Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Review of First Language Lessons Level 4

James finished First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind Level 4  a few weeks ago, so I wanted to post a few thoughts about this program while it is still fresh in my mind.


First of all, I really love the First Language Lessons series. I have used these books with all of my kids, off and on over the years. So far, Grace is my only child to go through all four levels, mostly because we haven't historically been a "grammar each year" kind of family. Everyone did the first two levels, but James and Christopher skipped the third. I do plan to have Rose do all four levels. She did Level 1 this year, and I reviewed that level earlier this year.

The FLL4 program consists of two books:

  • The student workbook, which has all of the exercises, with room for the student to write in their answers.


  • And the instructor guide, which is fully scripted. It tells you exactly what to say to your child during the lesson, has examples of the answers you are looking for, and, most importantly, it includes the instructions and answers for all of the exercises.


You need both the student workbook and the instructor guide to do this program. The workbook itself is a collection of worksheets for the student to complete, but there aren't any instructions on the pages. The instructor guide has the directions and information needed to complete each lesson.

The books themselves are pretty basic, with black and white text and no illustrations, but the paper is high quality and has a nice feel to it.  Unlike some other workbooks, this one lays nice and flat on the table and it was easy for him to write in.   Lessons range in length, but on average James and I spent 20-30 minutes, three times a week, doing grammar. It took us about 32 weeks to finish this program. We did skip some lessons here and there though, as I will mention below.

FLL4 provides sample schedules in the back of the instructor guide, and I found these very helpful. There are three scheduling options for completing the book over 36 weeks. Each schedule tells you exactly what lessons to cover each week. This level consists of 85 main lessons, plus several optional end units on letter writing and dictionary skills. You can choose to skip the optional lessons, mix them in throughout the year, or do them all at the end. We chose the "mix them in" option, and they added some nice variety when James was getting bored with the regular grammar stuff.

FLL  is not a program the child can do independently: all of the levels require parental involvement for the whole lesson. If you want something you can just hand to your child, FLL is not it!  For the vast majority of this program I was sitting with James, either actively discussing and helping him, or waiting for him to finish a short section on his own before moving on. I was able to work with him while Rose did something mostly independent alongside (like spelling). But I would not have been able to do math with her while he did grammar. This level of parental involvement could be seen as a negative; but to me, it feels appropriate to have a discussion- based grammar at this age. And it certainly makes grammar a more interesting subject!

 There were definitely times when it felt like the day's grammar lesson dragged a bit, causing James to get a little frustrated (and bored). The instructor guide does suggest doing one lesson over several days if necessary. We usually chose to push through and finish, but sometimes we did stretch a lesson over 2-3 days. But for the most part there was a good mix of activities in each lesson that kept us moving along. There are fill-in-the-blank, matching, circling, underlining, and diagramming activities (among others).  There are also some more interactive lessons sprinkled in here and there, like standing up when the parent says a proper noun during a short story. There is plenty of review in this book; most concepts are reviewed multiple times and older skills are continually being used along with newer skills. James really had the concepts down by the end of the book.

So what kind of exercises are in the lessons?

Oral : As I said earlier, there is a lot of discussion in the program and part of each lesson is usually done orally. For example, during a pronoun lesson, I might read a sentence to James: "Mary's umbrella is in the hall." He would repeat my sentence, but use a pronoun: "Her umbrella is in the hall." FLL also relies heavily on chants to help kids memorize important grammar concepts. When we first began talking about pronouns, we were often instructed to say the definition of a pronoun together three times. We had a short chant for articles, and another for prepositions and helping verbs. James never wanted to say the chants with me, so I said them by myself. He learned them anyway, even though he thought it was silly! In fact, Grace told me she still remembers and uses the prepositions chant from FLL years later!


Written: This is a workbook, so the majority of lessons have the student using a pencil. Articles are taught in part by circling them in a poem, adverbs by choosing adverbs to plug into different sentences: How do you sleep? And the student fills in the adverb they chose: I sleep quietly.  Other times, James was asked to draw arrows back to antecedents, underline prepositional phrases, or proofread a passage using proofreader marks. There were only a few lessons where the writing was too much for him; I modified those by doing some of the written exercises orally.

Poem Memorization: Every so often there is a poem lesson, with a poem to memorize over the next few weeks. We didn't do any of this memory work, but only because I let him pick his own poems to memorize. When we got to one of those lessons, I just read the poem and discussed it if necessary. 

Diagramming: Diagramming made me quite nervous the first time I did it with Grace, but I am much more comfortable with the process now, and FLL really makes teaching diagramming easy.  You start out diagramming very basic sentences with only subjects and verbs, then slowly progress to more complex sentences. There is always a script in the lesson to help you talk your child through the diagramming, and I found myself using the script more often that not. There are diagramming frames included right in the book, and sometimes students are asked to draw their own frame, which James did not enjoy (but I consider necessary). The way diagramming is taught in FLL made a lot of sense to me. Students are taught to always find the verb first...until they start diagramming more complex sentences, and then they are to find the prepositional phrases first and box them off to deal with at the end.

Summary exercises: There are about six summary exercises in the book.  These  consist of a short passage for you to read aloud, so your child can practice narrating.  I skipped over these lessons because we also use Writing with Ease, and  I didn't feel that additional narration exercises were necessary.

Writing letters...There are several optional letter writing lessons. These include writing a thank you letter, a friendly letter, and a business letter. Each letter is broken up into several lessons worth of steps:  a rough draft, a final draft, and addressing the envelope. I particularly liked the business letter lessons, because he was told to write both a letter and an email to the publisher of the book, complaining that his grammar book was missing pages. He got an email response within a few days, and we are waiting for our snail mail response.

Dictionary skills: Several optional units cover alphabetizing, dictionary usage,  pronunciation, synonyms, and antonyms. Like the letter writing lessons, these lessons were a nice change of pace from the regular grammar lessons.

Fun activities: There are a couple of fun extra activities included in the book. Each of my children has loved making "the preposition sandwich". You gather up the ingredients, then put the bread on the plate, spread the mayonnaise across the bread, etc...and then you eat it! Another lesson covered cooking abbreviations using a recipe for haystack cookies, and we made the cookies later that week.

So what does this book teach? Lots of things! All of the basic parts of speech are discussed, plus lessons on how to form plural nouns. There is quite a bit of diagramming in the book. James did not necessarily enjoy the diagramming! But I did not feel it was excessive. He usually only had 3-4 diagrams per lesson, and there were plenty of lessons that did not include diagramming. Verb tenses, predicate nominatives, direct objects, capitalization rules, abbreviations, titles of respect, and rules for using commas are just a few of the the things covered at this level. He learned a lot this year! I wish there was an FLL 5, but since there is not, he will be using Junior Analytical Grammar next year.

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