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Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Three Rs

Sarita's Word

These past few weeks have been extremely difficult for us. Thank you for your continued prayers.

In order to encourage you today without writing a new column from scratch, I'll share what I prepared for a speech I recently gave. May it encourage you as you plan your upcoming homeschool year. It might also bless a friend who is looking to homeschool for the first time.

Today, I'll share the first part of that talk, titled "The Three Rs and Beyond." We'll explore what I believe to be the basics of teaching Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Click here to watch a video of this message.

The Three Rs

When you think about a good education, you think about the Three Rs: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. How might you approach these key areas in your children's education?


Let's start with Reading, because that is my passion. If you can encourage your children to read, you'll do them a great service. When they read, they build their vocabulary, build imagination, develop an understanding of history, and begin to grasp what makes good and great writing. I recommend that your children read every day.

And even better than just having your children read to themselves? Read out loud to them as well.

There's a unique dynamic that happens when we read aloud to our children. As you share that activity together, you can generate topics to talk about. As you come across issues (like bullying, for example), use that as a jumping off point for meaningful discussions.

As you probably know, I believe that reading also produces a love of learning (especially when compared to dull textbooks). Giving your children a love of learning is a true gift indeed.

How to teach reading (phonics vs. whole language)

But how should we teach reading? I highly recommend the phonetic method. School systems tend to use "whole language" reading. Students look at the word "girl" and memorize the meaning of this particular combination of letters. With phonics, they learn to sound out the "g," the "ir" combination, and the final "l."

The main reason I think schools use whole language is that it's a little faster and can start kids reading sooner. But a (major) disadvantage is that about a third of the kids just don't get it. With the phonetic method, you prepare kids to read anything that comes their way. I learned through whole language and used to have trouble when I encountered a long word I hadn't seen before. I also believe phonics help kids learn to spell much more effectively.

I recommend that you begin with phonetic readers. Beware of the many whole language readers in the "beginning to read" section of libraries. If you see difficult (non-phonetic) sentences like "Look at the kangaroo with her baby, a joey" in early readers, run! Your kids won't be able to sound those out.

The most effective way to get your kids to read is to start with phonetic readers that practice the sounds your kids have been learning and allow them to build on what they learn. Start with the easiest letters to hear and distinguish, like f, p, t and s. Look for short vowel sounds as well, since approximately 60% of all words have short vowel sounds. For example, you want words like "fad" instead of "fade."


I recommend using dictation as the method for teaching your children how to write. In the beginning, allow them to copy words and sentences. Eventually, you can start to dictate: you speak sentences and they write them down. This is a very easy and effective model to teach writing.

If you use excellent writing as your material for copywork and dictation, your kids will benefit from focusing on solid writing mechanics. They'll naturally practice capitalization, punctuation and good sentence structure.

I suggest having your children do some form of writing every day.


Since most kids need to learn the physical act of writing, I recommend the program Handwriting Without Tears. It's an engaging program that walks parents through every step in teaching proper handwriting. I don't think the handwriting is particularly gorgeous, but it is very readable and doable.


In the first years of my homeschooling journey, I didn't think I needed to teach spelling. I had taught my children phonics—surely that was enough! But then in third grade I had my kids take some standardized tests. The results made it quite clear that I did, in fact, need to teach spelling.

I've found the most effective method for that is to teach words in groups. For example, practice lots of "ea" words together one week: ear, hear, fear, dear. This helps students learn patterns in spelling.


The reason we teach grammar is to clean up our writing. If you have your children look for the verb in a sentence they wrote and there isn't one ... they can know it's probably a fragment. I suggest teaching grammar naturally as you walk through life. Point out nouns, verbs and adjectives. Analyze sentences in your dictation. Put a symbol above each word in a sentence noting whether each word is a verb, adjective, adverb, etc. This will help solidify the grammar concepts you're teaching.


Many education scholars recommend that young children use lots of manipulatives in math. These can be anything from white beans to fancy products you buy at the store. Math deals primarily with symbols, and young children often don't understand what symbols mean. Manipulatives connect real-world meaning to the abstract symbols of math.

So if your kids are stuck on a problem and can't figure it out, think of a way to show them in the physical realm what you want them to figure out. For example, give them an intimidating pile of beans and tell your kids to count them. That might seem hard. Next, have them separate the big pile into smaller piles of 10. Then replace each pile of 10 beans with 1 popsicle stick with a "10" written on it. Then count the popsicle sticks to find the total number of beans. This will help them understand and remember why we use base 10.

The MathTacular DVDs are particularly great for connecting the real-world to potentially difficult math concepts.

Math facts are a necessary evil, so please make sure your kids learn them. (You don't want them counting on their fingers when they get to Calculus!) FlashMaster is a useful tool for busy moms. It teaches kids the math facts they need, and kids love it. I hear many stories of kids even fighting over who gets to use the FlashMaster next.

Workbooks in math can be a comfort to moms, but I'm not convinced they're as necessary as we tend to think. If you use math and talk through math problems in your daily life, that's probably enough to reinforce the lessons. But if you want extra peace of mind and want to know you're completely on track, workbooks can be a comfort to you.

As children get older, teaching math can feel more daunting. I recommend Teaching Textbooks as an essential tool for older children. Another option is to exchange services with other parents. Find a mom or dad who loves to teach math. Offer to teach writing (or another subject you like) in exchange for math lessons for your kids. There are ways to get the help you may need with upper-level math.

Closing thoughts

So there they are: the Three Rs. If you do these with your children, you're really doing as much as the school system does.

I'll share about how to go beyond the Three Rs in an upcoming Beam. I'll talk about Science, History and Geography, Bible and Electives. You could also watch the full speech here.

Thank you again for your prayers for my family during these trying times. Our hope is in God, and that hope ultimately does not disappoint us.

Sarita Holzmann



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Luke Holzmann
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