Recently, my daughter and her family paid a visit to Virginia. My 8-year-old homeschooling granddaughter, a firecracker of a girl, bounded up to me and cried with delight, “Grandpa, I’m learning to read!”
For two years, my granddaughter had struggled to learn to read with the books used by her four older siblings: Alpha-Phonics, some materials from the Seton Home Study School, and several other instruction manuals. These daily bouts with letters, sounds, and words often left her in tears and her mother frustrated. She was on target in mathematics and loved for her sisters, father, and mother to read books to her, but she remained at least a grade level behind in reading.
Meanwhile, her 5-year-old cousin was becoming an advanced reader, getting through some basic stories and picking out words on everything from road signs to birthday cards. He attends a local Montessori school, which has certainly helped, but his parents had also enrolled him in an online program he loved that had opened up the English language to him.
The name of that program is Reading Eggs.
Making a Reader
After my granddaughter proudly announced her newfound skills, I looked for confirmation from my daughter, who said with a twinge of disappointment, “I never thought I’d resort to a screen for my children’s education.”
Following her brother’s example, she’d enrolled my granddaughter in Reading Eggs, an online educational outfit that teaches young students skills like reading and math. This company uses phonics for reading and employs all sorts of tricks to hook the attention of young kids: games involving the collection of eggs as prizes, colorful illustrations and diagrams, creative repetition, rhyming words, and other fun activities. The program is interactive and offers participants hundreds of helpful worksheets.
In addition, students will find a library of more than 2,500 online books, which include comprehension quizzes to make sure the child understands the material and stays on track.
The day following her arrival, Carolina called for me to come upstairs and watch her do part of a lesson. She was sprawled on the bedroom floor, punching away at the keys on her mother’s laptop and deciphering the new words and the directions like a champ. Every time she answered a question correctly—and she never missed one while I watched—eggs poured into a sort of basket, giving her points and adding to her score.
It did me a world of good to see the kid finally taking off and learning to read, though I laughed when she later told her mother, “I just want to do Reading Eggs my whole life.”
My point here isn’t to recommend this particular product for teaching your child to read—you’ll find many good online programs as well as traditional hardcopy instruction in reading—but to underline three important points. First, a myriad of resources exists for teaching our children academics, both those who are officially homeschooling and those enrolled in private or public school who need extra help. Compared to 34 years ago, when my wife and I first set out on our homeschooling adventure, we’re living in a wondrous age of educational tools.
Next, we need to be flexible and find what approach to learning best suits each of our children. Reading Eggs clearly benefits my granddaughter and grandson, but might not work for other children. What we mustn’t do is let pride or stubbornness blind us to alternative forms of instruction and learning.
Finally, we need to remember—and how often I forgot this particular tip when I was teaching my own children—that learning and pleasure need not be enemies. Often learning can walk side-by-side with joy.
Two years ago, I taught writing to three of my middle-school granddaughters through email and phone calls. They wrote several essays on various topics, including a final paper that was 1,500 words long and addressed the topic, “My Life 15 Years From Now.” They had to contemplate the future, describe their lives when they were in their late 20s, and what it cost them to reach that goal. We spent several weeks on this project, and the object was two-fold: to prove to them they were capable of writing such a long piece and to encourage them to look into the future.
This year, my daughter decided her twin girls should enroll in the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Some friends had highly recommended this program, and after looking carefully at its website, she decided to give it a go.
Unlike Reading Eggs, the Institute offers its instruction through DVDs and a packet of writing helps, assignments, and worksheets. The videos, the syllabus, and the materials make this course easy to use and valuable in imparting composition skills, critical thinking, and logic to students who follow the directions.
A Spoonful of Sugar
Were the twins happy with this program? Not particularly. But their dislike stemmed less from the Institute’s methods than from a dislike of writing in general.
Having taught composition to students their age for years, I wasn’t surprised by their negative reaction. Only a few of the homeschoolers who took my writing classes enjoyed the writing itself. They wrote journal entries three times per week, composed essays and occasionally stories, and sent letters to relatives and friends as part of their assigned writing. But these projects brought only a few of them pleasure. The rest regarded writing as a slog.
To make the twins happier in this course, my daughter invited two of their friends to join them. The friends enrolled in the Institute, and now the four of them gather twice a week for their writing class. They do the required work and assignments, but they also have the pleasure of playing afterward and visiting with their buddies, so much so that the next two siblings on this totem pole of children are clamoring to join the Institute so that they can invite their own friends to join them in class.
Once again, pleasure shakes hands with learning in a partnership.
Freedom and Joy
My point in this article isn’t to recommend any particular program of learning, though both Reading Eggs and The Institute for Excellence in Writing are working wonders for my grandchildren and are deserving of praise. What I hope to emphasize with new homeschoolers and veterans is the great freedom of choice parents have these days in selecting materials and books appropriate for their children and for their family situations.
I also wish to stress the link between learning and delight. Please understand me here. I’m not talking about school as constant entertainment. Learning history, science, math, and other academic subjects requires diligence, memorization, and hard work. But if we find a program or a book that attracts the student’s interest and brings a sense of fulfillment, then we know we’re on the right track.
So we how do we accomplish this? We begin by exploring our options. We talk to other parents, we investigate online programs, and if we have the opportunity, we go to a home school conference to listen to the speakers and look at the material firsthand. We then experiment with various programs. If something works for our children, great. If not, we try a different avenue.
Explore, experiment, and engage: These will create success in any homeschooling situation.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.