Sunday, August 26, 2012

Favorite Resources for Teaching Kids to Read

As my daughter has reached school age, my first priority in homeschooling has been to teach her reading.  Reading is the foundation upon which she will be able to gain access to lots of great books and information. My daughter is now 5 and 1/2 years old, and we've been doing formal reading lessons for about a year. She has progressed beyond the simple phonics-based books and can now read words like "delighted", "memories", and "laughed" with no trouble.

I wanted to share some of my favorite resources for teaching reading. And these aren't just for homeschooling families!  According to The Well-Trained Mind (which is one of my favorite books about schooling), "Sometime around the age of four or five, most children are ready to start reading." Reading is so fundamental that it seems like a great idea for all parents to be involved in the process of teaching reading.

The list of favorite resources is broken down into reading programs, homemade resources, and early reading books. I've also included a short list of some resources that did not suit us. 

Reading Programs:

  • Bob Books:If I could only have one resource for teaching beginning reading, it would be Bob Books.  These great books take a gradual approach to reading, introducing very simple sentences initially and working up into quite complex sentences by the end of the series. There are 50 books in the series.  The first book has sentences such as, "Sam sat."  By the last book, kids are reading sentences such as, "They sat down together, and as far as I know, they are sitting there still."  Once or twice a year, you can get Bob Books Collections at Costco for a great price.  I much prefer the Bob Books in the Collection format because the books themselves are much larger than the normal Bob books you can find on Amazon or at the book store. (Additionally, there are now pre-reading Bob Alphabet books to teach letters and phonics sounds, but I've never seen these in person.) 
  • Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading: This book looks different than many "Reading" books because there are no pictures.  Rather it is laid out with many individual lessons that teach kids to read using phonics.  This book also incorporates optional simple games that my daughter loved, and these games really helped to reinforce the reading lessons in a fun way. This book was especially helpful for us in the early stages of reading.  My daughter would get easily distracted by any pictures in books and want to just start guessing at words without actually trying to sound them out. Since there were no pictures in this book, it worked very well for us.  As my daughter's reading progressed, she became less and less interested in using this book, so we only got about halfway through it.  But it was essential for those first few months of daily reading lessons, and some of our best homemade resources (described below) were inspired by suggestions from this book. 
  • Starfall (FREE!):Starfall is a great online resource for teaching the alphabet, phonics sounds, and beginning reading.  There are many different lessons and games, and they are designed in such a way that kids can very quickly learn to use the computer mouse too!  I generally limit screen time (computers and television) for my daughter to approximately 2-4 hours per week. I started letting her use the Starfall website once a week for about 10-20 minutes at a time when she was 2 & 1/2 years old.  It really helped her in learning the phonics sounds in a fun way, and she LOVED it!  As she progressed in learning to read, we relied much more on books we could hold in our hands, but I still allowed her to use Starfall about once a month to give her some variety in her reading lessons.  
  • Progressive Phonics (FREE!):I only learned about Progressive Phonics a few months ago, but it is a really great online resource that works up from basic alphabet recognition all the way to advanced reading using phonics. There are numerous books and also activity sheets that can be used for each lesson. One thing I really love about this program is that you can actually save the books on your computer and print them out!  The stories are silly, and kids love to read them.  The books incorporate some more complex words for parents to read (and it is easy to tell which words are for parents since they are color-coded). This is nice because the stories can be much more engaging when they don't have to strictly stick to words the kids can read. I have printed the Progressive Phonics books, and we use them as part of our daily reading practice.  My daughter thinks these little books are hilarious, and she often asks to be able to read more and more of them.  I also rely on these books on days when my daughter is a bit reluctant to read, as she knows I will read all of the "hard" words (although she often forgets to give me a turn and just reads them herself anyway). 
Homemade Resources
  • Mix and match word cards: Using halved index cards, you can make a fun game for kids who are learning to read simple words such as "cat" and "dog".  (This game and others like it are described in much more detail in Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading.)
    • Cut some index cards in half, and write a short word endings on each card. Word endings would be things like "at", "it", "ig", and so on.
    • Cut some more index cards in half, and write a letter of the alphabet on each one. 
    • Then use both sets of cards to make sets that go together.  For instance, pick out all of the letters that go with the "at" card (which would be c for cat, h for hat, and so on). 
    • Put the "at" card in front of your child.  Place all of the corresponding alphabet cards face down, and allow the child to flip one over and place it next to the "at" card.  Let her try to sound out the word.  If she says it correctly, then she gets to keep that alphabet card; if not, then it gets flipped back over with the other alphabet cards. Repeat for all of the corresponding alphabet cards until the child has all of them.
  • Mix and match sentence cards: Using index cards, a fun game can be made where the child assembles and reads funny sentences. (This game is based on one from Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading.) My daughter especially loved this game, and it was great because I could keep making more cards with more complex sentences as her reading level progressed.  Often times, we would use just this game with lots of different cards for our daily reading lesson.
    • Get a little stack of index cards and use a red marker to write a noun on each one.  My daughter especially liked to use the cards that said the names of her friends, stuffed animals, and family members.
    • On another stack of cards, use a green marker to write sentence endings that will go with the noun cards.  For instance, you could write "had a picnic" and "ate a rat". Just make sure to write sentence endings that will be easy for your child to read at her current reading level.
    • Place the noun cards face-down in front of your child on the left side, and place the sentence ending cards face down on your child's left side. Let the child pick one card from each side and put them together to make a sentence that the child will read.
  • Custom stories: One way I found for providing the variety and interest my daughter needed was to write simple stories based on her interests.  For instance, one story was about her and several of her stuffed animals having a party together.  The main thing point to write only words that your kid can easily read, and pick subjects that will excite them.  These aren't fancy stories; just use plain old paper and write up whatever you'd like.  They are especially great because you can emphasize any particular reading area that your child needs to practice.  When my daughter was working on the letter c making a "sss" sound when followed by an e, i, or y, I wrote a story for my daughter about a girl going to the circus, and seeing some tiny mice there.
Our Favorite Books for Beginning Reading

  • Dick and Jane books: Dick and Jane books have lots of word repetition that kids like when they are first learning to read.  While I find these books stilting if I read them aloud myself, they are perfect for kids to read aloud to their parents or siblings once they already know the phonics sounds.  My daughter was especially excited to be able to so easily read these stories, and she loved the illustrations. These books are readily available at the library, so they can be free to use.   
  • Biscuit books: These books are about a little puppy dog, and my daughter loved reading them.  There is lots of repetition of certain words in each book, which is great for beginning readers.  These books are also readily available at libraries.
  • HBJ Treasury of Literature: These books are wonderful compilations of children's picture books that are from schools.  I found many of these at our local used bookstore.  Books with the pink binding are the ones to use for beginning readers, and they get progressively more complex with different binding colors.  These books are great because they have so much variety in each one, since there are stories by many different authors.
  • Library books: Books from our local library are an integral part of our daily reading lessons.  They give my daughter the variety she craves, and this really helps in motivating her to read every day.

Reading Resources That Didn't Work for Us
  • Dr Suess books: It almost seems sacrilegious to say it, but many of the Dr. Suess books didn't work for us in teaching reading.  Books like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat use the same phrases extensively (such as "I do not like them, Sam I am"). My daughter would complain about reading the same things over and over, and that is a complaint I have myself when I read these books!  So I stopped including these in the stack of reading lesson books.  (Every kid is different, though, so I'm sure there are plenty of kids that do like to read such repetitious phrases.)
  • Hooked on Phonics: We were given a used copy of the Hooked on Phonics program, and this is one resource we never much liked.  This system uses pictures to teach phonics sounds, such as a picture of a cat for the sound of the letter c. As described in The Well-Trained Mind, this can slow down the reading process because the child has to think of a picture and then the sound, rather than just knowing that the letter c makes the short c sound. I also did not like that the books were not quite decode-able from a phonics perspective (meaning that some random words were thrown in that my daughter wasn't ready to read or that broke the phonics rules, and these just made us both frustrated). 

What are your favorite resources for teaching reading?  Do you want to hear more about my approach to homeschool, or do you find this to be a topic of little interest?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lemon Basil Chopped Summer Salad (GAPS : primal : gluten-free : nut-free : grain-free)

After a long, hot trip of running errands with the kids, I whipped up this simple chopped salad for lunch.  It takes less ten minutes to put together, and what a refreshing treat!  Great fresh flavors from the garden in the form of basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers combined with creamy avocado and the zest of fresh lemon juice.  Mmm, good!

Lemon Basil Chopped Summer Salad
Serves 1
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1 small cucumber, chopped
  • 1/2 ripe avocado, chopped
  • 10-15 fresh basil leaves (depending on how large the leaves are use more or less)
  • fine-ground celtic sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tb shredded cheddar cheese 
  • two lemon or lime wedges
  • extra virgin olive oil*
  1. Sprinkle a plate with the chopped tomato, cucumber, and avocado.
  2. Tear the basil leaves and sprinkle them onto the chopped veggies.
  3. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. 
  4. Sprinkle the cheese over the top.  
  5. Generously drizzle olive oil over it all, and then squeeze a lemon wedge or two over the top.
  6. Serve and enjoy!
*The test of a good olive oil is that it should solidify in the fridge overnight.  I store most of my olive oil in the fridge for freshness, but do keep a small amount at room temperature for drizzling over salads.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Soft Molasses Cookies (gluten-free)

My husband loves molasses cookies, so I recently developed this recipe for him.  These cookies are soft and chewy, or if you freeze them they become more like a crispy gingersnap. My husband has proclaimed these to be the "best cookies ever"; although I've never been a huge fan of molasses cookies, I do enjoy these.

Soft Molasses Cookies
Makes about 20 cookies*
  1. In a large bowl or stand mixer, cream together the sucanat and softened butter for a few minutes.  
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the rice flour, coconut flour, salt, spices, and baking soda.  Whisk these all together and make sure there are no clumps.
  3. Break the eggs into a measuring cup (preferably a glass one with a pour spout).  Add the vanilla to the eggs.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  5. Add the molasses to the butter/sucanat mixture and mix it in.  Then, with the mixer running, pour in the eggs one at a time. (A stand mixer comes in very handy for adding these ingredients while it is running.)  Allow the first egg to be fully incorporated before adding the next egg.  Then mix well for another minute or so.
  6. Slowly add the dry ingredients, a little at a time, and mix until everything is incorporated.
  7. Grease a cookie sheet with butter, or line it with parchment paper or a Silpat (I love to use Silpats, because the cookies never stick).
  8. Use a spoon or scoop to scoop the cookie dough onto the cookie sheet.  There is no need to press these cookies down, as they will spread well on their own in the oven.
  9. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges are a bit more browned.  (It may take a couple extra minutes if you are baking them on a stoneware.) If you have to cook subsequent batches on an already-warmed cookie sheet, start checking them for done-ness a couple minutes earlier.
  10. Allow to cool a bit, then transfer to a cooling rack. These are particularly enjoyable with a big glass of raw milk.
  11. These cookies can be stored at room temperature for a few days, in the freezer for a week, or in the freezer for months.
*Save time in the future by doubling this recipe!  Then just store the cookies in the freezer and you'll have plenty to last awhile.  They are delicious even straight from the freezer, and that makes them more like a crispy gingersnap instead of a soft cookie.
**One tablespoon of molasses may not seem like much, but since sucanat is dried sugar cane that still has the molasses in it, these cookies will have plenty of molasses flavor.  Blackstrap molasses is a great choice because of it high nutrient content.
***My family has found white rice to be much easier on digestion than brown rice as we transition off the GAPS Diet. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Zucchini Spice Muffins (GAPS : primal : paleo : grain-free : gluten-free)

In this season of abundant summer squash, I often have fridge drawers loaded with zucchinis. One great way to use zucchini is to make muffins. These zucchini spice muffins are sweet and tasty. What a great way to eat your veggies!

I love that these muffins even pass the 5-year-old test, despite the fact that my daughter seems to have reached the stage of being suspicious of most green foods (which she used to love).

Zucchini Spice Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

  1. Melt butter or coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Turn off heat and allow to cool slightly. 
  2. Meanwhile, combine the eggs, salt, vanilla extract, almond extract, spices, and optional baking soda in a large bowl.  If using an immersion blender, pulse a few times to combine. Otherwise, mix to combine with a whisk or mixer.
  3. Add the honey to the butter (or coconut oil) and stir slightly.  Pour this mixture into the wet ingredients and blend well with immersion blender or mixer.
  4. Remove the ends from the zucchinis, and shred them with a box grater. There is no need to peel them before shredding. 
  5. Measure out the coconut flour.  Since coconut flour clumps readily, it will need to be sifted if you are not using an immersion blender.**
  6. Pour the coconut flour into the bowl with the wet ingredients.  Use an immersion blender or mixer to thoroughly combine all ingredients, making sure there are no lumps.  (Since coconut flour does not contain gluten, there is no worry of over-mixing it).
  7. Fold in the shredded zucchinis and optional raisins.
  8. Line a muffin tin with paper cups.  Scoop the muffin batter into the paper cups.  I like to use a 3-Tb scoop for this, but you could just use a large spoon.  The cups may be quite full if your zucchini was rather large, but this is fine.
  9. Bake muffins in 325 degree oven for about 40-50 minutes, until muffins are set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. 
  10. Remove from oven and cool.  Delicious with a pat of butter and a big glass of raw milk or milk kefir!  Pair these muffins with bacon or eggs for a hearty meal.
Time-saving tips:
*I do not add baking soda to my muffins, as they seem to come out fluffy enough from mixing with an immersion blender (and Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride cautions about using too much baking soda as it can further deplete stomach acid and GAPS people tend to already have low stomach acid).  But if you want your muffins to be more fluffy, add 1/4 to 1/2 tsp baking soda in step 2.  More for more fluffy, and less for less fluffy. Watch out, though, that you don't fill your muffin cups very full if you add the baking soda.
**If you use an immersion blender to combine the ingredients, you can skip the step of sifting the coconut flour.  This also gives you less dirty dishes!
***While you are at it, why not make a double batch of muffins and throw one dozen into the freezer?  It doesn't take much more time, and they will make a very easy breakfast for some other week.

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

GAPS Intro Diet Experiences and Tips

One topic I seem to get questions about frequently is the GAPS Intro Diet, which is an intensive diet that focuses on healing and sealing the gut walls.  This site has some great info on what foods are allowed on the Intro Diet. My family did the Intro diet after being on the Full GAPS Diet for several months, and I also repeated the intro diet again after about 8 months on GAPS. 

Positives of the Intro Diet
The Intro Diet:
  • works amazingly to heal the gut quickly,
  • is a very good way to tell for certain which foods your body has troubles with, and
  • can result in amazing healing or even complete reversal of many gut-related health problems such as joint pain, digestive issues, allergies, etc.
Negatives of the Intro Diet
The biggest drawbacks of the Intro Diet are:
  • It can be VERY difficult as it is a very restrictive diet, 
  • It can cause intense die-off reactions as the bad bacteria in the gut are killed off and there is a shift to more healthy gut bacteria,
  • It can take as little time as a few weeks or as long as several months, and you can't really predict ahead of time how long it will take you (you pay attention to your bodies cues as to when you should progress through the different levels of the Intro Diet).
Our Experiences on Intro
Round 1
My whole family did the intro diet after a few months on the Full GAPS Diet.  At the time, my daughter was 3&1/2. The hardest part of the Intro for my her was not being able to have any yogurt or milk.  But she and my husband generally breezed through the Intro Diet.

I was exclusively nursing my 8-month old son when we did Intro and I had a VERY difficult time of it.  I should caution here that Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride does NOT recommend that nursing mothers do the Intro Diet; unfortunately I somehow missed that and didn't figure it out until I had already started Intro.  I had a very hard time getting enough calories and not feeling like I was starving (I dropped 4-6 pounds a week, and it took me a month to get through intro, so that was over 16 pounds in one month).

I tried to quit the Intro, but couldn't because my stomach would absolutely not tolerate eating other foods.  This was a huge shock to me, as I didn't think I had many digestion problems (and neither my daughter or husband had the same problems on Intro).  So I rushed the Intro as much as possible because I was starving, but still had bad stomach cramping for hours every day because my body wasn't ready to introduce new foods yet. Despite these problems, I had great results from Intro and felt amazing once it was over.

Round 2
I repeated the Intro Diet after being on GAPS for about 8 months because I wanted to once again accelerate the healing.  The second time around, Intro was much easier for me because my infant was eating some foods and not relying on me for all of his calories.  I was also able to include kefir and yogurt (since we had already gone through the full dairy progression), and this really helped in making sure I didn't have that starving feeling like the first time around.  I was hugely encouraged the second time to see that I did not have the same problems introducing new foods during Intro, so I was able to progress through it quickly without the severe stomach cramps.
Tips for the Intro Diet
  • Start with Full GAPS instead of the Intro Diet: Don't do the GAPS Intro Diet right away, as this can be totally overwhelming.  Instead take a few weeks or even a couple months to get used to the Full GAPS diet first. This will also help to keep die-off symptoms at bay.  
  • If you are nursing, wait to do the Intro until your baby is eating a significant amount of food, or wait until you are done nursing altogether: Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride does not recommend that nursing women follow the Intro Diet as there is the potential for toxins released by the body to be passed to the baby through breastmilk.
  • Stop taking probiotics when you start the Intro Diet: Even if you have already followed the Full GAPS Diet for a few months, the Intro Diet can still cause a die-off reaction as the bad bacteria are starved out.  Slowly re-introduce the probiotics after the first wave of die-off is over (or after a week or two if you can't tell whether or not there was die-off).  Or you could even wait until you've completed the intro before you slowly reintroduce the probiotics.
  • Do the full dairy progression BEFORE you do the Intro Diet: Completing the dairy progression before the Intro Diet will give you more options rather than having to eliminate dairy along with so many other foods. The full dairy progression includes NO dairy/cheese/butter/yogurt/kefir for 4 weeks, followed by a sensitivity test (putting whey on the skin and leaving it overnight, then looking for signs of redness or irritation the next morning).  If there is no redness or irritation, then start slowly introducing homemade whey a little at a time (starting with 1 tsp per day for a few days and slowly increasing to 1/2 cup per day with meals), then slowly introducing homemade yogurt (starting with 1 tsp/day and working up to a cup or so), and then slowly introducing kefir, and then hard cheeses, butter, etc. Once you start Intro, cut back dairy to only yogurt and kefir.  Limit the yogurt and especially kefir in the early days of Intro as they can lead to more pronounced die-off symptoms. 
  • Freeze some Intro-legal foods ahead of time: Freezing some Intro-legal foods will help in making sure that you will have plenty of food options, and will also save you a bit of cooking during Intro.  I like to freeze soups in single-serving glass containers that can be reheated easily in the toaster oven.
  • Plan to make enough food to eat 6 meals a day: The foods allowed on the intro diet are so easily digestible that you may need to eat 6 or even more meals each day.  Plan for this so you aren't caught off-guard and unprepared.
  • Plan to keep a pot of soup cooking at all times: The Intro Diet is centered around consuming broth, meats, and veggies.  Keeping a pot of soup or broth cooking at all times during Intro is a great way to save on active cooking time and to ensure that there is always food ready to eat. You can drink the broth throughout the day and easily add more meat and veggies as they are consumed. Keeping a pot or slow cooker going all the time can also make it easy to add some variety by pulling some out into another small pot and adding whatever additional veggies or seasonings you want for variety.  There is a great tutorial on a constantly-cooking, perpetual broth here
  • Take some time off or plan nap breaks:Since the body is healing rapidly during the Intro Diet, you may feel more tired than usual.  If possible, plan to be able to take some time off work, or try to plan a nap break each day.  Also, try not to schedule too many activities, but rather take this time to relax and rest.
  • Food variety: Having so few food options during the Intro Diet can make it tiresome to eat sometimes.  Egg yolks can be added to any bowl of soup to add great flavor and richness. Some ideas for variety are:
    • Beef and veggie soup with peas, carrots, onions, zucchini, garlic
    • Boiled chicken (including some chicken skin and fat) served with cooked peas, carrots, and onions, and a cup of broth
    • Brisket with carrots and onions (leave the celery whole so you can easily discard it)
    • Classic chicken soup with onions, carrots, and mushrooms (celery can be added whole for flavor and then discarded)
    • Meatball and mushroom soup (omit the sour cream, replace butter with ghee or tallow)
    • Chicken soup with carrots, onions, mushrooms, garlic, thyme, and fresh ginger
    • Beef soup with carrots, onions, and fresh dill
    • Braised short ribs  (follow the time-crunch method and leave the celery whole so you can easily discard it)
    • Chicken soup with tomato paste, garlic, carrots, onions, zucchini, green beans, peas, and oregano 
    • Chicken and thyme soup (omit the creme fraiche and replace butter with ghee or chicken fat)
    • Pureed butternut squash soup made with chicken broth, chicken fat, onion, garlic, ginger, honey, and nutmeg (since spices aren't allowed in the early stages of Intro, you can leave the nutmeg whole and discard it once the soup is done)
    • Slow cooker beef fajitas (omit cheese and sour cream from garnish, serve in a bowl)
    • Pizza soup made with beef, strained tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, basil, oregano, thyme, and a dash of red wine vinegar
    • Herbed pork and cabbage stew