Monday, 4 June 2012

The best freebies for home education/ homeschooling. Free books, ebooks and games.

Home Education on a budget:
I'd like to say when deciding where, or in fact whether to send my child to school, that his well being was the only consideration. I'd like to say that, but , like most families, finances did play a role in our decision. I had ruled the local schools out, but if money had not been an issue, I might very well have tried a private school such as Steiner education. I do  spend far too much on books and science toys, but I also take advantage of as many free resources as possible. This is my list of free online resources - some of which are really phenomenal. The first two have collections of complete online ebooks  which your child can read absolutely free of charge. I have rated these on a 5 star rating basis, but I have not listed any sites which I would give less than 3 stars. If the site has no stars it simply means I haven't used it enough to give a fair rating. In addition, at the very bottom I have posted an online review site for adults. By writing reviews I have been able to earn free Amazon vouchers - which have translated into quite a few free books for our home education programme.

Oxford Owl - reading and maths:
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This site now contains both reading and maths, but the maths section is new and still very limited. It is  recommended for ages 3-8, but we did use it with my youngest from age two. Of course a parent's help will be required with a very young child. This site is an absolute treasure trove for home educators. It has some excellent articles for parents on helping your child learn, fun games, but best of all it has  massive online library with 105 free full length ebooks you can listen to the computer read the story, or turn the sound off and let your child read themselves. These are top quality, fully illustrated books by well known authors, exactly like the books you would buy in a books store except online instead of in print. These books are all graded, or levelled for developing readers, so not only can you find just the right level for your child to enjoy these, you can also use this site to determine the correct level if ordering graded readers. If I had to choose just one free online web site for home education - this would be it.

Starfall Phonics - reading
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Toddlers - to about age 8.
The main areas are:
"ABC's - Let's get ready to read" which teaches the alphabet and sounds with fun games and animations.
"Learn to Read - Zac the Rat and other tales" . This section is truly amazing with 15 complete phonetic story books, animations and several games to teach children to read.
"It's Fun to Read" a collection of poetry, games and music for the newly emergent reader.
"I'm Reading" a collection of 14 complete online fiction and non fiction books for early readers, plus world folktales, Greek Myths, Chinese Legends, plays and comics.
This site is completely free, you do not even need to register to use any of these activities, but they have developed another section for paid memberships.  But the free section alone is one of the  very best sites I have found, and includes a wealth of online reading material and games. This site really helped so much with teaching my oldest to read at age 5. The animations showing phonics rules like when "two vowels go  walking, the first one does the talking" and a brilliant song / animation showing how the silent e makes the long vowel song. My youngest at age 3, has been enjoying the alphabet games lately. He especially loves the games where he separates upper case and lower cases letters.
I  still use this with my 7 year old for the more advanced books and myths and legends.

Jump Start World, Math Blaster and Knowledge Adventure - all subjects
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Ages 2 -12
All three of these sites are owned by the same company, Knowledge Adventure but only the last site is completely free of charges. I have decided to include Jumpstart Virtual world and it's sister site Math Blaster because both sites do offer a limited amount of play for free. I have to admit I have been a member of this site for 3 years now and joined the day after discovering it, so my knowledge of the free portion of the sites is limited, but it is certainly worth a try. Membership does cover both sites, and after paying for a month I bought a lifetime membership, which I consider one of the best investments I have ever made for my children's education.

Oxford Project X  free worksheets  - reading.
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This site is limited as it designed primarily to promotes Oxford's Project x books. It does however offer a wealth of advise for parents on helping children read, and in particular, encouraging boys to read. It also offer a number of free worksheets to print up in teacher resources, as well as fascinating look at how CGI illustrations are created for the children. While the website will be most useful to families using the Project X books, most of the worksheets could be used without the books with very minor adaptations.

The series itself is, in my opinion the most exciting development in children's reading since Dr. Seuss started his "I can read it all by myself " series. These books are truly innovative and original and in our experience, have worked miracles with my sons reading development as he has eagerly poured through these books, from level 1 to level 9 in a matter of months. He was just desperate to get to "the good books", a continuing series of adventures stories featuring four children who can shrink down to pocket sized and must save the world from the evil Dr X. Within a year he had made it to level 16, which is as high as Oxford readers go. He did start outgrowing these stories by the time he reached level 14, but this is only because Oxford's Project X had developed his reading to such a degree that he was able to move on to paperbacks, and soon thereafter, young adult  and graphic novels.

Other free educational sites:

Multiple Subjects:
BBC Bitesize * * * * *
Brilliant selection of maths, english and science activities.
Shephard Software's Kids Corner * * * *
Ages 3-10Wide variety of children's education games including maths, science, animals, health, vocabulary, the world, and the USA.
Kids Know It
Homework Help *****
Very good general education site, but especially useful for history.
National Geographic KIds
Arcade style educational games.
Brain Pop
A bit of everything from history, maths and English to weird science .
Top Marks
Games for all subjects and all ages - very large collection - all free.
The Khan Academy ****: Educational videos on almost everything, I believe this is intended for adults, but there is still plenty for an older child or teenager.
Thinkfinity - everything from lesson plans to free games:

Cool Math 4 Kids
Penguin Math**** - very simple animations but fun way to practise math facts - feed the penguin the fish with the correct answer.
Timez attack ***** Exceptional 3-d graphics - fun and very educational - plays like a real video game - but we can't figure out how to open doors :( Still worth a try. Free and Paid versions.

Marvel Comics and Marvel Kids ***** Never underestimate the value of comics to make children want to read. You can read a good number of comics here, completely free of charge:
DC Comics *****
(Please note - I have never found anything on either site not suitable for young children, but comics have become an adults medium rather than children's. I have some printed comics with material that is questionable for young children - so please preview the adult Marvel and the DC sites before letting your  very child read - the kids sites will have nothing to worry about. If you should find anything out of order, please let me know. I have listed these as we do get quite a lot of good reading material here - but I do preview  comics first now. If your child is 12+ I would not be concerned, but it's always best to have an idea what younger children are reading).
Phonics Play ***** This site has paid section, but a large number of good quality games are available free of charge
Read Write Think ***** A number of free resources and games - including Fractured Fairy Tales - Takes some to to explore the site and find the best materials but well worth it.

Planet Oz Kids - Ace Detectives
Free online mystery game, ages 8+
Oxford Reading Tree - Traditional Tales * * * * *
Three complete story books to read online, "Rabbit on the Run", "The Frog Prince" and Finn MacCool".
Free children's ebooks , small collection, but proper storybook format, pages that turn, illustrations etc..
All family Resources
The Complete Brothers Grimm - read online for Free

Spelling & Grammar
Grammar Games Online
 Kids Spelling, Grammar and Writing Games ( quite a bit of reading too)

Kid's First For Health from Great Ormond St Hospital * * * *
Ages 4 -18. Wide variety of health related topics including an interactive body tour.
Ed Heads - Activate Your Mind * * * * *
Ages 8 - 18. Hands on interactive projects + lesson guides. Explore the weather, design your own cel phone and create a stem cell line are just three of the activities children can choose.
Nasa for Kids
Genetics / genome - wealth of information plus online games such as pass the genes.
Cells alive
How to Make Science Toys ****
These are all common - and well known science tricks, but they are still fun. If you have a couple of good science project books you've likely done most of these, but if not do check this out (a nd it could save you buying a book)
Horrible Science *** This site has a fairly limied amount of content other than advertising for their books, but what there is, is good.

Geography / World Cultures
Kids Web Japan * * * * *
One of the very best sites I have seen to teach children about another country. This site has everything: folklore, geography, technology, culture education and much much more.
Folklore and Myths
Short unillustrated stories from around the world
Planet Oz Kids Myth's and Legends
More stories from around the world, as well as some brief animal facts and information on animals and indigenous peoples. School activity downloads also available. Unillustrated or one single illustration for most.
International Children's Digital Library
Online story books, fully illustrated from around the world.
Online story books, fully illustrated from around the world.
Kids Homes Around The World
DLTK's Countries & Cultures Activities

BBC Schools Primary History * * * * *
Learn about ancient Greeks, the Romans, anglo Saxons, Vikings, Children in Victorian Britain, or Children in WW2.
Channel 4 Learning History Essentials
Brief facts, activities for home and quiz for various periods in history from ancient Egypt to Victorian Britain.
Kidiedia *****
Listed as a history site, this virtual encyclopedia for children also includes a fair amount on the sciences.
Horrible Histories *****

Creativity - Animation:
Go Animate

Art Attack *****
Crafts for Kids - simple layout massive variety of projects grouped by subject
Planet Pals

Free Books:
Write reviews on books - or just about anything else on dooyoo and get free Amazon vouchers to buy all those books we so desperately need in home education. You don't have to be an experienced writer - just make a genuine effort to tell people about the products you won and use. To get the most from this site:

Do write about products you really feel strongly about - write about your favourite things.
Do read and rate other peoples reviews - not only will this help you learn how much detail you need on this site - but most people will return the favour and your miles which re cashed in for £ will grow.
Do give opinion not just stats.
Do use the site to explore and find curriculum. There are quite a large number of reviews on this site for children's books, science toys and educational material.
Do ask if you have any questions about products here - almost all of the members are very happy to tell you a bit more about whatever they review. Speaking for myself - I love sharing my favourite books and science kits - I just don't know when to shut up if you ask for more info :)

Don't ever copy anyone else's work. Copied reviews are the quickest way off this site.
Don't write about products you don't own.
Don't get upset if a takes a few weeks to get top rates, or take offence if members ask for more details.
Don't tell how a book or movie ends or any major spoiler without warning readers first. Really spoilers should only be used in children's books, where there is a valid reason for doing so - such as an ending that may upset a child, and with clear warning before giving any spoilers.
Don't expect to make a living or get rich quick. You can make £20 + a month in a reasonable period of time, which cold go a long way to buying children's books. But you can not make a living from home on this site.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Top Ten Home education, or homeschool essentials.

What items do you really need to successfully home educate? this may vary from one family to the next but here are the items we could not live without.

1. Books - not just text books, in fact we have very few text books, but books about anything and everything. I spend 1 - 2 hours per day reading to my children. At times I have read out loud until I've lost my voice. In addition to me reading to my sons, my seven year old reads quite a bit himself. But in order for a child to choose books over the vast myriad of entertainment choices they have today- we really need to maintain a good selection of books with topics that catch the boys' interest. One of my most important goals in deciding to home educate was to encourage my children to read for pleasure. I could sit and read with him for hours a day - ask to read out loud or on his own - but reading for pleasure can not be forced. I choose books for specific subjects, but my sons chooses  the books that are kept for pleasure reading. At the moment, this means comics books. Wait - you may be thinking - are comic books really educational? In my opinion they are. At least my son is reading, and enjoying it. when a child reads anything for the sheer pleasure of it, they are going to build their reading skills.

 But we do have a lot more than comic books. We have everything from simple board books to classics like Grimm's Fairy Tales, the bible, science and history books, young adult novels,  children's fiction and non fiction, as well as the odd book intended for adults. Books have been our biggest expense in home education - but they are also the most treasured. while some families get by on far less, especially if they have access to a good library ( which we don't), a reasonable amount of books is an absolute necessity to teach at home.

2. The Internet - I just don't know what we would do without the Internet. From the time my youngest was  under 2, he would say " why don't you google it" if I didn't know the answer to something. I can't believe how much comes up that I didn't know when reading various books with my son - whenever we get a question I don't know how to answer we have two solutions : and Google.

3. Hooked on Phonics - this may fall under books, but I can't imagine going teaching my son to read without a good phonics programme. We used several, and I am glad to have had all of them, but if I had to choose just one, this would be it.

4. Jumpstart and Mathblaster - As well as owning several pieces of software from this company, we bought a lifetime online membership to Jumpstart which includes Mathblaster as well. Both of my sons ( ages 3 and 7) use this site regularly, learning core subjects while they play.

5. Workbooks - I don't class these as books, books are much more fun. I don't ever want to go overboard on workbooks, but a few good workbooks are essential for Maths, and quite helpful for other subjects. We used Kumon, Maths Made Easy, Science Made Easy, Brain Quest and a few others.

6. Homemade books. Some of our most useful books are home made. An alphabet book with familiar pictures is an excellent way to teach letters and letter sounds. Another home made book taught simple words. Our very favourite own book is a story my son made up based on We're Going on a Bear Hunt,   . My son chose his own scary subject ( ghosts) and ended up with a wonderful story about a ghost hunt in Luigi's Mansion ( stolen directly from the Nintendo game). Another fun book is "It Wasn't me" about a dog who gets the blame for everything in the house - featuring our dog and family. We also have a book of dinosaurs, a book of space, and are currently working on my son's own history of the world. We just pick any event or invention and place it in the correct order. You can use a photo album, scrap book, or binders to build your own books. It's cheap, it's fun and includes so many areas of learning all in one go. Plus it leaves lovely keepsakes to remember.

7. Trips - you can learn so much from a day out. Of course places like museums and zoos are obvious, but there is quite a lot to discover in the local park as well. Even a shopping trip can be educational. Nothing teaches maths skills so fast as telling a child they can spend  x amount of money - they'll have their purchases tallied up in no time.

8. Science toys - we absolutely love our science toys. We have everything from a very high powered usb capable microscope , to chemistry sets, science kits, magnifying glasses, magnets and so much more. Hands on science teaches so much and it is fun at the same time.

9. Board games: This may not sound very educational, but I remember some years ago reading a study of three factors most likely to influence educational attainment outside of socioeconomic status. The three factors most likely to increase educational attainment were, in order:
  •    Reading  - this includes parents reading to children and setting an example by reading themselves, and access to a good selection of books. In fact another study very accurately predicted educational attainment just by counting the number of books in the house. the higher the number of books - the higher the child was apt to go in education - I always take comfort in this when spending too much on books ;)
  • Family Outings - the more often a family spends time together doing things like visiting museums, seasides, parks, or other attractions, the better a child did in school.
  •  And finally - board games. A family habit of playing board game son a regular basis was an excellent predictor of academic success. Of course other issues play a part. A family that spends a lot of time on board game is obviously spending time together . This isn't possible if both parents are away from home for most of the child's waking hours - or if neither parent likes to spend time with the child.
Board games are great way to spend time together, but there are many very educational games out there. For instance Magic Cauldron Game directly teaches maths, as does Sum Swamps. Silly sentences teaches reading and sentence structure. But other ordinary entertainment games have wonderful educational value. We love Hangman which is a wonderful way to have fun with spelling, as is Scrabble. Many games teaching adding and subtraction as you count out the money. Battleship has taught my son to use grids and Run for Your Life helped him learn fractions. Top Trumps teaches greater than and less than. Make it doubles Top Trumps, using two cards for each play and you have a great addition game. Bakugan was the best thing we ever found to teach maths though as you have to add and subtract points according to various ability cards to determine who wins each battle.  But you can make your own board games as well pasting pictures over an old board, making up game cards and rules to suit any subject.

10. Art supplies: I think this is basic requirement of having small children anyway, but a good stock of paper, crayons, paints, clays, and other are supplies are a  real necessity for home education.

For older children:
As they grow there is only so much we can teach them at home. I think volunteer work, or just learning a skill from a mentor are among the best resources we can have with older children. My sons are a bit young for this now, but my 7 year old does benefit greatly from being able to take a class outside of home (karate) as well as participate in the Boys Brigade.

Tips on building a home education or homeschool curriculum

 When we first decided to teach our son at home I was very worried about purchasing the correct curriculum. I desperately wished I had the financial resources to purchase a ready made curriculum, but the prices were far beyond our budget - and looking through I couldn't find any that I did not feel I would have to add quite a bit to as well. I spoke to a local headmaster, teachers and the local school board, and asked every parent I knew about what subjects their child was studying in school. I spent hours studying the Northern Ireland curriculum and trying to work out how I could best match what was being taught in schools. Looking back now, I recognise a lot of this was based simply on worries that I would fail to deliver an adequate education to my son. If nothing else, getting a realistic picture of what children were actually learning eased my mind quite a bit. I quickly realised that no matter what we did - I would be able to provide my son a superior education to the local primary schools. But even this really was not enough. Like most parents I want better for my children, but I ended up turning a very simple process into something very complicated.

 Designing a curriculum is easy -  so much easier than I could have imagined at first. But while getting an idea what local schools are working on,and studying the National Curriculum, wherever you might live are useful - a home school curriculum at it's best is not really founded on either of these. They are valid considerations yes, but a National Curriculum is designed ( hopefully) to best suit a theoretical average child, and to be delivered in mass by a limited number of adults to a large number of students. As a more confident home educator - I know longer have any desire to duplicate the mass produced education of National Curriculum. Just as I would hope a meal I prepare just for my own children is superior to mass produced school lunch - a curriculum I prepare for my own children will be more individualised and suited to their individual tastes and needs. And just as I do not always serve both children the exact same foods - there will be times when educational content will vary for the two boys as well.

 We started out by carefully assessing what we expected my son to learn. Compulsory Education in Northern Ireland begins at age 4, but even at a very young age a child can offer some input into what they would like to learn. At age 4 my son chose for his first project to turn a child's book into a home made video. He later chose projects like space, airplanes and dinosaurs. At age 7, he is back to the movie making and has asked to start making stop motion videos. The older the child, the more say they can have in what to learn, and with a teen, they very likely have clear ideas of which career path they hope to follow, so that would be my main consideration.

 But I don't believe I can leave a child's education completely to children's whims, so I also had core topics that were very important to me. The obvious were that he would learn to read, write,  and do maths at an age appropriate level or above. Science was important, but I am more concerned that he learn how to look at aproblem from a scientific perspective and find an answer than memorise a few facts. Science is a very hands on subject in our house. I also feel knowledge of the bible is essential for a well wounded education, as well as certain classic stories and myths. We live in Northern Ireland. This means our country shares two different and unique traditions. I decided at the beginning my sons would learn about both, as well as a view of history designed to encourage both patriotism and compassion and respect for others. Once we knew what we wanted to learn, it was simply matter of clicking onto Amazon and finding the books, as well choosing a few pieces of software, and a subscription to Jumpstart / Mathblaster online.

 Each family will have different goals, but the first step to creating a curriculum is to clearly define those goals. Think about what your child needs to learn for each age level and what they want to learn.  It can be tempting to go overboard and buy everything at once. I do buy a great deal in advance , but only if I can get a great deal on it. If you find a book, science kit or other educational material at a real bargain price, such as at a boot sale, or clearance sale, by all means pick it up. Some items you know will come in useful, but if I can pick up any decent book at 10 - 20 p I'll buy it in the hope it becomes useful later. But if paying full price, limit yourself to the basic core curriculum items you must have - and those items you will use in the next term. Too often I found I bought material, only to find another method that better suited my son by the time he was ready to use it. I also find children read so much better when they are reading books they really like. So choosing too many in advance can be a problem as their tastes and intersts change as they grow. Last year, I would nevr have expected my son to develop an interest in James Bond or Superheroes, but at the moment his favourite reading materials are graphic novels with spies and superheroes. Who knows what next year will bring?

 If you feel you need a bit more structure in planning a  curriculum, I would recommend this book:

 It is very American, and some resources will not be available in the UK or Ireland, but it will give you a very good idea of what subjects will provide a well rounded education for each age, and many books and resources to help achieve it. The biggest drawback will be that all the history resources will be American, but Britain no longer really has history as a subject for young children, and it is easy enough to choose your material in this area.

If you need to just relax and see what can be done with very little prepared materials, try this book:

 Don't forget to consider all the resources you already own as well. You won't be reading this unless you have a computer. You most likely have all sorts of mixing and measuring devices in your kitchen. Hopefully you have a collection of books already as well.  Most families keep art supplies, and most home educating families keep science supplies. I would strongly suggest plastic boxes to save thing that might be useful later. We keep a couple of art boxes with various art supplies, a science box, a chemistry box, a magnets box, a music box and so on. If I have a few left over bits after using a science kit - extra vials, funnels or magnifying glasses - into the box they go. A number of things intended for other purposes have found their way into the boxes. KFC gravy cups for paint pots - Chinese take away containers for all sorts of things, an old medicine dropper,  a magnet from a car engine, even a broken tablet pc to look at circuit boards.

 My next post will be the items I consider essential for home education followed by resources for each subject area, and in later posts I will be blogging about specific products we couldn't live without - and a few we wish we had done without! I'll also be agthering together the very best of the free resources we have found online.