Category Archives: Language Arts

The Phantom Tollbooth

Recently we started a parent/child book club based on the format in Deconstructing Penguins mentioned in the previous post. Towards the end of Deconstructing Penguins, the Lawrence’s give a list of a few great books to start your book club with. The first one on the list was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster.

This lively humorous children’s book was published in 1961.  Now considering I was born in the late 60’s I was amazed that I had never before seen this book, let alone heard of it – so let me start out by saying that this is an amazing piece of children’s literature full of clever puns and idioms that make this children’s book a very entertaining allegory full of witty appeal. Although it can be read at a fourth grade reading level:

  Critics have acknowledged that the book is advanced for most children, who would not understand all the wordplay or the framing metaphor of how to achieve wisdom. Writers like the reviewer in The New York Times have focused on the children and adults able to appreciate it; for them, it has “something wonderful for anybody old enough to relish the allegorical wisdom of Alice in Wonderland and the pointed whimsy of The Wizard of Oz”. It is now often acknowledged as a classic of children’s literature. Wikipedia

That being said, all the more reason to explore this book as a family, or even better in a parent/child book club. We had a lot of fun digging deeper together in this book and I have to say, most kids in the group understood most of the underlying wit with just a few probing questions. The little “Ah-ha!” moments of understanding were going off constantly in the circle of kids (and adults too!). Even if you don’t dig deeper with this book, I found that most kids had it read in just a couple of days – and some (including my own) choosing to read it again.

If the title of this book is new to you, consider adding it to your children’s book list. The Phantom Tollbooth is a highly engaging, lively, funny, witty, and thought-provoking read.



Filed under Books, Language Arts, Learning, Reading

How to Deconstruct a Penguin

penguinsI recently came across this book Deconstructing  Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. It’s basically explaining how you can establish a book club for kids and their parents. The Goldstone’s conducted their own parent/child book club for years with such great success, that they decided to put the detais in a book for the rest of us.

Up until recently, I haven’t been a big fan of the novel study curricula available to homeschoolers. These are typically geared towards elementary school kids and are loaded with somewhat predictable questions seeking just as many predictable answers. In short form, if the child has read said book with minimal interest, then it is most likely they will find these types of questions on the fringe of boring. For these reasons I discarded many of these types of novel studies.

Enter Deconstructing Penguins. This book was like a breath of fresh air. It made literary analysis; dare I say…exciting to kids! Not only are kids and their parents encouraged to read the book together, the book created opportunities to get together with other families who have read a particular children’s novel, and dig a little deeper with regards to what the story was really about. I found it almost effortless to introduce the kids to things like protagonist, antagonist, setting, climax, and plot. I also discovered that such an approach to digging deeper into literature really lent itself well to a group setting. The kids fed off each other, brainstormed together, shared different points of view, and…..wait for it…..LEARNED together.

I find as homeschoolers, there are vast amounts of quality time spent in independent learning. Occasionally, I find independent learning can sometimes lack opportunities for our kids to hear others’ points of view. I personally see this as not only beneficial, but also necessary. So, where time allows, I would like to do more of it, and Deconstructing Penguins has provided our homeschool with just such an opportunity.

I highly recommend this book and found it worthy of the valuable real estate in my resource library. Give it a read, and give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised – and my kids can’t wait to do the next book! (oh, and btw – the parents had fun too!)


Filed under Books, Curriculum, Language Arts, Learning

Proofread Carefully to See if You Any Words Out.

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. – Gene Fowler

The last few weeks of our homeschool have been focused on how to write a formal essay. We follow a loose Classical/Charlotte Mason homeschool philosophy, and are transitioning from copywork and dictation exercises to more formal outlining and essay writing. Though we will be doing much more of this more formal style of writing next year, the opportunity came up to attend a writer’s camp through the DL school we are enrolled with. The camp was conducted in a small group atmosphere, and provided an opportunity for each of the kids to brainstorm their ideas together. 

Writing an Essay

Writing an Essay

I don’t generally insist on formal writing exercises with my kids (they write naturally, why make it feel like drudgery?), but over the years, I have gently introduced them to different styles and methods of writing.  As they get older, there is a need for more intermediate writing skills. One of my children is a natural creative writer, but seems to dislike formal writing for information exercises. My other child seems to be the opposite, being somewhat displeased with having learn the formalities of creative writing, but managed to write longer paragraphs than her older sister when it came to essay writing. This is often the way it goes, no? Sigh….

Gluing it on Poster Board

Gluing it on Poster Board

What I discovered during this little writing camp though, was an essay writing method that was easy for the kids to learn and follow along with. In fact, it is a method that seems to work well with children as young as 4th grade! Because the method was shared at a writing camp, I searched the web to try and find a replication of this method in order to share with you. You can take a look here, and here – they are very similar. I would also recommend conducting a little writing camp of your own. Using the steps in the above mentioned web sites, a small group of 6 kids would probably work really well with ages between 10 & 12, or grades 4-6.  Once set up, try to pick topics the kids are passionate, or somewhat knowledgable about, this kick starts their creativity and can inspire them to dig deeper into their research. Most importantly, don’t forget to communicate to your kids the purpose of a persuasive essay:  to persuade their audience to accept their idea or point of view.

Include Some Pictures!

Include Some Pictures!

The finished essay can then be typed, or handwritten, or if you wish (as my kids did), cut and pasted onto poster board complete with drawings. Schedule the final week of your writing camp to be a presentation week – the kids can present and read aloud their reports, and encourage one another. If time allows provide some snacks and time for play afterwards. Don’t know what to do with a giant poster board when you get home? Before you recycle, take a photo of the project, and either burn it to a disc, or print the photo and keep for your homeschool records. This way, you can keep the project and do away with the clutter!

In the interim, I’ll leave you with this:

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. – Arthur Polotnik


Filed under Charlotte Mason, Classical, Encouragement, Language Arts, Learning, Writing

Frustrated with Grammar?

Do all those grammar workbooks seem far too laborious? Are you frustrated with the lack of flow between grammar and writing? Wondering how to connect the two? I know I was.

Last week I attended the BCHEC Homeschool conference in Kelowna. Come September, my children will be entering grades 4 and 6. Naturally, I found myself searching the curriculum floor at said conference for appropriate 4th and 6th grade material. One of the things I went searching for was a grammar program that actually bridged grammar skills with writing skills. I looked at various grammar programs only to come up: empty handed.

When my children were younger I used programs like English for the Thoughtful Child, First Language Lessons, and copywork, narration and dictation exercises in the style of The Well Trained Mind. I used these programs quite successfully, then somehow we ended up on the workbook train. This grammar workbook train did not do much to further my children’s learning about the mechanics of writing – in fact it seemed an awful lot like (gasp) busywork.

A friend of mine, also on the same monotonous workbook train and looking for the nearest station to get off, asked me if I had heard of Queen’s Homeschooling. Queens Homeschooling looked very appealing to me. Finally, something that looked like the previous programs I had used but for higher grade levels. It struck the Charlotte Mason chord in me.  I did in fact, almost order it. I was only prevented from doing so by a gut feeling – a feeling like I was missing something.

I gave up thinking about it and went a sat down with a cup of tea and my newest Ruth Beechick book that I had picked up at the conference. A book called You Can Teach Your Child Successfully. I opened to the section on writing lessons, only to find myself face to face with something that looked like the perfect grammar program lying withing the pages of this wonderful little book. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Ruth cleverly takes literary passages from various sources, then suggests several activities that can be gleamed from said passages. There are nearly 20 pages providing at least 50 language lessons that can be catered to individual learning styles and grade levels. As quoted in the book by Ruth herself:

The following lessons integrate grammar, puntuation, spelling, writing, and thinking, for a well rounded approach to language learning….Each topic can be studied for a week, but if they don’t work out that way, adjust in any way you wish. Some activities can be developed into long projects, such as writing a play, and if interest is high, you should not cut the project short just to keep up with a schedule.

For example, in one exercise students are asked to either copy or write a literary passage from dictation. They are then asked to proof their own work and compare it against the original. What words did they spell wrong? Did they get the punctuation in the right place? Did they indent the paragraph? Are the capital letters in their appropriate spots? They can then progress to memorizing a line or two from the same passage and try writing it again – continuing to proof their finished work against the original. Among other things, they are taught to identify personal pronouns, search for adjectives, and discern whether to create simple or compound sentences in the context of a well written paragraph.

Both copying and dictation require close attention to detail, and that is why they are effective.

There are many, many more ideas within these pages, but best of all, the book only cost me $12. If you have the opportunity to check out these lessons, by all means do so. Even if you find the lessons aren’t the fit your looking for, the book itself is a tremendous resource. It certainly provided me with a great tool to marry grammar with writing – finally.


Filed under Books, Classical, Curriculum, Language Arts, Writing

Writing Resources

The Secret Invasion of BananasLast weekend we attended the 2008 Pacific Festival of the Book – which, by the way was a great success. This was a great place to take the kiddos and expose them to not only, new and exciting literature, but also to give them an opportunity to meet the authors themselves. There were indeed some great authors and poets to meet and there was a great workshop put on by Robert Priest on youth writing and poetry. The kids enjoyed the experience and we came home with a few new books including The Secret Invasion of Bananas – poetry for children, by Robert Priest, which was one of our favorites. When one hears a story or poem read out-loud by the author her/himself, the word engaging falls short in terms of describing the experience.

Getting You WritingIn addition to the poetry, I picked up a wonderful little booklet by Naomi Beth Wakan called Getting You Writing! I believe the booklet was written with the purpose of inspiring adult writers, both new and novice, to find creative ways to expand their writing skills. What I noticed immediately, was that this little booklet is a really great resource for teachers and homeschoolers alike and contains a wealth of ideas for inspiring students to think creatively – outside the box. I had to practically wrestle it out of one of my teacher friend’s hands. I highly recommend having a copy on your resource shelf – in fact, it even inspired me to perhaps take a new twist on my own writing skills. I can’t wait to put it to use.

CompositionsIn addition to this wonderful little booklet – I purchased Compositions: Notes on the written word, also by Naomi Beth Wakan. It is a book on the writing process itself, or as quoted in the foreword by the author itself: a gathering of musings on books, writers and writing. Another book which will most likely, take up permanent residence on my resource shelf.

What are your favorite writing resources? Feel free to share and tell us why.


Filed under Books, Curriculum, Language Arts, Learning, Reading, Writing

Do Learning Styles Affect Spelling?

SpellingI have two daughters – one who’s mainly a visual learner and one who’s mainly an auditory learner. Oddly enough, they are both good spellers. I often wondered at this, since auditory learners typically find spelling rather challenging when relying solely on visual material. This caused me to think back and ask myself what we did while learning to read and spell. I thought I’d share my findings with you.

Phonics PathwaysIn the beginning, we used a phonics approach to reading, using Phonics Pathways: by Delores Hiskes. This book works well with both learning styles as it can be both very auditory and very visual. Words are introduced by first learning sounds of vowels and consonants, then slowly combining vowel and consonant pairs, then finally sounding out three letter words. Bob BooksI used Phonics Pathways in conjunction with Bob Books – soon we were out of the reading gate. What does this have to do with spelling? Everything. One sets the foundation for the other.

We also read aloud – a lot. What was happening here was a reinforcement of words – both phonetic and visual, since both girls would sit beside me and they would occasionally both follow the text with their eyes. I also had them read aloud – daily. Short excerpts at first, then progressing to longer ones. This is a great way to catch consistent errors. Reading Bob BooksWhat I noticed immediately was that my auditory learner would often skip lines, or insert or delete occasional words. In order to correct this, I insisted she use a bookmark to conceal the forthcoming lines. This eventually corrected the problem, but I had to help her train her eyes to stay focused on the text. One day when I noticed my auditory learner was struggling when sounding out the occasional vocabulary word, we went back and used the latter part of our phonics primer to reinforce particular digraphs and diphthongs. Again, this corrected the problem.

Auditory ReaderAnother tool that is especially helpful for auditory learners is listening to a story on tape or CD while following along with the text. This helped in leaps and bounds. Lastly, I have always used the same spelling program – Spelling Workout. Spelling LessonThis program has phonics as it’s foundation and expands on all the early skills learned while reading and writing. It has also been highly effective with my visual learner. All this and more is available to you in The Well Trained Mind – which, even if you don’t follow a classical approach to homeschooling, is a tremendous resource for stuff like this.

What kind of learner do you have? What have you found helpful in order to advance or teach spelling skills?


Filed under Books, Curriculum, Language Arts, Learning

Meet the Author!

TobascoLast week we had the privilege of attending a writing camp presented by Lyn Hancock author of Tobasco the Saucy Racoon. What a delight! If you ever have the chance of meeting this dynamic, enthusiastic writer then I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.

WritingWriting CampLyn, who used to be a school teacher, was wonderful with the kids. She has a way of bringing out the reluctant writer in all of us and her tales about her adventures with Tobasco were pure delight. She has a way of teaching without sounding like she’s teaching , if you know what I mean. By the end of her presentation some kids had already startedwriting in their notebooks, anxious to get started.

Lyn HancockLyn offered ways to encourage and inspire children to write. She encouraged them to write about things that excite them – things they are passionate about. She also encouraged them to write about things they are familiar with, and about things in their own backyard. It was truly rewarding to be able to witness the kids who, inspired by Lyn’s stories, were anxious to sit down and write their own tales.

M with LynI highly recommend these types of writing camps, and if you have an opportunity to attend one by all means do so. What better way to become inspired to write than by meeting and talking to a writer herself?

This is a clip from one of Lyn’s book signing tours in Salmon Arm, BC 

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Filed under Field Trips, Language Arts, Learning, Writing