Hands-on maths; skip counting

I like to keep much of our early mathematical skills as hands-on as possible. If an area will need to be drilled over and over again until mastery is achieved, then it is far more interesting for my children to do that using Montessori style tray activities rather than repetitive book work. Learning addition and subtraction facts, multiplication tables and the like are great examples of this. Lots of work is necessary, but it need not be all written bookwork.

This week my 6-year-old son needed to polish up on his skip counting. I pulled out some plastic Easter eggs and wrote the 2, 5 and 10’s on each hump of the caterpillar, poking a pipecleaner through the first one to make the caterpillar’s head. He placed each in order and recited them to me once finished. Next time I will remove a couple and get him to say them (including the missing numbers) until he can eventually say them all without any numbers as prompting.

Homeschooling 6-year-olds; Writing


Diary writing is a wonderful way to teach writing skills with young children. The topic is relevant and interesting to them (all about themselves!!) and it provides a wonderful keepsake in the years to come. All aspects of spelling, grammar and punctuation etc. can be covered as the child writes and it includes copywork practice which I believe is essential for learning strong writing skills.

If you are not familiar with the concept of copywork and the reasoning behind it, the basic ideas is that children’s writing will best develop as they see excellent writing modelled. As they copy correct spelling, punctuation and other building blocks that successful writers use, they become familiar with these skills and are then able to put them into place in their own writing. (Google Charlotte Mason copywork for more information on this concept.)

The modern idea of children just “having a go” as they spell phonetically means that they are seeing incorrect “pictures” of wrong spelling, reinforcing these mistakes in their memory, rather than the correct spelling that they will see in copywork activities.

Once or twice a week I have my 6-year-olds draw a picture of a significant event that has occurred recently and then tell me about it. As they speak, I write down their words, leaving a line between each line of my writing. As I write, we discuss concepts such as:

  • punctuation; capital letters and full stops
  • spelling (I may have them tell me how to spell a sight word they are familiar with)
  • phonics (I might ask how to write the “sh” sound in a word for example)
  • descriptive words (is there a more interesting way to say “good?”)

Diary writing for children who are not yet forming letters correctly: 

Another way to use diary writing  that also works on reading skills and letter/word recognition is to have the child dictate a single sentence to you about the drawing they have made. You write the sentence into their diary book, leaving a full line blank between each line that you write and also write it a second time onto a separate strip of paper. The child then cuts the separate strip up into single words (word recognition is a concept in itself, as well as requiring scissor skills) which are then mixed around out of order. They must then match these words back up to the ones you have written on the page and glue them underneath, re-reading with your help to ensure it makes sense and is matched correctly.

For my son who struggles with fine motor control, pencil grips are a must. He also cannot copy the words underneath my writing, but traces over the top instead. I let him use good quality gel pens with a pencil grip at times because they make a nice dark line without much pressure being required and he likes them – anything to encourage writing!


When young children are doing any kind of writing, correct pencil grip is important. The longer they practise writing with incorrect grip, the harder it is to correct later, just like any other habit. For those who struggle, a good quality pencil grip is a must. It should be very soft and molded to keep fingers in the correct place. Our favourite has flaps like wings that spread out over the top of the thumb and pointer finger, stopping children from sliding their fingers up and over the top of the pencil grip in a fist style. Be wary of purchasing cheaper brands. I did so this year, being very happy to find 5 grips in a packet for the same price of just one I had bought previously, however these turned out to be made of a much firmer rubber and the children do not find them comfortable to use.

Other writing activities that my year 1 homeschoolers participate in:

  • handwriting book. (Individual letter practice because learning to make letters the correct shape and starting at the right place is still important. Most children at this age are still making mistakes with this and again, we don’t want bad habits to form and have to be re-learnt later.)
  • copywork. (Bible verses, character related, good quality literature examples.)
  • finger strength building activities. (Plenty of time on activities that require fine-motor skills such as hand sewing, threading beads, Lego, playdough etc.)
  • free time to choose drawing and writing. (They have desks in their bedrooms well-stocked with a variety of papers, envelopes, notepads, drawing and writing tools that they have access to during room time after lunch each day. They are always drawing or writing notes, cards and letters to friends and family. My reluctant writer has spent anything up to 30 minutes a day for several weeks now filling every single line of an A5 notepad with squiggly lines – his “writing.” Nothing I could have set for him would ever have got him to spend this long using a pencil!)
  • writing in family birthday and thank you cards and letters to friends and relatives


That’s about it for writing in year one for us. With this foundation in place I know from experience that they will go on to successful writing in the future.

What do you do for writing in your homeschool?


Homeschooling 6 year olds – reading

Teaching a child to read in the early years is not as daunting as it at first seems. There are so many different methods out there and honestly, a child that does not have any developmental issues will learn using any of them – just pick one and go for it! Some will need a little more time with the same materials but will get there in the end and others may need you to find them something that addresses their particular needs. Of course, reading excellent literature to children on a daily basis is so important for their development in this area.

The methods I use work for me and have adapted easily for the little ones in my house who needed a little more time. I have already discussed how to lay the foundations for teaching reading in teaching children to read – where to begin so I’ll leave that for now.

Moving on from ear training, a good phonics programme is a must, some sight word practise is helpful and a good quality set of early readers is useful.

I use Letterland for phonics. It was developed to help children who were struggling and was so successful it came into mainstream education. Initially I introduce 1 new letter a day using the abc book, with both its alphabet name and sound, and we spend 5 minutes reading the little story and finding a bunch of items starting with that sound. On the following day we review the sounds and letter names previous learnt before introducing a new letter. At the end of 26 days, with daily reviews of sounds already covered, our 3 year olds will usually know around 20 of the 26 sounds, many of the letter names and be able to work out the rest of the sounds using the Letterland character’s names to prompt them. Not bad for 10 minutes a day.

The 4 and 5 year olds go on to initial sounds experiences, alphabet activities and 3 letter words. (Put “preschool” in the search bar to find my many posts for preschool activities that include alphabet charts, spinny spellers, Duplo 3 letter words, Montessori trays etc.) Our focus this year is now sight words and more advanced digraphs – the sounds that letters make when they get together. Letterland has the cleverest stories to explain these changes.

For example, “H” is Hairy Hat Man who hates noise and whispers his soft “h” sound and the letter “S” is Sammy Snake who hisses his “s” sound. When Sammy stands behind Harry in words his hissing is so loud that Harry turns and says “sh” which is why you can hear a “sh” sound when you see “sh” in words such as shop and ship. Easy isn’t it! Once the children have heard these stories they rarely forget them and they provide very easy prompts when working on decoding words for reading. Even my older children can sometimes be prompted in their reading or spelling of a difficult word with the reminder of one of the more advanced Letterland stories.


For beginner readers who find reading akin to pulling teeth, putting the readers aside and focussing on building a bank of sight words may be helpful. I type out all the words necessary to read their first Bob Book and we use those for sight word games, flash card drills and other simple activities until they are known by sight. That way, when the child attempts to read the actual book, they are able to breeze through and wonderingly say at the end “I read it!” rather than feel like pulling out their hair (or is that just me?) as they laboriously sound out 1 word after another.

In the sight word mastery file above, the words are moved from pocket to pocket as the child reads them successfully. If they forget the word it goes back to pocket 1 and starts again. That way, by the time words make it into the review envelope they have been read correctly 6 days in a row and are probably quite well known by then – enough to be recognised in the book later.


The Montessori pink series  starts with simple phonetic words that are matched to pictures. It is an independent activity that requires no supervision other than me listening to the words being read once they have matched all the pictures. In graded sets that get gradually harder, these are free to print out and there are heaps of free resources for them on the web.

There are so many more ideas for teaching reading but these are a few that we have used repeatedly over the years during a short period of one-on-one time with each child, coupled with a little independent work on a daily basis. One they have that lightbulb moment they will be off and running and you will need to restrain yourself from telling them to put that book down and go out and play!




Homeschooling 6 year olds – maths

It is fairly well understood in the preschool years that children need many hands-on experiences as the best grounding for mathematical understanding. However, it is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that as soon as a child starts school he or she must “hit the books.” There is still a need to manipulate, play and explore concrete materials in the early years and rushing too fast into abstract concepts (ie. “on paper” solutions) to mathematical concepts can hinder a child developing true understanding.

So, with this in mind, do I use a maths programme for my 6 year olds? Yes, but as a spine from which other maths experiences flow. It helps me to know that I am not missing any skills along the way. Those children who have a good grasp of number concepts can skip through very quickly and often will plead to just write out their answers in the book rather than use manipulatives. If I can see that they truly grasp the skills (understanding the why and how of each problem) then they go ahead. Learning styles do differ after all and not everyone needs the manipulatives. However, other children will need to go through basic concepts such as one-to-one correspondence with manipulatives over and over and over and over again!

IMG_9625In the early years we use Math-U-See because it does include manipulatives, has a DVD lesson format which means the children are not dependent on me to give them one-on-one teaching to explain each lesson and has a clean and simple set-out with a good progression from skill to skill. Early writers are given enough space to write large numbers and opportunities to use their manipulatives throughout. When more practise is required, I provide Montessori style hands-on activity trays until the concept is thoroughly grasped before the child continues on in the book.


Reluctant writers and maths:

When a child has difficulty with fine motor control and writing skills it can slow them down in all their subject areas. Maths however is one area that can be easy modified to eliminate this problem. Ask yourself – “Am I teaching handwriting or maths?” Do you want your child to progress in maths or hate every minute of it because they have to sit there laboriously writing numbers in their painfully slow style?

My son would take ages to complete this page if he had to write the answers down, plus I would struggle to read them anyway! Given this inexpensive box of wooden letters, he can work through the problems, calculating some in his head, putting out manipulatives for others and using the wooden numbers to “write” the answers. Quick and easy and demonstrating his understanding of the subject at hand, rather than his handwriting ability.


When more experience is needed with a concept, he works on Montessori style trays such as the one above, giving him lots and lots of repeated practise of the same skill over and over again until it becomes second nature. We made up little stories about customers in restaurants who were sometimes greedy (according to the numbers on the spoons) and he enjoyed choosing the food (jewels) to serve.

With the combination of bookwork plus hands-on trays, my 6 years olds feel that they are doing real “school” like their older brothers and sisters and all ability levels are being catered for. One is zipping through the book at a great rate (she LOVES book work!) and the other is taking a more leisurely course with lots of hands-on experiences along the way. Individual children,  individual abilities, individual learning styles. This is one of the reasons why we homeschool after all isn’t it?

Next up: Homeschooling 6 year olds – reading and writing


Homeschooling preschoolers – a new year begins.


One more homeschool cupboard has been cleaned out and set up ready for the new year. Our 3 1/2 year old little man has joined the ranks with his older brothers and sisters to do “school” after breakfast each morning.


Now I know how important it is at this age to keep school relaxed and enjoyable and not to focus on too much bookwork. Plenty of time for creative, open-ended and active play is an absolute necessity, along with character training as a firm foundation for all other skills. However… there is a place for teaching little boys to sit and concentrate on a task for a good length of time. For some this is more difficult than others but it can be done and dare I say it, must be done. You are doing your sons no favours if you do not teach them the self-control necessary to sit still and achieve a task that is set by someone else. Think ahead to a work or classroom situation – hard as it may be, they need this skill.

This training ideally starts early, with sit time in the highchair, mat time while you prepare dinner, playpen time as babies and all the other parent-directed periods that are so vital to a balanced routine. If you have had all these in place since babyhood then starting some kindergarten activities at the table will be a breeze. If not; it’s not too late – start now! Start small and build on it until it is easy for your little one to sit for a while and finish an activity that you set for them to do.


I use a workbox system for my younger students and find it works well. It takes a little time to set up but pretty much runs itself once you are going, with change-overs only necessary every couple of weeks as skills are mastered or interest wanes with particular activities over time. We do “school” at home four days a week so there are 4 shelves of 2 boxes per day. The first box holds the “work” that is done with my supervision and the second box holds independent activities that are completed with some choice once the set tasks are done.


We have already been working on basic counting skills and our little man is familiar with the alphabet and knows most of the sounds. To build on this, his work for the day will be a Montessori style maths counting tray followed by an initial sounds worksheet involving a little bit of writing practice.


The counting trays all follow the same principle to keep it simple; place the numbers in order, then count out the correct number of objects. Pasta dinosaurs will drink at the watering hole, flowers fill the love heart dishes, coloured bead “food” is served at the number restaurant and coloured tiles line up above the bottle tops. All made with household objects for almost no cost and with visual and tactile appeal to a small person who needs to practise the same skill over and over and still be interested in the task at hand. They are also self-checking in that there is exactly the right number of objects to count and in some, like the plates and watering holes, the items can be matched to the dots to check if the right number has been counted out. (Check out the “Workjobs and Montessori Activities” category on the left for many more ideas for hands-on tray activities.)


These initial sounds worksheets are so quick and simple but give that bookwork feel that my little kids love because it makes them think they are doing real school just like the big kids. They have to review the letter name and sound then say the name of each object slowly to see if it starts with the right sound. They circle the ones that do and cross out the ones that don’t before tracing the large letter in the middle a couple of times in varying colours. Just a little bit of pencil work to practice but nothing too taxing.


The fun boxes hold activities that can be done without help but still have educational value. Fine motor skills, problem solving, language development and more are included here on a rotational basis.


Monday has magnetic dressing dolls, playdough and letter stamps and our “Day and Night” puzzle that requires the children to match the silhouette or picture in the direction cards.


Tuesday has finger puppets, regular cardboard puzzle and lacing beads. The large wooden lacing stick makes it easier for little fingers to put the beads on.


Thursday’s workbox has another puzzle, magnetic pictures and magnetic white board and number lacing beads.


The Friday box includes a puzzle plus magnetic alphabet letters and and magnetic whiteboard, along with some paper, scissors, glue, texts and Star Wars wrapping paper (saved from the Christmas presents) to create with.

Our little man was already asking to have a go at bits and pieces as I was putting these together so that’s a good sign. Keeping school toys out of the general rotation means that these are almost like new and he can’t wait to start.

Next up; the 6 year old twin’s cupboards. Year 1 here we come!


Homeschooling with toddlers; a new year begins!

As our thoughts turn to the new year, it is time for an evaluation of routines and a sort-out of school cupboards. A major part of successfully homeschooling a large family is ensuring that the toddlers and babies have a well structured routine that includes some extended periods of time where they are able to play independently, leaving me free to concentrate on schooling the other children.

I spent a little time today changing over the playpen, mat time and highchair toys; boxing away baby toys that are now at the wrong developmental level and quickly making up some new and interesting activities as well as bringing out some I have stashed away from previous years. A big bottle, a box, some containers and bibs and bobs from around the house and I was all set with stimulating and educational toys that cost nothing at all.

The 12 month to 2 year range is difficult to cater for as they want toys that do something but are usually not yet ready for pretend play. Montessori style practical life tray activities are perfect and are cheap and easy to make. You can put them together in just minutes and throw them out when you are done. Better than buying new plastic fantastic dinging doodads that loose their attraction in a week or two.


My husband didn’t realise that when he purchase his latest Christmas gift to himself he also bought one for his daughter. This box had the perfect design for a Montessori style object permanence box. Little ones drop the oversized marbles into the hole and watch them disappear and are then astounded as they magically reappear at the bottom. They eventually learn that the object is still there even though they can’t see it and begin to watch for the marbles to roll down into view. Simple concept but fascinating to the right age.


All I need to do was glue two wood offcuts to the bottom to ensure a slope so that the balls rolled to the front of the box and tape the sliding inner piece in place. 1 minute = new activity. You can buy wooden versions for $40.00 but who needs one? You could use a toilet roll or anything else really to glue underneath to keep one end of the box elevated.


A shoebox version of exactly the same thing. A hole in top to drop the balls into and a large slot to retrieve them again from the bottom.


Drop bottles are always lots of fun. Fitting into the Montessori “small spaces” and “posting” categories they require some fine motor control and problem solving to get the objects into the hole at the top of the bottle and retrieve them from the bottom. Watching my 17 month old turning the block laboriously in her chubby little hands and repeatedly poking it at the hole until it dropped in was entertaining. Watching her clap herself each time she did it even more so.


Something to pull apart is good for a few minutes. There is no way she will be able to put these back on again but she carefully removed every one and then stuffed them all into one of her honey tubs with a hole in the lid. (Yep, expensive toys around here – honey tubs as well!)


Large garden stones to drop into a yoghurt pot with another hole in the lid. Satisfying clunk sound and weight. Eventually she will figure out how to turn the container upside down and shake them back out again.


Pom pom posting container. The draw-back of this one is that once they are in they can’t be taken back out again. She does this one first every mat time and then sets it aside to focus on the other items.


A pile of objects to fill and spill are a must. All the better if the container they go into makes a good metallic sound when they drop in.


At the moment my youngest (17 months) has playpen time each morning for at least an hour four days a week – we are out for the 5th day. These are her baskets that she uses on a rotational basis. Because they only come out for playpen time once per week I will only need to change them again in a month or two. Using some basic categories that help me come up with ideas I walk around the house and plop items in. An hour or so (most of which is putting away the items from the old boxes) and I have playpen time sorted.

This month the categories were:

  • posting/small spaces
  • something to wear/put on/household object
  • books
  • something to stack/pull apart
  • something to cuddle

I’ll be posting about my other 6 children’s school time activities over the next little while. Next up – the 3 1/2 year old.


Preschool at our house: Workbox system for 5 year olds


Here is the latest workbox style arrangement for our 5 year old preschoolers which will allow them to get the direct instruction from me that they need as they learn basic reading and writing skills, while at the same time having some degree of independence in their other work. I have always invested some time in one-on-one teaching at this age because helping each child to become a proficient reader is one of the keys to independent learning and self-educating later on (one of my goals for all my children.) The children have access to plenty of creative play opportunities and lots of great hands-on learning tools at other times in the day but this morning period is slightly more “bookish” as we step into more formalised learning.

pp schedule

My older girls (7 and 9) both work from a written schedule for several reasons; they know exactly what to do, when to do it and how much they need to do before they are done for the day. My 11 year old son also works from a schedule, but is free to decide the “when” for himself, having shown responsibility in managing his time in the past. The twins (5 years) have a pictorial schedule to gently ease them into a more independent role in the future but don’t really need it because their boxes are numbered and they are under my direction anyway. (It’s more so that I can keep track of what they are supposed to be doing!)

I researched workbox homeschooling several years ago and most of the examples I found on the web involved nightly or at least weekly changing of the contents. I knew that wasn’t going to work for me so I devised a simple system that only needed to be changed out about once a month. (See details here.) There will be some items in the boxes that needs to be updated more regularly (Sight words as they are learnt for example) but this will require minimal effort as the sets of words etc. that I need are all ready to go.

Some advice that I always give beginner homeschoolers, especially those with a large family, is to set their homeschool up so that  it will continue to run without them as much as is possible. Life intrudes; an unexpected visitor, an unscheduled phone call, the baby is sick and on and on. Set things up so that you are not required to be “teaching” directly all the time or the pace may be too hard to keep up. With only one or two children you may be able to do it but not with the number of blessings we have!

So.. what’s in the boxes?


Daily diary writing (See full explanation here.)


Bob Books and a file folder game to practise sight words. As the child chooses a word it is read and fed to Mugs the dog through the hole in his mouth. (See this post for how to teach children to read and this one for some info on beginner readers.)


Segmenting words game based on All About Spelling level 1. I am using this programme as a rough guide at this stage. We will get into it more next year but for now our activities are loosely base around the progression in this book which is very thorough. We are using the flip boxes to review the single sounds we already know before moving on to more complex phonograms.


Montessori style counting activity tray. Developing one-to-one correspondence is crucial before any real maths skills can be developed and these simple counting activities give heaps of practise while also working on fine motor skills. In the top activity the expresso cups are set out with the numbers in order from 6 to 10 and the child uses the tongs to add the correct number of sugar lumps to each cup. In the second activity the small tongs are used to transfer the correct number of marbles to the suckers on these soap holding shapes – the kind that suction onto your sink to stop the soap slipping away.


We use Math-u-see for the first couple of years and Primer is the first book in the series. I cover all of the concepts with  hands-on tray activities first and once they are well mastered the children can work through the book as a bridge to the bookwork they will be doing the following year. We also have the Dive CD’s which have videos for each lesson in the student books so some added “teacher” instruction is given as well to help fill any small gaps that may still be there.


Tracing letters and numbers. I try to supervise handwriting practise to ensure that the correct letter formations are being made. There are heaps of free worksheets on the net. Look for some in your preferred font and laminate them if you choose for repeat practise. For children who find fine motor control difficult, the channel writing (bubble letter style) are the best because it allows more leeway than dotted letters for wobbly pencil paths. It can be very discouraging for children who try so hard and yet cannot stay on that dotted line. The “fat” letters to keep inside are somewhat more forgiving.


The last workbox contains a selection from some free printable worksheets to go with the Bob Books that I have found online, mainly for my daughter who finishes all her school work in nanoseconds and wants to know what else there is to do. She loves to do “real” school work like her older siblings so the more books and worksheets I supply her with the happier she is. My son will do them if he wants to which will translate to not doing any at all except possibly using the bingo dotters to follow the word paths simply because he wants to randomly dot paint everywhere🙂