Some things are just logical to some, but not to me. Sometimes I need a hammer over the head to get things. Things like this:
Our pediatrician (who homeschooled his three children) told me that the best indicator of how well a student is doing in K-5 is how well they read. From grades 6-12, it's how well they write. In order for children to fluently write (not handwriting, but the act of writing information from their brain on to paper, perhaps following an assignment), they absolutely must be able to:
1) fluently handwrite (cursive is my choice and I'll get into that later...) or type
3) understand the rules of grammar
4) think critically
If they can't do any one of those things, writing becomes a road block. Boys, in particular, hate the whole writing process. Here's my theory on why. For the most part, we skip step one or decide it's not important or dismiss boys from handwriting. I did.
My first born had two eye surgeries within the first three years of his life and they did not correct his problem of bi-lateral strabismus (both eyes crossed). Glasses did not correct the problem, either. So, we went to occupational therapy seeking help with fine motor skills that were lagging because of his visual deficiencies. His brain would shut off his left eye. He had no depth perception. We came to find out he had issues with primitive reflexes that had been retained. Many of the reflexes that infants have as a survival instinct remained intact and did not convert into postural reflexes. After three years of visiting a specialist in Chicago, guess what? His eyes straightened out and they were both working again. Unfortunately, his fine motor skills were still easily 4 years behind. So, we went to occupational therapy, AGAIN. Sadly, the therapist dismissed him, telling me we should not expect him to do more than be able to sign his name and print basic information for things like job applications. I'm sorry, but I'm not willing to give up on my son quite that easily!
Unfortunately, I didn't know which way to go to help him when we got that diagnosis 3 years ago. We had been using Handwriting Without Tears since Kindergarten and it was the program recommended by the occupational therapist as well. However, even with the cues and tricks they recommended, my son was still having difficulty with spacing and even remembering HOW to create the letters. We moved to cursive in 3rd grade because I didn't want him to "fall behind" (ha ha). He hated it. I gave up and got him a typing program because I wanted him to be able to express himself somehow.
Fast forward a year. I discovered the Thomas Jefferson Education approach. TJEd has distinct phases of learning based on age AND development. I'm including the age here only as the development description part takes too long and you should REALLY read The Phases of Learning by Oliver DeMille. Here's a very brief description:
CORE: Age 0-7 - learning right and wrong, good and bad, truth from untruth, beauty from ugly, discipline and how to be a good worker
LOVE OF LEARNING: Age 8-11 - Have fun learning, working on projects of interest, Kidschool - teaching basics of education, but much of their education is gleaned from reading classics
SCHOLAR - Age 12-16 In depth work on projects of interest in which the student researches and writes on topics of interest (think great big unit study with a research or thesis paper at the end) using classics, led by mentors
DEPTH PHASE - Age 17-21 Even deeper development of thinking, writing and research skills, typically done at a liberal arts college
This is the type of education we want our children to have. We want them to have the quality of education that our great fore-fathers had. We want them to have a statesman's education. A statesman is a man who is a respected leader in national or international affairs. That means we want a leadership education for our children, based on the classics. We want to teach them how to think, not what to think. That is what a liberal arts education is all about.
So, if you have read this far, thank you. Now on to Spell to Write and Read. I have owned this curriculum since 2005. I didn't use it because it was so "intimidating." What I mean by that is that it is spread between two books, also including flash cards, spelling logs. I really didn't understand what I had purchased when I bought it. Someone has recommended it to me for good spelling lists. So, I thought I had only bought the spelling list, but instead got the entire program. When I got it, I became overwhelmed (get out the hammer, please). What I didn't realize is that I had the solution to making my kids good writers all along. I packed it back up and put it away for a while.
In 2007, a very nice friend told me she was using after attending a two day seminar in Wisconsin. Wow! She loved it. So, she was kind enough to sit me down for 2 hours to tell me how it worked (I was still intimidated). So at the beginning of school year 2007, I tried it with the kids, but left out some of the key components because I didn't understand it (i.e. I didn't read it well enough - still overwhelmed). We stuck with it for two months and the kids didn't like it because I wasn't using it correctly.
This summer, after trying to decide what to do about my "non-writer", I decided to talk to my dear friend Sue. Sue has a son, same age as mine, but with no fine motor difficulties. Guess what? She was having the same problem with getting him to write. The hand writing process was too tedious for him. His spelling wasn't very good. He didn't like grammar lessons.
Then, like a light bulb, it came to me (or the hammer finally met my head). How can these boys possibly write well, when they can't handwrite (cursive or manuscript)? My son was spending ALL his brain cycles on trying to remember how to make the individual letters! That took so much thought and recall, that he could not get to the spelling part. Often, he'd have to ask me to tell him the word again because he forgot what he was supposed to spell because he was concentrating so hard on writing the letters! And, how could he write sentences? His thoughts got lost when he was trying to make the letters, then spell the words, then remember the grammar rules! No wonder this was so hard!
What was the solutions? Sadly, my friends, practice and going back to square one. Handwriting had to become fluent. He needed to learn to write the letters without looking at a model or having to think through the strokes. Then, he had to be able to spell the words fluently. Then he had to construct the sentence properly in his head. Then he needed to get it down on paper. So it all came back to handwriting. After doing a tremendous amount of research this summer, I decided we would learn cursive and go back to a very phonetic method of spelling.
I pulled that Spell to Write and Read program off the dusty shelf and I enrolled myself in a two day class. The instructor was phenomenal! And, she helped answer many of my questions just by how well she taught the class. By the way, I am a professional educator, so I am pretty picky about who I praise. And, I walked away from the class confident in my choice, confident on my theory and confident that we would have good writers after this year of school. I'm such a big fan, I've converted another homeschooling family down the street to Spell to Write and Read.
I used to be a fan of accommodating. I'm not any longer. He had to practice. We also had to work with his difficulty with crossing midline. That one was easy. Brain Gym, developed by Paul Dennison is brilliant. They work on helping kids (especially kinesthetic learners with difficulties) overcome their learning problems. I came across Brain Gym when I started homeschooling and have been using it ever since. Kids that have difficulty with crossing midline have difficulty with letter directionality, hand writing and spelling. One Brain Gym exercise that is super easy and so helpful with this is the lazy eight. Draw an infinity symbol (or a number eight side ways) on a large sheet of paper. Start by having the trace the symbol, being sure to position the paper with the middle of the symbol at their middle.
After working on midline issues, I started the Cursive First program. This program is integrated in the Spell to Write and Read program. I bought the actual curriculum and LOVE it. My first grader is now learning cursive after teaching herself how to print at age four. She has many bad printing habits. Learning cursive is good middle ground for her and I, as she often doesn't want to be taught that which she already (thinks she) knows. My son had to relearn cursive. He's doing great.
Then, we started Spell to Write and Read. He scored a grade below his actual grade, which was a nice surprise. He has to write his spelling words in cursive. Spell to Write and Read starts out by teaching the 70 phonograms and 28 spelling rules most often used in the English language. There are no sight words, which I like because telling kids just remember this word isn't a logical approach to reading or spelling. I tested each of my older children to determine where to place them on the Wise Guide to Spelling (the spelling words, based on the Ayres List of most common words in the English language). I cheated a little. My daughter should be about 14 lists ahead of my son, but I figured a little practice wouldn't kill her and she needs to work on her humility.
Each school day is all about Spelling, Writing and Reading at our house now. We review the phonograms each day. We spell their 20 spelling words for the week, marking the phonograms used to spell the words and any special spelling rules. Guess what? My non-writer is spelling very well and his cursive is more than just readable (which it wasn't last year), it's very nice. He's still not liking writing essays. But, this is a process, right? We must crawl before we walk. They are learning to write nicely in cursive (fluently, too). They are learning the critical thinking process necessary to decode words in order to read and spell. They are learning grammar along the way, as that is an integral part of SWR (Spell to Write and Read) and they are practicing. I hope to be able to report at the end of the year that my son is no longer a struggling writer. Stick with us and I'll tell you how it's going.