On: Unmistakable Feedback (And Some Thoughts on Spelling, Too)

Last spring my daughter finished her spelling book, closed it, and turned to me and announced “Just so you know, mom, I didn’t learn anything by doing this book.”

It was a turning point for me. I finally started to listen to my children.

I went from being a thoughtful, flexible, eclectic homeschooler to being an unschooler. I am finally really listening to my kids and letting them make their own choices when it comes to learning.

You see, when you homeschool, your children will give you unmistakable feedback. But as homeschooling parents, most of us think we know what is best. Sure, we listen to our kids and try to be flexible, but we’ve been around the block a few times and we know what our kids need to learn and how best to learn it. Right? And of course, the experts that write and publish curricula know even more, don’t they? Oh dear, does that sound a bit like school?

My son and I are the same when it comes to spelling – we learned to spell through simply reading. My daughter, however, does not learn in the same way. So as her homeschooling mom, I read about different ways to help children learn to spell. Then I looked over a wide variety of materials and selected what I felt was best for her. After all, how can a second or third-grader make those kinds of decisions for herself?

But had I ever even asked my daughter if she CARED about her spelling? Had I asked her what would help her learn to spell? No, I had not. So sometime after she closed her spelling book that day, I asked. The conversation went something like this:

“How do you feel about your spelling?”
“I want to learn to spell better, mom.”
“Why do you want to improve your spelling?”
“When I email my friends, I can look at my words and I know some of them are not spelled correctly.”
“What do you think would help you learn to spell?”
And, of course, the answer was “I don’t know.”

So we discussed different strategies. We talked about finding different spelling books. “No, mom, spelling books don’t help me.” In Washburn schools, the first grade teachers are already giving their students lists of spelling words to memorize, and the kids are tested on the words every Friday. Did she want to memorize word lists? Did she want to be quizzed? “NO MOM!!!” (I just have to say, when my friends tell me stories like that about schools, I am SO grateful that my kids are homeschooled. My daughter would CRUMBLE under such pressure.)

I had to ask myself, what is most important here? And the answer was ‘relevance’. If something is relevant to our lives, we are interested in it and we learn easily. So my daughter and I decided, together, on a strategy for learning spelling. Several days per week we pick three spelling words. I try to come up with words that are relevant to something currently happening in her life. I ask her how she feels about the words. She’ll let me know if she can already spell them, or if they sound too hard. Once we settle on three words, she goes to work composing a sentence or two that contain the words. Then she figures out how to spell any difficult words. She can look them up in the dictionary or try to write them and see if they look correct. She likes to write on some large, smooth stones that she has (using a harder rock to ‘scratch’ out letters). Sometimes she will use our old alphabet blocks to spell. She can ask me or her brother for help if she gets stuck. Once she decides she is comfortable with the words, she will use a sheet of lined paper to write her sentences out on. It just so happens that in this way she is also learning composition, and she is getting a chance to work a bit on her penmanship.

Here are some examples. The first day we did this, I gave my daughter some words that I had seen her misspell, ‘pizza’, ‘cookies’, and ‘apple juice’. She went to work at her desk and after a time I asked her how she was doing. “Terrible!” was her response. I felt awful. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. She responded, “I can’t figure out how to spell ‘restaurant’!”

Cute, huh? I love how she will challenge herself beyond anything I give her. Here is one more fun example. One day last fall a red squirrel was in our tall pine tree and he kept dropping huge pinecones down while my kids played underneath, dodging the pinecones. It was great fun! The next day my daughter and I picked ‘squirrel’, ‘bruise’, and ‘pinecone’ for her spelling words. The sentence she came up with was, “The squirrel got a bad bruise when the pinecone fell on top of him.” This is what I mean by relevant.

My daughter loves these opportunities to be creative while at the same time learning. Many of her sentences are about her brother; some get quite silly. We do other things to help her learn to spell. She continues to read prolifically from a wide variety of sources including very challenging ones, and I know that seeing words over and over is helpful. Occasionally I will suggest that she do some ‘copywork’, copying down a sentence or paragraph from a story she has read and enjoyed. One day when she was doing this, the book that she was copying from kept closing and so she would memorize a few words, let the book close, write the words from memory, then open the book again. At first I was going to offer her something to help hold the book open, but then I realized that the way she was doing it herself was probably a far better way to learn spelling!

My daughter enjoys these activities, and guess what? Her spelling has improved. After three years of doing spelling books and seeing no improvement, her spelling has improved by leaps and bounds in the six or seven months since I started listening to her.

If you need ideas about spelling, I hope you find some useful ones in my writing. But I want to reiterate my initial reason for writing this: your children will give you unmistakable feedback. As a homeschooling family, you are in the best position possible to actually listen. And together, you learn.



3 thoughts on “On: Unmistakable Feedback (And Some Thoughts on Spelling, Too)

  1. Thanks for sharing Kim! I often love the ideas presented by the unschooling philosophy but struggle with knowing if my children will actually be self-directed learners and really ‘learn’ anything at all. Great ideas!

    • Thanks so much for writing! I’ve had to muddle along and find my way to this ‘place’. You’ll find what works best for your family if you trust your instincts (don’t listen to other people’s concerns) and keep your mind open to possibilities! Look at how much your children learned as toddlers and preschoolers without any formal instruction, just due to their own curiosity and insistence on understanding (and your guidance and interactions with them). And keep in mind, some unschooling can look very much like traditional school. My son is currently working his way through a math text and also taking an online language course. The difference between school and unschool here is that he is totally invested in these activities because he wants to learn these things. Your kids will make good choices! Good luck, and thanks again for taking the time to write.

  2. What a great example of collaborative learning! To give our children the chance to learn how it is that they learn best and the power to shape their lives around what they discover is one of homeschooling’s great possibilities. Here is a similar story from my experience. One day my older child came in from yet another stint of keeping the next door neighbor company while she waited for the big yellow bus. This neighbor often extolled the wonders of school (at least at this age; I think they were in second or third grade) and this particular morning the subject was worksheets. Now I had detested worksheets in my own student days and so I was not about to stoop to such busy work in my homeschooling. But my child was worried — this worksheet business sounded important and to be ignorant of it left an uncomfortable feeling of incompetence. It took me a while to get my head out of my own past and realize my child needed to do some worksheets, and when I did I still could not bring myself to simply copy off some existing worksheet from a book, so I made up my own and, as you did for your daughter, made it relevant to my child’s experience. These worksheets became quite the thing for some months and, as I regularly did in other contexts, I sometimes turned things around and asked them to make worksheets for me. The one I remember best was one my second child made. It had some sort of animal that I couldn’t make out at the beginning, and at the end of the simple maze (the typical format for our worksheets; along the maze would usually be math problems) was a completely inscrutable and very oddly-shaped object. I finally had to ask for an explanation, whereupon a sympathetic but slightly exasperated voice said, “Daaaad, can’t you see? It’s Help the Cow find its Udder.” Well, clearly we were not living on a farm.

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