About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure (using font only to enable access in settings with poor internet)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Book Review: The Three R's by Ruth Beechick

Ruth Beechick has written much on home education. I picked up a copy of 'The Three R's' at a local home educators meet up. It was a refreshing read!

There are three sections:

1) A home start in reading
2) A strong start in language
3) An easy start in arithmetic

I was encouraged to realise that many of the 'methods' that have naturally developed in our family are in fact considered ideal for the one to one education of young children, in contrast to the more formalised methods that are used in larger classrooms where a teacher has to teach a large group of children with diverse abilities and then obtain some kind of proof that the teaching has been successful. It was also a helpful reminder that many 'methods' have been shaped by trends, subsequently superseded, and often are developed to enable a classroom teacher to work with a large group of children of diverse abilities rather than being the most efficient means to teach your own children at home. I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that because somebody else validates our own methods that we must right in our approach, but what was helpful to me was this reminder: we know our children better than anybody else, promoting a love of lifelong learning is a major desire, and we seek to use 'real life' to teach.

Reading and Writing: A Natural Approach

For example, in the sections on reading and writing, she describes a 'natural approach'; this means enabling children to see reading and writing in their natural contexts, as useful tools for communication. Rather than learning by rote, she advocates allowing children to explore and develop and so continue that love of learning and the desire to acquire new and useful skills. The section on writing almost exactly describes what we are currently doing, as I blogged just a few days ago.

I also found her comments on phonics helpful. I have never really understood what people mean when they say they are 'doing phonics' with their children, and I have never really understood what the 'rules' are, and how these are useful. My frustrations with what I have encountered is that stories consisting of words which are phonically simple and regular are often fairly stultifying, and I have seen frustration arising in my boys who want 'real stories'. John Holt has made similar observations. Instead, Beechick suggests that phonically irregular words are simply taught in their own context and the child will learn to recognise them, and perhaps to form their own rules to decode them. To me this makes more logical sense. It is clear that such an approach would be challenging in a large group of pupils, but that for those of us who are educating small numbers of children at home, this is a much more efficient approach.

(The basic phonic rules are outlined, as are some simple methods for teaching children involving games and charts. The point is that she does not see any special value in phonics programmes, or in following one particular method over another. And some families may find different approaches work better than others.)

For writing, she encourages children to learn the value of writing to express ideas rather than focussing on spelling and grammar at an early stage. She remarks that every teacher knows that requiring perfect spelling will result in the use of a diminished vocabulary. Instead it is better to encourage the children to write freely, and later to correct their spelling. She suggests grammar be left even later, by which time the child should have a reasonable command of written English and the grammar rules can be learnt more efficiently and in correct context. Whilst encouraging freedom of expression, she makes clear that learning to write does take discipline and is hard work, and recommends that children write something on every day that they are being taught.

Along with Charlotte Mason and others, Beechick warns against oversimplification. She suggests the Bible as an ideal source of model sentences; partly because of the beautiful poetry and expressive prose, but also because of the life-changing truths contained therein. This is teaching children to read and write for a real purpose, not simply to pass a test!


Over the past few weeks I have been a bit nervous about 'maths' or 'arithmetic' because I felt that whilst we have been making good progress in reading and writing as described above, we haven't been sitting down and following any kind of programme in maths. The book chapter was liberating for me. She describes how children have three modes of thinking when it comes to numbers, and that these develop with maturity and cannot be rushed:

1) The manipulative stage. For example, asking the two year old to set the table with the correct number of spoons, and then asking him how many spoons we would need if our friend came round. Children can perform quite complex arithmetic tasks through manipulating real life, every day objects - we did a lot of this in autumn when we collected 524 conkers (horse chestnuts) and played games of grouping them and trading 5 conkers for 1 acorn and so forth. Also recommended are tasks like baking, measuring, craft, helping with the shopping and every day activities which involve number manipulation; all of these are developing numeracy skills in the correct context, rather than rote learning of times-tables or equivalent. It is suggested that one of the biggest reasons people develop a fear or mental block with regard to arithmetic is because this stage is rushed.

2) Mental image stage. This is where the child works out problems by imagining objects in their mind, and then moving them around. For example, rather than actually holding 10 conkers and dividing them into two equal groups, doing it mentally.

3) The abstract stage. This is where the child can work directly off symbols such as 4+5, without using mental images. Apparently this stage doesn't occur until the child is about 12.

She discusses how many workbooks are not appropriate for the developmental stage of the child because they attempt to progress through all three stages within a single lesson, and not always in the right order. For example, writing 3+4, then drawing groups of 3 ducks and 4 blackbirds and asking the child to circle them and work out the total. This is progressing from the abstract to the mental image, when in fact the child may still be at the manipulative stage.

The reason I felt liberated was that I saw how many 'arithmetic' related activities already take place through our daily lives. We consciously seek opportunity to develop these skills, but for some reason I had acquired a mental concept that maths needed to be formalised and involve worksheets and programmes and sitting at the table. Ruth Beechick would counsel the exact opposite and tell us to keep on doing what we are doing, keep making the most of games, daily opportunities, manipulative objects and then when the children are ready (and she suggests that this will become apparent, and reminds us that home educators know their own children far better than a classroom teacher could know her pupils).

It was an easy read (two short evenings), a breath of fresh air and commonsense, and I would highly recommend it to those who are home educating young children. (The subtitle suggests grades K-3, but of course our children don't always fall into such neat packages!)

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