How I Taught 7th Grade Chemistry, by Jane-Emily

Middle School Day

 

Last year I had a twelve-year-old in seventh grade and a nine-year-old in fourth.  For science, I wanted to concentrate on chemistry — one of my very favorite sciences!  It’s the recipe book for the universe! — I wanted to make sure that my twelve-year-old would be very well-prepared to take AP Chemistry, or some equivalent thereof, later on.  I searched high and low for materials that would make it possible for me to teach a solid chemistry course without too much math.  I also invited another kid along for lab days; I find that it is more fun if we have an extra kid or two along for the ride.

For a text, I found Friendly Chemistry, a course designed for homeschoolers with plans for larger groups.  Friendly Chemistry is quite clear, and it teaches a lot of chemistry, from atomic structure to stoichiometry to ideal gas laws.  There is some math and it sometimes got difficult, but together we figured it out.  There is not much of a lab component; it’s limited to easily-obtainable home items.  It has quite a few games to aid in memorization of elements, ions, and so on, and several of them are well-designed.  There are a few typos, but otherwise my only problem was that the solutions in the back of the book did not provide help with working out the problems. Only answers were given, and sometimes we got stuck.

I wanted lots of lab work, so I ordered the biggest chemistry set Thames & Kosmos stocks: the C3000, containing instructions for over 300 experiments designed to take the student from basics to more complex organic chemistry.  T&K being a German company, I did find that a few extras it required were hard for me to find, such as hartshorn/baker’s ammonia and so on.  Of course the experiments followed a completely different logic than the Friendly Chemistry did–it is all practical chemistry–but we didn’t have too much trouble with that.   The variety was nice, and all of us appreciated the fun of setting things on fire.  I needed more glass test tubes than were provided, and I came perilously close to running out of a few chemicals.

Meanwhile, my nine-year-old came along for the ride for much of this.  She had the Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry text, which was OK but not wonderful.  I would have preferred something else, but I didn’t find anything I loved.  She and I worked through those chapters together, and otherwise she played the games, participated in the experiments, and did just fine.  I am confident that she absorbed plenty of chemistry for her age.

Our schedule was as follows:

  • Tuesday, read the chapter for the week.  Start exercises and finish by Thursday.
  • Thursday: lab from 12:00 until at least 2:00 (with extra child, who was also doing the same text at home).  Go over the week’s lesson and make sure exercises are understood.  Do any activities from the text.  Do a section of experiments from T&K set and talk about them.
  • Friday: give the chapter test.  And make sure to practice memory work through games throughout!

Some of my favorite activities included:

Element/Ion Bingo: this was at the very beginning of the year, when we needed the kids to learn the elements and their symbols.  I filled large bingo cards with all the most difficult symbols.  After a couple of weeks of that we changed to ion bingo so they could practice distinguishing sulfate and sulfide, etc.

The Doo-Wop board: this is a proprietary game from Friendly Chemistry that helps students understand the structure of the atom.  I found it quite helpful myself!  We would pick an element and fill the shells with electrons until we had it right.  (The electrons were white and chocolate chips, which made it a very popular game.)

 legochem

Lego chemistry: I found this to be a great help with stoichiometry (which is figuring out how much of what goes into a substance).  Get a large tub of plain Lego bricks, and assign each color an element.  We had fun making them appropriate, but you can’t do that with all of them.  Carbon = green, sulfur = yellow, calcium = white, etc.  We made tiny white bricks be hydrogen.  You can then build each molecule.  Build ions first and then attach them.  You can make this work pretty well for molarity, even.  It is a great way to visualize everything and work out the formulae if you’re finding it confusing. The main trouble with this activity, of course, is getting more distractible kids to pay attention to the molecules instead of the really great spaceships they’re building!

We did some really great chemical experiments too, such as producing hydrogen by mixing aluminum with sodium hydroxide (lye), burning various substances to see the colored flames (a good time to talk about fireworks!), and so on.  I wished for a lump of sodium to blow up, but I never got one.  Someday!  I videotaped one of our experiments, and here it is for you.

I also love popular bookPeriodic-Tales-Williams-Hugh-9780061824722s about chemistry. Here are some titles that you might enjoy; you can tell the stories as you teach, or you might have an older student who will like one.

This is a reprint of an article we ran in October 2013.

Janejane-emilyEmily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

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StS Goes to the Moon and Back!

Our own Jane-Emily is guest-blogging today over at To the Moon and Back! As a librarian, Jane-Emily definitely knows the best ways to introduce our early elementary-aged children to the skills and knowledge they need as they learn to see the library as a home away from home.  Please drop in at To the Moon and Back to read Jane-Emily’s suggestions!

Thanks again to our good friend Dusty for hosting us today on her lovely blog where she discusses all things pertaining to homeschooling, marriage, parenting, and faith.

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Longer Books to Read Aloud to Younger Children, by Jane-Emily

 

As a new mom, I couldn’t wait to start reading to my baby.  You know how it is; you’re just so excited about everything!  We read picture books together all the time, but by the time she was 3 or so I was just dying to read her longer books too, a chapter at a time.  Of course I was jumping the gun; she was not ready yet!  I had to wait a little while.  As my girls got bigger, though, I read to them quite a lot, and eventually made a list of my favorite read-alouds for ages 3-6 to share with my friends.

Most children will probably not be ready to listen to chapter stories until age 3.5 – 4.  It might be longer than that.  And, although most parents seem to immediately think of Winnie-the-Pooh, I found through personal experience that some other books with simpler storylines and larger illustrations should come first.  So, in order from simplest to more complex, here is my list of favorites:

  • My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett  This is a wonderful book to start with, featuring Elmer Elevator’s adventures with a baby dragon.  There are 3 books.  The first one has an odd habit of calling the protagonist “my father” instead of Elmer, but you can edit as you read if you wish.  My daughter promptly made Elmer Elevator her first imaginary friend, and we took him everywhere for a month or so.
  • 6a00cdf3ac0c23cb8f00cdf7f2f741094f-500piJenny and the Cat Club by Ester Averill Jenny is a shy black cat who longs to join the Cat Club.  She has several books of adventures and they are wonderful. (Don’t miss her friend, Pickles the Fire Cat.  He has his own easy reader.)
  • All About Sam by Lois Lowry  Funny stories about life from a baby-to-preschooler perspective.  There are four Sam books and the first two are the best, but they’re all fun.
  • The Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook by Joyce Lankester Brisley This sweet and very English book has stories of everyday life in a village.  Milly-Molly-Mandy has many gentle adventures that show how much a little girl can do.
  • Tales from Grimm  Most ‘real’ fairy tales are too intense and complex for little ones, but this selection from the author of Millions of Cats is an excellent first book of fairy tales.
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder The rest of these classics should wait a while, but this first title is perfect for a 4-5 year-old child.
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary My favorite ‘first Beverly Cleary’ book, in which Ralph the mouse meets a boy–and they bond over their mutual love of toy cars.  Ralph is just the right size to ride the motorcycle…follow Ralph through 3 books.
  • Arabel’s Raven by Joan Aiken Arabel is a sweet little girl; Mortimer is her horrible and beloved pet raven.   There are 3 books, and they are so funny.   Mortimer destroys everything in sight, but Arabel can’t live without him.
  • The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon One of my favorite books ever, this is a  collection of fairy tales by one of my favorite authors.  Some are too long for younger children, and some are perfect.  Try “The Lady’s Room” first.
  • Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson Moomintroll and his motley collection of friends have adventures in the forest.  There are several strange and wonderful books in this series.
  • All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor A warm and classic story about a Jewish family of 5 sisters in 1912 New York on the Lower East Side.  Very popular with girls, probably not so much for boys, but there ARE boys so give it a try.
  • Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers If you’ve never read these before, you’ll discover that Mary is impatient, cross, vain, and always denies everything, but is nevertheless beloved by her often-naughty charges.  Lots of fun.  (If you have a pre-1981 edition, just edit the chapter about the compass adventure as you read.)
  • Nurse Matilda: The Collected Tales by Christianna Brand Speaking of nanny stories, here’s a very funny one.  You might know this book as the inspiration for the film Nanny McPhee.
  • The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne  Of course.  Just not for the first read-aloud. 🙂

By the time your child is old enough to enjoy the last few books on this list, the possibilities will widen out considerably.  There are so many wonderful books out there to read to your child!  I could go on listing titles for a long time, but my aim here is to provide a list of excellent books to ease into reading aloud a chapter at a time.

All of these books will also come in handy later on as your child learns to read independently.  My Father’s Dragon, Jenny and the Cat Club, and the others may be enjoyed for years to come.  Be sure to have your child read aloud a bit to you every so often!

Jane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves tojane-emily quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

Teaching World Geography to Younger Students

by Jane-Emily

When my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, I wanted to do something fun that would get her ready for world history in first grade.  I had already planned to use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series in 1st-4th grade, and I love travel and learning about other countries!  So I planned out a year of world geography for a five-year-old.  I did not use any packaged curriculum; the ones I had seen had a strong emphasis on Protestant missionary work and that was not my focus.

I bought two books:

I also put a world map and a map of the USA in the hall.  Everything else I checked out from the library.  It hardly cost a thing.

I planned for thirty weeks by choosing thirty countries or regions of the world with the atlas as a help: Scandinavia, West Africa, Japan/Korea, and so on.  I also made a little passport, just a little booklet with heavy blue paper for a cover and a bunch of plain white pages, sewn together with heavy thread.  I put a fancy gold seal on the front (it said “Home Made Candies” but who cares?). On the inside cover I put a picture of my daughter and her basic information, just like in a real passport.  I ruled lines on the pages, dividing each one in half, and labeled the sections with country names.

With my master list in hand, I visited the library each week and checked out a few books about the upcoming topic.  This is very easy to do: Just go to the non-fiction section of the children’s room, look for the early 900s, and you will see shelves of books about other countries arranged geographically.  Many of these are part of “countries of the world”-type series for older children doing country reports, and can be handy for you to look through for recipes or other information. You’ll also find books to actually read to your young child, often “kids in other lands”-type books or maybe some neat history.  Those are fun.

The other books I looked for were folk and fairy tale collections for each region of the world.  Libraries usually collect lots of folk tales, and these are found in the 398 section of the non-fiction collection.  They are not arranged geographically, so you must search in the catalog for specific topics: Just type “folk tales Caribbean” or whatever you’re looking for, and something will probably come up.  You could also find books about world religions in the 290s; there are many good books for young children with the “I am a Hindu” sort of theme.  World holiday books are good resources too (early 390s).

Each week, we wodkchildrenuld start with the atlas and the Children Just Like Me book.  We would read about one or more children, find their homeland in the atlas and talk about what it would be like to live there–not for a very long time, we are talking about 10-15 minutes here.  Later in the week, we would read a story or a folktale (or three or four).  And later again, we would cook something yummy, play dress-up or a game, or otherwise try something fun and new.  I am still cooking the spinach and egg recipe we made for Greece!  We did this three days per week, and most of that time was spent on folktales, play, or cooking.

At the end of each week, we would fill out our passport to show that we had ‘visited’ the country.  I collected stamps when I was younger and I have my collection stashed away in my closet, so we would raid it for good postage stamps and stick them in.  You could also draw something, print pictures, or just find a cool rubber stamp to use.

This plan worked very well for my older daughter’s kindergarten year.  We had a lot of fun and she got plenty of ideas for imaginative play.  In particular, one girl who lived in the Amazon jungle attracted her, and for months she would play that she lived in the Amazon.  Even now, she remembers many of the activities we did.

When my younger daughter’s turn came, I actually did this plan for first grade while her older sister did modern history in our four-year cycle, so that they could start ancient history together the next year.  She insisted on a purple passport, and again we had a very good year learning about the world.

Jajane-emilyne-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

Subtle Vision Issues Can Cause Big Problems

By Jane-Emily

A preliminary note: Although the cause of my daughter’s vision issue is quite rare, the problems we had because of it are pretty common and the therapy we used is helpful for a wide range of issues.  I hope that some people looking for ways to help their kids will find this useful.

My younger daughter’s 3rd grade year was something of a nightmare.  I didn’t know what to do with her.  She couldn’t explain the problem, and it took me a long time to connect the dots; I didn’t realize that the different issues we were having were all caused by the same thing.

Problem #1: She could read perfectly well, but she didn’t like to read.  I know not everyone is going to love reading as much as I do, but I found her avoidance of reading to be a little odd.  In particular, she would not try new books; she had to be completely convinced that she was going to love the story.  I would tantalize her by reading aloud whatever book I thought she would like–that usually worked, but quite often she would read some of a book and then leave it unfinished.  She much preferred listening, and I gave her lots of audiobooks.

Problem #2: Math.  I was mystified.  This kid started off enjoying math, and she had clearly inherited some of her dad’s skill at it.  Even as a toddler, she loved puzzles and blocks, and she grew into a confirmed Lego addict.  During math lessons, she learned well and enjoyed it.  But in 3rd grade, she started having inexplicable meltdowns.  She “hated math.”  We were using Saxon, and she did fine with the lesson part. She loved anything having to do with manipulatives, she understood the concepts, and she knew her math facts cold–but she balked at the problem sets, and the sheets of math facts (the ones with 100 to a page) sent her into an instant tailspin.

She complained of headaches.  She tried to weasel out of the work.  She cried.   But why?  She was perfectly capable.  When I was in 3rd grade we did those math fact sheets daily and I thought they were fun.  I wasn’t asking her to do anything unusual or difficult.

I tried all kinds of things.  We did “trampoline math” for the fact sheets, where I would call out the problems and she would answer them while jumping on a mini-tramp.  I would bribe her with an M&M for every row she finished.  We did a lot orally.  Still she balked and developed sudden headaches, but I didn’t really believe in them.  Since when do healthy kids get headaches at the drop of a hat?  I thought her headaches were fictional, a way to get out of doing what she didn’t want to do.  (This is where I win the Bad Mom of the Year Award.)

She started complaining about headaches more, even when she was doing things she liked to do–even when she was playing.  I took this development more seriously and started wondering if she had a real problem that we weren’t understanding.  My first thought was to take her to the eye doctor.

I should explain why I jumped so easily to the eye doctor idea:  I am horribly near-sighted, and my entire family is prone to having interesting eye problems.  This child invented a new one for us to deal with; she has a particular condition called Duane’s Syndrome.  One of her eyes does not have its full range of motion because the nerves that control the muscles on one side simply never developed.  There is nothing to be done about this, but our regular eye doctor and our friend the ophthalmologist (who explained it to me when she was a baby) didn’t seem to think it was any big deal, and she had never shown any signs of trouble.  I’d been taking her to get her eyes checked since she was 1 year old, and she had just gotten a checkup and a fresh pair of glasses before 3rd grade.  She had even lost the wonky astigmatism she’d had in that eye, so I thought things were going well.

It had only been maybe 6 months since she had last seen the eye doctor, but this time we were looking for a specific problem and he did some different tests.  She did not have good binocularity!  Her eyes were not working together as well as they should, even on her good side.  (Of course they can’t work together at all on her weak side–she sees double there.)  The doctor recommended vision therapy; he was certified in VT and would give us exercises to do.

This all came as something of a shock to me.  I’d gotten so used to her wonky eye that I hadn’t considered all the ramifications of it for her.  I called up our friend the ophthalmologist and asked his opinion.  He (and the pediatric ophthalmologist he referred me to) thought that vision therapy would be a useless waste of time and money.  I’m afraid I broke into tears on the phone and distressed him terribly, poor guy.

We were on a tight budget and vision therapy wasn’t covered by our insurance.  The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on something that might not work was hugely daunting to me, but how could I not try?  Besides, no other option presented itself.  It was VT or nothing.

So we gave it a try.  The doctor gave us simple exercises to do, often with items we had at home, though he also lent us equipment.  Every day, we did a set of exercises, and I learned much more about how her eyes work.   Our goal was to get her eyes working together as much as possible, given her incurable condition.

I’m happy and relieved to report that the exercises worked beautifully.  Over a few months, her complaints about headaches diminished and then ceased.  She became willing to read!  It still isn’t her very favorite thing to do (that would be Legos), but she enjoys books and, to my joy, spent the summer working through the entire “Warriors” series.  It helps if I search out editions with clear type that isn’t too small.  Her distaste for new, unknown books had been because reading was such hard work for her that she had to be convinced that it would be worth it–but of course she couldn’t articulate that.  A child who has never known otherwise cannot explain what is going wrong.

We developed a whole new set of habits for math:  I bought paper that allowed for larger writing, I discovered apps that presented practice problems in a beautifully large font, and we still did quite a bit orally.  Much of 4th grade was spent just getting her over the hatred of math she had developed–not because she couldn’t do the work, but because she couldn’t focus on the small print and it made her eyes hurt.

I’m grateful that we homeschool; I’m convinced that the amount of time I could spend observing her trying to work is what helped us to figure out the problem.   I had a thorough knowledge of her–her personality, talents, and issues from the day she was born–and it still took me months to figure it out.  I’m also grateful that I chose Saxon Math; with its plain layout and lack of fancy embellishments all over the page, it is actually the best text for her, since there is so little to confuse or distract the eye.   We did give up those 100-fact sheets, though.  They have tiny print that is just plain hard to see.

Considering the results, I think the hundreds of dollars we had to spend for VT was well worth it.  I imagine what her life would be like if schoolwork and reading were always a difficult struggle that caused pain.  It would be completely natural to hate school, and math, and reading!  At the time, I worried constantly about the money, because I wasn’t sure that the therapy would work.  Now, I think it one of the best things I ever spent money on.

My daughter’s particular eye condition is a rare one, but the problem that it caused is not.  I am no expert, but as far as I can tell, problems with binocularity are fairly common.  It’s hard to spot, though, because it’s so subtle, and the resulting behavioral problems look like a childish reluctance to cooperate.  Many people faced with a recalcitrant child don’t think of possible hard-to-detect vision issues.  So I am sharing my story here in hopes that if you have a child who hates math or reading for no discernible reason, a visit to an eye doctor who knows something about vision therapy will be on your list of things to do.  Vision therapy seems to still be not very well-known, and it could solve so many children’s problems!

jane-emilyJane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

How I Taught 7th grade Chemistry

test_tube

by Jane-Emily

Last year I had a twelve-year-old in seventh grade and a nine-year-old in fourth.  For science, I wanted to concentrate on chemistry — one of my very favorite sciences!  It’s the recipe book for the universe! — I wanted to make sure that my twelve-year-old would be very well-prepared to take AP Chemistry, or some equivalent thereof, later on.  I searched high and low for materials that would make it possible for me to teach a solid chemistry course without too much math.  I also invited another kid along for lab days; I find that it is more fun if we have an extra kid or two along for the ride.

For a text, I found Friendly Chemistry, a course designed for homeschoolers with plans for larger groups.  Friendly Chemistry is quite clear, and it teaches a lot of chemistry, from atomic structure to stoichiometry to ideal gas laws.  There is some math and it sometimes got difficult, but together we figured it out.  There is not much of a lab component; it’s limited to easily-obtainable home items.  It has quite a few games to aid in memorization of elements, ions, and so on, and several of them are well-designed.  There are a few typos, but otherwise my only problem was that the solutions in the back of the book did not provide help with working out the problems. Only answers were given, and sometimes we got stuck.

I wanted lots of lab work, so I ordered the biggest chemistry set Thames & Kosmos stocks: the C3000, containing instructions for over 300 experiments designed to take the student from basics to more complex organic chemistry.  T&K being a German company, I did find that a few extras it required were hard for me to find, such as hartshorn/baker’s ammonia and so on.  Of course the experiments followed a completely different logic than the Friendly Chemistry did–it is all practical chemistry–but we didn’t have too much trouble with that.   The variety was nice, and all of us appreciated the fun of setting things on fire.  I needed more glass test tubes than were provided, and I came perilously close to running out of a few chemicals.

Meanwhile, my nine-year-old came along for the ride for much of this.  She had the Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry text, which was OK but not wonderful.  I would have preferred something else, but I didn’t find anything I loved.  She and I worked through those chapters together, and otherwise she played the games, participated in the experiments, and did just fine.  I am confident that she absorbed plenty of chemistry for her age.

Our schedule was as follows:

  • Tuesday, read the chapter for the week.  Start exercises and finish by Thursday.
  • Thursday: lab from 12:00 until at least 2:00 (with extra child, who was also doing the same text at home).  Go over the week’s lesson and make sure exercises are understood.  Do any activities from the text.  Do a section of experiments from T&K set and talk about them.
  • Friday: give the chapter test.  And make sure to practice memory work through games throughout!

Some of my favorite activities included:

Element/Ion Bingo: this was at the very beginning of the year, when we needed the kids to learn the elements and their symbols.  I filled large bingo cards with all the most difficult symbols.  After a couple of weeks of that we changed to ion bingo so they could practice distinguishing sulfate and sulfide, etc.

The Doo-Wop board: this is a proprietary game from Friendly Chemistry that helps students understand the structure of the atom.  I found it quite helpful myself!  We would pick an element and fill the shells with electrons until we had it right.  (The electrons were white and chocolate chips, which made it a very popular game.)

Lego chemistry: I found legochemthis to be a great help with stoichiometry (which is figuring out how much of what goes into a substance).  Get a large tub of plain Lego bricks, and assign each color an element.  We had fun making them appropriate, but you can’t do that with all of them.  Carbon = green, sulfur = yellow, calcium = white, etc.  We made tiny white bricks be hydrogen.  You can then build each molecule.  Build ions first and then attach them.  You can make this work pretty well for molarity, even.  It is a great way to visualize everything and work out the formulae if you’re finding it confusing. The main trouble with this activity, of course, is getting more distractible kids to pay attention to the molecules instead of the really great spaceships they’re building!

We did some really great chemical experiments too, such as producing hydrogen by mixing aluminum with sodium hydroxide (lye), burning various substances to see the colored flames (a good time to talk about fireworks!), and so on.  I wished for a lump of sodium to blow up, but I never got one.  Someday!  I videotaped one of our experiments, and here it is for you.

 

I also love popular bookPeriodic-Tales-Williams-Hugh-9780061824722s about chemistry.  Here are some titles that you might enjoy; you can tell the stories as you teach, or you might have an older student who will like one.

Janejane-emilyEmily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

In Defense of Twaddle

by Jane-Emilytwaddle

Twaddle is Charlotte Mason’s term for junk literature — books that are unworthy of attention because they are drivel.  Easy series books, comic books — everything that is more brain candy than solid nutrition.  It’s a wonderfully expressive term, too.  I just love calling things twaddle, don’t you?

Living books, on the other hand, are good literature that provide real mental stimulation, an imaginative journey that sticks with the reader.  While I certainly agree that living books are the best kind, I have developed a strong opinion that twaddle has a worthy place in a child’s library and should not be avoided.  So here is my theory — in defense of twaddle.

Any parent of a small child knows that little ones love repetition.  A preschooler will ask for the same book over and over and over again, until the long-suffering mother is ready to set a match to the thing.  Susan Wise Bauer often talks about this love of repetition as a child’s way of figuring out what things in the world stay the same, and what things change.  In a big world where so much is completely unpredictable from a child’s point of view, the fact that Green Eggs and Ham always ends with the fellow eating green eggs and liking them is a happy confirmation that some things don’t change.

As the child grows older, she learns to read.  She is no longer quite so interested in reading the exact same story over and over again, but she still enjoys repetition throughout the grammar stage.   Reading is very hard work that takes a lot of energy at first, and a child learning to read is navigating quite a bit of unknown territory.  Easy series books — stuff like Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, and the worst of the lot, Rainbow Fairies — provide practice with reading skills and story structure while remaining comfortingly predictable.  You never have to worry that Jack and Annie will get stuck; they always make it home.  Rachel and Kirsty will always be able to help the fairy and defeat the goblins.  Comic books will do the same thing.  There are no nasty surprises, and meanwhile there is enough variety to keep things interesting as the child absorbs vocabulary, develops reading ease and speed, and enjoys reading.  Twaddle provides repetition with variation, and that is the perfect formula for a beginning reader in the grammar stage.

I want to say it louder: twaddle provides repetition with variation.  It’s the next step up from reading the same picture book over and over again.

Meanwhile, it’s your job as the parent to require a little quality challenge as well.  Reading excellent literature aloud to your child stocks his mind with language that is far above what he can actually read.  It teaches him to appreciate a really great story with good writing, and allows him to focus all his energy on listening and comprehending.  At this age and for years to come, your child will comprehend more through listening than he will through reading, so you can read a complex story to a beginning reader very happily.  Reading aloud is an important activity for a long time, longer than we usually realize.   (I have a theory about that too!)

Of course, you can andtwaddle2 should require your child to read quality literature for school time.  This is where you can make sure that she reads living books if she isn’t reading them on her own.  If she is reluctant but it isn’t that it’s too difficult for her, try having her read aloud with you, alternating paragraphs.

I am a great believer in requiring some reading and allowing free choice for more reading.  A child ought to have both, and my preference is for more freedom than not.  I get so discouraged when I see children who have to do so much required reading from a list (for, say, the Accelerated Reader program, which I really dislike) that they never get to choose their own books!   It’s hugely important that a child have some autonomy about what to read, and in my opinion that should include the freedom to read twaddle.  Exerting too much control over a child’s reading choices can so easily crush the joy out of it.

So I say bring on the Rainbow Fairies, insipid and saccharine little nothings that they are.  They’ll be outgrown soon enough, and the child will go on to better things, having practiced the skills that make more difficult reading enjoyable.

Addendum, 10/18/13: Neil Gaiman, intelligent fellow that he is, agrees with me, and incidentally manages to pack in a lot of other things I also agree with.  Please enjoy this wonderful speech he gave at The Reading Agency.

Jane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embrjane-emilyoider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.