“How DO you incorporate language arts into unit studies?”
It’s a question I am asked often, usually by unit study skeptics. For those who use a more traditional approach to homeschooling, it’s a difficult concept to grasp. So I thought I’d answer that question here, since there are probably others who have the same question.
The simple answer is “through dication.” But I realize that’s not really an explanation. It is, however, the method we use, in our homeschool, for learning elementary language arts….vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. We do “dictation” twice a week usually. And this is what it looks like.
I select a paragraph from a book we are reading. The book is usually either our read-aloud or a chapter book Ben is reading. Either way, it’s a book that goes along with our unit study. Currently we are doing a unit on Space, and the passage I’ve chosen for today is from the book Ben is reading, John Glenn: Young Astronaut. Here’s the passage:
The boys were in a small room above Mr. White’s family business, a hatchery. Downstairs, chickens laid eggs. The eggs then went into the incubators, where they hatched. The warmth of the incubators drifted up into the room above. So did the smell of chickens, but John barely noticed it.
To begin our lesson, Ben and I will read this passage together, taking note of the punctuation, especially any “tricky” punctuation, and any new words he might not find familiar or that may be difficult to spell. For example, today I pointed out the following to Ben:
1. Look at the word “White’s” and tell me what you notice is different. He responded that it had an apostrophe. So we discussed the possessive use of apostrophes. I asked him if he could think of another time we used the apostrophe, besides with a possessive. It took him a few minutes and a couple of hints, but eventually he remembered about contractions.
2. I selected the words business, downstairs, hatchery, warmth, drifted, and incubators as possible problem words for spelling. So I wrote each word, one by one, on our whiteboard, asked Ben to look at the words for a few seconds, then close his eyes and picture the words in his mind. I erased the word and then asked him to spell it for me. Using this method, he was able to spell every word correctly.
3. Using 3 of the above words, Ben practiced his dictionary skills by looking for each word and finding the definition. The words I chose were business, hatchery, and incubator.
4. Once all of the above was completed, I dictated the passage to him, one sentence at a time while he wrote the sentences in his notebook. It is expected that he will have paid close attention to capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. Each sentence may be repeated one time, if necessary. I only allow a second reading of each sentence because of Ben’s difficulty with focus and attention. Normally, you would only read each sentence once when doing dictation.
5. I go over his passage, marking any mistakes, and he corrects his mistakes immediately. In this particular passage, the only mistakes Ben made were leaving off the comma after downstairs and incubators. I had not really pointed out those commas to him prior, so we had a quick lesson in why the commas were used and he corrected his errors.
Other things I could have discussed with Ben about this passage include: adjectives, adverbs, homophones, compound words, and prepositional phrases. I did not do that today, but on another day I may have. Sometimes he just naturally points these things out to me without prompting. Or I simply say, “can you find any adjectives?”
This is the first year I have used this method and it seems to be working quite well for Ben. Prior to 3rd grade, I would recommend using copywork, rather than dictation. I wish I had used copywork more with Ben. Using copywork helps children absorb the structure of sentences, capitalization, and punctuation, while practicing handwriting skills. By the time they begin dictation, some of these things will be second nature to them, all while never filling out a boring grammar worksheet or taking a weekly spelling test. Ben could really have used the handwriting practice. I find that oftentimes, the errors he makes in his dictation are not with sentence structure or spelling, but with whether or not he’s used an upper case or lower case letter.
As far as unit studies go, for Ben, it’s really helpful that our dictation lessons go along, because he’s already interested in the information. For me, it’s helpful to not have to have a different curriculum for every subject I teach. It’s more cost-effective, more interesting, and can be done anywhere. Really, all you need is a book for selecting the passage, paper, and a pencil. It doesn’t get much easier than that!
How about you? How do you teach elementary language arts in your homeschool?
(Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote in January, 2010, when Ben was a third grader. This is the effective method of language arts we used all through the elementary grades)