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Fighting the Summer Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transition to Middle School

From what I remember about middle school, it could have been the sequel to Lord of the Flies. Except I vaguely remember some adults being in the building.

Basically, I spent 90% of my time thinking about where to sit in the cafeteria, and whether it meant something that Kenny closed his locker and walked away as soon as I got to mine, and whether I had enough hair spray in my bangs. I guess I spent the other 10% thinking about academics, but frankly, that part is a little fuzzy.

Is it any wonder that these people, who were very recently children who definitely had monsters in their closets and needed timeouts, struggle to meet their teachers’ expectations in middle school?

So much changes in those last couple of pre-teen years. Physically, hormonally, cognitively, and emotionally, no one comes out of middle school the way they went in. For better or for worse.

Add to all this personal stuff the constant pressure on teachers to push academics down, down, down to younger students, and vulnerable middle schoolers are dealing with more pressure and stress than ever before.

So how do we protect our middle schoolers?

First of all: be there. According to this piece in the New York Times, even teens who seem to hate their parents feel better and have better outcomes when their parents are available regularly. The author, Lisa Damour, calls them “potted plant parents.” They are moms and dads who are just there, fading into the background. A study connected this parental availability with lower rates of behavioral and emotional problems.

Promote healthy habits like eating breakfast and lunch and getting enough sleep. As middle schoolers mature and get more freedom, they sometimes make short-sighted choices that affect them negatively. They may stay up too late, skip meals, or choose junk foods that affect how they feel and how they learn. Try for a family meal most nights of the week. Research shows that family dinners lead to positive outcomes for health and learning, but if you’re not home at dinner time, maybe you could sit down for breakfast?

Another important way to prepare your child for middle school is through teaching mindfulness strategies. This is one of the hardest practices to sell to adults and kids in our busy world, but I believe one of the most important. A growing body of research shows mindfulness training and practice is helpful for improving students’ attention, emotional regulation and compassion for others, while decreasing their stress and anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive that slowing down in this way is going to help your child make their way in the fast-paced middle school world, but these skills help teens learn to direct and sustain their attention, calm themselves when they feel anxious or upset, and understand their emotional reactions to challenges.

Preparing for academic success

Beyond health and social-emotional strategies, kids need some concrete strategies for dealing with the academic challenges of middle school.

  1. Organize in advance – Follow the teachers’ school supply lists in the summer. If they don’t use a specific system for color coding, create one. Give each academic subject a color and buy a folder, notebooks, and maybe a binder in that color.
  2. Get a planner – Some schools provide them. If not, look for a school year planner that fits your student’s needs. Make sure it has enough room to write assignments.
  3. Create a homework space at home – It could be permanent – like a desk in a quiet space, or temporary – like a file bin or supply caddy you can put on the dining room table, then clear away at meal time.
  4. Create a weekly and daily routine – Often, teachers spend class time teaching students to fill out their planner or agenda book with class assignments. Support this and supplement it by sitting with your child over the weekend to look at the week ahead. Is it a busy week of practices and rehearsals? Is there a big project due next Monday? Every day after school, help your child to look at their planner and plan for tonight’s homework. Someday, they’ll do this on their own, but if you can find a moment to call them from work in the afternoon, or have them sit in the kitchen while you make dinner, you will build a habit that will pay off for years!
  5. Clean and organize periodically – Depending on the child, binders and folders tend to get cluttered and lose organization over time. Take an hour on a relaxed weekend to spread out everything, sort it, throw out the junk, and file away important completed work, like things they might need to study for an exam later this year. Some kids might need this once a month, while others need a weekly check in, and some can make it to the end of the academic term without making a mess.
  6. Give them responsibility – You are providing tools and support for homework, but at the end of the day, the grades are theirs. The transition to middle school can bring a steep learning curve for parents and kids. Be careful to set boundaries you are comfortable with so your child knows they have your support, but she also develops skills and independence to succeed on her own.

When to get expert help

The transition to middle school can be challenging for even the most capable and mature students. For many middle schoolers, good habits established during these years will make them available during the school day to learn what their teachers are teaching. The best case scenario is they will experience some challenges, and some moments of stress, but their strong foundational skills will serve them well.

For other students, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or weak basic skills might make it very difficult for them to succeed in class. If you and your child have tried some strategies, but school is still not going well, you might need to consult with other professionals. Talk to your pediatrician, a guidance counselor or special education teacher if you think an educational disability might be affecting your child’s progress. A tutor who is knowledgeable about middle school curriculum, study skills and executive function can also be a great help.

Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation today to see if tutoring is a good option for your child.

 

Middle schoolers need structure and support to meet the new challenges they encounter.

 

photo credit: Enokson <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/47823583@N03/8465390293">Comfortable Computing</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>

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.

The Right Book at the Right Time

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

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

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

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

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