or a contemporary novel that is a couple of levels above their reading level. This is the best way to teach vocabulary words. (Jack Prelutsky poems are also a great way to teach advanced vocabulary – put in silly contexts, making it easier for children to understand word meanings.) We read aloud to our son, and he also has an mp3 player. Every evening, he listens to an audio book that we downloaded for free from librivox.org. Some of the books he has heard that way include Anne Of Green Gables, The Hobbit, and Treasure Island.

Writing and spelling

Let me begin with handwriting. Several years before my son was ready to start writing, I bought a laminated handwriting practice sheet from Target for a dollar. It has all the lower-case letters on one side, all the upper-case on the other. The child traces a letter, and then writes the letter freehand in the space next to it.

I had him do extra practice on paper with letters that he had trouble remembering. That was all we did for handwriting, and that’s really all that’s necessary.

Unless you start your four-year-old tracing cursive sandpaper letters, learning to write cursive will be more difficult for most children than learning to print. It tends to be a tedious grind for boys, who generally find writing to be as pleasant as a standing on a fire ant nest.

This is why I highly recommend keeping handwriting – and writing – lessons short for boys under the age of nine or ten. It really doesn’t take a lot for them to learn to write, anyway, especially if they know how to read. So why beat a dead horse that’s just going to whine until your ears begin to steam?

Now, onto composition writing. You can be much more relaxed about this if the state you live in does not require homeschooled children to take a writing test. Encourage (or require) them to journal, have them write out science-related how-to’s, write a story together. You might require an older child to start a blog and publish a post every week – a post, I might add, that has been corrected for spelling, punctuation, and grammar!

If your child will eventually be tested on writing, be sure to find out what exactly they are supposed to be able to do, and be sure to teach the skills well before your child will be tested.

For spelling, the last thing you want to do is search online for grade-level spelling lists, or purchase a book with similar lists. Boring, snoring! And irrelevant. All children are going to be able to spell some of the words that appear on the lists, by dint of the fact that they have encountered the words in their reading several times, or have actually written compositions with the words. My point: those lists are a waste of time.

Here are some alternative approaches you could take that are much more relevant and efficient ways to teach spelling. First, learn a poem every week, and take the spelling words from the poem. You could also add in words that share the same spelling rule as one of the words in the poem.

Second – and this might be the best method if your child is prolific writer – make the words that he spells wrong in his rough draft the spelling words. Third, allow your child to select the words she wants to learn to spell, either from her writing or from her favorite books, or even from her surrounding environment.

How should your child practice spelling? Anything but by having them write it ten times every day for a week! This has actually been shown to be the least effective way to teach a child how to spell a word. Instead, have the child use magnetic letters on the refrigerator, spell the words out with macaroni or kidney beans, trace sandpaper letters that form the word, sing a song to spell the word – the ideas are endless. Just do a search online (also try Amazon) for “fun spelling activities”. I promise that you’ll never be able to incorporate them all!


I’m with Charlotte Mason – children under the age of ten don’t need formal grammar lessons. A fun way to start at younger ages is by reading the books from the “Words Are CATegorical” series by Brian Cleary. After that, the Core Knowledge books provide the basic grammar rules. You need to provide the practice.

For middle and high school-age students, go with the Common Core language arts standards and create your own worksheets. Better yet, have your older children discover grammar rules inside real books and via discussions of their own written compositions.

Summing it all up

While you are free to purchase a boxed reading curriculum for your child, it is the expensive and often more tedious and less fun route to go. Use an inexpensive phonics program for beginning readers, download the Dolch sight words and teach your child a few of them every week, and visit your library at least once a week.

Incorporate writing, spelling, and grammar with poems and literature, as well as with the science and social studies end of your homeschool program. Make it as fun as you can, and realize that you are more of an expert on the subject than you think!

For the next post in this series, be sure to click the envelope icon in the above right sidebar to receive it right in your inbox. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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