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Friday, November 8, 2013

3rd and 4th Grade Grammar and Spelling---How We Do It for Free!

The other day I was talking about how I tried to cut back on my work by buying into pre-planned homeschool curricula…and was sorely disappointed. 

I have tried and dumped 2 spelling programs for my middle kids this year alone.  One I paid for, the other was free.  Both were supposed to be easy with no prep or planning on my part…but what good is an easy solution if it doesn’t succeed in helping your kids to learn? 

So about a month ago I totally revamped what my 3rd and 4th grader were doing in the language arts department.  It took a little prior prep, but the results so far have been outstanding.  They are becoming better spellers and grammarians a little at a time, and I’m not even using a spelling program.

Free and Painless grammar and spelling for my 3rd and 4th graders?  I'll show you how at Homeschooling Hearts & Minds

Let me give you a little inkling as to what led me here first, as I think it will help you to understand why this is working for us.

I believe in going with your kids’ strengths and allowing them to pursue personal interests.  I’ve learned from experience that my kids can’t learn something until they are ready.

What do I mean by “being ready to learn”?

First there’s developmental readiness.  Just as a baby can’t crawl before she’s learned to roll over, there’s little point in teaching a child to spell words that he can’t read.

I know that there are homeschool programs out there that encourage you to have your kids memorize things like what a noun is from a very early age.  I don’t do that, because it seems unnecessary.  I have yet to have a child not be able to “get” what a noun is when he’s developmentally ready to understand that concept. 

Peter “got it” in one 5 minute lesson.  That’s not a brag---if I’d tried to teach him about nouns last year, he probably wouldn’t have gotten it and getting him to dutifully repeat “a noun is a person, place, or thing (or idea)” every day would have been about as fun as untangling my daughter’s super long, super fine hair (which I only do every day because I have to).

Another aspect to being ready to learn is seeing the relevance. 

The kid has to want to learn it.  No one can force anyone to learn something they don’t want to know---learning doesn’t happen by osmosis or thought transfer or even repetition.  It takes mental effort.  It takes work (especially if it’s a hard concept).

It’s a lot easier to get your child to invest himself if he sees the relevance of what he’s learning.  He needs to want it.

This is an area I butt my head against every day---if my oldest doesn’t see the relevance of something or is not interested in the topic he shuts down.  In order for him to motivate himself, he needs to buy into what he’s doing (at some point I’ll write a post about how often I mess up with this relevance thing, because I do mess up, but that’s a topic for another day).

Learning should be organic.

Now, what does that mean?

Learning doesn’t happen on a set timetable, but naturally grows out of itself.  You learn how to do one thing, and this sparks curiosity about another thing or fuels an insight into the need to learn something else.

One problem I’ve seen constantly, particularly in the area of English studies, is that everything is bound up in everything else.  It’s not like spelling is this skill that’s off in a corner somewhere!   It’s an integral part of communicating through writing.  Same with grammar. 

It makes more sense to learn it in place, rather than to separate it out.

And so now you have the thoughts and experiences that helped me to develop our current 3rd and 4th grade language arts studies.

I wanted a “program” that was developmentally appropriate---you’ll see in a minute how I meet the needs of both kids at the same time even though they are 20 months apart and the younger child has special needs.

I wanted it to feed my children’s need to learn---this means that we aren’t slaves to someone’s predesigned word list or whatever, we are working on what they need to work on right now.

I wanted it to be organic, to naturally grow out of itself---if you are looking for a schedule or a printable on how I’m doing it exactly, you won’t get it!  This will look different for everyone, but I promise it’s easy to implement.

I didn’t want to have to buy anything new.  And you won’t have to, either.  It is helpful to have some copywork e-books or copywork software (I use the older version of Startwrite which sells for $20), but I’ll show you how to do it without those things.

Here’s our basic “schedule.”

I will explain a little further how we do each thing and how it all works together after the schedule.

Everyday:  Our current read aloud and discussion.  Unbridled independent reading and writing.  During November they are also participating in NaNoWriMo.

Monday:  1 page of copywork in a font/size appropriate for that child.  1 page of grammar from the Scott Foresman Grammar and Writing Handbook. 

Tuesday:  Modeled dictation using the previous day’s copywork.   1 page of grammar from the Scott Foresman Grammar and Writing Handbook. 

Wednesday:   1 page of copywork in a font/size appropriate for that child.  1 page of grammar from the Scott Foresman Grammar and Writing Handbook.

Thursday:  Modeled dictation using the previous day’s copywork.   1 page of grammar from the Scott Foresman Grammar and Writing Handbook. 

Throughout the week:  Occasional notebooking for  content subjects (history and science).

About the copywork:

Notice that we only do 2 different copywork selections each week.  I type up several weeks’ worth in advance and for each copywork selection I print, I print a blank, lined sheet for the next day’s dictation.

The selections are of a length so they can be copied within 15 minutes or less.  They do not need to be long and the length can be tailored to your child’s abilities.

I create my own copywork.  I choose a small selection from one of our current books (history or literature) based on what grammar or spelling they need help with.  So, some selections will have a lot of proper names that need to be capitalized or “ie” “ei” words, or whatever focus is needed.

I put 2 spaces between the words to make them more obvious---this helps my special needs kid and reminds him to space his own words.

I use Startwrite software to create each page in a HWOT print font for my 3rd grader and an italic cursive font for my 4th grader.  I use a slightly different size for each of them. 

But you don’t need fancy software to do this.  Your only cost can be printer ink and paper or you could even write your selection on a whiteboard and have your child copy it.

Free resources you could use for copywork: 

About the dictation:

This is “modeled dictation.  What this means is that:

  • my children have seen the selection before (it was the previous day’s copywork or a simplified version of it) and
  • before the dictation, I write it up on the whiteboard and we go over it, noting spelling difficulties, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

After we go over the selection, I erase it and then dictate it a phrase at a time.  This is the only “glitch” in that my younger son writes his dictation very quickly and my daughter writes more slowly with an eye towards neatness---they get frustrated with each other at times as I have to wait for one and keep the other waiting.

Afterwards, I go over their writing and make any necessary corrections.  They rewrite every correction 3 times.

Copywork and dictation has helped them to internalize the spelling of words at their own level.  We review and reinforce spelling rules they have already learned but sometimes forget to apply.  We target their specific needs in spelling, grammar, punctuation and the other conventions of writing.

To help reinforce grammar, I added in the free Grammar and Writing Handbook from Scott Foresman (grades 1-6 are available).  We don’t do the writing pages, just the grammar and grammar review.  My kids do enough other writing that the other pages are not needed. 

It only takes a few minutes and it draws their attention to the why behind the periods, commas, and capital letters.  Since we are printing it out rather than working from a workbook, I can easily skip or rearrange the lessons as needed.

It works!

Their spelling continues to improve, as does their punctuation.  My 8-year-old, for instance, began the year writing virtually no punctuation at all, but periods and commas have spontaneously appeared in his own writing and in the correct places.  This happened in just a few short weeks without me nagging him or pointing out his mistakes in his independent writing.

This is what we are doing for now.  No doubt it will change, because learning is organic, but I’m happy to have found something that works for both kids.

What’s working for your kids?


  1. I like this. It is almost exactly what I have reverted back to with my kids; even down to the Scott Foresman Grammar:-) And I agree -it works. I love using our current literature etc to help develop my kids' writing skills, rather than following a preset plan that is not necessarily relevant. Encouraging post.

  2. It's good to hear that this is working for someone else, too. Thank you for sharing. ;)

  3. I'm not using the Scott Foresman Grammar but I agree about children being ready and using what they're already enjoying to help their grammar and spelling. Our daughter's spelling is through the roof this year and her writing is beautiful. She does a lot of reading and writing in her spare time and that has really helped.

  4. The number one problem that my kids had with spelling programs was that they weren't being taught to write the words they actually wanted to spell. They felt limited by them.

  5. Susan, Pearson has sadly redone their website and the Scott Foresman Handbooks are no longer available. I have downloaded a few but desperately need the THIRD Grade one. Could we possibly share resources seeing that they were free?

  6. Oh, snap! Thanks for letting me know---I will need to update this post. :(

    I'm not positive that I downloaded all the files myself---this one had been available for YEARS (I used it when I first started homeschooling!) and I had become complacent, thinking it would always be there. That's the thing about free resources---they can always disappear. If you see something you like that's free, grab it!

    This is a copyrighted resource, so it would be unethical for me to share the pdfs (it would be impractical also as it was divided up into 2-3 page pdfs on the site, so it would a huge number of files, oi!). Since Pearson/Foresman owns the copyright, it is their prerogative to stop offering it for free if they want and I have no right to distribute their property.

    I did some googling to see if there was still a trace, but they've definitely removed them. There are other free grammar resources out there---time for me to hunt up some new resources.

  7. Thank you so much for the post.
    There are some free online sites which acts a source to build grammar and spellings. is one of such platform.


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