I hate mind-mapping for planning writing! (But I love teaching it!)

I keep reading about how much people love mind-mapping for planning writing. People talk about how freeing it is to sit down in front of a web of ideas instead of a stark, blank, page. They talk about how it speeds their writing process, reduces their anxiety, makes them better writers. They describe amazing feats, like ebooks or term papers finished in record time.

I’m jealous of those people because looking at a blank map and trying to imagine my ideas in that two-dimensional space is enough to give me hives. I’m a list-maker, a table-filler. I am much more comfortable when I sketch a chart of main ideas and sources to support them, or a bulleted list of sketchy details. It doesn’t work like magic for me, but it is reliable and comfortable. So that’s what I usually model as my students are brainstorming instead of mind-mapping for planning writing.

But last summer, I realized that I was doing all the work on the bulleted list I made for one student. Not only was I typing all the ideas he gave (which I do a lot for my online students, as most school-age kids aren’t fluent on the keyboard yet), but I was also retrieving all the ideas from the list as he needed them in his paragraph. I realized my list was doing absolutely nothing to make him an independent writer.

What a waste of lesson time!

So I researched a couple of free tools for mind-mapping that are compatible with Google Drive, which is where we do all our shared writing.

I found Connected Mind. That offered incredible flexibility in shape, color, font, and in the direction, length and shape of connections between nodes. It is a tool that could make gorgeous, detailed maps that would look terrific in a presentation or as an end product in their own right. For planning writing, my student and I both found it overwhelming and distracting. I felt like I needed to write out a draft on paper to make sure I got the map just right. It totally defeated the purpose of a quick mind map.

The second tool we tried was Mind Mup.  It’s a winner!

  • It has a simple interface with a limited number of options for type of node, size and color
  • It automatically arranges your nodes by spacing them evenly and rearranging them as you add more.
  • You can add images from Google Drive
  • Nodes can be rearranged by dragging and dropping

The amazing thing about mind-mapping as a teaching tool has been “walking through” the map with the student to check for logical connections and missing details. This process can be more difficult and time consuming when a student has already written a whole paragraph about an idea. They believe they have fully explained themselves and sometimes can’t see a gap in logic or detail that is glaring to you as a reader. With the mind map, it’s easier to get the student to explain the thought process between nodes, and to suggest what might be missing. While building a mind map can take some serious time, it’s worth it to see the student’s writing plan come together. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?”

Learning how to use mind-mapping to plan writing has been eye-opening for me as a tutor. I became a tutor because I realized that the one-size-fits-all approach of schools doesn’t meet the needs of all students. By using mind-mapping, I can better support my students who are visual thinkers and save them a lot of time and frustration! So even though I’m not using mind-mapping for my own writing, I make a point of showing it to my students and practicing it as one way to organize and improve their writing.

Mind-mapping for planning writing isn’t for me, but it might be for you!

Is reading on a screen bad for the brain?

People of all ages are spending more time than ever before getting information on their screens. My three-year-old loves his piles of books, but he goes crazy for ebooks on my phone. And they are a great choice for me to give him sometimes, too, like when we’re traveling or when I am barely awake and holding a book over my head just doesn’t work. But is reading on a screen bad for kids? Does reading on a screen affect reading comprehension?

Some research shows that people remember things better and comprehend more deeply when they read information on paper, as opposed to on a screen. But is this something special about the human brain? Or is it a matter of teaching kids appropriate strategies for reading on a screen? I suspect it’s a bit of both. However, even if paper makes it easier for people to learn, digital information isn’t going away. We need effective strategies for making the most of digital content.

Skimming: Understanding the structure of text

If you are reading paper material, it is usually pretty easy to tell what kind of thing you are reading by looking at its physical appearance. Is it a thick book? A magazine? A photocopied packet? A newspaper article? Digital print is harder to figure out at a glance, so previewing the text helps you figure out what you are going to read and make a plan for doing it right.

  • When you are reading a text on a screen, take steps to make sure you understand the way the document is organized and to help you figure out and remember where things are.
  • Look at the table of contents or scroll from the beginning to the end. How many parts/chapters/headings are there? How long is each part?
  • Read the title of each main section. Which ones seem the most important to you? Which ones are you interested in or excited about?
  • While you are skimming, look for text features that stand out. Does the author use:
    • Bullets
    • Numbered lists
    • Lots of links
    • Tables
    • Infographics
    • Video clips?

Knowing the type of information you will find helps you plan your reading style.

Use search and bookmarks to find important points in the document

One downside I notice when reading an ebook or reading a long document on the internet is I have more trouble remembering where I read something. For example, in a novel I might flip back to a previous chapter to refresh my memory when I can’t remember a conversation characters had. If I’m reading in a paperback, it’s easy for me to remember that it was about a third of the way through the book. Reading on a screen, I have more trouble remembering where I saw something. Luckily, the search feature in a web browser or an ebook makes it easy to find a piece of text if I can remember any of the words around it.

  • If you find something that you know will be important, use the bookmark feature of your ebook reader to mark that page. Or use the highlighter to mark a line or word. If you are reading in your browser, write down or copy and paste a key word or phrase that you want to come back to later.

Note taking tools for marking up digital text

Studies of user behavior show that readers online tend to skim through information, scroll past details, and click on links. Have you ever found yourself on a website or watching a video on YouTube and had no idea how you got there? All you wanted to do was sit down and check directions to a new restaurant. But now here you are. This type of behavior can lead to interesting discoveries and but it can be a waste of time and an ineffective way to study or learn.

When you’re reading to find specific information, you need a system to take notes so that you will remember what you read. There’s nothing worse than spending an afternoon scrolling through articles only to realize that you can’t remember which one had the excellent fact you wanted to include in your paper. Use a note taking system, either paper or digital, to keep track of what you’re reading so that you don’t lose details.

One simple and quick system for doing this is a system like two column notes. You can either create a table with two columns or draw a line down the middle of a piece of notebook paper. There are a few different ways to use two column notes. One way is to write the key information about your source, including a link to the article, in one column and write the fact that you gather in the other. Doing this on a word processing document makes it easier to transfer it into your paper later. You can simply copy and paste the facts you found. Another way to keep track of information as you find it is to use a digital notebook tool like Evernote or Google Keep. Google Keep has an extension for your browser. When you highlight a piece of text and then click on the Google Keep icon, Google Keep creates a note on your notepad that has the information you selected, as well as a link to the source. The downside of this is you will have many separate notes for your topic by the time you are done.

Managing distractions like links

The really wonderful thing about reading texts in digital form is that writers are able to embed all sorts of helpful information that doesn’t fit in their paragraph. Links can give your digital reading experience a much more three-dimensional feeling than turning pages in a textbook. Want to see a map up close? Zoom in. Not sure who the scientist is that the author refers to? Click the hyperlink to go to a page about his work. Unfortunately, with all of that additional information comes a whole new kind of distraction that readers don’t have to deal with on paper. Here are some tips for dealing with beneficial and distracting links as you read.

  • Before you click a link, ask yourself will this help me meet my goal for this reading? If your goal is to find information on the causes of the Civil War, you don’t need to click links that will take you to information about modern-day geography of towns in the south.
  • If you do think a link will be beneficial, right click on it to open it in a new tab or a new window. This can be a double-edged sword, however, because before you know it you may have a dozen tabs open next to the article you’re reading and all of that information, good as it might be, just becomes a distraction. Use this strategy with restraint.
  • Consider reading an article twice. The first time, read through the text on the page and take any notes about important facts you read. The second time you go through the article, click on relevant links. In effect, if an article is valid, you can not only use it as a source but also as a source for further reading. Think of these as two different uses for the article and don’t try to do them at the same time.
  • Print to PDF and ignore the links. If you find that you have a very difficult time ignoring all of the hyperlinks in a piece of text, get rid of them. Click print in your web browser and print the page you are trying to read to a PDF. You don’t have to print the file to paper, because when you print the PDF it will make the links non-clickable. You can always go back to that source another time, and click on the links if you need more sources or more information.
  • If you really can’t stop yourself from clicking links or searching related material, the nuclear option is to use airplane mode. When your device is in airplane mode, you won’t be able to reach the internet to start that unnecessary “extra research” that always leads you to Facebook or the weird parts of Wikipedia.

Managing reading speed

Think about the way you scan the covers of magazines while you wait in line at the store. Now think about the way you read the next novel by your favorite author. Different kinds of content and different purposes for reading lead to different reading speeds. By being aware of your reading speed and choosing an approach that makes sense for the text, you can improve your comprehension.

  • What is your goal for reading? Are you trying to find a specific detail? Get an overview of the topic? Learn how to do something? Gain a deep understanding of a concept? Your purpose for reading will affect the way you read, including how fast you try to read.
  • What is your background knowledge about the topic? If you know a lot about something and are just looking to add a few more details to your understanding, you might read more quickly. If a topic is totally new to you and you have to master it, you are likely to read very slowly.
  • If you want to read faster, many digital tools will let you boost your reading speed. Zap Reader is a free, web-based tool. You paste text into the website and set your reading speed. It presents words a few at a time and keeps you moving through the text. The Kindle app has a feature called Word Runner that does the same thing. But just because you can read faster doesn’t mean you should. This type of reading seems best suited to light reading like fiction.

Understanding digital genres

Before you can set an appropriate reading speed, you need to know what kind of material you are looking at. In school, we learn genres like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. But have you ever noticed that blog post is a genre all its own? How about slideshow or vlog? All of these are different genres you might be taking in to get information. Each one has its own purpose and its own flow.

Using text features will help you figure it what kind of text you are looking at and will help you use effective strategies.

  • Slideshow – Um, in my opinion, scroll on by. These are almost always a time suck with little content to offer. Unless it’s recipes, then click your heart out, my friend. Just know this is almost exclusively an entertainment genre. Don’t try to tell yourself you’re getting “background information” or, worse yet, “starting your research.”
  • Blogs – Blog authors work to make their content readable. They understand that their audience skims quickly. Look for short paragraphs, bullet points and lists. Blogs also tend to have a lot of links that might tell you where a blogger got their information, or how to find a similar blog you might want to read. Use the “Managing Links” tips to handle information you want to read later.
  • Video – Youtube allows you to bookmark videos at particular points. Many videos also have closed captions. Both of these features help you nail down specific pieces of information if it’s coming at you quickly. If the content isn’t something you need to learn deeply, did you know you can speed up video play (using the Settings cog wheel) to get through video faster? I do this when I’m working my way through a series of videos by the same creator and I don’t need to hear ALL the details of his projects each time. I’m just checking in to see what’s new. It’s like skimming for video!
  • News article – An important thing to remember about news that comes out on websites is that, unlike the print edition, writers and editors are likely to push out content on a breaking story before all the facts are in. So check the timestamp on an article and look at the bottom of the page to see if there is a note that the article has been updated or corrected. Sometimes the first information available is incomplete or downright wrong. If you are looking to get the facts, make sure you keep checking back as the story unfolds and the author has more time to write clearly.
  • Not-quite-news articles – Website owners with something to sell often buy articles, sometimes very cheaply, to make their website attractive to search engines and readers, and to make the pages look full. Often, website owners are trying to draw you to their page to sell you a product, or to get you to look at advertising that runs beside their articles. Think about the purpose of a website before you invest time (or money) in what they are offering. Is it a big-name website? Do you recognize the name of the authors? Can you figure out what the authors want you to buy or believe? Just because you don’t know the people involved doesn’t mean it’s bad information. But most people don’t spend time and money developing a website because of their love of knowledge. They usually hope to make money somehow. Are they the kind of people you want to support?

Listening to text

One awesome feature of digital text is the ability to listen to it instead of reading with your eyes. Some ebook readers offer text-to-speech support, like iBooks on iOS. Several options are available for having websites, pdfs or other documents read to you.

Chrome browser extensions:

  • Select and Speak – this free extension does exactly what is says. Highlight a section of text with your mouse and click on the play button. You’ll hear a computer-generated voice read the words you chose. Because it’s free, your options are limited, but you can choose a male or female voice and adjust the reading speed.
  • TextHelp’s Read&Write for Google – The paid version of this extension (and the 7-day free trial) offer great features including word prediction for writing, color-coded highlighting for note taking and vocabulary supports, as well as text-to-speech capability. Even once all those paid features go away, though, you still have text-to-speech leftover.
  • Audio books – through the magic of the digital age, just about any recent book, and many classics, that you want to read are available in digital versions. I always start with the digital downloads at my public library. A subscription to a service like audible.com is another great option. Either way you can download the audio book to your computer or mobile device and listen on the go. But what if you’re reading for school? What if you’re expected to quote text or take notes? That’s where it gets a little bit tricky but you can still use good reading comprehension strategies even when you’re listening.
    • Pay attention – Trying to learn from an audiobook by having it on while you do other things on your phone is like trying to learn math by keeping the textbook under your pillow while you sleep. Learning by osmosis doesn’t work that way. Think about reading from an audio book the same way you would read from a hardcover book, make sure you’re sitting in a quiet place. Turn off other distractions like TV, music, and conversation. Have a notebook and pen or a word processing document open.
    • Check your comprehension – At the end of each chapter or anytime you have to stop reading, talk yourself through the author’s main points. You may want to produce a written summary of what you read. Just a few notes about the highlights of each chapter will really help you remember what you read later when it comes time to use the material in your writing or to study for a test. This doesn’t have to be complicated, you can use the notes feature on your cell phone or just a piece of paper in your notebook to record your thoughts.
    • Use rereading – Familiarize yourself with your audiobook device. Most have a single button that lets you rewind 10 or 30 seconds at a time. For longer sections there is a slider that let you go back further or use the table of contents to click on the chapter you want to review.
    • Use bookmarks – Ebook tools usually have a bookmark feature. If you hear something interesting, press the bookmark button so you know the spot you want to go back to later.
    • Familiarize yourself with the layout of the book – Just as when you are reading a book with your eyes, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Start by looking at the table of contents and figure out how many chapters there are. Notice how many pages are in each chapter. Notice how many hours of audio the book is.
    • Reading speed – You may find that listening to an audiobook at regular speed feels too slow. Reading out loud is a slower process for most people than reading in their heads so listening to someone read out loud can be a slower pace than when you read something to yourself. Most audio book readers let you adjust the speed up or down. Many readers find that they can gradually increase the speed from one up to as fast as two or three times the original speed of the text with practice. However, you’re not going to be successful with this if you don’t read actively and have good attention.

When to use paper

Part of my background is that I am an assistive technology specialist. Using technology to teach and learn is one of the main parts of my work. A major part of my teaching philosophy is that students should have access to the technology they need to do their best work. I could not function without audio books, digital copies of text, and tools like speech-to-text and highlighting to get me through reading and writing tasks. In fact, I’m using speech-to-text right now to write this. However, it’s not the perfect choice for everyone or for every task. Knowing when to put away your device and settle in with a paper copy will help you make the most of your reading.

Here are some reasons you might want to read on paper.

  1. The material is visual. I would not think to use a digital copy of a math book or most types of science books. Although many, especially the proprietary ebook developed by the publisher, have great page design and let you see a lot of information at once, in many cases there is something to be said for being able to turn the book from side to side, put your finger on one part of a diagram, or flip rapidly between pages to compare a diagram to a practice problem. This goes along with my preference for doing math work on paper, although I do almost all written work digitally.
  2. The material is very difficult. If you’re working with subject matter you’re not comfortable with, it might make more sense to use a paper copy. For example, when I read an article in a psychological Journal, I prefer to have a paper copy. One reason is the PDF copies are often duplicates of the print page with material set up in two columns. I find it visually confusing to have to scroll up and down the column and then across the page to the second column. I also tend to flip back and forth frequently in text like this as I try to understand the terms the authors are using and remember elements from different parts of a study. Because this material is so complex, and I don’t read it in a linear way, it helps to have a paper copy of the study. I also make a lot of notes when I’m reading something challenging like that including underlining text, and writing words and often question marks in the margin. Although it’s possible to do all of these with a PDF markup tool, I find that I do it more efficiently with a pen and paper.
  3. You are reading to relax. It’s harder to disconnect and enjoy your book when you’re reading on a device with dozens of built-in reminders, and therefore distractions. When you get a new book by your favorite author, sometimes you just want to get lost in that world. That’s one time when reading on paper is a great option. I find this to be especially true when I’m reading old books, like those that existed before ebooks. There’s something about reading Jane Austen on my phone that is jarring. If I read those books on paper instead, I find I am more able to follow the book and to get into the author’s world. For me, it makes it more enjoyable reading experience. Of course, I don’t find a lot of time to pick up a paper back and read, so I often have to save books like this for vacations.
  4. You are reading late at night. There is evidence that the blue light emitted by our device screens can contribute to difficulty falling asleep. If you have to do a lot of your reading late at night, you might be better off reading on paper, or on a device that is not backlit, like some models of Kindle. The reason for this is the blue light emitted by your device tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Experts recommend that you turn off your devices at least an hour before bedtime. So if you have a long day of reading planned, save the stuff on paper for your after-dinner study time. Get all of your reading on the screen out of the way during daylight hours.
  5. You are reading with children. I acknowledge that there is no way to keep screens away from my children in the long run. I think it is important for them to know how to navigate devices, understand material on the screen, and take advantage of the many sources of information available on the internet. I also think it’s important that they understand the benefits of books in paper form. All of the things we talked about are things a child who has never read paper books would not know to look for. By giving kids diverse reading experiences using both hardcover traditional books and ebooks, we can help them to learn how they learn best.

I don’t think that reading on the internet or on our phones is going to do long-term harm to us as readers or thinkers, as some people seem to believe. But I do think that reading in the digital age is necessarily different than when all we had was paper. Remember, reading is not a natural act, something that we evolved to do. Reading of any kind is a technology that humans have invented. Like any technology, it will change and develop over time. Just as we need different skills to drive a car than we need to drive a horse and buggy, we need different skills for digital reading than paper reading. And also like learning to drive a car, we need to give students supervised practice before we expect them to do it well on their own.

Looking for help navigating the different kinds of reading expected of students today? Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to see how online tutoring can help!
Is there a downside to reading on screens?

 

6 Reasons Online Tutoring is Better Than In-Person Tutoring

When I first talk to parents about online tutoring, some of them are skeptical. Meeting with a new person online seems risky and unfamiliar. There are also lots of companies that market themselves as online, on-demand tutors that are impersonal and offer uncertain quality and I think they give online tutoring a bad name. Many people feel comfortable interviewing and choosing an in-person tutor. Why not choose an online tutor the same way? 

The benefits of online tutoring are well worth the initial setup process. Once you figure how how online tutoring works, starting a session is as simple as making sure your child is logged in when the session starts. Here are some benefits you can enjoy when your child meets with their tutor online.

Fewer sick days

Sometimes your child, or your tutor, is just too sick to work. However, there are lots of other times when a cough or runny nose might keep your child and tutor apart. But if you work with your tutor online you can meet on those days without worrying about spreading germs. This also works if you are sick or if somebody else in your house is sick. You don’t have to worry about inviting the tutor into your home full of germs or sitting around the library waiting for your child when you would much rather be lying down.

Meet in any weather

This has been a rough winter for snow storms. I think my New England school district had at least six snow days. And there were other nights when it was too icy or snowy for me to tutor in the evening even if there wasn’t a major snowfall. With online tutoring, as long as you and the tutor have power and internet access, you can meet in any weather. That means fewer evenings of brushing off the car, squinting through snow squalls and watching out the window to make sure the weather doesn’t get worse before your session is over. Everyone stays warm and dry while your child gets the tutoring she needs!

Meet from anywhere

For busy families, the ability to conduct tutoring no matter where you are can be a lifesaver. Although it works best if your child works in a quiet, familiar location, tutoring can take place anywhere they happen to be. I work with some students who meet with me sometimes from one parent’s house and sometimes from the other. Other students might meet with a tutor from their afternoon babysitter’s house or from a friend’s house if they go away for the weekend. If you decide to go on vacation this summer, you might be able to continue tutoring while you’re gone. I know not every kid wants to meet with their tutor in the middle of the vacation, but if you have a long trip planned, online tutoring can prevent your child from losing ground over the summer.

Hire the best available tutor

Opening your search to online tutoring means you can work with a tutor from anywhere in the world who has the skills your child needs to learn. You will be able to find a tutor who shares your schedule, or your child’s special interest, or who is knowledgeable about your child’s greatest area of need. And tutoring rates can be more affordable because the tutor doesn’t have to travel to your home and therefore those travel costs are not built into your fee.

Students are more comfortable

One of the greatest advantages of online tutoring is the comfort it brings many students. For students that are anxious or shy around new people, sometimes having the distance of a web camera and not having to sit side-by-side with the tutor or look them in the eye helps them to feel more comfortable and focus on the lesson. It also make students more comfortable when sharing materials. When I can share a document on the screen and point to it with my mouse, we don’t have to sit side-by-side. This can be especially an advantage for older students, like middle school and high school kids. I can also quickly point out mistakes or highlight information without interrupting the students flow. I keep the work right on the screen where they are already reading or writing.

Easier to share resources

Speaking of sharing resources, online tutoring is great because it lets me as the tutor introduce new resources quickly and flexibly when they’re needed for the lesson. When I travel to a student’s home or to the public library, I don’t always have access to the internet. So if a topic comes up that a student doesn’t have background knowledge about or something that they are confused about, it’s harder for me to share visuals to quickly teach them something new. On the other hand, with online tutoring, I can quickly pull up a picture or a resource to share a needed fact. For example, when reading an article about Olympic records, I realize that my student wasn’t familiar with the long jump event. A quick Google search and a couple images from Wikipedia let me show him what the event looks like, and what the article was describing. This can be especially helpful for students who are working to build their vocabulary or who are visual learners.

And if a student finishes the work I had planned, I can quickly open the next article we plan to read, instead of being limited to the text I have printed in my bag. I was working with an in-person student recently and he was talking about what he had learned about Wilma Rudolph, the Olympic runner. He was very impressed by her story but, unfortunately, I had to stop him and totally change the subject to the text I had planned for that evening. If we had been meeting online, I could have quickly shown him a different article I read earlier that connected to his interest in Wilma Rudolph. I brought the connected article the next week, but it felt like a missed opportunity to capitalize on his interest.

Who is online tutoring for?

Online tutoring isn’t the best solution for everyone. For some younger learners, it can be challenging to navigate using the mouse or too distracting to have to draw or write their responses on the screen. I can facilitate a lot of this by offering to do the writing myself and keeping the lessons very verbal.

Other times, a parent has found they need to sit beside the young student and support them as they learn to use the mouse and keyboard efficiently. Although there can be a learning curve for some students when doing online tutoring, it can be a great solution for older students who are comfortable on the computer. Many students who are digital natives, used to using devices throughout their school day and for fun, find online tutoring very natural. 

Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation so I can show you how online tutoring would look for your child.
6 Reasons Online Tutoring is Better Than In-Person Tutoring

5 Reasons to Give Audiobooks to Reluctant Readers

Getting books into the hands and brains of your slow developing or reluctant readers isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential. Over time, kids who read less fall farther and farther behind their average reading peers. Researchers have found that as early as first grade, average readers read up to three times as many words in a week as their lower performing classmates. They have called it “the Matthew Effect” because in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. When kids miss out on reading all those words, it limits vocabulary, makes it hard for them to comprehend more complex stories, and prevents them from becoming more fluent readers. They fall farther behind and become even more likely to avoid reading.

For this snowball of important reasons, it’s a great idea to give audiobooks to reluctant readers.

But isn’t reading an audiobook cheating?

This is the number one question that comes up when I suggest audiobooks for reluctant readers. But is it cheating when you listen to the news on the radio instead of picking up the newspaper? Is it cheating when your best friend starts to text you a great story and you say, “Call me instead!”?

Audio books are a great tool for kids to use and they don’t replace learning to read. In fact, they complement it.

Here are five reasons to get your kids listening to audiobooks

Build vocabulary

Students can comprehend material at a higher level than what they can read.  by listening to audiobooks at their listening comprehension level, kids can be exposed to vocabulary that they will not be able to read independently for a while. In turn, a better oral vocabulary helps with their reading comprehension and their ability to read those familiar words when they first see them in print.

Grow a love of stories

Listening to audiobooks can be just plain fun! Kids who struggle to read or get bored when they’re reading with their eyes may find it much easier to get into a story when they hear it. That doesn’t mean it’s cheating. Sometimes they are exposed to a story for the first time as an audiobook, then later go on to read other titles in the series.

Replace screen time

Audio books can be a nice compromise to replace screen time for long car trips for example. Times when kids are “bored” are great times to listen to audiobooks. You can either choose a title to listen to as a family or have the kids put in earbuds and listen to their own choices on tablets or smartphones.

Promote independent reading

If you find yourself struggling with your child about independent reading time, audiobook might be a solution that get them over the hump and help them create an independent reading habit. You might make a deal like letting the child listen to the book first and then having them reread it with their eyes. You could also set a schedule where Tuesday and Thursday are audiobook nights and the other nights are for eye reading.

Practice comprehension skills

Just like vocabulary, comprehension can be improved by listening to audiobooks. Kids have the chance to listen to text that is more complex, and maybe more interesting, then what they can read independently. Understanding things about story structure and character traits will help them comprehend better when they do read text with their eyes. Plus, it gives them a chance to practice those story-level skills without feeling distracted by the mechanics of reading words.

Some kids avoid reading because it feels hard. These can be kids with ADHD, or with specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia. Other reluctant readers do not have disabilities, but for one reason or another would rather do other things and avoid reading. No matter the reason, audiobooks can be an excellent stepping stone towards a love of reading. Free audio books are available for download at many public libraries. You can also get books on CD from the library. Finally, a subscription to Audible would get your child a steady supply of new audiobooks each month. No matter what option you choose, consider offering audiobooks as part of a “balanced diet” of reading.

If your child is avoiding reading, they may be struggling with basic skills that make reading and writing frustrating and hard. Tutoring can help. Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to find out how online tutoring can help your child be a more confident reader by the end of the summer!
Audio books can improve kids’ vocabulary, comprehension and motivation to read!

Google Docs for Struggling Students

Google for Education has become a popular and affordable way for school districts to give all their students access to file storage, productivity tools (through G Suite) and collaboration capabilities, using Chromebooks, tablets, or traditional desktop computers. But how can Google Docs be used to help students that struggle in writing, like those with specific learning disabilities in writing or spelling, or students with dysgraphia? And what can it do for students who struggle with attention and executive functioning, like students with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders?

My Experience with Google for Education

When my school converted all of us to Google Drive, there was resistance and skepticism from lots of the staff. People were comfortable with Microsoft Office, and did not want to learn a new system. But once we got it in the hands of the students, it was clear that it was an amazing tool for learning.

Elementary students quickly learned to share documents with each other and collaborate in real time. (Of course, they used their powers for good as well as evil, and I had to explain to several kids that there is a permanent record of whatever you put in an email or Google document, and that it is a school tool, and not personal or private.)

Kids who constantly lose their papers now have an un-lose-able record of their written work. And if you accidentally delete a document, or clear your page? IT’S NOT GONE!! You can revert to a previous version of a document, or recover it from the trash can. It has been a game-changer for the students I work with!

Supporting Struggling Writers Using Google Docs

Writing can be frustrating for students unless they have the right support.

For students who struggle with writing, a lot of the features embedded in Google Docs are great for providing accommodations or scaffolding their learning. Here are some of my favorite features of Google Drive (and Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets) as a teacher of students with learning disabilities and executive functioning challenges.

Sharing

I either create a template for an assignment and share it with the students, or I have them share the document immediately when they create it, so I can check in while they work (and they can’t accidentally delete).

Who does it benefit: Students with ADHD can have frequent, subtle, check-ins without a teacher standing over them in the classroom. Students with auditory processing challenges or memory deficits get instructions in written form. Students with dysgraphia and other writing disabilities get a format to follow with features like a word bank or sentence stems, if needed.

Bonus: I get digital copies, instead of a pile of paper in my inbox!

Collaboration

Students can work at the same time on a shared document, on their own devices. Structured carefully, this type of assignment can engage more students simultaneously than other types of group work where I read, she records, and he presents our findings at the end of the class.

Who does it benefit: Students who need more processing time can benefit from starting with a silent work period, where everyone works on their own part of the document. Students who are easily distracted have less wait time and are more able to stay engaged in the lesson. Students with lower writing achievement have peer models in their group who are demonstrating how to tackle an assignment, both through group discussion and by typing in the shared document.

Comments

When I move the mouse cursor to the right margin of a document, a little comment icon pops up. When I click it, the line of text is highlighted, and I can type a comment. I use comments for revision suggestions. I find that when I give my comments in writing, students can reread them, reply to my comment, or make the change and click “Resolve” to make the comment go away. I can also write a lot more than I could with a pen in the margin of a draft. (Plus, my handwriting stinks, so typed comments are better for everyone!)

Who benefits?: Struggling writers of all kinds benefit from written feedback. Getting comments digitally means students can take as much time as they need and refer to the comments as they may corrections. I can also give feedback in real time from my own computer while students are writing. Students are able to revise their writing while it’s fresh in their minds.

Add-Ons

Click “Add-Ons” in the menu at the top of Google docs, then click “Get Add-Ons” to see the library of tools available for mind-mapping, spelling and grammar support, document templates, and many more! Two of my favorites are:

Change Case – This add-on lets you change the capitalization on a selection of text. You can choose “sentence case” which capitalizes just hte first word of each sentence, all capitals, all lowercase, or “title case,” which capitalizes the important words in a title. This is a great tool for students who don’t consistently capitalize while they are writing.

Highlight Tool – With this add-on, you can create different colored highlighters and label them, then use them to highlight the text in your document. You can “collect highlights” at the end and gather all your highlighted bits into one table. I use this to help students revise their work as well as to choose examples in text they are reading. For example, they can highlight all their topic sentences in green, and visually make sure that each paragraph is well structured.

Speech-to-text

Google Docs has voice recognition (called Voice Typing) available to anyone with a microphone using the Chrome browser on a Chromebook or computer. You speak your sentences (and a variety of punctuation and formatting commands) and they appear on the screen. Students need practice and support to use this feature effectively, but it has been a huge benefit to my students with poor spelling or with executive functioning weaknesses.

Text-to-Speech

This is not a native feature of Google Docs, but there are a range of free Chrome extensions that will read your writing to you. Select and Speak is my favorite, right now.

Read and Write for Google, by TextHelp, is another amazing suite of tools that works with Google Drive. It is available with a paid subscription. In addition to text-to-speech, it offers word prediction, and a range of tools for highlighting and extracting notes, and developing vocabulary lists. At the time of this writing, it is being offered free to teachers who register using their school email addresses.

The Takeaway

With all the free tools available as part of Google Docs, it’s a great starting point for students who need writing support. It is an easy way to introduce assistive technology for students with poor handwriting, dysgraphia, specific learning disabilities in reading or writing, or ADHD or other executive functioning deficits.

If your child needs help getting started with assistive technology, or developing his or her writing skills, contact me for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Using Google Keep with Students

One of the biggest factors that causes students in middle and high school to struggle in school is lack of organization. No matter how smart and capable a student is, it’s very hard to get good grades if they are disorganized. They lose papers, forget assignments, or turn in projects with missing details.

But how much time have your child’s teachers spent teaching him or her how to organize themselves? Sure, lots of teachers require things like outlines and study guides, or folders in specific colors, but that doesn’t mean the approach they teach will work for your child. I spent years quickly writing my papers, then reverse-engineering the outlines because I just don’t plan my writing well by using an outline, but it was required.

As I got older, I developed a system that worked for me of making lists, using a planner, and scheduling my work. I used paper for a long time, then switched to Evernote, which I liked because it could sync between my computer and my phone. I kept trying other apps, but never found the perfect one.

A couple years ago, I discovered Google Keep. It’s everything I need, and I think it’s perfect for my students, too!

Here are some reasons to give it a try.

One login

If you are logged into your Google account, you are logged in to Google Keep. No additional passwords, and no remembering to check the list because your reminders pop up in your browser or you can get push notifications sent to your phone.

Visual options

I love the visual display, which looks like an array of Post-it notes. You can color code notes for home, school and work or for each of your classes. Add bullets or numbering to your list. Drag and drop notes or pin them to the top of the page to keep them front and center in your attention.

Checkboxes

Checkboxes are the feature I use most in Google Keep. With one tap, it’s easy to change a list of steps into an organized checklist. Drag and drop items into the order you want to work on them. Copy and paste a list from a website or document, then click “add checkboxes” to turn it in to a list.

Sharing

As with Google Drive, you can share a note in Keep with another Google user. This is great for parents who want to share a list of chores or a group working on a project.

Reminders

Set a reminder to study for the test every day at 7 pm. On Sundays at 4, get reminded to pack your backpack. Put in a note to remind you when you are home to find a baby picture for the yearbook.

‎Archiving

Set a reminder to check your grades 2 weeks before the end of the quarter. Then archive the note to get it out of sight until you need it. When you finish a project, archive or delete the note so it doesn’t clutter up your list.

All of these features make Google Keep easy to use and convenient. It’s a great choice for helping students get organized, and it’s freely available as part of a Google account, so why not try it?

Does your child need some extra help getting organized for school? Are they having trouble finishing projects, getting poor test grades? Maybe it’s time for a tutor. Contact me today for a free consultation.

 

Your Computer is Listening! Getting Started with Google Voice Typing

This post includes affiliate links.

Voice recognition, or speech-to-text, technology on my smartphone may be the feature I use most. That includes the Facebook and weather apps. That’s because I’m not terrific at typing on the small on-screen keyboard, especially when I’m doing other things, like walking from the car to the store, or stirring a pot of soup. It’s a convenient technology for many users, but for users with disabilities, it can make a huge difference in the quantity and quality of their written work.

For years, using speech-to-text meant training Dragon Naturally Speaking or another program to recognize your voice. This was a time-consuming process that was difficult for poor readers (who couldn’t read the text they were supposed to use for training), individuals with unclear speech, and people with short attention spans or limited stamina for work. But now, Google Voice Typing is available within Google Docs, on any computer with a microphone. It doesn’t require any training, and you can start almost instantly!

Who can benefit?

Me, for one. When my son was an infant, I often used Voice Typing to write short compositions for the class I was taking while he slept in my arms.

I know a few adults (including at least one with ADD) who use it to overcome the barrier of getting their ideas from their mind onto the screen. I’ve recommended it to my dad, who is a novelist and also a two-finger typist.

And it’s great for kids, too. I know a few fourth, fifth and sixth graders with learning disabilities using it regularly. I’ve even tried it with kids as young as first grade, with mixed results. For some, it was too distracting and frustrating, but others took off with it after a little practice.

Getting started

  1. Open Google Docs in the Chrome browser on any computer or Chromebook.
  2. Make sure a microphone is attached/installed. This can be the device’s internal microphone, or one you plug in to the microphone port. You can use something simple and cheap, like a cell phone headset, or a fancy noise-cancelling microphone.
  3. In the Tools menu, click “Voice Typing”
       4. The microphone icon pops up on the left-hand side of your document. 5. The first time you click on the microphone, Google Docs will ask for your permission to access the microphone. You must click “Allow” to continue.

 

6. When the microphone has been activated, the icon looks like the image on the left. As you speak, you will be able to see that it is picking up your voice (on the right).

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. It may take a moment, but the words will start to appear on the screen. If you get an error message saying the microphone doesn’t hear your voice, or if the icon stops moving while you are talking, click the microphone off and on again to reactivate it.

That’s it! You are Voice Typing!

What are the pitfalls?

  • Background noise: Your accuracy may be lower in a noisy room, or the microphone may pick up the speech of those around you. This happens a lot when I am coaching a student as they learn Voice Typing. As I say, “Now start speaking your sentence,” they hit the microphone button, and we have to stop and backspace because the screen has some mix of my directions and their composition.
  • Wrong word errors: Voice Typing seems to use context to understand your words. That means if you speak…one…word…at…a…time, your accuracy won’t be as good as if…you speak in phrases…but a little slower…than your natural speech. Sometimes, if you’re not monitoring while you write, you might get to the end of a paragraph or page and find so many errors that you can’t tell what you meant.
  • Random capitalization: Voice Typing knows the basics: capital letter for the beginning of sentences or proper nouns. Sometimes if you try too hard to emphasize a word to get the microphone to pick it up, Google decides it Must be important and Gives it Capital Letters. These random capitals need to be fixed in the editing process.
  • Voice commands: Voice Typing understands a range of voice commands, including punctuation (question mark), formatting (new line), and many other more sophisticated ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have a voice command for quotation marks, which is a barrier for students writing fiction or narratives.

What are the alternatives?

There is built in speech recognition in Android and iOS devices. Newer versions of Windows (beginning with Windows 7, at least) have speech recognition capability. There are commercial apps and software, like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The right choice for you will depend on exactly what you plan to use it for, and what your preference for device and work environment is.

My recommendation is to start with something free, like the voice recognition that comes with your device, or with Google Docs. For many users, this gives the features they need. Heavy users of speech-to-text technology, or those with specialized needs due to industry-specific vocabulary (like scientists, for example) might need to pay for a program to get the functions they need.

Have fun with it, and tell Google I said hi!

Use Google Voice Typing speech-to-text tool on any computer with the Chrome browser.

Why “Go look it up” doesn’t help poor readers understand words (And what to do instead)

The dictionary can be daunting and unproductive for struggling readers

Some people would argue that kids need to learn to use dictionaries and so if they don’t understand a word in what they’re reading they should be responsible for looking it up.

While I agree that dictionaries are one important tool for language learning, they are often not the first line of defense for students who struggle with vocabulary, or for students who are reading difficult text. There are several reasons.

  1. Dictionary definitions are sometimes difficult to understand. –  A dictionary that is at too high a level for the student is going to overwhelm them with language they do not understand, and it’s unlikely to give them a definition that clears up their confusion
  2. Looking up a word takes a long time. – When a student does not understand a word in what they’re reading, the goal is to get them back to reading as quickly as possible. Getting a dictionary, finding the word, and making sense of the definition take up valuable reading or study time.
  3. Dictionaries do not help the child figure out what the word means in this text they’re reading. – A child without enough background information about a word will have trouble choosing the appropriate definition for the word. When they are reading difficult text, the wrong definition for a word can be enough to completely disrupt their comprehension.

So what can we do instead?

Pick the right books to help your child stay engaged and learn new words, without being frustrated and confused
  1. Choose books at the students instructional level. –   pick books with some difficult or unfamiliar words, but not too many of them.
  2. Help children understand the multiple meaning of new vocabulary words. –  Look up important words and make a point of connecting them to other words your child knows.
  3. Help your child look up a word. – Give them a child-friendly definition they will understand and remember. Help them reread the troubling sentence by substituting your definition for the difficult word.  
  4. Help your child generate examples and non-examples of the word to remember it longer. – If the word is important and likely to come up in lots of reading, it helps to have a rich understanding of it. You can ask questions like, “Would you feel reluctant to go outside on a cold morning?” or “Would going to brush your teeth be considered a mission? Why?” The yes or no answer isn’t as important as the explanation. Bring in the topics you and your child feel passionate about, like sports or music, to make these connections memorable.

Here’s what could go wrong with using the dictionary

Using the dictionary without support can leave kids confused and ready to abandon a hard book!

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Here’s the dictionary. Look it up.”

Child: “It’s a shoe?” *rereads sentence* “Oh.” *Puts down Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and gives up on reading for the day.*

Here’s what a vocab conversation could look like:

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Where did you read it?”

Child: “Here. ‘As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by another loafer, who had rushed up with the same intention.’”

Parent: “This dictionary says, ‘a person who idles time away.’ Basically, it’s someone who hangs around wasting time.”

Child: “Oh!”

Parent: “So, when is a time you might be a loafer?”

Child: “Saturday afternoons when I watch TV.”

Parent: “Definitely!”

Child: *Goes off to finish reading book.*
It takes a little longer, but discussing and developing vocabulary is an investment in your child’s language skills that will last the rest of his life. The dictionary has its place, for sure, but it can be discouraging and distracting for struggling readers to tackle on their own.

When kids find words they don’t know, they need discussion and support to gain a rich, lifelong understanding of new vocabulary.

Question: Who should use audio books?

Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!

There is a perception that listening to an audiobook is “cheating,” (an issue I would say Daniel Willingham puts to rest in this post). However, for students who are below-grade-level decoders, audio books are  way to honor their age-appropriate (or better) listening comprehension skills and keep them engaged in challenging texts.

I often present it to students this way: We work together to improve your decoding skills. (Through Orton-Gillingham based reading instruction and word analysis, as well as self-monitoring techniques and strategies such as rereading and using DISSECT to identify the meaning of unknown words). But sometimes, the most important thing is focusing on the story or meaning of a text. Accurate decoding takes energy and time. I want you to save your energy to think deeply about what you read, and at those times, I would like you to save your decoding energy to use on comprehension. So here:

  1. Listen to me read the text.
  2. Use a text-to-speech app or extension to hear it
  3. Listen to this published audio book
  4. Use your Bookshare or Learning Ally subscription

Once we remove the obstacle of decoding the words in a text, which is a complex process that requires cognitive energy, students are free to recall, analyze, argue, and synthesize, along with all the other higher-order thinking skills we are thrilled to see them use. Exposure to text at their listening comprehension level exposes students to vocabulary, concepts, and grammatical structures that they might not be able to access through independent decoding. Is it “cheating” to call on those higher-order thinking skills just because they can’t decode the words? I think not!

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 1

In this post, you will learn how to set up and share a Google calendar for the purpose of keeping track of homework or assignments. See Part 2 of this post to see how to set up the homework entries and reminders.

Kids lose their agenda books. They leave them in their lockers, on buses, in desks. Sometimes they just vanish without a trace. And they take with them any clue the kid had about what to do for homework.

And then there are the kids that a paper planner just doesn’t work for. Their handwriting doesn’t fit in the boxes, or they keep putting things on the wrong page, and then they are gone forever! Or they write a project or due date down, and don’t check the agenda book when it’s time to do the work.

Turning Google Calendar into an assistive technology to help these kids is simple and helps them to build technology skills that will support them for life. I think this starts to be effective around sixth grade, if there are devices available regularly through the day, or if the child carries a smartphone.

First the child needs a Google account. Log in and choose Google Calendar from the menu of Google tools:

You will see a blank Google calendar, if you’ve never used it before.

 

 

 

 

 

I recommend creating a dedicated Google calendar, called “Beth’s Homework” or something similar to keep all the homework in one place. This is a good practice because hopefully the student will use the calendar to keep track of appointments, sports practices, and important dates down the road, and this keeps all that information from becoming smushed together and overwhelming.

Create a new calendar by clicking on the small triangle to the right of the words “My Calendar.”   There are 3 steps to setting up a new calendar.

  1. Name the calendar. Mine is “Beth’s Homework.”
  2. Share it with others. Type an email address, and choose from the dropdown whether others can view only or edit (including adding and deleting) events.
  3. Click “Create Calendar” at the bottom of the screen.

Tune in tomorrow to learn how to set up repeating events and color coding to make it look like a student agenda book. I’ll also show you how to edit the events to record the day’s assignments.