Monday, September 30, 2013

Interactive Word Wall - Refining and Differentiated Instruction

We have now been using our word wall in our Pre-Kindergarten / Kindergarten level homeschool for about six weeks. I wrote about planning and creating the word wall and my intentions for using it interactively several weeks ago. I have learned a few things and refined my technique since then.

Choosing and Introducing Word Wall Words

There are many ways to use a word wall. Some choose to use their word wall to highlight content area vocabulary or with themes. My children are very young so I am using the word wall to facilitate the reading and spelling of early sight words. I am pulling most of the words from the Dolch lists. I am introducing six new words each week. Here's the key though. I'm not just going through those lists in order. I make sure the six words I choose each week can be combined to make a sentence. This is absolutely key! I print the words on plain white paper and cut them out so that you can see the word shape. Then I tape them each to a differently colored background and laminate the cards. Finally I stick a magnet on the back of each word.

  1. Monday - I introduce the words on Monday during circle time. We clap and snap each word taking the time to discuss the word shape (small, tall, and fall letters - does the word look like a rectangle or squares - etc.) and how to decode the individual phonemes. Then we build a sentence from the words. We build one or two sentences that make sense and we build silly sentences that do not make sense. The children love it.
  2. Tuesday-Thursday - I display one word at a time and ask my preschooler to read the word. If she has difficulty, I help her decode the word. We then snap and clap the word and its spelling. Then I have my kindergartner spell the word (he can read all the words easily, so this is how I differentiate instruction).

    After reviewing all six words, we continue to build sentences with the words. I use a dry erase marker and show making the first letter of the sentence a capital and adding punctuation as appropriate. The clapping and snapping the word, discussion of word shape, and decoding the words using phonics are all important, but it is using the words to build sentences that really cements them in the minds of the children. Ava gets practice reading the words in a sentence context. Michael gets to read with inflection and discuss capitalization and punctuation. We get to work collaboratively and take turns composing and reading the sentences. And we all get to laugh together at some of the nonsense sentences we create. In five minutes or less the children have practiced reading the six words at least a dozen times each and they don't even realize it.

  3. Friday - On Friday we repeat the same routine. When we are finished, the children each take three of the words and put them in the appropriate spots on the word wall. Now these words are integrated in with the words from previous weeks and we are ready to introduce six new words during circle time on the next Monday.

Using and Practicing Word Wall Words - Daily

Each day, immediately after circle time, we do a word wall game. This can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes. The children LOVE this time of day. They remind me if I forget. I made a printable list of 15 Word Wall Games, and you can find many more with a simple internet search. I rotate through the games so we're never doing the same one twice a week. The children particularly like Tall Towers, Word Wall Tic Tac Toe, and Word Wall Word Search. Whenever appropriate, I differentiate instruction by asking Michael to spell the word while Ava only needs to read the word. I also keep track informally of which words (from the wall) that they know well and which ones they still need practice on and try to rotate in the ones they need more practice with more often.

Does it work?

Let's think of having a word wall in a classroom as a three stage process.

  1. Part 1: Teacher creates a word wall space, chooses words, and gets those words onto the wall alphabetically.
  2. Part 2: Teacher chooses new words each week and devotes class time to introducing the words and reviewing them daily.
  3. Part 3: Teacher devotes additional daily classroom time to having children work with the word wall words interactively in a game format.

  4. Part one is something a teacher does when starting a word wall project. In theory, the wall could be set up and a full year's worth of words could be prepared. Then each week the teacher could throw up 4-6 new words and be done. I devoted the time to setting up the word wall and making a couple of months worth of words. If all I did was slap six new words on the wall, or have the children slap six new words on the wall, no one would learn them. Part 1 alone? - Not enough.

    The children and I typically enjoy the word wall work we do during circle time. We like the clap and snap and the building of the sentences. A lot of learning takes place during this interaction. One week, I simply forgot to do this two days in a row and noticed that my daughter struggled more with the words that week. Part 1 and Part 2? Adequate for familiarity and some automaticity, but not for true mastery.

    Then there was the week I was going through a bit of a homeschooling teacher slump and decided to skip the word wall games. I was a little bored with them and preferred to just skip straight to math. I noticed a huge change. Ava definitely lost ground with the old words. As soon as I brought back in the word wall games and devoted those 5-15 extra minutes a day I saw huge change. And the children LOVE this time. Call it a "break" and stick it in between two more intense activities, but this time is worth it. My four year old daughter can look at our word wall and read every word on it. She's proud and she thinks it is fun. All 3 Parts? This works!

    Word Wall=Sight Words - But what about phonics?

    I strongly support phonics instruction. Research shows that phonics instruction is a critical component of reading instruction. Our All About Reading program is doing an amazing job of comprehensively teaching phonics to my children (and fluency and sight words - the program is extraordinarily comprehensive). However, knowing some of the most common words encountered in reading the English language by sight is a huge boost to a beginning reader. It helps them read more quickly and easily. Also, many of the words on the Dolch lists are "rule breakers" that do not follow phonics rules and including them on a word wall gives a teacher the opportunity to talk about that. I do talk about the phonics of these words during instruction time and about how and why the reading of the words break phonics rules when that is the case.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Super Reading and The Magic Tree House Books

I'll admit it. I was struggling in the afternoons. Our mornings are fairly structured. Time goes quickly. We get a lot done. Circle time, word wall games, math, Scholastic News, and our reading program fill the morning. Then, about 4 hours after we started, we are all ready for a significant break.

I let the kids watch some tv while I prepare lunch. Then I let them eat lunch in front of the tv while I have some quiet time. I know it isn't perfect, but I'm human and an introvert and my sanity is important too. So we all have a mid-day break and I do use the television to make that happen. The problem was that I was having trouble finding the motivation to pull us all back together afterwards. I found excuses to delay... and delay... and delay. Then I had an ephiphany. I realized that we needed something truly fun to pull us all back together - something that made me glad to leave my little bit of solitude and something that made the children excited about turning off the television.

So now I read to the children in the afternoons. It's not a lesson. Michael isn't reading or taking turns reading. They simply get to listen to me read. I'm not feeling rushed like I often feel during the reading time that is part of our bedtime routine. If we're all enjoying it we can just keep reading. We often read for 60-90 minutes in the afternoon and we all love it. Michael calls it "Super Reading Time".

One of the purchases I indulged in with my first Scholastic Reading Club order was a Magic Tree House book set. We now are the proud owners of books 1-45. (If you want the full set, the best price per book by far is from the Scholastic Reading clubs. Any library should have these books too.) The main characters are an older brother and a younger sister who are only a year apart - just like my two. The older boy is conservative and loves books and knowledge. The younger girl is imaginative and adventurous and loves animals. I think part of the reason the children love the books so much is because they identify with Jack and Annie. Michael has even started using some of the phrases that Jack frequently uses in the books. I'm not super fond of the phrase, "Is she nuts?" but hearing him imitate Jack is pretty cute.

The stories are about two children who discover a magic tree house in the woods near their house. The tree house is filled with books. When they point to a picture in the book and wish to travel there the tree house takes them to the location (and time) of the picture in the book. So far, there are story arcs that bridge several books. In each of the first four books they discover a clue about the owner of the tree house and they meet her at the end of the fourth book. At the beginning of the fifth book they discover that the tree house's owner has a spell cast on her and they have to collect four things to break the spell. They collect those four things over the course of their adventures in the next four books and then rescue her at the end of the eighth book. We've just started it, but the story arc for books 9-12 appears to be Jack and Annie answering four riddles in order to pass the test to become "Master Librarians". The children enjoy the individual stories, but they also very much enjoy the story arcs as well and definitely keep track of the progress Jack and Annie are making towards the larger goal.

Each book is 10 chapters. In each story they travel to a new location in time or space and there is a lot of science and social studies content embedded in the books. That is a great bonus while homeschooling. We read half a book (5 chapters) each day so it takes us two days to read each book. Many of the books also have a nonfiction companion book. So, for example, the fictional story "Mummies in the Morning" has a nonfiction companion book "Mummies and Pyramids". The nonfiction books are fairly dense with a great deal of interesting information. They are written from the perspective of Jack and Annie with the story being that when they got back from Ancient Egypt they wanted to know more about it. So they went to the library, learned more about it, and wrote this book to share the information with other children. I tried the Fact Trackers on a whim. I was almost positive the reading level would just be too high for my 4 and 5 year old, but they seem to like them. So each day we read 5 chapters of the next Magic Tree house book, and then a couple chapters of a Fact Tracker book about one of the fictional books we've already read. So far we've done "Knights and Castles" and most of "Mummies and Pyramids."

Another great thing about reading this book as a series is the Magic Tree House companion website. There you can print out a passport. Each time you finish a book you can earn a passport stamp by answering three questions about the story. My children LOVE this. You can also earn passports for the Fact Tracker nonfiction companion books. The site also has a game where you can complete missions by answering questions about four different books (earning a clue for each answer) and then solving a puzzle at the end. You earn a medallion for each successfully completed mission. This part of the website fascinates my children and I would love to let them do it. Unfortunately, the missions seem to choose randomly between ALL the books. If they would limit it to just books the children have already read (ones they've earned passport stamps for) then you would be able to play the mission game and begin to earn medallions no matter how many of the books you've read. As it is, we can't really play that game at all.

"Super reading" and the Magic Tree House books have completely transformed our afternoons. Now we all look forward to the time after lunch and we come back together for some snuggly reading time on the sofa together. It has become a really special time of our homeschooling day.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


We traveled last weekend. We drove to New Orleans for a wedding. The wedding was lovely. The children were delightful. We couldn't have been more proud of their behavior. We very much enjoyed visiting with family.

One morning while enjoying the free continental breakfast at the hotel Michael was sitting in my lap and wiggling a bit as five year olds are prone to do. His tailbone was grinding into my leg rather painfully and I asked him to sit still because his tailbone was hurting me. He looked at me like I was crazy. I found myself explaining vestigial body parts to him. My cousins and I thought of wisdom teeth, and appendixes in addition to the tailbone and then conversation moved elsewhere.

I should have known Michael was deep in thought because, in retrospect, he was uncharacteristically quiet, but I was distracted with visiting. Several minutes later he popped in with this thoughtful insight... "Mama, you know what else is vestigial?" At my prompt of, "Yes sweetheart?" he replied, "Newspapers!" He then earnestly supported his assertion with rather well thought out examples of all the other ways we can learn things today. We all burst out laughing as I tried to defend newspapers to my son.

Although we had obviously missed some subtleties as we explained the meaning of "vestigial" to Michael I was astonished at his ability to swiftly comprehend a rather abstract concept and then promptly turn around and apply the newly gained knowledge to an entirely different context. Sometimes I wonder how I will ever keep up with him.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Scholastic News Classroom Magazine: from a Homeschool Perspective

I subscribed to the first and second grade editions of the Scholastic News Magazine for this school year. I added Science Spin on to the subscription for each. Now, fair warning. I thought I was going to be able to subscribe for the stated price of $4.49 per student + $0.99 cents for Science Spin. I found out that you only get that price if you are ordering for 10 or more students. When you want to order a single copy, you must call the 1-800 number and they charge significantly more. I don't recall what the price was since I ordered 4 or 5 months ago, but I'm going to guess it was something like $15 or so per subscription.

It was completely worth it. If you subscribe to Scholastic News and Science spin, you get 5 magazines per month (one Scholastic News per week and 1 Science Spin per month). The "magazines" are only 4 pages long. You have the cover, a two page spread in the middle, and an activity/review on the back. The topics are usually science or social studies oriented. They are supposed to increase in complexity and language level over the course of the school year. My kids LOVE them. That's not even the best part though.

As part of the subscription you get access to Scholastic News online. There you can find teacher's guides, printable worksheets, and online versions of each magazine. The online version of the magazine can be read at the regular reading level, or switched to a lower reading level. There is at least one video and sometimes more that is associated with each magazine and the final page of the magazine (the activity page) is interactive and can be completed online. There is also an online "game" for every magazine which is really a learning activity/review.

The online site for each grade level also has access to the digital versions of the past two year's worth of magazines and all the videos and printables. You can easily do a magazine a day online. I find that the children adore sitting down at the computer for our Scholastic News magazine time.

Eventually, you will need to log in to access the Scholastic News online content, but the site is completely open through the end of September. Check it out. Use it between now and then. If you like it, you can call and subscribe for the rest of the school year. We've even used a couple of the digital versions of the Grade 3 magazines while they're accessible for free.

I like that the magazines are a fun way to hit language arts while browsing through a wide variety of science and social studies topics. The activities on the final pages and the online games are an entertaining way to introduce young children to a wide variety of skills such as graphing, main ideas and supporting details, opposites, and more. And all that was just in the first month.

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