How to tell your child she has a learning disability

Early in my teaching career, I worked in a substantially separate special education classroom for middle school students with significant disabilities. Many of these students had a diagnosis on the autism spectrum while others had cognitive impairment of varying severity. With some of these students, their impairments were so significant that they were unlikely to notice the extent of their differences from their peers. They got all their instruction with me in the small group classroom, with the exception of art, gym, and music. While they attended lunch and recess and social activities with their middle school peers, they needed the support of small group instruction at their academic level for their other classes.

One graduation night, I was in my classroom with a couple colleagues getting ready for the ceremony. A young adult we didn’t know came in and said, “I used to come in this classroom when I was in middle school. I never got the point of being in here. What do you teach?”

I hesitated, wondering if this young woman was unaware that she had been in special education in middle school. I knew of her, because some of her siblings were still at the school, but I had never met her when she went to school there. I didn’t really know much about her as a learner, except now I knew that she had been in my specialized program as a middle schooler.

I said, “Well, teachers have figured out that some students do their best learning in a big class with about 20 other students and different teachers all day long. Other middle schoolers do their best learning in a small group classroom where they have the same teacher for all their subjects.” She nodded and said goodbye. She seemed satisfied with that answer. But it made me think: what is the best way to tell students about their learning differences and when should they be told?

Now I have been working with a different population of learners. Many of the students I work with have specific learning disabilities in reading, writing or math. Some have diagnosis of dyslexia. I still work with some students on the autism spectrum and others with a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD. While many of these students are younger, I’m starting to wonder at what point they need to be told they have a disability.

While it’s certainly not my place to tell students any information that their parents haven’t explained to them, I do often have to have challenging conversations with students who are noticing their differences from peers and feeling like some of the work is too hard for them or than what they’re being asked to do is not fair.

It seems like third grade is the time that many students start to express this. By that point, everyone in the class knows which students have to leave the classroom to go to another teacher for reading, and which students are either never called on to read out loud or struggle and look miserable when they do get called on. In many classrooms, students protect and help the students who are struggling most. They often will take the lead in reading if they have a struggling reader in their group or jump in to help someone spell a word if they think it’s a difficult one. But 3rd grade is also the time when many of my students begin to wonder what’s wrong with them or begin to see themselves as stupid.

In my lessons with them, I do several things to combat that perception. First of all, I make a point to focus on the strengths of each of my students. Students with terrific vocabularies get asked to teach word meanings to their peers. Students who have had lots of explicit phonics instruction are called on to identify the vowels in a word because while many other students may be able to read the word, not all are able to analyze it in the same detail as my students who have had extensive Orton-Gillingham instruction. I make it a point to call on students to share their background knowledge about sports, or fishing, or animals, if I know it’s an area of interest and strength.

But I also frequently have to talk to students about their weaknesses. The way I do this is I start to ask them questions about things that are easy for them and things that are harder as young as kindergarten and first grade. These young students often have a great deal of difficulty identifying their best subject or their weaker ones. In fact, they often tell me that their favorite class is the one they’re struggling in most. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because that is when they get the most adult attention and help. But older students, beginning in about second grade, can pretty clearly tell me what they can and can’t do. They might say “I love to write but I’m bad at spelling.” Or, “I know all my math facts, but I’m not a good reader.”

For these students, I validate their experience, but I reframe it. If they say “I’m not good at spelling.” I say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you have trouble remembering how words are spelled. Sometimes I see that you get all the consonant sounds right in your words but you mix up the vowel sounds. Is that what you notice, too?” I want them to analyze specifically what they can and can’t do so that they’ll be able to see their own progress. I also don’t want them to think of themselves as being bad at something. Having a growth mindset means that they see their struggles as goals they have not yet accomplished. When we think of skills that way, students are able to see that they make progress from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

These discussions about strengths and weaknesses are the same ones any parent can have with any child, regardless of whether they have a disability. But I think they’re especially important to have with children who struggle particularly in one academic area. It shouldn’t be a secret that students read slower than their peers. The teacher knows it, the parent knows it, and it’s important that we tell the student what we know. They should know that their area of difficulty is not something to be ashamed of. We know it’s not because of lack of effort. And we’re working hard to try to help them develop that skill. They need to know that.

After these conversations about strength and weakness, as a parent, you may want to give the child a name for those difficulties. I worked with one first grader who was incredibly proud to tell me that the reason he couldn’t do the spelling I was asking him to do was that he had dyslexia. What he hadn’t figured out yet is that’s why we worked together in the first place, but those realizations come with time.

Telling your children the name for the struggles they are experiencing can feel scary. The anxiety you may have had about their diagnosis and your worries about what will happen as they grow up may make you want to hide this information from your child. But I believe this is misguided. You can avoid naming your child’s learning disability, but you can’t protect them from it. They live in a world of struggling to read or not being able to remember math facts. In fact, giving a name to the thing that can frustrate and overwhelm them can give them a lot of power. 

These discussions can happen over the course of years, as you feel your child is mature enough to understand different things about their way of learning. Just like with any part of parenting, discussing a child’s learning disability is a long journey. But if you gradually give them information and responsibility, they will be much more ready to take on the self-advocacy and planning responsibilities required to help them succeed in school, college, the workplace and other facets of their lives.

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?

 

Do graphic novels count as “real reading?”

When I started teaching in the classroom 10 years ago, one of my sixth graders was obsessed with Baby Mouse. At the time, I did not know a lot of graphic novels for kids and figured that comic books were the territory of older boys and young men who were into superheroes. Now I know of so many fantastic graphic novel series for kids of all reading levels! Graphic novels are great “gateway” stories to get reluctant readers interested in books.

Graphic novels can be an excellent option for reluctant readers, for kids who are not reading as well as their peers, and for any kid who is looking for a fun read.

But are graphic novels “real” reading?

Graphic novels are great for developing some parts of a child’s reading skill. Having pictures to go with the story helps to develop kids understanding of plot and graphic novels could start a lot of great conversations about character development. A good graphic novel can also provide illustration for challenging vocabulary by having pictures that show what unfamiliar words mean.

I learned the word chaos from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode on TV. I had heard the word before and I had read the letters c-h-a-o-s before but I never put the two together until a comic-book-style part of the show that had speech bubbles over the heads of Bebop and Rocksteady while they commented on the chaos caused by a battle in the street. It was a lightbulb moment for me to see the word in print and hear the character pronounce it. I never would have put together that letter combination with the sound of the word chaos.

Kids won’t necessarily learn to pronounce new words from reading graphic novels, but they will have the opportunity to see what the illustrator imagined when he or she read the words in the story. For that reason, graphic novels can be a great option for kids who are having trouble comprehending grade level books. They can also boost vocabulary by providing richer context than words on the page alone.

The Downside

But graphic novels don’t address all parts of the reading equation. Because they usually have short sentences of text, they are not a good way for students to develop reading fluency. For that, kids should be reading connected text on a page at their independent level or just a bit above.

Graphic novels are also not usually great text for practicing sounding out words. Too often, there are enough clues in the pictures to help kids guess at words they don’t know. This can be a great support for kids who have trouble getting through a story because it has too many words they can’t read. However, it can help kids avoid sounding out words if that’s something difficult for them.

So do I recommend graphic novels? Heck yes!

But they are the snack food in a healthy diet. Eating well means having a variety of foods and striking a balance between treats and leafy greens. Graphic novels do stretch a students reading skills, and they’re certainly not junk food. But a reading diet made up of only graphic novels is not good for your child’s reading health.

Ready to give graphic novels a try?

Here are some of the graphic novel series that are capturing my students’ imaginations:

  • Geronimo Stilton – Geronimo is a mouse in the newspaper business who solves mysteries and crimes with his friends. They are somewhere in between a graphic novel and a chapter book, with whole paragraphs of text, lots of illustrations, and fun fonts and text effects that emphasize the words. These are a great fit for second, third and fourth graders.
  • Captain Underpants – Ugh, not my favorites, but I’m not the one who has to read them. These are silly and kind of gross and may not be a fit for every classroom or family. But they are hugely popular. These books seem to hit peak popularity in second and third grade.
  • Dog Man – Another Dav Pilkey series
  • Big Nate – These seem to have content that appeals to older elementary (fourth-sixth grade) readers but are written at a level that second and third graders can access. I find that younger readers in third and fourth grade don’t get all the jokes, even when they can read the words.
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid – These are one of the most popular series of graphic novels, especially now that there’s a movie. Like Geronimo Stilton, these have a mix of paragraphs of story with cartoon illustrations. Fourth grade seems to be the sweet spot for this series.
  • Amulet – This series is getting passed around by a lot of upper elementary students I know. It’s illustrated in the more familiar “comic book” style you might imagine when you hear graphic novel. There are lots of colorful pages and a fantasy setting and plot that seems to appeal to both boys and girls at the fourth and fifth grade levels.
  • Bone – Bone is a cute little guy who looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, who goes on adventures through strange and engaging lands. It seems to appeal to third and fourth graders.
Do graphic novels count as real reading?

Summer Reading Bingo!

Go read your book.

Did you read today?

You’re bored? How about reading?

How many different ways can you suggest, beg, cajole, or nag to get your kids to pick up a book this summer? We know summer reading is important because it helps student avoid “the summer slide” and maintain the skills they gain during the school year.

Whether your child’s school assigned summer reading books with a book report, gave a recommended list, or just said, “Make sure you read!” the burden of making them read falls to you.

Anywhere they will read is the perfect place

 

Research on learning and motivation shows that giving kids some choice of how they learn increases their engagement.

For kids in the middle grades, getting them to read one hour a day, and at least 11 books a year, raises their reading achievement. But external reinforcers, like prizes, can backfire by sending kids the message that reading is so boring or unimportant that no one would do it unless they got something out of the deal.

The same study showed that reading-related rewards improve the self-concept of middle grades readers who earn them.

So how do you get your kids to read this summer without driving them (and especially yourself) crazy? Try making a game out of it.

My FREE Summer Reading Bingo board has 24 reading-related activities that give kids ideas for where to read, what to read, when to read, and who to read with. Offer your kids a new book for scoring a bingo, or just foster a little friendly competition in the family. Either way, this game gets your child thinking about reading, and sometimes that’s half the battle.

Subscribe to my email list, below, to get your copy of the Summer Reading Bingo board (by email), as well as emails about blog updates and other tutoring news.

 

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Is Reading to Our Kids Enough?

Some links in this post are affiliate links

Some kids do teach themselves to read. But that doesn’t mean all kids can.

How about those people whose kids just taught themselves to read? I saw a Facebook comment recently (because my vice is reading the comments on articles, even though I know I’ll end up angry) where a mom announced she simply “read to her kids and labeled everything in the house and the kids were reading by age 4.” Therefore, she concluded, what’s all the fuss about teaching reading? Clearly, all the other parents in the world just weren’t labeling enough things around their home.

Um, no.

For some kids, it does work that way. I’ve heard plenty of stories about kids whose parents “discovered” they could read instead of “teaching them” to read. As in, one day, little Susie picked up a newspaper and said, “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” But those magical stories stick out because they are not so common. Peter Gray’s article on Psychology Today’s website even claims that “The written word is not essentially different to them than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).” However, the research shows that it’s quite different, and not intuitively learned. I guess my question is, if learning is as natural as people claim, how come it took until 3500 BCE for the Sumerians to come up with written language?

Some kids get left behind by classroom reading instruction.

Although U.S. elementary schools teach the nuts and bolts of reading beginning in kindergarten, and wrapping up, give or take, in third grade, kids don’t always move through the stages at the same pace. Public schools base their teaching on the belief that six is the ideal age to learn reading, but maybe that’s not true. In this article in Today’s Parent, Susan Goldberg talks about kids (some home-schooled) who learned to read anywhere between the ages of 4 and 9. And in almost all those anecdotes, they ended up successful readers who learned easily when they were ready. On the other hand, one turned out to have dyslexia. The real risk for a slowly-developing reader in a traditional classroom is that they will fall behind their classmates if they can’t read the material in class.

The wait-and-see attitude seems risky. Growing up a poor reader can have serious consequences for education, employment, and even health. By fourth grade, teachers have stopped teaching how to read, and are expecting students to use their reading skills to learn new information. That makes it much harder to catch up.

So if you are concerned about your child’s reading, don’t just wait patiently. Talk to her teachers. Listen to what they are doing in class, and find out what else can be done. Consider requesting testing for learning disabilities if your child is getting good instruction and not making progress.

In the meantime, what can we do at home, besides reading regularly?

  • Phonics games – Try this Superhero Phonics Game, or any of these spelling and reading games.
  • Sight word practice – Some kids do well with flashcards, but others need more in depth practice. Try pouring some salt in a shallow pan and having them write out the sight words, or write them with a stick in the sandbox, to help them make the connection between the shape of the letters and the word they make up.
  • Authentic writing activities – Some kids just aren’t interested in learning to read or write when reading instruction starts and they need to see what’s in it for them. One thing that helps is letting them see you write. Send postcards to friends, make a shopping list for their favorite meal, write a story about your last trip to the park and let them illustrate it.
  • Reading with a purpose – Another way to get kids engaged in learning to read is to move beyond the early reading books and have them read something important to them. Show them how to read recipes, or instructions for a science experiment. Hand them driving directions to their favorite places. Have family members send you texts and emails for your child.

These strategies are no substitute for good reading instruction. But if you pick activities that help your child feel confident and interested in learning, you can do wonders for their motivation and make that good reading instruction more effective.

When parents read to children, it enhances vocabulary and comprehension, as well as building positive associations with reading that last a lifetime!

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.

Fighting the Summer Slide

Have fun this summer, but don’t let learning slide!

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The Summer Slide sounds like a lot of fun! Maybe it conjures images of a water slide, with its cool stream glistening in the sun. Maybe you hear giggling children and squawking seagulls.

But it’s not that kind of slide, and it’s really no fun. The summer slide is what educators call the pattern of academic decline that happens when kids take the summer off from school. Students, especially students who struggle to make progress during the school year, tend to lose some of those hard-won skills over the summer. Researchers have known about it for over 100 years and various experiments in summer schools and other programs have been tried.

Some teachers assign summer reading or summer homework in the hopes that it will help kids hold on to what they have learned. Some families tackle these assignments head-on in June and get them done. (Not my family, but I’m sure people do.) Others struggle through the summer, or finish them at the last minute, or not at all. Summer reading homework isn’t effective for many students, and it’s not enough for many of them.

Meanwhile, schools talk about personalized learning but there is only so much one teacher can do for a whole class of students, especially once they leave for the summer. Still, personalized learning has the right idea in mind, that the goal for all students should be mastering the material. It just might take some students longer than it takes others.

What are some ways to make the most of your child’s summer time?

How can you set your child up for success in September, without ruining their summer? Here are some suggestion to fit in summer learning without the battle!:

Play games
  • Scrabble – a classic board game that asks children to use think about the words they see, and then connecting new words to them. It is great for building vocabulary (as kids argue about whether their opponents’ words are real), practicing decoding, and reinforcing spelling.
  • Scrabble Junior – This variation on the classic game is geared toward 5-12-year-olds, but is most appropriate for kids at the younger end of that range. At its easier level, Scrabble Junior has kids using their letters to complete the pre-printed words on one side of the board. This is a great option for kids working on letter identification or basic reading or spelling. The reverse side of the board works more like traditional Scrabble, with players building words of their own with the letters they have drawn.
  • Boggle or Boggle Junior– In Boggle, players shake the covered tray of letter cubes, then find more words than their opponents in the connected letters that land in the tray. Boggle Junior simplifies the process with picture cards and a smaller number of letter cubes. Players use the letter cubes to spell out the word shown, either while looking at it, or with the letters in the word covered to add another challenge.
  • Try Q-bitz to strengthen visual problem solving – A Q-bitz pattern card gets flipped over, and each player tries to build that same pattern with the patterened, two-color cubes on their tray. There’s a Q-bitz Junior, too, with simpler patterns.
  • Sum Swamp or Equate for math fact practice – Sum Swamp is a simpler game in which players roll dice and add or subtract the digits on the dice. Equate looks a lot like Scrabble, but with numbers and operation symbols. To keep it simple, limit the tiles to add and subtract; or up the challenge by adding multiplication, division, or fractions!
  • Balderdash – a fun way to expand vocabulary. Each player hears an unfamiliar word and writes down a madeup definition for it. One player has the real definition, and the other team has to guess who is telling the truth. This game challenges students to use their knowledge of word origins and word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots) to make up plausible definitions, and to guess what makes sense.
  • Trivial Pursuit or TriBond for general knowledge-building – Trivial Pursuit Family Edition has a set of cards for adults and one for kids, so everyone has challenging questions to answer. TriBond cards each have 3 words or concepts on them, and the player has to identify how they are connected to each other. It is a great game for building flexible thinking.
  • Make your own Memory cards with sight words or math facts and their answers (or equivalent fractions, the possibilities are nearly endless). 
Have reading adventures
  • Try audio books for the car
  • Discover a new author or series
  • Make reading a special treat: Read in a tent, in a blanket fort, in a hammock, or in a canoe
  • Cook food from your favorite books
  • Join me for a Summer Reading Adventure online for 6 weeks this summer
Build routines
  • Instead of competing for attention with video games or TV, create a family habit of always sitting down for some learning at a specific part of the day. For some, after breakfast, before he distractions start, works best. Others reinvent the siesta as a quiet learning break mid-day. Maybe the youngest family members nap in the afternoon, and everyone else takes a study break.
Set an example
  • Sit down with your children and learn while they learn
  • Try Duolingo to brush up on your Spanish, commit to reading today’s newspaper cover to cover, or check something new out of the library.
Try technology
  • Khan Academy is free, and it offers lesson videos and practice for math. I find this is best for middle school and high school students, and less engaging for younger children
  • Doctor Genius is a free math practice option for younger children, beginning with the skill of counting to 3
  • No Red Ink lets students practice grammar skills in a fun engaging way, and gives them feedback and teaching in their areas of need
  • NewsELA provides free news articles, which can be adjusted to different reading levels. There are quizzes to check for understanding and a wide range of interesting topics to read about
What if you child finished the year with gaps or weaknesses?
All of these activities provide quality practice and enrichment to reduce the chance that the summer slide will affect your child. But what if you, or their teachers, think they aren’t quite ready to start next school year? What if they finished with skill gaps, or didn’t meet the school’s end-of-year learning benchmarks. Carefully designed teaching from a qualified tutor can make a big difference. Unlike the school year, when there are many demands on your time and your child’s, the summer provides an excellent opportunity to focus on one or two areas of need and make the most of learning time!
Keep your kids from falling behind in reading with some simple, fun, activities
Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation to determine if one-to-one, online tutoring in reading and writing is a good fit for your child!

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!

8 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Reading Fluency

What is reading fluency and why does it matter?

Reading fluency can be defined as the ability to read accurately, with sufficient rate and prosody (that’s phrasing and expression) to understand what you have read. Schools often measure it with an assessment like AIMSWeb or DIBELS, and they may report it as a score for ORF (Oral Reading Fluency), PRF (Passage Reading Fluency) or WRF (Word Reading Fluency). Students are asked to read out loud from grade-level text for one minute, and the number of words they read correctly is reported. The district establishes (or adopts) benchmarks–expectations for how many words a student should be reading per minute in the fall, winter, and spring of each grade. Then teachers use different types of lessons to improve your child’s reading fluency.

Why all the fuss about reading fluency? Children who don’t read fluently:

  • Have trouble making sense of what they read
  • Have trouble finishing their work on time
  • Often dislike reading
  • Often feel worried or embarrassed about reading out loud.
  • Find reading exhausting!

So what can parents do to improve your child’s reading fluency?

Some of the best strategies for improving reading fluency work both in school and at home. Find something to read and get started!

Pick the right text – Although some experts think it helps to practice with harder texts, most researchers recommend using stories kids can read mostly correctly (90% of words) to practice fluency. Teachers often send home texts that kids have already read in class, and which can be great choices for extra practice at home.

  • Reread a text several times – This works great with short texts like poems or a couple paragraphs of a story. Have your child read it a few times, enough so that they can “work out the kinks” and recognize all the words, but not so much that they just memorize the words.
  • Be a reading fluency model – Read out loud to your child. You can either read them a story they aren’t able to read alone yet, or reread an old favorite. Hearing how you pronounce words, group words into phrases and change your tone of voice for question marks and exclamation points helps them to know what good reading sounds like. Hearing good reading builds vocabulary, which can improve your child’s reading fluency.
  • Take turns – When your child is reading, the “I read a page, you read a page” strategy can keep your child interested and motivated to keep reading. It also gives the same great modeling as reading a whole story to them. Even better, they will hear you read some of the hard words that come up more than once in the text, which helps them figure out how to pronounce them.
  • Give feedback – after your child reads a section, tell them what they did well, and give them a suggestion for something to try next time. For example, “I really like the way you went back and read the whole sentence after you stopped to sound out that word. Reading the whole sentence is something readers do to make sure everything makes sense. Next time, watch out for words that look alike. I noticed you mixed up of and for when you were reading.”
  • Find new audiences – Kids need to read, read, read to boost fluency. Have them read to siblings (big or little), pets, or stuffed animals. Can they read to a grandparent over the phone, or on Skype or FaceTime?
  • Give them the chance to perform! – Record a video of your child the first time they read a new story, and then again when they have practiced. Point out how practicing helped them read faster, more accurately, and with more expression. Have them practice a book so they can read the family bedtime story when they are ready.
  • Practice, practice, practice – Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. Have your child do a little bit of reading fluency practice every day. Even 10 minutes could really improve your child’s reading fluency over the course of a few weeks.

The Right Book at the Right Time

I must have been seven the Christmas my mom gave me a beautiful, hardcover edition of Little Women. It was one of her favorite books, and I’m pretty sure I was named after sweet, peacemaking, short-lived Beth March. I tried to read it, because I loved books and I loved my mom, but it was incredibly boring and confusing. It was basically unreadable. Eventually, my busy mother found enough evenings to read it to me. That time, I loved it! It was a book I read over and over in the second half of my childhood, and I sought out the other books Louisa May Alcott wrote about the March family and read them, too.

The lesson here is that a good read is about a match between author and reader. That’s why we each have different favorites. My husband’s favorite history books bore me to tears and not everyone loves to read Oliver Sachs’ books about the amazing human brain like I do. When kids, especially reluctant or struggling readers, read a book, it shapes not only their understanding of the content and the world, but of themselves as readers. Too many experiences with books that are hard, or boring, and they start to think of themselves as people who don’t like to read. And with the millions of books, and ever-growing body of other things to read in the world, that is a huge loss.

So how do you maintain your child’s interest in reading as they grow their skills so they can handle what their friends are reading? I’m glad you asked!

  • Read to them! There are huge benefits to developing readers who hear fluent reading. It builds vocabulary, increases fluency, and keeps them interested in books. Plus, it makes for great family time! It’s really hard to argue with your brother or sister while you are both listening to a story.
  • Get the audiobook! All the benefits of reading aloud, except they can do it independently. Many public libraries offer digital audiobooks, which can be downloaded to an iPod, tablet, computer, or smartphone. Audible.com is a paid service that offers an enormous selection of audiobooks.
  • Find an alternative! In my experience, struggling readers tend to pick a book or series that works for them and stick with it. I have spent months trying to help kids move on from Baby Mouse, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Captain Underpants. On the one hand, they are reading and that’s great. On the other hand, I want kids to discover and enjoy the many other books out there, and reading a series does less to expand vocabulary and skill than reading the same number of unique books. Try a website like http://www.yournextread.com/us/ or http://www.whatdowedoallday.com/books-like-diary-wimpy-kid/ for ideas. Better yet, ask your librarian.
  • Show, don’t just tell! Talk about your own reading. Share your excitement when you find an excellent title or author. And also talk about the times you just can’t get into a book. Kids need to know that everyone gives up on a book from time to time, when it’s not the right fit.

Making book recommendations is a responsibility I take seriously. Making a match between a kid and a book is a great accomplishment. But there is trial and error involved. It’s important that your child understand that finding a book hard or boring doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that she is a bad reader. It might just not be the right book at the right time.