Wednesday, January 28, 2009

WriteShop's StoryBuilders

At our January Support Group meeting we had a special speaker on “Writing with your children” She talked about the concept of making Writing FUN! Helping your children find their voice, not interrupting the flow, or bogging everything down with too many “Grammar details”, etc…

Well, one of the products I was sent to review was a fun writing tool, WriteShop’s StoryBuilders (Scroll down the linked page to see them). Although my review is not due for a week yet, I wanted to get it done and out to you, as TOS has one of the StoryBuilders modules available as a free download this week. These really are fun, and if you act fast, you can try one out for free!

OK, so what are StoryBuilders? Well, they are sets of cards centered around a “Theme” (Christmas, People, Animals, and Sports, currently). There are “Character” cards, “Action” cards, “Character Trait” cards, and “Setting” cards. I will mention, these are in downloadable “E-book” format, so you will be getting a pdf file, and printing up the cards yourself. There are two options for printing… with black ink, on 4 different paper colors (or card stock, if you like), or in colored ink on white paper or cardstock. We chose to print in black and white on 4 different paper colors.

There are a number of different ways that the StoryBuilders can be used, but our favorite exercise was to work on writing stories together. The way we did it was as follows. We each chose one card from each color stack, and began writing a story using the words or phrases on the cards as our “Framework”. After about 5-10 minutes we stopped, and passed our paper to the person on our right. Then we each chose a new set of cards from each color card stack, and had another 5-10 minutes to add on to the previous person’s story. Since there are only 3 of us (Myself and my two oldest children), we decided that we should continue to pass the papers, and pick new cards till they returned to the “Starter” of the story, so that they could “Finish” “THEIR” story. What fun! ☺ I’m going to type out one of our “stories” so that you can see what we ended up with, with 3 authors, and 4 different sets of characters/traits/settings/and actions. (I will “edit” so that it doesn’t have 8 year-old miss-spellings, or major punctuation errors… because we didn’t “proof-read” it, although that could be yet another learning activity….but I wouldn't do it every time, so as not to "kill the joy" of just getting used to writing creatively)

Raggedy Ann’s Christmas Eve Story
By J (8), R (11), and Mom

One cold winter day in New York City a ragged doll comes to life. Her name was Raggedy Ann. In the store, the store owner was very kind to her. You see, the store owner lives all alone, and he is very happy to have the doll for company.
Because Raggedy Ann was SO ragged, the store owner is very gentle with her. He decides to bring her home with him for the Christmas Holiday, and mend her clothes and give her new stuffing.
On Christmas Eve the store owner and Raggedy Ann sit by a crackling fire next to the fir tree decorated with paper chains, stars, and snowflakes.
“Thank you for my new stuffing” says Raggedy Ann.
“Oh, it was my pleasure! Thank YOU for joining me on this Christmas Eve!” replied the store owner.
Then Raggedy Ann and the store owner both sit back a gaze at the glowing fire and the pretty tree, lost in their thoughts of Christmas past.
“Did I ever tell you my Gingerbread Man story?” asked Raggedy Ann?
“No, I don’t believe you ever did.” replied the store owner.
“Do you want to hear it?” she asked.
“Why not?” he said.
“Well, then, this is how it goes.” And she told the following story.

“Well, one day when I was Marcella’s doll, she took me down to the kitchen to make gingerbread boys. Well, I made a gingerbread boy and I scorched my dress in the process. Well, Marcella was very impatient, and she opened the oven to take a peek, when out jumped my gingerbread boy and he rushed out of the kitchen and onto the lonely road. I decided I wouldn’t let my gingerbread boy get away that easy, so off I ran. Well, he led me a merry chase, but finally I found him. He was in a church singing joyful songs and learning about the true meaning of Christmas. I snuck up behind him with a butterfly net and caught him! And that is the end of my Gingerbread Story” said Raggedy Ann.
“That is a very nice story.” said the store owner, and gave Raggedy Ann a gingerbread man to munch.

The End

I thought that was a fairly good end product, and a really fun exercise to boot! What’s even better was that the kids thought it was fun! (Once the 8 year old figured out how it worked) I plan to use these again, on a semi regular basis. It will be interesting to see how their “Speedy” story writing skills develop!I also plan to use these as "poem builders", which should be fun as well!

Oh, I should add that each individual module can build on the others, or “mix and match” because none of the cards are repeated. This makes for some VERY creative writing opportunities, and lots of laughter and fun as well!

The list price is $9.95 per set, they are currently priced at $7.95 (And $3.95 for the “mini Christmas set” that we used) and you can get one set for free if you hurry to the SPECIALS page at The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

Let me know what you think!


Monday, January 26, 2009

All About Homophones e-book**

Review for the TOS Crew~
All About Homophones e-book(Also available in softcover)

Like to play with words? Have kids that like to play with words? Looking for a fun “extra” that is often an overlooked part of Grammar/Spelling? Does that tune from Veggie Tales “Sumo of the Opera” keep going through your head?

Homophones! Homophones!
Where the toads are towed out on the plane!
Homophones! Homophones!
I need my kneaded biscuits plain!

Now, don’t you want to write some more verses???? Or set your kids to writing more verses?

Marie Rippel of All About Spelling has developed a great stand-alone resource(Launched today!!) for teaching Homophones to grades 1-8 with worksheets, puzzles, riddles and more. Go to Marie’s All About Homophones website to view 32 sample pages. You can also sign up for her free report “The 5 Secrets for Teaching Homophones”, as well as her newsletter with Free graphic organizers.

My kids have enjoyed doing the worksheets, and they think that crossword puzzles, puns, and riddles are fun. However, their favorite has to be the tongue twisters. (Try this tricky one… We’ll reel in the real rear wheel)

For the “teacher” in you, the graphic organizers are great, although I tend to not use them unless the homophone is terribly tricky for a particular child. They would look good in a portfolio. ☺
We haven’t gotten around to playing any of the card games yet, but that should be another fun resource to use. Oh, a major bonus in my book is that the homophones are arranged by grade level in each section, with a master list towards the front of the book. That makes it very easy to print up only the pages that I want or feel apply to my kids at any given point in time. The appendix has answer keys for each of the worksheets, which is also great for those of us with occasional “Swiss Cheese Mommy Brain”. ☺ I feel that the whole book is executed in a very well thought out and easy to teach format, and could be a welcome addition to any homeschooling library.

So how much does this great resource cost?
The printed softcover edition is $29.95, the downloadable ebook version is $27.95.

For a last bit of free fun, check out the homophone machine
Type in a sentence....
Czech it out and sea what ewe think. ☺
If nothing else, it will have you and your children seeing homophones in everything you read or hear… FUN! ☺ (Makes for a great proofreading tool too)


Thursday, January 22, 2009


Looking for a pleasant introduction to music for your younger children, without the trek out of the house for lessons? With a teacher other than Mom or Dad?

Live somewhere where access to lessons for the really "littles" is non-existant?

Kinderbach is a fun and "lightly instructive", interactive website where children from ages 2-7 can learn:
Basic rhythm
Note names, Intervals, and placement on the piano(or keyboard)
To play simple, yet recognizable songs

The course is offered via dvd for those with slow internet connections, or those who would rather not tie up the computer.
Prices range from $7.16/month(one time yearly payment) - $14.95/month(payment on a monthly basis) for the website version. There are a number of packages for the DVD option that you can check out here.

While my kids were not at the optimum ages for this product, I can give you a couple of comments. My youngest at 16 months was riveted to the screen. The individual lessons are well-geared to the 2-5 year old crowd in my opinion. Sophisticated 6 and 7 year-olds will likely balk at using them, and based on my 8 year-old's reaction, you probably won't want to try it beyond the target age for sure(even if he DID actually learn some things! ;) ).

I think this is engaging in the same way that "Blue's Clues" is. (As a matter of fact, I was thinking this would be a good fit for a PBS program, until I remembered one major difference. These lessons build on one another, so a child just dropping in on a random lesson wouldn't get the full benefit.) They are a well-produced mixture of teacher and animation. There are pages to print up and color, and a variety of activities to go along with the lessons.

Not a true replacement for one-on-one weekly piano lessons, but a fun extra for those that would like it.

Be sure to try out the first two weeks "Free Sessions" to see what you think!


Puppetools~ another "tool" for the homeschool

Have friends and family that are questioning your decision to Homeschool?
Wonder if it seems like your kids’ school is more “playing”, rather than learning?

Well, I may have something you would be interested in checking out…

I was given the opportunity to review a subscription-based website/resource
$99.00 GROUP SUBSCRIPTION (up to 30 users)(For co-ops or church groups?)

Puppetools is the brainchild of inventor, scientist, and play pioneer, Jeffrey Peyton.

To give you an idea of his thoughts, I am quoting from an open letter to (at the time of writing) the President Elect that he posted here: (Emphasis mine)

“It may sound Pollyanna to talk about the classroom as a place that needs more love and warmth. We are so used to the idea that classrooms are supposed to places where emotions are kept in check and the teachers are mandated to follow their pacing charts. But if we truly care about the minds of the young, we have to find ways to turn teachers into people children truly love and trust. A teacher who knows how to bring playfulness into his or her teaching is a teacher whom all kids will love, follow, and recall fondly in years to come. A project that can produce tens of thousands of teachers with this depth of creativity--an invention to re-invent education--should not be dismissed or ignored.

If we want a country that can lift itself on the wings of innovation, then we need to cultivate a thirst and hunger in the young for curiosity and invention. We need to give children and teachers the tools to empower them to use their hands and their imaginations. As a nation, we need to eat, live, and breathe the purposeful and inner directed spirit of play as if the pursuit of happiness was the national pastime. By erecting an education upon Play, new pathways of awareness and sensibilities will take root in an education soil vastly more healthy and productive in mind.

If this doesn’t sound like validation of what we, as homeschoolers have known, and practice, then I don’t know what is….

Mr. Peyton’s main method of “play” is based upon puppetry, with a special hinged puppet base that he developed. The website is filled with many video examples of using the “voice” of a puppet in a learning environment, as well as multiple templates and puppet concepts. This concept of using a "voice" in writing is something that is espoused by Writing specialists, so a very valid point. It can also be useful in the same way as role-playing.

I will mention a couple of things, from my personal perspective that you might want to know in advance~
Mr. Peyton, as with many folks in institutes of higher learning, seems to blindly follow the evolution theory, and he uses it throughout his writing. He also seems to believe that play in general, and puppets in particular, can help to solve many of society’s ills. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but if you can read with a grain of salt, I think that you may find some real gems.

For other reviews, and a variety of opinions, please visit

Monday, January 5, 2009

All About Spelling**

All About Spelling is a relatively new (2 year-old) spelling program that I was sent to use and review as part of the TOS Crew. I have to say that I was highly impressed with this product, and my kids enjoyed it as well!

Here is a quick snippet from their webpage:

All About Spelling is a comprehensive spelling program based on proven strategies to teach spelling using the best and easiest method possible. It gives parents, homeschoolers, and teachers strategies that work, including:

* Lessons with crucial concepts explained in easy-to-understand language

* Multisensory methods for different learning opportunities

* Effective techniques to teach both beginner and remedial spelling

Kids learn to think about spelling the right way so they can navigate increasingly complex spelling with confidence—and a smile.

If you're teaching a young child just beginning to learn or helping an older student who struggles with spelling, or if you just want a better teaching method that works, then All About Spelling is for you.

Rather than the somewhat haphazard spelling lists that many of our children encounter on Monday, practice through the week, and “test” on Friday, the All About Spelling program starts with a specific spelling concept, the children SEE the spelling concept demonstrated with phonogram tiles, they DISCUSS it(With a scripted teacher’s manual), and then they TEST it out.

I found the program to be very thorough, and review is built right in!
If you have kids that balk at “writing”, then your children will enjoy the oral and kinesthetic aspect of this program. A majority of the spelling is done with phonogram tiles. Both my 3rd grader and my 6th grader were very happy with this program, and we all enjoyed the fact that the reasons for the various spellings were listed if they were anything more than random.

This is one of my pet peeves with other spelling programs that we’ve done… “there are 5 ways to spell the /er/ sound ear, er, ir, or and ur” then they give the child a list, and expect them to know which way to spell each word. All About Spelling’s method makes so much sense. They teach each spelling of the /er/ phonogram separately (And not in adjacent lessons, either), so that the child can get a solid handle on the words that are spelled in one particular way. IF there is a general rule or “key” to that spelling, it is discussed. For instance, in the above example, we find out that “er” is the most common spelling of /er/ and is the way to spell “some who….” (like winner, singer, etc…), family positions are spelled “er”, like “mother”, “sister”, “father”, and “brother”. The spellings are further taught by the most common order, so that the words your children are “most likely” to need will be taught first.

Oh, another thing about this program, is that it builds on itself, so no matter what age you start it, you will want to start with book 1. You can zip through the lessons fairly quickly with an older child, and they don’t take very long with the younger child either, another bonus! Currently there are 4 books, and by the end of 2009 two more books will be added, completing the series and bringing the student up to the high school spelling level.

Marie Rippel, author of All About Spelling also offers a weekly newsletter with spelling tips and ideas to help “make spelling a joy”. You can sign up for that on the right hand side of the AAS home page. 

Each Level set retails for $29.95 and includes the teacher’s manual and one set of student materials. If you are teaching more than one student at the same time, you will want to purchase a second set of student materials for $12.95. The other tool required for this program is the set of letter tiles($9.95), and I would recommend getting the magnets to back them ($5.95). This puts the program in a mid-range for spelling programs, but since none of it is "consumable", it is very reasonably priced, in my opinion!

Scroll down this page to the links for sample lessons and a Scope and Sequence for Book 1 (You can find similar links on the pages for the other books as well).

I wanted to link you to a review from a fellow crew-mate, but couldn’t find it, so I hope no one minds my quoting her here… I thought this was a stunning result from using AAS…

I do achievement testing for homeschoolers using the Woodcock-Johnson Achievement test. The most important thing to consider when you read my next statement is that this test is a wide-range achievement test that produces accurate grade equivalencies (as much as possible with any test). The spelling test is given by having the child spell words and the reading test is given by having them read (decode) words orally.

Today I tested a little boy whom I had tested previously in July. His birth mother insists that he go back to regular school so the father and step mother wanted another assessment to help them interact with the IEP committee at school. This little boy has significant learning issues, possibly cognitive impairments.

His spelling score in July was 3.3 ( and today it was 6.2 -- a gain of three years in basically 3 mo of instruction. His reading(decoding) was 4.2 in July and 6.4 today. (his range of scores today - the 65% confidence interval was above the upper limit of the range of scores from July so this is a real gain).

The parents had purchased AAS immediately after testing in July and used it through August Sept and Oct. They quickly reviewed level one and went on to level two. The mother reports that they paid special attention to rule retention and the oral excercises. I could see that attention pay off in the way he attacked his test today.

I just thought others would like to know that this is a very significant gain in a short period of time.

Diane A.

If you have any questions about our experience with AAS, please contact me. Oh, and be on the look-out for another review for All About Spellings new Homophones book, coming soon.




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