Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Look Who's Curled Up With a Good Book

This makes my heart happy. Really happy.

Wenxin, adopted from China at age 7 1/2.

No spoken English. Zero. Nada. Zip.

He spoke Chinese, of course, but he'd never been to school in China and couldn't read his own language.

So for the last three years, I've had simple educational goals for Wenxin -- goals that will set the stage for a lifetime of learning.

1. Bonding and learning to be a family.  This was really a goal for all of us, not just Wenxin. At first glance, it doesn't even seem educational. But if there was no attachment, no becoming a family, then nothing else would really matter. So for the first months home, while we did dive right into academic schoolwork, it wasn't all that important to me. Doing schoolwork together was just a means to another end. We were getting to know one another. We were growing to love each other. We were becoming a family.

2. Fluency in spoken English. Not much to add here because immersed in a family of big talkers, this one happened naturally.

3. Literacy. I wanted him to read fluently, and I wanted him to love to read. It was kind of like pushing a boulder up the side of a mountain.

So this morning, when he curled up in a chair with one of his Christmas books and read it from cover to cover, I ran for my camera to record the moment. OK, I'll confess that he only did this after I banned the new XBOX until everyone read a little. Still, he read the whole book in one sitting.

I see the doors of learning swinging open wide for my boy, and I can't help but smile.

BTW, did you see my Christmas in Photos post? Click here to take a look.

Ni Hao Yall

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Do You Need A School Room To Homeschool? No.

You don't even need desks.

You do, however, need a place to put all the stuff. When you homeschool, you end up with a whole lot of stuff.

And quite honestly, most of my kids would be happy to leave their school stuff strewn all over the house, all the time.

And that. . . would drive me CRAZY!

So this year I got rid of Julia's desk in our family room. She NEVER worked there. . . it was just a clutter magnet.

In its place I bought this.

I'm in love. Each child has a cube for this year's school books plus a drawer for smaller items. The two big baskets up top hide craft supplies, math manipulatives, and learning games. If you reduced our homeschool to the bare basics, it could all live in this little unit.

Of course we have lots more than the bare basics.

So, a couple of years ago I bought these floor to ceiling bookshelves off Craig's List and made a little reading nook in the space where our smaller dining room table used to go. The basket on the floor is for magazines and library books. We love books. Can you tell?

We call the little number below the art cabinet. It was $35 at a garage sale. On the outside she's a bit plain, but at least she almost always looks neat.

On the inside, she is full of all kinds of creative, fun stuff. She hides all our art and drawing books, pencils, marker, crayons, rulers, and all kinds of paper. The stuff hiding in the art cabinet gets used on a daily basis around here.

On to the kitchen. We use every nook and cranny for all our homeschool stuff. Even our tiny kitchen.

Somehow, a few years back, we ended up with a big aquarium. It sits at one end of the kitchen. Instead of an aquarium stand, we opted to use a heavy duty two shelf bookcase. That's where I keep all my teacher's guides, along with a few cookbooks and extra printer paper, and of course, fish food. 

Since there's going to be a giant aquarium taking up that space one way or another, it's nice to be able to store homeschool supplies underneath.

Hmmm. . . if I'd noticed how dusty the bottom shelf was, I would've gotten one of the kids to dust before I took the photo.

I'm prideful like that

Oh well. That's how it really looks in real life. We have dust.

While I'm picky about having a place for all our homeschool stuff, I'm very flexible about where each child actually works. Some prefer the big farm table. Others like the breakfast bar. They snuggle up with good books on their beds or on the sofas. I've even seen them venture outside to do school sitting in the sunshine in the middle of the trampoline.

Homeschooling without a school room.

It works for us.

works for me wednesday at we are that family

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The First Day of Easing Back into School

What does back to school look like for a homeschooler? When your take away the new clothes and back packs and bus stops and tardy bells. . . what do you have left?

Yesterday, we began to ease back into a more intentional, slightly more formal routine of learning at our house. To put it in layman's terms, we went back to school.

While I love homeschooling, preparing to school four kids at four different levels can overwhelm me. I'm a planner, but it seems no matter how much I plan, I always need just a little more time. Some pieces of our homeschool this year are all mapped out and ready to go. Others are a work in progress.

For me, the key is to pick a day, and ready or not, just get started. Easing back into school works for us.

So early yesterday morning, I baked muffins for breakfast, and Mike brought me roses for our special day. I got each child started on Bible and Math. Together, we began setting up their organizational notebooks. I started a new read-aloud book with them, and they started new books on their own. Wenxin practiced cursive and phonics. The girls worked on spelling. Nathan did a little science. We quit by lunch.

New Latin books arrive sometime today. Grammar books are en route as well. I still haven't ordered the math practice sheets we use or an MLA handbook to get Nathan's papers ship-shape in preparation for high school. 

But the key thing here -- the very important part of this story -- is that we've started. We're back to school.

Shared at WFMW and Sunday Snapshot.

Here's our first day back to school photo -- in true 
homeschool style, complete with bedhead and one kid still in pajamas.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Love Julia's simple, classic, no-fuss beauty. Hope she always embraces how God made her and always knows that she doesn't have to try too hard.

Late last night, I put in what I thought was my last order of homeschool materials for the upcoming school year. Of course, I forgot the math tests and practice sheets we use, so I guess I'll have to place another order today.

I love homeschooling, but don't let anyone kid you. Homeschooling is a lot of work. Yes, it's a lifestyle of learning, and yes, you don't have to structure your days like a 5 day/week school, but there's no getting around the fact that it's still hard work.

I just read How Hiring Help Transformed our Homeschool, and I'm finding myself wondering, "What would it be like to have a homeschool helper a couple of days a week?"

Something to think about and pray about on this Sunday morning.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Orphan Fever: Are Christians Naive?

Have you read the Mother Jones article? Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement's Adoption Obsession by Kathryn Joyce paints a pretty unflattering picture of both evangelical Christians and the international adoption business.

Since I'm an evangelical Christian and an adoptive parent, I decided to read it, and I encourage you to take a deep breath, and read it too. Resist the urge to be defensive. Listen and learn and ask yourself, "How can we, as Christians, work to better serve orphans and widows and needy families worldwide?"

I read articles like this with the idea in mind that in most criticism, there is a kernel of truth. So I set out in search of it, knowing that when we rush to defend ourselves too quickly, we may miss the very thing that God is trying to teach us. Instead, why not give our critics a respectful hearing? Why not see if there's anything to be learned?

To illustrate what she perceives as the failings of the evangelical orphan care movement, Joyce tells the story of Sam and Serena Allison, biological parents of four, and their adoption of six orphans from Liberia. She describes their adoption as just one of many troubled Liberian adoptions that occurred as evangelicals rushed to adopt children following Liberia's 14-year civil war.

Sam and Serena adopt four kids on one trip, and it seems they are quickly overwhelmed. Unprepared to parent kids with backgrounds of trauma, they use an authoritarian, first-time obedience, corporal punishment parenting style. Perhaps their understanding of Biblical parenting led them to believe it was the only godly way.

As homeschoolers, they continue to homeschool even when it doesn't work for their adoptive kids. I couldn't help wondering if homeschooling was essential to the parents' cultural worldview. It seems that sending the adopted kids to school might have provided a much-needed respite for everyone involved.

As for the children, they come carrying baggage from the trauma of war. Hoping for a fairy-tale existence in America -- where they'd heard that money grows on trees -- they end up in rural Tennessee. Attachment doesn't go so well. There are cultural misunderstandings. Finally, one of the older adopted boys is even accused of inappropriate sexual behavior within the family.

As things continue to spiral downward, it's difficult to read. Joyce outlines serious allegations of child abuse against the Allisons and other adoptive parents. Eventually, the Allisons even send one son back to Africa where he finds his former orphanage has been closed.

I'd love for you to head on over to Mother Jones and read the whole article. 

What do you think? Were the Allisons and the other families in the article bad people, or were they just naive people? Did they seriously underestimate, or perhaps even ignore, the challenges of adopting multiple older kids from a war-torn African nation?

And what about the evangelical orphan care movement? What are we doing right? Is there anything that concerns you? How can we be better?

This is really important, and I look forward to hearing your voice in the conversation. Leave a comment below.

*If the Mother Jones article left you a little deflated, read this rebuttal by a Christian adoptive dad:  Is the Left Launching an Attack on Evangelical Adoption?

Ni Hao Yall

Friday, February 8, 2013

Homeschooling My Seventh Grader

Up until this year, Nathan's always attended a university model school where he studied on campus two days a week and worked from home the other three days. This year, we decided to bring him home to homeschool full time.

Why did we choose to make this change for seventh grade?

First, to give us a year to intentionally pour into his life as he's entering his teen years.

And second, to take a year to focus on his gifts and interests.

Take this morning, for instance. I declared today to be "Science Day." Science is a special love of Nathan's, so today I had him teach the younger kids how to use a microscope. I think I'm going to make "Science Day" a regular Friday activity. Nathan will get experience doing a presentation to a group, and his siblings will get a little extra science.

Then, there's art. In my opinion, Nathan is a gifted artist, and this year I'm encouraging him to take time to draw. During our study of the Civil War, I asked him to take a stab at drawing President Lincoln. Not bad for a kid who's had very little art instruction.

Finally, there's writing. I'm loving collaborating with Nathan as he develops as a writer. Below is a story he wrote this week about a slave family escaping on the Underground Railroad. We used a sample story in IEW's U.S. History-Based Writing Lessons, Volume 2 as a starting point for Nathan to develop his own story. 


By Nathan

“Hurry, we don’t have much time!” whispered Father during the dark night. Soon, I was being pushed out the door. 

Mother and Father had talked in hushed tones all day. “Auction this week,” I heard them say. I didn't know what an auction was, but the desperate looks on their faces made me afraid.
We sprinted through the cotton fields toward the fence that barred us from the outside world. Tripping on a tangle of roots, Father crashed into some bushes. Mother yanked him to his feet, and we crept away, until we heard the overseer’s yells. Jumping the fence, we headed for the river, the angry barks of snarling search dogs pursuing us. We dove into the water to cover our scent. Shivering, we came out on the other side and hurried through the black night toward freedom.

Many hours later, we ran into another river. I realized a man was standing at the bank. As we got closer, I discovered it was my escaped 18-year-old brother, Job. Job explained he was going to take us up river and help us get to Canada.
As we crossed the river, questions filled my mind.  How did he find us?  Why was he risking his life to come back and save us?  Why wasn't he safe in the North?  Exhausted, my questions faded away as the gentle rhythm of the water rocked me to sleep. 

Suddenly, I was shaken awake by Job. I opened my eyes and saw that I was no longer in the boat, but a forest with sunlight shining through the trees. Job said, “Get up, the slave catchers are coming!” All four of us ran through the forest, dodging trees. I thought I heard shouts far behind us. I spotted a cabin up ahead, and when I was about to tell mother about it, we suddenly ducked inside.
Peering through a crack in the door, I saw a group of white men rush past the shabby little house.  Relieved, I let my guard down.  Suddenly, I felt a hand around my waist.  I looked down.  It was white.
Wriggling loose, I bolted for the door. But he was too fast. He caught me easily and yanked me to him! Biting, kicking, clawing, I struggled, as the tears ran down my face. The white man just laughed.

Then, my heart sank as I realized Job was laughing too. My brother had betrayed us. 

Job said, “Don’t worry. This is Mr. Wheeler. He is going to hide us from the slave catchers. He is our station master today on the Underground Railroad. He was just moving you away from the door for safety.”

Relieved to know he wasn't going to hand us over to the slave catchers, I was glad we were no longer on our own.  

Because we escaped that one dark night, I was able to learn to read and write. Because we escaped, I was able to earn money for my labor. Because we escaped, my children grew up free. Now, many years later, the memory of the voyage north is as vivid as ever. I am thankful for all those men and women who devoted their lives to helping slaves like I once was escape from the South.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Loving Homeschooling in February

It's February, and I'm feeling pretty happy about how our homeschool year is progressing.  This month, we're taking it easy, soaking up more of the subjects each child loves and introducing some fun enrichment activities.

For my 7th grader, Nathan, this means taking hours of the school day to devour the whole Harry Potter series. He's still working hard in Algebra and Latin and Writing, but I'm not complaining if he lies on the sofa all morning reading Harry Potter.
Wenxin, Julia, and Katherine are all reading books they love as well. But we've slowed the pace a little in their other subjects and added some fun brain exercises with Lego Quest, a set of 51 building challenges. Here are some of their creations.

Quest 1: Create a Vehicle

Quest 2: Create Something Monochromatic

They probably didn't even notice that they learned the word, monochromatic. They were having too much fun -- those darn homeschoolers -- playing at school!

The quests progress to things like "make a self portrait" and "build an Olympic event." Here's a complete list of all 51 Lego Quests. My kids are loving the challenge.

How about you? Do you feel the need to school at a slower pace in February? Are you making any changes for the second half of the school year?

Little by Little

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Motivating Reluctant Readers

For me, the biggest challenge in teaching my older adopted kid to read hasn't been about instruction; it's been about motivation.

Wenxin is a reluctant reader. Learning to read, for him, has been hard work. Arriving in America at age 7 1/2, not speaking a word of English and not knowing a letter A from a letter Z, he felt behind from the start. It didn't take long for him to realize that kids a lot younger than him could read much better than him.

That's kind of a slap in the face.

Even as his reading skills improved, reading just wasn't fun for him. So around Christmas, I set out to see that change. And along the way, my journey to motivate my reluctant reader took me some unexpected places.

Like. . .

To Barnes and Noble in search of the perfect joke book for kids.  

It all started the Saturday before Christmas. We'd just picked up our new van and were grabbing a bite to eat at a local sports bar. We like to go there because we can put the kids in one booth while Mike and I sit alone in another booth and pretend like we don't have four kids.

Seriously, we really do.

On that day, Wenxin kept leaning over the back of our booth trying to tell the jokes that were printed on his children's menu -- the jokes he was attempting to read on his own.

"Buy him a joke book," Mike said, and from the look on his face I could tell he wasn't joking.

Best money we ever spent.

Telling a joke is fun, and we've always known that fun is high on Wenxin's list. Also, jokes are short. You don't have to read pages and pages to get enjoyment from a joke book. Since Christmas, Wenxin has read that book from cover to cover. More than once.

And he's become quite entertaining.

Wenxin: "What do you call a cheese that is not your own?"
Me: "I don't know."
Wenxin: " Nacho cheese."

Can I just say how much I love that kid? He has great comedic timing, and he's learning the jokes by READING!

However, my journey to help Wenxin learn to love to read didn't end at Barnes and Noble. Learning to motivate my reluctant reader took me places I never planned to go. Learning to motivate my reluctant reader even forced me to. . .

Confront my inner book snob.

I'm a fan of quality children's literature. I'm a sucker for any book with one of those little gold or silver seals on the cover that declare it to be an award winner. I might as well admit it. I'm a book snob.

Before Christmas, I contacted a friend of mine on Facebook. She happens to be a librarian at a private international school in Brazil, so I asked her for book suggestions for Wenxin. Believe it or not, she had the audacity to suggest a graphic novel.

Graphic novel? What??? I think that's code for comic book.

But, remembering that fun is high on my little man's list, off to Amazon I went, and on Christmas morning, Wenxin opened a copy of Big Nate from Santa. A few days later, his Aunt Sherri sent him a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid for his birthday.

We were celebrating Wenxin's birthday at my parents' house in Alabama, and that night, something amazing happened. Wenxin, Nathan and their cousin J. were camping out in the living room. I'm not sure how it happened, but it was decided that J. would read Diary of a Wimpy Kid aloud to Wenxin  -- in the dark -- by flashlight.

Talk about motivating my reluctant reader! An older boy, his cousin whom he adores, modeling a love for reading -- by flashlight. J. put the stamp of coolness on reading in a way I never could.

We were making progress, but I still had one more thing to learn.

Through the process of teaching Wenxin to read -- and love it -- I've discovered that. . .

Sometimes it's OK to push a little. 

For a few months now, I've been requiring Wenxin to set a timer and read silently for 30 minutes a day. Especially in the beginning, this was met with a lot of resistance. The joke book helped. 30 minutes of jokes isn't really so bad.

Finally, last week I decided it was time for Wenxin to read a real chapter book. I pulled out the first book in the Magic Tree House series and announced that he'd be reading it on his own during his silent reading time.

This declaration was met with tears. Big. Drippy. Silent. Tears.

It was too hard. He couldn't do it. He was scared.

But deep down inside I knew he could do it. He had the skills. He just didn't have the confidence.

Wenxin needed me to believe in him and push.

Pushing is not my natural parenting style.

But, ignoring my natural inclination to let him go at his own pace, I set the timer and handed him the book. He was allowed to ask me or one of his siblings if he got stuck on a word, which he did a lot the first day or two. He also periodically cried.

Today, however, he's almost finished with the book, and he's not asking very many words anymore. What he IS doing is telling me what's happening in the story. His story. The chapter book he's reading ALL BY HIMSELF.

Wenxin is learning that reading is fun. And I'm learning a few things as well. I"m learning that reading a joke book counts, and that reading a graphic novel counts, and that pushing a little isn't always a bad thing.

And I keep reminding myself that he's only been here two and a half years. He's learned all this in two and a half years. That's pretty good. That might just make him a genius!

For more about how I approached reading instruction with Wenxin, see Teaching Reading to Newly Adopted Kids.

*If you enjoyed this post, use the buttons below to share it on Facebook or Twitter. Shared at Growing Slower's Tuesday Baby Link-up.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When Did I Get So Touchy?

When did I get so touchy about my parenting? I notice it from time to time. I'm a little defensive about how I parent ten year old Wenxin, adopted from China just two years ago.

This time, it started with a simple question.

"Did you send him to his room?"

One little question and the mood subtly changed. My mood. Only moments before I'd been casually chatting by phone about my day. Now I was suddenly a little defensive.

Usually when I talk with out of town family by phone, I share all the funny things the kids have said and done throughout the day, and we laugh about how cute they are.

But on that particular day, I chose to share a struggle. I shared how Wenxin got frustrated during homeschool math that day. . . really frustrated. . . and how I ended the lesson early. He was done. I was done. It was clear he was too tired to think, so I decided to cut it short and try again tomorrow when we were both fresh.

Not being allowed to finish something pushes all Wenxin's buttons. He quietly whined and cried and begged and demanded that I help him finish his math . . . for over an hour.

"No, I didn't send him to his room."

"Why not?"

"Well, we don't do that. . . uhh . . .because of abandonment issues. . . you know, our social worker and everyone we've read says adoptive kids need time in, not time out. He needs to stay near us -- especially if he's emotionally upset."

It didn't sound very convincing, even to me.

"For how long?"


"How long does that last? Are you saying that just because he's adopted, he can't be sent to his room for the rest of his life?" And wait a minute. . . here it comes. . . "After all, he's been here two years."

Now that pushes my buttons. The arbitrary deadline when none of the trauma in his past is allowed to affect him anymore. The point where it is assumed that I should move on and treat him exactly like the kids I've parented since birth.

There was one more question -- I'll get to that later -- and then we changed the subject to something less inflammatory. I'm pretty sure there was no harm done. The brief tension of the moment didn't hurt my relationship with the person on the other end of the line.

But it made me think. In fact, afterwards, I couldn't get that conversation off my mind. Why?

I came to the conclusion that when it comes to parenting, I'm both prideful and insecure.

The prideful part didn't surprise me. Ongoing . . lifelong. . . struggle.

But insecure? Really? Wenxin is my fifth child. What do I have to be insecure about?

Adopting an older child is a lot like being a first time parent -- even if you aren't. I've read the books, and followed the blogs and talked with the social worker. But this is my first time parenting an adopted child -- an older child who came with baggage. Everything I'm doing is a grand experiment.

So when someone challenges me, especially when they press their point, I stand up tall, try to look brave, and explain myself. But really . . . I know. . . and I fear that they know (pride). . . that I don't really know what I'm doing.

The saving grace of that conversation came in the form of the last question. It helped me clarify why I didn't send Wenxin to his room that day. The person on the other end of the phone asked, "Well, do you send the other kids to their rooms?"

I thought about it and smiled. No. I don't send the others to their rooms when they're crying. It's just not my parenting style.

I send them to their rooms to sleep, to rest, to read, and to play. I've been known to put a cranky, overtired baby in his crib because I needed a break and he needed some sleep. I'm no martyr.

But when an older child is upset . . . or crying. . . or melting down, I never send them to their room and tell them they can't come out until they out until they can pull it together. Never. I place a high value on helping kids work through their emotions and getting to the heart of things. I usually keep them near me and help them work it out.

It was kind of nice to see that the way I'm parenting Wenxin is not so different from how I've always parented the others. He's just at a different place in the process.

I'm going to take a deep breath and try to lighten up a little. I think we're good here.

Have I mentioned that Mike and I are attending Empowered to Connect next month in Orlando? Empowered to Connect as in Dr. Karyn Purvis of The Connected Child. Super excited about this opportunity to add a few new parenting tools to our bag of tricks.

How about you? Do any of you adoptive mamas, or mamas of bio kids for that matter, feel insecure about how you are raising your kids? Any fans out there of sending kids to their rooms, or is that a favorite discipline technique from a time past? I'd love to hear what you think.

Shared at Growing Slower.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Look What We Almost Missed While I Was Yelling at You to Finish That Worksheet . . . or . . . Why I Lean a Little More Toward "Unschooling" Each Day

My kids are outside again in the middle of a school day -- even the seventh grader. Outside playing when they should be at school. But they aren't really playing. They are standing awestruck, witnessing a quiet miracle of nature, seeing it unfold before their eyes right in their own backyard.

All morning they kept sneaking outdoors to see if it had happened yet. Eventually they stationed Julia outside with Wenxin's camera -- ready to video at a moment's notice. Finally, Nathan informed me that if I wanted to see it happen, I should drop everything and head out the door immediately.
I could have kept plowing through my plan for the day. I could have insisted on doing the next math lesson in the book. I could have made them stay on schedule.
But then we would have missed this.

It was amazing -- way better than studying the life cycle of a butterfly from a book.

I will probably never be an unschooler. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, unschoolers believe in letting a child learn naturally. Instead of using formal curriculum and traditional instructional methods, unschoolers let a child initiate his own learning and follow his own passions.

We have curriculum. A lot of days we follow a lesson plan. And we have books - tons of them. Unschoolers we aren't.

But the longer I homeschool, I find myself leaning toward less structure, not more. Wanting a lifestyle of learning, instead of a homeschool day that starts at eight and ends at three. Praying for kids who love to learn instead of kids who memorize for the test.

Look at Katherine and Julia in the photo above. They are engrossed in the film Julia just made of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis in our own backyard.

They are learning.

And for just this once, the math book can wait til tomorrow.

Little by Little

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaching Reading to Newly Adopted Kids

Two years ago when we adopted Wenxin from China, he was a 7 1/2 year old who'd had no formal schooling. He could speak Chinese, but couldn't read or write it. He didn't speak a word of English and couldn't tell an "A" from a "Z". To top it off, he was 100% boy with boundless energy and zero tolerance for anything involving pencil, paper, or books.

Homeschooling allowed me the wiggle room to relax about all this; to spend our first months focusing on bonding and learning to live together as a family; to put away the English flash cards unless we were using them in a really fun game. In the process of normal life with a mom and dad and three English speaking siblings, Wenxin quickly became an English speaker himself.

We spent our first year playing with the language in preparation for learning to read. I taught Wenxin the English alphabet and a sound for each letter using an alphabet puzzle and fridge magnets. We played rhyming games. We sang songs. We drew pictures together which I labeled with words.  And I read aloud. Every day. For long periods of time.

Reading aloud to my kids is my favorite part of homeschooling. We do it every day. I start as the kids eat a morning snack, and when they finish eating, they do something quiet with their hands as they listen  -- coloring, play-doh, or even quiet building with Legos.

Last year, I read good children's literature aloud to the kids -- chapter books that were often way beyond Wenxin's language ability. I didn't really care if he was understanding every word or even any of the words for that matter. Does a baby understand all the words swirling around him at first? Of course not. But just like a baby, Wenxin was soaking in the sound and cadence of the language. And before long, I realized his comprehension was exceeding my wildest expectations. I believe that reading aloud to him has been the most important thing I've done in helping him become literate in English.

Today he speaks English fluently and is on his way to becoming a fluent reader. Below are some of the tools I'm using as I continue to teach Wenxin to read this year.

Alpha-Phonics - This is my favorite phonics program. It's a simple, non-consumable book that I've used to teach all my kids to read. Once your child recognizes the letters of the alphabet and learns their common sounds, he can begin to work through Alpha-Phonics.

Providing tons of practice blending sounds into words, this book will have your child reading simple sentences the first week. There's not a single illustration in the entire book, so it eliminates the temptation to just guess from the pictures.

Reading exercises - that's what I call this book. We do a little bit each day. Just like the drills Wenxin does at soccer train his feet to automatically respond in the game, our daily reading exercises train his brain to automatically decode written words as he reads.

Explode the Code - Most beginning phonics workbooks scream preschool. I needed to find a phonics workbook for Wenxin that looked cool enough for a 9 year old boy.

The Explode the Code series fits the bill. The illustrations are a little edgier (see the cover), and the sentences are often funny. I bought a stack of these inexpensive workbooks at the homeschool convention, and Wenxin does 2-4 pages a day.

Fly Guy series - These are our favorite easy readers about a boy named Buzz and his pet fly, Fly Guy. Funny enough to get some laughs from the teacher, this series was definitely written with boy readers in mind.

At this stage, it's essential to listen to kids read aloud, but many  beginning readers are nursery-rhymish and just plain lame. Fly Guy is way cooler, making reading aloud almost painless for nine year old boys and their moms.

Sight-Word Bingo - English is full of words that break the rules (sight-words) and other words that occur so often you shouldn't have to stop and sound them out every time (high frequency words). To become a fluent reader, there are a lot of words a child must learn to recognize by sight.

In addition to teaching sight words with flash cards, last year I purchased this sight-word bingo game to sneak in some extra practice. My super competitive kids all love WINNING at bingo, so I don't have to twist arms to get anyone to join Wenxin in a game.

Saxon Math 5/4 - Here's perhaps the strangest item to make the list: Wenxin's math book, Saxon 5/4.

Let me explain. Wenxin is very good at math. For the last two years, I've taught him using the Saxon Math homeschool curriculum. It's a very solid, challenging math curriculum, and Wenxin has done well with it. Saxon, however, is very language heavy. Lots of word problems = lots of reading = Wenxin couldn't do it independently = I had to sit with him the whole time he did his math practice = shoot me in the head; I'm exhausted.

This year I initially decided to switch to a computer based curriculum so that the computer could read his math problems to him. Problem solved. I had visions of actually getting other things done while a computer talked Wenxin through the math lesson.

But then, I met Cheryl Bastian, a teacher and home educator who evaluated Wenxin's homeschool portfolio from last year. When I mentioned the new math curriculum, Cheryl said, "That's a mistake." She encouraged me to keep him in Saxon, the more challenging program, mentioning that perhaps this strong area (math) might be used to pull up his weak area (reading).

And you know what? That's exactly what's happening. While we're doing math, Wenxin sits a little straighter.  He feels competent. And I've noticed that while he's feeling competent because we're working in one of his strongest subjects, he's more willing to take a stab at reading those problems for himself. His ability to read the math book is growing by leaps and bounds.

Who would've guessed? Reading practice in a math book.

Fridge Word Magnets - And finally, while the front of my fridge will never make a magazine cover, cluttered with these tiny word magnets, it's a fun place to play with the English language. Whenever inspiration strikes, we take turns coming up with the silliest sentences we can imagine. For Wenxin, this is another fun way to sneak in a little reading practice.

"Funny" is always good when teaching kids. "Funny" makes things stick. "Funny" makes learning hard stuff much more enjoyable. I have a theory that laughter aids retention in learning. I wonder if there's been any research on this?

In my experience, teaching kids to read is like pushing a giant boulder up a mountain. There are so many skills that have to be in place, including many we take for granted, before they can even begin the complicated process of decoding words. It's hard work, and progress seems slow. But at some point, you push the boulder over the top, and things really start moving. I think we're cresting that hill.

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