Another great year of literacy instruction

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Taking stock

I’ve been an online reading and writing tutor for more than 6 years now. I used to have conversations like, “We use a video conferencing tool called Zoom. Have you ever heard of it? Um, no, no, it’s different from Skype, but similar.” Within a couple of years, I was ready to use my skills as a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor to offer full OG lessons online. It was hard to find anyone who was 

I rolled along, teaching online reading and writing lessons part-time while teaching special education, and later reading intervention, in local schools. And then our schools closed in the winter of 2020 and within a couple of weeks, my schedule was jam-packed with existing and new students. We were all just trying to figure out what to do with ourselves that winter, remember?

My kindergartener needed a parent at home the next year, until his school reopened. So all of a sudden, I wasn’t a teacher with a side hustle. I was suddenly a full-time entrepreneur! Starting anything new can be nerve-wracking, but starting a new business in the upheaval of 2021 was a real nail-biter! But I love it! I am making a stronger connection with students and make more of a difference than I could when I was working within a school. I’ve been invited to apply for a few school-based positions, but nothing has tempted me to go back.

That brings us to 2022…

As we come to the end of 2022, I am looking back with gratitude to all the families I’ve been able to work with and all the professionals I’ve connected with. I’m looking ahead to expanding our reach to more students and more schools in the coming year. Here’s where we are now:

Things I want to keep doing in 2023

Working with students – When I was a teacher, some parts of my year were consumed with standardized testing, meetings, chaperoning field trips, paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. As a private Orton-Gillingham tutor, I’m able to spend most of my work hours actually supporting students! 

Learning about the English language – I’m in the middle of an advanced OG course and I’m so excited to learn more about the origins of English words and how that impacts spelling. Knowing what word parts come from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek and other languages feels like a cheat code for spelling and vocabulary and I’m looking forward to sharing more of this with my students in 2023! 

Connecting with schools – I used to be chained to my school’s schedule. I was totally in tune with marking periods and seasonal activities. These days, knowing the school schedule is an afterthought for me. But this year, I am teaching a few students during their school days, and supporting a team of teachers in another district as they implement Orton-Gillingham interventions. I am excited to keep connecting my Orton-Gillingham tutoring to teaching and learning in schools because that will have a bigger impact on my students.

Things I want more of in 2023

Reading – I spend a lot of time thinking about books for my students and my own children. I am not even sure how many times I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and Of Mice and Men. But I would love to do more reading just for myself. I’m working on it now and I’d like to keep growing my reading time (professional and frivolous!) in 2023.

Rest – As a business owner, mom and educator, I find it hard to say no to people in need. When a parent calls and describes their child’s reading difficulties, and I know exactly what I would do first to help, it’s hard not to do it. But in 2023, I want to grow our team of online reading and writing tutors so that I can offer resources to parents without putting them on my own schedule. I am committing to finding more time for rest in 2023!

Professional Community – Working as an online Orton-Gillingham tutor can be a little bit lonely, sometimes. Sure, I have my students, and it’s nice to work at home with my husband, and be here when my kids get home. I do miss working in a school and chatting with colleagues over lunch. Luckily, I work with some excellent tutors here at Deep Roots Learning Solutions, Inc., and I am part of some lively communities of literacy teachers online that I can always bounce ideas off of. In 2023, I plan to connect with other professionals more often. I’d also like to attend at least one conference in person.

Is helping your child improve their reading one of your goals for 2023? Contact us for a free consultation to see if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is the right fit for your family.

Things I want less of in 2023

Rushing – there are some spots in my schedule where I run in the door from some errand and get right on to Zoom. Maybe I can grab a glass of water in between, but not much more. In 2023, I want to build a schedule with more breathing room.

Repeating myself – there are some lessons or concepts I teach the same way every time, both to students and adults. I’m wondering if I can turn some of those explanations into videos or documents that will let people get the information they need at their own pace. That will let me spend more time on specific challenges or new learning in live meetings.

Looking for lost papers – my dirty little secret, that no one can see on Zoom, is that I have a Pile. Not just any pile, a Pile with a capital P. Don’t mess with my Pile, because everything important is in it! …Somewhere… In 2023, I want to use a better system for minimizing and dealing with paper. As an online reading and writing tutor, most of my work is virtual these days, but it’s surprising how many pieces of paper show up anyway!

Here’s to a happy, healthy, 2023!

It’s fun to look back at 2022 and see how far we’ve come. There are some beautiful parts of this year I want to keep going into 2023. There is also always room for growth and change. The end of the year is a great time to take stock of what you enjoyed this year and what you are ready to leave behind.

What goals do you have, for yourself or your family, in 2023? Drop a comment below and let me know what you are hoping to carry into the new year!

Writing tools for dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that impacts reading and spelling. As a result, it can impact students across all areas of the curriculum. Writing, whether it’s answering short science questions or composing an essay, can be frustrating for students with dyslexia. Luckily, there are many writing tools for dyslexia. Some are already in our computers, tablets and smartphones, and others are inexpensive pieces of software that are easy to learn. Having the right tools for writing can help students write more easily and more confidently!

The “write” tool for the job

Early learners (K-3)

For young students, dyslexia can be less of a barrier to writing, as many students are still learning to form letters, spell, and write short sentences. For students who are still learning to form letters, magnetic letters or letter tiles can be a great option for spelling activities. 

When students are writing sentences, it can be helpful to give them a personalized word bank that includes some of the things they write about often and might misspell. Knowing they can look up the name of their favorite team or favorite animal (or even the word favorite!) can make writing feel easier.

Some technology options are appropriate for young writers, too. Clicker software is a tool that lets students choose words in their sentences by clicking. It gives students the opportunity to generate complete sentences without being slowed down or distracted by handwriting or spelling challenges. 

Middle grades (3-6)

By third grade, students are being asked to write longer compositions of a paragraph or more. Writing tools for dyslexia at this age should focus on helping students get their ideas out efficiently, catch their errors, and produce a polished final draft. Third grade is the perfect time to introduce technology that will help dyslexic students write well all the way through school and into adulthood.

When I started teaching students with writing difficulties, we had just one piece of writing software on our classroom desktop computers. We taught them to use word prediction with Co:Writer, but with only a couple of classrooms in the computer, they didn’t have much access. Dictation was a possibility, using Dragon Dictation, but training the computer to a student’s voice was a challenge. These days, pretty much any device you pick up at home or in the classroom has powerful speech recognition, spell check and word prediction. Both Android and Apple devices offer these as core features, no special assistive technology apps needed. 

For students in the classroom, Google Docs is often the preferred tool. And on any Chromebook or computer running the Chrome browser, students can access Voice Typing. With a few minutes of training, students are ready to practice dictating their writing. It’s not magic. Students may begin writing more than they ever have before, and will need help editing that longer work, including placing punctuation and catching the computer’s errors. As students are starting out, I strongly recommend doing this editing for them, preferably in their presence. Because students with dyslexia who read and write slowly are exposed to less text, they might not have experience with quotation marks, run-on sentences, and proper nouns. They will need an adult to model this for them. When I do it, it sounds like this: “OK, you wrote ‘the king’s crowd has many signing jewels.’ Did you mean ‘the king’s crown?’ and is it ‘signing jewels’ or ‘shining jewels?’” I try to keep them engaged in the process without asking so many questions that they get overwhelmed.

Once students have some comfort with a device, writing on the computer should always be an option, unless the task is specifically for the purpose of practicing handwriting and spelling. This is something that should be made clear in the child’s 504 or IEP accommodations. Otherwise, teachers tend to say “it’s OK, you can write with a pencil, just this once,” and they don’t take into consideration how challenging and frustrating that can be. Students with writing tools for dyslexia in their accommodations should not have those tools taken away! It’s 2022. We have lots of options for turning a worksheet into a pdf, and lots of tools (like Kami for Google Drive or Noteability for iPad) that make it easy to speak or type an answer onto a PDF.

If your middle or high school student is struggling with writing, consider our paragraph writing class this winter. In 6 weeks, we talk about the anatomy of a paragraph and practice a reliable formula for turning ideas into finished paragraphs. Sign up here to be notified of winter course dates. 

Middle and high school students

Writing expectations vary widely from grade to grade, school to school, even teacher to teacher. But one way or another, your child will be asked to produce longer form writing, such as essays or reports, in middle and high school. Having the right writing tools for dyslexia at hand can make the difference between a composition they are proud of and a frustrating mess that may never get turned in at all! 

For many students, planning in advance, using a mindmap or an outline is the way to ensure an organized final product. But for me, outlining a paper is too high-stakes and I can get totally stuck because I don’t know what I want to write until I’ve started writing it. 

An alternative that works for many of my students is a sort of hybrid approach. Instead of a blank outline, we start with a paragraph template. For middle and high school students writing from research or writing about their reading, I like the TBEAR model. I create a template for the essay’s body paragraphs that looks like this: 

T – Topic Sentence
B – Brief explanation
E -Evidence #1
A – Analysis #1
E -Evidence #2 (sometimes more than 2 pieces of evidence are needed)
A – Analysis #2
R – Relate

In the boxes on the right, students write notes or complete sentences that will go in their paragraph. Sometimes they start with very brief notes, like “Lady Macbeth washing hands” for evidence, or sometimes they already have a quote in mind. Seeing the blank lines in their paragraph plan helps students figure out where they need to do more thinking or research. If they go directly to writing paragraphs, sometimes it’s easy to see the writing is “too short,” without knowing what to add to it.

When the plan is finished, students can take their sentences out of the table, right there in the same document, and cut and paste the paragraph together. This can also be done with speech recognition or word prediction software to help with spelling or writing speed.

Writing isn’t easy

Too often, people become teachers because they enjoyed school and succeeded there themselves. They think of reading and writing as “easy” and jump write to helping their students enjoy it. But for many students, writing doesn’t come naturally. Having the right tools available can make writing less of a burden and help students more fully express themselves in writing. 

Does your child struggle with writing assignments? What has been helpful?

When grades start to drop –  How to make it through to the break

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It’s December! For students in the US, that means we’re in the home stretch for the fall term. For many, the semester ends in a couple of weeks before a break for the winter holidays. Others will return in January to finish up their work and take exams. We’re so close to the end and it’s a time of year where I often hear from concerned parents, worried because “my child’s grades are dropping!” 

Why does this happen and how can we support students to help them finish the term strong? 

Why are my child’s grades dropping now?

It’s partly the kid…

In most middle schools and high schools in the US, the school year is divided into 3 marking periods – the first ends sometime in October or November, the second sometime in January, and the third at the end of the year. Eight or 9 weeks is a long time for a student that age to focus on and work toward a goal like getting an A in English.

For young students, teachers set very short-term goals – read this chapter today, or learn these vocabulary words by Friday. As students enter middle school and high school, the deadlines get farther out and the assignments get bigger. But their brains don’t necessarily grow at the same pace. Sometimes students’ grades drop because they don’t understand (or can’t do) what it takes to get a good grade on an essay, or a mid-term exam, or a large project.

If your child’s grades are dropping, sit down with them and look at the grade book. Make a list of any missing assignments they can still turn in, and look at the big projects ahead. It’s a good idea to take the December calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.

Then look at the list of what needs to be done and plug that work into the “white spaces” on the calendar. If there’s a math test on Wednesday, but your child has events on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll have to make sure he does most of his studying the weekend before. This type of planning doesn’t come naturally to adolescents (or to me, for that matter!) so using concrete tools like paper and different colored pens or highlighters is much more effective than just saying it out loud. 

If there’s no way to fit everything in, it’s time for triage! It may be that your student has fallen behind this term, or that her courseload is just overwhelming right now, or she has overcommitted to activities. It does happen that sometimes there is just more work than time. Some things to think about as you prioritize together what work absolutely needs to get finished:

  • Value of the assignment – If making and studying flashcards will take hours, but the Spanish quiz is only worth 5 points, that might be low on the list. On the other hand, if a large history project will make the difference between passing and failing the class, it should get a lot of time on the calendar, even if it’s not due for a few weeks.
  • Grade goals – if your child is a straight-A student, you probably stopped reading this post a while ago. Students who are struggling in a few classes might need to prioritize to get the grades they need. If they are failing one class but could turn in missing work and get the grade up to a C-, that’s probably more urgent than doing great on the math test that could take them from a B to a B+. Every teacher will say their class is important, or they are all important, but if your child’s grades are dropping, you need to do the math and find the true priorities.
  • Motivation – Sometimes it’s a teacher they don’t get along with. Sometimes it’s a subject that they just hate! For some students, they idea of pouring all their effort and time into their most hated class just feels like torture. Pick your battles. If they understand the consequences of neglecting that awful class, and it’s the best way to get them to move forward in their other classes, that may be the best option. As a parent, it’s very difficult to say “well, don’t do that one, then.” But if they are making the choice between a bad grade in one class, or bad grades in multiple classes, the choice is pretty clear. If putting aside the requirements for their hardest class gets them moving on other things, it can be the right tradeoff – in the short term.

It’s partly the school…

Isn’t it weird that one summer, we pick up an elementary schooler at the end of the last day of school, and somehow, magically, we send a middle schooler back to school in the fall? All of a sudden, they enter this new world of junior high with lockers, and changing classes, and maybe a new device, and new people. But they are the same kids! 

Nothing magical happens during that summer, so it makes sense that lots of kids are still learning skills they need to succeed in a more challenging junior high environment. Too many middle and high school teachers have an attitude like “they need to be more responsible” or “they need to understand that they can’t wait until the last minute” but they haven’t taught the skills that lead to “being more responsible.” 

Some skills and tools schools should be offering include:

  • One consistent system for notifications/reminders and assigning work. Students shouldn’t have to check Google Classroom and Canvas and that one teacher’s website and the school calendar to find out everything that’s going on.
  • A practice of consistently and effectively using planners. Students need to be taught what to write on today’s planner page, what to write on the assignment’s due date, and how to use all that white space to, well, plan their week. Learning to do this can take up a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it pays for itself for the rest of students’ lives by giving them a set of tools for managing their work through school and into adult life.
  • Instruction on goal-setting and planning. Not everyone is shooting for 100% in every class. But students need to understand how to calculate their average and understand what a poor test grade or missing assignment can do to their grade for the term.
  • Models and templates. Especially at the beginning of the year, students need their teachers to model what an organized notebook looks like. Also, a clean locker, a completed page of homework, an effective paragraph. We cannot take for granted that kids just know what we mean when we tell them to produce these things!

If poor or disorganized writing is holding your child back, you may be interested in our small-group paragraph writing class. These classes are short and focused on the academic paragraph, the basic building block of longer writing.

It’s partly the world around us…

My focus isn’t at its best in December, either. There seems to be a tipping point around Halloween and after that the year just flies by! All those things we need to do before December 31st make us busy and stressed. For young children especially, the anticipation of the holidays can take up a lot of room in their brains! But older kids are feeling it, too. 

In September and October, we’re very focused on our school routines, and by December, some things have started to slip and others have been totally replaced by seasonal needs. Gotta go Christmas shopping. Gotta rehearse for the winter concert. Gotta go to Aunt Sally’s this weekend for her annual cookie swap! 

With so much going on around us, it’s especially important to go back to basics. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting some time to rest and relax. We can combat that seasonal and end-of-term stress by keeping the predictable routines that worked for us last month. Those routines will give them the support and structure they need to focus on their school work.

This, too, shall pass

It’s temporary, this seasonal stress. The marking period will end. The gifts will get wrapped. The concert will be performed. The days will get longer and we’ll turn our attention to the next challenge. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. What lessons can you take from this situation that will help your child avoid the pain and stress of getting overwhelmed by poor grades. Next year, instead of “my child’s grades are dropping,” I hope you’ll be saying, “OK, December is coming. Here’s our plan for prioritizing, using tools from the school and managing our energy so we can all make it through in one piece!”

One way to help your child manage their energy in a difficult class is to make sure their basic skills are solid. That’s why I’m offering our paragraph-writing class this winter for middle and high school students. Check it out and leave your name in the contact form to make sure you catch the updates!

Christmas gifts for second graders

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My mantra lately has been “less.” I try to talk less, let my kids figure things out more. Work less, rest more. Eat less. Buy less. Worry less. Gradually, “less” of the things I don’t want is making room for more of the things I do want – time, space, energy, reading.

And as we head into the holiday season, I’m also planning to buy less. We’re experimenting with the “Want, Need, Wear, Read” model for buying Christmas gifts this year. My kids are both at the age where they see things in commercials and instantly want them. They don’t know what they are or what they do, but that commercial makes them look like so much fun! They have lists a mile long, but the toys they do get are often exciting at first and quickly forgotten.

My favorite part of Christmas shopping is the “Something to read” category. I get so excited picking books for kids, trying to give them the excitement I felt over getting the perfect book . But if you don’t read as many children’s books as I do, how do you get gift ideas for 2nd grade students when you’re holiday shopping?

Know your audience

Chapter books for second graders

At some point during second grade, most students will be ready for books with chapters. Some come into second grade already reading these, and others stick with beginning readers, graphic novels and picture books for longer. It has to do with their skills and also their interests. Here are some excellent chapter books to pick up as gifts for your second graders.

  • Magic Tree House books are a popular series with many, many, many books to choose from. The main characters, Jack and Annie, magically travel all over the world and all through time, solving mysteries and problems. This set of the first 4 books Magic Tree House books is a terrific place to start for second graders ready for chapter books.
  • Bad Guys is a fun series, sort of a hybrid between graphic novels and chapter books. Early in second grade, they convinced my son he really is a reader and he blew through them before I knew it! Here’s a boxed set of the first five Bad Guys books that will keep your action-loving reader busy for weeks
  • Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors of children’s books. And a great way to start kids off with Kate DiCamillo is to introduce Mercy Watson, the beloved pet pig of Mr. and Mrs. Watson. In this collection, Adventures of a Porcine Wonder readers will join Mercy on her first 6 adventures.

Graphic novel gifts for 2nd graders

Not all second graders have the reading stamina or patience to read chapter books independently by the time you are shopping for gift ideas for 2nd grade students. Graphic novels are a fun, valuable reading experience that can help kids bridge the gap between short picture books and longer novels that require more patience and time. Some popular graphic novels for second graders include:

  • Narwhal and Jelly might be my personal favorite graphic novel series for this age. The pages are simple, the jokes are cheesy, and the characters are adorable!
  • Investigators . Get this. They’re alligators and they investigate mysteries. They are INVESTIGATORS! Bad guys, gators and spy gadgets. What more could a kid want?
  • Dog Man by Dav Pilkey has a bit less potty humor than the author’s Captain Underpants series, but it still appeals to kids this age because of the goofy humor and fast-moving plots.
  • Guinea PI: Pet Shop Private Eye is a really funny graphic novel series by Colleen AF Venable. The first book, Hamster and Cheese tells the story of an enthusiastic hamster and a reluctant guinea pig that team up to solve mysteries in the pet shop where they live. 

Books to share with your child

Second grade is a year that is all about increasing independence for many students. They become independent readers. They might start to have more homework to do on their own. They might move from more group lessons on the rug to more individual work at their desks. But it wasn’t so long ago that those big, independent second graders were little people who loved to cuddle and hear stories. Maybe it was within the last 24 hours, even! 

Shopping for book gifts for 2nd graders doesn’t mean being limited to books they have to read on their own. Second graders are a great audience for rich novels and beautiful picture books that you can read to them! Here are some of my favorite read-aloud books for this age group:

  • The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, along with its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes, are excellent for reading aloud. They can be enjoyed at different levels, from younger children who appreciate the silly situations the robot gets into when she lands on an uninhabited island, to the more science-minded students who appreciate the technology and ecology learning woven through the story.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle is a great choice for a read-aloud with second graders. Some of the vocabulary and situations are unfamiliar to young children (even before the Murry children begin their journey through a tesseract to find their father, a scientist working on a dangerous secret project). It’s the beginning of a wonderful fantasy series that I reread every few years, whether any kids want to hear it or not!
  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo is a beautiful read-aloud choice for animal lovers. It tells the tale of a young girl who is new in town. She rescues a stray dog who has gotten himself in trouble in the local Winn-Dixie supermarket and as a result, she builds friendships with both children and adults in her new home, and comes to understand her father better, too!
  • Your favorite book from childhood. I’ve read my kids Little House on the Prairie, while my husband has read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and parts of The Lord of the Rings. Even for kids who can read to themselves, read alouds are a great way to expose them to new stories and expand their vocabulary and imagination!

So many books to choose from!

It’s really difficult to go into a bookstore and pick the right books for Christmas gifts for second graders. They could be anywhere from the very early stages of learning to read to plowing through novels on their own. If you’re not sure where to start, ask the kids in your life what they’ve been reading lately or what books their friends are reading. And if all else fails, a gift card always fits just right!

What was your favorite book in second grade? Comment below and let us know!

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

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

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!