First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind
The first book of this series authored by Jessie Wise, co-author of The Well Trained Mind, is based on Lessons in the Use of English by Mary Hyde (which, when edited by Cyndy Shearer of Greenleaf Press, became English for the Thoughtful Child). Jessie Wise believes that children as young as first or second grade are capable of learning the correct use of language; it's just a matter of if and how the material is presented to them. After all, she says, if you believe in exposing your children to quality literature before they have begun to read proficiently [which most of us do], why shouldn't we expose them to the sounds and sights of correct language and grammar usage? Although at this age learning these rules will require a lot more patience on both the part of the student and the teacher, learning it the right way early on is a huge step towards learning proper English and grammar rules later in life. Although it sounds like a big job, her books are very straightforward and easy-to-use.
The author's goals for this series include: 1) training student's ears to be attuned to the sound of properly spoken language, 2) training their speech to the correct use of grammar, 3) having their attention sharpened by asking them to narrate parts of a story back to you after hearing it aloud, and 4) using correct language in writing.
Starting in second grade they should be able to copy short sentences properly using grammar and punctuation and be able to write short sentences both from dictation and on their own, again using proper punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. Sounds like a lot of work to get to that point, right? True, it will take patience and a lot of practice, but the author has included four important tools in your toolkit to help you through this process. Her "Four Strand" approach relies on using memory work, copying and dictation, narration, and grammar to help both you and your student reach these goals. Memory work begins with the child memorizing and reciting short definitions and rules to reinforce the sounds of correctly spoken sentences as well as short poems to discover the enjoyable rhythm of language and continues through the elementary grades with rhymes and rules and longer poems. First graders will be copying short sentences, but copying sentences from dictation is withheld until second grade when children's motor skills and their "feel for" language are stronger. Narration exercises alluded to earlier include story narration where a short story is read to the child and he or she is asked to recite in complete sentences the story in their own words back to you or to answer comprehension questions about the story in complete sentences. Picture narration exercises are also used, where the student will observe a picture and describe it using complete sentences. Grammar, the last tool in your kit, is taught early on by giving the child definitions of the parts of grammar - reciting the rules and using them in speech and in writing as much as possible. These four strands are continued through the levels with increasing complexity and length.
Although previously levels 1 and 2 were combined, the publisher replaced the combined version with two separate levels in 2010. FLL Level 1 and FLL Level 2 cover first and second grade, one level per year. They are designed to accompany separate phonics, spelling, and penmanship lessons. There are 100 lessons in each book - the 200 lessons in the combined volume have been neatly cut in half. The lessons tend to be very short, with the topic printed at the top of the page and other items to review underneath. The structure of each lesson is easy to follow with different fonts denoting notes for the teacher, what the teacher might say to teach the concept, and something similar to what your child may say in reply to a question. Though it is not necessary to follow the script exactly, it gives an example of how you may wish to teach the lesson. Each lesson takes up only a page or so, and most of them contain oral lessons to complete together, such as answering questions or focusing on narration of a story, picture, or a poem to memorize. Memorization exercises are reviewed for days after the initial exposure, and the child is encouraged to recite poems to themselves and to an inanimate object before working up the courage to present it to his family. Following the lesson enrichment activities are often given, although it is up to your discretion and the ability of your child to determine if you will have them complete these or not. Often these ask for the child to illustrate the prose studied or to copy part of a lesson out in writing. These are more advanced than the exercises in the lessons and were included for the more precocious children to complete if they so desire. A sampling of topics covered for first grade includes nouns (common, proper), days of the week, pronouns, capitalization, seasons, days, months, holidays, verbs, addresses, dates, and an introduction to sentence types. In second grade, verbs, contractions, adjectives, commas, letter writing, prepositions, and interjections are covered, along with extensive review of the topics covered in first grade. Although this may sound heavy for first and second-graders to handle, don't worry, everything is broken up into manageable morsels easier for them to digest and remember. The key is in repetition and practice, and the author reminds us that if it is our intention to take a lengthy break from school, such as summer break, then we should still keep up with the lessons, ideally covering one or two a week so that everything you've worked so hard on up to this point isn't half-forgotten and recovered with a struggle the next year. The Audio Companion CD (which combines levels 1 and 2) provides theater-quality presentations of the fun poems, entertaining stories, and memorable rhymes found in the books. There are also some original songs to aid memorization of the parts of speech.
Level 3 and higher of this program continues the basic components, but in addition to the teacher manual, a consumable workbook is provided for the student's work. The four teaching goals remain the same, and the authors (Sara Buffington is co-author) continue to weave the lessons with the four strands: memory work, copying/dictation, narration, and grammar. There is also a continuation of the scripted teaching approach using the same type formatting as the first book. There are 89 lessons in Level 3 plus three short (7 lessons each) optional teaching sections: writing letters, dictionary skills, and oral usage. A sampling of the topics include: eight parts of speech, forming plurals, linking & state of being verbs, four types of sentences, parts of a sentence, comma usage, quotations, and contractions. Diagramming is introduced at this level. As in the 1-2 book, grammar concepts are introduced and reinforced through the use of rhymes and rhythmic chants. [Just a note on these, you might want to practice these a bit ahead - I experimented with the one on state of being verbs and found it to be a bit tricky in terms of rhythm. I wouldn't have wanted to be trying it out for the first time with my student. I'm thinking there would be more entertainment than learning in that "lesson."] The course can be completed in one year in about 30 minutes per day and 3 days per week. Workbooks provide some lesson examples, copies of the memory work pieces, and space for diagramming as well as for the copywork and dictation exercises. The pages are perforated and 3-hole punched so they could be filed in a binder. Level 4 provides a continuation in both format and content and covers a full range of grammar topics including parts of speech, punctuation, sentence diagrams, and skills in beginning writing and storytelling. Optional end units provide practice in dictionary use and letter writing.
There are so many things to like about this program that one hardly knows where to begin. It's easy to follow and use, the instruction is comprehensive and thorough yet gentle, teacher prep is at an absolute minimum, all learning styles are addressed, and last but not least, underlying the entire program is a love for the beauty and structure of our language. - J.L / J.P