Homeschooling with Excellence No. 6

How to Make Sure Kids Understand What They Hear

Donna wrote:

"My concern is making sure the information my son reads is getting through to his brain and that he is learning something. I haven't the time to sit and read everything before him or with him. I do try to discuss what he has read with him. I usually ask him the questions from the teacher's guide, or make him answer them on paper, or we discuss the information.

"Sometimes I feel as if he isn't getting the full benefit from this wonderful curriculum. What can I do to help him?"

Gale replied:

"My 4th grader seemed to have a similar problem. She was relying heavily on her sister's having the correct answer to everything and was not putting much effort into finding answers herself.

"My method was to have the girls spend the week doing the reading, and we didn't discuss until Friday. At the beginning of the week I always type up a worksheet with all of the questions so they can answer them as they read throughout the week. I know there's no way either of them would ever be able to discuss if I didn't require them to write their answers down.

"Well, the 4th grader couldn't even answer the basic questions from the literature, so, much to her chagrin, I made her do the reading again. It seems she was scanning, flipping pages, making the appearance of reading, but with no real comprehension. Once she realized I wasn't going to let her get away with it, she began putting effort into it.

"Since then, she's become intrigued by the topics and the stories, and this hasn't been a problem."

Gale then asked Donna: "Do you give your son the written questions? Doing that has made a tremendous difference with my girls."

Donna replied:

"Yes I do write the questions off for each day and he answers them as he reads. My concern is for the long term. How much will he retain in the long run?

"I have thought about making him write a paragraph about what he has read from memory. That way he would be more conscious of what he is reading and would also have a summary of the country we are studying after we finish it.

I think we are going to start a notebook on the country we are studying. He seemed to like that idea. We will print the World Book stuff off along with a map and flag. We will also look for current events in the paper to clip and place in the notebook.

"At the beginning of the year I thought I would read everything before him and then work up some activities based on what he read, but I don't have the time."

Julie B from Ohio replied:

"We've done the notebook thing. We did it for WWII in History / Bible / Literature D+E and loved it. I included pictures they drew, writing, summaries (reviews) of books we read, and my son did a glossary of terms (all on his own).

"Interestingly, WWII continues to be a favorite subject with both my older kids who regularly check out more books on the subject even though we are long past studying it. My son just checked out three books about Hitler this week and my daughter checked out a journal about a Holocaust survivor and Ann Frank last time. We studied it over eight months ago!

"I think real learning is gained when genuine interest is ignited. Not every subject will do that. But when it happens, you will be amazed at how connections to other subjects continue to come up."

Julie posted again:

"We use what I call free-writing to assess how much the kids are retaining.

"At the end of a unit (like we are finishing up Japan right now), I ask them to let me know everything they know about Japan — even stuff they know that they learned other years but now correlates.

"What I do is set the clock timer for twenty to thirty minutes. I give them clean sheets of paper. I rub their shoulders. We talk a bit about some of the topic areas (like books we read, some of the main events and people of the period etc.) to warm them up. Then I say, 'Go.'

"They are to write for the entire time without stopping the movement of the pencil. They may make spelling errors, punctuation mistakes and can write in sentence fragments if they wish. I allow for diagrams, pictographs and any other vehicle to communicate what they can remember. (One of my kids drew the caste system chart, which we had done at the beginning of the unit as part of the free-write, for example).

"They may even write, 'I can't think of what else to say' while they are letting their minds think of more things to say. The point is to keep writing.

"At the end, I have my kids read aloud to me what they have written. I discover if they have mastered the subject (documented it in this exercise).

"As you progress in this kind of exercise and your child gains comfort and facility, you can begin the transition to timed writing with a form (high school level).

"If the child has little on his page, spend more time either in the subject matter or work harder at oral narration before requiring written work.

"For fifth through seventh grade (and even for kids who are older but have been reluctant writers) this method is effective. It helps them get into communicating on paper what they know rather than confining themselves to a form that often crushes their spontaneity and their ability to recall."

Susan said:

"Before each reading, I let them know that I will be asking one of them to narrate back to me everything s/he can remember about what I have just read. This really helps them to focus and motivates them to listen. At first they may not have much to say, but as time goes on, they get more comfortable with the process and have more to say. I ask the first to avoid making the other feel like she has nothing to add after the first has shared."

Donna said: "I usually ask questions about the previous day's readings again before we start the new day's readings."

Kathy A commented:

"I do ask my kids lots of questions as we read history aloud, relating what we are reading to what we read yesterday, or last year, or relating the time period to what was happening in the U.S. at that time (e.g. "This was happening about the same time we fought the American Revolution," etc.). I also have my older two (7th graders) answer all the questions at the end of the book or write out the questions for the World Book for them to answer open book. It makes them dig those answers out and it helps me know if they 'get' it. It also reviews the material one more time in their minds and, I believe, helps it stick.

"But the two thoughts that give me the most freedom from fear that it's all going in one ear and out the other are:

  1. If you look at the Sonlight curriculum for the years to come, it is what I would call a spiral approach. With Sonlight you are not going to cover China once and never study it again. You will revisit the countries and time periods you cover this year in the years to come, maybe with a different emphasis, but your kids do not have to 'get it all' the first time around. So, when I wonder what my fourth grade daughter is getting out of all of this, I look at her developing love of history, her delight in the timeline we are doing, her ability to find things on a map or globe because we keep pointing them out when we read (I take a map or globe with me whenever we sit down to read history)... My fourth grader is getting a great 'feel' for history and what I pray will be a lifelong love of it. She can fill in the details later!

  2. If my kids were in school somewhere, the 7th graders would be getting a cursory covering of the Eastern Hemisphere one year and the Western Hemisphere the next. This would mostly revolve around appreciating other cultures and a very little bit of geography.

"Your kids are going to learn so much, not only about Eastern Hemisphere cultures, but about the sadness and falseness of Eastern religions, about geography and so much more. And, you will touch on it again next year and in the years to follow.

"I feel for you because I agonized about the same things, but I think you will look back at the end and say, 'WOW! We (Mom included) learned so much.'"

Kathie added:

"I have noticed that often my kids don't seem to discuss what they've learned until months after the material has been covered.

"Last fall we read all about the root systems and reproduction methods of various plants (Sonlight science). I truly doubted that the material was sinking in, but persevered because I had no other alternatives at the time.

"Just yesterday, my daughter pointed out a small bulge on the stem of one of our houseplants and said, 'Hey Mom, I think this plant has adventitious roots.' She was right, and I was floored! I think a lot of this stuff requires a 'germination period' before we see our kids' knowledge grow."

PJ had a similar comment:

"One night at Chick-Fil-A, my 6-year-old son announced his food just went down his esophagus. I was amazed that he'd remembered such a hard word that we'd covered months ago."

And Donna from California told a humorous story that gave much the same message:

"In the juice aisle at the market my daughter (4 at the time) announced to all the shoppers within hearing (probably the whole store), 'Cranberry juice is good for your urethra.'"