Our Favourite New Books of 2020

I have enjoyed writing my Top 5 favourite items post the past 3 years but this year I thought I would introduce a new version that just focuses on our Top 5 Favourite Books of the Year. We have found quite a few gems this year so here is our absolute favourite new books (in no order).

The Life Cycle Book.  Admittedly we already had a few life cycle books but this one is the ultimate life cycle book.  Why? Because they take life cycles to a whole new level and talk about things like a tornado life cycle, mountain life cycle, the venus flytrap life cycle, dinosaur life cycle – yip it is not just animal life cycles.  Although they do cover animal life cycles and they do cover a lot of amazing animal life cycles.  The other thing about this book is the illustrations that they have used are stunning and once the kids start paging through they really do just want to continue looking, reading and asking questions.  It really has become our ultimate life cycle book.  We love it.

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What’s Where in the World.  A book that truely amazed me.  We first borrowed a copy from our local library but my nine-year was just obsessed with this book so I eventually had to buy us our own copy.  It is like a bit of a general knowledge download in a book but done with lots of maps and graphics so the information just becomes that much easier to understand.  A truly unique and interesting book.

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Sky Hawk.  What a story.  Both my kids and I loved this story, I mean really loved it. We felt like we were invited into a world and taken on an adventure with the characters of this book.  There was a sad moment but oh after getting through that sadness your heart ends up soaring again.  This story is beautifully told.  It is the first book by this author (Gill Lewis) but it is definitely not going to be our last.  Plus an added advantage from a home educator point of view was the book comes with free to download notes and worksheets from the Oxford University Press site.

Sky Hawk a stunning book written by Gill Lewis

Romeo and Juliet.  Yes I am including Shakespeare but I am including the RSC School version of Romeo and Juliet.  My daughter is a fan of Shakespeare, she loves the characters and the way the plot twists and gives you some surprises but reading Shakespeare in its original form can be daunting hence the Royal Shakespeare Company School version.  This book has helped her unlock Shakespeare and enjoy it.  We worked through the book together but she has since read and re-read sections by herself (the format is on each double page you get one page of Shakespeare’s words and one page with a glossary, information and some activity ideas). It really does make the words more understandable and hence allows the kids to enjoy it more. And she even comes and reads speeches out of the book just because she wants me to hear it.

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Spy Dog, Spy Cat and Spy Pups.  My son randomly picked up a copy of Spy Dogs at our local library a couple of months again and then he was hooked.  We have borrowed every Spy Dog, Spy Cat and Spy Pup book that we could get our hands on and he has read and re-read them.  He even comes and tells us about extracts from the book and started writing his own version.  I have not read one of these yet but the enjoyment that he gets from them means I just had to include them in this list.

spy dog and spy cat

Admin – This is NOT a sponsored post in any shape or form.  These are just our own personal Top 5 books of the year.

Top 5 favourite books post image. ofamily learning together

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Top 5 items from 2020

The past 3 years I have written a top 5 favourite items post and since everyone seems to enjoy reading them I am going to continue with the tradition this year.  But this year and I am going to split it into 2 posts – a Top 5 favourite items and a Top 5 favourite Book post.  So here goes our top 5 items (in no order) for 2020.

The Micro:bit. We love this little coding genius.  We love it and we have used it (still are using it) a lot.  Now as I have always said I am NOT a techie person but I do believe that the kids need to learn certain computer skills and one of those would be some programming.  But really I have no idea how to get them started – well this did it for us.  We really think it is a brilliant concept and it has helped the kids (and me) work through some computer ideas and get us going.  So a massive find for us (and I think really well priced).

using the Micro:bit. ofamily learning together

The Night Zookeeper Website. We actually signed up for the site a few years ago and then our subscription ended and I just got caught up with everything else.  But in about August of this year my son started asking if he could use the site again and I actually felt like he needed an extra English activity so we signed up again.  And boy have I been impressed.  The site has changed quite a lot (I think it is better than ever). And most importantly my son loves it.  He is constantly on the site writing and doing activities and I have been very impressed with the feedback.  He makes quite a few errors but the feedback is always positive, encouraging and even when they point out errors they always say something positive.   I am convinced using the site is going to help his English (spelling, grammar and creative writing), it also is great for some typing practice and it keeps him engaged and interested.  So really a massive win in our house.

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English Heritage membership.  I know this year has been tough and in the first lockdown the English Heritage sites closed but once they started opening up again we went a bit crazy and booked a number of visits.  They were all amazing trips.  Every site we visited was clean, organised and well, educational.  It is a wonderful mixture of having a change in scenery, being out in the open (everywhere we went always had amazing gardens) and getting to learn something about the History of the country that we live in.  Our English Heritage membership has been one of the highlights of this rather unusual year and we still have a list of sites we are hoping to squeeze in over the Christmas break.

Dover Castle the medieval Tower

Our Pasta Maker.  I have been meaning to buy one of these pasta makers for a few years but I always seemed to find something else to do and then lockdown happened and I knew I needed to find extra activities for the kids.  And what a hit, especially with my nine-year old son.  He has become the official family pasta maker.  He loves using the roller and rolling out the strips of pasta.  The pasta maker was bought for lockdown but we love it and I honestly wish we had just bought it earlier.

making our own pasta. ofamily learning together

Jane Austen series.  What a winner this has been with my twelve- year old.  I had a set of Jane Austen DVD’s from way back when, that have just been sitting in a cupboard and then I think we watched part of Emma on TV and my daughter was hooked.  So we dug out my old set of DVD’s and we have watched all of them (and a few more than once).  My daughter loves them.  She loves the way the story unfolds, the characters, the Georgian setting, ahh she just loves everything about them. (Side note there is an adult scene at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility which we just miss and it does not impact the story). 

So those are our Top 5 new items (that are not books) from this crazy year that we have had but as this has been a crazy year and we have ended up spending a lot more time at home trying to keep busy so there are 2 more items I want to mention.

Monopoly. Yip a good old favourite.  When the first lockdown started I bought us a Monopoly set and it was one of those things that kept the whole family entertained for hours on end.  It became a bit of a weekend activity (because the kids like playing with their dad) and I have to admit I was really impressed with how much they learnt.  Largely thanks to the way my husband plays it with them, he was always explaining about loans and overdrafts and asking them “do you think it would be wise to go into debt for this” or “does the income you are going to earn from that property look like a good investment”.  So an old classic but one that I am really glad we now have in the house.

And finally something which we have owned for a few years but it has just been so brilliant at keeping my youngest entertained this year that I have to mention it, is – K’Nex.  My son has spent hours recreating K’nex designs and coming up with his own weird and wonderful creations.  I know K’nex is Not cheap but for us it has definitely been worth every penny that we have paid for the sets.

His K'nex dinosaur

So that is our Top 5, well Top 7 new items for 2020.

Admin – this is NOT a sponsored post.  This is just my own list of 5 items (well really 7) that we have really enjoyed this past year.

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Geog.2 Books

I mentioned earlier this year that we were sticking with the Geog.2 books for my daughter’s Year 8 Geography. We used the student book and the question book last year and this year we have also included their answer book. So now that we have used everything for a few months I thought I would give an update on what we think.

We love the Answer Book. Yes I know that sounds strange but we really do love having the answer book. Last year we would work through the student book, she would do the corresponding question page and then bring it to me and I would check her answers (I did not have model answers but after reading the student book pages I knew what the answers should be). It worked well and I did not feel like I had to have the answer book. But this year my daughter has been doing more and more independent learning. She likes it. She likes being able to check her own answers herself. And it works. Sometimes she reads the student page, sometimes we read it together and then she does the question page herself, checks her own answers and if needs be corrects her answers. (I like her correcting her any mistakes because the act of crossing out or rubbing out her incorrect answer and then rewriting it reinforces what the correct answer is).

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So this year the addition of the answer book has been brilliant because it is allowing her to work more independently and work at her own speed.

The Student Book. The explanations are concise and clear. Which I really appreciate because Geography is not my favourite subject and it is not one that I know that much about so as the facilitator I feel like I need a good source. And this does it. We recently worked through the Weather section (we don’t tend to follow the order of the sections in the book). I have never liked watching weather reports and all the talk about high and low pressure. But the explanations in the student book were spot on and now both my kids (her younger brother listened) completely understand how air pressure affects the weather.

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Our decision not to follow the order of the sections in the student book was not intentional it just happened that certain topics came up and then we jumped to those sections.  But that is one thing that I like about the student book, you can follow their order or you can jump around.  If a page relies on information from other pages they tell you at the top. 

We like the photographs and images that they have included and my daughter finds their labelled diagrams excellent for explaining concepts. She is a visual learner so she appreciates that the pages are not solid pages of just writing.

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The Question Book. I like my daughter to do an activity after we have learnt something because it inforces what we have learnt and highlights if she did not understand.  If you really wanted you could just use the student book (they do have questions at the end each double page and a chapter question page as well) and search the internet for extra worksheets when you wanted.  But last year I found myself struggling for time, constantly searching for extra pages for both kids and honestly having a question book linked to the student book, where there is a page of question for every 2 pages that you read in the student book is just good time management for me.  I really save a lot of time by having the question book. And with my daughter’s more independent learning style it has also meant that she can go ahead and do extra pages when she wants to (sometimes she likes to do a few pages all together).

So for us the combination of geog.2 Student Book (Oxford Education), geog.2 Workbook and geog.2 Workbook Answer Book (Oxford Education) is proving to be spot on this year.

Geog.2 books from Oxford University Press

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Update on our Activate 2 Science Books

I wrote in August that we were sticking with the Activate 2 Student Book and adding in the Activate 2 workbook as our main Science resource, so I thought I would give a quick update on how we are progressing.

KS3 Science. Activate 2 student book and Activate 2 workbook

We have started with the Biology section and my daughter has decided to do the Biology section independently.  Now I am going to admit that Biology is my daughter’s favourite Science and she does know a fair bit of biology already so she is quite confident when it comes to Biology.  Her decision to do Biology independently (although in all truth it is not totally indpendently because she talks to us about what she is learning and we discuss it but she is working through the books by herself) was a bit if a surprise. But I like encouraging them to research and work on topics that they like so we are going with it.

So the way we are working through the Biology section is as follows.  She reads the pages in the Student book, sometimes comes and chats to me about something interesting and then she first completes the Foundation workbook page and then the Higher workbook page. She checks her answers herself and if there is an issue (very rare that there is) she comes and talks to me about it.  She is really enjoying doing it this way and is actually working through the pages a lot quicker then I had expected.  She has told me that the questions in the Foundation workbook are very easy but she likes doing them first because it is quick refresh of what she has read.

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Biology is definitely one of the subjects that my daughter enjoys so she does do extra reading (she often takes out human biology books from the library) and we do look for documentaries that we can watch together.  She is also a very conscientious kid so I know that if she is getting questions wrong or not understanding she will come to me (she has often marked her own work in the past she always brings examples that she did not get correct to me so we can work through them).

I also think that the Activate 2 range works well for this more independent style because the Student Books are well written, they do not dump a lot of confusing information all at once. The kids can read them bit by bit and they gradually build up in a clear and logical manner.  The workbooks are also perfectly linked to the student book.  For every double page in the student book that she reads there is also a question page in the workbook and the workbooks have the answers at the back. 

Do I think we will continue the whole year in this manner? No, we will work through Physics and Chemistry together.  She does not enjoy those two and is not confident with them.

That being said. I love this. I love that she is working through Biology independently, she is taking more control over her own learning and is enjoying doing it this way. And I am thankful that we have found some Science resources that are encouraging her to do this.

For more detailed posts about what is included in the individual books you can read these posts – Activate 2 Student Book, Activate 2 Workbooks.


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Watching Jane Austen

The last 2 weeks have been a bit of a Jane Austen watching marathon. It started when my daughter had some flu and was just not feeling great so she asked to rewatch Emma (the mini-series) which she has watched before and loved it. We did and everyone loved it. It was her second time watching the series and I must admit she did take in a lot more detail and asked more questions about the time period and the customs. I knew that our Pride and Pejudice Literature Companion had a section called context, which spoke about Georgian society so we went to those pages and read them together which even though it was written for Pride and Prejudice still helped with some of her questions on Emma.

Jane Austen

After watching Emma and loving it (she currently rates Emma as her favourite) we moved onto Pride and Prejudice. Wow what a story, both of the kids really got involved in the story and the characters. And there were big discussions comparing the mother figure in Pride and Prejudice (Mrs Bennet) to the Mother in Little Women. It was interesting to hear the kids compare the different mothers and the way they acted.  I must confess it was not a comparison I would have naturally thought of but my daughter loves Little Women and has read the book multiple times so for her it seemed like a natural comparison. Also the mother in Little Women is very much about her daughters being happy whereas Mrs Bennet is all about them marrying a man with money.

After Pride and Prejudice we moved onto Sense and Sensibility. Which my daughter was not that keen on. She was upset by the scene of the father dying and then the way the brother treated them. So I don’t think it will ever be as popular a Jane Austen piece as Emma or Pride and Prejudice.

And we are not finished this week we are moving onto watching Persuasion.

So is all this watching of mini-series really educational? I know a lot of my home education friends will think it is wonderful that the kids have lost themselves in the world of Jane Austen and have just been soaking it in. But I also know lots of non-home educators will question it. So here goes. No we do not always spend this much time watching movies or mini-series. Yes we do read and we do lots of other learning activities. But after doing this home education thing for years I have learnt that kids go through periods where they just want to submerge themselves in a topic and when we dive in with the kids and let them submerge themselves the learning is incredible, the amount they soak in and retain often blows my mind. And I will also say I have seen time and time again when the kids discover an audio story, a movie or mini-series that they enjoy nine times out of ten they actually search for the books to read.

I will totally admit in my mind we were going to wait and cover Pride and Prejudice in the spring when we look at Georgian History and I was planning on starting another Shakespeare work this week (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) because I thought it would be nice to tie our English literature in with our History.  But my plans have changed.  I can see how much my daughter is loving all the Jane Austen works at the moment, she is excited, constantly talking about the books and really, when it comes to learning if the kids are this excited it makes sense to go with it.  So Shakespeare can wait until after Christmas and we have started reading our Pride and Prejudice book instead.

reading Pride and Prejudice

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