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How to Avoid Drill & Kill in Teaching Language Arts

If your student doesn’t enjoy some aspects of language arts, whether that is reading, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, or writing, there is a good chance you have succumbed to the age-old approach of drill. Drilling means that we repeat the same exercises over and over in an effort to help our students master a subject. Unfortunately, drilling is responsible for killing many students’ enthusiasm for language arts. Fortunately, we can help our kids learn language arts without dangerous drilling.

Avoid drill & kill in reading

The first area and the most important area to avoid drill and kill in language arts is reading. One way we can kill our kids’ enthusiasm for reading is by having high standards for the literature our kids choose to read. When we roll our eyes at books like Captain Underpants or think of graphic novels like Calvin & Hobbes as low-grade literature, we can kill our kids’ interest in reading.

Reading is very personal. Tastes vary widely by personality, interest, and developmental level. We must take these traits into account when allowing our kids to choose books they like to read. Even if you have a reading list you want your child to follow, it’s critical that your child has choice in their leisure reading.

After allowing your child to choose books of interest to him, the next most important thing is to allow your child to read books at a lower level. It seems to make sense to push our kids to read more advanced material in the hopes that their reading skills will improve. But the most effective strategy is actually the opposite.

When reading is easy, reading is fun.

Especially when our kids are younger, we want reading to be so enjoyable that our kids want to do more of it. Our kids will more quickly advance in their reading skills by having them read at lower levels.

The next way to avoid drill and kill in reading is to limit the amount of work associated with books. Copywork, narration, and book reports have their place in our children’s education, but overuse of these exercises will turn your child off of reading. Use these strategies sparingly, especially until your child is an avid reader.

If your child is a struggling or emerging reader, you can avoid drill and kill by reading aloud yourself and with liberal use of audiobooks. I am so excited that I will be releasing a professionally produced audiobook of Grammar Galaxy Nebula soon! I know my Grammar Guardians will love listening to the stories as they have lunch, drive to activities, or get ready for bed. Having your student listen to books is nearly as powerful as your student reading on her own. Don’t feel that you are slacking when using audiobooks!

Avoid drill & kill in spelling and vocabulary

The next areas where drill and kill can interfere with our child’s language arts learning is spelling and vocabulary. A primary way we can drill to ill effect is requiring lots of handwriting, especially from young writers whose handwriting is not yet fast enough. Our kids will then have limited interest in writing things down. We want to reserve that energy for handwriting practice and for creative writing.

What that means for emerging writers is that spelling and vocabulary should be primarily verbal. Asking your child to spell words as you drive from place to place and to use vocabulary words in a sentence they say out loud is a much better strategy. I think words are wonderful. I love spelling and I love vocabulary, but even I don’t want to sit and write out definitions and repeated lists of spelling words. Many of us will recall that doing this type of writing was used as a punishment when we were kids. Why would we want to make spelling and vocabulary punishing?

I like using cartoon vocabulary books, vocabulary games, and spelling games with my kids instead. Drills, such as with flashcards, should be kept short. In Grammar Galaxy, I have students use the vocabulary words in the sentence, and I recently introduced flashcards and games that help to reinforce the vocabulary words. Learn more easy ways to improve your child’s vocabulary here.

Spelling list aren’t proven to improve spelling. What does improve spelling is phonics, so if you have a child who struggles with spelling, I recommend using a spelling curriculum such as All about Spelling. I also recommend teaching spelling strategies as Grammar Galaxy does. Finally, I recommend playing lots of spelling games. We don’t want kids who become phobic of spelling either because we are drilling them or because we have a child who hasn’t mastered it. I was worried about many of my children’s spelling abilities, and all of them improved dramatically with enough time spent reading and writing. My friends’ sons who are dyslexic also improved their spelling with lots of phonics instruction.

Avoid drill & kill in grammar

A primary area that many of us use drill and kill in is grammar. This was my approach early on in my homeschooling. And I will say that it was effective at having my kids retain the parts of speech. However, the side effect was that my kids despised grammar. Even when my second group of kids was learning grammar and I had abandoned the drills of my former curriculum, my kids would beg to skip grammar for the day. One reason for their dislike of grammar is that the lessons were repeated year after year. In fact, fully half of traditional language arts curriculum is repeat.

But, you may be thinking, my kids don’t remember the parts of speech, so they need to repeat the lessons year after year. I have two responses to this. First, we don’t have that attitude about math. We aren’t teaching addition and subtraction facts to our algebra students. The expectation is that they have mastered that material. So you want a mastery approach when it comes to language arts with one caveat. Here’s that caveat: Children have a difficult time mastering much of grammar because it is abstract. We ask children to not only recognize that a pattern of letters is a certain word, that that word has a certain pronunciation (with any one of a number of meanings), but then we also ask them to understand what role that word is playing in a sentence. This level of understanding surpasses many children’s developmental abilities. In fact, until most students are in high school, grammar will be rather challenging.

So the question becomes why teach grammar at early ages? I believe that we want kids to have a fun introduction to grammar. As with any sport, we make the early learning doable and fun. That’s the approach I take with Grammar Galaxy. I want kids to learn through stories, and through short, fairly easy exercises. My hope is they will be prepared for the more challenging work of using grammar in high school and beyond.

To avoid drill and kill in grammar, play games. I have created a list of free grammar games and grammar board games that you can use for this purpose. When you do grammar exercises, keep them short. If your curriculum is not like Grammar Galaxy and has many exercises per lesson, cut the exercises in half.

Avoid drill & kill in writing

The final area that can be affected by drilling and killing language arts is writing. As I mentioned previously, handwriting is one area where you do have to do short and frequent drills. Once the creation of letters has been committed to memory, you will want to work on your child’s handwriting speed. I’ve created a free resource to help with that. But after handwriting, writing should, in my opinion, never be a drill. Writing should be a joy.

We make writing a drill by requiring too much writing. One thing I have learned from being a homeschooling teacher whose son attended two years of public school is that homeschool curriculum requires far more writing than public school and even college classes do. One of the best decisions you can make for your young writers is to limit the amount of writing that is required.

The next way to eliminate drill and writing is to limit corrections. I still remember how deflated I was in my college honors composition course to hear that I needed to completely rewrite a paper. Why would we be surprised when our younger students feel the same way? As students progress into middle and high school, more editing of papers should be done. You can encourage your student who has changes to make by letting her know that editing does not mean that she has made a mistake. In fact, every writer is edited. Even the greats!

Then instead of only requiring formal writing from your students, let them have fun. Use writing prompts for your child’s writing. I prefer using funny writing prompts with my kids, and they prefer it too. I created funny seasonal writing prompts that you can download for free. I also include writing prompts in the Grammar Galaxy monthly calendars for subscribers.

Avoid drill & kill and foster a love of language arts instead

Reading, vocabulary, and writing skills are critical to our kids’ future success in school, work, and life. One of our primary goals as homeschoolers should be to foster a love of language arts. To foster that love, we must avoid drill and kill in reading. Allow your students to read for fun. We must avoid drill in and kill in spelling and vocabulary. Limit handwriting and use games to teach instead. We must limit drill and kill in grammar. I believe we can help kids love grammar until they are ready to truly grasp it by using story, games, and a limited number of exercises. We must avoid drill and kill in writing. While we have to require students to develop fast and somewhat legible handwriting, writing must be fun and limited without fear of constant rewrites.

Avoid drill and kill by trying a free sample of Grammar Galaxy with your student today!

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