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Working with Your Student’s Skills

Charlotte Mason Method Student SkillsI enjoy watching The Great British Baking Show. The challenges, the creativity, and the camaraderie all combine to make it a pleasant diversion. But I have to be careful, because sometimes I get carried away with the success of some of the bakers.

I look at their beautiful creations and, without batting an eye, start searching the Internet for the recipe they used. Never mind that I have no idea what a ganache is or how to make one—let alone spell it! They throw those terms around and talk about the finer points of different kinds of sponge cake and types of dough, and it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm.

But if I were to try to recreate one of their show-stopping, Victorian era, three kinds of pies (one fruity and two savory), with melt-in-your-mouth golden brown crust, handcrafted decorative peacock feathers, and a hidden surprise inside—well, let’s just say, I wouldn’t want you to put it on television.

I’m not at that skill level . . . yet. Giving me an assignment so far above my current skill level would only set me up for failure and frustration.

The same holds true for giving school assignments. We’ve been discussing ways that you can tweak the curriculum to better fit your student. Last time we talked about the potential for adjusting the content. Today, let’s consider how you might adjust the work, or skills, that are required.

Keep your eyes open for the work that your curriculum requires from the student. Notice what skills it is asking your student to use, and determine whether those skills are a good match for that particular child right now. If they are too far beyond your student’s current ability, adjust them for a better fit.

Yes, keep working with the student to grow in those skill areas. He could just need more practice at a skill in order to become better at it. But if a particular skill is beyond reach at this point, consider tweaking it for now. Requiring your child to consistently perform at that out-of-reach level will probably take all of the energy and effort and brain power he has, and leave none to deal with the actual content of the lesson.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge. I’m saying there is a difference between challenging and frustrating. There is a difference between asking the child to do something he doesn’t like to do versus something he cannot do . . . yet. If you want your child to embrace Charlotte Mason’s student motto—“I am, I can, I ought, I will”—then you need to make sure you have a good handle on what he can do. Part of respecting each child as a person is allowing him to grow in his abilities at his own personal pace.

Not every child will grow at the same pace as another child. Not every child will grow at the same pace in all of his own areas of life and school work. Your job is to quietly and calmly keep track of where your student is in the process so you can tailor his assignments to encourage him and equip him for the next step of growth.

With that in mind, then, let’s look at some ways you might tweak the curriculum to better fit your student’s skill level.

4 Things to Watch For in Skills

We can’t delve into the hundreds, probably thousands, of individual skills that each student might need to develop over the years. But let’s take a look at four broad ideas that I have noticed recurring often in my own home school and in conversations with other home educators. These four concepts will give you some common skill areas to watch for in your curriculum.

1. Communication Struggles

One broad skill area to keep an eye on is the type of communication required of the student. Think in terms of hearing and speaking, reading and writing. When you look at a lesson, notice which one or more of those skills are involved. Then if your student struggles in one of those communication skill areas, you will know that you’ve found one place the curriculum might need to be adjusted. For example, if your student struggles with listening, keep the lesson short and focused. We can use Charlotte Mason’s timetable for a guide in keeping lessons short; i.e., no longer than 20 minutes in grades 1–3. But if you need to go shorter for your student, you can do that. Keep in mind the main principle behind short lessons: cultivating the habit of attention. If your student is capable of listening to and processing a reading for only 5 minutes, run with that and don’t overreach his ability at this point. You can increase the length little by little as he develops in the area of listening.

Another strategy for those who struggle with listening might be introducing some kind of visual to help shore-up that weaker skill. A child with auditory-processing issues may benefit from seeing a picture of what you will be reading about. Or an older child might be better able to process by reading for himself—seeing the words on the page—rather than listening to you read aloud. Keep those possible adjustments in mind if you have a struggling listener.

What about a student who struggles with reading? Several ideas come to mind, depending on where your student is in the process of learning to read fluently. A student who can’t read yet could listen to you read aloud or listen to an audiobook. If he can read but struggles with fluency, he could listen to an audiobook and follow along in a printed copy, or the live version would be to listen to you read and look over your shoulder at the page. The next steps for a struggling reader might be to listen to you read and then take a turn himself, either alternating pages—you read one page aloud, then he reads the next—or even alternating chapters—you read aloud one chapter, then he reads the next chapter aloud to you or silently for himself. Not everyone learns to read at the same age, and that’s okay. Adjust your curriculum as needed so your student doesn’t feel penalized for developing in that skill at his own pace. You can feed his mind even if he is a struggling reader.

Listening and reading are receptive skills; they help a student receive communication. The other two communication skills are expressive, helping a student express himself through speaking and writing.

May I take just a moment to interject here that it is often easy to underestimate a person’s intelligence when she struggles with expressive communication. Somehow we are quick to make the assumption that if a person is not expressing her thoughts, she isn’t having any thoughts worth expressing. Such is not usually the case. Be very cautious of jumping to that conclusion, even subconsciously.

A student who struggles with speaking might be able to communicate through drawing, writing, or typing. He could act out a narration, build the scene with interlocking blocks, point to a picture or word that expresses his thought, or use sign language to share what he is thinking. For some children, even a nod or a shake of the head takes great effort. An attentive teacher will do her best to recognize and respect the student’s smallest attempts at expressive communication.

For those who struggle with writing, encourage verbal answers and discussions. Any copywork assignment should be very short and emphasize quality over quantity. If handwriting is physically painful for the child, consider teaching her to type. You might also reduce the amount of writing involved in an assignment by making part of it oral. For example, a narration could be given verbally with only the final sentence or two written.

2. Thinking Levels

A second broad area to consider is the type of thinking skill that the student is expected to do. Be careful of requiring the child to perform a thinking skill that he is not developmentally ready to do yet. If your child is still thinking concretely, don’t confuse him with lessons that require abstract thinking. If he struggles with generalizing concepts over a variety of situations or applications, don’t give him an assignment that assumes he will generalize with no help.Consider which thinking skills you are asking him to do: memorize, comprehend, describe, explain, generalize, analyze, synthesize, persuade, create. There are many others, I’m sure. Some of those skills require a higher level of thinking. If your student is not yet able to perform that level of reasoning, tweak the assignment rather than frustrate the child.

One of the reasons I love the Charlotte Mason approach so much is that Charlotte recognized that education is not just about thinking levels. Reasoning and logic are not the be-all-end-all goals of education. Feeding the mind is just as important, if not more so, than exercising the mind.

Even if a child might never get to the point of higher thinking levels, she can still benefit from a generous curriculum that spreads a feast of good, loving, and noble ideas. She will still be shaped by those ideas and valued for herself as an individual. She will have opportunities to form personal relations, to share what she is thinking, and to find joy in growing as a person.

Be wary of a curriculum that puts most of the focus on thinking skills. Make adjustments so you can educate the whole person.

3. Assumed Prerequisites

Another tip when it comes to adjusting skills is to be on the lookout for assignments that assume certain skills are already in place. Ask yourself, If I had to write out step-by-step instructions for this assignment, what skills would be involved and is my child able to do all of them? Sometimes we overlook prerequisite skills that are assumed to complete a lesson.For example, a copywork lesson assumes that the child can hold a pencil and is able to focus on and control the small muscles in her hand. It assumes eye-hand coordination and enough strength to press the pencil against the paper and make a mark. It also assumes a relation with the alphabet and, potentially, the ability to read.

A spelling lesson assumes reading fluency. A grammar lesson assumes reading fluency, plus that the child can think abstractly and has the ability to analyze words as they relate to one another within a sentence.

If your child is struggling in a certain subject, it might be a helpful exercise to pause and consider what communication skills and thinking levels are assumed prerequisites for the lessons you’re doing. Does your student have those assumed prerequisites solidly in place? If not, you may need to tweak the lesson or delay it until the child is ready.

4. Multiple Layers

Along the same lines, watch for assignments that involve multiple layers of skills. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how many skills are involved in a particular lesson. Be careful that you are not overloading your student.One common example comes to mind. Remember when your elementary school teacher announced the first assignment on the very first day in the fall? Write a composition on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” On the surface it seems like a simple assignment, but think for a moment about all of the skills that are involved in completing that composition. The child will be evaluated on his letter formation, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, and coming up with the ideas and retaining them long enough to do all of the skills involved in handwriting.

In the same way, a math worksheet assignment is asking for multiple skills: understanding the math concepts and handwriting skills. If there are word problems on the worksheet, the child must also use reading skills.

So be on the lookout for multiple layers of skills. If a student is struggling, look closely at how many different skills you are asking him to use. Can you accomplish the main goal of the assignment in a simpler manner?

Oral narration instead of written compositions. Oral math with everyday objects instead of worksheets. Charlotte Mason was a genius when it comes to not overloading a child with multiple layers of skill requirements.

Skill-building is a process. And above all, it is a personal process. Home education provides a perfect setting to allow each child the dignity of personhood, the opportunity to learn new skills and master them at his personal pace.

So don’t be afraid to adjust the skill levels in your curriculum to better fit where your child is in that process right now. Skills must usually be learned in a particular order, but how long it takes to move to the next one in line is a matter of personal growth.

Give your student the gift of unpressured time to grow in his skills. Recognize the effort that he is putting forth more than where he happens to be on the progress chart. And provide your child with plenty of living ideas that will feed his mind and educate his heart no matter where he is in the process.

If you do that, you will give him a great education.

Next time we’ll wrap up this series on how to teach the child, not just the curriculum, by considering some ways to tweak how the curriculum is served.

Narration Questions for Your Child’s Skill Level

Narration Notecards Stories of America 1Our Narration Notecards give you book-specific narration prompts at three skill levels. Each 3″ x 5″ card has questions for narrating one chapter at each skill level. Also included are a word bank of key people, places, dates, and vocabulary for each chapter. Now it’s simple to take narration to the next level—with Narration Notecards!

6 Responses to “Working with Your Student’s Skills”

  1. Kteni April 4, 2018 at 6:31 pm #

    Is this going to be added to the podcast for listening?

  2. Jaimie Bauer April 4, 2018 at 7:54 pm #

    This was a very timely word of encouragement for me today. I have been struggling with this topic for a while. I greatly appreciate your insight and experience. It is so valuable to me to hear the advice from homeschooling mothers who have already blazed their own trails.

  3. Jamie April 4, 2018 at 11:06 pm #

    Sorry to hear that you have lost your voice. That is no fun!!

    Great article. I would love to learn more about strengthening my children’s communication skills, specifically the outputs of speaking and writing. Have any good tips or resources?

    • Sonya Shafer April 6, 2018 at 11:48 am #

      Some of the suggestions depend on whether the student is reluctant or is dealing with processing issues, as well as his age and developmental level. For a typical child, you can strengthen speaking and writing skills through consistent narration without overwhelming. If you’re dealing with a processing issue, this article on Narration with Auditory and Speech Issues may give you some ideas.

      Another area to consider is making sure that you are asking the student to speak and write about something he knows. Rather than the random compositions, like I was asked to write in school, always make sure the student is narrating about a book he has read or a picture he has had opportunity to look at closely and carefully and form a personal relation. It’s much easier to talk and write about something that you know.

      Recitation is another tool that you can use to help your child gain confidence in speaking. If he has memorized a poem of choice or a Scripture verse, he can practice speaking without having to, at the same time, come up with coherent sentences on the fly.

      Now, if the child is frustrated that he can’t seem to find the words when the time comes, you might also take a look at some simple physical exercises that can jump start the brain and wake it up to, potentially, get both sides working together. I’ve used exercises from Brain Gym and from Minds in Motion, for examples.

      And last, be patient and trust that the excellent authors whom your student is hearing and reading will contribute to his own voice in his own time. Provide opportunities to speak and write, but don’t put undo pressure on the child to be the next great communicator.

  4. Tamara April 5, 2018 at 7:50 am #

    2 weeks ago my oldest asked to type his narration for science verses narrating it orally. I agreed but honestly did not expect much. He struggles to orally communicate well sometimes and a written narration…well…it’s a true struggle to get voice to paper. He was on to something though. It was one of his best written narrations to date. Detailed (physically written ones always lacked detail) but more importantly, I heard his voice. His inner voice came through that paper.

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