Thursday, 31 March 2011

More Peter and Jane - 6a!

I introduced Emily to Peter and Jane Book 6a for the first time this evening and was pleasantly surprised when she read the first four pages of the book without much assistance.  I'm so glad that she seems to be more receptive to the Peter and Jane series.  Now that we are past the mind-numbingly boring Levels 1 and 2, Emily genuinely looks forward to reading about Peter, Jane, their friend Pam and their dogs.  Phew!

Book 6a
Of late, our approach has been not to rush Emily into reading more and more words. We have not been "coaching" her by drilling her with flashcards or forcing her to learn to read words off a list. 

Instead, we have been encouraging her to recognise that reading is a useful skill in day-to-day life.  We encourage her to read everything - certain words in newspaper headlines, shop names, road signs, brochure headings... and we praise her when she gets something right.   For example, this evening, as we drove into Clementi Arcade, Emily read the sign, "Cold Storage - The Fresh Food People". 

I have to say, it is pure joy to witness Emily's glee when she realises that the symbols and letters which she has been seeing around her are actually words and strings of words that make sense in context.  And that's priceless!


There is nothing Emily enjoys more than a good craft session and I bought her a suncatcher craft set to work on recently.  Everything she needed was in the kit - two suncatchers connected to a key chain and tubes of coloured gel.  

We started working on craft projects together in early 2010 when Emily was about two and a half years old.  When we first started, we would go to craft shops/ stands in shopping centres like Thomson Plaza and Emily would use the gel paint provided to make window stickers.  Each project would cost about $5-$8, which was a fair price to pay for an activity that kept Emily occupied for a good half hour or so.  I felt the craft projects were fun keepsakes and I also noticed that Emily's attention span got longer and longer over time. When we first started, her mind would wander and she would spill paint into the "wrong" section or blend the colours when she hadn't meant to do this.  However, as time went on, she became more focussed and would concentrate for longer on each project.  Sure beats television, don't you think?

Working on the swan suncatcher
Pretty fish!

The finished products - we had to leave them out to dry overnight

Monday, 28 March 2011

Being grateful...

It's important to me that I raise children who are grateful for the many blessings in their lives.  There's a lot on the internet about raising grateful children.  For example, this article talks about the UC Davis Gratitude Research Project which found that people who are grateful report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.

I had occasion to discuss this with Emily recently.  A very kind and thoughtful colleague bought her two beautiful books - How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers and A Child's Introduction to Poetry by Michael Driscoll. 

Emily has enjoyed the books and I suggested that she make a "thank you" card for my colleague.  We put a painting which Emily had done earlier on the cover of the card and Emily wrote some of the words inside the card. 


It was a fun project and most importantly, Emily paused for a moment in her busy, activity-filled day to be grateful and thankful - that someone (who herself is very busy) had taken the time to think of her. 

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Money, money, money!

We've reached the first lesson on money with RSM.  Emily had been eye-ing the plastic play coins which came with our RSM materials since the very first day, and she was pleased when we finally reached a lesson involving the use of coins.

I'd read ahead and realised that we probably could not use the coins provided because we do not use pennies, nickels and dimes in Singapore, and I wanted the money lessons to relate to real-life situations which Emily will encounter here.  Thankfully, my mother had saved a whole box of 1-cent, 5-cent and 10-cent coins and she kindly provided me with a good selection of these coins. 

I first got Emily to sort the different coins into sauce dishes:

I then wrote some values on our whiteboard and Emily placed the corresponding coins next to the different values.  For some numbers, she needed to use her abacus to visualise the numbers, but overall, she had no great difficulty doing this exercise:

We then swopped roles.  I placed coins on the whiteboard, while Emily wrote how much the coins were worth. 

In a way, the coins are just another category of manipulatives.  Emily is now used to seeing numbers under 10 as "5 plus something" and her RSM abacus reinforces this concept using the different coloured beads.  As such, expressing coin values from 0 to 10 cents isn't at all difficult for her.

While we're on the topic of the RSM abacus, it is really proving to be a useful tool.  Emily uses it to partition values ("5 is made up of 3 and 2") and to add ("4 and 1 is 5") and is getting more and more confident with her part-whole circle worksheets.

Soon, we'll have to solve some simple money problems - I can't wait to see how she gets on with that! 

Days of the week

RSM is really multi-faced in its approach.  One of the "side" lessons which seems to come up every now and then in the syllabus is teaching children to read a calendar and to understand the days of the week.  Emily can now read the different days and order them using these colourful flashcards which I made.  She also reads and understands "today" and "tomorrow", though "yesterday" is still proving a bit trickier. 

I've been trying to reinforce this learning by showing her different desk-top calendars that we have lying around the house and getting her to cross-reference the information picked up during RSM lessons with the calendars.  Today, I got her to arrange the days in order and place the "today" and "tomorrow" cards in the right place. 

After I had done this and had gone off to sort out some of our scrapbooking materials, I heard her saying to herself, in Mandarin, "today is is 2011 and it is March the 27th".  (At some point earlier in the lesson, I had referred to the calendar to date one of Emily's RSM worksheets and said out loud, "wow, is it the 27th already?")  

I was gob-smacked! I guess they do learn in nursery!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Abacus Addition

Today, Emily solved some simple addition problems on the abacus and using the part-whole circle concept. For example, if Mimi caught 6 fish in the morning and 3 fish in the afternoon, how many fish did she catch that day? I made worksheets for Emily based on the material covered in today's RSM lesson and asked Emily to use her tally sticks, abacus and finally, the part-whole circles to solve the problem.

We even managed what appeared to me to be a simple subtraction question using the abacus - Peter had 5 books and he returned 4 books. How many books does Peter have now?

The only problem we could not solve was a "missing start" problem - Matt took 2 more crackers. Now he has 5.  How many did he have to start?

I'm really not sure how best to use the abacus to solve this type of problem.  Any suggestions would be most welcome!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Travel Lapbook

Our first lapbook was about a cruise to Spain, Morocco, Portugal and France which we took late last year.  Lapbooking while on holiday is a unique challenge. I prepared some of the materials beforehand and we had planned to use any free time we could find to work on the lapbook while we were on holiday.  We ended up doing some of the activities on the ship, but the main focus during the trip ended up being "resource-gathering" (because you always end up having too much to do while on holiday!) and we only completed most of the mini-books after we returned home. 

The cover of the lapbook features a simple watercolour, titled "A Mosque in Casablanca" which Emily helped to do.  The focus of the "Odyssey at Sea" art workshop we attended was on using watercolour paint blocks as the starting point for semi-abstract pieces about places we had visited.  Emily chose the colours for her block, painted it and stamped it on the art paper.  She then dictated what she saw in the colours and I helped her paint some elements. 

This is a view of the lapbook when its cover is open.  We divided the lapbook into three main parts - the centre column is about Spain, since we spent the most time there, while the two side columns are about Portugal and France. 

Portugal - we talked about Portugal's flag and some simple facts about Portugal.  We also devoted a mini-book to beautiful Madeira, with photographs of certain scenes we saw and a counting exercise involving banana trees (a native crop). 

Spain - we coloured the Spanish flag and this exercise meant that Emily got very excited every time we saw the flag during our shore excursions!  We also added in some simple geography (identifying where in Europe Spain is situated) and some sections on flamenco and other forms of dance.  A highlight of our Spain activities was that Emily got dressed up in a flamenco outfit, complete with matching shoes and fan - definitely her idea of a good time!

France - we coloured the French flag and also did some tracing work with simple words like "hello", "bonjour", "thank you", "merci", "goodbye" and "au revoir". 

Finally, we included a mini-book on the different modes of travel we used on the trip, as Emily has always been particularly interested in trams and trains. 

On the back of the lapbook, we traced our flight path from Singapore to Barcelona, and Emily chose some of her favourite postcards to be featured.

Overall, I think this was a nice way to break into lapbooking.  It became apparent to us that children enjoy reading about their own adventures and experiences, and it was heartening that Emily was keen to flip through her mini-books again and again, long after the trip!  We haven't done a travel lapbook since (there has been no travelling of late!) but we'd definitely do one again.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Consonant Blends and Part-Whole Circles

They say time flies when you're having fun.  This evening, we whizzed through almost two hours of homeschooling at the kitchen's breakfast counter and it really didn't seem like we were sitting there that long!

It was our first day attempting proper instruction in consonant blends and we covered one Letterland lesson's worth of blends this evening - "bl", "gl", "sl", "fl", "cl" and "pl".   We worked through the word suggestions in the Teacher's Guide and listened to our Blends and Digraphs CD.  Unfortunately, the songs for these blends aren't as memorable as the clever stories Letterland uses for "ch", "sh" and "th".  But thankfully, Emily still appears to have grasped the sounds involved and she was able to identify the blends when we tried out one of the exercises in the guide. 

Emily with her Golden Girl and Lucy Lamplight cards

A worksheet I made to test if Emily understood the blends covered and to see if she could read some of these words.  She did really well with it and only got confused with "plane" and "plate" (needing me to point out that one word had a "nnnn" sound, while the other one had a "ttttt" ending).
For Mathematics, I introduced a new concept - the part-whole circle set - to Emily this evening.  The basic idea is that you have the "whole" in a large circle and this value can be "partitioned" into two smaller component numbers, as written in two smaller circles below the large circle.

Emily really enjoyed doing the worksheets.  Each worksheet consisted of six sets of blank part-whole circles.  Emily was able to choose the numbers to place in each "whole" circle and the numbers to place in each "part" circle as long as these were Mathematically-correct. 

We finished one worksheet, involving six circles, and I was just about ready to call it a night, but Emily insisted on doing a second worksheet and finished it without fuss!  I was glad that she attempted the second worksheet because it gave her an opportunity to realise that if she wrote "0" in the whole circle, she had to fill in "0"s in both part circles. 

Besides teaching her the concept of how a certain value (like "5") is the sum of two smaller values (like "2" and "3", or "1" and "4"), the worksheets gave her some practice in writing numbers.  On this front, she's definitely improved since we started on RSM though further practice is definitely needed.

Emily's Part-Whole Circles #1

Emily's Part-Whole Circles #2

More Mathematics!

We've been moving through the RSM curriculum at a steady trot over the past few days.  RSM provides different types of representations for each number from 0 to 10 - the abacus, Place-Value Cards (which are cards with the numerals, "1", "2", "3", etc printed on them), tally sticks, fingers and other representations (we use colourful round magnets) - and we've been working on ensuring that Emily can translate between the different representations.  This means that she must understand how to show the value "8" and other values from 0 to 10 using each of the representations listed above.  So far, she seems to find this very easy and we've been able to go at a steady pace.

This is what 8 looks like in RSM
Last night's lesson was particularly fun as we got to introduce some new manipulatives, including the Finger Cards which show the different number values using pictures of fingers.  We also played a memory game with the Bead Cards provided by RSM. 

Both the Finger and Bead Cards came printed on good-quality cardstock as part of the Level A and B Appendices, which you can buy as an add-on, and which came highly recommended by Angie of Teaching Our Own.  I did, however, have to cut out the cards which took a bit of preparation time.

Bead Cards Memory Game
The memory game works like this.  Each number from 1 to 10 is represented by a picture of beads, similar to the beads on Emily's abacus.  There are two identical cards for 1, two identical cards for 2, etc. 

I shuffled the 20 cards and placed the cards face down on the table.  Emily then got to turn over two cards at a go and had to identify what value each card showed.  If the two cards matched, she got to keep the cards.  If they did not match, she had to return the cards to their face down position, and it was then my turn. 

She had no problems identifying the cards after some practice (incidentally, it's actually not easy recognising nine beads at a glance!).  But what really amazed me was Emily's ability to remember where cards were, many moves after she had first uncovered them.  In fact, she rarely made "mistakes" and hardly turned over the wrong card once she had seen a particular card once.  Amazing stuff!
Emily "challenging" my helper to a Bead Cards Memory Game a day after beating me at it!
I will be introducing Part-Whole Circles in the next lesson.  I think the concept behind these circles is partitioning, i.e. that the value "5" can be partitioned into "2" and "3" or "1" and "4", for example.  This appears to be a lead-in to solving simple addition problems using the abacus.  I'm excited!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

March Holiday Fun (and Work!)

Emily loves school holidays because she doesn't have to attend school and the family makes a special effort to line up fun activities for her.  This morning, she worked on writing numbers 0-10 using RSM worksheets.

She then did a trial class at Art Boot Camp at Turf City and painted a gorgeous work on canvas featuring a girl ("me! me!") and a house ("that's our house!")....

...which included blow-drying the canvas at strategic junctures
(presumably to prevent different paint colours from bleeding into one another)...

...she was extremely proud of the finished product...

...and promptly declared, "I want to do art class AGAIN!"


This evening, we did RSM, completing the lesson just before place values are introduced (eeks! wish us luck for the next lesson!).  We also made a calendar to teach Emily about days of the week.  We ended the evening with Peter and Jane.  Emily showed off by reading Levels 2 and 3 to me (we seem to have misplaced our 4a and 4b books).  She also read from Book 5a, which is about the family's visit to the farm and other places.  We'll need to work with Level 5 a bit more until I let her move on to the next level of books, though I have been trying to motivate Emily to make progress with the promise that Book 6a is about going on a holiday!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

How we teach sight words

Sight words are very common words that efficient readers recognise instantly and automatically without having to resort to "sounding out" tricks used in phonics.  When we first embarked on a reading programme with Emily about three and a half months ago, we realised that Emily already knew a few nouns.  These were mainly words that interested her, such as "cake", "princess", "pink" and "dog".  However, she could recognise very few sight words and certainly could not recognise many important connective words like "of", "and", "the" and "for".   It soon became apparent that Emily had very little interest in these "boring" words. 

This lack of interest combined with a lack of guidance on non-phonics-based methods made the prospect of teaching sight words extremely daunting! I even went through a phase when I thought that I could rely on phonics alone, before quickly realising that a large percentage of commonly-used words cannot be read using phonics tools. 

My first attempt at teaching sight words was with Book 1a and 1b of the Peter and Jane Ladybird series.  Emily was bored to tears by the books and did not seem to learn any of the words featured in the books.  While I initially contemplated looking for other readers or shelving the whole idea of readers altogether, we eventually skipped Level 1 and moved to Book 2a, on the advice of another mum.  Thankfully, Emily seemed to enjoy Book 2a much more.  We had also made good progress with Letterland, which gave Emily more words to work with, and her progress took off from there. 

Over time, I have developed the following strategies for teaching sight words:
  1. Use flashcards - I don't accept that Emily has learnt a sight word until she passes the "flashcard test", i.e. she can identify the word when I show her a handwritten flashcard with the word on it.  I started using flashcards when I realised that very often, children have memorised a book or learnt to "read" words by putting them in context with the rest of a sentence.  By requiring Emily to pass the "flashcard test", I am assured that she recognises the word in isolation.  We use plain white blank cards from Popular and I write on these cards with a thick black marker pen.  We have two piles of flashcards - one for words that we're currently learning and playing games with and one for words which Emily already knows.  
  2. Make it relevant to the child - We play a variety of games to teach sight words.  For example, my mother came up with a role-playing game called Emily's Family Restaurant.  Emily has to walk around and take her "customers'" orders.  Depending on what is ordered, she has to write a tick next to the correct word on her order sheet.  This forces her to recognise words such as "water", "wine", "chicken", "pasta" and "pizza".  We also make mini-books with content that is relevant to her, such as a book about how she made a bear at the Build a Bear Workshop and a book about her activities for the week. 
  3. Be prepared to take drastic measures for problem words - Emily had difficulty learning the all-important word, "the".  I made different sized and different coloured flashcards featuring the word "the" and stuck these all over Emily's room and bathroom.  When she woke up, she saw a pink "the" card in front of her.  When she used the bathroom, she saw a green "the" card which I had pasted on the bathroom mirror.  When she opened her bedroom door to leave her room, there was a large "the" flashcard right in front of her.  It may seem excessive, but I can tell you that she learned to read the word "the" within 24 hours!  And we've seen the same success with other challenging words like "where", "little" and "one".   
  4. Peter and Jane - Despite a rocky start, we now use these readers at home at least two or three times a week.  Some useful resources on how to "teach" reading using Peter and Jane are available here and here.  I refuse to read the Peter and Jane books to Emily (as she has a superb memory, I am always fearful that she will memorise the text instead of learning to read it).  Instead, I make Emily read the books to me.  If she struggles with a particular word, I encourage her to "sound it out" (if possible) or I tell her the word and hope that she figures it out via repetition over time.  If a particular word is posing difficulty, I adopt the strategies outlined above.  During our reading sessions, if Emily starts to show disinterest or becomes distracted, I will usually offer to put the book away, which almost always causes her to sit up and try harder.  On occasion, I have asked one of her little teddy bears (his name is "DJ") to join our reading sessions.  I make DJ pretend to struggle with a word or a sentence, and this usually encourages Emily to participate by correcting DJ or helping him out with the word or sentence. 
  5. Variety, variety, variety - We're constantly trying out new games and activities to teach sight words.  We use Peter and Jane every few days and I also use Emily's flashcards from time to time to construct sentences for Emily to read.  Besides working through the Peter and Jane series, we are also working through the Dolch Sight Words list.
I'm happy to say that we've made significant progress in just three and a half months. 

This is a Level 3 book in the Peter and Jane series.
My aim was for Emily to be able to read simple books by the time Nicholas arrived, and I think she's just about there.  She can now read Levels 1-4 of Peter and Jane, and she can read about 50%-60% of Book 5a.  She can also read all the words in the Dolch Pre-Primer list and about 75% of the words in the Dolch Primer list. 

Our collection of Ladybird books
"Don't fix it if it ain't broke", they say, and we certainly plan to stick with what we've been doing and hope that we'll continue to make progress.


At Emily's school, no English is taught until the K1 year, which is the year she turns five.  When I realised that some Nursery-year children in other schools were being exposed to phonics, I decided to home-teach phonics, using the Letterland system, as part of our reading programme.

In Letterland, each letter is a character.  For example, "a" is Annie Apple, "b" is a (bunny) rabbit named "Bouncy Ben" and so on.  There are alphabet songs for each letter which teach the relevant phonetic sounds as well as handwriting songs to teach students how to write each letter.  Combination sounds like "ch" or "sh" are taught using easy-to-remember stories which build on the character stories taught earlier.  For example, when Sammy Snake ("s") slithers alongside Harry Hat Man ("h"), who likes his peace and quiet, Harry Hat Man responds by shushing Sammy Snake up - the sound he makes is "shhhhhhh"!

It all seemed rather clever and fun to me, so I made a few phone calls and did internet searches.  In Singapore, Letterland products are sold by a distributor named Francis Wan or via retail at Elm Tree shops in Suntec City and Paragon.  The range of Letterland products on offer is extensive and mind-boggling!

These are the ones we are using with Emily:

Letterland Teacher's Guide

This is my bible as far as teaching Letterland goes. We follow the lesson plans religiously, though we have often been able to go faster than prescribed and we have also skipped lessons or activity suggestions when it's clear that Emily has already grasped the material. 

We sped through the a-z Phonemic Awareness Fast Track (which is supposed to provide a quick, 3.5 week "lift off strategy" to expose students to the alphabetic code) in about two weeks, and moved through the next section on onsets and rimes fairly quickly.  The next section, which covered initial sounds like "sh", "th" and "ch" as well as ending or medial sounds like "ck", "-ll", "-ff", "-ss" and "-ng" took us a bit longer and we are now starting on consonant blends like "bl", "fl", "br", "scr" and "thr", which is what I imagine we'll be busy with for some time.

The final section in the Teacher's Guide is the section covering digraphs and trigraphs, where students are taught to handle long vowel sounds as well as combinations like "ar", "or", "ir", er", "oo" and "ear".

I love the Teacher's Guide and I think it's worth every penny if you are planning to teach Letterland at home, without any school-teacher support.  The guide also contains useful appendices, an easy-to-access Activity Bank (with games to reinforce learning), reading and spelling lists for older children and worksheet copymasters.  What's not to love?

Living ABC Software, the ABC Book and the Beyond ABC Book

The Living ABC CD-Rom allows the child to learn independently, as long as he or she can work a computer and a mouse.  Emily adored this software programme from the start.  She can choose which Letterland character to learn about and within each character's sub-menu, she can choose to hear the character's story, alphabet song or handwriting song.  There are also games on blending and word construction for more advanced children. 

The ABC book covers the character's story and each story also uses words featuring the relevant letter sound.  You can probably use this book alone, without relying on the software - and that would certainly be a more cost-effective option - but the book does require a high level of parental involvement and guidance, which may be an issue for busy parents. Letterland recommends that parents whose children are being taught Letterland in school buy this book to reinforce learning at home. 

Emily has shown less interest in this book.  I suspect that is because much of the material is covered in the software programme.

The Beyond ABC book is like the ABC book, save that it covers consonant blends and long vowel sounds.  We use it with the Blends and Digraphs Songs CD, but again, Emily prefers listening to the songs to being read to from the book.

Vocabulary Cards and Straight Picture Code Cards

We used these large vocabulary cards (designed to be used in schools) during the a-z phonemic awareness stage.  You can use them to play Word Sort games - for example, when we play these games, I hand Emily the picture code cards for Annie Apple ("a"), Golden Girl ("g"), Eddy Elephant ("e") and Munching Mike ("m").  I then give her the vocabulary cards for words like giraffe, monkey, egg and ant, and she has to figure out which vocabulary cards should be paired with which picture code card.  We also plan to use the vocabulary cards later on to develop the skill of "reading by analogy" as the underside of each card provides a list of "analogous" words - for example, "monkey" is linked with "donkey", "turkey" and "key".

We've used some of the picture code cards to introduce the Letterland characters, to teach consonant blends and to build words. In the pack I bought, these are featured on narrow cards.  Digraphs and trigraphs are featured on wide cards in the same pack and I expect that we'll soon be using more of these wide cards when we move on to digraphs and trigraphs, though we've already had to use some of the wide cards to teach "ng", "th" etc.


Blends and Digraphs Songs
We are also looking forward to using this CD to teach consonant blends like "gr" and "st" as well as digraphs like "ew" and "ir".  To give you an idea of how these songs teach the relevant sounds, the "ew" song's lyrics are:  I knew the Walrus had in mind/ a few new splashing tricks/ I knew I had to stop him/ or I'd be in a fix./ With this in view I also knew/ the shrewdest thing to do/ just squirt at him - and/ that is why he cries, "oo, you, oo you!"

All in all, I have been very pleased with Letterland and our progress on this programme.  It is a fun and interesting programme, and you can tell that much thought has gone into structuring the programme and crafting the stories for each letter and each letter combination.  I expect that when we put more emphasis on writing in the future, the handwriting songs will come in handy as well.  The materials, while on the expensive side (particularly if you buy teaching materials designed for classroom-use, as I have been doing), are well-made and the use of bold pictures and bright colours is super when you're dealing with young children. 

After just three months on Letterland, Emily is able to identify all her letter sounds as well as certain combination sounds.  She can also do basic blending. 

We only have 21 more lessons to get to the end of the Teacher's Guide, and while I think we'll have to go at a slower pace now that we're at consonant blends, digraphs and trigraphs, I don't expect we'll have problems finishing the syllabus by the end of the year.  There is an Advanced Teacher's Guide to move on to thereafter, but I haven't looked at that yet and I have no idea if we will move on to that or just stop at this syllabus. 

So, yes, we are Letterland fans!  You would be too if your child asks for Letterland lessons almost every day and despite having taken a two-week break from Letterland, recently deciphered the word "mitt" by whispering to herself, "mmmm....Impy Ink says 'i' in words....Talking Tess says 'tttt'...MITT."  Enough said.