Online Orton-Gillingham Tutoring FAQ

Often, parents hear of Orton-Gillingham for the first time when their children are diagnosed with dyslexia. When I talk to parents about online Orton-Gillingham tutoring, they often have lots of questions about how OG works and what it will mean for their kids and for their family. Here are some of the questions I get frequently.

How long does online Orton-Gillingham tutoring take?

Like everything else, It depends. Some students have small gaps in their learning that hold them back. For example, some kids have attended schools without solid phonics instruction and they are missing key pieces of information, like knowing when a vowel makes a long sound when it makes a short sound. Those kids can work with a tutor twice a week for 3 or 6 months and see significant gains once they learn the particular skill they need.

Other students, including those with dyslexia, sometimes need one to three years of more intensive intervention, working with a tutor two or three days a week, to catch up to grade level.

Another factor is the age of the student, because the longer a student has struggled, the more time it takes to catch up. On the other hand, older students are sometimes able to learn more quickly because they “sort of know” lots of the things we teach and can also benefit from more deliberate learning strategies. 

How often do we need to meet?

At Deep Roots Learning Solutions, we offer Orton-Gillingham tutoring to students between two and four days per week. This is consistent with the recommendations of lots of dyslexia professionals, including The Orton-Gillingham Academy, which is one of the main organizations that oversees and sets standards for OG tutoring.

Can we meet less?

Meeting less than twice a week can make a student’s progress dramatically slower. In fact, meeting just once a week means progress takes more than twice as long because a week is long enough for students to need a lot of review between lessons. 

I won’t say we never meet with students once a week. Sometimes it’s the only option due to schedules or finances, particularly on a short-term basis. But in that case, it’s very important to include regular reading at home using the decodable text we recommend.

Can we have shorter meetings?

It truly does take an hour to teach a full OG lesson, for most students. This includes review, introducing a new concept for reading and for spelling, building phonemic awareness and reading plenty of words, sentences, and stories that support what we’ve practiced. It also includes fluency and comprehension components. 

For some students, especially younger ones or ones with challenges like autism or ADHD, sitting still for a full hour lesson is counterproductive. We always aim to work with families to create a tutoring plan that works for the student.

What technology should we have at home?

We run our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring sessions on Zoom. While just about any device can run Zoom, it’s preferable for the student to join the meeting from a Windows or Apple computer. A Chromebook runs Zoom but with fewer features. It’s important that the device has enough RAM to run Zoom without freezing or crashing. One thing that helps is freshly restarting the computer before a session.

A strong internet connection is also extremely important. 

Beyond that, it’s a matter of what makes the student most comfortable and productive. Many students prefer a mouse to the touchpad on the computer. Students who are younger and focusing on letter formation can also benefit from a touchscreen device, even if it’s an old phone or tablet used in addition to the main computer.

Headphones are helpful for reducing distractions and making sure the audio is clear. 

Can we do online tutoring on a Chromebook?

Tutoring on a Chromebook is not impossible, but it’s not ideal. Zoom does not enable Chromebook users to annotate on the screen or take control of the host’s mouse. This limits the ways we can ask a student to mark up what they are reading or play games. 

However, if a Chromebook is the device you have available, Google products (Docs and Jamboard, mainly) give students more options.

How old should my child be for online Orton-Gillingham tutoring?

I used to say, “no younger than third grade.” For a lot of students, an in-person connection is very important to their learning. However, in 2020, I started working with some younger students and now I say, “It depends.” Students younger than third grade often need a parent sitting nearby to help with technology – open links, troubleshoot the computer – and manage materials. 

Can you help with homework during tutoring?

For Orton-Gillingham tutoring students, our answer is usually no. Orton-Gillingham is a diagnostic, systematic, sequential, multi-sensory approach to reading instruction. It is counterproductive to work on school assignments that don’t fall within the range of skills we’re teaching. 

For example, if a child is working on learning the short vowel sounds in one-syllable words (cup, bond, crimp), it’s not productive for us to study spelling words that follow a bunch of other spelling patterns. Without knowing the patterns that are found in the spelling words, the student has to rely on just their memory to spell them right, and they don’t stick. So although you won’t see an immediate benefit of OG tutoring on spelling tests if your child is significantly below grade level, you can trust that we are building a strong foundation that, with time, will help them to develop those skills.

For students seeking support with reading comprehension and writing, we do work with school assignments when it aligns with what we are working on. 

Do you assign homework?

No, we don’t assign homework for our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring students. What we do is send the text the student read during the lesson so you can practice it at home during the week. We’re also happy to recommend text, many available for free online, for independent or family reading.                                  

What should we do at home to practice?

For practice in between Orton-Gillingham tutoring sessions, it’s important that students read text that lines up with what they’ve been practicing in class. We can recommend appropriate texts, many of which are available for free online.

Reading with or to your child is also a great way to support their growing vocabulary and share stories with them that they aren’t ready to read on their own.

The Florida Center for Reading Research also has many free, printable, games and activities that are great tools for practicing early reading skills.

Can you help my child read faster?

Yes, but it takes time. Programs that are specifically for reading fluency usually focus on repeated readings of the same text. Those can help some students, but often low reading fluency occurs when readers aren’t automatic with sounding out the words. And if they aren’t sounding out words automatically, that usually means that there are some phonics skills they haven’t mastered. Often, older students with weak reading and spelling skills are also missing some phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness is the ability to break apart spoken words into their sounds, or to blend together individual spoken sounds. Most kids develop those skills in the early grades, but sometimes readers struggle because they have missed some of these skills. 

Building reading fluency effectively means going back and filling gaps in the underlying skills. At the beginning, this can seem slower, but once we build those fluency skills on a firm foundation, students can read anything with confidence!

Can you help my child spell better?

Yes! The same skills (letter-sound relationships, syllables, and prefixes and suffixes) that help students read better help them spell better, too. And our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring includes practice in both reading and spelling.

What’s my child’s reading level?

Well, it’s complicated. I wish I could give you a letter or a number that universally represents what your child can read and understand. That would be so much easier! But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The main leveling systems used in schools for children and their books are Guided Reading Levels (letters A-Z) and the DRA system (numbers from 2 up to 70). When teachers assign these, they take into account reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. For a lot of readers, this is a good approximation of what they can read. 

For readers who are struggling to decode words, these assessments are nearly meaningless. They tend to be predictable, patterned texts. At the early stages, they are things like “I see the bear. I see the elephant. I see the crocodile.” So really, they’re measuring how well students use the pictures to predict what the page says. Lots of my struggling students hit a wall in second grade (or maybe third) because until they’ve learned all six syllable types and the majority of vowel team sounds, they will frequently be stumped by words in texts at this level. Until they have gotten pretty far in the Orton-Gillingham sequence, it’s very difficult to sync up what they know with a “reading level.” So instead, I recommend decodable texts.

Still have questions?

If you’re still wondering if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is what your child needs, contact us to find out more. We are always happy to schedule a no-cost, no-obligation trial lesson to see if tutoring with Deep Roots Learning Solutions is the right fit for your child!

What are Sight Words?

And Why do they Matter?

Hey parents! Welcome to the school year! Here’s your supply list and oh, here’s the list of 50 or 100 sight words your child needs to master this year. Please practice at home. And here you are wondering, “What are sight words?” 

Usually, when we talk about sight words, what we really mean are irregular words, words that cannot be sounded out with the rules that a child knows at this stage. Many reading programs – whether they are consistent with the Science of Reading or not – have sight word lists that students need to master.

Teachers may call these sight words, trick words, high frequency words, or irregular words. Usually, they’re referring to the same thing: a list of words like the, a, for, once, two, too, to and who, what, when, where, why, and how that are frequently found in stories for children but that do not follow the early rules we teach kids for recognizing words.

Ideally, these words should be taught thoughtfully and systematically as part of comprehensive classroom reading instruction. For some reason, though, they are often turned over to parents or volunteers and these adults are given very little direction except to help children learn the words. 

Some teachers send home a few words every week as part of their classroom instruction. Others send the whole list and just let you know when it needs to be learned. If teaching sight words is left up to you, what should you do?

What’s the best way to help kids learn sight words?

Even though we often focus on what makes these words “weird” or hard to read, at the end of the day they are just words, made up of sounds. In fact, very few words are totally irregular. Almost all words on a typical early grade sight word list have just one irregular sound. That makes it much easier to teach these words because you can use what a child already knows about letter and sounds and build on that.

Decide where to start

You may have gotten a long list of words that is supposed to last the entire year. Or you might have gotten a shorter selection of words for this week or this month. Either way, the first step is to assess what your child already knows. Looking at the whole list of words can be overwhelming for kids, so consider putting a few at a time on a whiteboard or on index cards. If you can, make a game out of it. You can put numbers on the words and roll dice for your child to choose which one to read next. For school, your child may be required to read and spell the target words, or read them only. Either way, writing the words will help build a stronger memory than reading them alone.

Some of these words may fit patterns your child already knows. For example, if your child can sound out the word cat, they can read the high frequency word can. If they don’t know it right away, remind them of the strategies they already have for sounding out words, like tapping sounds on their fingers. On the other hand, don’t worry if your child is sounding out words that the teacher says should be sight words. Being able to automatically read those words comes from multiple exposures, not from some kind of magic that leads children to recognize them as whole words.

A sight word is really any word that we can recognize without focusing on the sounds. For example grandma, grandpa, McDonald’s, and their own names maybe sight words for your children even if they are words they cannot yet sound out. They recognize those few words visually, maybe even before they can really read. The trouble comes when kids try to learn all the words they read visually. The

(Good) Practice Makes Perfect

Study the parts

Looking at the irregular sight word was and chanting “w-a-s, w-a-s, w-a-s,” maybe with multi-colored tracing or writing and rewriting, is a popular strategy for practicing sight words, but these flashcards and games are also mostly practicing the look of the word. 

Instead, focus on the sounds of the word and how each sound is spelled. 

Kids often spell was “wuz” because they hear the /w/ sound and spell it with a w, then hear the /u/ and /z/ sounds and spell those the same way they’d usually spell those sounds. To spell was correctly, they need to notice that the /u/ sound has an unusual spelling here, letter a. Same with the /z/ sound. It might help to remember that s can spell the /z/ sound in other words they might know, like is and has. By drawing their attention to the unusual spellings in the word, parents can help kids remember these irregular parts.

The really cool thing is that once kids start to think about words this way, they notice the irregular sounds in other words and start to teach themselves to “map” sight words this way. I noticed my 6-year-old started doing this with new sight words after about six months of me taking the lead in introducing tricky irregular words. 

So don’t worry, you probably won’t be helping your child learn sight words forever! Instead, you’re helping them build a set of tools that’s going to help them learn on their own.

Learn the history

Another tool that really helps when teaching sight words is remembering that we spoke English long before we started writing it. Spelling was invented as a way to write down that spoken language. The way we spell words doesn’t just reflect how they sound. It also reflects their history and where they come from (Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek – so many influences on English).

Sometimes a sight word doesn’t make sense because it’s an old spelling pattern (like in though and said) where the pronunciation has changed over time. Sometimes comparing an irregular word to another word you know can help you remember the spelling.

For example:

  • say  They say, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + s = says She says, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + ed = said She said, “Hi,” yesterday. (It happened in the past)

When kids write “said,” they often spell it “sed.” This makes sense because it’s what they hear. But if they think about this pattern and remember it’s a form of the word “say,” it’s easier to remember to spell it with an e. 

(Older students might also know that sometimes when a word ends in y, we change it to i when we add an ending, like happy and happier.)

Going through the words this way is slower. You might only practice one or two words at a time. But the good news is, once you teach a word this way today, it will be much quicker to review tomorrow.

What does sight word mean, anyway?

OK, now that we have the nuts and bolts of sight word study at home, you might still be left with the question, “What are sight words, really?”

Scientists used to think that readers recognized words automatically by knowing them as a visual whole. Now we know that the brain uses its language system to recognize and store printed words. Basically, mature readers see a word and convert it into sounds so fast that we’re not aware of it. That’s what lets us read words in all capital letters or different fonts.

Yet, the visual approach is what most teachers emphasize. Even in groups of highly trained teachers, I often see questions about how to explain the spelling of a word like “though” and a comment like, “that’s just a sight word.” It’s not just a sight word. Sight words are incredibly important because the more words a reader recognizes automatically, the more fluently she can read, and the more she can focus on understanding the story. 

When we tell a kid, “that’s just a sight word,” we’re shutting down the conversation and missing an opportunity for learning. If they know it, it becomes a sight word. And if they don’t, telling them “it’s a sight word” doesn’t help them. 

Can you tell I get a little fired up about this? 

Hopefully these tools for learning sight words will help your child become a more confident, knowledgeable reader and save you some time supervising homework!

If your child still needs some help with their reading and writing development, contact me for a free tutoring consult. We have openings for one-on-one tutoring and some small groups, too!

COVID Learning Loss: Is it Real?

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Are you as tired of talking about the 2020-21 school year as I am? COVID learning loss. The “COVID Slide.” Local fights about the best way to provide for children’s wellbeing. Worrying national news in the areas of health and learning. It’s a lot to process. 

For most of us, starting school in the fall (or sending our kids) and following that routine until summer has been automatic. Easy? Nope. But “normal,” just the way things are. 

But since March, 2020, when schools started closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing has been “normal.” My tutoring students, in grades 1-11, all over the US, have had schedules ranging from full remote to full in-person. They have adjusted to changes in schedule, transportation, and work expectations. And their teachers and families and school leaders have worked even harder behind the scenes to make it all happen. And with President Biden’s goal to open K-8 schools for in-person learning, more changes are happening every day.

What is COVID Learning Loss?

Compared to last year, many more young children in first and second grade are below benchmarks in reading. That makes sense because there have been so many barriers, especially for young students, to getting consistent instruction. Children in under-resourced schools in the US (disproportionately children of color) are more likely to have experienced these instructional gaps. Data from Amplify Education, which publishes the DIBELS assessment, reports that 40% of first graders in 2020 are below the target scores for reading, compared to 27% of students at the same time last year. Yikes!

Add to that the immense social-emotional challenges many students have experienced this year. Kids are often away from their friends, dealing with changes in their parents’ work, in childcare arrangements, and in every other aspect of their life. Teens, especially, are often feeling lonely, struggling to work independently, or missing connections with their teachers and classmates.

Taking stock of where we are now

With a couple of months left in the school year, depending on where in the U.S. students are, things are still in flux. Schools are doing what they can to get kids into the classroom. Most public schools are preparing for some kind of mandated testing before the end of the school year. In some ways, we are far from the end of the school year. In other ways, summer break is coming up fast! That doesn’t leave enough time to make up for the rest of the year.Next year, schools will have to deal with kids starting the year behind where they usually are. Am I worried that “all the kids are falling behind?” I am not. For a lot of kids, this year will be barely a blip on the radar because there is such a flurry of research and funding and programs to support students.

I am worried that certain vulnerable populations of learners have slipped through the cracks, though. I worry about the youngest learners. I worry about kids with identified and unidentified learning challenges. I worry about kids who missed out on language experiences, social support, small group interventions, and meals in the last year, because they couldn’t be inside school buildings. I worry about teenagers who have been asked to be independent and responsible when their frontal lobes weren’t developed enough. I worry about kids who made transitions from one school to another without a gentle, welcoming, handoff. There is certainly work to do!

What should we do for kids who struggled?

So, what can be done for kids with COVID learning loss? Lots of big players in education, from districts themselves to teachers’ unions, are proposing summer programs. These offerings from the schools would help make up for lost classroom hours during the summer. For some students, these programs will be the boost they need. District programs like these often miss a segment of kids who need them, though. Especially those that need parents to drop kids off, or pick them up in hte middle of the day. 

Other experts are promoting individualized tutoring programs, like those that have been shown to be effective for children with dyslexia. If we can summon the manpower, an individualized tutoring program could be incredible. Even one run by quickly trained non-teachers or college students can give students an academic boost. 

One idea I keep hearing that I hate is extending the school year. Some places are talking about extending the 2020-21 school year, and others are talking about bring kids back earlier in the fall. I hate it because I don’t know a single teacher who is not close to his or her limit right now. When I taught special education, I declined to teach summer school with my students because I knew I had nothing new to offer them by June. I don’t think even the threat of COVID learning loss is more important than time for teachers to regroup and recharge for another intense school year. I think teachers need a break this summer and I would rather see them have top quality professional development and let some other people teach the kids for a while. But then again, no one’s going to ask me!

How my family is handling it

The only thing that’s up to me, really, is the plan for my family. My daughter has been in daycare and that’s where she will stay this summer. She’s been there all year in a pretty small daycare center. They have done a terrific job with the changing guidelines and keeping kids feeling comfortable and happy and learning in a really weird year. And her learning amazes me at least once a week!

For my kindergartner, we’ve chosen day camp for a great deal of the summer. We are prioritizing time outside, socializing with peers, and the type of hands-on learning experiences that distance learning couldn’t offer. There are some first-grade skills he needs to practice, certainly. On rainy days, weekends, and quiet times at home, I have a running list of things I’ll offer him: books, math practice, and definitely some writing. We’ll probably continue the kindergarten’s daily journal writing routine as well as keep using Epic Books for a steady stream of interesting ebooks, including some great read-aloud and audio titles that support his fluency and keep him busy with something that’s not a tv show!

I know that as an educator, I’m in a unique position and I feel comfortable planning and organizing all this stuff myself. Not all parents will. That’s why I’m expanding my offerings to include some groups this summer. We’re focusing on keeping kids reading, building connections through discussion, and supporting middle school reading and writing skills through groups on vocabulary and paragraph composition. If that sounds like what your child needs, check out the details here.

What your child will bring home in the first weeks of school

The first couple of weeks of school is a blur of backpacks and new sneakers and lunchboxes or lunch codes and locker combinations and bus numbers and paper. So much paper. 

You’ll get in the groove, but until you do, here’s a list of things might come home in the first week or two of school that you need to find and respond to to make sure the year starts smoothly.

Requests from the school

These include anything that the school wants you to fill out and return. It might be:

  • Emergency forms/cards
  • Transportation information
  • Behavior contract/agreement (like an acknowledgement that you have seen and agree to the school or class rules)
  • School handbook (some schools ask you to sign that you have received and read it)
  • Conference schedule
  • Volunteer sign-ups/CORI forms
  • Information from the school
  • Calendar
  • Lunch menu
  • Teacher contact information/welcome letter
  • Supply list
  • Syllabus for each class (high school and maybe middle school)
  • Log-in information for you and/or your child
  • Schedules
  • Bus route information
  • Extra-curricular activity signups
  • Sports information
  • Registration for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts
  • Club schedules
  • Information on extra help from teachers
  • PTA/PTO sign-up forms

Questions you might ask

  • How will I be notified of school announcements/emergency information? – Most schools now use a digital program that lets them robo-call families and/or send out texts and emails, depending on what parents request
  • When is Open House/Back to School Night?
  • When are conferences? How do I sign up?
  • Is there a directory of other families in the school so we can set up playdates and carpools?
  • What are the policies on snacks/allergies, birthday invitations, staying home sick/makeup work, absences, consequences/rewards for behavior, dress code?
  • What are the expectations for homework? How much? When? In what form?

Schools mostly have systems for getting the key information out to parents, so you probably won’t have to track down the answers to many of these. In fact, they should be in the school handbook or on the school or teacher’s website. But keeping your eyes open for this information as it comes in means you won’t miss deadlines and you can get your child’s school year off to a smooth start. Happy back to school!

Don’t forget to download a free binder checklist and shopping list to build a system to keep all those papers organized for your child!

How to set up your child’s paper planner for back-to-school success

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‘Tis the season for back to school! Backpacks are packed with sharpened pencils, outfits are coordinated, hair is trimmed. But has your child set up their paper planner or agenda book for a successful start to the year?

Unless your school doesn’t do homework, most students should start learning to use some kind of planner or agenda book in about third grade. Ideally, in third and fourth grade, teachers are telling kids exactly what to write and where.

By fifth grade and continuing through middle school, students should begin to take over the responsibility of identifying and writing down assignments. Setting up the planner ahead of time can be a huge time saver! Here are some things to think about at the beginning of the school year.

Pick the right planner

Your school might issue a planner. The one they pick may be a good fit for your child or it may not. Some obstacles to planner use are:

  • Boxes and lines are too small/close together
  • No place to write non-homework information
  • Gets left at school or lost
  • Hard to find the right page

Look for a planner that fits your child. If they have messy handwriting, you might want to invest in something from an office supply store that has more room to write on each day. This one and this one have plenty of lined space. 

For students who need a little more structure and support to develop their executive functioning skills, I really like the Work-Smart Academic Planner. It leads students through a process of setting goals, identifying challenges, and explicitly organizing their time to meet their goals. Of course, the kids who need this support most will need help working through the process.

Or find or create a template that works better and print out a few copies and stick them in a folder or binder. You can always tweak your customized planner pages when you see what works. Download my sample planner page at the bottom of the post to get you started.

The bonus in creating your own planner is you can pre-type weekly things like vocabulary quizzes, soccer practice, or other activities. 

This is also a great option for kids who lose things. Print a few pages at a time on the brightest paper you can find so it’s easy to find even if it’s between things. At worst, they lose a week’s worth of notes and start fresh tomorrow with a new blank sheet.

Set it Up

You could set up the paper planner week by week. That lets you add and change things as the year goes on, like when a sports season ends or the teacher changes the due date on a weekly assignment. But I will almost always forget. And I know a lot of kids who will forget, too. 

So my preferences it to set up a batch of planner pages at once. Sit down with the school calendar, sports schedule, family calendar, some colored pens or pencils and a big bowl of popcorn and get started! Look at the next 1 or 2 months of events and set up those pages. 

I prefer that students do this themselves, because it helps them internalize the information. But if handwriting is an issue, or your child won’t do it, give them another role, like reading you the items and telling you where to put them.

  1. Decide on a system. If you have color-coded notebooks (and I hope you do!) match your planner notes to those colors. If not, you might want to make after school appointments one color, days off from school another, and leave the homework assignments in whatever pen or pencil your child writes with in class.
  2. Write in any days off from school, after school practices, games, and appointments. You may want to add an extra visual cue, like using a yellow highlighter to label appointments that happen during school time, or adding stars around soccer games to help your child remember to pack his uniform. Some planners come with special stickers for different types of events. You can also get tiny stickers of your own to make things eye-catching. I like these tiny little ones.
  3. Use color to write or emphasize the name of each class that gives homework. If you used a planner that isn’t designed for students, you will have more work ahead of you. Divide the space for each day into blocks by drawing lines. Label each block with the name of a class. Write in colored pen or underline each class name in color. I am about to buy a new set of these pens. I keep them with me at all times when I’m working to color code my planner or notes.
  4. Use a binder clip or a flap of cardstock (a manila folder works) taped to the front cover as a bookmark, so your child can easily turn to this week’s page when writing assignments.

Send the Tools to School

Help your child decide what they will record in the planner. For example, some students are way too brief, and by the time they get home, they don’t remember what “worksheet” means in the math block. Other kids write way too much and run out of space or time to fit in all the information. 

This is where a system of writing notes on the papers themselves can come in handy. Then the planner just needs to say “math worksheet, 9/3” and all the information is there on the worksheet.

Send your child to school with the tools he needs: colored pens or pencils, planner, sticky notes for putting details about an assignment on the assignment itself. 

Revisit the System in a Few Months

Next time you sit down with your child to set up more planner pages, flip back through the last few months. What is working? Is the homework getting written down in a way that is helpful to him? Is he remembering all his assignments? Prepared for soccer practice? Getting good grades on tests?

If the answer to any of those is no, it’s time to revisit the system. If he is missing assignments, where’s the breakdown? Did he forget to write it down? Forget to check it? Do the wrong page number? If he’s not doing well on tests, is he writing down the test date and making a note to study on the days leading up to it, or just writing the test down once? 

Think of the planner as a living document. Setting up the planner for back to school is an important step, but not the only step. Help your child reflect on whether this system works for them and why or why not. They may need something digital, like Google Calendar, or something simpler, like a blank notebook where they write down all the assignments and cross them out when they are done. 

If your child is resisting this process and arguing with you about it, (hello there, middle school parents!!) you may find they have more success going over the system with another parent or caring adult in their life, or with a tutor. Kids sometimes resist help from their parents that they will accept from someone else. Unfair, I know, but true! 

Do you have a favorite paper-based planner? Do your kids embrace planners or avoid them? Comment below!

How to Choose a Device for Distance Learning

Big changes this fall

I thought it would be a while before I had to choose a device for distance learning. My two- and five-year-olds have access to a tablet that just about runs PBS Kids apps, and every once in a while I’ll let my son click through a book on my laptop. We hadn’t even thought about getting a kid-friendly device for a couple more years, hoping to limit the draw of screen time until the kids are a bit older.

That left me scrambling in April when my son’s pre-K class was having weekly Zoom meetings and he was taking a karate class online, too. We repurposed an old laptop. It’s too slow to run everything I need for tutoring, but works fine to just run Zoom. But it’s heavy and clunky and not at all kid-friendly. With remote schooling on the horizon for kindergarten this year, we, like many families, are finding it’s time to choose a device for distance learning for our son. 

What does distance learning require?

Tools and platforms for distance learning

Distance learning seems to be taking a few different forms, depending on the district and the age of students. So far, some schools have sent packets or prescribed practice on a website. That is likely to change as school districts find their groove for distance learning this fall. 

A good starting place for choosing a device is to ask the school district. Districts should be able to offer some guidance about whether the majority of students will be on Chromebooks, or if tablets or Windows or iOS laptops will be more common. If most students are using Chromebooks, a laptop would give good results because you can use the Chrome browser on any laptop for a very similar experience. If students are mostly using laptops, on the other hand, a Chromebook might limit what your child can access.

Some districts near me have provided hardware (usually Chromebooks) to families who need them, while other places have left families trying to choose a device for distance learning on their own. If you’re in the market for a kid-friendly device for distance learning, here are some things it will likely need to handle:

Video meetings

Many schools are using Google Meet for their video meeting platform. It’s designed to run well with Chromebooks and also has apps for Android and iOS. Zoom is another popular choice and it will run on just about anything, as well. The important thing is to make sure your student’s learning device has enough processing power and RAM to run a video meeting with a shared screen without lagging and freezing. Most new devices can handle this requirement, so if you’re shopping for something now, this should not be a tall order.

Another thing to consider for video meetings is your household internet speed. Even with a fast device, limited bandwidth on your network can be a barrier. Now is the time to:

  • Check your internet speed
  • Consider upgrading to a higher speed (a bigger number in Mbps, megabits per second) from your internet provider
  • Consider upgrading your wireless router, moving the router and the kids closer together in the house, or plugging in to the modem for a wired connection for video meetings
  • Manage usage on your home network, limiting streaming, downloads, and other demanding activities during video meetings.
  • Experiment with other things in the house that might interfere. Some people have wireless connection problems when the microwave or another appliance is turned on.

Web-based learning

Browsers and websites are getting more demanding, even as computers get more powerful, so there’s a constant arms race to make sure the hardware can keep up. Just about anything on the market today can handle web-based practice like Khan Academy or iReady, or videos on YouTube. 

Submitting work

Older students, especially, will be required to upload evidence of their learning.

  • Documents – Google Docs is the first choice of many school districts and it’s my recommendation for students, whether the district offers it or not. Google Docs (and its spreadsheet buddy Sheets and presentation pal Slides) runs in a browser on any computer or through iOS and Android apps.
  • Videos – These can be uploaded to a teacher-selected platform or sent via YouTube or Google Photos. Most devices on the market today will have a webcam, but doublecheck before buying a low-end laptop or Chromebook.
  • Images – A device with a camera (like a tablet or phone) can easily take a photo of written work, or use a free app like TinyScanner to scan the page using your device camera. You can get creative with a webcam to capture a still picture as well, using careful positioning of the work and the camera.

Laptop – more features, higher cost

One of the more expensive, but much more flexible, options you can choose as a device for distance learning is a laptop computer. Depending on your choices (and there are so many options) you can spend anywhere between $300 and $1000 on an adequate laptop. If you can make the investment, and your kids are of an age where they can take care of a laptop for 5 years or more, consider stepping up to a laptop with more RAM and a faster processor to have a device that can handle new software as it arrives. 


The MacBook is a more expensive laptop for distance learning than comparable Windows machines. There’s nothing a student needs a Mac for, but if your family has mostly Apple devices and you want to keep things consistent, one nice option is this refurbished 13” MacBook Pro. It’s less expensive than a new Mac, but powerful enough to handle distance learning. 


There is a dizzying assortment of laptops on the market that run Windows. Some have long-standing brand recognition (HP, Dell, Samsung) and tend to be more expensive. I have had a long string of laptops from Acer and Asus, two less expensive brands, and have had great experiences. One nice option for a Windows laptop for distance learning is this Acer. With a dual core processor and 4 GB of RAM, it would be a great option for productivity and video streaming for a student.

One of the great things about laptops is they arrive ready to use right out of the box. Plug them in and turn them on. However, when you’re planning on lots of computer time for distance-learning, it pays to invest in some of the accessories that will make your child more comfortable and efficient.


Having the right accessories can make your child’s distance learning experience less frustrating and more productive.

  • A power strip – This option with USB ports will leave room for a few of the family’s devices, including USB ports to charge things like Bluetooth headphones, tablets and phones.
  • USB hub – One frustrating difference among devices is the number of USB ports. Right now, I have a wireless mouse, headphone charger, and drawing tablet all plugged into mine and there is no room left! A USB hub gives you more flexible options for plugging in peripherals.
  • Headphones – Especially in a household with multiple family members working and learning at home, headphones can go a long way towards keeping the peace. I have these wireless Bluetooth headphones from MPOW and I love them for tutoring online. For a child, these MPOW wired headphones have the excellent feature of limiting volume to safe levels. Another fine option is any “gaming” headset. These are designed for hours of comfortable wear by video gamers and include a microphone for talking to other players.  
  • Wireless mouse – Amazon Basics makes this simple, inexpensive one. A USB dongle stays stored in the mouse when you aren’t using it, but they are so small that I usually just leave it plugged into my computer.
Looking for distance-learning support? Contact me for a consultation to discuss how 1:1 or small-group tutoring can help your child succeed this year!

Chromebook – affordable, simple, fewer features

Chromebooks are popular in schools because they are simple to use (no software to install or troubleshoot) and inexpensive. However, they also have a reputation for being slow and clunky. They could be a great choice to get you through this year of distance learning, and then become the family’s homework computer or backup device. 

Some of the newer ones are finding an audience with people who want a lightweight, simple device for travel or working on the road. Their biggest weakness is that they require an internet connection to get many things done, but so do many of the distance learning lessons schools are offering, so that may be a moot point. You can, however, write in a Google document (or spreadsheet or slide presentation) offline and sync to your Google Drive account when you reconnect. This can be a great option for procrastinators, like those of us who need to use airplane mode to write a blog post, for example…

Here are some Chromebooks that would get the job done, and a few other things to think about:

  • Samsung Chromebook Plus – This 2-in-1 Chromebook flips all the way open to double as a tablet. More expensive than some of the basic laptops but having a touchscreen might be worth it for younger learners who aren’t as deft with the mouse or touchpad.  You could also try out a renewed (open box or refurbished) one from Amazon for quite a bit less
  • Asus Chromebook C523 – This Chromebook from Asus has a 15.6” screen, which is the size I prefer for tutoring, blogging, and heavy-duty writing. It’s plenty big enough for what your kids need for school. This one lacks a touchscreen, which brings the price down.

So what’s the downside of Chromebooks?

Chromebooks sometimes get a bad rap, and they’re not my favorite device for online tutoring. Students using one can’t take remote control of my mouse during a Zoom meeting, which means I have to use some workarounds to make lessons interactive for them.

Older Chromebooks are also known for freezing in Zoom sessions, and for video and audio lag. I think the problem is less the Chrome operating system and more that older Chromebooks were built to be cheap, so they are underpowered.

The big downfall of Chromebooks is they are not as flexible or fully-featured as Windows or Apple computers. They are designed to run web-based applications, anything that can be used in the Chrome browser. Like all computers, newer Chromebooks have more RAM and better processors than older computers. That means they can handle more processes at a time and hold more information at the ready.

So while older Chromebooks can slow down and freeze up when doing demanding work like a video conference with screen sharing, newer Chromebooks can handle that load better. 

Tablets – portable but less flexible

A tablet can be better if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a younger learner. The touchscreen is often more intuitive than a keyboard. Some web-based games and apps may not work as well on tablets, but on the other hand, the world of apps opens up so many possibilities. A tablet would not be my first choice for distance learning for an older student (third grade and up). But it may work if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a child in the primary grades.


The available apps in the Apple App store make the iPad an easier, more flexible choice among the tablets available. Those features come at a price. But with a case and keyboard, the iPad can be a great tool for academic work, including distance learning. Features are a bit more limited for video conferencing on an iPad. For example, if a teacher shares lesson material in Zoom, a student using an iPad can’t see the teacher’s video and the shared screen at the same time. On a newer iPad, students are able to accept remote control of the host’s screen to click and drag objects, but it can be a little finicky.


Android tablets are getting better, with more apps available every day in the Google Play app store. For distance learning, they are adequate for video conferencing, using Zoom or Google Meet. In Zoom, they can annotate on the screen but not take full control of the host’s mouse. They work better as a secondary device in a Zoom meeting. You can use a tablet as a document camera or for viewing the video meeting only while students work on paper or another device. This tablet from Samsung is a great choice if you decide to go the tablet route.

Kindle Fire – A Kindle Fire tablet only runs apps from the Amazon app store, so it’s more limited than Android or Apple tablets. However, a Fire can be a great, lower-priced option for reading, web browsing, games and media. It is not a great choice for distance learning because of the limited choice of apps. 

There’s no one right answer

When it’s time to choose a device for distance learning, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Older students, in middle school or high school, are more likely to need specialized software downloaded onto a Mac or Windows laptop. Younger students might be overwhelmed by all the options on a laptop and find the simpler, less fully-featured, Chromebook an easier tool. The youngest students may find the keyboard difficult and they might be more successful with a tablet, but that’s a tool that won’t necessarily grow with them as school expectations increase. Ultimately, you know your child best, but I hope this guide will give you some options to consider!

Confused? Overwhelmed? Dreading the not-back-to-school return to school? I’m continuing to offer online tutoring, as I have for three years now, and have several new daytime openings to meet the needs of families with kids at home during the day. Contact me today to find out more about how I can help with reading and writing skills.

Our New Year’s Resolution

I’ve been thinking about goal-setting for 2020. In past years, I’ve dashed off some quick resolutions that look like anyone else’s. By February, I can’t even remember what they are!

This year, I’m trying to be more thoughtful and purposeful about my resolutions. And one of my most important resolutions is to share what I know with students and parents.

I hear frustrations and questions from parents every week about teens who are disorganized, missing assignments and failing classes. I work with tutoring students myself who are trying to keep all the important information for their classes in their heads, or who are drastically underestimating how much time they need to do their assignments. So often, these kids need, and don’t have, a system that works for keeping track of information.

So my first order of business this year is an email course. Over a series of 7 lessons, I’ll be sharing my process for teaching your teens to choose and use a planner to get organized and stay organized for school.

Want in? Join below to get the free email course, “Academic Planners for Success.” Get started with my free, printable, planner page.


How to Organize a Kid Who Keeps Losing Planners

Does your child have trouble remembering assignments? Know what to do but not where the paper is? Know exactly what is needed….but it’s at school? Well, clearly, they need to use a planner to stay organized.

That seems great, until they lose the planner in a week or two. Then what?

Unfortunately, building a system for keeping track of things around a thing your kid needs to keep track of can be a losing battle. Ideally, using a planner is part of a larger system where there is support at school and at home for building good routines and always keeping the planner in its rightful place.

But if that’s still a work in progress, you might need to use something a little more disposable, or at least easily replaceable, to get the ball rolling. That’s why I created this one page planner template. The idea is simple: instead of a whole year’s worth of pages, which could be irretrievably lost anywhere between school and home, this planner can be printed on brightly colored paper, hole-punched in a binder or stapled right into a homework folder. You can customize the page with your child’s class schedule, more room to write, and weekly reminders like bringing a band instrument on Tuesdays, or studying for a vocab test every Thursday. For most kids, printing these pages two-sided, with a whole week on one sheet of paper, will give them enough room.

Start a folder or binder at home for them to file old sheets in, in case they need to refer to things later. Or increase the responsibility by stapling together a month’s worth of pages as they start to learn to plan for future weeks.

Download the one-page planner printable here.

Preschool: Is there an app for that?

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I read the question from parents often: “What is your favorite app for…” teaching your child to recognize letters, count, learn sight words, or identify shapes and colors. Trick question, my favorite app is real life. It’s free, low tech, infinitely flexible and it works a lot better than any digital tool I’ve ever found.

I’m not anti-technology, and (don’t tell the American Academy of Pediatrics) I’m not even sure how much screen time my preschooler gets. He watches videos on YouTube (his latest request has been videos about food chains, but he also likes the channel King of Random for weird science demonstrations). He has a tablet and we do have some games that I don’t mind. We read ebooks on my phone or his tablet and he plays some computer games with my husband. His pointing and clicking skills are really coming along, but that’s not something I was worried about, to be honest. 

There are plenty of apps in the app store for pre-reading, early reading and early math skills. But if your concern is that your child’s skills aren’t where they need to be, don’t go to the tablet. Put it away and give them your time instead.

Skill-building activities for the family

Read – Reading to children builds their vocabulary and their love of stories. It also teaches them about the world and helps them learn how books work, so they will be ready to learn to read when the time comes. If your preschooler knows their letters, send them on a hunt to find the letter t or the letters t-h-e on a page of a book. This helps to develop their understanding that print is an important part of book pages as well as helping them begin to recognize letters and words.

Draw – Drawing with kids helps them practice important motor skills, but also promotes language development. Ask them what they are drawing. Let them tell you what they want you to draw. Negotiate who gets what colors. Ask them what kind of paper they want and where they want to draw.

Write – Lists, cards, letters, stories. Sometimes this comes out of drawing, when kids want labels on their pictures. Other times, you can invite your preschooler to sit down with you while you make a shopping list or address Christmas cards and see if it inspires them to write. 

Play – Put away the complex toys with batteries and noises and only one “right” way to play with them. Take out something simple like cars, or animals, or dolls, and see where that goes. Teach your kids a simple game like Simon Says or Freeze Tag to help them develop executive functioning skills. 

Be active – Take a hike, ride bikes, or go to the playground. Lots of physical play helps your child be strong and well-coordinated, which is the foundation for success in school. 

When you need to use technology

Into every life, a little laundry must fall. And some dishes. And cooking meals. And long car rides. And waiting at the doctor’s office. For a lot of families, technology is a great tool for helping your child get through those boring moments when you just need them to be safe and let you concentrate on a task. 

And here are my favorite apps and activities for those moments:

Libby – This app works with the Overdrive ebook and audiobook system, available through many public libraries. There are many “read-along” picture books that have a narrator reading each page to the child. These were great for bedtime stories when I was pregnant and exhausted, too. 

Google Keep – I use this app for EVERYTHING. But my son loves the drawing capability. I don’t have any apps specifically for him on my phone, but if all else fails and we’ve been waiting too long for dinner, or I need to talk to the pediatrician without his input, I open up a blank note and let him doodle. 

Teach Your Monster to Read – I think I paid $4.99 for this one. It does a nice job of introducing letter sounds in a game format, but my son found it too hard to navigate at 3.5, and boring by the time he was 4. Not a bad app and very popular, just not a good fit for him.

PBS Kids – My son loves the variety of games available on this app. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what he’s doing once he gets into the app, but I trust PBS Kids.

There are other apps, free and paid, that are decent ways for kids to spend their time. But I make a point of keeping his tablet limited to just a few at a time because otherwise it’s too tempting for him to stare at the screen all afternoon! As it is, he’s usually a little bit bored by the time his sister falls asleep for her nap, or by the time we get off the highway, and he willingly gives it up. 

If you want some low tech options for those moments of boredom, check out my infographic, “Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Wait.” It has five games and activities you might have forgotten about that can keep them engaged, learning and having fun when you have a few minutes to kill.

At the end of the day, I don’t consider time spent on a tablet to be “learning time” for my preschooler, so I make sure that time is a limited part of the day. Right now, it looks like we are in the process of moving out of our living room. But he’s just been playing. He has every toy piled in one corner of the room because he spent the morning running a pet store.

When he gets in from excavating the dinosaur bones in the kit my aunt gave him, he’ll practice his organizational skills by cleaning up toys before dinner. Those are the kind of learning experiences where preschoolers should spend their days. Screen time can be better quality or poorer quality, but it will never replace real life experiences for teaching your preschooler and preparing him for kindergarten!

Curious about how to get your preschooler ready for kindergarten? Conveniently, I wrote a book about it! Check out 4 Big Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten on Amazon.

Play to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers

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Have you thought about getting a workbook to help your child work on her pencil grip? Or learn letter formation? Or make her handwriting neater before she starts school? Hold that thought! There are better ways to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers!

Workbooks are not the right tool for most preschoolers. (Or for a lot of older kids, either!) Kids might be bored or frustrated and learn to hate writing and drawing activities. They might not have the muscles they need for gripping a pencil yet, so workbook practice might not solve the problem, either! Instead, here are some ideas to develop preschool fine motor skills through play.

Messy stuff

I love the messy stuff…as long as it happens outside or at someone else’s house! Um, just kidding, but I do keep my preschooler on a pretty short leash when he wants to paint or play with slime. Last summer, I decided to be the “Fun Mom” and set up his washable paints at his picnic table in the yard while my husband was out there mowing and I was putting my daughter down for a nap. A few minutes later, he came running into the house, so excited to show me that he had mixed the colors together and painted the side of the house and the door of my husband’s car to surprise us. We were surprised, so I guess it worked! And that’s why I only buy these Crayola washable paints.

So now we only do paint or slime at the dining room table, and he has to wash the table before and after. But it’s important, so I try to make time and space for it.

Here are some ideas for messy fine motor play:

Paint – with a brush or with fingers, painting is a great way for children to practice pre-writing movements like drawing lines, circles and dots. For more fun, and to help them strengthen shoulder and arm muscles, put painting paper on an easel, or on an easily-cleaned wall or your glass sliding door. 

Water beads – good lord did I learn to hate these things when my son was two, but he loved them! Make them less messy by spreading a large towel on the floor (they roll and bounce less when they hit the towel. My son liked to play with kitchen tools, like a large mixing bowl, funnel, spoon, an egg separator, and turkey baster.

Fun fact: Did you know if you push hard enough on the plunger of an oral syringe (the kind that comes with the baby Tylenol) you can squish a water bead right through that tiny opening and smash it to bits? Well, now we both know! 

Squirt bottle – add an inexpensive squirt bottle full of water to your wading pool or water table. Squeezing the trigger on the bottle is great for developing little hand muscles. They will love “washing” every surface they can reach, so this usually works best outside. 

Play dough – pinching and rolling and squeezing is all great for development of hand muscles. Make your own or get the store bought kind, but know that stiffer dough takes more muscle and is a better “workout” than super soft dough.

Tissue paper collage – cut up little squares of tissue paper and have them paint glue on their paper and then place the little pieces of paper. They will focus more on precision than strength with this activity, but it’s a good one. Bonus: choose seasonal colors and send handmade art to all those doting relatives!

Cooking – OK, so this isn’t strictly play, but don’t tell my preschooler! Have them help you scoop flour, mix ingredients, roll dough, pinch dumplings closed, whatever they can safely do. Bonus: you get to teach them where food comes from and they are more likely to try unfamiliar foods if they make them themselves!

Last Christmas, I got my son these plastic knives, and he is still super excited about cutting up pears, bananas, and sandwiches. They are not at all sharp, but they are a great way to practice good knife habits.

Clean play

Sometimes, Mama just can’t face mopping the kitchen floor again this week! It’s time for some nice, clean, quiet, activities! None of these are the kind of things you want to set up an hour before the family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner or anything, but at least they aren’t sticky?

Clothespins – hang a string across a corner of the room and let them hang all their doll clothes, or their art, with clothespins. Get a big bowl of pom poms (from the dollar store) and make a game of pinching pom poms and dropping them into a small-mouthed bottle. Or write letters or numbers on clothespins and make a matching activity – clip the uppercase A on the cardboard with the lowercase a, clip the right number onto the cup of blocks.

Legos – pinching together and pulling apart the tiny pieces is great for fine motor control. 

Sewing cards – make your own by cutting a shape out of heavy cardboard and punching holes along the edge. Or buy a ready-made set. Either way, tie a knot in one end of a shoelace and show your child how to pinch and pull the free end in and out of the holes. 

Sewing with embroidery floss – I never did get a set of sewing cards, but when my son was desperate to get into my yarn stash, I set him up for sewing with a large plastic needle, a length of embroidery thread, and a square of mesh from an onion bag stapled to a cardboard frame. He made some very interesting modern art that I would love to frame.

Stringing beads – this can be anything from big chunky wooden beads on a length of rope or cord to little plastic pony beads on an elastic string. Start with whatever size you think would be fun, not frustrating, for your child, and try smaller ones when they meet the challenge. Stringing macaroni, ditalini, or ziti on yarn serves the same purpose, if you don’t have any beads around. Oh, and when your little nugget makes you beautiful jewelry? You find the outfit it goes best with and you wear it with PRIDE! (Dads, you’re gonna have to wear yours, too.)

Puzzles – Again, go from chunkier to tinier as your child masters them. 

Hardware – Take a thick chunk of scrap wood and partially pound some nails into it, or make some pilot holes for screws. Give your child a small hammer (tack hammer) or short screwdriver and some safety glasses, and let them go to town. Yup, they might pinch their fingers, so do this one with supervision. There are toy “pounding benches” too, but the real stuff holds my son’s attention for much longer.

Tape puzzles – I can’t remember where I saw this, but I’m sure you can track it down on Pinterest. Take painter’s tape or masking tape (the former is easier to peel and the latter is more work to peel) and lay strips of it, criss-crossed, on a surface where the finish won’t peel off. Think glass sliding door, plastic table, vinyl floor. This can even be done on a high chair tray while you make dinner. The challenge for little fingers is to pick at the tape until they can peel up an edge. It’s so satisfying to pull up the whole strip! The “puzzle” part is figuring out which strip to go for first.

Rubber bands and soup cans – Multi-colored bands are more exciting, but any will do. Show your child how to stretch the bands around a soup can or water bottle. The bands should be tight enough to make them work a little, but not so small that they are easy to snap. 

Lite-Brite – remember Lite-Brite? Remember those tiny pegs that you had to shove through those little holes in the black paper to see the picture light up in color? What a great fine motor activity. For less than $15, you can get the fancy new LED version on Amazon. 

Some kids are happy to do any of these activities, while others are bored by them or avoid them no matter what you do. Don’t worry. If your child isn’t eager to sit down and build fine motor skills, pull back a little and reintroduce them in a month or two, or try a new type of activity. For some kids, especially kids who aren’t comfortable sitting in a chair or who don’t have strong arms and shoulders, these activities can be uncomfortable or even painful. Maybe your child needs to focus on gross motor development first, before they feel comfortable with these fine motor activities. Follow his lead and keep the activities light and fun! That’s the best way to help kids make progress.

Comment below: What’s your child’s favorite fine motor play?

Download my free infographic “Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy While You Wait” and join my email list for more ideas and updates on my brand-new book 4 Things to Teach Your Child Before Kindergarten.