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First Language Lessons Review by Diane Wheeler

Jessie Wise
Published by Peace Hill Press

First Language Lessons ranks in the top two or three favorite homeschool resources we have found for our children. As a family, language arts is our strong suit. We have managed to develop strong readers, constant talkers, and avid story time participants. All of that said, we have struggled with language arts materials for our first and second graders. Why? Well, that tricky little small motor skill required for writing has waited to show its face until a little later. Fortunately, Jessie Wise, co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, has now written a book that provides language arts instruction for the first and second grade years. In First Language Lessons, Mrs. Wise shows that we can teach language arts through the well-tested methods of dictation, narration, and memorization, and use handwriting only when the child is ready for the physical work required.

Now, one of the misconceptions of a classical approach to education, and with The Well-Trained Mind recommendations in particular, is that it requires an unrealistically rigorous type of learning that makes student and teacher equally stressed and miserable. This book can serve as exhibit one in a defense of classical education. The daily lessons include a short time of teaching, with very little written work required. It is systematic, it does teach definitions for parts of speech, it does require poetry memorization, and it does teach the skills of narration and dictation. But, this is done in short increments, in what I think of as a gentle sort of rigor. Each day is fairly simple, but the regular habits add up to an impressive foundation of knowledge.

Part of the philosophy behind this material is that good habits set good patterns of language; therefore, this is a book used by teacher and student together. Each lesson, while not laborious, is time spent together, reading aloud, talking and responding to instruction. The language patterns are developed verbally, allowing the teacher to spot bad habits and correct them. Also, the emphasis is placed on answering in complete sentences. Now, that may sound obvious to you, but this was an eye-opening exercise for our family. I had no idea how many times I was calling out fragments, or at best very short commands, to my children. It has been good for Claire and me to work together on answering questions in complete sentences.

So, what does a typical lesson look like? Day One of First Language Lessons introduces the definition of a noun, with the instructor reading the definition aloud to the student three times. The introduction continues by discussing people, and particularly names that would be considered common nouns. The discussion of the day would go like this, "Everything has a name. The definition of a noun is: A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea. We will talk about persons first. You are a person. Are you a boy or a girl? (Have student answer this in a complete sentence.) Your child responds, "I am a boy/girl." Further discussion is given to the fact that these words are common to a lot of persons, so we call them common nouns. Other words are offered as common nouns: father, brother, aunt, cousin, etc. The definition of a noun is read three more times aloud to the student. Voila! Lesson Number One is complete. If I had a child that was eager to write, I might have them write the definition and file it in a binder.

As an example from further in the book, Lesson 167 is midway through the second grade year. This lesson includes a continuation of teaching on prepositions, a dictation exercise, and poetry review. For the preposition lesson, a throne is created in the room. The child gets a stuffed animal from his/her room and places the animal on the throne as the King of the Stuffed Animals. The preposition on is discussed when the animal is on the throne. Then, the animal is challenged by a lion, so the king gets off his throne, introducing the preposition off. This goes on, introducing the prepositions near, of, off, on, and over. Then, the definition of a preposition is reviewed aloud three times, and the list of prepositions that have been learned is recited together. The dictation exercise is choosing one or more of three sentences about the lesson, with an enrichment activity with the child making the stuffed animal king a crown. The poetry review is the poem, The Little Bird, a simple eight-line poem that was introduced in Lesson 139.

In addition to First Language Lessons, you will need to provide phonics, spelling and penmanship materials to complete the language arts program for your child. One of the features that makes this a very easy book to use is that the lessons are scripted. There needs to be focused concentration during the lesson time, but not much preparation is necessary. There are some supplies required, especially if all the enrichment activities are done, but there is a list at the beginning of each year that details the supplies needed. My current First Language Lessons student is child #4 in our family, and I find I need to budget my time even more carefully than my income these days. First Language Lessons allows me to do daily lessons without stressful planning.

One other note: Boys are often more reluctant in language arts lessons, probably due to later handwriting readiness, but also due to content that appeals more to a typical girl's interests. Well, Mrs. Wise obviously understands and appreciates boys. Her poetry selections are enjoyed by my boys; especially the poem, "The Goops." There is no reason for lessons to be boring for our boys!

One handy hint that we have employed in using this volume - we took the book to our local copy center and had them laminate the cover and add a spiral binding. I knew that I would be using it for two children, a total of four years minimum, so I wanted to make sure it would last.

Peace Hill Press can be found on the web at I appreciate the work of Mrs. Wise, and her daughter Susan Wise Bauer, and recommend that you take a look at their website. You will find hours of reading available there, offering support for classical home educators.

Thanks to Mrs. Wise, I have had many enjoyable language arts lessons with my daughter Claire. We look forward to the time each day when the two of us snuggle up and chant, recite, talk and learn. I am impressed with Claire's capacity for memorization, and for how eager she is to get to work each day. Our son Brennan will begin his school career soon, but with Claire's excellent example he is already learning parts of speech and poetry just by listening in. He can hardly wait to begin First Language Lessons.

-- Product Review by Diane Wheeler, Senior Staff Writer, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine