What do children’s reading levels mean?

Reading levels are one of my least favorite things about elementary school. They are a quick way for teachers to decide what books to read with which students but they don’t do much for students. But knowing your children’s reading levels can help you select books to read with them at home, as well as give you a little bit of information about whether they are meeting the targets for their grade level.

Different systems, different data

Lexile Levels

Lexile levels are assigned to a book or article. A student gets a Lexile score on certain literacy assessments, like the MAP Growth assessment. A Lexile score is a 3 or 4-digit number. This chart shows Lexile levels for the average (50th percentile) and high achieving (90th percentile) reader by grade level.

Guided Reading Levels

Guided Reading scores are letters of the alphabet from A (beginning of kindergarten) to Z (usually around 5th or 6th grade). A child’s reading level is determined by the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS). In this assessment, a child is asked to read out loud from a leveled book and then answer questions about the story. This assessment has several large flaws. First, the score doesn’t tell us whether the child is having trouble reading the words on the page, remembering what happened, or communicating his answers. Second, these assessments are very subjective and a child’s score can vary greatly depending on who assesses them.

Developmental Reading Assessment

The Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) is another common assessment used in elementary schools. DRA scores are numbers from 1 to 70. Students are usually given the DRA once or twice a school year. This chart compares DRA levels to grade levels.  

Once you know the level, what’s next?

If your child’s reading level is on-target, according to their teachers or according to one of the charts linked above, that’s good news. If you don’t notice any problems with your child’s reading, and the scores are as expected, keep doing what you’re doing!

If they haven’t met the goal on their reading assessments, it’s time to gather some more information. What do you see and hear when you ask your child to read? What other assessments have the teachers done that might give a fuller picture? Check out this blog post for more info about what to do if a child is not reading at grade level.

How to help kids build a reading habit

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A habit is a behavior that we do consistently, without consciously thinking about whether to do it, over time. It can be good (saving money, eating vegetables), bad (smoking, staying up too late), or neutral (walking the dog around the block clockwise). Wondering how to build a reading habit for your kids?

At first, even the best and most desirable habits can feel uncomfortable and it’s easy to forget to do them. But if we set the right conditions, they get easier with time! Here are some ways to help your child build a reading habit. 

How to build a reading habit

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, says every habit has a cue, a behavior (that’s what we think of when we say “habit,”) and the reward.

Cues

Cues are things in the environment that prompt you to start a habit. Snacking because you walk by the candy dish, starting the coffee maker because it’s 7am, running home when the street lights come on. Here are some cues for reading to think about in your child’s environment.

Place

Designate a reading spot that is comfy, well-lit, and quiet. Keep needed supplies (a book basket, pencil and sticky notes, a reading log) nearby. Minimize distractions like toys, screens, and people who aren’t reading quietly.

Time 

Pick a time for reading when kids are quiet but not sleepy. Make sure they aren’t hungry or in a rush to get outside with their friends. 

At my house, there’s a quiet period on weekend afternoons that make for great reading time! We fit in reading on other days but on weekends it’s a really nice experience. Other families read while waiting for siblings to finish practice or lessons. That has the advantage of keeping siblings and their distractions away for better focus. I could never read in the car without feeling sick, but some kids are able to read while their parents are driving. 

Reading behavior 

When you say you want your kids to read more, what do you mean? To help kids build a reading habit, you have to make the reading itself as enjoyable as possible. If you start them off with books that are too hard and frustrating (or too easy and boring), they are less likely to stick with it. Some thoughts about keeping reading engaging and appropriately challenging:

Choosing books

Some teachers are firm about expecting kids to read books “at their level,” but when we’re talking about building a habit of reading, there’s a big place for books that make kids happy! If that’s a dense book of sports stats, great! If it’s a comfy favorite picture book, great!

If your kids have finished a favorite book or series and you want to keep the momentum going, try searching online for “books like _” for recommendations. You can also ask your child’s teacher or your children’s librarian for books that are popular with kids that age. 

Fixing errors

Reading isn’t fun when you can’t read the words on the page. If a book has too many words your child can’t decode yet, reading will be slow and frustrating. They will have trouble understanding the story because all their bandwidth will be used up just to figure out the words. 

You can help your child with challenging books by

  • Choose easier books – ok, this one isn’t quite fair but one way to make reading more enjoyable is to choose books at an easier level.
  • Offer to take turns – when you read every other page, they hear your fluent model. Plus it helps them move along through the story, which can improve their comprehension.
  • Get the audiobook – audiobooks are a great resource for letting kids enjoy stories they can’t decode effectively yet. For some readers, it builds confidence to hear a book that’s a little challenging first, and then read it again on their own. 
  • Talking about it with them – ask questions or point out things that’s surprises you or made you laugh. 

Thinking about the story

Some kids race through the pages of a book, trying to get through as many pages as they can. Others flip through a book randomly and don’t get much of the story. Knowing that you’re going to ask them about it later sometimes motivates kids to pat attention to the details. At the same time, don’t interrogate your kids about their reading. Think book club chitchat, not Final Jeopardy! 

For some kids, writing a quick note on their bookmark when they stop reading, or sketching a picture at the end of the chapter to make a little comic strip of the story, can help them remember what they read. 

Make these a small part of your child’s reading time, though. When I was a kid, a journal entry was required at the end of each chapter. I had a hard time writing a succinct summary, so I would get stuck on a book for weeks because I fell behind in my journal. The strategy of having us write about our reading backfired for me! 

Reward

It’s tempting to offer prizes and praise and rewards to get kids to do things they don’t want to do. Mini M&M’s saved my sanity while potty training! But giving kids rewards for reading can backfire, according to some research. 

Reading that lasts

So focus on rewards like learning interesting facts, being entertained, and having cozy quiet time with a parent. Making reading an inherently enjoyable experience is the goal. That’s the best way to help kids build a reading habit that lasts a lifetime!

If your child is struggling with reading, we can help! Contact us today to talk about how we can help your child become a capable, confident reader.

Managing at home reading expectations

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Does your school have reading logs? Journal assignments? Charts? Graphs? Do you have to swear a blood oath that your child read books this week? If your family is struggling with managing at home reading expectations, here are some tips for how to get your child to read better and how to manage the school’s reading homework assignments for your family.

Create Reading Habits

A lifelong habit of reading will give your child the opportunity to move into careers, hobbies, and community opportunities that make their lives better. The power of fluent, wide, eager reading cannot be overestimated. Ultimately, if you’re trying to figure out “What can help my child read better?” you’re probably taking a shorter-term view, trying to get this week’s assignment done and end the argument about reading. Here are some ideas to take the pain out of at-home reading assignments and begin to bring the joy of books to your household.

Choose the right books

How to help a struggling reader at home
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Teachers are big on reading levels. Those letters or numbers on stickers on the book cover, or inside the front cover, are there to help teachers choose the right books for their classroom, but they are often misused for gate-keeping purposes. Teachers will enforce a rule that kids have to have “just right” books and that the book can be neither too easy, nor too hard, and use the book’s level as a way to decide. 

Reading levels have their place. One use is that they help you find other similar books to try. If you ask your child’s teacher what his “instructional reading level” is, you will likely get a Guided Reading level (a letter) or a Lexile (a number) that tells you the difficulty of text they are reading at school. You can find plenty of books online organized by level. Flip through one and get a feel for it. How many sentences are on a page? How many paragraphs? How often are there pictures? Use those clues to help you find other books that your child might find comfortable. 

But beyond that, the sky is the limit. For example, I worked with a second grader reading books about Minecraft at the fourth or fifth grade level because it is his favorite game, and a tenth grader struggling with non-fiction at an eighth grade level because he didn’t have a lot of background knowledge about American history. If there is a topic your child is passionate about, don’t be surprised if he can read books that are “above his level.” 

On the other hand, if your child is struggling with reading the books that come home, try decodable books like the Simple Words series or Bob Books that match the words they have learned to sound out. Core Knowledge Language Arts also offers free “Skills” units that have great decodable readers you can print. Flyleaf Publishing is a great source of decodable books, which are offered for free online (through the end of the 2021-2022 school year).

Choose the time and place

There are good times to schedule reading time for your child, and then there are times that don’t work as well.

Times not to fit in reading:

  • While the rest of the family is watching TV
  • Right before dinner
  • In the car on the way to school

Times that work better:

  • After a snack
  • While younger siblings are napping or not home yet
  • At a “family reading time,” where every available person in the house sits down with a book – maybe in the hour before bed or after lunch on the weekend.
  • In the waiting room at dance class or in the bleachers at a sibling’s practice – if the environment is quiet

Finding the right place for reading homework

Some kids love to curl up in a quiet corner of the house and read until you make them stop. Those aren’t the kids you are reading this for, I don’t think. Kids who are struggling or who avoid reading need the support and attention of a whole adult (or responsible older child) while they work through their reading. 

This is easiest to accomplish when you sit beside your child, at the table or on the couch, or in bed if no one is too sleepy. Have good lighting, a comfy seat, and minimal background noise. 

Looking for fun ways to fit more reading into your family’s life? Check out our free Winter Reading Bingo Board!


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Make it a habit

In his book Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg breaks down all habits into three parts: a trigger (he calls them “anchor moments”), a habit, and a reward. If getting your child to read every day sounds totally out of reach for you and your family right now, try these tiny steps towards your goal.

  1. Pick a trigger – “We will take out a book right after the table is clear from dinner.” or “As soon as her big sister starts basketball practice, we’ll sit in the bleachers and read.”
  2. Set a tiny reading goal – A page, a paragraph, a sentence, a word. It might seem ridiculously small, but start with the next step – one more increment of reading than you’re doing now. If reading at home right now just isn’t happening, the only way to get started is to start, so start tiny!
  3. Decide on a reward – BJ Fogg makes a very important distinction between the reward we get for something we do successfully (I cook breakfast so I get to eat a delicious English muffin) and the long-term payoff (if I go to work all week, I get a paycheck on the 15th). We’re looking for those tiny, in the moment rewards for reaching our first reading goals. How will you and your child celebrate the success of sitting down with a book together? A hug? A little dance? A high five?

And Don’t Worry!

Be patient with yourself and with your child. A teacher has literally no idea what your family situation is, in most cases, and you have to decide what success looks like for your family. Even if teachers have some control over assignments like reading homework, they are planning for a whole class and not taking into account that in your house, the adults work different shifts or the baby wakes up a couple of times a night or the babysitter doesn’t read fluent English or each kid is on a different schedule for sports practice. So while the school’s expectation may be what brought you here, keep the big picture in mind. You are raising your children to be happy, whole people, thoughtful and well-educated. The long game of teaching them to love reading and to look to books for inspiration, knowledge, and comfort, counts for a lot more than the number of pages in their reading log. 

Managing at-home reading expectations
Reading is a homework assignment for many kids, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. Here’s how to build routines to get your child reading more at home.
Grab your FREE Winter Reading Bingo Board here.


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8 Realistic Ways to Conquer Backpack Clutter

It’s the middle of winter. All my dreams and ideals about how my kids will come in, greet me warmly and gently place their bags on hooks by the door are gone. Sometimes there are math papers between the couch cushions. Both children want to keep every precious scrap they bring home from school. It’s time for some new ideas for organizing school papers.

What doesn’t work

I speak from experience when I say the following systems do not work for everyone, and if it’s not your jam, you’re flirting with disaster by trying to live with a system that doesn’t fit your family.

  • Pinterest-perfect baskets – some people need to see what they have. Tucking it away in a basket means it gets forgotten
  • Deal with it later – putting everything in one place and promising that you will get to it is a recipe for missed deadlines and forgotten forms.
  • Keeping everything – in my opinion, this is as bad as keeping nothing. Original artwork buried between half-finished math worksheets doesn’t help anyone.
How to organize kids school papers at home
Table covered in paper and other clutter

How to Organize School Papers at Home

1. Notice where papers naturally collect

You know how, in a giant open parking lot, the fall leaves or drifting trash all tend to end up pooled in the same corner against a building or tree? We have those places in our homes, too. It’s often the first flat surface inside the door. For us it’s the dining room table, but other houses have counters or shelves or chairs that are magnets for everything that doesn’t belong on them. 

This is where your system belongs! Sorry, you’re not getting your whole dining room table back today, but we ARE going to make it less scary. You want everyone in the house to use this system, and if you tuck it away in the closet where “it belongs,” they’ll never think of it again!

2. Pick the best tools for your family

If you have one kid bringing home papers, you may be able to use a single basket or accordion file. For a larger family, consider a desktop inbox tray or a paper sorter. A file box seems tempting but it takes more effort for each person to find their name and put their papers in a folder, so this can backfire.

3. Be there

Prepare to stand between the after-school stampede and the snack cabinet and talk them through the process. Some children may be fine with a written list but others need the loving, annoying presence of a real, live parent.

I found that if my son gets past me to the kitchen, or even the bathroom, it’s ten times harder to get him to organize his school papers than if I catch him at the door. 

4. Write down the plan

Write a checklist of unpacking steps. Try to keep it down to 5 or fewer. Use pictures, even if your kids are readers. I count them off on my fingers when we walk through the door: 

  1. Unpack folder and lunch bag
  2. Wash hands
  3. Snack
  4. Homework
  5. Freedom!
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but we need more than a checklist. What if the papers don’t even make it home?” then you might need our free email course, “Academic Planners for Success.” This 7-email series will help you get your children and teens organized for school.


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But What Do we DO with All This Paper? 

Organizing the papers by child is a good start, but what do you do with it all? There are things that need to be signed, read, and returned. Some are for your child and others are for you. And there’s homework to complete and return. 

5. Sort the papers every day

When papers come home from school, they need to be sorted into three groups:

  1. Keep at home (finished work and art projects, notices, etc.)
  2. Child needs to complete and return (homework)
  3. Parent needs to complete and return (forms, etc.)

6. Assign a folder

If your child didn’t get one at school, provide them with a home-school folder and label the sides “Keep at Home” and “Return to School.” 

  • The “Keep at Home” pocket contents go in the kid’s bin or box.
  • Sort the “Return to School” pocket into 2 piles:
    • Homework goes back in the folder and moved to the homework area
    • Parent paperwork goes in the parent bin for you to go through.

Weekly Routines for Organizing School Papers

If you follow this system, you’ll end the week with a pile of papers for each child and maybe some odds and ends for parents to do over the weekend. This is your opportunity to teach them how to organize school papers at home. 

7. Go through it once a week

Set aside time with each child to help them go through the pile once a week and decide if they want to:

  • Keep forever (like special art projects)
  • Take a picture and let it go (drawings, some writing, great grades, etc.)
  • Recycle it now (worksheets and odds and ends)

8. Designate a (limited) space for the keep forever stuff

I have a file box for each child. They can add whatever they want but when it’s full, it’s full. My parents gave me one under-bed storage box and it has everything I wanted to save from about third grade through high school. Other parents designate a bin per year. This will depend on your available space and your personal philosophy about paper keepsakes. 

A Few Words of Caution

This system is something you will do with your children, not to your children. If you’re the one with your hands on all the papers, they will learn that their job is to bring you their backpack so you can unpack it. It is so much harder sometimes to stick around and give them reminders and ideas for organizing school papers. But when you start this system, you are committing to letting them make decisions and trusting that, with your guidance, their decisions will get better with time!

Decluttering backpacks and homework
Even if you have a place for homework, kids’ backpacks tend to get cluttered over time. Here’s a routine for organizing backpacks and homework areas.

For my free 7-part email course, “Academic Planners for School Success,” and periodic tips and updates for helping your child learn, sign up here.


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My child is Guessing Words When Reading!

If you’re the parent of a young reader, you may have caught wind of terms like “The Reading Wars” and “The Science of Reading.” The issues always boil down to, “What is the best way to turn children into capable and eager readers?” Like everything, the questions and answers get oversimplified and misrepresented in media. But if you have a school-age child, varying approaches to reading instruction can make a huge difference. Especially if you’re wondering, “Why does my child guess words when reading?”

If a child guesses words while reading…

The (Vastly Oversimplified) Process of Reading

To read written English, we need to:

  • Connect the right sounds to the symbols (letters) printed on the page and blend them together to “hear” a word
  • Read quickly enough to not get exhausted and not run out of attention
  • Recognize a real word and understand what it means in this sentence
  • Read a whole story, remember it, and understand things about the story

One philosophy of teaching reading, called balanced literacy, advocates encouraging children to “use context clues,” including pictures, to figure out “what would make sense.” The problem with that approach is that, eventually, the books they read have fewer and fewer pictures to help them figure out hard words. Kids who rely on this coping strategy end up stranded because they don’t know how to say multisyllabic words. These kids have often been very successful in the classroom until third or fourth grade, but by fifth, they start to struggle. They can’t keep up with grade-level science texts, or lessons that require them to read for information. 

How to help children who guess words when reading
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

The worst part is that this is not what mature readers (like adults) do. Efficient readers quickly recognize whole words or chunks of words and combine them to read words they might never have seen before. By encouraging children to check the pictures, or by letting them fall back on this strategy, you’re promoting a reading habit that will become less and less effective as they progress as readers and eventually, it will leave them stranded. 

This parent noticed the problem when she tested her daughter on a predictable book with pictures to provide support. With the pictures, it sounds like beautiful early grades reading. But when the pictures are removed, the child stumbles and gets stuck. Think about the last 10 books you read. How many had pictures to help you read the words? Relying on the text alone is what reading really is!

How to Help Your Child Avoid Guessing

If you’re trying to figure out how to stop your child from guessing, first you need to understand “why does my child guess words when reading.”

Use decodable text – “Decodable text” is the term for stories that follow a sequence of introduction for different phonetic spelling patterns. The exact sequence is different for every set of decodable books, but generally “easy” books include one or more short vowel sounds and short words in short sentences. Think “Val sat on the mat.”

Text becomes “decodable” when students have learned the spelling patterns included in it. This doesn’t always match grade level or any other commonly used book leveling system. To know what decodable books your child needs, you have to know what patterns she has been taught: short vowels, silent e, vowel teams, etc.

Give “hard” words to them for free – Readers guess when they don’t know a word and don’t have the tools to figure it out. Once you have picked appropriate books, it helps to anticipate the tricky words and warn your child when they come up. It can feel awkward to interrupt their reading, but remember that you’re trying to stop the guessing behavior before it starts.

Even if they can read almost every word in the book, they might need help with character names. I know I’m not the only one who read Harry Potter without knowing how to pronounce “Hermione” until the movies came out!

Instead of “What would make sense?” – In the guided reading philosophy, teachers cue children when they get stuck on a word by asking “What would make sense here?” It leads them to say horse when they can’t read pony or hat when they can’t read helmet. Sometimes those substitutions are OK in early stories, and so kids over rely on that strategy. Then they get to more challenging texts. What would make sense in this sentence from the Wikipedia entry on electricity?

“The ____ of this force is given by Coulomb’s law.”

You didn’t guess magnitude? Me neither. That’s why having a strategy for breaking down unfamiliar words is so important.

One way to make reading more fun is to use our Winter Reading Bingo Board. Download it here.


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Why is this still happening?

I heard the statistic that actual classroom instruction in public schools lags about 20 years behind educational research. It makes sense. If a teacher works in the schools for 30 years, it has probably been at least 20 years since she was a grad student. And administrators and curriculum coaches are likely at least a few years out of school. Not to mention, college teacher preparation programs are still teaching this approach to reading instruction and churning out new teachers who teach the same ineffective strategies. 

Is there hope?

Lots of people are asking their school districts hard questions, bringing effective, evidence-based, strategies into the classroom, and moving towards better curriculum. As a parent, finding these people (or becoming these people!) is one of the most powerful ways you can help your child and all the children in your district.

Look into local Decoding Dyslexia or Reading League chapters. 

For your own child, consider whether your current public school is the right place for them to learn to read. I taught my own son to decode because he attended kindergarten via distance learning, in a balanced literacy district, to boot. If your child is struggling with guessing and avoiding reading, it may be the best approach to choose a home instruction program or find a tutor who can teach your child using structured literacy so they have the skills and confidence required to sound out words without guessing. 

If it’s time to get some highly trained, 1-on-1 help to teach your child to read, contact us for a free consultation and demo lesson.

What should I do if my child is using the pictures to guess words when reading?
Some children learn to use the picture or other clues to guess words that are hard to read. Here is how to help your children move away from using pictures and rely on the words printed on the page.

How to help a child read better at home

If you buy something from a link in this post, we may get a small commission on your purchase.

Happy New Year! Among the many resolutions we all make to eat better and get organized, many parents are wondering how to help their children have a great year. As a parent, you may be looking for ideas about how to help a child read better or how to get your child to read on grade level. Read on for some ideas about how to help a child read better and read more.

Identify the Problem

Sounding out words

Sometimes, children are reluctant to read because reading feels very hard! Especially for younger readers, books “at their level” can be filled with tricky irregular words that don’t follow the rules they know. For example, a sentence like “Bill made a card to give his mother” would look right at home in a first grader’s book, but there’s a lot to take in here: 

  • silent e changes the vowel sound in made, but not in give!
  • in mother, the o makes the /ŭ/ sound instead of the /ŏ/ sound!
  • card has an r-controlled vowel sound, which many reading programs don’t introduce until later on!

If your child is still learning about phonics and how to sound out words (usually up through second grade, possibly later), look for decodable books that match what they have learned. For kindergarten, Bob books are a great option. These Simple Words books are a terrific choice for older kids who want to read “real” books but are still learning to decode. Check out all my recommendations for decodable books here.

Reading Fluently

Even if a child can accurately sound out words, they may do it in a slow, laborious way that makes it hard for them to follow a story. If you’re wondering how to help a child read better and more fluently, one of the best ways is to provide a good model. This can mean taking turns reading pages, or having an older sibling read with them. Reading along with audiobooks is another option for letting children hear a fluent reader.

Beyond modeling, fluent reading comes from tons of practice. Suggest that your child read to pets, or dolls, or grandparents, or the neighborhood squirrels, whatever captures their attention. It’s important that children read frequently and read lots of different types of stories to become more fluent. It’s like learning a musical instrument – it can be boring, and it can be painful for the people listening, but slow and steady practice is an essential part of becoming a great reader!

Need ideas to jazz up your home reading routine? Sign up here to grab my free Winter Reading Bingo board and get email updates with more ideas to help your readers at home!


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Sticking with a Book

Maybe your children read beautifully but they still don’t like it. Reading time is “boring” or “too long.” In our modern world, it can be so hard to block out distractions and sit down with a book. I read a lot of eBooks and often have to dodge email notifications, game requests, ads and weather reports to even get my book open! Those things are designed to get us to look at them. Think about how you can design reading time to make it appealing.

You can help a child read better and help them build reading stamina by:

  • Creating cozy reading spaces – cushions, blankets, good lighting
  • Keeping book collections fresh – hit the library regularly or trade with other families for new-to-you titles
  • Keep old favorites handy – there’s nothing wrong with rereading well-loved books!
  • Set an example – I know you don’t have time, no one does! But if you want your child to read, let them see you read. Keep a book in the kitchen and steal a few minutes while you wait for the water to boil, or create a bedtime reading ritual for everyone.

Finding books they can stick with is another challenge for growing readers. If your child has a limited reading diet, you may be wondering how to get your child to read on grade level. I often search websites like whatshouldireadnext and Good Reads for books like a current favorite. School and public librarians, as well as reading lists published by schools, can be great resources for book ideas. The Holy Grail of reading is finding a series your child loves, written by a prolific author. 

You can help your child expand their repertoire by:

  • Introducing new series – bring home one or two books from a new series and be willing to go back for more.
  • Learning about popular authors on YouTube or on their websites
  • Trying graphic novel versions of popular books – These can be quick reads that give them a taste of a more complex story.
  • Finding a common thread – If they like non-fiction about animals, try a novel that features animals.
  • Adding audiobooks – While we don’t want to give up on “eye-reading,” adding audiobooks can expose children to new kinds of stories in a more fun, lower effort way that might motivate them to read similar books themselves

Kids Who Read More, Read Better

Skipping reading when everyone is tired at bedtime or on a busy night of soccer and scouts doesn’t feel like a big deal. But daily reading has huge cumulative impacts on learning and development. Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. That can make an enormous difference in vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to understand stories.

Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. Click To Tweet

So let’s get started! Make it your New Year’s Resolution to increase your children’s reading time by 5 minutes a day, to start. Once you take the first step of making sure they sit down with a book daily, it’s much easier to grow the habit from there!

How to help a child read better at home
Most of us don’t remember learning to read. Here’s how to help your children get the help they need as they learn to read.

Don’t forget to download the Winter Reading Bingo board!


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

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

Privacy

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

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

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

The paperwork

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

Fears

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

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

Clothes

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

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

Hand washing

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

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

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

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

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



How Do I Study for Finals?

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

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

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

Get Ready!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Set!

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

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

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

Decide when you will study

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

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

Study!

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

What’s Next?

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

Get a free study schedule template! Sign up for my mailing list to download this resource and get updates on new tools and strategies.

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

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

What are sight words?

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

Why are sight words important?

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

Why do we have to do sight words for homework?

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

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

Ways to study sight words

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

Tactile practice

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

Use the cover-copy-check strategy:

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

Games

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

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

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

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

Online games:

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

Mnemonics

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

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

Think about meaning

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

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

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

Spaced repetition

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

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

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

When can we stop practicing?

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

Boy doing homework