Thursday, August 29, 2013

Can You Help Me With Language Arts?

I acknowledge that homeschooling mothers may be among the most insecure adults in the country. I do not mock them, surely not! as I myself have suffered from every one of the common doubts I hear expressed over and over and over again. Teaching is a bit of a mystery, teaching your own children is more than a bit of responsibility.

"I really need help with language arts," is probably at the top of requests when mothers ask us for consultation about their homeschooling plans. It's a broad subject area. When you consider the competing curriculum companies and multitudinous voices clamoring from scores of websites, promoting the merits of this and that program, it is certainly understandable why there is perplexity, feelings of frustration and helplessness trying to sort out the jumble of "must do" subjects. When and how do you tackle an assortment like this:

copy work
creative writing
written narration
public speaking
vocabulary building
reading comprehension
oral narration
research papers
drawn narration
living literture
literary analysis
foreign language
fables and fairy tales

All of these and more can be considered part of that wide, wide world of "language arts." It is my experience that trained educators are not exempt from similar bewilderment, finding themselves just as tossed too and fro by ideas and opinions on which method or program is best. For years I have attempted to help mothers get some stability in their approach to homeschooling by explaining how important a philosophy of education is before grasping at every wind of curriculum that blows their way. I once had a friend say that beginning to homeschool was akin to being set to sea in the Atlantic in a rowboat without a compass. To extend the simile, choosing curriculum without knowing why you need it is like begging for oars to direct that boat when you don't even know where you're going.

I tease Emily when she tells people very bluntly, "There are just two approaches to education: Charlotte Mason, and, everything else." One of the arguments she has to support this is that Ms. Mason believed that knowledge of God was supreme and the ultimate aim of education; in fact, I believe Mason said that to leave God out of the education made education a sham. Not only do we need to be grounded in God's word and measure all philosophies to that standard of truth, not only do we need to bring our children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but we also need to humbly accept the fact, with all faith and trust in believing in His goodness, that the Holy Spirit has been given us as a guide and teacher and, most incredibly, He works in our children also. The education is not all up to us. The One who made them is intimately involved in their education.

Am I drifting from the point here, you wonder? Not at all. Bear with me. Before we decide "what" to teach it is important to know who we are teaching. When Charlotte Mason proposed that "children are born persons," as her first principle, she was stating a simple and profound core value about an approach to education, as well as about the nature of the children whom we are to educate. She was on Jesus side when he said, "Let the children come to me...forbid them not," and "hinder them not," and "despise them not." Our children are born in God's image with all the spiritual, physical, and intellectual needs and capacities of any of us who are also born in His image. Our children don't magically arrive at a certain level of learning, a milestone, when they are capable of understanding, of knowing, but begin the moment they are born - even before they are born - and continue to grow and develop forever. They are not neat packages with tidy compartments to sort out, nor are there tidy packets of knowledge to insert. Truly persons are a mystery and so is their education.

What does this all have to do with the teaching of that labyrinthine field of "language arts?" We must come to terms with the fact that all those curriculum choices and methods will not ease our burden, but may very well serve that lamentable consequence of "hindering," or even "despising," our children.

Please do not dismiss my counsel as naive or simplistic when I remind you that by the time your child reaches school age the supremely difficult part of "language arts," has already been mastered and that you had a significant role in that skill acquisition. Talking is the most challenging task your brain ever masters. Language, as I mentioned in my last post, is part of our God-given nature because language is how He has chosen to communicate with us. Language is what defines our nature as human beings, distinguishes us from the animal
kingdom. It is critical to life, as well as essential for every school subject from science and math to drawing and physical exercise. 

So very naturally, very slowly and systematically, you have already guided your child through the complex world of speech by letting him hear you speak. You have effortlessly built his vocabulary, sentence structure, syntax, grammar and comprehension without a teacher's manual, simply by being in a relationship where ideas are expressed by words and meaning is grasped in the context of hundreds of varying circumstances and experiences. You have lived in a world with words and your child has imitated, made meaning of, and gained competence in the use of the mother tongue.

May I suggest that before you invest in curriculum, you consider these things. There is no workbook out there that can teach your child to love language, no curriculum that will instill a deep and lasting love of language and inspire the creative use of it. The secret to learning all the intricacies of any language is simply to live in it and with it, to absorb it naturally. Language specialists call this the immersion method and it is proven to be the most efficient and long-lasting way to acquire another language. One of the mothers I have recently served in a consulting role spent some time in Germany. She had studied Spanish for years, but said that in three months she was more comfortable in German than she ever has been in Spanish.

Now ponder again the list above, the enormous number of elements involved in a language education. There is a most powerful tool at your disposal. It is literature - not just any literature, but excellent books of all sorts, well written classics, beautiful old prose, poetry from a hundred poets of today and those gone by. There is a forest of fiction and nonfiction that meets the qualification of living, literature, books on every imaginable subject, books penned from the infinitely diverse minds of the most diverse thinkers containing their own unique thoughts and experiences. The child who is exposed to such a richness will absorb naturally all the resources he needs to become a well-educated person in all the areas of "language arts."

It is a natural acquiring of skills that I am urging you to foster, not the artificial application of certain specific practices that skim the surface of our use of language. I will attempt to address those specifics in subsequent articles, but am making the plea for a living education here, to let your children live in books, swim in them, eat them. Just think of all the learning necessary to speak the language in the first place that they have already accomplished. Their school education is a similar process, but now they will be directed to developing relationships with the personalities within books and the ones who wrote them, and their language education will flourish just as naturally as a result. Just as they learned the language they know through relationship with you, so will they develop reading, writing, and comprehension as they grow in relationship to more and more books.

I know this education through books has already begun as you have read to your little ones since babyhood. Now that school days have come, now is the time to offer them not just the wading pool, but beckon them out to the wide river of literature, to let them loose with books - books that will carry them out to that great ocean of life with boat, oars, compass and a map for life.

For the joy of reading,