Heavenly Help for Homeschool

School books

Some moms who are thinking of homeschooling their children are stymied by a lack of confidence and question their ability to succeed, maybe forgetting that, for the Christian, there is infinite heavenly help available for all righteous desires. Certainly my uneducated self (at least on paper) has benefited on a daily basis from divine inspiration in my task, to the point that it’s become fun to watch for all the miracles. Even my boys have learned to often recognize God’s help in our homeschool.

When Taylor was younger, he wasn’t very good at writing. He answered questions on paper with as few words as possible, and he was better at expressing himself through drawing pictures than writing words. In some subjects I saved his papers, where he answered end-of-chapter questions, as answer keys for his younger brother Tristan, but Tristan usually writes more detailed answers where Taylor was very brief and/or illustrated his answers, for instance, drawing a chart of the water cycle instead of describing it. But Taylor has since turned out to be quite a good writer. David and I saw a couple of his college papers from his first semester and were amazed. “You really wrote this yourself? You didn’t plagiarize this?” we asked him. (Great confidence builders, aren’t we?)

Only in hindsight was I able to see that God’s inspiration to me during Taylor’s high school years had produced an effect I hadn’t expected. It started before his eleventh grade year when I shopped online for high school literature textbooks. I wanted to do American lit first, then English lit for twelfth grade. Everything I found was much more expensive than I was willing to pay, or just didn’t suit me. Then God showed up. “Shelly, you numbskull,” he said (yes, God talks to me that way), “use what you have.” You see, for years I’d shopped the thrift stores and secondhand bookstores for paperback copies of the classics for fifty cents or a buck, then tossed them into boxes in the basement. “Those books are meant to be read, not just bought,” the inspiration continued.

Well, hot diggity dog! This got exciting! I dug into my boxes and picked out several books by American authors and more by English authors. As he read each book I assigned papers for each one. First he researched and wrote author biographies, learned and wrote about the context of the story (its background, how it related to the time period, its impact on society). When he finished reading, he wrote a synopsis of the story and then a critique in which he addressed thematic elements, pace and flow, prose, what made it a classic. We didn’t have time to read all the books I might have liked, so in some cases, we did a “quick study”, where he learned about the author and the plot and read excerpts from it. I also assigned him two other books, The Train-of-Thought Writing Method and Wordsmith Craftsman, which taught story structure and essay writing respectively. By the time he’d graduated he’d written so many bios, synopses, analyses, critiques, and essays, it made an impressive collection.

I was elated when he scored a 35 (out of 36) on the English portion of the ACT test. He was just accepted to his university’s theater and media arts department. He isn’t sure what he wants to do in the field of filmmaking, but he’s mentioned screenplay writing as a possibility he might want to try. At one time I wouldn’t have thought that possible. That’s what homeschool (and for that matter lifelong learning) is all about, not being great at everything, but uncovering what you are great at, what you’re interested in, and running with it. And a big thank you to God and the heavenly homeschool angels.

And if you’d like to know some of the books we read or studied excerpts from, here are a few:

Of Plymouth Plantation:  Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650

The Scarlet Letter

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Huck Finn

To Kill a Mockingbird

The 5,000-Year Leap

Pilgrim’s Progress


Oliver Twist


Silas Marner

The Screwtape Letters

Animal Farm


Sherlock Holmes

Around the World in 80 Days


Our Family’s Required Reading List

Old library chair

In the last few months I regaled you with recommended read-aloud lists categorized by age. I said that those titles were only a few of the many excellent ones out there. I’d like to add to them now by posting our “required reading” list. These are all books either required by the language arts curriculum that we used, or were required by me because I felt they were important to read.

Because there are so many worthy books and not enough time, we only studied excerpts from some of the high school books and read some others straight through. But here they are, labeled by the grade in which they were read.

3rd Grade:

The White Stallion by Elizabeth Shub

Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans

Meet George Washington by Joan Heilbroner

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh

4th Grade:

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Wilbur and Orville Wright:  Young Fliers by Augusta Stevenson

Benjamin Franklin:  Young Printer by Augusta Stevenson

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Favorite Poems Old and New by Helen Ferris

5th Grade:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Meet Addy by Connie Porter

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

6th Grade:

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

7th Grade:

The Star of Light by Patricia St. John

Adam and His Kin by Ruth Beechick

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

8th Grade:

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt

A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Eric Liddell by Catherine Swift

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

When the Banks Closed, We Opened Our Hearts by Mike Beno

We Pulled Together…And Won by Deb Mulvey

Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh

9th Grade:

Holt Anthology of Science Fiction

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

10th Grade:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

11th Grade:

The Train-of-Thought Writing Method:  Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning

Writers by Kathi Macias

Of Plymouth Plantation:  Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Settlement 1608-1650 by

William Bradford

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Stephen Crane

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

12th Grade:

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Emma by Jane Austen

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The 5,000-Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen

The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury

The Jackrabbit Factor by Leslie Householder

Homeschool Curriculum Series: Language Arts

Antique booksNow we come to one of my favorite subjects, the written word. As with all subjects, there are too many excellent choices, but here’s what’s worked well for us. The first books my boys used was a series called Explode the Code, which includes three primers and then eight workbooks, all consumable, teaching all the letters and phonics. A great start for reading.

In third grade I started them on Learning Language Arts Through Literature. The company makes the course for first through eighth grades, and then two courses for high school, one each covering American and English literature. We only used it for third through eighth grades. It uses good children’s classics, both complete books and excerpts, to teach grammar, spelling, vocabulary, reading, and writing. There are sections on poetry, research, reports, and study skills in each course as well.

We supplemented LLATL with Easy Grammar, which makes grammar easy by teaching students to identify and eliminate prepositional phrases, which then helps them to easily find and identify all the other parts of the sentence. Very thorough. An intense grammar drill of only about 10 minutes a day gave them a good command of grammar.

The boys learned their Latin and Greek roots by using…card games! Rummy Roots and More Roots each teach a lengthy list of roots and their meanings through four levels of play. When all four levels have been mastered, players know enough to decipher 2000 words without using a dictionary.

In high school we used a couple of A Beka’s literature books, but also just studied classic books on our own for both American and English literature studies. Two writing books I particularly thought were good are the Train of Thought Writing Method and Wordsmith Craftsman. The latter provides a good basis for college essay writing. I also insisted on a read-through of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

I made a couple of my own supplements. One was Daily Diagrams, 180 sentences from classic literature for them to diagram, one each day. And to help them get practice in library research, I made a library treasure hunt that used riddles, codes, and puzzle pieces. They did some of it each week at the library, and when finished, earned a new book of their choice. The material is specific to our family and our local library, so it’s not something others can use, but maybe it can give you ideas to do something similar on your own.

And don’t forget read-alouds for all ages! You can never hear too many good stories.



Why Homeschool Series: Reason #3 (Part 2)

In my last post, I told how my husband and I seized upon our children’s inborn love of learning and made it a lifelong path for them by teaching them to read as babies. We began by reciting the alphabet and numbers to them a couple of times every day from when they were newborns.

By the time they were a year or so old, they were so used to hearing the alphabet that they would try to repeat each letter after us. They couldn’t say them yet, of course, but they made grunting sounds, and I knew that in their minds they could hear how it was supposed to sound. Once they’d learned to say them, I introduced visuals, ABC flash cards, so they could associate what the letter looked like with what it sounded like. First lower-case letters, then when they had those down pat, we introduced upper-case letters. Children love a new challenge. I only introduced the next level of learning when they were ready, but they would be so excited for it, as children naturally are when society’s limited expectations aren’t forced upon them. They absolutely loved finding the shapes of letters everywhere, in clouds, trees, furniture. We made games out of making letters with our bodies, spotting letters on signs when we were out and about. They were observant and found letters where I never, ever would’ve thought to look for them.

The numbers equally excited them. We didn’t just give a baby a handful of Cheerios. We counted out the Cheerios individually in front of them. Eventually they started counting everything themselves. And by using objects like Cheerios, pennies, and the like, they learned simple addition and subtraction. They’ve been good at math ever since.

It was just a natural progression to move them ahead to learning the phonics. In fact, it was necessary, in order to keep them challenged and excited. And I will never forget the days, with each boy at about three years old, that they learned to put the phonics sounds together and sound out simple three-letter words. When they first caught onto that, there was no stopping them. They wanted to keep reading words all day long. They bugged me constantly to write more words for them to sound out. I will ever be grateful that I was there to witness that magic, memorable moment for each of my boys. I will never forget it and, as a lover of books myself, can’t imagine having that moment robbed from me by the school system.

With their box fully unlocked now (refer to last post), the boys voluntarily read books about astronomy, geography, buildings, weather, anything that interested them, while their peers were still learning their colors and shapes. We’ve rarely had to limit their TV and computer time because the majority of their choices in shows are educational in nature. Anything learning-related or creative has always been given top priority in our home. We’ve let chores slide if a child was busy reading; books have often cluttered the house with no mention of putting them away; I will drop almost anything to look at something that they made or discovered that they want to show me. Almost every birthday or Christmas gift we give them is educational in some way, and they love every one of them. They’ve never known any different. One boy once asked Santa for a Dymo labelmaker so he could punch out words and label all of his things. Even sitting in church, hymn-singing time was spent either pointing to the words or to the notes and guiding their hands to conduct the music. I seize teaching moments any time of the day or night to discuss whatever comes to mind or whatever they ask about. I love learning and want to share my excitement about it with them.

I doubt many five-year-olds know what the Taj Mahal is or where it’s found, the difference between the flags of Australia and New Zealand, or are familiar with Scott Joplin’s music, or the Willis Tower. I smile when I remember overhearing our five-year-old one day asking an older friend if he liked the Taj Mahal. He was surprised when the friend didn’t know what he was talking about. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not knowing about the Taj Mahal that’s important; it’s engendering a curiosity about the world in general, which translates into more focused interests and passions later on.

Again, this wasn’t time-consuming for us to teach them as babies (maybe a total of 15 minutes a day, and beyond that, just practicing a “learning lifestyle”). It is my belief that almost any child would respond to this way of learning, probably being labeled as “gifted”, but really, just having their natural love of learning uncovered and shown to them.

~to be continued~

Why Homeschool Series: Reason #3

My third reason why our family likes to homeschool is to promote a lifelong love of learning in our children. This one Library with booksrequires a long description which I shall break up into two posts.

My husband and I began reciting the alphabet and numbers to our babies beginning when they were about three or four months old. This is easy to do since we could use the time during feeding, diaper changing, bathing, and dressing to do this. I figured, it doesn’t take any extra time, you may as well use those times constructively. Babies understand language far earlier than they can speak it, so it stands to reason that if they hear the alphabet and numbers a few times a day from when they’re newborns, they are going to know them before they can talk.

Try as I might, I have not been able to get other moms on board with this idea, I think because…it’s just too easy! (Like the Israelites in the Old Testament who were promised healing if they’d simply look at the brass serpent. Many didn’t because they expected healing to be harder than that, so they died.) Granted, it’s boring to say the alphabet this way for a year or more, and even feels silly doing this with a newborn when you can’t see immediate results, so it might be difficult to stick with. Secondly, it’s hard to introduce new ideas to a society so set in its ways. We are told that children typically learn to read at around six, and they’re not ready before then. And perhaps people think, what difference does it make?  They’re going to learn in just a few years anyway. Why the rush?  I’ll tell you why. It creates a love of learning in the child that sets them on a permanent life path for success. Babies come to us with a natural curiosity about the world. They take in loads of information in their first five years. That’s why babies crawl around getting into everything. They want to investigate everything. But then, a few short years later, they’re sitting in a classroom asking, ‘Do we have to know this for the test?  Because I’m not wasting my brain space on it if I don’t have to.’  Their natural love of learning is killed that quickly.

I’ve noticed also, the short attention spans of a generation of children raised on limitless TV watching and computer gaming. They’re so accustomed to all the technological wizardry, eye-catching graphics, and catchy jingles, that when a Sunday School teacher holds up a simple drawing, it just doesn’t do much for them. Teachers must be entertainers now.

Our way of teaching early reading is not at all pushing them. In our society, if you can’t read, it’s like you’re locked in a box. There’s very little you can do or enjoy. Teaching the child to read is like giving them a key to unlock the box and be set free. Our way of teaching reading was not work at all for the children. It was incorporated into our daily activities, our ordinary, everyday life. It was fun for them. They cannot ever remember not knowing how to read, and it has positively affected their thirst for learning ever since then. And it is so empowering. How they loved being able to read signs while driving in the car, labels on toys and items at the store, the titles of TV shows, and even reading the TV schedule to choose their shows, and reading their own talks they gave in church with no help.

This is even a foreign idea to many homeschoolers, who say, let them learn reading when they’re ready, even if it’s not till 10 years old, but a child doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, has no idea what he’s missing. I do know, though. I say give him the key and watch him fly!

In my next post, I’ll give specifics of how we did it.

~to be continued~


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