In January, when we started homeschooling, I read tons of articles, blogs, etc. on the subject. It was totally overwhelming because of the plethora of information. Many writers seem to home school for widely disparate reasons, with different philosophies, various levels of structure, etc. It seemed impossible to determine what the "right" way to home school was.
Then I read an article that suggested that I (well, all home schoolers) relax and pick just a few goals for the year. At the time I really thought that we would only home school for this semester, in order to get Catherine through the bladder and colon surgeries she would need. I wanted to be sure that she would be able to enter second grade and not be behind.
So my goals were vague: (1) get her through her health issues, (2) improve her reading and writing, and (3) improve her addition and subtraction skills. I hated the first goal because it was primarily outside of my control. I hated the second two goals because they were so vague. How much should she improve? She already knew 198 of the 200 sight words her first grade teacher assigned her and was in the highest reading group in class. Did she need to improve at all in her reading?
As for writing, Catherine had pretty sloppy handwriting, so therefore she qualified for occupational therapy through the school. Every week her teacher assigned her twelve words and she had to write one sentence with each word. She could do this, but needed to be reminded to put spaces between words, capitalize the first letter of a sentence, and use ending punctuation. She always wants to spell things correctly, so she will ask me to spell any word that she doesn't know. As far as I knew, she was never asked to write more than one sentence on the same topic in her regular school.
A home schooling friend of mine told me that if I did nothing more that read to her an hour a day and have her read to me an hour a day, plus throw in some math flash cards and games, I would be way ahead of what any first grade student can get in a public school. She explained that no teacher can provide individualized reading education for ten hours a week to every student. It is simply not possible.
In addition to the curriculum we are using, I have tried really hard to follow her advice. When we started in January, Catherine would complain and argue with me about reading a book with one sentence per page. She would negotiate with me, asking me to read every other page for her. Now she can read books with two or three paragraphs per page by herself. I still sit next to her and help her with words she doesn't know.
I also have to encourage her to continue reading. She seems to stop reading and stares off into space all the time. I never know if she is tired, bored with the book, lazy, or if the reading level too hard for her. It takes all the patience I have to read with her. I am horribly ashamed to admit that at times I have not exercised patience in reading with her. Several times I have yelled at her (keep reading! why are you stopping? you know that word!) to the point where she has broken down into tears. I feel so horrible that I have done this.
Recently we started the day with her reading an entire Amelia Bedelia book to me. This is a challenging book for her and took an hour. It happened to be on the day where a cancer buddy of ours, Will Olsen, died at 6:20 a.m.. However, I did not know he had passed until I checked my emails at lunch time. But for some reason, I had a spirit of patience and peace. As we sat there in bed, she read the book to me.
Yes, she stopped frequently. Instead of getting mad, I tried to take deep breaths to figure out why she was stopping. Sometimes she would ask me questions. Her vocabulary is excellent and when she encounters a new word, she will always ask me what it means. Her retention is also excellent and when she encounters a word that she has read in another book, she will stop and tell me. It was an interesting look into how her mind works.
On one page the text read that Amelia Bedelia had popped six cups of popcorn. Catherine stopped and stared at the book for a long time. I am so glad that I kept my mouth shut and gave her a chance to think and formulate her words. What she said amazed me. She asked "Why did the illustrator draw seven cups of popcorn when the book says there were only six cups of popcorn?" She was right - the picture in this case did not match the text. Such a great attention to detail!
I explained that illustrators sometimes make mistakes or changes with their drawings. In further looking at the picture, Catherine then asked me why they were making the popcorn in pots on a stove top instead of in a bag in a microwave. She said that seemed so "silly." I felt so old when I explained that as a child my family made popcorn over a stove and that I was in the fourth grade before we had a microwave oven. My explanation elicited a wide-eyed "wow" from Catherine.
So I knew Catherine's reading ability has improved substantially. But she did not read unless I sat next to her and told her it was time. I never caught her reading books on her own. She never asked to read books. I feared that those times when I had yelled at her and she cried at destroyed her desire to read and tarnished her for life. I worried that she was a reluctant reader and didn't want to read and that I had caused this in her. Maybe I was letting her watch too much TV. What could I do?
A friend of mine told me that she used the Sonlight Curriculum to home school. I researched this program, which has a heavy emphasis on kids reading themselves and kids being read to, all the way up until the eighth grade. I realized that I had been having her read to me quite a bit but had not been reading to her enough.
I had read some modified novels to her, but did not really enjoy them. They seemed to lack detail and were merely summaries of the originals. Not very exciting. In fact, boring.
So I started reading to her more, which she loves. Even books which she is capable of reading. In addition, we have started a new chapter book (The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White).
Oddly, within a few days I noticed Catherine reading books by herself. On the couch, at the kitchen bar, on her bedroom floor, in the car. Sometimes she read aloud. Sometimes she would follow the words with her fingers and read silently. Sometimes she just looked at the pictures.
When I read to her, she still stops me frequently to ask questions or make comments. For example, one of our history lessons last week was on heroes in Greek mythology. Yesterday I read The Little Mermaid II to her, about Ariel and Prince Eric's daughter being kidnapped and then rescued from an evil sea creature. When Eric saves their daughter, Catherine said "he is a hero!" There were also tons of words in that book which she didn't know: shriek, cackle, chow, destiny - just to name a few.
Tonight I caught Catherine reading The Little Mermaid II to Sabrina, stopping to define the new terms to her. Of course that is a high-interest book for her, about a Disney princess. I have yet to catch her reading one of her history books on her own. Perhaps that will come soon.
As for her writing, I have Catherine work in a journal and write in it one or two times a day. If it is a topic she likes, she will easily write 5-10 sentences (such as Cinderella). If it is a topic she doesn't know as much about, it's a struggle to get her to write 2-3 sentences on it.
I have also tried to vary her writing assignments. One time I let her make a list of silly aspects to a story. One time I had her write a letter to a character in a story. Recently I have been letting her write stories to match a math equation. She has loved this exercise and, for the first time ever, writes in her journal on her own.
This math journaling has been great to demonstrate to me her understanding of word problems. For example, she will title an essay 3 + 2 = 5. The essay will read something like "I met 3 princesses. Then, I met 2 fairies. How many characters did I meet all together?" Yes, most of her free journaling has a Disney theme. What pleases me is her understanding of math word problems. She will even draw a picture to accompany her journal.
So, I have met the nebulous goal of "improve her reading and writing." But because I am not an educator, have never done this before, and have nothing to compare her to, I still wonder if she is where she should be. I trust that is a perennial fear of all home schoolers.