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Is the secret to teaching handwriting on your playground?

Maybe you’ve started wondering, “How do I get my child to write her name?” or “Why does my child hate writing?” Maybe your friend’s preschooler or your nephew or your babysitter’s kid was drawing people and trees by this age and your child couldn’t care less about coloring. First of all, your child may be at a totally normal spot, developmentally, for her age. This chart from Understood.org shows that it is normal for preschoolers to be scribbling, beginning to copy letters, and maybe learning their names during the preschool years. They say children don’t necessarily learn to hold a pencil correctly until they are school age, between 5 and 7.

This list from Zero to Three is another great resource for the stages of handwriting. Up until 2 1/2, random scribbles are the name of the game. My son was mostly still biting crayons at two. Between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, kids get more control of their scribbles and patterns – like zigzags and repeated lines – emerge. It’s normal for kids to start drawing recognizable objects and figures between the ages of 3 and 5. (That means some kids will start when they are five and that’s still fine!)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what can you do for your kids to help them get ready for writing, especially as you start to get ready for kindergarten? The answer may surprise you!

Think big

Before your kids can master the small muscle movements of writing, they need strength and coordination in their big muscles. This includes core strength and strong muscles in their shoulders and arms. So one of the best things you can do to help your kids learn to write the alphabet or learn to write their names is take them outside to run, jump, climb and swing!

This blog post from Miss Jaime, O.T., explains it nicely. Kids who have weak cores prop themselves up with an arm, lean on furniture, fidget in their chairs and won’t stay in their seats. She recommends a whole list of fun strengthening activities that you can work into your family routine. Some of the ones that I hadn’t thought of before were pumping on a swing, crawling through tunnels, and heavy work like carrying laundry and pushing a broom or shoveling.

Remember tummy time?

My son tolerated tummy time, as long as there was a mirror (he was a vain little creature) or something that made noise. My daughter just got MAD. And the more we tried, the madder she got. She didn’t start to crawl (just scooted around on her bum) until her favorite baby at daycare, who is 6 months younger, started getting mobile. Unfortunately for her, tummy time is the foundation for a lot of the core strength and shoulder strength she will need for good handwriting. The nurse practitioner in our doctor’s office explained that pushing up on their hands helps babies develop the muscles in their hands they need to crawl, but also to grasp objects, including pencils.

So if your child was a tummy time dropout, like my Ladybug, or if they don’t quite have the strength they need yet, think about some of the ways you got them on the floor when they were babies. Break out the floor puzzles. Put large paper and crayons on the floor and draw a huge map. Put blocks or Legos on the floor. Help them build a huge race track for their cars so they have to crawl around the floor to drive. Set up a crawling obstacle course or scavenger hunt that has them crawling on their bellies under chairs, stretching out one arm to grab a clue under the couch, or balancing (with a spotter!) on a yoga ball in the Superman position.

But shouldn’t they sit and practice, too?

OK, yes, preschoolers won’t get good at writing without writing and drawing. But if they hate it, there are lots of ways they can practice those movements without you breaking out the penmanship paper just yet!

Some great ways to get kids using their hands and arms in a way that will help them write are:

  • Playdough – squeezing, rolling, pinching, stamping. All those movements are great for little fingers!
  • Slime or putty – as much as it grosses me out, kids seem to love it!
  • Painting – with fingers, brushes or sponges. On the table, on the floor, on an easel, or with bathtub paints on the shower wall. Painting on a vertical surface like an easel or wall has the benefit of using their shoulder muscles and can help kids work on their grip, too.
  • Stringing beads – Check out the craft store to find the right size beads for your kid’s skill level. Make patterns, make bracelets for everyone they know, or just string and dump.
  • Sidewalk chalk – this has the bonus of getting them on their hands and knees, working their core and shoulders while practicing the BIG drawing movements they can use for handwriting later.
  • Legos – snap them together and pull them apart. Pick out tiny pieces from the pile.
  • Smaller pencils – When they do write, snap crayons in half or use golf pencils to encourage them to grip down near the tip of the tool for better control. Crayola makes little markers called PipSqueaks that are also great for little hands.

Understood.org has another great list of tips for getting kids to practice writing. Read it here.

So if your preschooler hates writing, or if you can’t begin to guess what they drew you, don’t panic! Give them lots of outside play to strengthen their cores, lots of play on the floor when they are stuck inside, and get creative with seated activities that use their finger and wrist muscles. When they have the strength to sit still and hold that pencil, you might be amazed with that they can draw and write!

Did your child hate tummy time? Who cried more, you or the baby? What is your preschooler’s favorite thing to do on the playground? Comment below to share your ideas!

Join my email list for more ideas, and updates on my upcoming book: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.

How to use your textbook to study

So you’re studying for finals. What exactly are you supposed to study? Is there a study guide? What DID you learn this year? Once you have a big-picture plan for tackling all your finals, it’s time to dust off that textbook – yes, the one made from dead trees – and use it to study.

Textbooks can be some of the driest and most challenging reading that we encounter in school. Did you know that many textbooks are written at a reading level higher than the students they’re written for? You may have a 7th grade history book that is written at a high school level. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me!

But even if reading the textbook is not your favorite way to learn, the textbook can be a great resource when you’re getting ready for exams.I’m going to talk about a few different ways you can use your textbook to study for final exams.

Table of contents

First, use the table of contents. If your class this year has pretty much followed the textbook, then the chapter headings and subheadings are your first stop for a to-do list for what to study. Your teacher may give you a study guide that has more specific information but the table of contents is a great place to start. Make a list of important topics from the table of contents to cross off topics as you cover them.

One way to figure out how much you know about the topic is to ask yourself for each chapter title and heading, “What is the most important thing I need to know about ___?” You could list each heading on a section of notebook paper and under it list each fact that you think is important to remember. This will give you a baseline for what you know. When you open the book you will likely find out there’s more to it than you remembered but you will want to measure what you actually know and that will help you plan how much to study.

End of chapter questions

Textbooks often have questions that are written at the end of each section or each chapter. Some teachers use these questions as homework assignments or assessments for students. Especially if your teacher has not used these questions and you haven’t answered them before, getting ready for your final is a great time to try to answer them. Like you did with the chapter headings, answer as many of them as you can from memory but especially take note of the ones you aren’t able to answer without looking back in the book. Those facts are where you’re going to need to spend some time studying.

Bold vocabulary words

Your textbook likely has some key vocabulary words that are in bold throughout the chapter. They may also be listed at the beginning or end of the chapter and they will almost certainly be defined in a glossary at the end of the book. Make sure that you know these terms and that you can use each one in a sentence that talks about the content of the class.

Maps, tables, and charts

Sometimes these visuals in your textbook are a supplement to the content in the paragraphs, meaning they don’t give you any new or key information that you need to remember. Sometimes they’re there to illustrate an example or a point. Other times, they are there to highlight the importance of a certain piece of information. Use maps to help you answer questions about – obviously – countries, borders, cities, and other geographical features. Also use maps to help you develop answers to why questions:

  • Why did Germany invade Poland?
  • Why were the ancient Greeks sailors?
  • Why does the US export corn?

Looking at the geography of a place can help you better understand the people who lived there. Charts and tables are visual ways of presenting data. For some people, these are better ways of understanding the information and remembering it than reading sentences that say the same thing. If your textbook has charts and graphs, try to figure out what you can learn from them.

Supplemental textbook resources

Newer textbooks often have related websites or digital study tools that can be great resources as you study for your final exam. Look for website links in the introduction to the textbook or in the end of the chapter review materials. Also, check your teacher’s website for links to online textbook tools.

Read it

Sometimes you will actually have to read a chapter in your textbook. This is especially true if you haven’t kept up with the reading lately or if you haven’t done well on some of the quizzes. But don’t try to sit down and read straight through one or more chapter. Use the tips above to organize your reading and read each section and subsection with a question in mind. If your reading doesn’t answer the question, you might need to read again. And take notes or explain to someone what you learned right after you read it, so it doesn’t disappear! You can even make a video or audio recording on your phone of you summarizing what you read that you can play back later.

Weightlifting

In some classes, the teacher seems to actively avoid teaching from the textbook. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how schools work: sometimes teachers are required to use a certain textbook because the school or state picked it or because the teacher who taught before them chose it. So you have to think about whether the textbook has actually been a tool for learning in this class. If your teacher often use other resources, like articles videos and class discussions, then the textbook may not give you a great foundation for studying for this exam. In that case, feel free to use your textbook during study breaks for some bicep curls or some overhead presses. Getting some physical activity in the middle of long study sessions will help your brain work better and help your body feel better after sitting in your study seat for a few hours.

To find out more, check out my video, coming soon to YouTube: How to use your textbook to study

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use your textbook to study
How to use your textbook to study

Potty independence – Zippers and wiping and handwashing – Oh, my!

If you’re getting ready to send your child to kindergarten, potty training may already feel like a distant memory. As I start to think about training my daughter, I realize I don’t really remember how we got my son to use the potty. My daughter is three years younger and a lot has happened in those three years! But I am realizing that the bathroom journey isn’t done with my four-year-old as I start to think about getting him ready for school. There are some things that he doesn’t seem to understand or can’t handle independently yet and they may really get in the way of his school experience! Here are some of the things we are working on.

Privacy

My four-year-old can tell you that the bathroom is a private place and that you need a private place to take off your clothes. And then, we have company, and I see that he doesn’t quite get it. I end up running from the dining room table (which has a perfect view of the bathroom!) to save the guests from an unexpected view!

Depending on the school, your child’s kindergarten might have a private bathroom in or near the classroom, or your child may have to use a multi stall bathroom like the older children do. Even if the kindergarten has a private bathroom, learning how to manage a public bathroom will be important if your child is going to the bathroom during lunch or in the gym.

The core message for your child is that every individual has a right to privacy when they use the bathroom. That means one person in the bathroom or stall at a time, close the door, lock the door, and when you’re done, come out with your clothes on and fastened. This can be tricky because when children are little they live in a world of “privacy… but…,” like Mom and Dad will come in to check on you if you’ve been in the bathroom too long or I’ll come in and wipe when you’re done. As a parent, I definitely don’t get privacy in the bathroom every time and even though my son understands that I want privacy when I’m in the bathroom it doesn’t stop him from coming in when two of his Legos are stuck together. Now is the time to start making those blurry lines around privacy a little sharper and more black and white. It may be a shift for your family, but it’s a shift that will help your child with the transition from being home to being in the more public world of school.

The paperwork

When my brother was potty training many years ago, my father famously told him that “the job’s not over until the paperwork is done.” I know a lot of preschoolers, and if we’re being honest, I’ve known some school-age kids, who still needed feedback on their cleanup job after using the bathroom. Now is the time to step up that gradual release of responsibility. I know that in a perfect world I would rather have my kids walking around clean than have them be walking around independent, but if they’re going off to school, they need to be able to do enough wiping to manage. They likely won’t have access to wet wipes either, so be sure that they get some practice cleaning up after using the bathroom with toilet paper only.

Fears

That brings me to a – perhaps less common but definitely real – problem for many students preparing to enter kindergarten. That is fears about using the bathroom on their own. For my son, it has been the sound of the loud flush in a large public bathroom. He also may run back out into the restaurant if the hand dryer comes on. While he may not encounter automatic hand dryers when he gets to school, he definitely does need a strategy for flushing the toilet on his own instead of hiding outside the stall while I do it for him.

Other kids have different fears that may interfere with their bathroom Independence. For example, in one school where I worked, the older students had convinced some of the first- and second-graders that one of the bathrooms was haunted. At least one student took it to heart and was running off the school bus in the afternoon and barely making it into the bathroom before having an accident because she was so afraid to use the bathroom at school. Another student I know began to avoid going to preschool out of the fear that he would have to poop there and no one would be in the bathroom to reassure him that he wouldn’t fall in. Every kid has their own quirky needs and worries in this area. Before they start kindergarten is the time to take a step back and think about whether any of your child’s peculiar anxieties are getting in the way of their safety and Independence in the bathroom.

Clothes

When I was in Americorps we had a uniform with a belt. It was a canvas belt with a free end that threaded through a metal clasp and then, as far as I could tell, became stuck there forever. I remember an embarrassing and nerve-wracking moment when I couldn’t get out of my uniform belt and had to stand there in the hallway while one of my teammates tried to free me, and I concentrated on not wetting my pants. I was 20, not a child. But that’s the memory I think of when I think about kids wearing belts and buttons and tights to school that they have to get out of to use the bathroom.

There are so many adorable kids’ clothes and school shopping is so exciting. Grandparents get in on the act, too, and buy adorable little outfits for the little boys and girls going off to school. And they make for great pictures! But before you send your child to school in a new kind of clothes, make sure that they can independently unfasten and fasten them in a limited amount of time. My son’s favorite pants all winter were a pair of hand-me-down khakis, but he could not get the hook at the top of the zipper done independently. It resulted in him walking around with his pants half open more often than I would like to think about. When I pick out school clothes for him, I go with all elastic waist and drawstring options that he can get in and out of efficiently I get back to his classroom. As his motor skills get better, more options will open up. And on the weekend, when he’s with the family, he can wear whatever he wants!

Hand washing

Kids are gross. Listen, I taught my son to wash his hands before I even taught him to use the bathroom. There’s a little song I made up and everything. And yet, I still catch him dipping his hands in the water, squirting a handful of soap, and rinsing it immediately into the sink and then drying his hands on my nice clean towel and trying to walk out of the bathroom. Yuck.

To an extent, kids are going to do a bad job with things like washing their hands and faces. Even if they know they’re getting rid of germs, they don’t really get it and they don’t really believe you that washing their hands will keep them healthy. So continue to reinforce this skill with your child and know that the teacher will, too. But you do have to accept that no one is going to supervise them scrubbing their hands every time. Yikes. So you may want to find out whether hand sanitizer is an option. In some schools it is, and others avoid it.

As much as it grosses me out (OK, I have a thing about germs) to think of a bunch of five-year-olds using the same bathroom all day with little adult intervention, I do realize that kids become independent eventually! This last window before your child starts school is your chance to give them the skills to be independent and confident so they can take care of business and get back to their classroom day!

Does your child have total bathroom independence? What if you weren't around to coach them?

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

I wrote a book about getting your preschooler ready for kindergarten. Join my mailing list for updates about the book and tips for preschool parents!



Sorry, I don’t tutor kindergartners – Here’s why

When I used to do test prep tutoring for high school students through some of the big tutoring companies, I pretty much only talked to parents who were looking for that specific product. I’ve been tutoring privately for two and a half years and now that I talk to a wider cross-section of parents, I am surprised by how often parents are looking for tutoring for their kindergartners! Sometimes, they feel their four- and five-year-olds have fallen behind kids their age and want them tutored in basic academic skills like letter names, shapes, and counting. Other times, they want their preschooler to “get ahead” so they can do well in kindergarten.

I’m sympathetic to these requests because I know starting school can be incredibly stressful for parents. I have a four-year-old myself and I find myself wondering all the time if he’ll do well when he starts school or if we have some hard work ahead of us.

As a reading and writing tutor, I don’t take on students that young. Especially working online, I don’t think I can meet the needs of the youngest learners. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I don’t think “tutoring,” in the traditional definition, is appropriate for students before around first grade.

I think that four- and five-year-old preschoolers and kindergartners, frankly, have way more important things to do than to sit with a tutor. I would rather see them on their feet, playing, creating, following directions, problem-solving, and learning about the world around them. Children this age have a short attention span for things that aren’t their own ideas and that’s not a problem! That’s the way they are supposed to learn.

That’s not to say they don’t have a lot to learn before they start school. There is a huge range of starting points for kids entering kindergarten. But kindergarten teachers expect that wide range to enter their classrooms at the end of every summer.

In any public school classroom in the U.S., kids are likely to have birthdays at least a year apart. That’s just the nature of the public school system, due to enrollment cutoffs. Teachers expect that and use a variety of techniques to meet kids where they are and bring them through the year. By high school, you wouldn’t be able to guess the age of many of the students.

In kindergarten, though, the differences can be dramatic. But in my experience as a public school teacher, some gaps are much more concerning than others. I would much rather see a student come in to the classroom who can converse with peers and adults, manage her behavior, navigate the classroom space, and solve problems. If she doesn’t know all the letters in the alphabet when she starts school, I can work with that!

Parents are constantly getting the message that they need to get their kids “ready” for kindergarten. There are workbooks and intensive preschool programs. There are family members pressuring parents to do more, comparing these preschoolers to other people’s children who were reading earlier or doing remarkable things before kindergarten! And because parents want the best for their children, they’re not sure where to turn.

Stay tuned for the next few weeks where I will be sharing some ideas for how to know whether your child is ready for kindergarten success and what kind of activities and lessons you can teach to help them be ready or when school starts this fall!

As a special education teacher, I have worked with students coming in for kindergarten screening for years. I will share some of the things that make us wonder or worry about an incoming student as well as some of the best ideas I’ve learned for promoting of the things that really matter for your child going into kindergarten.

Sorry, I don't tutor kindergartners - Here's Why

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Kindergartners need lots of play and real-life experiences, not a tutor.

Coming soon: 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten. Join the mailing list for updates about the book and tips and tools to get your child ready for school!



How Do I Study for Finals?

Maybe this is the first time you’ve studied for cumulative final exams or maybe your studying hasn’t worked out so well in the past. But this year is different! You’ve got this! Starting now, you are going to make a detailed plan for how to study for final exams, including what to study, what you already know, learning what you need to rock your exams, all while getting enough sleep and taking some breaks.

Come back for more posts on how to use different materials, like Quizlet and your textbook, to study for different kinds of material.

Soon, the school year will be over and you will be able to breathe a sigh of relief because you did it! But first you have to make it through finals!

Get Ready!

To get started, make a list of all the classes you’re taking and what kind of final test, paper, project, or other assignment you will need to complete by the end of the year. List the due dates as soon as you have them. Great places to look for this information are

  • Your teacher’s website
  • The syllabus
  • The board in your classroom  
  • Your notes from the beginning of the year or semester

If you can’t find the information written anywhere, it’s not too soon to ask the teacher about it. They should be announcing the details soon, but if they haven’t, it’s fine for you to ask. A lot of times when people say they don’t know how to study for final exams, the real problem is they have no idea what they will be tested on!

Once you know what the test will be, you can start preparing for it. We’re going to focus on in-class exams in this blog post. Hopefully, the teacher will give out some sort of study guide. That may be a list of topics to be covered in the exam or it may be a more specific list that includes vocabulary terms and key concepts to review. If you have a study guide, start there.

If you don’t have a study guide, you need to make your own. Start by going through your textbook and your class notes.

  • Make a list of all the chapter titles and main headings from the textbook that you covered during this semester.
  • Make a list of all the major topics you have class notes on.
  • In a science class, list the topics of any labs you completed.

This can look really overwhelming, at first, but soon you will be crossing things off this list, so don’t worry.

If you have your quizzes and tests from earlier in the semester, pull those out too, along with any other worksheets or graded work the teacher has handed back. (If these things are hard to find, come back after finals to read more about how to organize your binders and stay organized all year long.)

Get Set!

Now that you know what’s going to be on the exam, you have to figure out how ready you are now. There are a couple ways to do this. One is to take any quizzes or tests you took during the semester and use those grades as a guide. For example, if you got a 75 on the geometry quiz on triangles last week, you can assume you know about 75% of what you need to know about triangles on the exam. Remember that if the grade you’re looking at is from early in the semester, you may have forgotten some things and you might not score as well today on the same test as you did when you had just learned it.

If you don’t have a quiz grade on the material, take a quick look at the topics on your list. How many of them could you confidently explain? How many of them are familiar but you don’t know everything about them? How many have you forgotten all together? Use that information to estimate the percentage for each of the topics on your list. Do you know 50% of what you need? 25%? 99%? These numbers won’t be exact but they will help you decide how much study time each topic needs.

Now, repeat this process for each of the classes with an exam. You might want to do this over a few days, because looking at every grade and every piece of paper in every binder in your bag can be really overwhelming. But don’t wait too long. We tend to avoid things that are hardest for us. It’s tempting to start reviewing for biology if that’s a class you feel comfortable in and leave the geometry for last if it’s not your favorite. But you’ll be more stressed later if you don’t give yourself enough time to study for the exam that will be hardest for you. Be brave! Make your list now of what you need to know.

Decide when you will study

Put your exams on the calendar. Figure out what your schedule looks like between now and the exams. Take a colored pen (or schedule it on your Google Calendar) and draw boxes around the time you have available for studying each day of the week. For example, if you get home from school at 4:00 and homework usually takes an hour, and dinner takes an hour, then maybe you have a one or two-hour stretch in the evening that you can use for studying. If you have a few weeks until your exams, you don’t have to take up every minute of the day with studying. If you work after school on Thursday, you might not squeeze in any study time between homework, dinner, and getting enough sleep. It’s okay that you aren’t studying every waking minute, as long as you have a plan for getting it all done. Studying for shorter stretches of time is better for your brain and results in longer-term learning.

Once you’ve figured out how much time you have to study, start writing in, generally, what you’re going to study at those times. For example, if you’re most worried about your history exam, put some history study time in each of your study blocks, starting this week. If you have an hour to study, you might choose to spend half of it studying history and the other half studying Spanish. That way you don’t get overwhelmed with one topic and your brain has some time to process that information before you study it again. Researchers have found that spacing out your studying like this helps concepts stick in your brain better than when you cram for an exam and try to get it all in the night before the test.

Study!

Now you just have to stick to that schedule. If you have a few weeks until exams, you might want to start studying for the hardest exam the first week, add in the next hardest the second week while you continue studying for the first, and continue to add exams as you get closer to the test. That way, you get the most study time in your hardest subject and continuously review it until the final, while also giving time to your other classes.

What’s Next?

Now that you know what to study and when to study, you may be wondering how to study it? There are lots of different ways to review and study material. You can use tools like Quizlet, your own flashcards, and your class notes to review what the teacher taught you. You may want to form a study group or get someone to quiz you. We’ll talk more about effective strategies to tell you how to study for final exams in upcoming posts.

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 how to study for final exams
Create a simple plan to study for your final exams.

More than flashcards – how to help your child learn sight words

What are sight words?

Sight words, also known as high frequency words, are the most common words encountered in printed text. According to research by Edward Fry, creator of the Fry Instant Word list, the 25 of these words make up one third of all printed material. Some of these words are easy for kids to sound out (like big) while others (like the and was) are irregular or “rule breakers.” Two common sets of sight words that schools test and teach are the Dolch words and the Fry word list.

Why are sight words important?

Strong readers have a large vocabulary of words they recognize by sight. Think about your reading here in this paragraph. Are you sounding out each word or recognizing most of them as whole units? Part of the process of learning to read is adding more words to your sight word memory, which increases reading speed and efficiency. Some words (think little, people, McDonald’s and Grandma) are difficult for young readers to figure out sound by sound, but they quickly come to recognize them because they are seen frequently and/or because they are meaningful and kids are motivated to recognize them!

Why do we have to do sight words for homework?

Some teachers assign sight word study for homework. For some kids, not a lot of practice is needed to memorize the sight words. Others need to look at them, read them and spell them again and again to get them into memory. If a child hasn’t memorized the age-appropriate sight words, it can make their reading slow, choppy and frustrating. It can also make it hard for them to spell in a way that others can read their writing.

Assigning this practice at home lets teachers focus on other aspects of teaching literacy. It also may make sense to practice at home because each child is likely to be focusing on a different set of sight words.

Ways to study sight words

There are lots of ways to make sight word practice fun and meaningful and to get the assignment done without losing your mind.

Tactile practice

Have your child write sight words in a shallow tray full of sand or salt, in shaving cream, or on the shower wall with shower paint. You can also fill a quart Ziploc bag with hair gel or colored liquid soap, seal the bag well, and write words with a finger on the plastic. The bag of gel is my favorite because it’s less messy, but any type of practice that gets your kids saying the word and its letters, feeling the shape of the letters as they write and trace and reading what they wrote is good practice because using multiple senses strengthens the memory of the word.

Use the cover-copy-check strategy:

  • Read the word and spell it out loud
  • Cover the word or flip the card over
  • Write it or trace it without looking
  • Check to see if you spelled it right

Games

When I’m working with kids, I’m likely to turn just about anything into either go fish, memory/concentration or 20 questions. Here are some game ideas for sight word study.

Go Fish: Write the words on pairs of flashcards. Use the cards to play go fish. Deal 5 cards to each player and ask, “Do you have was?” If a player draws a match, make sure they read the pair out loud before you let them keep it.

Memory: Use the same pairs of flashcards to play memory. Lay between 5 and 10 pairs of words on the table face down. Players take turns flipping over a pair of cards, reading the cards and keeping them if they match. Make sure they read the words out loud and don’t just match visually.

20 Questions: Lay out the cards where everyone can see them. One person thinks of one of the words, and the other asks questions to figure out which one it is. Ask questions like, “Does it have the /p/ sound?” or “Does it have 5 letters?” Encourage the child to move the cards around and eliminate/flip over cards that don’t fit the clues.

Online games:

  • Popcorn words on Fun4theBrain.com
  • Sight word games at Education.com
  • There are also an ever-changing array of sight word apps for Apple and Android

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are memory tricks, like learning the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us nachos” to remember that the planets in our solar system are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Remember when Pluto was a planet and our mother served us “nine pizzas” instead? My favorite is the sentence, “Big elephants can always understand small elephants” to help kids spell because.

For sight words, the tricks your child picks will be individual to him or her. Check out Pinterest or search for “spelling mnemonic __” for whatever word your child is struggling with.

Think about meaning

Sight words can be tricky because they make kids remember whether a word starts with w or wh and that the uz you hear in does spelled like the oze you hear in goes.

The question words who, what, when, where, why all have wh.

Does and goes are both verbs and they both get the +es suffix on the end, even though they are pronounced differently.

Spaced repetition

Last, but definitely not least, is the strategy of spaced repetition. The linked video is geared toward medical students, but the idea of the forgetting curve is just as true with kids learning sight words! I’ll post a video soon on how to set up a spaced repetition system for sight words, but here are the big ideas:

If you are starting from scratch, pick five words to focus on. Once the child can read those words accurately on the first try, move those words over and only study them every other day. After a week of studying them every other day, move them to the twice a week group. At the end of that week, move them to once a week, then on to once a month. If the child misses a word, move it back to every day practice until they can do it correctly again. As the child masters the every day words, introduce new ones to work on so they always have about five new (hard) words and a bunch of others that they are getting really good at.

After they can remember a word they haven’t studied in more than a week (monthly), retire the word. It is definitely mastered!

When can we stop practicing?

This question is tricky because it’s different for every child and every set of words. The goal with sight words is accuracy and automaticity. If your child’s teacher is assigning sight word homework, he or she is probably assessing them in the classroom and will decide when to move words out of the practice set. If the child can read the word accurately, with no hesitation, spell the word, and read it when they see it in a sentence or story, they have mastered it and can stop studying.

Boy doing homework

The secret to helping students write better

The problem with a lot of the so-called writing instruction students encounter at school is that it doesn’t actually teach writing. Teachers say things like “Write an outline that shows the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Write one like this story you just read.”

But the problem is poor writers aren’t able to evaluate their own writing the way a good writer, like a teacher, could do. So a poor writer might think she has a topic sentence or a concluding paragraph in her writing. But when the teacher reads it, it’s clear that there isn’t enough information.

So even though teachers might show models of good writing and encourage students to used transition sentences like this author or use dialogue like that author, poor writers don’t have the ability to evaluate what they read or what they’ve written and decide if they’ve met the requirements. Poor writers don’t need more practice with their current skills. Teachers need to teach students to write better!

It just makes sense that what poor writers need is explicit instruction on how to write. A little league coach doesn’t say go out there and hit the ball like Manny Ramirez. A coach says, “Stand with your feet together. Hold the bat over your shoulder. Watch for the pitch. When you see the pitch come over the plate, swing your bat. Make sure you take a big step forward as you swing.” That level of explicit detail is missing from a lot of writing instruction, but it’s just what students need.

Poor writers need clear, predictable structures that they can use to complete writing assignments. It might seem boring to have them follow that formula for paragraph after paragraph but it’s just what a poor writer needs to write a decent essay. For a lot of us, it comes naturally to have a topic sentence that introduces what we’re going to write about in a paragraph. A poor writer may not intuitively include a sentence like that at the beginning of their paragraph. Therefore teaching them that a good paragraph starts with a topic sentence and that a topic sentence goes something like… helps them to organize their writing in a way other people can understand it.

Just like there are steps for solving a math equation, there are steps for putting together a paragraph in many different genres of writing. There are formulas for writing a persuasive paragraph. I like to use the POW+TREE structure. For elementary students learning expository writing, I use POW+TIDE. Most of these structures focus on organizing at the paragraph level, because once a student knows how to write a good paragraph, it’s easier for them to string those paragraphs together to write an essay or even a longer research paper.

Besides paragraph level structure, students also need to learn to write good sentences. For many students, controlling the grammatical structures in a long sentence and making sure the subjects and the verbs agree with each other can be and a very abstract topic. Some schools still give formal grammar instruction that teaches the names of all the parts of speech but even then students may not be able to put them together in a grammatical way in their own writing.

One way I help students learn to write more complex sentences is by teaching them the strategy of sentence combining and sentence decombining. By having students start with simple sentences like “Bob has a red shirt. Jim has a red shirt.” and combining them to make “Bob and Jim have red shirts,” students learn how to combine the building blocks of simple sentences to make more complex ones. On the flip side, I teach them how to take complex sentences and separate them out into their component parts. Like a mechanic taking apart an engine, students understand better how a sentence is assembled once they have taken it apart. 

Editing is another frequently challenging area of writing for students. Although many of them can tell me that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, they have difficulty seeing these things in the middle of a paragraph and correcting them. It’s the same for run-on sentences. They may understand what a run-on or a fragment is, but when it comes to identifying them in their own writing they have a lot of difficulty. One of the main strategies I recommend for this is not a popular one with students. One of the best ways to catch errors in your writing is to read it out loud.

Another strategy, which I teach to students who make mechanical errors, is COPS. Students learn to read a whole paragraph checking each sentence for capital letters, then read it again checking for overall appearance, which includes neatness and letter formation. The third time they read the paragraph they look for punctuation at the end of every sentence. And finally they read the paragraph from the last word backwards until they get to the first word to see whether all the words are spelled correctly. While it is time-consuming, this focused structure helps them make sure that they have not overlooked any errors.

This process of learning the building blocks of writing can be a time-consuming one and it can be frustrating for students, especially those who have been getting by without this knowledge for years of school. But for many students in middle school and high school they find that they can’t get by with what they knew about writing anymore. The assignments get complex and longer. Teachers are no longer as forgiving about mistakes in spelling grammar and organization. Many classmates have internalized features of good writing and seem to be getting good grades effort effortlessly. Students might feel frustrated or cheated, but really the problem is just that they haven’t learned the rules for this kind of writing yet. An academic writing is a rule-based process that can be taught!

If your child struggles with writing and needs some strategies that work, contact me today for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.

Students continue to struggle with writing when all they get is practice because they are practicing the wrong things!

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.

The Problem with Spelling Tests

I was doing a little bit of research about spelling instruction to prepare for this post and I found this piece on Psychology Today by Dr. J. Richard Gentry that made me want to scream!  In this short article, he criticizes a school district in Ohio, based only on what he saw in a brief news story, because they abandoned the practice of weekly spelling tests. So what’s wrong with the humble spelling test?

Gentry equates eliminating the weekly spelling test with eliminating spelling instruction. He mentions but dismisses the district’s claim that test scores have risen since they changed their spelling practice.

But why does Gentry oppose this change? Because in the video he saw, the fifth grade students were spelling words like “yes, rest, past, like” which he calls second-grade spelling words. He’s right. I would expect fifth graders to have mastered these words and to be working on spelling patterns like adding prefixes to words or creating different forms of a word, like connecting pretend and pretentious. He has dyslexia and argues that he would not be successful without the spelling instruction he got, and notes that poor spelling can have lifelong negative effects for people.

He’s not wrong about the perils of being a poor speller, but his conclusion that the only way to do it is to give a weekly spelling test is wrong and dangerous. This is a seven-year-old article, so I can’t provide my own analysis of the clip, which appears to no longer be available.

Gentry seems to believe the same thing that many elementary school teachers believe, something I disagree with strongly: Having kids memorize a list of words and testing them at the end of the week will cause them to become better spellers. It’s like memorizing lists of ingredients to become a better cook.

Children learn to become good spellers by working with words. They need to think about the sounds in the words, identify how those sounds are spelled, and practice writing the example words and other words with the same pattern. To give children the practice they need, I prefer a word study approach like the one used in the Words Their Way curriculum. Teachers using Words Their Way begin by assessing students and counting not how many words they get right but which patterns they are spelling correctly and which they still need to learn. For example, a student might be able to spell short vowel sounds but not use the silent e rule to spell long vowels like make and pine. Armed with that information, a teacher chooses which developmentally-appropriate rule to teach and chooses a set of words to practice it. Students cut apart the words, printed on slips of paper and physically manipulate them, sorting them into groups that share the same feature and comparing them to words that do not. Throughout the week, students use the words for reading, writing and spelling, alone and with partners and groups. And at the end of the week? They get a new set of words.

But what about the spelling test? That comes at the end of the unit. After the students have studied the whole group of patterns, like all the short vowel sounds, for example, they take a unit assessment in which they spell words from their lists, or words with the same patterns that were not on their lists. This is important because it assesses whether children just memorized the words or learned the rule or pattern that enables them to spell those words for life.

Unfortunately, I see that system being gutted and used the same way my old second grade spelling book was used. Teachers are using the sorting routines but then just rattling off those words on Friday and grading how many the kids get right. So you know what the kids do? They go home and memorize the words on flashcards and have their parents quiz them, just like we did with the old spelling tests.

When nothing changes, nothing changes. And until teachers really understand and embrace what it means to learn spelling through phonics and analysis, poor spellers will continue to be poor spellers. Unless we tell kids why bread and meat are both spelled with the ea vowel digraph and help them practice when to use which sound, they will be relying on visual memory or just plain guessing when they spell those words.

So while I wholeheartedly agree that spelling instruction is critical to helping children become both good writers and good readers, a weekly spelling test and assignments like “write your words three times” are a colossal waste of powerful learning time for many students who struggle to spell.

If your child needs help with spelling, I can help. Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to find out how I can help with reading, writing and spelling.

Spelling tests are a waste of time and do not make kids better spellers.

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!