In schools, English is often taught in isolation: a series of disjointed exercises in writing, spelling and grammar. In real life, English is about communicating our thoughts and ideas, often relating to work, interests and information sharing. When we change our focus from the subject of English to the task of ensuring our children can communicate, it makes English less daunting. Most parents are able to communicate adequately for their needs, and they are seldom required to identify the predicate or adverbial clause, or to write a comparative essay. Some students will need these skills, and if they do, they can learn them, but for most of us English is about good word choice, and effective, confident communication.
Some children teach themselves to read, while others need specific instruction. Some learn when they are very young, while others may not be confident readers until they are much older. If reading becomes a chore, the desire to master it tends to disappear, so intersperse any instruction you feel is necessary in the early years with lots of reading aloud and audio books. Often the motivation to read something specific drives children forward. Whether it’s an instruction manual, or a full length novel, f they are keen to try, let them go for it!
In the early years:
- Encourage multisensory ways to remember phonics sounds
- Play with language, create nonsense words, practice rhyming, play games
- Read aloud as a family, one on one, older siblings to younger siblings
- Listen to audiobooks
- Encourage incidental reading such as instructions, signs, or labels
- Set an example. If you read, your children are more likely to want to do so
- Sing! Songs are a great way to learn rhyme and syllabification
- Play games. From I Spy to board games,
Once children can read alone:
- Continue to read aloud, now they can take turns too
- Create a time during the day when everyone reads, perhaps after lunch or before bed.
- Visit the library regularly
- Don’t be surprised if they still want to read old favourites from when they were younger
- Help to find new authors or topics of interests – or ask a librarian or try websites such as the Children’s Book Council of Australia.
When children struggle with reading, it’s important to ensure that this doesn’t affect their self esteem or translate to the idea that they are ‘lacking’. In school, the younger grades are about ‘learning to read’, so that later students can ‘read to learn’. This means that those who find reading hard are disadvantaged in other subjects. For kids who find reading difficult, it’s important to choose learning options for other areas which work with their strengths:
- Hands on activities such as Lego, cooking, nature study
- Games with limited reading required
- Watching documentaries or YouTube
- Audio books
Kids who are not strong readers often struggle because books at their level do not have engaging content. It’s worth exploring graphic novels, or low Lexile options as well as audio books.
In schools, reading and writing tend to be treated as on par. However, for much of the primary grades, a child’s ability to read outpaces their handwriting and spelling ability. Separating the processes of creative and informative writing from handwriting and spelling gives children the chance to communicate with an authentic voice. Ways to achieve this include:
- Audio or video recording of their stories or reports
- Using voice to text apps
- Scribing for your child
As children gain confidence in writing, relating writing to real life aims and interests works well:
- Writing postcards, letters and emails to friends and family
- Finding a penfriend, or joining Postcrossing
- Creating a resume, and contacting employers to request a work experience placement
- Creating a family newsletter
- Writing a short play, or an animation script
- Creating a newspaper for a particular historical period
- Making a photo book
- Choosing writing prompts
- Explore opportunities that support young writers, or provide the potential for publication, such as NaNoWriiMo and Grannie Annie
Letter formation and handwriting
Good fine motor control is needed to create the skills needed for forming letters easily and well. Practicing letters over and over is one way to achieve this, but there are numerous other ways to improve fine motor control:
- Manipulating small objects by hand, or with tweezers
- Playing with playdough
Instead of always writing on paper, try other multisensory options for letter formation:
- Painting with water on a wall
- Fill a ziplock back with shaving foam, and write on that
- Finger painting
- Forming letters from playdough, pebbles or food
- Forming letters in a tray filled with sand
When students have developed good fine motor skills, some parents are happy with allowing them to develop their own handwriting style, whilst others prefer to encourage use of their state script, or another style such as italic. Copywork is a good way to make handwriting practice more entertaining. Students are provided with words, sentences or paragraphs relating to an interest to copy neatly. You can buy themed copywork, or create your own to suit your child. This can also be a way to incorporate spelling words.
You can use games to teach and consolidate spelling rules, and many of the phonics instruction methods incorporate games. Or start a spelling dictionary, to give kids ownership and ensure words are relevant to them. Use wooden letters, phoneme blocks, phonics cards and so on, so that spelling does not always include writing. There are many games which support spelling, and can be used frequently for short periods such as:
- Word searches
- Word ladders
- Specific games for learning homonyms
Grammar and punctuation
If children can speak well, they will find punctuation easier, as a pause in speaking indicates that punctuation is needed. There’s no rush to teach the use of semicolons or reported speech, these are much easier for older kids to master. However, if kids enjoy writing, punctuation can be explained when it’s needed.
The basics of grammar are also covered in speech. Encouraging a wide vocabulary, precise communication and descriptive writing will teach adjectives and adverbs well, even if a student isn’t able to name these parts of speech. Explaining cause and effect relating to science experiments, is practice in adverbial clauses. Playing word games such as The Minister’s Cat, or miming adverbs (walking slowly, jerkily, angrily) is more memorable than underlining parts of speech in a text. Foreign language instruction is often a good way to learn grammar, as word order varies (for example adjectives usually come after a noun in French, so you need to know what an adjective is).
Older students who need to improve their knowledge will be able to do so quickly without requiring endless repetition, because the underlying knowledge will already be there.
There are so many ways to explore the richness of the English Language:
- Watch a Shakespeare play, and read the accompanying original and modern versions.
- Explore the words Shakespeare introduced to English.
- Explore synonyms and antonyms through games.
- Encourage your child to read widely, and to try different genres.
- Learn about the etymology of English, the similarities with other languages.
- Study prefixes and suffixes and their links to Greek and Latin.
- Read and recite poetry, learn about meter and rhyme and create your own poetry in different styles. Do the same with songs.
- Appreciate the importance of correct word choice by taking an evocative passage and replacing words with lesser versions (nice, good, bad, went).
- Conversely, learn the importance of plain English by finding needlessly complex texts, and creating clear and concise versions.
- Compare movie adaptations with the original book.
- Have fun with language, read Jabberwocky and create your own nonsense text.
- Read ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, ‘Ella Minnow Pea’, ‘An Abundance of Katherines’, and other books which include word play.
Speaking English is central to our lives. Understanding how to express ourselves is essential for our own wellbeing and for our future careers. Encourage kids to narrate, to share what they have learnt, to make an argument, to express their feelings, to teach others. Show them how English is meaningful and relevant, not just a subject you have to do to tick a box.
All images from the HEN English Pinterest board https://www.pinterest.com.au/HomeEducationNetworkAustralia