Blog

Google Docs for Struggling Students

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

My Experience with Google for Education

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

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

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

Supporting Struggling Writers Using Google Docs

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

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

Sharing

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

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

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

Collaboration

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

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

Comments

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

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

Add-Ons

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

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

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

Speech-to-text

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

Text-to-Speech

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

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

The Takeaway

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

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

Using Google Keep with Students

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

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

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

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

Here are some reasons to give it a try.

One login

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

Visual options

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

Checkboxes

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

Sharing

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

Reminders

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

‎Archiving

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

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

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

 

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

The dictionary can be daunting and unproductive for struggling readers

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

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

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

So what can we do instead?

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

Here’s what could go wrong with using the dictionary

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

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

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

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

Here’s what a vocab conversation could look like:

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Where did you read it?”

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

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

Child: “Oh!”

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

Child: “Saturday afternoons when I watch TV.”

Parent: “Definitely!”

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

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

Question: Who should use audio books?

Answer: Anyone who loves listening to a story!

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

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

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

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

How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 2

In my last post, I showed you how to create a Google calendar for the purpose of using it to keep track of homework. In this post, I’ll show you how to set up that calendar and record homework.

Open Google calendar. Click anywhere on today’s date, and a small box pops up so you can create a new event. I like to set these up so they match the student’s class schedule, so type “1 – Math” if the first period class is math. Then click “Edit Event.”

On the “Edit Event” screen, you have 2 areas to edit.

  1. Click the box that says “All day.” That takes away the time options, and also causes this event to show up at the top of the calendar, which is what we want. Next to it, click “Repeat” and from the “Repeats” dropdown, select “Every weekday (Monday to Friday).”
  2. Pick a color for that class. I use the same color coding system as I do for notebooks and folders, so I checked red for math. This adds an extra layer of visual cueing to the planner.
  3. Click Save.

When you’ve added repeating, all-day events for each academic class, your calendar will look like this.

That is the one-time setup part. Now you have your planner ready for the year or semester.

Using Your New Planner

Now it’s time to record an assignment. To write down tonight’s homework, click on the math line for today’s date, and click the “Edit Event” button.

Here is the Edit Event screen. It looks just like the screen where you created the event, right up until the last step. For a homework assignment, you should edit:

  1. The name of the assignment. You can do this right in the box with the subject name, so it’s visible when you look at the whole calendar.
  2. The location and/or description. This can be physical (homework folder), virtual (www.homework.com), or geographic (library). The description box is great for adding details like “only odd numbered questions” or “answer in full sentences” that don’t fit on that top line.
  3. Attach a file, if the teacher has sent a worksheet, or if you have a Google doc with your notes. If you’re working on a device that takes photos, you can also attach a picture you have saved that shows the page number, or the details written down in your notebook. (It’s best to ask permission from teachers/administration if you would like to take photos in the classroom so that your intentions are clear.)

When you click save, you will have to answer one more question. Because this is a repeating event, the calendar wants to know whether to edit just this one (1/30/17), all future events (from today on) or every repeating event. For homework, click “Only this event.”

That’s it! You have saved tonight’s homework to your homework calendar. When you sit down tonight, log in to your computer or pull up Google calendar on your phone to see the assignment, and get to work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

8 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Reading Fluency

What is reading fluency and why does it matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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