Thursday 19 May 2016

Sonlight: Review of Year 1/ Planning of Year 2

We home educate our children using the Sonlight curriculum (plus various other bits and pieces and a whole lot of freedom to play and explore). Whilst it was a curriculum we had seen others using, and had seen very positive results from (in terms particularly of character and critical thinking over and above any academic, musical or sporting achievement), we only started to use it in September when we moved back to East Africa. Within a week we were captivated. Within a few months we were settling into a nice pattern. Now, we are approaching the end of the first year, and I am preparing my order for the next batch of materials. It seems a good time for a quick subject-by-subject review, considering what we loved and want more of, and what (if anything) we would do less of.

1) Read alouds. Sonlight bases a huge amount of learning on books that are read aloud together as a family. These tend to be what are termed 'living books', whereby the characters live in a particular place and time or go through a set of circumstances from which we can all learn a lot. An example was 'Twenty and Ten', a story of children who helped protect a group of Jewish children from the Nazis. It brought up many interesting concepts for the children, but in an accessible way. One question is how far you want to take these! We ended up reading the biography of Maria Ann Hirschman, which although not typically a children's biography, really illustrated some particular points - for example that any one of us could be drawn into an evil ideology through our exposure, education and peer interactions, and that the gospel brings hope and forgiveness for all. Whilst I know some people have complained about the amount of reading aloud that Sonlight brings, we have actually wanted to add more, but we appreciate the freedom of being able to choose our add ons. Often I choose something which relates to a question which has come up in conversation, or something which we have to hand that builds on what we have covered in Sonlight. We often add in biographies. I'm going to do this a little more pro-actively this year, by looking ahead to see if there are any that complement the topics covered in Level B. It might be easier for us to add in extra read-alouds as we have only been using one level of Sonlight (level A) - it might be more challenging for parents who are teaching multiple levels at once! There are a few changes to Level A this time round, and so I've ordered in the books that I like the look of that we did not have the chance to read this year. The only one I really haven't liked was Beezus and Ramona; it seemed to glory in dreadful behaviour and I couldn't quite work out why it was there!

2) Readers. These really have been amazing. My middle son, as I have described, did not easily take to reading, but the 'I can read it' series transformed that. I think it was the use of rhyming words and a bit of humour (he particularly liked 'Pat is fat' on the first week!). Currently he is on 'Green eggs and ham', one of the Dr Seuss books, and I have never heard it read with such enthusiastic expression. I can hardly believe how well he is doing. My elder son (also aged six) can now read fluently, and can happily read stories to the younger siblings. This is very useful, as I can then focus with middle son on the things he finds a little more tricky.

3) History, geography and world cultures. This really is the cornerstone of Sonlight, and we use the materials as well as adding on whenever we have friends who are missionaries in different places, or when we get a newsletter or something. It's great! Sonlight is aimed at international/ missionary families (although is also equally good for those who stay in one place!) and my boys worked out that they have friends from 19 countries. So the world cultures is really relevant to their lives, and they have the hunger to learn. We really liked I Heard Good News Today, but got a bit irritated (I did anyway!) but some of the typos. I notice that it is not in Level A any more, but another mission-related book has been put in. So as we don't miss out, I've ordered that in too, just for enjoyment!

4) Bible. Maybe this should have been first, since we start and end every day with Bible and prayer. Biblical worldview is interwoven through Sonlight. We've been using Ergermeier's storybook Bible, which is well written and beautifully illustrated. There are questions at the back for each story, but I find the questions a bit basic, and prefer to use our own system. 'What does this story tell you about God?'. 'What does this story teach you about yourself?' 'What does this story teach us about how we should live?' - and from that move into a time of prayer. One of the Grade 2 readers was 'The Beginners' Bible', and so my eldest read the full storybook Bible and did quite a lot of copywork and creative expression based on the stories. There are also memory verses each week, and an accompanying CD. Sometimes we write our own songs too. They certainly have excellent Bible knowledge and Scripture memory, and have astonished some of the young adults who come to our home for Bible study. But my biggest prayer is that they truly know Christ and that their lives are transformed.

5) Language arts. This was a term I had not come across before, but basically incorporates grammar, spelling, phonics and creative writing. I particularly like the way the children are encouraged to use their imaginations, to express themselves, and to use language well. It builds up in a cyclical or spiral way. This is good because on of boys is doing Grade 1 and the other Grade 2, and often one will be covering a topic (synonyms, or homonyms for example) that the other has done a few days ago. It helps reinforce the learning of the other to have them working separately, but covering the same topics. This year we are adding in the things described as 'Optional' - some vocabulary and phonics resources. I am not sure how much we will stick to these, but I think they will be helpful at times when there is a sticking point. My middle son seems to struggle more with spelling, and therefore we are also adding in a specific spelling programme (we are trying Sequential Spelling this time). I like the way they are encouraged to use creative, expressive language without being limited by their writing or spelling ability (by dictating their stories, poems and imaginative writing to the parent) - it keeps writing 'real' - there is a clear reason for it, rather than being a more abstract exercise.

6) Handwriting. We chose Handwriting Without Tears. The four year old is using K, and the six year olds are using Level 1. They seem to do well with this system, and we will stick with it as they move into cursive.

7) Maths. We chose Singapore maths, and that is working well. What we like is the absence of excessive repetition. They get irritated with that, and so it is better to do the few examples required to grasp the concept. However, as with any discipline, there are certain 'threshold concepts' where they struggle a bit more. For example, one of the boys is struggling to grasp counting in tens and counting in ones. So I've used a few other resources (like the internet and lots of games I have made up). For next year, I am adding in the 'intensive practice' workbooks - I might not use every single exercise, but it will be useful for where they need a bit more. I am also ordering Mathtacular which is supposed to bring real life examples and problems to life, and a couple of books from 'The Life of Fred'. What I really want is for the children to see how maths and numbers are found throughout life, rather than thinking of maths as something dry that has to be done but which has no application. I've ordered Singapore Maths 2A and 2B for the older boys, and level K for the younger one - which seems to have a lot of manipulatives and things.

8) Science. We are using Sonlight Science A, and will progress to B. It really is a whistlestop tour through a wide range of topics. I suppose at elementary level, that's all it can be, and it presents a taste of many things. We've built around that quite a bit. For example, we have quite a few games and books to do with skeletons and human anatomy so have used these. We have a vegetable patch (and tropical rain and sun making things grow quickly) so have done many experiments out there. We expanded upon Newton's laws of physics with practical demonstrations involving running, bikes, balls and scooters. We don't always do the exercises in the order they are given - sometimes we wait until the opportunity fits in our day to day life. Also, there are days when the boys are restless and distractable and there are some things that just don't work well then!

9) Rosetta Stone (Spanish) - I'm really impressed with this. You can choose to set it to 'listening and speaking' and the software kind of tunes itself to the boys' voices. They haven't done anything via a computer before (we don't have ipads and smartphones and things), but can use the mouse well enough. They like being able to do this independently, and because all three boys are learning, we often hear them using Spanish in their play. We are also trying to learn the main local language here, but that is going less well - they prefer the interactive Rosetta stone interface to a young man coming to the house!

10) Music - we've been doing this independently with music school and choir, but I am ordering the Recorder elective from Sonlight to build on what they are already doing

11) Art - we tend to do quite a lot of drawing and painting anyway, but Artistic Pursuits is providing some ideas and guidance. I'm getting an art appreciation book from Sonlight K, to try and introduce them further to different styles.

12) Sport - again, we've been doing this independently and as a co-op, but there is a book on Home Education physical activity as an elective under K, and so we've ordered that for some fresh ideas for games that we can do on compound (and ideally involve the other children on compound too).

13) Play! Whilst there are so many marvellous resources, we also need to let them be children and to play! We try to let them play freely, but encourage them to use their imaginations and build on some of the things they have been reading about. Swiss Family Robinson is a favourite, and they love building shelters, weaving from fallen palm trees and today build beautiful structures from some bamboo they found whilst out walking. We also have childhood classics - lego, trainset and so forth. We do try and make sure everything has some kind of educational benefit, and it's lovely to watch them create and construct.

So, in summary, we've loved Sonlight. The individual lessons are quite short, but it builds up day after day. There is flexibility so of course you can do more one day and less the next, or take days off whenever you wish or need. There is no hurry. We tend to double up in the few days before an exciting event, and the boys don't really even notice. I love the diversity and flexibility and that they want to discuss so many things. This year we are adding in quite a few extra things that are supported by the Sonlight curriculum.

I must also comment that the customer service and advice provided by the Sonlight team is excellent. If you are not sure what to buy, or how to make the materials work for multiple children, they can advise. Similarly if you wish to pick and choose from the materials, that can be done. Prior to buying, you can have an advisor check over your 'shopping cart' to be sure you are ordering everything you need with no duplications or major omissions. I've been very impressed by this.

Yes, sometimes it gets tiring to constantly answer questions and have deep discussions about the meaning of life! But on the other hand, it for these kind of opportunities that homeschooling is really perfect - we can follow their interests, their curiosity, their questions and their concerns. There is space to speed up or slow down according to aptitude or interest, and you can easily school different ages and ability of children.

I'll likely write more about some of the specific topics on other occasions, and particularly about the new resources we are ordering this year for the first time.


  1. Great write up. Thanks so much for sharing, Kondwani! So glad to hear you are loving Sonlight as a family! [smile]


  2. Thanks Luke - yes, it is certainly a wonderful fit for our family, and we are extremely thankful for the work that has gone into preparing the materials.