In How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?, I mentioned how I began the practice of daily homework with my kids from around the age of 3.
Frankly, I would have preferred to wait with written work until they were a bit older—which seems more in line with a child’s natural development. But the hard reality is, I felt it was important to give literacy in the minority language (for us, that’s English) a strong head start before they entered our local elementary school and their literacy in the majority language (Japanese) then quickly took off.
Plus, I figured that if I established a daily “homework habit” from a young age—and made their first experience of this as enjoyable as I could—it would take root more easily and become an expected part of their lives, like brushing their teeth. If I had waited until they were older, not only would it have been harder for their English literacy to develop alongside their Japanese literacy (particularly since the two writing systems are so different), I think it would have proven more difficult to incorporate this routine into the lifestyle they had already grown accustomed to.
This doesn’t mean that, today, they never complain about doing homework! But the fact that the habit is now well established—at this point they can’t even remember a time when they didn’t have daily homework!—makes it a lot easier to manage this resistance and maintain the routine. (And when you start early, you’re able to make this a firmer habit for yourself as well. After all, the routine will only be as successful as the strength of your own commitment to it.)
So around the time they were 3—when they could comfortably grip a pencil—our daily homework habit began. In this post, I’ll share all the “secrets” with you, including links to the materials that have been most useful to me.
Our homework routine
“What sort of homework do you give a 3-year-old?”
This is the natural question asked by a reader the other day.
Of course, the activities and materials will vary, depending on the target language, but I’ll tell you exactly what I’ve been doing at home over the years in my quest to nurture the reading and writing ability of my children. (Lulu is 8 now and Roy is nearly 6.) Even if the materials I mention aren’t relevant to you, the overall structure might serve as a helpful model for your own routine.
Efforts made beforehand
First, I should stress that my kids probably wouldn’t have been ready for this routine so early if I hadn’t already made these persistent efforts beforehand:
- I read aloud to them, every day, from the time they were born. As I’ve discussed in The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child and other articles on reading, I believe that reading aloud is the number one way to promote a child’s language development. If reading aloud in the minority language isn’t made a regular practice in the home, the bilingual journey will likely be far more difficult.
- As soon as they could sit up and grasp a fat crayon, I had paper and crayons freely available for them to use (and later, other drawing/writing tools like markers, colored pencils, pencils, and pens). Because they began scribbling early, and often, their little hands gained good motor control and this scribbling gradually evolved into drawing and writing.
The heart of our homework time has always involved reading. As Stephen Krashen argues so persuasively in The Power of Reading, the act of reading fuels greater proficiency in all language areas—including writing (good readers grow to be good writers)—so focusing on reading is actually the wisest, most efficient way to promote the whole range of a child’s language skills.
Before my kids were able to read, I simply continued reading aloud to them (individually), for 15 to 20 minutes, which formed the first portion of our homework time. As the months passed, and my finger trailed under the text of every book, they began to remember and recognize their first words quite naturally.
Then, when they were about 4 or so, I introduced a series of small books for beginning readers called Now I’m Reading! These fun little books were very effective as a springboard to early independent reading and they both completed the series by around the age of 5.
See Now I’m Reading! for my full review of this series, along with a link to the publisher.
From there, we moved into “shared reading”: starting with simple picture books, we took turns reading together, page by page. And as their reading ability steadily grew stronger, we progressed to harder picture books, then easy chapter books, and finally harder chapter books and children’s literature. Currently, Lulu and I are reading the first Harry Potter book, while Roy and I are reading the longer books in The Magic Treehouse series.
See How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books for more on The Magic Treehouse and other good chapter books that come in a series.
It’s no secret, then, how both children became competent readers: books, via reading aloud and, later, shared reading, have been a big part of their daily lives from the time they were born.
Along with reading aloud, and then, shared reading, a succession of workbooks have also formed part of our homework routine.
Workbooks, of course, often conjure images of children hunched over a desk, bored to tears. But there’s a very good reason, I think, for this ingrained idea: most workbooks are boring. Yes, they may do a decent job of developing certain language targets, but that doesn’t make the content itself any less dry and dull to most kids (and their parents).
As a teacher myself, I know that producing materials which are both effective in their educational aims, and actually fun to use—with some creativity and humor—is a challenging task. I sometimes create my own materials for my kids and my students (like my “captive reading” stories), but I naturally don’t have time to generate good materials at a daily rate. So I’ve come to accept the fact that most of the materials on the market will be kind of tedious, and I only ask my kids to do a little bit at a time.
The trick is to do a little bit daily, because a little bit daily becomes a lot over time.
When it comes to workbooks, then, here are some of the better materials I’ve come across so far, shared roughly in the sequence that we’ve used them.
1. dot-to-dot books
In my experience, dot-to-dot books are the most gentle, most enjoyable way to introduce “written work” to a young child. My use of dot-to-dot books with Lulu and Roy, after the read-aloud time, was a good success: not only did it help nurture their knowledge of the alphabet and numbers, and pave the way for real writing by practicing controlled lines, it set a positive precedent for all the written work that followed.
Just two things to bear in mind: 1) The difficulty of a book must match your child’s level of ability (start with the simplest books, with no more than 10 or 20 letters or numbers per picture, and progress from there); and 2) My kids burned through these books quickly so you’ll probably need to purchase a stack of them!
2. phonics workbooks
Although I tend to focus primarily on “whole language” activities (through reading aloud and shared reading), I do recognize the value of phonics work as a supplemental activity to strengthen reading skills. Toward that end, once my kids had a good grasp of the alphabet and seemed ready to write letters and short words, we left the dot-to-dot books behind and moved into some phonics material.
The phonics workbooks I used come from the Spectrum series, which offers a wide variety of reasonably-priced workbooks for all sorts of subjects. Some of these books look better than others—so it’s important to study the actual pages at amazon or another online retailer—but their early phonics books served us well. In fact, I believe one reason Roy is now stronger at phonics than Lulu is because I emphasized these workbooks more consistently in Roy’s daily homework routine. (I have some regret that I didn’t do the same with Lulu, because she seems to struggle more when sounding out unfamiliar words.)
See Spectrum Phonics for their whole line-up of phonics workbooks, from kindergarten through grade 6. (I’ve only used, and can personally recommend, the Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3 books.)
3. reading workbooks
I had been hunting for good reading workbooks for some time, so I was happy when I stumbled upon Evan-Moor’s Daily Reading Comprehension series last year, available for grades 1 to 8. If I had known about the series earlier, I would probably have introduced them right from the Grade 1 book—using this level alongside the early Spectrum phonics books.
Instead, I began with the Grade 3 book for Lulu and the Grade 2 book for Roy, replacing other supplemental reading texts that I had found unsatisfying. (Choosing materials is sometimes a process of trial and error, and I don’t advise pushing ahead with a book that you’re unhappy with. It’s far better, in my opinion—even if a bit of money is squandered—to search again for a more appropriate book.)
See Daily Reading Comprehension for my full review of this series, along with a link to the publisher.
At the same time that we’ve moved through this progression of workbooks—which focus mainly on reading—I’ve tried to maintain regular practice for writing, too, in these three ways. (In fact, I’ve tried a couple of the Spectrum writing workbooks, too, but I wasn’t thrilled with them.)
1. journal writing
About once a week I have my kids write and illustrate an entry in a journal, generally describing a recent experience, but occasionally they’ll produce a fictional story of some kind. (And I hope to do more creative writing in the future.) To date, I’ve made use of three ready-made journals from an educational company in the United States, called Lakeshore. (It’s been a long time since I’ve placed an order with them, but they offer a wide variety of good-quality educational products and will ship things internationally.)
The first journal (My First Writing Prompts Journal) features simple prompts in which the child simply chooses and copies a word or words to complete a sentence, then illustrates the idea.
The next journal (My First Draw & Write Journal, currently used by Roy) enables the child to write a sentence of his own, then illustrate it.
And the third journal (Draw & Write Journal, currently used by Lulu) provides a page and a half for writing, along with space for an illustration.
Ready-made journals aren’t really needed, of course—you could create something similar on your own—but it’s helpful to use writing paper that’s age-appropriate for your child, like these journals provide. Writing paper can easily be found online and printed out for this purpose. The remarkable homeschooling site donnayoung.org has an array of writing paper that can be freely downloaded as PDF files.
2. writing letters
We currently maintain a regular correspondence with a number of people, including family members and pen-pals in a few different countries. Lulu is now writing to five people, while Roy is writing to four. Though the work itself is sporadic, they probably write a letter once a week or so.
At a younger age, as with Roy, I’ll transcribe what he wants to say and then have him copy it over onto writing paper. With Lulu, who can now write more freely, I’ll ask her to write the first draft on her own, we’ll edit it together, and then she’ll put the final draft on stationary.
3. translation practice
Recently, about once a week or so, I’ve also added translation practice to Lulu’s homework routine. We’ll each translate the same page from Japanese into English—to start, we’re using the Japanese version of Arnold Lobel’s simple Frog and Toad stories—and then we compare our efforts, explaining why we made certain choices. Translation is a special challenge, demanding a deep sensitivity to both languages, and I believe beginning this practice from a fairly young age (interpretation, too) is a powerful way to advance a child’s bilingual ability.
In addition to these activities, some of the other resources I’ve turned to include…
Homework Helpers (from Frank Schaffer Publications), a series of small, inexpensive workbooks of word puzzles, word searches, and other language practice activities.
Picture Clue Crosswords, a fun book of visual crossword puzzles for vocabulary and spelling practice. (I photocopy the necessary pages and give them a nudge by writing in the tricky letters that would probably stump them.)
I’m not rigid about the amount of time we spend on homework each day, but I do try to aim for roughly 30 minutes. The content of our routine has naturally evolved over time, but reading books—reading aloud, and now shared reading—has always been at the core of this effort, along with the various other reading and writing activities I’ve described.
While I’m now able to read aloud the same book to both of them at our read-aloud session each morning at breakfast, their homework time—because of their different needs when it comes to reading and writing—remains separate. This means I must squeeze in two 30-minute blocks each day to maintain our routine, though as they grow older, they’ve become capable of doing some of the work on their own.
When they complete their homework for the day, they earn a piece of (sugarless) gum. It sounds silly, I know, but gum became their little reward long ago and it does add to their daily motivation. I also offer them small incentives for finishing a reading book, like little Pokemon figures. (Roy loves them!) I know there are various views when it comes to rewards, but I’ve found that modest incentives can heighten enthusiasm and help sustain effort.
In the end, though, the real key to a successful homework routine is you. How much time and energy are you able, and willing, to give to this ongoing challenge? In my case, as long as my children are attending a Japanese school, I don’t see any alternative but to continue plugging away, day by day, if I wish for them to reach a high level of literacy in English, too.
To continue this look at the “secrets” of our homework routine, don’t miss my follow-up post, written 18 months later: Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2.