Homeschool Essentials

Whether unschooled or highly structured, religious or secular, all homeschools encounter the same challenges. All successful homeschools exhibit the same essential qualities. This weblog will help you understand and apply those qualities, minimize frustration, and enjoy more success sooner.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Textbooks vs. ??????

My mother grew up during the Great Depression. Living on a farm in Kansas, they had difficult times, but they survived without Government assistance. One summer, they grew cantaloupes in the family garden. Whether by chance or design, the had a bumper crop. She described a heap of cantaloupes "higher than the house."

Well, money was tight, and few people bought the cantaloupes. But in such circumstances, no one would let them go to waste. So, for several weeks, my mother and her family ate all the cantaloupe they could hold. Not surprisingly, by the time I was old enough to hear this story, Mom didn't care much for cantaloupe.

Now, that doesn't mean that cantaloupes aren't delicious and nutricious. It jusst meant she had eaten her fill--enough, literally, to last a life time. Some of her brothers and sisters continued to enjoy cantaloupes, but not Mom.

When we present "specific content" lessons--you know, math, spelling, language, geography, science--to children, it's very similar to feeding them a diet of straight cantaloupes. You may say, "No, no, I give them several different courses each day." Sure. But how would you like it if you were served just cream style corn every morning,; followed by just green beans at noon; and just kholrabi for supper. Pretty soon, it would seem repetitious and boring.

In spite of this, we often insist on teaching children just that way. Now, I want to be plain that some children never, ever get tired of cantaloupes. They may decrease the quantity they eat, but they don't come to loathe them. In the same way, there are children who "just love" all sorts of medaevil practices like workbooks. But that's less about enjoyment, and more about the survival instinct of kids.

Real life experiences are more like stew. It may have an overarching flavor, but there are bits and pieces of many other things there. The student takes a spoonful of real life, seeking the dominant taste, but gets every thing else as well. So the kid gets the enjoyment of what he likes, and the nutrition from every element in the stew.

That's why not having a "curriculum" is an advantage. It gets kids in touch with the real world, and they "pick up" most of what they need automatically.

Many different projects through the years of preparation exposes them to many different stew recipes. Some are heavier on meat, some on carrots; some have corn, others don't. But through sampling the many flavors of reality, the end up ingesting a lot of things they wouldn't have eaten straight.

And they don't have the problem of becoming sick of something thet'a very, very good for them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Phonics Phrenzy II

Questions or Comments? Just click on the "comments" prompt at the end of this post, and follow the instructions.

Ninety-five percent of all words in English are spelled phonetically, as proponents of phonics love to tell us. Of course, that includes the word “phonics” itself, which, while technically phonetically spelled, you wouldn’t want to teach the “ph” digraph first thing. So phonetically spelled words include a great number of words that are only marginally phonetic. And how do you count such words as “women” and “nation”?

More to the point, however, is that a relatively high proportion of words in primer and pre-primers, the very books beginning readers will be expected to “sound out,” are in fact not phonetic. Note the following list of words:
WordPhoneticActual
waswass (rhymes with “mass”)wuhz
saidsayd (rhymes with ”maid”)sehd
two???too (rh. with ”blue”)
somesowm (rh. with ”home”)summ (rh. with”hum”)
havehayve (rhymes with “wave”)hav (rhymes with “salve”)
oneown(rhymes with moan”)wuhn
to, do, whotoe, doe, whowe? (rhymes with "owe")too, doo, hoo (rhymes with ”blue”)
doesdozeduhz
onceohnss? Or ownss?wuhnss


None of them are phonetic, and all of them are common first grade words. Whatever the merits of phonics, there are proportionally more exceptions in the early vocabulary. So when phonics are supposedly most important, they are the least useful.

Some systems attempt to teach all the phonetic sounds before teaching any None of them are phonetic, and all of them are common first grade words. Whatever the merits of phonics, there are proportionally more exceptions in the early vocabulary. So when phonics are supposedly most important, they are the least useful.

Some systems attempt to teach all the phonetic sounds before teaching any words. In my opinion, this is the worst possible approach. Confusing children with exceptions, or advanced sounds they are not likely to encounter in their reading, only causes fatigue and discouragement. Just how useful is learning all those combinations? Ask yourself. How many of the so-called phonics rules do you know? Yet you are reading this post. Like so many instructional approaches, these “learn-all-the-possible-sounds-before-you-read” systems ignore the way we actually learn, the way we actually read.

As a mature reader, how often do you use phonics as you read? In truth, we only use it in cases where we encounter a new or unfamiliar word. Chances are you haven’t had to sound out a single word in this post. Indeed, if you had to sound out each word as you went along, you’d soon tire of reading and give up the project. Phonics is not the way we read. Nor is it the way children read.

Phonics is excellent for remediation, for helping older poor readers overcome fear and difficulty. That is not what it is commonly used for. The most common application of phonics today is to artificially accelerate reading. No single task causes parents and teachers such anxiety as learning to read. Reading is the key to the world of learning, and as such, it is a gatekeeping skill. Difficulty or inability to read will make the rest of learning difficult or impossible. So the concern is understandable. Because of this anxiety, parents and teachers do what they usually do in such circumstances: they panic, and try to do too much, too soon.

After many years of observing, I can tell artificially accelerated students almost immediately. They always read phonetically, stilted, one syl-la-ble-at-a-time. Taught to read phonetically before their natural desire and readiness blossomed, they are still frozen in time. Some overcome the damage done by too early instruction through intelligence or sheer desire, but too many do not.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Phonics Phrenzy

Yes, I know I was missing for more than a month. Burnout happens to everyone sometimes. And yes, I owe you the third layer of Burnout. I promise I'll get to it. Later.

Here's what I have today:

The Phonics Phrenzy


Whether you’re “Hooked” on phonics, playing the phonics game, or simply leaning toward phonics as the best method of teaching reading, you’d have to have lived in a cave for the last ten years not to be aware of the interest in phonics. It seems ironic that in a country where we spend many billions of dollars on schooling, the failure of reading instruction is so widespread that a growth industry has arisen to fill the gap. I’ve had state senators ask me to endorse legislation mandating the teaching of phonics in government run schools, and heard passionate parents hold forth on the almost “righteousness” of phonics.


For years, in the classroom, I used phonics to teach reading, and especially for remediation, to help those who had difficulty with reading recover their enthusiasm increase their proficiency. In our homeschool, my wife began teaching our oldest child phonics at age seven, but we quit when we met serious resistance. Later, working with another homeschooled boy whose mother wanted him to learn to read “now”, verified something which I had begun to suspect for some time. When children are ready to read, they do. If I happen to be at the scene of the accident, then I get credit for having “taught” the child to read. We spent many hours working on vowel and consonant sounds, and he would appear to know them, but often we had to start all over the next time. Yet one day, his eyes would light up, and he knew the sound–then and ever after.


Eventually I actually realized what was happening. I observed his sudden spurts of learning had nothing to do with my instruction, nor with my skills. When he was ready, he remembered the sound associated with a given letter. Because I was interacting with him at the time, it appeared that I had taught him. He liked our sessions, because he enjoyed the positive attention of an adult. I was OK with it, because it made me look competent. But in truth I had little to do with it.

All things being equal, phonics is the best way to teach reading to a group of children. Of course, if all things, in this case children, were equal, then we could find the method for teaching anything. In other words, schools would work. But they don’t . Children differ in development and readiness, interest and learning style, attention and concentration. They learn to read differently. Phonics works very well for some. On average, it works better than any other formal method. But any tool can be abused, and phonics is continually abused today. Before I detail the problems with phonics, lest any enthusiasts miss the point, phonics is the best formal method for teaching groups of children. That is a long way from saying it is the best method for teaching any individual child, much less your child.

Next time we'll see why.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Second Layer of Burnout-2

As I said the other day, one of the two major reasons for burnout is the failure to nurture. And, sadly, nurture is less common than we would hope. But there is a complementary reason. If we imagine nurture as water, and the child as a cup, there are at least two reasons why the cup is dry, and why the child is not nurtured. We've covered the first one, failure to supply enough water(nurture).

But, a cracked or broken cup can't retain water, no matter how much is poured in. All the nurture in the world can't help a home where parents don't enforce healthy boundaries.


March is burnout month.

Lots of Homeschoolers experience burnout this time of year.

You'll find some of the symptons (and their cures) on my Homeschool Essentials Website

Now, back to our irregularly scheduled blog. . .




Yes, I'm essentially an unschooler. But as someone said some time ago, "Unschooling isn't unparenting." Children need strong, clear boundaries to make them feel safe, to give them discipline, and to receive nurture. That's right. Boundaries are the sides of the cup. Without them, nuture is wasted.

A lack of nurture makes children despondent, resentful, frustrated and depressed. A lack of boundaries can add defiance and anger to the mix. These problems can be disguised and easily overlooked when there are other distractions, like the holidays.

But we go through a series of days without distraction, and enforced confinement often aggravated by inclement weather, we find these problems difficult or impossible to ignore. In a basically functional home, they reveal themselves in burnout, frustration, discouragement. In a dysfunctional home, it shows up as abusive behavior. That's why my experience with the two seriously failed homeschools clarified the issues for me.

It was clear and unmistakeable in those homes. And seeing it so clearly there, in its most extreme form, I recognized it in my own home. And then the pattern repeated and revealed itself in other homes.

There's a bonus to understanding burnout. It not only improves our homeschools, it improves our homes. Not a small thing, that.

Next, I'll deal with the innermost layer of the onion we experience as burnout.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Second Layer of Homeschool Burnout

Big deal, Ed. You've described burnout. That's like going to the Doctor, who, after a thorough examination says, "You're sick." "Thanks a lot. I knew that when I came in."

What do I do about it!! Well, like a lot of other chronic diseases, there is no quick fix. It will require a lifestyle change. But then, who wants to keep burning out? Before we can make those significant changes, we need to understand what causes burnout.

Burnout is like an onion with three layers. The first one is the burnout itself, the descent into chaos. Under that layer, we find two complementary causes.

Now, this isn't easy for me to say, and it won't be easy to hear. But I have to tell you the truth. And part of that truth is that these things exist in every homeschool--yes, in mine, too. Even worse, I came to see these hard truths through exposure to two seriously failed--and borderline abusive--homeschools. Yes, I know we're never supposed to mention such things. It confirms a distorted stereotype some have of us. But we're a mature movement by now. And, the larger the movement becomes, the more closely it mirrors the larger society. Besides, these two homes out of more than 600 I have met with on a regular basis, comprise less than 1/2 of one percent.

What I observed in these seriously failed homeschools, writ large, I began to
recognize in my own home, and in every home I visited.



March is burnout month.

Lots of Homeschoolers experience burnout this time of year.

You'll find some of the symptons (and their cures) on my Homeschool Essentials Website

Now, back to our irregularly scheduled blog. . .






First, is an inability to nurture. This led me to develop of a workshop on Nurture. I don't have time to go into all of that here, but it comes down to this: Children who perceive that they are loved, no matter what they do, will learn, and learn readily. It is too easy for us to "Manage by Exception," to only mention things that go wrong.

Children who only receive correction, and there are more than I once imagined, soon feel that everything they do, and everything they are is wrong. This leads to resentment, or worse, despair. It is a frightening thing to see a child depressed, and in despair. But I see more and more of this. Conscientious parents, wishing only the best for their children, but offering abundant correction and scant praise. And children depressed, despairing that they will ever please anyone.

The resentment or despondency generated in the children turns to resistance, apathy, and rebellion. The simplest tasks become the occasion for dramatic struggles. By March, even the most determined mother has had enough. Thus the burnout.

Tomorrow (or the next day?), I'll talk about the complementary cause, the reason that even some nurturing homes experience burnout time and again.