Monday, 28 February 2011

Treasure Hunting with The Burgess Flower Book for Children

A significant part of a good Charlotte Mason education consists of large quantities of outdoor time, especially for children ages nine and under.  So, here we are, just barely out of winter and I am dancing in the rain (literally)!  My kids and I spent a good two hours outside today, half of which was in the rain.  Charlotte Mason recommends 2-3 hours a day in poor weather, 4-6 in good weather.  Hard to attain!

Now that spring has (barely) arrived, I've decided to go treasure hunting with my kids, ages 6, 4 & 2. What for?  Good question.  Flowers, via The Burgess Flower Book for Children (BFBC).  My oldest son *loves* anything written by Thornton W. Burgess.  It seems to be the only avenue into nature study down which he will voluntarily venture with me.  I feel like otherwise I'm dragging him away from his soccer ball or other game.  He's not often interested in looking closely at nature on his own.  (With his Dad he will - and I'm grateful for that!  But Dad's not always available.) 

But today was a different story.  Today we started by reading the first chapter in BFBC.  It was about Peter Rabbit discovering the first flower of spring (the skunk cabbage flower!).  As usual, my son really enjoyed the chapter.  We even looked up more pictures of the skunk cabbage online, and he drew the outline of one for part of his beginning to draw lessons.

Then, I took my two sons (ages 6 & 4) outside for a creek tramp to see if we could find the flower Peter Rabbit found.  According to the book, they like wet, swampy areas such as low-lying edges of creeks or spring sites.  Fortunately, there is a creek in our back yard that extends north into a wilderness area of an adjoining park.  So, after 45 minutes of searching (and playing), we (I) found it!  I was completely elated.  I felt like an explorer discovering a treasure chest full of gold!

Previously I had had no idea if we even had skunk cabbage near us, and it was probably no more than 300 yards away from our house (though it takes awhile to get there with boys that age - and when you're scouring the ground for something quite small).  What we found was no more than 6 inches wide and 4 inches across, and probably no more than 3-4 inches high.  It blended in nicely with the decaying leaves around it, and honestly, we almost stepped on it.  Here it is:

Skunk Cabbage spathe containing yellow flowers

Beautiful, isn't it?  We took the book's word that if you get really close it smells like a skunk!  It's interesting that this is the first flower of spring, and that it is so very protected by the hood (spathe) that the flowers can survive the frosts of February. A more in-depth description is here:
Skunk Cabbage flowers on yellow spadix
While we were heading back, I challenged my boys:  "I was the one who found that.  Do you think you will be able to look closely enough to find the flower before Mommy next time?"  They looked at me with twinkles in their eyes.

Later, I asked my elder son as I was kissing him goodnight:  "Do you think you would like to keep reading The Burgess Flower Book and go treasure hunting to find the flowers?"  He looked at me with a very contented, loving smile, and nodded his head.  That's when I knew he had really enjoyed the afternoon (even though I sort of made them do it).

I'm looking forward to more treasure hunts. 

(PS:  Too bad The Burgess Flower Book for Children doesn't seem to be available free online anywhere!  It may not be public domain yet.  Used copies aren't cheap, but are available.  There is also a reprint available.)

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Charlotte Mason and Spell to Write and Read

Wanda Sanseri (author of Spell to Write and Read) & Charlotte Mason have several elements in common in their theories: 

They both believe(d) reading & spelling should be taught at the same time. 
They both believe(d) children should draw the words out of their mind and write them down, in the process of learning how to read & spell. 
They both believe(d) quality literature should be used hand-in-hand with reading work. 

Where they differ is in *how* the children get those words out of their minds.  Charlotte Mason believed that the child should "see the word in his mind's eye" and then write it from what they have "visualized".  Sanseri believes that children should be able to sound out the word by the phonetic sounds, one sound at a time, and write it from what they have sounded out - more of an "auditory" method. 

An additional researcher, Nanci Bell, has put another piece in place - that children who successfully learn to read can actually visualize the phonetic sounds as they sound out words, and then the children write the word.  This, to me, ties together Charlotte Mason & Sanseri, visual & auditory components. 

So, I personally don't find Spell to Write and Read as out of line with Charlotte Mason's recommendations as some might at first glance.  In fact, in light of all the additional research which has been done since Charlotte Mason's time, and the findings that phonetic-based reading lessons are highly effective (more so than whole-word, in most studies), I personally think that Spell to Write and Read is a helpful supplement to a Charlotte Mason education. 

I asked Wanda about these differences on the Spell to Write and Read Yahoo group, and here are her answers, which I found very helpful:

Dear Jen,

Q. Your program (which, by the way, I'm using with very good success with my first child who is 6 - so thank you!) assumes that when we spell words, we hear them or sound them out to spell them. However, what about children who are not strong auditory learners? Is it possible that there are some children who would do
best to close their eyes, visualize the letters in their brain, and draw those down to the paper (rather than the sounds)?

A. This is a great question. I can personally speak for the visual learners. I was a strong visual learner with very weak auditory skills. I had no phonics instruction growing up. I learned English, French, and German by letter names and visual appearance. Without my visual memory, I would have been lost. However, total reliance on visual cues handicapped me and kept me from my full potential in high school and college. I was ahead of most of my peers with the same limitations but amazed by the seeming genius of people that I met in college who were trained with a phonics foundation.

Sadly most educators today teach spelling by sight alone. I compare that to that transportation by unicycle. Balancing on one wheel takes more energy, training, and intense concentration. Selecting that mode of travel unnecessarily restricts those who can ride. A four wheel vehicle can reach the needs of a wider audience. The less agile, even the lame, can come on board.

We teach spelling using all four "wheels" (hearing, saying, writing, and reading) plus logical analysis. In so doing, we can open language skills to all learning styles and IQ levels.

Q. Charlotte Mason believed in visualization of the words "in your mind's eye" before spelling them out (so, compared with your first statement, she would say "When we spell words, we see them in our mind's eye
first"). She, also, believed in background phonogram work. But when it came to the actual reading lessons, she used a whole-word approach.

Is there any research which shows the answer to this question?

A. Whole-word instruction consistently delivers a weaker outcome, even for the visual learners. The National Advisory Council on Adult Education reports, "Since 1911, a total of 124 studies have compared look-say approaches with phonics-first programs. Not one found look-say superior. The research director of the Reading Reform Foundation reviewed 36 studies and her team concluded that rigorous controlled research clearly favors teaching all the main sound-sumbol relationships from the start of formal reading instruction. Such teaching benefits comprehension as well as vocabulary and spelling. Phonetic groups are usually superior in grades 3 and above." Some strong visual learners appear to excel with beginning level words but visual alone does not support the added needs of a growing vocabulary. These findings totally match my experience in my own learning as well as with the students that I have had to joy of teaching and the students of teachers that I have taught.

Q. Is it an auditory, or visual process?

The ideal language approach is to strengthen all the senses in concert. Language is a skill that needs to progress to the most automatic subconscious level. When we teach with all four areas at the same time, we help each learner draw from his greatest strength while building up his weaker areas. I am no longer just a visual learner. I am playing catch up for all that I missed years ago. My visual ability is stronger than ever but it enjoys the support of the other senses. Aren't you glad?


Wanda Sanseri
Author of Spell to Write and Read