Monday, January 17, 2011

English and Language Arts Curriculum

I started posting this about a month ago, and was unsuccessful so I deleted it.  Today I am starting all over...

A number of the moms in my home school fellowship group meet once a month for coffee and mutual encouragement, and often we plan on having a topical discussion at that meeting. At our December get-together, our topic was English and Language Arts curricula, and all who attended were encouraged to ‘show and tell’ the resources we are using with our students. I have used several different products for my students over the years. In the past we have used the beginning phonics and reading texts from Christian Liberty Press and ABeka; my youngest two students learned to read using Teach Your Children to Read Well; my oldest son used Bob Jones Press texts for high school English; and last year we gave Switched On Schoolhouse a try for English 9. Right now we are using Alpha Omega Lifepacs for all three students, and I have a few supplemental things as well.

I won'’t review CLP or ABeka products right now, because it’s been several years since we used those. Even though it’s been a couple of years since we finished with Teach Your Children to Read Well, I still recommend this product for those who are teaching young children to read for the first time. The teaching approach is very similar to the 100 Easy Lessons book that many are already familiar with, but there is also a reader and workbook which reinforce the phonics concepts taught and give printing practice. The books also have a built-in points reward system, making it easy for those who want to keep measurable grades for their child.

Last year we tried Switched On Schoolhouse for English 9 with Spencer. The course material is pretty much the same as the Alpha Omega Lifepac for English 9, and I thought that it might work out better for my student that didn’'t like to write. I think we would have had more success with the experiment if Spencer had already learned proper keyboarding so his typing was more efficient, and if we'’d had a second computer on which to install the program so that he could work on it more on his own schedule instead of jockeying with the rest of the family for computer time. Although the program did much of the grading automatically, as the teacher I was still required to do evaluate quite a bit of it myself, and without a separate Teachers Manual it wasn'’t always as easy as I would have liked. At the end of the year, we decided that we would rather stick to the Lifepacs, which come with that Teachers Manual, and which (for our family anyway) are far more portable and measurable. One advantage of SOS is that it is non-consumable, so now that we own it for Grade 9 English, I expect we’ll use it for Landon and Kennady when they reach that level, which will save me a few dollars those years. I talked with another mom at the meeting who had also tried SOS for English 9 and had the same experience. We agreed that SOS isn’'t what we'’d recommend for English. There are other subjects for which it’s a good option though.

Harrison used Bob Jones Writing & Grammar for English in grades 9 through 12. When he was in middle school he was planning to go into sports journalism, and Bob Jones was recommended to me by a fellow home school mom that had a degree and background in journalism. The texts were indeed very thorough (probably TOO thorough, honestly!) and well-presented, with clear writing assignments in every chapter. Harrison did tend to get bogged down with the sections that he thought overly repetitious in the practice of grammar concepts. We often compromised by having him complete the first presented section of practice and skipping the second section or the review section provided he demonstrated mastery of the concept. There were a couple of things I really liked about the very thorough Teachers Manual. First, each offered two course schedules - a full year schedule and a single semester schedule to complete the work. We usually followed the single semester schedule, but spread that out a little so that in effect he was completing the course in three quarters. Second, the rubrics for grading writing assignments were very helpful. I gave a copy of the rubric for each writing assignment to Harrison when he started work on that chapter, so he knew exactly what I was looking for and how his work would be evaluated. I loved having a clear guide as to the specific elements I was looking for in grading each assignment. I kept copies of many of those rubrics to use as a guideline in grading future writing assignments from my other students, even though we are not planning on using that same curriculum again.

We are now using Alpha Omega Lifepacs for all three students - this year it’s English 10, Language Arts 6, and Language Arts 4. What I like: they are complete, with spelling, punctuation, grammar, handwriting, literature, and general communications offered all in one text; the ten workbooks break the material into manageable chunks, making it easy for the student to manage and visualize their own progress; and the Teachers Manual is complete so that I don’t have to guess at answers or read through every bit of the student workbook myself. What I’m not crazy about: I don’t like how the Teachers Manual is organized (the spelling tests, self-tests, answer keys and test keys are all in separate chapters, instead of the keys being organized in the same order the student completes them. It means I have to flip around in the Teachers Manual more than I like in order to do the grading); some of the assignments are still written as if the student is in a classroom rather than in a home setting; where the Bible is used and quoted, the writers assume the student will use KJV but don’t always say that, and this has caused some confusion for my kids because they “can’t find the answer!” in their NIV Bible. We have learned by now that if the workbook is asking for specific words from the Bible to fill in the blanks, they will probably need the KJV, but they still use NIV for more general answers.

Our extras: We use Notgrass courses for high school History, and one of the features we love about Notgrass is that it is worth a full credit each for History, Bible, and Literature. So I feel that I’m providing a fairly good background in Literature, even though I have opted to reduce the reading required for the Notgrass courses to only a half-credit. The textbook set includes two volumes of History lessons for each course and a volume of essays, speeches and other readings. These readings are assigned throughout the History course, along with 13 novels. I’ve chosen just 5 or 6 of the novels for each course, and I award a half-credit in Literature for completing that. Ray Notgrass is clear that his emphasis in studying literature is on reading the works for enjoyment and overall understanding, not on detailed analysis to “pass the test” so the study questions are brief and are more like what an informal book club might discuss. I honestly wish I’d been able to study literature, especially poetry, this way when I was in high school! I liked many of the works we were assigned to read but got bogged down and frustrated with trying to assess minutiae in the assignments we were given.

Caution: Writing in this Book Might be Fun - I purchased both versions of this book (one for boys and one for girls!) and plan to use the boys’ version this year to help Landon with creative writing. Landon and Kennady looked through the books when I first got them and seemed excited about doing the assignments, and they certainly do look like a lot of fun!


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