When it comes to language arts, there are as many teaching philosophies as there are curriculum options. It’s enough to make any parent’s head spin! Many of these philosophies and the accompanying curricula focus on one or two aspects of language arts training while considering other aspects to be of lesser importance. The key is to remember that being well-rounded and teaching to your student’s learning strengths is more important than following this philosophy or that.
These early learning years are much more about laying groundwork than about ensuring your child can solidly read by the end of first grade. Although there are children who teach themselves to read at three or four, many times they are able to put complex words together while still struggling with the foundations of comprehension or language mechanics. This is the perfect time to focus on those mechanics, whether your child learns to read by the end of this stage or not!
- Read aloud to your child every day. Sit down with picture books that bring the written word to life, but also introduce short chapter books for young listeners to help grow their attention spans and comprehension.
- Introduce phonics in a fun way through alphabet songs, word games, and learning toys. This is a great time to experiment. If your child grasps phonics well, keep going. If not, explore a variety of learning options to try to see how your child processes information. It might be that your child needs to begin with the memorization of sight-words, then come back to phonics later.
- Keep reading fun. During this stage, it is more important for your children to learn that reading is valuable and that books are a treasure than it is for them to become strong independent readers. So, act out stories together. Ask engaging questions about read-alouds. Have your child draw pictures or create artwork reflecting what you have read together.
- Build early writing skills by having your child make up stories that you write out for him or her. As you write, ask questions that will help your child understand story order, structure, and paragraph organization.
- Engage in sequencing activities, rhyming games, alphabet games, and other fun activities that build language skills.
- Early in this stage, work on exercises that build fine motor skills for handwriting. This will help children prepare to learn to form letters and words in kindergarten and first grade.
Language learning in this stage continues to be very fluid due to the varied rates at which children learn. Some will be strong readers by the beginning of second grade while others will just be starting to “get it” as they come to the end of this stage. Don’t get stressed about reading skills, but instead allow your student and yourself flexibility.
- Give read-alouds and comprehension discussions/activities a high priority during this stage. Use quality living books to ensure that your children are being nourished with content as well as solid language mechanics.
- Continue to focus on phonics and foundational reading skills, especially at the beginning of this stage. If you have a strong reader already, you can choose to use phonics to strengthen spelling skills.
- Instead of simply presenting a word list and having your children memorize it for a spelling test, use multi-sensory activities to encourage solid spelling skills.
- Incorporate copywork and narration into the daily routine, choosing sections from favorite books to keep it engaging. If your child struggles with handwriting, start with very short sentences and gradually increase the length over the course of this stage. This can be combined with handwriting training, if desired.
- Build writing skills by continuing to help your child make up stories, tell about a fun experience, or give instructions in sequential order.
- Keep writing time separate from grammar training, focusing more on order and flow than mechanics and spelling. Don’t hesitate to continue to be your child’s scribe, if needed. Focus on coherence, sequencing, and making sure that all parts of a paragraph or story fit within the focused topic.
What About Grammar?
Children gain great appreciation from reading and hearing great literature, just as they can learn art and music appreciation from immersion. But, in order to create art and music, they need lessons to teach the mechanics and details. The same is true of writing, and formal grammar training provides those mechanics. This stage offers a great time to start investing in this training, but only if your child is well established in the fundamentals of reading.
- Formal grammar training can begin as early as third grade, but can be put off until middle school if necessary. Continue phonics and reading mechanics training as long as necessary to establish good reading skills (the ability to read for comprehension and enjoyment, regardless the speed).
- When you do start formal grammar training, begin with exercises that teach types of sentences and basic punctuation and capitalization rules, followed by an introduction to parts of speech and sentence structure.
Beginning to Understand
Various facts and bits of information often click into place in this stage. Even students who have struggled often have light-bulb moments as they flow from fourth grade into fifth. That’s why this stage is ideal for solidifying and helping your child begin to grasp the why behind language arts.
- Continue to enjoy living books together. Although independent reading will be much more prominent in this stage, don’t stop reading aloud to your child. Choose a combination of books that allow you to laugh at times and discuss at other times. Use both independent reading and read-aloud times to build comprehension skills through questions, narration, and discussion.
- Introduce vocabulary studies into the routine. You can choose to use resources that process through word lists or resources that introduce Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes for word-building skills.
- In fifth and sixth grade, formal grammar should be the primary language arts focus as you help your child solidify a functional understanding of sentence structure, parts of speech, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, use of resources such as a dictionary and thesaurus, etc.
- In the first half of this stage, continue to keep writing training a solid secondary focus. Increase the length of copywork and narration, and greatly reduce the number of times you are your child’s scribe during this stage. (Consider introducing typing or keyboarding instead.)
- Point out grammar issues in writing assignments, but keep the grading of these projects focused on coherence and logical structure than grammar.
- In seventh and eighth grade, begin to transition to a more blended approach to grammar and writing, especially if you were able to start grammar training in third or fourth grade. Allow sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, and formatting to make up about twenty percent of a writing assignment grade. Encourage longer assignments such as short essays or news reports.
Learning to Reason
During the high school years, a solid foundation in grammar, comprehension, and coherent writing skills will pay off as the focus shifts toward reasoning-based assignments. Now is the time to focus on interacting with literature and expressing thoughts and opinions in coherent written or spoken form.
- Continue to emphasize good living books during these high school years. Although your student will mostly engage in independent reading, continued read-aloud time is a great way to initiate discussion and keep relationships strong.
- As your student progresses toward reading more challenging books, alternate between comprehension questions, discussion questions and topics, and response papers to ensure that he or she is truly engaging well with the subject matter.
- If your student did not have solid grammar training in the Getting Excited and/or Beginning to Understand stages, make sure to incorporate formal grammar lessons into the high school years to facilitate solid writing and prepare for the ACT and SAT.
- Incorporate some form of speech or debate training in the high school years.
- Assign at least one form of response – written or oral – for every book read to provide writing and speech practice and to initiate opportunities to discuss opinions, ideas, and comprehension.
- Assign a wide variety of writing assignments including essays, opinion papers, news reports, fictional stories, biographical or non-fiction stories, and poetry. Encourage your student to strengthen weak areas but also allow him or her to practice favorite writing styles frequently.
- Grade papers in two stages. Especially in the first half of high school, have your student submit a rough draft of every writing assignment. Talk through clarity of topic, organization and flow, engagement of style, and overall development separately from grammar and mechanics. This allows you to praise strength and progress in one aspect, even if there is an abundance of “bleeding” in another aspect.