Monday, 20 February 2017

Sonlight: Review of Year 2/ Planning Year 3

Somehow, despite it being mid-February, we have reached week 29 of a 36 week curriculum. Actually, I understand why we are a little ahead of what we might have expected. You see, the whole reason we chose Sonlight was that it was a perfect match for our family. Even before we moved to having more structure, the backbone of our family life has been reading books together. Sonlight really embraces this as both a wonderful learning opportunity and also a time to build strong family relationships. And for us, if we have days where we are not reading together for several hours, something feels missing: the children can be restless, the parents are not quite sure what to do, and we'd all much prefer to settle down on the sofa and read. So, for that reason, we don't take many breaks. Even if we have a day or two off some of the 'table' subjects like maths and spelling, we find it can be very easy to catch up on these by the end of the week. So we just keep ticking over.

As I look ahead to the next year, I find it helpful to consider each subject in terms of what we have enjoyed most, what has been challenging, and whether we need to set any specific goals for the next year.

1) Bible. This year, we've been going through Leading Little Ones to God. Somebody gave me a copy of this years ago, and I was not so keen on it, but actually we've found it very helpful. The boys have a very good knowledge of the Bible and memory verses, but don't always understand the application of these verses. LLOTG has a very gentle, conversational style and discusses how the wonderful truths might apply to our lives. There is then a recommendation for a hymn and a prayer; we have rarely used the hymn in the book (we have known few of them) but I ask the boys to choose a song they think matches what they have learnt. I also have some copies of Christian Hymns - I am keen that whilst we are living in east Africa and singing in many languages, that they don't miss out on the rich heritage of hymns that is there. I love starting the day with a devotional time, and I pray this is a habit that goes with the boys as they grow (and my daughter - I tend to talk about 'the boys' since she is only 17 months old, and we aren't really focussing on her specific educational needs at the current time). I'm not sure what the Bible materials that go with Level C are, but I'd be equally happy to repeat this year, or go back over Ergermeier's storybook Bible from last year.

2) Language arts. My boys have been doing Grade 2 and Grade 3 language arts and readers. This is something I love about the Sonlight programme (I am sure it may be the case for other curricula too - I just haven't explored these). My older boys are both aged 7, but have quite different learning styles. One is quick to rush ahead (sometimes rushes a bit too much) but can write screeds and screeds of reasonable quality English, and is reading everything he can get his hands on, and reading fluently (for example, now he often wants to read the Bible passage at cell group, and does so perfectly). The other boy is making steady progress but really lacks in self-confidence. If he feels too much 'put on the spot', he gives a really silly answer, or writes a word completely incorrectly, almost as though he chooses not to try, so as not to fail. I came across this when I read John Holt's 'How Children Learn' a couple of years ago, and immediately recognised my son in what was described. Partly for this reason also, it is good to have him working at a different level to his brother; there is not a feeling of competition or of failure. An interesting thing is that they often are covering similar themes, since there is a spiral curriculum. So one can encourage and reinforce things for the other, and it's been interesting to hear the less confident boy remind his older brother what an adverb is, for example. I like the fact that the lessons are simple, but build on one another; I also love that as homeschooling parents, we know what they have covered and what they may have struggled with. So we can later on say something like, 'Describe how you ran across the sports field, using at least two adverbs' and they will often do it well. Or, 'Thank Daddy for dinner, but you can't use the same words you usually do', and encourage wider vocabulary. Often we write letters home, and we can sneakily bring in some of the themes. I particularly like Brave Writer too, since there is a very natural approach to writing (I love her concept of 'stealth attacks' - this is something that has worked well for us.) For both levels, the readers have been great; they don't just have increasingly complex language, but the stories are good too and the boys love them. They are hungry to read more. Next year, I'm just going to keep going - LA3 and LA4, and for the one who is about to turn five, he will probably start LA1 a couple of months in. We are using Explode the Code with the four year old, with which he has a love-hate relationship. But he is steadily learning. I've never been that convinced by phonics programmes - they seem to learn quite well just through reading.

3) Handwriting. We use Handwriting without Tears and the three boys are on three different levels. The younger one is very pleased to sit up with his own book and work alongside his brothers. We haven't encountered any particular challenges with handwriting, and generally find it a nice, user-friendly programme. So, next year, we will just continue also! (We have modified some of the letters slightly when it comes to cursive; we found some of the additional loops made it quite hard to read, and so we've made some of the letters a bit simpler, more like what both parents were taught. I think that's fine, so long as we are consistent).

4) Science. We are on Science B, but often flip back to some of the activities of Science A. All three boys have their scientific notebooks and enjoy having a hypothesis and then designing an experiment to test that. I am really quite impressed by the way scientific discipline is taught from a very young age; my school education seemed to be more about memorising facts, and it was only at University, or even as a postgraduate, that I really started to understand what hypothesis-driven research was. We are currently enjoying the story of Pasteur, and the way his enquiring mind is described has captivated the children. They also enjoy the Discover and Do DVDs - these can be great when it is really hot or stormy out, and they just need a bit of chill out time. They find them hilarious, but also are learning to question from them (especially my boy who is a bit less confident - he is really strong on science and figuring things out, and I can almost imagine him being an engineer!) We tend to supplement the science materials with other books we have to hand, or activities that come naturally. My husband and I are both medical doctors and I am a postdoctoral scientist as well, so I think we tend to have a natural inclination towards the scientific; but I am cautious not to be complacent in that, and to provide the children with the materials to learn and explore for themselves. We enjoyed the studies on nature and the different wildlife that is found in different parts of the world; because we've lived in a few different places, this captivated them. We also watch as many nature documentaries as we can get our hands on - the classical David Attenborough ones, but they have also loved Gordon Buchanan and his team who use a lot of complicated photography to explore unanswered enigmas.

5) Maths. We use Singapore Maths, and I particularly like the 'mastery' approach - to go deeper rather than faster. This is useful when I have two boys who are almost, but not perfectly in synch with one another. Sometimes one needs just a little bit longer, and rather than having the other rush ahead, I can get him to do some of the more challenging problems. Whereas in Language Arts, it has felt beneficial to separate them, it would feel wrong to do so for maths. The four year old is doing Level K, and again, likes to do his maths at the same time as his brothers do theirs. I try to bring in games where ever possible, particularly to help them memorise number facts (addition and subtraction, multiplication). Some are simple games using the flashcards, and others involve jumping around (which with boys is often necessary). Often I am surprised by the four year old chiming in with answers, quietly learning alongside his brothers. As with the other areas, we try and reinforce concepts as often as possible through daily life - for example, counting in the market, measurement when cooking and so forth. We've got a small bag with British money in it, so that they can be at least a bit familiar with the money 'from home'. I suppose being familiar with several currencies might be a strength, but that is one area which  is a bit confusing. We have our local currency, and other things here are done in US Dollars. The Singapore Maths we use is the US edition, so more dollars. Dollars and cents are OK, but I do get confused with nickels and dimes! For next year, we are just going to continue. If you use Sonlight, remember to get the 'extra practice' books (I forgot with my first order).

6) History, geography and world cultures. So, we are using Level B, and will progress to Level C. We like the structure a lot. I know many parents say this, but Sonlight really is 'the education I wish I had had'. They know so much more about the world than I did at their age (and even when much older). For us, having lived in several countries and having a very multi-cultural friendship group, it is great to learn about each of these cultures. We like to build upon what we are reading by cooking meals from different places and if we have friends from somewhere we have read about, asking them to tell us more. I've got a stack of missionary biographies aimed at children from about 8-12 (Trail Blazers) and we've been slipping these in at what seem to be appropriate places.

7) Spanish. We are using Rosetta Stone. I think the biggest challenge is scheduling. Most of the activities noted above take place between 8 and 11am, and then the children go out to play, the baby gets up and joins them, it's lunchtime and then we might be going somewhere in the afternoon. To come back in to do Spanish can feel burdensome (to the boys!). The younger seven year old, the one who is a bit less confident in some areas, is the most committed to language learning and has very good pronunciation. I hope to bring a bit more structure into this next year - maybe aiming for 2 lessons each per week or something. I  am aware that this is the age when they can learn languages far more easily, and so don't want to miss the opportunity. I'd like to get hold of some CDs to listen to, maybe some Spanish Christian music or something. I need to spend a little time searching.

8) Art. This goes in fits and starts. Around Christmas, we did plenty of art and craft, and there are other times where we make huge paintings, or some other complicated project. Then we will do nothing for a few weeks. We have the Artistic Pursuits book, but this year I forgot to order the consumables, and we can't get much out here. So, this year, I'll get the consumables and try and aim for at least a lesson a week - probably on a Friday, which is often quite a quiet day. It is interesting to see how the boys are all interested in art at different times - they will all go through phases when they can sit at the table for quite a long time drawing or colouring, whereas at other times they are not interested. A challenge in homeschooling is trying to keep that natural curiosity and rhythm - not to force them to do things, and so stamp enthusiasm out of them, but at the same time, to encourage practice and discipline. (I suppose I also need to remember that they are still quite young!)

9) Sports. We are blessed with a homeschool sports co-op which does a different sport each term. We've had swimming, athletics, field hockey, basketball and football. I like they way they are exposed to a range of sports, and also it's a great opportunity to meet other local home educators. In between that, we try to do a range of games (I love Homeschool Family Fitness for ideas) and ride bikes up and down the road outside when it is quiet. We usually walk 3-5 Km every day, and on Sunday mornings we all go for a run (except the toddler).

10) Read alouds. I nearly forgot one of the best things! Children learn so much from being read to, and the Sonlight team choose a really good selection of books that are often more than just nice stories - they often bring in elements of history, world cultures, character and so forth. It is really nice to be able to start reading and be fairly confident that I won't get any unexpected shocks or have to rapidly start editing as I read. We enjoyed all the Level B books. We added a few extras - some more Boxcar Children, revisiting Little House in the Big Woods and some of the following stories, a few Jungle Doctors, and as I already mentioned, quite a few biographies. I love that learning can be so natural and enjoyable, and I often find myself encouraged, inspired and uplifted as we read together, and that is important in this season of life where it can be busy, and I can feel a little drawn in many different directions.

So, all in all, it's been a good year, and we are particularly thankful for the way most of this just feels so very natural, just really building upon our family life. I love the way homeschooling does allow for flexibility - we had some sickness and went a bit slower for a week, we had swimming camp for three weeks, so covered two weeks of materials over that time, and at some point we might return to the UK for a month or two, and again the pace would change (oh, just think of the museums, art galleries, docks, parks, libraries, friends to catch up with...) I love the way there is space to add extra activities and books if we wish (without missing out on the benefits of the scheduled resources), and that we can tailor each subject to the needs of each child. There are times when I wonder whether my middle son would attract some kind of label if he was in a mainstream school; I don't think he has an educational challenge, but rather that it is some kind of confidence or personality issue. When he's relaxed he can do everything perfectly fine (spelling, maths, reading out loud etc), but when you put him on the spot, or he's in a funny mood, it can just be painful to get him to do anything, and he can get into a very negative spiral. With him, often giving him a high energy snack and sending him off to play for half an hour is enough to re-set him, and that wouldn't be possible in a classroom. I wonder how many children are given labels simply because they cannot conform to the structures of a classroom setting and working at the same rate and in the same style as 25 other children of their own age. (Actually I kind of know the answer to that, and I'm sure I'll write about it again).

There are no areas where I feel the curriculum is not matching. Occasionally we have had frustrated tears in maths, but that is more often to do with temperament - a child not listening, and then getting frustrated when he does something wrong (older seven year old), or seeing quite a number of questions, just panicking and thinking they can't do it (younger seven year old). I don't think it is a curriculum mismatch, but when this happens I try and bring in more games and supplementary activities to try and consolidate what they do know before moving on to the next topic. The other areas are all going very smoothly, and in general, I'm just going to order the next level up for next year. I also saw a workbook on logic or critical thinking which I think would go well, so will get that.

I remember when I started blogging four years ago, when we were just starting on the home education journey (and when we were facing quite a bit of opposition, as I believe many people do when they declare they are not going to follow the crowd). I really look back over those years with thankfulness. It has been wonderful to enjoy time with the children, to see each one grow and develop and to share rich time together as a family.


  1. It sounds like a great year. You almost persuade me to try Sonlight!
    Learning Little Ones to God is, in my opinion, a great book with a misleading title. I've always thought that the book suggests that it is for 2-3 year olds for whom it is far too old. We used it a couple of years ago when the younger children were about 6 and 8 when it was really appropriate. We are currently using The Ology and have been pleased with this but it isn't long enough to last a whole year.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! So encouraging ... and I love that you are enjoying Discover and Do [smile]. May you continue to find joy in your homeschooling journey as you spend time learning together.


    1. Discover and Do is their favourite thing to watch - they discovered the 'out-takes' this week, and think Justin is the funniest person in the whole world. They even play games where somebody gets to be Justin!

  3. I enjoyed reading how much you love sonlight! We are gong to be first-time sonlighters and I'm going to be sharing our journey on YouTube!

    1. I look forward to hearing how you got on. For us, it has been one of the best decisions ever, and I am always very excited to hear about others having a similar adventure!