A terrific addition to your homeschool…

It’s almost back-to-school time for those of you who don’t homeschool year round! I can’t believe how quickly the summer has flown by. Our youngest graduated this past May, so I’m not partaking in my usual summer curriculum shopping, but I thought I’d share one of the items that got a LOT of use in my homeschool over the years for those of you who are. It’s not often that I ever found one item that could literally last me years, but Startwrite is one of the exceptions. I certainly got my money’s worth from it! I hope my sharing this review will help some of you who are still putting things together for the up-and-coming school year!

Startwrite is a handwriting “worksheet wizard” that has so many applications (of which I’ll discuss more in detail later in this post). I used it from the time my kids were little and still needed to trace letters, all the way up until middle school when they still needed some handwriting practice and/or copywork.

I am a big believer in handwriting – not just neat print, but also cursive. Learning cursive has cognitive benefits that are important for learning success and brain development.

Here’s an excerpt from a NY Times  article:

… learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing. As a result, the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation.

Another article in Psychology Today talks about the biological and psychology benefits from learning cursive:

Handwriting dynamically engages widespread areas of both cerebral hemispheres. Virginia Berninger, a researcher and professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says that brain scans during handwriting show activation of massive regions of the brain involved in thinking, language, and working memory.

Another article states:

…scientists are discovering that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn “functional specialization,”[2] that is capacity for optimal efficiency. In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice.

Studies have also shown that parts of the brain needed for reading are stimulated, and that writing by hand allows children to express more ideas and to produce words more quickly than they can when typing. Good handwriting activates more regions of the brain (associated with language, memory, and reasoning), and also has been shown to help improve learning difficulties like dyslexia, enhance auditory learning, and more! You can do a Google search for more info, if you are like me and love the science behind why cursive is so important to teach.

A lot of parents think it’s O.K. to forgo the time consuming process of teaching handwriting, especially cursive, as it’s just not “needed” in this age of typing and digital communication, but I strongly disagree. I think it’s a very important part of a homeschool, and made sure my children had plenty of opportunities to practice it.

So, now that I made my case as to WHY you should teach handwriting and cursive in your homeschool, I’ll share my love for the Startwrite program! Startwrite makes it really easy to get this important skill accomplished with the least amount of difficulty and cost.

For 39.95 (as of this writing), you can get Startwrite version 6 – the newest version of Startwrite’s software program. You can instantly download it from the website and have up and running in just a matter of minutes.

If you have an older version, you may be wondering if the upgrade is worth it. I think so! Version 6 has so many nice upgrades and is so much easier to use with many more options to truly customize your handwriting and copywork printables. You can click here to see the differences in a handy table.  If you already own an earlier version of the program, you can upgrade for a special price of $19.95.

Most handwriting workbooks run from about $10 to $14. Copywork books aren’t cheap either, and often you can’t find any that match exactly what you want to teach. If you have multiple children and want to have them learn and practice handwriting over several years, that can add up quickly! With Startwrite, you can make all of the handwriting sheets you will ever need for your entire family AND use it for other things like copywork for a multitude of subjects. That is a significant cost savings, plus you have the ability to totally customize what your children are writing / copying.

Before sharing how the program works and some of the great features, I’ll share some of the things I used Startwrite for in my homeschool.

  • Handwriting lessons and practice
  • Bible scripture copywork and memorization
  • Copywork for a variety of subjects like science, history, etc.
  • Spelling word practice
  • Character trait pages
  • Poetry memorization (copywork)
  • CHP Police Explorer code memorization worksheets
  • History & science notebooking – You can add in your own .jpg images to make some amazing notebooking pages!!

You can also use it to create some math pages with the clock and money fonts. See the screenshots for examples:

Various clock faces for telling time worksheets (some have a.m. and p.m. next to them to expand your options):

clock font

Coins – There are dimes, pennies, quarters, and dollars:

money fontquarters font

Counting items – There are math fonts that allow you to place numbers of items together for counting worksheets. You can get numbers in other fonts, too – not just how you see them depicted below.


Yet another option is to create phonics practice sheets. Startwrite comes with some free clip-art you can add to your worksheets in both color and black-and-white. You can also add in your own clipart and artwork by importing .jpgs, as you can in Microsoft Word and other word processing programs.

phonics clip art

You might be wondering if Startwrite is a good fit, if you’ve chosen a specific type of handwriting to teach your child. You’ll be happy to know the program comes with most of the well-known fonts that are featured in many homeschoolers’ favorite handwriting programs like:


There are also other fonts for those of you who are homeschooling “down under” like:

  • Victoria Manuscript and Cursive
  • Queensland Manuscript and Cursive
  • New South Wales Manuscript and Cursive

Last of all, there is a Palmer style manuscript and cursive. You also have access to your system fonts, just like any other word processing program.

Cursive fonts are a joy to work with in the program. They link up instantly and perfectly as you type with no additional steps you have to take like some other handwriting fonts  or programs for sale. I personally believe Startwrite is the EASIEST program to use for linking cursive. It also does (in my opinion) the nicest job. The fonts look terrific, smooth, and sharp when printed out, without any odd connecting letters as I’ve seen in some handwriting fonts trying to approximate D’Nealian cursive and other typefaces. I’m an artist /illustrator, so I’m picky about that sort of thing. Startwrite delivers. Please note that it does look sort of pixelated and junky (at least to my eyes) in the program preview, but once you print your worksheets out, they look beautiful.

Startwrite works like most word processors with lots of options for text, adding images, and much more. Open up the program and you’ll see this (I’ve loaded a lesson template):

startwrite review

Along the top borders you have everything you need to get going. You can choose if you want ruled lines and can change the colors of those lines. You can choose how you want those lines to appear (baseline? descender line? top line? etc.). It’s super-easy to add in pictures and to move things around on the page. You can add in borders, highlight areas you want your kids to pay extra attention to, and more.

You can choose your font and how you want that font displayed. Some of the options you have:

  • Stroke arrows
  • Beginning dot – where to start writing a letter
  • Letter outlines (to trace inside)
  • Decision dots
  • Connect-the-dots
  • Color letters

You can also choose the intensity and shading of the dots and letters.

The possibilities are pretty much endless. You are constrained to working within Startwrite’s software program, but the program is quite robust. It also comes with a variety of practice templates for handwriting already built in – a real time saver if you are just starting to teach handwriting. There are also some terrific videos on the website to get you up and running, if you are a visual learner.

Startwrite isn’t just for little kids! You can use it for your 6th grader with the sloppy handwriting, or for a teen who needs some additional handwriting or copywork practice, but is too old for 99% of the workbooks available for that purpose. Just type up some age-appropriate practice sheets and you’re older student will be on his/her way to improving handwriting skills, or working on grammar, punctuation, or other skills that may still need a bit of “brushing up”.

Startwrite is one of those resources I think every homeschool should have. I used my copy of the software for years for all sorts of purposes and ultimately saved a lot of money. I also loved how I could easily whip up some notebooking pages that had to do with exactly what we were studying with a minimum of effort!

If you’d like to purchase a copy of Startwrite, click here!

You can also click on the link above to get a free, fully functioning demo of the program! The above link is an affiliate link, so your purchase helps support Guest Hollow!

You can also sign up to become a Startwrite affiliate and receive 60% commission on all the sales through your blog or website. I know you homeschool moms like making a little extra $$, so I’m sharing that nifty tidbit in this review, as well. 😉

In other news, I have decided to start working on a non-math high school physics course sometime this late fall, followed by a 3 level American history program. I’ll keep everyone posted via my blog here, and over on my Facebook page!

Happy homeschooling!

amBooks by Mining Gems Review / Opinion


My rating:

Otter’s rating:
“I like amBooks but parts of them can be boring.”

AmBooks are digital books that have a combination of text, video, explorations, games, animations and experiments presented in an engaging, interactive format. There are a variety of topics to explore with chapters covering a multitude of science concepts. A small sampling of the chapter titles currently available are:

  • Chemistry:
    • Elements, Compounds and Mixtures
    • Acids & Alkalis
  • Earth Science:
    • Earth’s Landforms
    • Weathering, Erosion and Rocks
  • Life Science – Biology
    • Respiration
    • Diffusion, Osmosis and Active Transport
  • Physical Science
    • Measuring Volume, Mass and Density
    • Transmission of Heat

There are lots of other titles available with plans for more additions.

Each AmBook can be purchased for around $4.00, downloaded to your computer and installed as a small piece of software. Each chapter has to be activated before using it by entering in your email address and password. You can only have one computer activated at a time. I downloaded 10 different chapters matching some of our current science topics. As soon as Otter saw me open up one of the colorful “books”, he was chomping at the bit to try one!

When you first open up a “book” there is an introductory page that tells you what you will be studying. All of the subsequent pages are tabbed on the right hand side and can be accessed with a click. The book featured below can be purchased from the Physical Science section of the website and covers the transmission of heat.


As you click through the pages, you learn about the topic by reading, listening, watching and doing.

Here is an interactive exercise where you drag the items to the proper bin. (Yeah, yeah, I know copper should be dragged into the other bin…lol.)


And here is a video that helps illustrate conduction:


Each amBook has a different amount of pages. The longest one I ordered had 26 and the shortest had 13. This particular book has a total of 17 pages. Within many of the pages are additional “sub” pages or activities.

Here on page 14, when you click on one of the large purple buttons….


you get a popup box that has additional information.


In this particular book there are couple of check point quizzes to make sure you understand what’s being taught. If you get an answer wrong, a popup box explains why. On the last quiz it said if you get all 7 answers correct you’ll get a secret code to move on to the last section. Well, we got all of the answers and the code, but it didn’t really appear that the code did anything at all. confused To get to the last section we just clicked on the tab as usual.


There are also some boxes on a couple of pages where you can type in a prediction and explanation. Also, at the very end, there is a summary of all the main points covered in the book (which is great for record keeping purposes), a concept map and a test yourself section with essay (or interactive in some books) style questions such as: “Explain why only radiation can happen in a vacuum.”

As you can see from the screenshots, amBooks are colorful. Each page just begs to be clicked on and explored. Otter really enjoyed the short videos that usually demonstrate an experiment. He also liked the activities. One of the problems I ran into though was getting him to stop clicking around like a maniac and actually read and study the text!
That’s one potential problem I see with amBooks. A student can click around and “play” without really taking the time to truly absorb each concept. Even though there are quizzes, you don’t have to pass them to move on to the next section. In one way that’s convenient because you have instant access to each topic within a book. However, there is no way for you to know your student actually studied the material unless you assign the questions at the very end of the book. If you do assign the questions, there are no answers for you to check so you’ll either have to be familiar with the concepts yourself or you’ll have to read over the book to know if your student got them right! I think this could be solved in the future by letting teachers download an accompanying PDF answer key.

After trying out all of our amBooks, I would say they are appropriate mostly for middle schoolers, although younger and older students could also benefit from some of the material. The only thing about using it with older students is that some of them might be put off by some of the “kiddy” graphics, although some of the books have a more mature feel to them like the one about solutions and suspensions. As for using it with younger students, there might be some activities are concepts that are too advanced. For example, we ran into some math in one of the books that kind of made Otter’s eyes glaze over. A student would need to have a good understanding of pre-algebra to be able to complete it unassisted.

math in amBook

After reading the above page, you are asked to calculate the pressure exerted by a brick if it’s placed on its largest and smallest surfaces. Otter wasn’t sure how to proceed and there is no hand-holding to help explain the math. There is a solution if you get it wrong, but it was all mumbo-jumbo-yeah-whatever to Otter.


The book just assumes you have this level of mathematical knowledge. If your student doesn’t though, he can just move on to the next section anyway.

I also ran into an error in one of the books. On the page below there is a little “Remember This” box that says, “To read more about mixtures, click here.” Otter clicked and got an alert window that said that feature is not available. Maybe this is a bug that has yet to be worked out.


I’m glad I had a chance to review amBooks as they have added a fun component to our science studies. Otter likes them, but he has to be told to sit and actually study each page instead of jumping around to see what novelty each click will bring. He thought the books were mostly fun, but a few books didn’t engage him as much as the others (hence the 7 stars rating, instead of something higher). I did hear comments like “Ohh neat!” and “Hey mom, look!” frequently enough to know he was having a good time, for the most part.

Overall, I think amBooks does a good job at getting concepts across in a way that is engaging and memorable. The animations and videos help make things very clear. The interactive sections are generally fun and bring a lot of life to what could otherwise be just plain, old-fashioned reading. Visual learners will likely think amBooks is a treat, but some students may be totally distracted by all of the choices, colors and cartoons all over the page. There is still some room for improvement. Some pages could have used more detailed explanations (like the math in the Force and Pressure book, as mentioned above) and sometimes there was a wide mix of graphics and activities that don’t seem to know just what the intended audience is (elementary, middle school or high school?). The price is right for most of the chapters. $4.00 will get you about an hour’s worth of learning and entertainment mixed. This time period might be shorter for some of the smaller chapters.
If you are looking for something to jazz up your science lesson and your kids enjoy learning things on the computer, amBooks are an affordable solution that you can purchase and download in a matter of minutes. They can help get a concept across that ordinary textbooks might not be able to.

You can download a free chapter of amBooks from the Mining Gems website. Just click on the contact form and make your request.

*Note: We received amBooks for free in exchange for this review. However, our review was not in anyway influenced by this fact. All our reviews reflect only our personal opinion(s) of materials. We aren’t experts! We’re just a homeschooling family with 3 kids and ideas of our own about what works and what doesn’t for US. smile

Children Around the World Projects & Piano Software

Otter's Scones

Just what is this blurry picture of….well…biscuit looking things that seem to have exploded? This is Otter’s attempt at photography and plate presentation.

You see, Bear handed me a wonderful looking scone, perfectly proportioned with just the right amount of strawberry jam and whipped cream oozing out of the sides. It looked so beautiful, I was determined to get a photograph of another JUST like it, to post here on our blog. However, we all demolished the scones before I could do that. BUT… Otter saved the day because he told me he took a picture of HIS scone. So here it is. In all of it’s gloppy glory.

Aren’t you glad I could share that with you?

The scones were the last recipe the kids made from our week spent learning about the British Isles. Honestly, they tasted a lot better than the one above looks. Wink

This week we learned about Ireland. We watched step-dancing videos, read plenty of books and are going to wrap up this week with some Irish stew (made from lamb), soda bread and an apple cinnamon cake for dessert. Everyone is enjoying the food aspect of our studies.

In other news, Otter is really enjoying taking pictures with his digital camera. A lot of pictures… of…just about anything and everything like: dad’s desk, the dog’s nose, clutter on dad’s desk (because you see, my desk is perfect and NEVER has clutter on it), our library books, fur balls on the carpet, etc. etc. However, out of all the hundreds of photos he’s taken, he actually did get a few nice ones from our local nature preserve. Maybe there is some hidden photographic talent in the boy? At least we aren’t paying for 40 rolls of film to be developed of blurry dog noses and so on. You’ve gotta love digital for that.

Our piano software from Soft Mozart came in the other day. I have wanted Otter to be able to take piano lessons for a long time. He may not be a talented photographer (yet), but he picks up piano pretty fast (at least I think so). Just by self teaching and Emily helping him out a little, he was reading music and playing some songs.
Lessons are expensive though. So… I went online and looked for some sort of piano program you can learn on the computer. My thinking is that we’ll get him started with something like that until he outgrows it and really needs a teacher. I found the Soft Mozart site and watched a boat load of videos they had posted on YouTube and also read articles about their philosophy, etc. I decided to give it a try. After only a couple of days, even *I* am playing music with it! I’m so glad I ordered it. It’s actually working out for us very well.

Soft Mozart

You hook up your keyboard to your computer via a special cord that plugs into the midi port in the back and the USB port on your computer. That way your keyboard can communicate with the software. The software comes with several different games that teach the notes, etc. and there is also a mode that teaches you songs. There are several different “modes” for working on a song. There is the easiest way which shows the music lines vertically instead of horizontally. This way the notes correspond with your fingers on the keyboard. In the picture above, Otter is working on a 2nd mode where the lines are horizontal, but the notes contain special colors and letters to help you. As you progress you can choose other modes. Finally, you end up with traditional sheet style music. In the earlier modes there are some very nifty animations to help you with your playing. As you play through a song it keeps track of your errors and you get points at the end for accuracy both with the notes AND the timing. Otter keeps trying to up his score until it’s perfect. It’s like a game to him.

You can also work on sight reading and memorization. You can hide notes so that they will only appear as you play them and give gentle hints for things you’ve forgotten. You can also just work on either the right or left hand parts while the computer plays the other part for you at the same time.
One of the things I like is that it gets you looking at the music and not at your hands right away. It’s just natural to do so with the way the program is set up.

It’s hard to explain it all…you’ve got to take a look at some of the videos from the site itself to understand what I’m trying to communicate.


You can see the stickers on the keyboard that help you learn how to play. After you become proficient, the stickers come of easily. They are nice – kind of like training wheels. I know they made *me* feel more confident at any rate.

My point for sharing all of this is that it’s successful! It works! After just a couple of days Otter is playing Ode to Joy (a simplified version), Hot Cross Buns, Jingle Bells, “The Small Fir Tree” and some other songs. All of the songs he is playing require both hands with up to 3 keys pressed at one time. He has also started a few songs that are similar level wise to this one. All of the “hype” on the site is true, at least for our family. It’s a very easy thing to learn and you progress pretty quickly and without feeling stressed. The song library includes songs from the Bastien piano library and tons of other songs that go from the simplest level to more advanced pieces. We ordered the version that comes with ALL of the songs. The less expensive version comes with 52 songs (probably plenty to get you started).

Otter is on cloud 9. He’s finally got a structured program and he is having very early successes with it. He loves it that he gets to choose which song(s) he wants to work on. He sat at practice for 2 hours today just because he wanted to. He also likes the games. They help you get more familiar with note duration, note names for lines and spaces on the treble and bass staves and other important skills.

The creator of the program sent us a free year’s lesson plan. Otter is going too fast to use it though.

Emily loves the program too. She was all excited over her decent progress in just the last couple of days. I even got Bear to sit down and after a few tries he was playing a simple song with 2 hands too. (Shh don’t tell anyone. Bear doesn’t play music. That’s for girls or little brothers or something roll eyes).

My only gripe is, that without a teacher, it’s difficult to know hand and finger placement for some of the songs. One of the songs Otter is working on requires you to move your hand from its first position and move your fingers over other fingers. There is no instruction on how to accomplish this – no ghost hands or video or anything. Because I have a little piano knowledge, I was able to demonstrate to Otter how he was probably supposed to do his fingers…but I’m no expert. I might be ruining him with bad piano habits or something. Wink

I did notice the Soft Mozart addresses this issue:

Soft Mozart doesn’t have special finger tutoring in order to not divert the student’s attention from the task of music reading and finding of correct keys, and to spare a student from the fear of pressing a piano key with the “wrong” finger. The position of fingers is the naturally most comfortable and effective position while playing a song, rather than a rigid artificial scheme, and the management of the fingers should advance with piano playing. While playing, try to use all your fingers, without unnecessary motion of your hands. We use the Bastien Piano Library at the very beginning level, where the songs are carefully picked by their hand positions. When learning very advanced songs, we would suggest consulting a teacher or a pianist to help you with the difficult places. With the development of coordination and experience, any player can find the most comfortable order of fingering naturally, without being distracted from music score reading by special fingering instructions.

Another thing we ran into was that we needed to set our screen resolution on 800 x 600 with 16 bit color to get things to look properly.

Anyway, if you are looking for a computer program to teach piano, or to reinforce what your children are learning in their lessons, you might want to take a look. I think it was worth every $.