Thursday, January 25, 2018


My son has been participating in UPSTART kindergarten readiness program for 7 months.  This program has children spend 15 minutes a day 5 days a week learning to read.  I chose to enroll my son mainly to give him a responsiblity each day.  This was a perfect match because he spends a massive amount of time on screens each day and I figured that spending a mere 15 minutes of it in a challenging learning program would be good for him and would be 15 minutes less spent on mind-numbing cartoons.  I didn't have high expectations for the learning because my four older kids typically didn't really retain learning on ABC's until around age 5 1/2.

For the first 4 months, the program worked wonderfully!  My son also did the science and numbers.  I was impressed because he seemed to be learning and retaining the ABC's so well and his letter writing was excellent.  I was so proud of him when he walked in on the first day of preschool and wrote his name on his paper all by himself.  He was definitely ahead thanks to UPSTART.  He also learned to count to 10 before starting preschool and sing the ABC song.  All things my other children didn't learn until kindergarten.  I'm not sure they even know the ABC song now!

Perhaps this amazing headstart makes UPSTART completely worth it.  However, at about the 4 month mark, UPSTART took a nosedive in effectiveness.  I realized UPSTART IS NOT A PHONICS PROGRAM!!!   He stopped learning or progressing 3 months ago.  We sit there everyday for 15 minutes hitting our head against a wall.  He was a perfectionist and felt bad at first, but now he is getting comfortable getting terrible scores and wildly guessing about activities that seem to be a foreign language to him which does not impress me.  I'm passionate about phonics because as a first grader I STRUGGLED learning to read, it left me in tears until I was put in a special remedial intensive phonics program.  Two siblings experienced the same trouble and were given the same solution.  A third struggled, but moved to an area without a phonics program and didn't get the amazing turn around the rest of us did.   I've taught four of my own children to read and they made no progress until we chucked the sight words in the trash and went to a pure phonics approach.  I'm talking about intensive practice at decoding left to right (the key for my kids) by adding only one phoneme (sound) at a time until it is mastered.  None of this sight word, "read along with me words that are way too difficult for you", "guess what the hard words are based on pictures", decode chunks at the end of words and change the initial sound business.

So my review of UPSTART is: Great start, only so-so finish.  It will work for a majority of kids, but is terrible for mine.


The problem with non phonic reading programs.

According to Sydney Ledson a renouned Canadian writer on teaching children to read young, 80% of children will learn to read very well with the standard American reading education method.  These are children who can learn to decode left to right easilywithout special training.  The American method begins with memorizing lists of common words called sight words and "reading" books that frequently repeat these words.  These books will have many large difficult words that the children are supposed to infer by looking at the pictures for clues.  For example my daughter's very first sight word book included the word "school" and "neighbor" for her to read, but was considered appropriate because it had pictures of a school and neighbor and repeated the sight word on every single page.  Once a child has memorized a handful of sight words, the next step is memorizing simple cvc words by memorizing the endings like "ip", "id", "at", "ot" and learning to change the beginning phoneme (letter sound).  This is often mistakenly referred to as a phonic approach to reading instruction, when it is still rote memorization which actually starts with the word ending rather than decoding left to right.  As a child progresses, educators will talk about the child being able to read 100 words, 200 words, etc.  Children learning to read by this method and given special books with pictures and sight words will test very well starting within a few months of reading.  This quick success for most children is surely the reason that this method has gained universal popularity in the US.  However, the children who are getting high scores on reading in kindergarten aren't actually reading, they are good detectives and memorizers.  Around the second grade emphasis on decoding words phonetically from left to right finally begins in American schools.  However 20% or more of the children will have learned incorrectly and will have practiced incorrectly for two years that reading is memorizing word shapes and inferring large difficult words from pictures.  They will not be in the habit of decoding words left to right, often they will not be solid on the sounds of every letter of the alphabet, they will have little or no confidence, and they will not continue to progress well in reading.  A quick way to observe that this is affecting more than 20% of children is to listen to a second grade class read aloud.  The children who have not got left to right decoding solid will pause between every single word and will show signs of distress when approaching any long or unfamiliar words.

By contrast in a phonemic approach to reading (used to teach reading in almost all other countries), each of the approximately 50 phonemes are introduced to the child one at a time.  This is not a heavy burden of memorization.   99% of children will be successful with this method.  There are only about 10 sight words to be memorized, especially the words "the" and "a".  The child practices decoding from left to right, tracing with a finger on every single word ever read.  No pictures are provided in order to keep children from guessing at words rather than reading.  As each phoneme becomes solid, a new one is added until the child has memorized all 50.  Unfortunately most sight words become decodable toward the end of phonemic instruction so the child seems to be seriously delayed in reading.  When a child learning to read phonetically is tested in schools, they do poorly because they struggle on any word that contains phonemes they don't know (usually the sight words) and the child fails to use picture clues.  However in their phonemic reading assignments they are doing beautifully and the amount of frustration is minimal because they only have to learn one new sound a day.  Most assignments naturally contain a review of all past phonemes so retention is excellent.  Around the middle of first grade, all the phonemes are memorized and then the child who has previously been "below grade level" in reading, can read ANYTHING.  You do not need to count the number of words they can read, because they have the ability to read anything except foreign words that don't follow typical phonemic rules.  Typically they can read a lot more than they can comprehend.  When you ask this child to read aloud, they will slide smoothly from one sound to the next not reacting to long words, sometimes they will read half of a long word before pausing to realize the word is a challenge.  In fact phonetic readers will be able to read many words they don't understand or haven't heard before.  

After learning by trial an error with my first child, I have learned to throw sight word lists in the garbage on the first day of Kindergarten.  I put anytime that would be spent memorizing those words into phonic instruction.  Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons is the best, but I have tried 4 different programs and they all work.  It usually takes 12-18 months to complete the book at about 15 or 20 minutes four-five days a week (It is more like 200 hard lessons for my kids).  The way my kids' brains are wired would have put them in the 20% that fails to learn to read with whole word reading method, but they were on or above grade level by the end of first grade--even the one who had to be told that reading goes left to right over 1000 times before he got it!  (If that isn't a reading disability, I don't know what is, he would never have been able to memorize 100 sight words, 50 phonemes about killed him.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Best Gluten Free Cinnamon Roll

Gooey, cinnamony, cream cheesy goodness!
 I love a soft, gooey cinnamon roll more than anyone I know, but unfortunately, most cinnamon rolls are dry and hard to choke down, especially gluten free ones (despite the raves the recipes always have posted with them).  On Christmas Eve, a dear friend of mine who owns a restaurant saw me and my husband out on a walk and offered to send us home with two 8" cinnamon rolls for our kids to have Christmas morning (as the restaurant obviously wouldn't be open and selling them.)  My family normally won't touch cinnamon rolls, so I was about to pass, but my husband took a look at those gorgeous gigantic cinnamon rolls and said "of course!"  

As we walked home I started planning out the ultimate gluten free cinnamon roll recipe in my head.  I was going to make one exactly like we had in our hands or better.  
 I threw some ingredients in the bowl that afternoon, rolled up the cinnamon roll at dinnertime and baked it just before I went to bed.  Sure enough, Christmas morning dawned with the best gluten free cinnamon roll ever!  All the cinnamon rolls I've had in the last 7 years have been 1 star, but this was 5 stars for sure!  The long rise time make these rolls super soft and light.  The eggs and xanthan gum mimic the gluten in traditional cinnamon rolls.

my roll dough in a 5x14" rectangle, spread with melted butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon
starting to roll the jumbo cinnamon roll.
when you get to the end of one strip of dough, set the cinnamon roll
down at the beginning of the next and keep rolling, pinching the dough together at the seam.
When you are done transfer your giant cinnamon roll to a lightly greased 8" cake pan.   Gently press down with a spatula to fill the whole pan.

All ready to let it rise 4-6 hours.
gluten free in the foreground and gluten-filled in the background,
they looked nearly identical, but the gluten free had the best texture!  

makes a great Christmas breakfast!  I cut it in fourths
because as you can see it was humongous.
The background shows my inspiration jumbo cinnamon rolls of the gluten-filled variety.
 Then in front you see my fabulous gluten free cinnamon roll hiding under
a generous amount of cream cheese frosting.
Best Ever Gluten Free Cinnamon Rolls

These are slowrise cinnamon rolls like you get at the mall.  I like to start these in the afternoon, roll them out at dinner time, and bake them at bedtime.  I frost them in the morning, reheat them a bit in the microwave, and eat them for breakfast.  

You could also start them at dinner, roll them up at bedtime, and then get up early and bake them in the morning.  Every step is EASY, they are just spread out a lot.

~4 large cinnamon rolls or 1 jumbo cinnamon roll
12 hrs, prep time 18 minutes bake time

1 tsp active or rapid rise yeast
1 1/3 Tbs warm water (115 degrees)
2 2/3 tbs butter, melted
1/4 cup milk, scalded (nearly boiled)
2 2/3 Tbs sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, well beaten plus
3 egg whites or 1 ½ eggs, well beaten.
1 1/2 cups flour (I used the Costco all purpose blend which includes xanthan gum) 
½ Tbs xanthan gum or onlly ¾ tsp if using a flour mix already containing x.g.

2 2/3 Tbs butter, melted
1/4 cup brown sugar plus more if needed to thoroughly cover the dough
2 tsp cinnamon plus more if needed to evenly cover the sugar

1 1/2 Tbs butter
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 oz cream cheese
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 Tbs milk (2/3 Tbs-2 1/2Tb)

Soften yeast in warm water.  Combine melted butter and scalded milk.  Stir in sugar, salt and eggs.  Cool.  Stir in softened yeast and flour.  Cover; allow to rise in cool place for 4 to 6 hours (room temp in the winter is fine).  Turn out onto lightly floured board roll to cover with a light dusting of flour and gently form into a long rectangle (mine was about 5x14").  Dough is very soft and should remain so, if it is sticking to your hands or roller you can dust with flour or slightly moisten your fingers.  Cover the rectangle with 2 2/3 Tbs melted butter.  cover the butter with a generous coating of brown sugar (so no roll dough is showing through.)  Then sprinkle with a generous amount of cinnamon.  

for a jumbo cinnamon roll:
Cut the rectangle into strips about 1 1/4" tall.  Roll each piece loosely, as you finish one strip of dough move it to the end of another strip and keep rolling so that you make one gigantic roll.  Set the roll into a lightly greased 8" cake pan.  if the roll doesn't come all the way to the edges of the pan you can flatten it a bit with a spatula.  

four smaller cinnamon rolls:
for smaller cinnamon rolls, cut the rectangle into 4 strips and then roll up each cinnamon roll and place in a lightly greased 8" square pan.

Allow to rise in cool place 5-6 hours.  Bake at 375F approximately 15-18 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cover with foil after 10 mins if needed to prevent burning, bottom of rolls should be golden brown.  

Cool slightly and frost.  I highly reccomend reheating a bit in the microwave before eating!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Unique Graham Cracker Houses

My kids never seem to want to decorate a regular house, they always want something unique.  I just use a serrated bread knife and carve whatever shape they ask for out of the crackers.  I glue them together with melted sugar that I have heated on medium heat in a frying pan.  It works like hot glue.  This year I had two boat requests, so I made some blue butter cream frosting as well as the traditional royal icing and this is what we ended up with.
Flower garden with wheelbarrow and gated fence, daughter age 10

candy and graham crackers

Gummy Bear House, my son age 4
Chinese Dragon, son age 13 "Scary Christmas!"
Fishing Boat, son age 8 "Fishing You A Merry Christmas!"

Viking Ship, daughter age 15, since we live in a town settled by Icelanders,
viking ships are kind of a special around here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Candy Cany Sleighs with PopTarts

As a cub scout leader I am doing activities for the boys once a week, but the girls have only had two activities since school got out in May and so we did a Christmas Party to get them all together!  For the craft we made candy cane sleighs using Poptarts.  I had planned to use the Poptarts in the silver packing, but the girls opened them all up and we just covered them in plastic wrap and I liked how it ended up looking snowy just like a real sleigh!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Letter F preschool activities

Letter F (my four year old requested fire trucks for the theme, so this is what we did!)

Letter F torn paper fire (thanks measured

Bean Pit Dig (we reuse this with every letter)
Letter F flashcards
six cards inspired by action, I added more

Found a frog!
Letter F in Lego
Since I'm a Lego teacher, I have baseplates galore and this worked well,
but you could build F without baseplates too.

We have a poster of this guy colored in rainbow scribbles, with his mouth cut wide open to gobble up letter items like feathers, footballs, fruit, fly swatters, and all the other fun things the kids brought!  You do have to be careful the first day to make it comical and not scary, but then it becomes a highlight of the preschool day!
midi and lyrics from Boy Scout Trail, fun hand motions can be found on youtube.  If the kids learn the hand motions they will have a lot of fun with this.  Then you can sing the verse substituting the hand motions instead of singing the words
Late one night
When we were all in bed
Old mother Leary left a lantern in the shed
And when the cow kicked it over
She winked her eye and said,
There'll be a HOT time on the old town tonight.

Backwards Version (optional)
Night one late
When bed in all were we
Old Leary mother left a shed the lantern in.
And when the kick cowed it over
She eyed her wink and said,
There'll be an old time on the hot town tonight.

Our Favorite Fire Fighter books and a sparkly fish book for the girls:
such a silly book, preschoolers love this!
This board book is always the first request, it just looks so fun to four year olds.
Popular with the girls!

Graham Tracker Fire Trucks:
Double stuff frosting gives you enough to "glue" on the ladder, window, and both wheels.
Cut the Dot candy almost completely in half and attach it that way.
Cut Fruit by the Foot tape in half to make the ladder and rungs.

Fire Truck Paper Craft (thanks to! and my teenagers who cut them out!)

I love ABC party preschool!
We made Friendship Fudge at the same time we glued our trucks together (I should have made only a half recipe or skipped it since we already had a snack, although they did enjoy squishing it!)
1/2 cup of butter
4 oz cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder
1 lb powdered sugar
1 gallon-size Ziploc bag

add to the bag and then let all the friends squeeze and knead until the fudge is done!  We practiced counting by squishing the bag ten times per kid

Finished Friendship Fudge is still a bit sticky,
scoop samples with a spoon.

Basic ABC Plan: (This takes 2 1/2 hours)

Sounds: Dig for letter of the day items (or could do a sound tray or sound toy box)
Art: Paint something so it can be dry by the time preschool is over, usually introduces theme of the day.

Writing: write the letter in as many different ways as possible I usually do about 5 ways, but with Lego we just rebuild it.  Trace in sugar tray, chalk writing, iPad coloring, shaving cream, trace it in sand, form it out of noodles, form it out of Legos, trace it in pudding, etc.

Circle Time: 
Phonics: Starfall letter video
Sound bombardment: Feed the sound monster (each kid brings items beginning with the sound of the day and we let the "sound monster" gobble them up and spit them out)
Literacy: Read 2 books (usually more once we get started)
Rhyming & Music: Sing the song or learn the nursery rhyme

Glue: the letter of the day together

Cook: make a snack, excellent for counting practice!


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween 2017 and Hogwarts Elementary

Collin jumps for joy after getting some candy!

Shopping for Potions in Diagon Alley

Running into Voldemort in Diagon Alley

Aang the last air bender
princess Azula fire bender
Trelawney (Mrs Head) and Dobby

Golden Snitch
Platform 9 3/4
Diagon Alley
Gryffindor Common Room
Whomping Willow
Harry's letters flying out of the fireplace
Hagrid's Spiders

Owls in Diagon Alley
Diagon Alley
Diogon Alley
Allison's class only had one Harry Potter plus the teacher, Dustin's class had 5 Harry Potter's, luckily he was Ron.
Madame Hooch and Ron
Harry Potter and Hermione
Potrait Lady (I missed when she had her picture frame)
Rita Skeeter
The Great Hall
Dobby's Room
The quidditch field
Moaning Myrtle