Language arts

Crumpled pages torn from printed books
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

This one has not been a smooth road, lots of figuring things out as I go along, lots of experimenting and course correction. I read through alllll the California state standards for language arts at each grade level, and I can pretty well figure out where my kid sits on all those targets, but… it didn’t feel terribly helpful. I totally see how those standards can be a big help when dealing with a classroom situation, trying to track AND communicate the development of two or three dozen kids at once, but… I’m not. I’ve just got the one.

After all my fits and starts, here’s where I’ve landed at this moment, which will change:

It’s about sharing ideas. That’s what it all comes back to, this is what I center it all on. It’s about sharing our ideas as clearly and effectively as possible, and it’s about being able to understand the ideas being shared by others as much as possible.

The message I have for Wanda, repeated ad nauseam, is that as long as I have understood, and been understood, that's what matters. It’s critically important, no matter what path her life takes. I tell her, I don’t particularly care if there are spelling errors, or a mispronunciation, or if someone accidentally reaches for the wrong word—IF I’m able to understand what they meant, THAT is the point, and if I’ve got that, then two humans have successfully communicated. Focus on the idea being shared. All those other little details may be imperfect; seek a little clarity if there's confusion, but the vast majority of the time there really isn't much confusion, it's no big whoop. I’m not here to tear someone down for those errors, I’m here to connect with what they’re trying to share with me.

When it comes to communicating our own ideas, those little details—reaching for the right word, getting the spelling right so we don’t accidentally say something we don’t mean—YES, we want to do those things, we want to lower to barrier to being understood clearly. But, she’s SEVEN. There are going to be plenty of errors, those will only improve with time. I think my more important job is tending to that inner fire of her thoughts that need sharing.

Now, I’m getting to be totally tailored to her here. I know my kid. I see her spelling, I can see where it’s headed, and I’m not worried, the kid’s very likely to be a great speller. I’m not sleeping on that—I’m putting a lot of work into ensuring she gets there. But I want her to care about the IDEAS waaaaay more than she cares about the spelling or the grammar. For herself, but perhaps more importantly, for others. If I had a different kid, I might be singing a different tune. Very likely! But I’m teaching the kid I’ve got.

What Language Arts looks like here:


Wanda learned to read on her own when she was four, so there’s never been any reading instruction going on, it’s just reading to absorb. Tons and tons of it. All kinds. Mostly me reading aloud to her. It’s about exposure: exposure to not just the ideas, but how those ideas get shared through language. Exposure to the world, to increase her overall comprehension as she reads more texts on her own. We pause and discuss what we’re reading constantly. Nothing teaches her more than reading.


Phonics, syllables, light vocab, a smidge of Latin & Greek. So… on paper, and possibly in reality, doing a full-on phonics curriculum is overkill for Wanda, what with the early reader business. I’m doing the full-court press on phonics anyway because I think it will help with spelling and with comprehension as she encounters more challenging words. I want her to traipse through words in a low-friction way.


Grammar, sentence structure, poetics, stringing thoughts together meaningfully. How we share an idea. The meat of this effort is a curriculum named for its author, Michael Clay Thompson. It is an unusual language arts curriculum. It’s aimed at kids who are up for just shooting the shit about how the English language works. It’s conversation-based. It’s centered on noticing how the nuts & bolts of the English language work together to foster the sharing of an idea in a clear and compelling way. We do the bulk of it snuggled up together on the couch.


She’s always got wacky, fun ideas kicking around in her head, and whenever she wants to get them onto paper, I support that as much as possible. I go get pencil & paper for her, I get her computer for her, I answer her spelling queries, I type for her, I edit for her as she wishes, I carve out time for it to happen. I *do not* use it as an opportunity to talk about all the other things we’ve been learning. It’s just about getting her ideas out unfettered, and over time I have faith that she’ll be motivated to make them more digestible by others, and she’ll incorporate those learnings. I already see that happening. (The girl wrote a WHOLE-ASS EIGHT PAGE SCRIPT as an item in the Reminders app on her iPad [whaaaa????? she knows about Google Docs, I dunno, it felt right to her], and I transcribed it and reformatted it for her, and then I acted it out with her which involved me standing in the bathtub dressed as a rabbit while eating popcorn and squirting a mister and throwing yards of white tulle in the air because it was inspired by one of her dreams, so YEAH WELCOME TO HOMESCHOOL LIFE.)


We don’t really do assignments. No writing prompts. No book reports. No copywork. I’m baaaaarely dipping my toes into some very simple early early work on composition, so that if she needs some broken-out, explicit hand-holding through how to get started, she’s getting that experience. I’ve had her write some poems and similes based on Latin prefixes we’ve studied, with a lot of support. I’m keeping it super minimal.


I don’t consider this language arts, but we needed to build up her handwriting and typing fluidity to reduce that grit in the gears as she’s trying to write. We tackled these separately, except for my being a gentle and loving stickler about form at all times; good hand habits are important for stamina and speed in the long run. Made some huge leaps this past year, they’re no longer a big focus.

So, it’s kind of a weird path. It’s simultaneously a LOT of language arts work, and very little language arts work. I doubt this would be right for most kids, but I do have a solid feeling that it’s right for my kid. For now, anyway—kids change a lot, I’ll have to shake it up at some point. If it turns out she needs more structure in some areas and less in others, I’m poised to shift. So far, though: I have a kid who is showing growth in how she expresses her ideas and how she talks about others’ ideas, and that’s what I want, so I’m happy.

I’ll get more into the individual pieces—the language arts curricula I’m using—in separate posts.

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