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Developing Your Teaching Style

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #16, 1997.

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Kathy von Duyke


Ever wish you could open your child's brain with a screw driver and insert a hard concept into the right slot? I guess that's a rather grisly, medieval view of education. But, anyone who has struggled with a child who "doesn't get it" will appreciate the sentiment.

There are less grisly steps to follow when communicating a difficult concept to your child. Two settings seem practical for tutoring. First is when your child is working independently, say in his math book, and needs help. You can only "drop tutor" those subjects that you understand well or have covered earlier in your homeschooling experience. When I was learning to teach math, I did the worksheets aloud with my children to learn how to use manipulatives. Now, I can assign math as independent work because I don't have to scramble for ways to demonstrate concepts.

The second setting is when I am trying to teach my children a subject I don't know myself. I've been studying French with them recently. I find it is more efficient for me to learn the subject along with my children rather than trying to stay one lesson ahead of them or assigning it to them in the hopes that they will be able to do it on their own. As I study with them I can see when a new concept comes up that needs "teaching time" and when we can just work on our worksheets together. I think it is more fun to study with them and then I can help when I've planned to be available to help, instead of being pulled away from some other task. Okay, my kids help me, too. My pronunciation is lousy, but one of my children has a great ear for language and coaches me.

We were going over a little French chart recently to try to sort out the verb changes that go with pronoun changes. We wanted to know why aller, which means "go," was written as seemingly totally different words:

Thinking we would get through this quickly, I said to my children, "Tell me all the French subject pronouns." I knew they knew je, nous, il, and elle, but they weren't comfortable with the category "subject pronouns."

1. Bridge New Information with Information the Child Already Knows

I tried to see if there was a bridge I could make between French pronouns (which they didn't know) to English pronouns (which they, hopefully, knew). I said, "Tell me all the English pronouns you know."

At this point they were kind of saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know that." But they still couldn't define a pronoun or easily say what one was. This tests a child's understanding. He may be familiar with a concept because he has been exposed to it, but he doesn't really know it until he can explain it in his own words.

2. Have the Child State the Definition in His Own Words

I asked, "What is a pronoun?" The children remembered, "It takes the place of a noun."

3. Have the Child Give an Example of the Definition

That was pretty good, but I knew that to be a rote definition. To extend their understanding of that definition, I asked them to make an application. Grammar is an applied system; knowing the definitions doesn't mean you know grammar. "Can you give me some examples?" The children couldn't give me any examples quickly. I was feeling a bit frustrated myself at this point. "We've been over this," I thought. As I tried to come up with some way to make this clear to them, I revealed my own shaky understanding. I couldn't think of anything quickly myself!

This is what I call the "frustration factor." Every time a child learns a new concept he experiences frustration, or aggravation as he tries to "get it." When Mom experiences this at the same time as the children, schooling can undergo meltdown. It isn't bad for your children to see you struggling to grasp a concept well enough to explain it. If they can join you in that struggle, they will learn to master new concepts for themselves, as they see how you handle the process.

In this case, I found myself running for my English handbook, and asked my children to grab their handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias to see which would help us. After refreshing myself with handbook examples, I felt better prepared to come up with an example for my children. I later found the book, Simply Grammar, by Karen Andreola, which is used out loud and gives ready examples on a young child's level.

4. Go to an Every Day Comparison

Since I couldn't connect French pronouns with English pronouns, I needed to connect pronouns with something the children would know. I tried to connect "pronoun" with its use in an everyday setting. I said, "James, if you were hungry for a cookie would you say, 'James wants a cookie?'"

"No," he laughed, "I'd say, "I want a cookie.'"

"That means you are talking in the first person. And if you were going to ask Christie if she wanted a cookie you wouldn't say, 'Christie want a cookie?' would you?"

"No, I'd say, 'Do you want a cookie?'" he said.

"So that's second person," I said, "because you are talking to her. Then if you were going to tell me about Christie wanting a cookie, you could say 'Christie,' but you could also say, 'She wants a cookie.' That is third person because you are talking about someone else. Now, James tell me first, second, or third person."

"First is when I am talking, second is the person I am talking to, third is the person I am talking about."

Now that James has come up with a definition, I ask him to give me some examples by asking, "Use a second person subject pronoun, use a first person subject pronoun, and give me a sentence with the third person subject pronoun." By repeating these technical names aloud, I am building a connection between the term and his explanation and making him more comfortable with the terms by repetition.

5. Limit and Define a Concept by Contrasting it with a Related Concept

When he gave me examples, he mentioned some object pronouns instead. "I gave the cookie to him." We had to ferret these out by comparing the concepts of subject and object. "Can we use him as the subject of a sentence?" "Him hit the ball" sounded wrong, so we knew it couldn't be a subject pronoun. We looked up object pronouns in the English handbook and played with them a little.

We contrast ideas in order to define them all the time. We teach subtraction in contrast to addition, the sun in contrast to the moon, or the Greeks in comparison to the Egyptians.

"Wait a minute!" You're saying, "Isn't this a lot of English going on in a French lesson?" Yes it is, but who said we had to fracture our homeschools into subject bits? If we are in "French" but find a missing "English" concept, we build that foundation first. Teach to the need.

6. Don't Assume That the Children Who Listen In, Have It

Each of my children needed the opportunity to define pronouns and state examples aloud. It seems they need to get the concept out of their brains verbally to internalize new information. This gives the concept a concrete "handle" that they can grasp better than just a wavering thought in their head. Those who answered latest could answer fastest, though, so the whole process wasn't agonizingly slow.

7. If Understanding is Still Muddy, Go to the Concrete

If a verbal "handle" isn't sufficient, try to think of a way your child could touch this concept. Hands-on activities seem to really "seal" a concept for my children. These are especially useful when introducing new concepts to any age, or when teaching young children. Trying to come up with a concrete activity will quickly test your own knowledge and creativity! Teaching books can help you understand how to do this, but there are some very good and bad examples. Some hands-on ideas just waste time, while others are really valuable.

In this lesson I had the children label a bunch of cookies with subject and object pronouns (try using Post-it notes or laying cookies on scrap paper). Only cookies labeled with subject pronouns could be given out at first. The children had to take turns picking up a cookie and figuring out a sentence to go with the pronoun so it winds up in someone's pile. We decided we would end the game when everyone had the same amount of cookies in their pile, but they couldn't resist trying to hoard cookies at first. For instance, brother picks a cookie labeled "she" and says, "She gets a cookie" and hands it to sister. Sister might pick a cookie labeled "he," but getting smart might say, "He gave the cookie to Christie."

A cookie labeled "they" would have to be divided. Object pronoun cookies were then divided in the same fashion. Think of all the impromptu drill that takes place with this activity! Besides, it's lots of fun to watch the children figure out how they can keep their cookies through creative sentence-making.

8. Make the Connection to the New Concept

Finally, we were ready to get back to French. Actually, we stopped with English and got back to the French lesson after a couple of days. I asked the children to name the English form and then the French form of all the subject pronouns. Next, we added the French verb that kept changing, aller, with its proper pronoun.

9. Drill to Memorize the Fundamentals by Rote

Then I did a quick drill calling out, "Second person subject pronoun, French. First person plural, English" and so forth. The children called out answers, and the little ones came over to join the fun. Pretty soon the children were answering faster and faster.

10. Have the Children Play Teacher

Next, I let the children be the ones to call out the drill. When children answer your questions they look for hints in your face and try to determine if they answered what you wanted. When they ask you questions, they try to figure out if you've gotten it down to the last shade of meaning and look for holes in your answer. It is also valuable to let the children explain concepts to each other. When a child has to do the explaining, it stretches their understanding just like it does mine.

11. Overlearn by Repeating the Drill Over the Next Several Days

Overlearning is essential to mastering the fundamentals of any topic. A child may know the multiplication table, but he won't be proficient in math until he has it memorized. We went over the pronoun chart every day that week, and once during the following week. When the subject of pronouns comes up in future work, I can refer them to the "pronoun cookie exchange." This is a big advantage with a hands-on experience - it is usually unforgettable. This experience makes an easy bridge to build on later. Hands-on learning seems slow and painstaking at the start, but after a few years, the bridges formed start to multiply understanding.

12. Use Teacher's Aids

Now that I am sure of my children's understanding and application of this concept, I can rely on tireless aids like cassette tapes to continue the overlearning. A good tape is Audio Memory's Grammar Songs. I can still hear "Pronouns take the place of nouns" as I write this. Chore times or meal times seem to work well for using these resources, saving school time for new concepts and application.

13. Practice the Application

I've always disliked grammar and reading worksheets, because I feel that both of these skills require a tutorial setting. I thought my children knew pronouns because they had used language-arts worksheets. The French provided a new setting which challenged their level of understanding. This proved to me again the inefficiency of using worksheets to teach new concepts. Now that my children understand the concept "pronoun," I might rely on a worksheet, perhaps from Grammar Songs, or a computer program to give another chance at application in the next month. I'd also point out any misuses of pronouns in their writing.

Oral drill, especially when you can teach several children at once, can be a real time saver for both you and your children. If the child doesn't learn a concept well from a worksheet, he's wasted his time. Students are adept at getting around textbook work with incomplete or vague answers, or by using guessing strategies. You can't be really sure a child has grasped a concept until you've heard him tell you in his own words. You'll save yourself time by ensuring this in the first place. Once a child has understanding of a concept, he won't need to do as many worksheets as are normally offered in a book to reinforce learning. The hardest part for you will be learning to not use all those unnecessary pages!


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