Saturday, April 26, 2014

Our Homeschool Preschool

We are almost finished with our first year of homeschool, which I’m considering Alexa’s preschool year. We should finish up this academic year in three weeks—at least we’ll finish the most structured part of it, and we’ll carry the rest over to her PreK year. Before we started, I wrote a little about our plan for this first year of doing school at home. This post can be considered an update*, a statement of what we actually did, what we liked about it, and what we need to tweak for next year. I’m organizing this post in the way that Alexa and I currently talk about “doing school”—by type of school, or subject.

Bible and Phonics School

We started out the year using the Little Hands to Heaven curriculum published by Heart of Dakota. At first, I made an effort to do every recommended activity, though I skipped some art projects because I had not made it to the local art supply store yet. I honestly don’t recall how long I did every activity. I do recall that I started dropping activities when Alexa’s enthusiasm for school started wearing thin, and I recall the first regularly scheduled activity that I dropped: the creation of a counting book—which I dropped primarily because it required too much preparation on my part, due to our lack of magazine subscriptions (required for finding pictures to cut out). Then I started dropping other activities for which I did not see much point, or which seemed designed to work better with a small group of students rather than a singleton. At this point, we regularly read the Bible story and do the finger play, which reinforces the Bible stories and the letter we’re learning that week.  I regularly use the “Letter Hide and Seek” pages, in which the student searches through the enlarged text to find the letter of the week. I use some, but not all, of the letter familiarization exercises—she’s already so familiar with the shapes of the letters that she just doesn’t get much out of most of them.

I am glad that we purchased this curriculum. It has provided an excellent overview of the Bible for Alexa, mostly because of the wisely chosen New Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes and the clever finger plays—though I do admit to changing a few isolated motions and words here and there to make the rhythm work better. I also enjoyed most of the weekly devotionals. However, much of the luster of the rest of the program faded rather quickly. The math activities, art projects, and drama activities often seemed like a bit of a stretch to me; they sometimes seemed only peripherally related to either the Bible story or the subject they were meant to cover. I do believe that this curriculum would work better with younger children, but Alexa was right in the middle of the recommended age range. We will not be continuing with the next curriculum by this publisher after we finish Little Hands to Heaven three weeks from today.

Literature School (also includes Science)

The core of our literature school is Sonlight’s Preschool Full-Grade Package (formerly P3/4 Multisubject Package).  When we started with this program, I was enthralled with the stories. Unfortunately, Alexa was not so enthralled with most of them, at least not the ones scheduled for first trimester reading. As the year has progressed, though, her opinion seems to be changing. Gradually, she began to enjoy more of the stories. She began asking for me to re-read stories. Over the last week or so, she’s requested three or more Sonlight stories each day. I’m not certain if we finally got to the stories that match her interests, or if she’s maturing enough to be able to appreciate stories that she would not have appreciated a few months ago. Actually, I think it’s a combination of those factors—her ability to focus on longer stories with fewer pictures (which describes several of the stories she didn’t like earlier) has improved dramatically, but the stories we’ve been reading lately are stories that seem to have been written just for my little girl: Bedtime for Frances, The Story of Babar, The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (all from The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury).

We went through a couple of rough patches with this curriculum. Alexa was on the younger end of the recommended age range (3-4 years, according to the description of the program at the time of purchase, now simply labeled “preschool”). I think she was a little immature for most of the program at first, but she did grow with it. For example, the first time I read from The Usborne Flip-Flap Body Book, Alexa was decidedly uninterested. Two months later, I tried again, and she insisted I read the entire first section (about digestion) rather than just the first two pages I had intended to read that day. Likewise, we read each of the later two sections (senses and reproduction) in one day each, because she kept asking for more. Over the next few months, once we finish our first pass through this curriculum in a few weeks, I intend to re-read the stories that she did not enjoy the first time; I anticipate that she’ll enjoy them much more with a little more maturity. Overall, I’m very pleased with this curriculum.

Math and Critical Thinking

Sonlight's curriculum came with two games: Mighty Mind and Teddy Mix & Match.

Mighty Mind helps students develop spatial reasoning and problem solving skills. Alexa was interested at first, but quickly found the progressive tasks to be too difficult. We did not use this game much throughout most of the year, but recently she has developed a renewed interest in it, and her skills seem much better suited for it now. I would recommend this game for children who are around four years old and older; younger children who are advanced would enjoy it, but it's a little difficult for your average three-year-old.

Teddy Mix & Match can be played in a variety of ways, but primarily is a visual and working memory game. Alexa loved it from the start, and because it is such a flexible game, I was able to make it be always at her level. My biggest problem with this game was convincing Alexa that she was not allowed to sleep with these particular teddy bears. This is an excellent game for any child old enough to know not to chew on the cards.

I think it was just after Christmas that we ordered two workbooks published by The Critical Thinking Co.: Mathematical Reasoning Beginning 1 and Building Thinking Skills Beginning. Our intent at that time simply was to have the workbooks available, since DPO mail service had become so slow with the combination of a new processing center and the holidays. However, we did not count on Alexa’s excitement as she watched us open the box. “Is that a new book for Lexa?” And then, after being told they were books for math school and critical thinking school, “Lexa wants to do math school and critical thinking school now!” (She had no idea what math or critical thinking was at the time; she just wanted to use her new books.) Even though it was almost bedtime, we obliged her excitement after noticing that the math book was labeled “Age 3” and the critical thinking book “Ages 3-4” (she was almost exactly 3 ½ at the time—apparently we were starting late!). She did several pages of each workbook, loving every moment of it. For the next several days, she constantly wanted to do math and critical thinking. Since that time, we’ve done as many pages of each as she wanted (or until I said “enough!”) each day.

Over the last couple of weeks, the critical thinking in particular has become a little more challenging for her. I have begun to hear her utter the dreaded words, "Lexa is not very good at this." I immediately encourage her, telling her that new things often are hard, but they get easier with practice, and she will become very good at this if she practices. Still, I do not want to overwhelm her, so I've started doing one or the other—but not both—of these subjects each day. We’re around three-quarters of the way through the math book, and halfway through the critical thinking book.

These two books are very similar. Both begin with colors and shapes. The math book introduces and works with the numbers 1-5. At first I feared that they were too easy for her. However, the ease with which she handled the first several pages—and with which she handles many later pages as well—built confidence that was needed when she hit her first unfamiliar skill. The books gradually build in difficulty, starting at a level that most 2-year-olds would be comfortable in, before moving to more advanced topics. They use a spiral approach, introducing concepts such as pattern recognition or subtraction, practicing just a little, then moving on to something else before coming back to reinforce the first topic. This approach does help avoid frustration, for both Alexa and me, when she doesn’t grasp a concept easily or quickly, though I think I prefer a mastery-based approach once she’s older. So far, the books have covered pattern recognition, addition concepts (using pictures, not numerical representations), subtraction concepts, measurement, shapes, logical elimination of options, and object comparison. I'm sure there are others as well, but these topics are representative.

My biggest complaint about these books is that there is very little script. That’s fine for pages where there are pictures of circles at the top with the text “These are circles,” then pictures of circles and squares at the bottom with the instructions “Point to the circles.” However, Alexa had a hard time realizing what I wanted her to do on the page with the circle-square-circle-square-circle-and now tell me what’s hiding behind the curtain? Her response was “a triangle?” I found myself at a loss for how to explain the concept of a repeating pattern in a way that she would understand. Some skills are so fundamental that it’s difficult to explain them at a three-year-old’s level, and I failed miserably in every attempt I made to explain simple pattern recognition and prediction … that task got relegated to Daddy after Mama’s frustration levels got a little too high. On the bright side, Daddy did fine without a script, so although it would have been nice, it was not, strictly speaking, necessary. Overall, though, these books are a gentle introduction to mathematical and logical concepts.  We will use the next books in each of these series—we already have them, hiding in our closet where she won’t see them. We may or may not continue with them after the primer levels (the next ones—Mathematical Reasoning Beginning 2 and Building Thinking Skills Primer). If we do, the math ones will be relegated to supplemental status as we choose a mastery-based curriculum for kindergarten and beyond.

Tracing School

Last summer, while we were in the United States for home leave, we picked up a cheap workbook at Wal-Mart: Fun to Trace. Alexa’s idea of tracing at the time, right around her third birthday, was to draw wild scribbles all over the page. We put the book away. Approximately four months later, her ideas about tracing had not changed much. The workbook again was put away. Then around two weeks ago, she suddenly announced that she wanted to do tracing school. So I pulled the workbook back out and lo and behold, suddenly she was willing to trace the lines and curves and loops in the workbook. After the first couple of pages, I showed her the correct way to hold the crayon. She still struggles with that, but she’s improving. The workbook went from straight lines to curved lines to loops to shapes to letters. Alexa finished off the letter pages today and will start the number pages next. She loves this little workbook—maybe because it’s “new,” maybe because she’s reached a developmental point where she’s ready for it. In any case, it was well worth the $2 or so we paid for it!

Special Study: Advent

We took approximately a month off from our two primary curricula in December. During that time, we used Truth in the Tinsel as a special Advent curriculum. This curriculum included a Bible passage to read, discussion points, and a craft—usually a Christmas ornament—for each day. I did very well in keeping up with it at first … and then daily “art projects” became too much for me, and I started skipping days. Of course, Alexa does not believe in too many art projects—she loved every project we did. However, the effort involved in buying (or substituting) supplies, getting them out, setting them up, explaining the project to Alexa, helping her, protecting the projects from our two cats, cleaning up the mess … this was a great little curriculum, but if we use it again next year, I will do some modification. I’m thinking coloring pages for most days, and full-fledged projects only once or twice a week.

Our Future Plans

Once we finish up this academic year, in three weeks, I’ll take one or two weeks off from school—or only do very light school activities if Alexa asks for them—while I finish up preparations for “next” year, then start on her PreK year immediately. I know that it isn’t much of a break, but our plan for this year is to school year round. We anticipate taking a couple of 3- or 4-week breaks during the year, and it’s important that we’re done with the academic year before the craziness of another international move hits next spring. Then we’ll take a longer break between PreK and kindergarten, as we’ll be in the States and then probably won’t be up to starting school immediately upon our arrival in Greece.

We decided to drop Heart of Dakota for Alexa’s PreK year. We’re continuing the math and thinking skills workbooks. The heart of our PreK curriculum, however, will be Sonlight’s Pre-Kindergarten Full-Grade Package. This package includes Bible instruction and memorization, literature, and science. One of the things I particularly love is that it includes stories from around the world—including at least one each from Egypt and Cambodia. I only wish there was a Kosovar story as well, but Kosovo is too new a country to have its own traditional stories.

We debated whether or not to get Sonlight’s kindergarten language arts (LA K) package, which is an option with the PreK curriculum, and eventually decided that we would. Sonlight takes a very slow approach to teaching students to read, and LA K is at the right pre-reading level for our girl who has known her letters and their sounds for a while now. We aren’t sure about the composition portions of the course; they may be too advanced, but I think they start out gently enough that she’ll be ok with it. If it turns out that those portions are too much for her, we’ll simply drop them until she’s ready. We also ordered the PreK curriculum for Handwriting Without Tears—the kindergarten program is recommended in conjunction with LA K, but we believed that Alexa needed a little more development of her fine motor skills. Of course, that was before her love affair with “tracing school,” so it’s possible that we’ll fly through the PreK handwriting program and order the kindergarten program early. (And, no, there’s no contradiction with doing LA K’s composition without requiring handwriting—parents are encouraged to scribe for their children in these very early years, so Alexa will compose orally, while I write it down for her.)

Finally, a friend gave me her copy of The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. Many parents on the Sonlight Forums say that Sonlight’s language arts packages do not have enough explicit instruction on how to teach a child to read; this book has a complete script to take a child from basic phonics to beginning readers to more complicated rules of reading. My intention is to look at the order in which letters are introduced in this book, in LA K, and in Handwriting Without Tears and, if they teach in different orders, figure out a way to re-work the schedules so that we focus on a single letter every week, giving preference to the order in The Ordinary Parent’s Guide, since that is the book with the script I intend to follow. (This rearranging of the instructor’s guides is what I will be doing during the week or two “off” from school after we finish our current curriculum.) LA K came with Sonlight’s exclusive beginning reader books, and we also ordered the first set of BOB Books. My hope is that Alexa will be reading these simple books fairly quickly and will enjoy the feeling of accomplishment enough to help motivate her to continue learning to read. We’ll order additional BOB Books as necessary if we like them.

*My thanks to Sheila at The Deliberate Reader for her recent post that reminded me that I never finished the similar update post I started back in January … she inspired me to try again to capture in words what we’ve been doing.


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this! Even with the book I wrote, your post reminded me of some other things I did, and that worked well (or didn't) this past year. And it's reinforced for me that Little Hands to Heaven wouldn't have been a good fit for me, the craft-averse. :)

    We also did the Truth in the Tinsel last year, and I quickly lost steam as far as prepping each day's project. I never even got it out this year, but am hoping that next year we can try again. Like you, I think I'll work to simplify it on most days, and save the full projects for once or at most twice a week.

  2. Sounds like a fun, full year! I think you'll enjoy SL's 4/5. We used it for preschooler/K this year and it was a hit.


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