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First Peg, for Best Learning
Rachel Conner, 2/4/2010

Rachel Johnston Conner was an early homeschool graduate (PHAA 1995, a journalist, and now a homeschool teacher with her own children. Rachel is also teaching writing at a homeschool co-op program in her area. Several of Rachel's early writings are published in my anthology of homeschooled children's writing, Writing from Home (see our online store), including her insightful paper on the French and Indian War (at the age of 12, Rachel was playing fife in a reenactment group in Pittsburgh) and an amazing historical fiction story based on her knowledge of that time. Rachel was also one of the very first homeschoolers we knew who had successfully taken an AP exam-- and one of her older sisters, Ruth Johnston, taught AP English Literature for many years in our AP Online program. Another older sister is Ellen McHenry-- see the link to her amazing site Basement Workshop on our sidebar. As you read Rachel's thoughts on young children's learning, I think you'll also be able to translate this core idea to older children, and even to yourself-- we all learn in this way.    

So many times being a good teacher is as simple as knowing where to start. The average “American on the street” can read a book just fine, but most of them would be at a loss (and rather intimidated) to know where to start to teach someone else to read.

A good teacher isn’t born knowing where to start, either. I remember wanting to teach my child to read, but wondering how I could start out. Thankfully I found some hints to get me going... a good teacher learns along the way! And a good teacher uses the tips and tricks found in books, from friends, from other educational methods ... and creates knowledge for the students step-by-step.

One of my observations about homeschooling so far is this: Kids need a “first peg” to hang their hat on, when it comes to learning a new field of knowledge. Then they need time to learn that “first peg” well -- a lot of time, like six months or a year. After they have had time to learn the first peg and then they have rehearsed the first peg and it has become solid knowledge, then they are ready for a few more “pegs” on their mental peg boards.

Let’s break this down with an example that every homeschooling parent is already familiar with. Suppose you want to introduce your one-year-old to the concept of “cat.” What a powerful new field of study this is for the budding student! From the word “cat,” this child will eventually be able to learn “lion,” “tiger,” and “leopard.” But where to start? How can this one-year-old learn all these “cats” without becoming overwhelmed and confused?


Most families begin with pictures of cats, and with live cats that are family pets (either of their own family or another). They teach the concept “cat.” The child learns that a cat is something with four paws, just one head, and one wiggly tail that doesn’t want to be pulled although it is certainly tempting.

For the next six months to a year, this child isn’t ready for more facts about cats. This child is just rehearsing the word and the concept. “Cat!” he exclaims each time he sees a picture of a cat, or a whisker of a cat, or any evidence of what a cat did (certain specimens on antique Persian carpets come to mind).


“Cat” is the first peg on the mental pegboard. Now time must go by. And then...

On a trip to the zoo, this one-year-old child (who is now probably two) is suddenly ready to understand a “Big Cat.” This is a “lion,” a big cat with a huge furry mane. Over here is a “leopard,” a big cat with spots. And here is a “tiger,” a big cat with stripes.

Voila. Three new pegs on the mental pegboard of “cat.”

As the pegboard becomes a network of pegs, instead of one isolated peg, the child is also ready to embroider on the concept. There are additional details that can be added.

“A tiger is a cat that likes water. He likes to swim. Most cats don’t like to swim.” Although the house cat that glides around Grandma’s house hasn’t been seen in the swimming pool yet, your child probably hasn’t realized cats don’t like to swim ... until now. With just one example of a cat, the fact that cats don’t like to swim didn’t have much meaning. (Neither do they like floating near the ceiling, but this is not worth considering in the field of study of “cat.”) Now that there are lions, tigers, and leopards to compare, this budding student can understand that there are differences between cats. Chances are this learning will get rehearsed with long lists of cats that don’t like to swim. “Grandma’s cat doesn’t like to swim. Peter’s cat doesn’t like to swim. Lions don’t like to swim. Leopards don’t like to swim.”

And so it goes. From “cat” to “cat family” and a child who is ready to compare and contrast cats. The mental pegboard is becoming a richly detailed knowledge of cats.

When it comes to the alphabet, most families find the perfect place to start with each child is with the letter that is at the beginning of that child’s name. Although I suppose “Xanthia” probably doesn’t find this very helpful, most names lend themselves to long lists of words that start with the same letter. “Lucas” can find a lion, a letter, a leotard, a lily, and a laugh. He learns that L is made of two lines that meet at the corner, and he learns that this has something to do with making an extended “LLLLL” sound with your tongue stuck between your teeth.

Six months later Lucas is ready to add to his concept of a letter by finding out that an M has three angular corners ... and is somehow related to the concept Mommy as well as the words “muffin” and “magic,” plus the sound you make before you eat something yummy.

From L, first peg on the pegboard. To M, D, S, next pegs on the pegboard. Then letters that are similar (W, P, or almost any other letter). And pretty soon Lucas knows his alphabet. All because his teacher started out with the right peg for his mental peg board. All this learning is possible because it hangs on the letter “L,” which has personal meaning.

I have only been a homeschooling mom for a couple of years now, but I have already grown SO much as a teacher. Much of my learning has been is trying to pace learning so that it doesn’t all get crammed in the same throat on the same day. As part of this learning, I have found it essential to apply my pegboard analogy. First I must plant the first peg, then I must rehearse that one peg, then I just have to WAIT. But when I come back to that subject matter a year later I am invariably delighted with the results. The prepared mind is ready to receive several of the gems that I longed to share earlier... but didn’t. The new knowledge sticks to the old knowledge so quickly and thoroughly!

So what is the right “first peg?” Here are my nominations for the perfect “first peg” for a child’s mental pegboard for various subjects.


First peg: “Cat.” How appropriate that such a common animal has such easily recognizable letters in an easily decoded word. It’s also helpful to introduce the “at” family around the same time, since a child at this level is probably completely confused about why you would try to persuade him that squiggles on a paper (or letters on a fridge) could possibly be related to meowing animals with tails.


A year later: “Ug” family, “Un” family, “An” family. Time for Dr. Seuss with his pan / fan / can pages. If you’ve read them before, pull them out again. One Fish, Two Fish is exceptional material for phonics lessons.


First peg: “Verb.” A verb is an action word. Hop, kick, and punch your way through this action-packed lesson.

A year later: “Noun, Adjective, Adverb.” Mad Libs books make these lessons go down easily and provide a lot of incentive to rehearse the grammar lessons. If you haven’t ever played Mad Libs, your child should! (I thought everyone played Mad Libs when they were in grade school, but I learned my husband had never seen them! I guess he’s probably not the only one...)


First peg: “The nomads.” I got this excellent first lesson from Story of the World, by Susan Wise Bauer (first volume, naturally). It’s the perfect first lesson about people who lived differently from how we do today, simply because there’s pretty much nothing that nomad lifestyle has in common with ours. There’s lots to rehearse. “Did nomads have chairs?” No! “Where did they sit?” On the ground or on a rock!

A few weeks later (sorry, theory, I found this one was ripe quickly): The farmers of the fertile crescent, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and so forth. I found that after my careful indoctrination about the nomads having no comforts of modern life, the kids were properly surprised when the Egyptians had furniture and calendars.

Beginning Chemistry

First peg: Foam-producing experiments, based on vinegar and baking soda. It’s found in a million forms in a million basic science books, so there won’t be any trouble rehearsing this one more than once. It’s a bomb, it’s a balloon blowing up technique, it’s a volcano...

A couple of years later: Once we also taught that everything we see is made up of “atoms” and “molecules” (vocabulary is always SO helpful for any new field of study) then we’re ready for a course of study like The Elements, by Ellen J. McHenry (first chapter downloadable online).


First peg: We can tell a story and write it down. I found that the kids needed to watch me write a story before they had any idea where to start. Take their topic (getting a puppy, for example) and write down a simple story (with them watching you is best). Ask them if they want to illustrate the story, which is much easier than the creation of a story from thin air.

A year later: Obviously you’ll want to encourage them to write their stories down. Anything they write is great! As they grow as authors (several years later most likely), you can encourage them to learn different literary forms (the news article, the fairy tale, the report). Always start with examples to read, before you ask them to write in a certain style. I also make a point of writing something in front of them (for example, my report about some facts we learned about Egypt) before I even think of their writing in the genre. Again, write with them watching a year before asking them to write that genre (or even more time before).


First peg: Our continent, North America. Also, our state, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately I have found that my kids are very easily confused about referring to the same spot on the earth by different names. I think this slows us down in learning, so I try as a teacher to be intentional about starting with a first peg that is consistent with what I want to teach later. If I’m going to follow this lesson up with more states, I will emphasize ours first. If I’m going to teach the continents and the oceans, I will talk more about our continent.


A year later: South America, Asia, Africa. (Europe is too hard to identify so it’s doesn’t make a good subsequent peg. Australia and Antarctica work too, but I don’t recommend having too many A's all at once.) “South America is the one that’s south of us.” “Africa is where the giraffes live.” “Asia is where the tigers live.” (I learned a big lesson on this one because I introduced all the continents at once. Big mistake. It has taken me two or three years to get to the point that it’s all sorted out. Learn from my mistake and pace yourself in introducing new “pegs” for the pegboard!)


First peg: The same combinations we learned when we started reading... such as the “at” family. Since we’re working with material our kids have already learned in one context, it won’t take as long to cross over and bring that material to a new field of discipline.

A year later: I’m really enjoying Sequential Spelling, by Don McCabe. For a child who needs to learn to spell in a formal way, I’m impressed with the way that this book breaks words down into word families.

Every field of study starts with a first mental peg. You’ve got to learn one fact before you can learn ten of them. So get out there and find a first step of learning for a field of study -- and become a better teacher of that discipline.

And if there’s anything I want to say twice: WAIT for a while before you try to add the second, third, and fourth pegs on that mental pegboard.

Happy learning!

Comment by Tina Swanson, 2/4/2010:

Rachel -

Isn't the freedom of homeschooling such a blessing.  Not all children grasp onto the same first "pegs" nor at the same time!  I love that we are able to be intimately involved with the learning to see when things aren't working and can change course (curriculum or topic).  Nice article.


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