As the resident grammar fanatic, I enjoy participating in any discussion about language arts. Contrary to expectations, my advice is always to take it easy during the “little” years, particularly in regards to grammar. I hate to see seven-year-olds churn out page after page of tedious sentence labeling.
I have found First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind series to be the perfect introduction to language arts. Written by Jessie Wise of The Well-Trained Mind fame, each book covers one year, beginning in first grade (Level 1) and going up through fourth grade at this time (Level 4). The series has recently been redesigned so that each book covers one year. The original book covered two years in one volume; however, the content is the same as in the original edition.
The approach is gentle but thorough. All the lessons are scripted with a natural question-and-answer format. The first page of Level 1 starts with a definition: “a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea.” Over the next several weeks, this definition will be thoroughly explained, piece by piece—person, place, thing, idea. Throughout the first two years, all the parts of speech will be covered, prepositions and helping verbs will be memorized, the basic rules of capitalization and punctuation will have been taught, and grammar will have taken root in the child’s mind. Gently.
Poetry memorization is also a central focus of the program. On the second day, they learn Christina Rossetti’s “The Caterpillar” and practice it for weeks. By the end of two years, they will have memorized 10 poems—or at least heard these 10 poems read over and over again! The poems do get harder as they go along, so I can’t honestly say that my children memorized all of them. But they remember the first few quite well even years later, and I think it’s always good to have a few poems tucked under one’s belt.
Also included are beginning storytelling and narration skills, although these are light and not at all overbearing. Writing exercises and enrichment ideas are included as optional activities, so you could definitely use this for two or more kids at different levels. And one of my favorite features: each lesson takes about 10 minutes.
I am currently using Level 3 with my fourth grader. Level 3 continues to reinforce the grammar and writing concepts taught in the previous levels, although using Levels 1 and 2 is not a prerequisite for Level 4. (In other words, you can begin at any level without having done the previous level.)
When I first perused the pages of Level 3 at a convention booth, I was shocked to see diagramming in third grade. Please understand: I am one of those odd ducks who loves diagramming. However, I balked at the idea of having my free-spirited son (then in third grade) put parts of speech on a line.
I decided to skip grammar lessons for his third-grade year, and I picked Level 3 up for him to use in fourth grade. (Note that Levels 3 and 4 have student workbooks that need to be purchased in addition to the instructor’s guides.) I soon realized that my judgment of the diagramming component of Level 3 was hasty. The fact is, he loves diagramming. The way that Wise (and co-author Sara Buffington) introduce this concept is so simple and gentle. Kids who are raised on First Language Lessons are not going to tremble in terror when they have to diagram sentences in high school.
I have seen much fruit of First Language Lessons both in our home and among the children in our support group. My daughter, who is now in eighth-grade, remembers all of her helping verbs without a glitch because of the lists she memorized in first and second grades. I recently taught a poetry class to seventh and eighth graders in our co-op, and I was tickled to hear at least a dozen students rattle off various poems they had memorized as part of First Language Lessons many years ago.
First Language Lessons appeals to me because it is such a gentle introduction to grammar. I love grammar. I love the written word and what you can do with language. I balk at programs that force dry chunks of nouns and verbs down a child’s throat and chuck complex sentences at their little heads. No wonder so many grow up to proclaim, “Ahhh! I hate grammar!”
Sarah Small has been homeschooling for 11 years. She has her master’s degree in English/creative writing. She writes about homeschooling, family, and life in general at SmallWorld at Home. She also offers SmallWorld’s WordSmithery, an ongoing series of free creative writing lessons.