Learning letter names and sounds

Whether you are homeschooling or have a young child at school, most of us will at some stage be helping our children learn their letter names and sounds. There are many different ways to do this, from rote learning with flash cards to games and hands on workjob style activities.

I use quite a few different methods depending on the child, their rate of learning and preferred learning style and the time I have available to teach them. One of the more hands-on approaches I have employed is an alphabet chart. Again, this is something I made way back in my Uni teacher training days that has been useful through 7 years of teaching and now has made it’s way to the third child in our family.

I do not introduce the letters for the first time using the chart – there are too many all at once and it is too overwhelming. We go through the alphabet one letter at a time, adding more as the child is ready. (I’ll post about this another time.) Once the child knows quite a few letter names and most sounds I introduce the pocket chart. It can be used in many different ways. Here are just a couple:

  • Matching lowercase letters to uppercase letters.
  • lucky dipping letter cards from a pillowslip, naming them, saying their sound and then sliding them into the correct pocket.
  • sorting small objects by their initial sound (first sound you hear when you say the word) into the correct pocket.
  • setting up a word bank system with picture and word cards that begin with each letter “filed” in each pocket for children to use during creative writing.
  • find the hidden toy games where the child checks the pockets for a hidden items and must name the letter and sound to be able to keep the item. (Just for the duration of the game though, although you could include a little treat surprise every now and then.)

These objects are one set I use for initial sound sorting.

A second set of objects for initial sound sorting.

To begin with, all alphabet chart work is done one-on-one with me, however once the child begins to grasp the concept of initial sounds, I give them a bag or box of objects to sort into the correct pocket as an independent activity. It is self-checking because there is never more than one object for each pocket so if they find one already there, they know they have made an error and can self correct.

If you are not able to sew a chart, you could make one using cardboard and add Velcro spots to attach the letter cards or large sturdy envelopes to act as pockets for the items. If you plan to use it for any length of time or with more than one sibling it would be worth taking the time to sew one up. It might be a nice project for Grandma perhaps??

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Teaching Children To Read: Readers

It is very important to expose children to a wide variety of excellent quality literature from an early age. Way before a child can read, they will be able to appreciate a wonderful story and surprise you with their ability to concentrate and enjoy listening to a chapter or so at a time from quality chapter books that would otherwise be way above their reading level.

Those who are familiar with the Charlotte Mason style of education through living books will already be acquainted with the idea that children should be reading “twaddle free” literature that has not been “dumbed down” for children, but rather includes all the richness and fullness of the English language at it’s best.

Today I am listing the beginning readers that my children have enjoyed learning to read from because I do believe that there is a place for the more traditional first reading books or vocabulary controlled readers for beginning readers. Some parents are reluctant to use these because they do not fit into the “quality literature” category, however you need to be clear why you are using them. If they are your child’s only exposure to books then yes, they will not be getting the rich language experiences they need. However, if you are reading aloud or playing audio recordings of classic books and using readers in a structured fashion to teach word decoding and first reading skills, then they have a valuable purpose.

When children are learning to read they will often find it hard work and be easily discouraged with texts that are too difficult. With carefully levelled and graded readers, they will be able to see ongoing progression and experience success and that wonderful feeling of being able to say “I read it myself!” Once a good bank of sight words has been learnt, we go on from levelled readers to plowing through the many picture books in our collection. By the time we have exhausted them, the children are usually ready for easier chapter books and move gradually on to more general chapter books.

There are some beginning readers that are definitely better than others and the following are some of the best that we have used.

Bob Books First!Bob Books Set 3: Word FamiliesBob Books Set 2: Advancing Beginners

Bob Books Set 3: Word FamiliesBob Books Set 5: Long Vowels

Bob Books level 1 2 3 4 and 5  are a relatively cheap way to get a good set of beginning reading books. They have very plain line drawings with stories that have simple appeal. The difficulty increases in very small steps, unlike some early reading sets that jump very quickly from 3 letter words through to sight words, leaving some struggling readers behind. Each level is a boxed set of 12 reading books.

Little BearLittle Bear's VisitA Kiss for Little BearLittle Bear's FriendFather Bear Comes Home

Little Bear books have lots of basic sight words in simple stories that children actually want to read. Very appealing and most are presented in chapter book format to ease through the transition from picture books to chapter books. Level 1 in the “I Can Read” series is a good follow-on from the Bob Books.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsFrog and Toad TogetherFrog and Toad All YearDays with Frog and Toad

The Frog and Toad Series is another set of simple sight word books that have enough in the plot to keep children interested. Frog and Toad’s adventures together are engaging with a touch of humour. Level 2 in the I Can Read series is the next step up from the Little Bear books.

Amelia Bedelia

Amelia Bedelia and the rest of the series tell the story of a cheerful young lady who always seems to get things mixed up in a silly and humorous way. Level 2 in the I Can Read series. (I haven’t read all of these but we liked Amelia Bedelia.)

The Josefina Story Quilt

The Josefina story quilt tells the heartwarming tale of Josephina hen as she heads off with a family in a covered wagon. Level 3 in the I Can Read series.

Step into Reading Bravest Dog Ever

Balto tells the story of a sled dog who saves the day with his heroic trip through icy conditions bringing medicine to sick children and villagers. Level 3 in the I Can Read series.

Tornado

Tornado is a good beginner chapter book. More text but simple enough for children to move on with. It is the story of a dog who literally falls out of the sky during a tornado and becomes firm friends with a young boy. One slightly sad section that turns out happily in the end – I always warn my children about these sections as they tend to be quite sensitive to sad events in stories.

Courage of Sarah Noble

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh is a Newbury honour book. An eight-year-old girl finds courage to go alone with her father to build a new home in the Connecticut wilderness and to stay with the Indians when her father goes back to bring the rest of the family.

The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams is the story of a little boy’s stuffed rabbit and how he became real. Considered to be one of the classics by many and is stepping into longer chapter book reading.

Spoiled walls – bickering and sibling conflict

Bickering and nitpicking between siblings – it wears me down and spoils my day. I know they love each other, but some days the love is just not shining through. We all need long-term strategies that seek to address the underlying character issues in our children and must be constantly working on relationship building, loving God and each other and following the biblical mandates regarding speech, tone, building each other up and the like. There are times though, that a well-directed consequence is called for. I need consequences that I can consistently apply whether I am busy or not, repeat over and over, don’t require a heap of supervision and most of all, are effective in addressing the issue.

I recently sat the children down and had a little chat about the unkind speech that was being heard between them. We discussed how that made them feel, what we wanted our family to be like, read some relevant bible verses and then I made up my own little mini metaphor. I asked them to picture a freshly painted wall. How nice and crisp and fresh it looked and how pleasing it was to look at. I then asked them to picture the same wall with dirty fingerprints and food splashes all over it. We talked about how the dirt spoiled the wall in the same way that the unkind words spoiled their friendships.

I let that sink in for a moment or two before informing them that from now on, at the first sign of unkind speech or bickering, the offending child would be given a spray bottle and cleaning cloth to wash down a section of wall. As they cleaned, they can think about “washing” the dirt out of their relationship by replacing their unkind words with words that build others up.

It’s an instant consequence and is easy to enforce. The bickering siblings are separated for a while (which usually helps in itself) and something useful is getting done at the same time. I love it! The only problem is that the clean wall sections make the rest of the wall look even worse… Oh well, I’m sure there will be plenty more occasions that wall cleaning is called for.

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Getting dinner on the table

Highchair time at our house – 3 in a row!

I like to cook for fun. It’s enjoyable to potter around testing new recipes and trying them out on friends and family. I don’t so much enjoy having to get dinner on the table at short notice, with a bunch of hungry, cranky children getting on each other’s nerves as we battle through “arsenic hour” as I have heard it termed. So, how do I get a nutritious and delicious meal on the table on time every day that will please everyone from the baby, right up to Dad? Well, to tell the truth, that’s almost impossible – with 8 people sharing a meal on a nightly basis, someone is bound to disagree with the delicious part! However, let’s concentrate on the nutritious and “on time” part. We haven’t eaten cereal for dinner yet, although baked beans on toast is the equivalent as far as I’m concerned and we’ve had that a few times!

There are some practical ways that I have gone about structuring my days and time so as to make this touchy time of the day run smoothly and happily for all of us and still have a nice meal on the table. Strategies have changed over time, depending on the ages of the children and what time my husband is due home, but here are some of the ways we have structured the late afternoon period that have worked for us in the past.

Flexible routine. Having a routine running throughout the day makes a big difference at the end of the afternoon. If the children have spent too much time together, especially unstructured time, they will invariably be at each other by the end of the day. A good balance of time with me, with each other, time alone and indoor and outdoor time, all work together for a smooth afternoon. More on routines here.

Feeding toddlers and/or babies early. I prefer it when we all eat together, but there are seasons when that is just not viable. The was a time when 4.45pm was like a “switch” for my toddlers. Happy before, exceedingly cranky afterwards. My options were either to feed them a large afternoon tea earlier (and have problems at dinner with them not wanting to eat well) or to simply give them their main meal earlier. When the rest of the family came to the table they were given some finger food or perhaps fruit or dessert to enjoy with us before moving on to a highchair activity while we finished up. This allowed them to still be a part of the family, I could focus on feeding them and training table manners away from the family mealtime and enjoy my meal relatively peacefully later on.

Baths. Everyone preschool aged and under (i.e. all those who require my assistance during bath time) are all bathed around 4.30pm rather than after dinner when everyone is tired and likely to be fractious and uncooperative. Bath time is then an enjoyable experience for all and bedtimes are not held up if I am caught up feeding a baby or dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Table activities. For around half an hour before dinner, all the children do highchair activities (some ideas here, here, here and here ), table activities (some ideas here, here and here), mat time (some ideas here, here and here), puzzles or books. There is nobody roving about getting into trouble and plenty of interesting activities to do. I am then free to get the last-minute dinner preparations done.

Sibling time. Sometimes the youngest children are unable to play independently at this time and need someone with them. This is when I assign an older sibling to spend some time with the little ones, reading them a story, playing on the mat with them, helping them with a simple puzzle or something similar. The eldest enjoy the responsibility and it helps build positive sibling relationships. They do not resent this time because it is not something they are required to do throughout the day in a random way or for large blocks of time.

Menu plan. Having a plan of which meals I will be making throughout the week is so important. Getting to dinner time and realising the meat is still in the freezer and trying to come up with plan B on the spur of the moment is never a great way to have a smooth afternoon period. Knowing what I am going to cook means I am prepared and can plan ahead, often using a few spare minutes here and there throughout the day to get some prep work towards dinner done. More on menu planning here.

Night time preparation. While I am caring for babies, homeschooling and looking after several older siblings, trying to fit cooking in during the day can be very difficult. There are usually several months after the birth of a new child when I do all my meal preparation in the evenings. And I do mean all. I set out breakfast dishes and ingredients and cut up fruit, bake or pull out frozen or pantry snacks for morning tea. I do all the peeling, chopping, grating, salad making or whatever other prep is needed for lunch. Dinner meals are pulled out of the freezer, ingredients are put in the slow cooker and veggies are washed and chopped – even to the point of putting the veggies in a saucepan of water in the fridge. It sounds over the top but, especially with the twins, I just didn’t have a moment to spare during the day. Being able to pull the crock pot out of the fridge and flick it on at morning tea time, knowing there would be a hot meal ready by dinner, was such a blessing. Even when things were going pear-shaped, I could throw a saucepan full of veggies on the stove as I walked past. Older children could set out prepared lunch or morning tea for everyone to help themselves if I was caught up feeding.

At other times, I didn’t have to cook at night, I used the time immediately after breakfast to get the dinner made. Everyone is fresh in the morning and it was a good time to get the household chores and dinner preparations under way. Now that I have older children to homeschool, this time is used for our more difficult subjects that require the most concentration, so dinner making is not a possibility.

Instant meals. For days when, menu plan or not, I have nothing ready for dinner, all supplies are frozen solid and my mind is blank, I am endeavouring to build up a collection of meals that are very quick and easy, that use ingredients I can keep on hand in the pantry or freezer without them going off and throw together in a matter of minutes. My rice cooker fried rice is a family favourite and assuming I have prepared my ingredients earlier, can be thrown together in literally 3 minutes. I haven’t timed it yet but I’m going to!! Ideas for nearly instant meals and pantry mixes are here and here.

Shopping lists. As an extra tip, shopping lists are a must to make life run smoothly around here. I have a shopping list pad with a magnet back that lives on the fridge. As I notice we are running low on an item, I immediately jot it down on the list. When I make out the menu for the following week, or check through the monthly menu, I add the items we will need to the shopping list too, after checking through the pantry first to see if we have what I think we have. It stops the random buying of stuff we don’t need and the irritating need to continually run to the shops to pick up one or two items here and there because they have just run out or I thought we had some.

Now the kids are older, they often come and tell me if something has run out or ask for small items like lead refills for a click pencil that we would never in a million years remember to get when actually at the shops. I also have multiple copies of a printed shopping list hanging inside the pantry. This list is all the items I buy on a weekly basis. When we are actually ready to go to the shops, a quick look down the list to cross off what we don’t need and to add the odd ingredients from the fridge list saves time and means we should get everything we need.

Montessori inspired practical life tray activities for toddlers: Tong transfer

With a general category in mind such as “tong transfer” and a drawer full of useful bits and pieces I have collected over time, I now find it very easy to come up with new tray activities for table time, highchair time or mat time that will keep my toddlers developing new skills while they learn to focus and concentrate at the same time. (See here for a list of materials and equipment that might be useful for creating Montessori style tray activities.)

Simple two container transferring is a good starting point.

Using tongs is great preparation for writing and other skills that require fine motor control, helping to develop the hand muscles necessary for successful manipulation of writing implements.  All you need are tongs of some sort, 2 containers and something to transfer. Keep in mind that toddlers find it very difficult to manipulate tongs so look for small pairs that are not too stiff to close. Avoid those with a metal closing ring that slips down all the time – very frustrating! The best pair I have for beginners is a small set of ice tongs (see top photo) that I picked up at an op shop for 50 cents. Tea-bag tongs are also easy to squeeze and quite short. I found mine in a $2 shop.

Tonging activities link in well with other skills such as one-to-one correspondence. Plastic iceblock trays, egg cartons, chocolate trays or any other container with an obvious number of holes are ideal for this. Simply put, the child has to place one item in one hole. If there are any left over, or they run out before all the holes are filled, they are prompted by the empty space or left-over pieces to self-correct their work.

Flexible ice-block trays are an attractive material for children to work with. My girls LOVE this pink tray. (I should mention that it is the 6 and 4 year olds who clamour to do this one even though it is set out for the toddlers!)

Tea-bag tongs are easy for toddlers to manipulate.

Tonging is easily adapted to many other concepts, particularly mathematical skills. Beginning sorting with two simple categories is an easy way to combine the skill of tonging with a more challenging task for older toddlers and preschoolers. In the photo above, children sort the hair elastics into 2 separate colour piles; the first step along in learning the concept of sorting by colour.

Here we move to a slighlty more challenging activity with items to tong that require greater dexterity, 3 colours to sort and 3 bowls to match them to.

Attribute beads can be sorted more than one way and are quite difficult to pick up. They are a good challenge after simple tonging has been mastered.

Linking tonging to counting is fun for the preschooler and provides valuable practice of fine motor skills. Here the child tongs the correct amount of jewels into each segment of the dip plate. My 3 year old is pictured doing this activity in the photo at the top of this post. The counting side of things wasn’t too difficult for her to do even early on, but it was a test of her endurance and concentration skills to persevere with the tongs to complete all 10 segments.

Montessori inspired practical life: dry pouring tray activities for toddlers

If you are looking for inspiration for toddler tray activities, dry pouring is a great place to start. It is a practical life skill that is easily introduced in a simplified form and can be gradually made more challenging as your toddler progresses. Learning to pour liquids carefully and accurately is difficult for young children, so starting with a dry material is a more forgiving and easily mastered beginning. Giving children cups and containers to pour water in the bath develops the skill in a non-messy environment and dry pouring activities are great for mat time, highchair time or table time.

This is the first dry pouring experience I give my toddlers. Tipping the jewels out of the cup into a baking tin and collecting them up again is surprisingly absorbing and makes a satisfying racket as they do it. If you prefer a quieter option, try pompoms (see below), however I can guarantee the children will enjoy the jewels, beads, rocks or other noisy versions more!

Pouring from one container to another is the next step. Choose 2 containers of the same size, without handles. A set of straight-sided small tumbler type cups is best; something that is easily gripped in a toddler’s hand. Add small objects such as dried beans to pour from one to the other and change the containers and material to pour every so often to keep interest high.

Rice is one of the last materials to introduce. If you colour it, it is very attractive but it is almost guaranteed to spill and is not quite as easy to clean up. Toddlers need to be taught how to collect the spilt rice in one corner of the tray and carefully pour it back into the container.

I was able to find a cute mini dustpan and broom which I include with my rice pouring activities to clean up the spills which is a practical life skill in itself. Tape a square shape with masking tape in the centre of the tray and teach the children how to first sweep the rice into a little pile within the tape boundary before sweeping it into the dustpan.

Adding funnels to a dry pouring activity adds yet another dimension and when I have had simple pouring activities available for quite a while, I set up a combined scooping, pouring and funnelling tray for a  more complicated experience. After I have changed this around for a while, I then add teddies and other small animals or toys and turn it into more of a pretend play type activity. This allows a broader scope of play and promotes longer engagement by older toddlers and preschoolers.

Our treasure tree reward system

Character development is an ongoing focus in our house. We finished with the marble jar reward system several months ago now and the children have been asking for a while for a return to our praise plates (more on them another day.) Rather than go back to something we have already used, I decided to introduce a “treasure tree” which linked in very nicely with our reading of “The Treasure Tree” by John Trent.

Our treasure tree reward system.

The system is very simple. When the children demonstrate positive character traits they are given a leaf to stick onto the tree. Character qualities like unselfishness, kindness, generosity and the like are promoted and reinforced throughout the day. Flowers are given when all the children have displayed Godly character together. A great chart of character qualities including a definition and the opposite negative quality is available here.

All you need is a painted tree, a bunch of paper leaves, paper flowers and sticky dots or a glue stick to stick them on with. The dots allow us to keep track of how many leaves need to be earned to reach our family reward – once the dots are all used, the tree is full.

You may like to tie it in with scripture memory work and focus on bible verses relating to treasure such as Proverbs 7:1, Proverbs 15:6, Matthew 6:21 and Luke 6:45

For a full explanation of the difference between bribes, rewards and goal incentives please see my post on marble jars. We don’t always have a reward system operating, but we do use them every now and then when the tone of the household is becoming negative and the children are beginning to bicker.

Rewarding right behaviour is not enough though, we need to spend time teaching what Godly character looks like in action. We use bible study, good books, songs and discussions during morning circle time and discuss how we can display these qualities throughout the day. It’s one thing to talk about serving, showing kindness and loving others, it’s another thing to practice it!

The Treasure Tree

“The Treasure Tree” by John Trent is an introduction to the 4 personality types for children. It uses the 4 main characters of a lion (choleric), beaver (melancholic), golden retriever (phlegmatic) and otter (sanguine) to tell the story. The animals have to work together to overcome some obstacles and find the golden keys to reach their destination of the treasure tree.

The personality types are woven into the way the animals approach each situation and can begin to give your children an insight into why they each behave differently and help them to understand each other and get along a little bit better.

While no means a detailed overview of the personalities, it does provide a great springboard for discussion and helped us to lead into identifying personality and character strengths and weakness that each child needs to be aware of and work on.

The children loved it and asked for the next chapter every day, even though we were only reading from it once a week! I’m looking for something a little more meaty to go on with, but I would recommend this story as an enjoyable read-aloud and worthwhile discussion starter.

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