Find the Gist: A Textbook Study Strategy

Find the Gist: A Textbook Study Strategy

Let’s face it: plowing through textbooks is no easy task, especially if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for. Finding the gist of sections of textbooks, stories in magazines, newspaper articles, and other nonfiction reading material is an important skill. Not only does it help a reader understand and synthesize what they’re reading, but it helps for studying later on, and saves time too.

Find the Gist: A Textbook Study Strategy

Want to help your child learn to find the gist? Here’s an activity to help your child manage their nonfiction reading by focusing on the most important elements.

What You Need:

Nonfiction book or magazine article without subtitles
Sticky notes

Nonfiction study strategies
What You Do:

  1. Find some good nonfiction reading books or magazine articles that don’t have any subtitles. After you gather a few samples, place them in front of your child.
  2. Have your child look through all the books and magazine articles and pick something she would like to read. Having your child read something she is interested in will help comprehension, not to mention motivation!
  3. Tell your child that you have noticed that there aren’t any subtitles anywhere in the nonfiction piece and that together you’re going to read one paragraph at a time and decide on a title for each paragraph. Explain that this is called finding the gist of the paragraphs as you read, and it’s a great skill for nonfiction readers to develop. They’ll be able to manage the information they’re rapiding digesting.
  4. Model how to do this for your child. Read the first paragraph out loud and tell her what you’re thinking. Say something explicitly like: “Well, I see that this first paragraph is telling the reader that a lot of people think wolves are vicious, but they rarely attack people. It seems to me that wolves have a bad rap. Perhaps a good subtitle for this paragraph would be “Wolves: A Misunderstood Species.” Write your subtitle on a sticky note and cover the paragraph with it.
  5. Now have your child practice. If she need a little help, try out a few with her, and then encourage her to do it on her own. Your child may want to read the paragraph aloud as you read it silently. Either way, when she’s ready to write a subtitle, have your child explain her thinking. What information did she read in the text that lead her to come up with this subtitle?
  6. Explain to your child that every good nonfiction reader stops and thinks about what she read. Urge her to keep sticky notes around to practice finding the gist in her nonfiction reading. She can keep her notes as future study aids, or to help her organize essays and projects.
Grammar Galaxy
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Student Success Through the Power of Story

Student Success Through the Power of Story

If your student is struggling, the solution may be in finding the right story to tell.

Student Success Through the Power of Story

The Power of Story

Storytelling is the first and most powerful way of teaching. The ancient Greeks taught with stories. Jesus taught with stories. Marketers today teach with stories.

Stories arrest our attention when a speaker finally looks up from the script and gets personal. Stories inspire change in people and even whole cultures. Stories are memorable.

Some of the world’s greatest leaders were inspired by the biographical stories of men and women who went before them. Abraham Lincoln read George Washington’s biography. Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired abolition of slavery. Stories have changed my life.

Years ago, a seminarian told our Bible class the story of a woman he met in South America. She lived in a tin shack near a garbage dump. The shack was filthy and crowded and was in proximity to a river of human waste. The woman had recently come to faith in Christ. But she was also dying. She had excruciating pain in the last stages of pancreatic cancer. The seminarian and his team asked what they could do for her. “Nothing,” she said, “I have Christ. What more do I need?” I was not able to retell this story without weeping for a long time. I have never forgotten it and her faith has never ceased to inspire me in my darkest moments.

My personal stories of wasting my education to homeschool and sending my homeschooled child to public school are two of the most popular posts on this blog. Stories resonate. They also teach.

Stories Teach

I read stories from Mathematicians are People Too to inspire my children to learn math. I then successfully used Times Tales stories to teach my children their multiplication facts. Stories are much easier to remember than plain numbers. When I discovered Life of Fred curriculum, I utilized the power of story to teach my children more advanced mathematics.

I used the power of story to teach my children history. Homeschool history curriculum is often written in story format. But I extended the use of story to teach history with historical novels and biographies.

I even used the stories behind musicians and artwork to teach fine arts.


The Power of Story to Teach Language Arts

But one day a few years ago I realized something shocking. I wasn’t using the power of story to teach my children language arts. I certainly read to them. But literature terms, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and composition were divorced from story in our homeschool. We learned parts of speech by dissecting meaningless sentences. Even the rhymes and songs I used to aid memorization told no story. How had that happened? I didn’t know, but I knew the results of it.

When I pulled out our English materials, the children groaned, complained, and begged to skip the subject for the day. English was their least favorite subject. As an avid reader and writer who enjoys every aspect of language arts, this broke my heart. That’s when I had a crazy idea. What if I created my own language arts curriculum using story to teach the concepts? I share the story of not feeling qualified to write curriculum here.

I wanted a curriculum that would harness the power of emotion and not just repetition to aid retention. I noticed that the majority of the same grammar concepts are taught from first grade through twelfth grade! No wonder kids hated it. I wanted to tell funny stories that sometimes used language arts terms as characters. Kids couldn’t forget what a prefix was when Prefix was an evil programmer who introduced the re- virus into the computer system.

I wanted a curriculum that gave kids a powerful why. Textbooks merely defined terms and rules. I wanted to use story to show the results of not having books labeled fiction, of not having pronouns, and of not having adequate handwriting speed.

I wanted a curriculum that used story to make kids feel like participants in something bigger than themselves. I wanted them to see that the kids in the story struggled with reading and writing, too. I wanted them to see that by reading and completing short missions, they could defeat the Gremlin and save the English language.

This is what I wanted to accomplish, but I didn’t know the end of the story when I started writing Grammar Galaxy. I had no idea how it would be received.

Then I heard the story of a boy who was very unhappy learning language arts prior to receiving Grammar Galaxy. “He’s never hugged curriculum before,” his mom said.

Grammar Galaxy curriculum

Another mom wrote, “I really can’t say enough or put into adequate words just how much Grammar Galaxy has changed our entire homeschool experience.  Other subjects like History, Science, Health, etc. have become so much easier to teach now that their reading ability and comprehension have improved.  They actually ask to dress in their vests [that I made them] the minute they see the mission manuals come out and wish they could work in them every day.”

Grammar Guardians

A mom wrote to tell me she had misplaced the storybook and had to buy another because her eldest was begging to do more missions. She said, “Thank you for your help and your program. You’ve made a subject that I hated as a kid into a weekly lesson through which we ALL giggle.”

Finally, a mother told me they started Mission 8 of Volume 1. “Let me tell you, it’s been fun, but my son lost his mind on this lesson! I have NEVER seen him laugh so hard during any lesson, for any subject since we started homeschooling. When the queen told Ellen, “I hate you” with tears in her eyes, he fell off his chair. He actually begged me to read the story to him again! I laughed equally hard at your instructions to try mixing up synonyms and antonyms at dinner (but to let your parents know what you are doing). Our 5-year-old was so offended when he told me dinner was just terrible! LOL You really did it. You truly made grammar fun. I didn’t think it was possible but you obviously deserve some kind of medal! THANK YOU!”

The second volume of Grammar Galaxy, Protostar, is now available and on sale. It is specifically written for third graders or students who have completed Nebula level or its equivalent. I would love to hear your child’s story of success in using it.

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Student Success Through the Power of Story

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The Secret Sauce for Raising Motivated Writers

The Secret Sauce for Raising Motivated Writers

I’ve spent the last four days in this series of 5 Easy and Surprising Ways of Raising Writers sharing reasons why your child may not want to write. Now I want to share with you what I consider the secret sauce for motivating young writers.

The Secret Sauce for Raising Motivated Writers

I’ve taught my own children to write, some of whom come by their writing skills naturally. But I’ve also taught dyslexic students, students with other learning challenges, and students who hated the very idea of writing. As a psychologist (and not just a writing teacher) I’ve observed something interesting.

Most children who don’t want to write think they aren’t good at it.

The Problem With Reluctant Writers

It’s as though they believe writers are born, not made. Where would they get that idea? I think some of it comes from our failure to communicate that making changes to written work is not the same as marking a math answer or a test question incorrect. Red lines equal wrong. And no matter how hard they try, they can’t avoid those dreaded red lines.

Even if you don’t think your child believes that edited work means they aren’t good writers, you may have a child who could benefit from the secret sauce.

Many moms (as I mentioned in the post on what you’re not doing that may be keeping your child from writing) don’t think they can write well. As a result, they’re reluctant to praise their children’s writing. They’ve told me, “I don’t know if it’s good or not.” My friends have asked me to grade their children’s papers. If, as a result of mom’s writing insecurity, a child is getting no praise and only editing marks, it’s no wonder a child would believe she isn’t good at writing. No one wants to devote a lot of time to doing something they’re not good at.

How to Use the Secret Sauce to Overcome Your Child’s Writing Insecurity

Now that we know the problem, it’s time for me to share the ingredients for the secret sauce that will help your child overcome the belief that they aren’t good at writing.

First, explain editing to your child. Every writer, even the most successful, has an editor. Why? Because writers make mistakes. Being a good writer does not mean that they will not have their work edited. Sometimes the person doing the editing is making a mistake. Editors are human, too! But editing allows us to become better writers.

Second, praise your child’s writing. Even if you aren’t really familiar with writing mechanics like spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you can find something to praise about your child’s writing. It does not have to be perfect to warrant encouragement. Writing is a very vulnerable expression, very unlike math problems and tests your child completes. Our children share their opinions, their emotions, and their personality when they write. There is always something praiseworthy in their efforts.

You will not do a child a disservice by acknowledging positives in writing. Even more beneficial to your child’s confidence is expressing surprise. I often appear blown away by something a child writes and I am not acting. I did not know the young writer was capable of such deep thought, such hilarious description, or explaining something complex in such an understandable way. I have had many children, including my own, giggle nervously as I tell them that I see the gift in them. The gift doesn’t have to be for writing, but for observation, for compassion, for wisdom. Once you acknowledge the gift, you can explain that the areas where they struggle can easily be mastered with practice. But the gift? That can’t be taught. That’s theirs forever.

It has been one of my greatest joys in homeschooling to see a child begin to believe that he does, in fact, have something worth sharing with the world.

Third, document progress. As moms, it’s easy to get frustrated with a child who did not capitalize the first letter of a sentence or left off an end mark for the umpteenth time. But if we focus on what isn’t right, our children become convinced that they aren’t getting it. If they aren’t getting it, they won’t want to write any more. Be even more vigilant about finding evidence of progress than you are of mistakes. A scoring rubric for your child’s papers can be very helpful in this regard. I don’t think they’re necessary for young writers, who should be learning to write for the joy of it. But older students will appreciate a list of things to look for in their papers before handing them in. If your curriculum doesn’t include one, you may like this one for elementary students or this editing game.

If you don’t feel comfortable grading your children’s papers, you can ask a writing friend to help. Even if you enroll your child in an outside course, make sure you continue to express your approval and enjoyment of your child’s writing.

When I applied these three ingredients to reluctant writers I taught, I ended up being amazed by what they coud do. When a student believes he is capable of becoming a competent writer, little miracles happen. It all begins with the secret sauce.

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If you have a beginning reader or writer, check out Grammar Galaxy. It’s a fast, fun, and easy way for kids to learn.

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The Fun Way to Teach Even the Youngest Children How to Write

The Fun Way to Teach Even the Youngest Children How to Write

Given what I wrote on day 3 of the series on 5 Easy and Surprising Ways to Raise Writers, it may surprise you to learn who my children’s first writing teacher was. I’m a writer. I always have been. I’ve written a curriculum to teach beginning readers how to write. But I wasn’t my children’s first writing instructor — my husband was.

The Fun Way to Teach Even the Youngest Children How to Write

My children’s favorite part of their father’s bedtime routine (after all the physical fun of wrestling, airplane rides, and pillow fights) was storytelling. My husband made up silly stories for them that they loved. It’s funny to me that I can write children’s fiction, but coming up with stories on the fly isn’t my gift. My husband, who is an avid reader but never writes, is an amazing children’s story teller. Gales of laughter emanated from my children’s bedrooms for years.

The Fun Way to Teach Young Children to Write

Listening to stories, whether in the form of audiobooks or mom or dad’s made-up yarns, teaches children story structure. Even stories that flop are great teaching opportunities. Without even using the terms plot or conflict, children learn that stories that lack them are funny for all the wrong reasons. Listening to their father’s stories taught my children about characterization, descriptive language, and humor.

Had my children remained content to listen to their dad’s stories, they would have learned much about writing. But they didn’t stop there. The kids begged to tell their own stories. Sometimes they improved upon their dad’s stories, which is the beginning of editing skills. Other times they would come up with something completely new. No matter how silly and short the story they told was, they had a blast telling it. They learned to tailtor their content to their intended audience, too. Not only do they they enjoy storytelling, but they have a more positive attitude toward writing as well.

How to Use Storytelling to Teach Writing

If you have the storytelling gift like my husband, start a storytelling tradition at bedtime tonight. Rather than insist that your child tell a story, let her ask to tell her own. That ensures you have a motivated storyteller.

But what if you’re more like me and storytelling doesn’t come naturally? Here are a few ideas for you.

Start with a story you know. It could be a personal story. Did something funny or scary happen to you that you could use as a story for your children? Or use a fairytale like “The 3 Little Pigs” and change it up. Change the characters and what the wolf says. It’s fun to give the characters family names. See if your children recognize the story. All fiction is based on a limited number of basic story lines.

Use a story starter. Scholastic has a great story starters website you can access on your mobile device, making it perfect for bedtime. You spin four wheels to get a story starter appropriate for your child’s age in the genre of your choice. Sometimes that’s all you need to get started. One way to make this kind of storytelling even easier is to weave a personal experience into it.

Have your kids help. If you don’t feel comfortable telling a whole story yourself, start one and ask your child to finish it. If you have multiple children or your spouse will join in, this can be even more fun. Each child can add a little bit to the story, sometimes taking it in a whole new direction.

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Storytelling is a great, fun way to teach beginning writers, no handwriting required. There is a storytelling lesson in Grammar Galaxy: Nebula that teaches kids (and you, too) how to be better story tellers.

I do have one more suggestion for you: record your storytelling sessions. The recordings will be a treasure.

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What You’re Not Doing That May Be Keeping Your Child From Writing

What You’re Not Doing That May Be Keeping Your Child From Writing

Parents’ reading habits are a primary determinant of children’s reading habits. Our kids emulate us. That’s why it’s so important that we not only read to our kids but read for our own enjoyment. Did you know that reading a great book could increase your child’s chances of school and life success?

But before you leave to read a book guilt-free, can we talk about your kids’ writing habits? Writing skills are vitally important for your child’s future, too, as I mentioned in the first post in this series. If your child is a reluctant writer, it should concern you. Not every child is going to be an avid writer, but it’s important that we impart adequate writing skills to them.

What You're Not Doing That May Be Keeping Your Child From Writing

What You’re Not Doing That May Contribute to Your Child’s Writing Reluctance

Have you already guessed what I’m going to say? I thought so. If your reading habits have a major influence on your child’s, it stands to reason that your writing habits do too.

“Oh no worries here!” you’re saying. “I email and text all the time. My child sees me writing.”

If that is the extent of your writing, that will likely be the extent of your child’s writing. Your child needs to see you doing other forms of writing.

“But I’m not a good writer!” I can hear you saying.

If that excuse works, your child now has a free pass. He can argue that he isn’t a good writer, so he won’t write either. Now I’ve got you, haven’t I?

“I love to write. I write all the time. So that can’t be the problem,” you might be saying.

If you write for work or blog, you child either may not see you writing or may see a disconnect between the writing you do and the writing you want her to do.

The Solution to This Kind of Writing Reluctance

No matter what your reason for not being a writing example to your child, I have a solution. It’s easy and fun! I promise.

Do the writing assignments you give your child.

If you’re repulsed by the idea, you may want to change your writing curriculum. Writing, like reading, should be enjoyable. More challenging writing assignments are appropriate for older children who have the skills they need to persevere. Young writers should have assignments that inspire them. In other words, I’m not saying that you need to write a 15-page research paper when your child does.

I like funny writing prompts for the purpose of writing with your child. The assignments are generally short, except when a child is enjoying himself immensely and writes pages of funny material. This is the kind of assignment you as a parent can enjoy. This kind of writing should not be focused on mechanics.

I have had the privilege of teaching writing to one of my friend’s sons. He did not have punctuation, spelling, or grammar mastered. But he loved to write. I have helped him with his skills, but he possesses a passion for writing that has to come first. That’s what we want our children to have. We can impart that by modeling it for our kids.

Have fun writing with your kids. Read them what you wrote and see if you can make them laugh. Writing with your children can be one of your best homeschooling memories. It is mine.

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I have created a curriculum that teaches beginning writers the why behind writing and makes it fun. I’d love for you to preview a sample at

Read the other posts in this 5-day series on teaching writing here.

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A Surprising Reason Your Child Hates to Write (and What to Do About It)

A Surprising Reason Your Child Hates to Write (and What to Do About It)

Groans. That is what I heard from my sons when it was time to write anything.

At first I thought I just wasn’t using the best approach to writing for them. Every year when I attended a homeschool convention, I would look for something I thought would get them excited about writing. But the results were the same: whining and procrastination.

Then I decided that my sons’ writing reluctance was a result of immaturity. Writing is an advanced skill. Maybe they just weren’t ready for it?

A Surprising Reason Your Child Hates to Write and What to Do About It

The Surprising Reason My Kids Hated to Write

I found that I was right on both counts. My kids love funny writing prompts, especially when we read our writing out loud for one another. I was also right that they just weren’t ready for it. Once my sons were in high school, their writing improved dramatically and the complaints stopped.

But as I continued homeschooling the rest of my children, I noticed something else. I am surprised I didn’t see it as the root of my children’s writing reluctance a long time ago.

When a child has slow handwriting speed, he will be a reluctant writer.

My children were able to finish their handwriting pages without much fuss. Both Handwriting Without Tears and Happy Handwriting didn’t require a lot of writing per lesson. The kids were able to form their letters correctly. But they couldn’t write quickly. Their slow handwriting speed made any writing, creative or practical, an agonizing process for them.

My daughter, not surprisingly, did not have the same issue. Her better fine motor skills lent themselves to faster handwriting and an early love of writing. I shared more about the real differences in homeschooling boys on The Homeschool Sanity Show podcast.

How to Increase Your Child’s Handwriting Speed

Get your child’s buy-in. If your child thinks their only goal is to learn to form letters correctly, they will likely experience dislike for writing. Explain that if they learn to write faster, they will be able to finish all of their work faster, including math. If you or your child thinks that handwriting speed is unimportant in this digital age, consider how often you have to complete forms on paper. We have not yet made the transition to keyboarding for every task. Some college professors do not allow their students to take notes on a laptop, for example. Adequate handwriting speed will allow your child to feel confident in any learning setting.

Make sure your child knows how to form the letters. It’s no use trying to increase your child’s handwriting speed if he doesn’t remember how to make the letter K. Don’t allow your child to mindlessly complete handwriting pages. Instead, help your child memorize the way to make each letter. A great way to do this is to use a dry erase board with your child. Use verbal cues for making the letter you’re working on. Have your child repeat them after you as she forms the letter with you. This PDF gives you verbal cues to use if your curriculum doesn’t use them. Keep practicing until your child can form each letter from memory.

Work to increase speed. Handwriting workbooks are focused on the quality of letter formation. To increase speed, your child needs to be encouraged to write quickly and legibly. As long as you can determine the letters he’s written, your child is doing the right thing by increasing speed. First, you’ll need to get a baseline of your child’s handwriting speed. Having your child write as many letters as possible in a minute is a great way to check speed. That baseline will help your child determine his improvement in speed.

Handwriting speed is a lesson in Grammar Galaxy, a language arts curriculum for beginning readers that I created especially for reluctant readers and writers. To get a free copy of the handwriting speed forms, click the button below.

I’d like the free forms!

To learn more of the surprising and easy ways to teach kids to write, check out the landing page for this series.

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