10 Things to Say to Help Your Child Learn to Read

Reading together will help your child learn to read.

Reading with your kids has immense benefits. One of the biggest predictors of reading success is the amount of reading a child does. That means building fun, positive reading habits can help your child learn to read and have lifelong benefits.

Listening to beginning readers can be a challenge, though. They get distracted. They beg for help. They make mistakes.

You want to help, but maybe you’re not sure how.

When you are reading with your child and they make a mistake, what’s the best way to address it?

Telling a child to “sound it out” can be as confusing as telling a baby “get up and walk” if they don’t know how.

Often, I hear adults telling kids who get stuck on a word to “sound it out.” While that advice isn’t wrong, it’s kind of like telling a baby who wants to cross the room to “stand up and walk with your feet.” It is accurate advice but not helpful.

When a child makes a reading mistake or gets stuck on a word, it’s because something has gone wrong with “sounding it out.” They need some specific feedback and suggestions to get back on track.

Here are some things you can say to help your child learn to read when she or he makes a mistake while reading

  1. “I heard you say __. Did that make sense?”
    • Sometimes just drawing a child’s attention to the mistake is enough to cue them to fix it. Focusing on reading to get meaning from the text will help your child learn to read purposefully.
  2. What are the letters in that word?
    • Draw attention to a specific part of the word, like the first letter or the vowel, where they made a mistake. Getting a child to name the letters before trying the word again makes it less likely that they will guess.
  3. What sound does that letter make?
    • This is a reminder young readers might need, especially for vowel sounds. They often mix up the sounds of e and i, or o and u. Drawing their attention to the vowel (and making sure they actually know the correct sound) helps them correct vowel errors. You can help your child learn to read by making sure that they are using accurate letter-sound relationships.
  4. Let’s tap out the sounds in the word.
    • Use this technique if you hear the child leaving out sounds in a word (like saying cop for crop) or substituting sounds (like saying said for sat). This is what most people are thinking when they say, “sound it out.” Adding the step of tapping each finger to her thumb, or moving a block or penny on the table for each sound, helps a child focus on each sound and avoid leaving anything out.
  5. What would make sense here?
    • This question can help when the word in the sentence isn’t familiar. For example, if the sentence said, “When I heard the noise outside the tent, I was petrified,” the child might be able to predict that the speaker would feel scared. Depending on their reading skills, you might have to tell the child that the word is pronounced “petrified.” But figuring out the meaning is the other half of the equation.
  6. What’s the first syllable?
  7. Does this word have a prefix or a suffix?
    • This is a good question to ask students beginning in about second grade. Separating an ending like -ing or -es from the word, or a prefix like un- or re- helps with both pronunciation and meaning.
  8. That word is __.
    • Sometimes it just makes sense to tell a child the word they missed. If it’s something they haven’t learned to sound out, especially a non-English word (tamale) or a proper noun (Cincinnati or Lincoln). Telling them the word might be the quickest way to get the back into the story. Don’t overuse this tip, though. It can undermine a child’s confidence if someone gives them the answer every time they are unsure.
  9. Do you want me to take a turn reading?
  10. Please read that sentence again.
    • When a child has left out words or made multiple mistakes in a sentence, the whole thing might not make sense. Encourage him to point to the words as he reads them to make sure nothing is left out.
Any support you can give will help your child learn to read better and feel more confident!

All these steps might seem like a lot to take in. The idea of coaching your child through everything he or she reads might sound daunting and exhausting. Don’t let it scare you off, though. Any reading you do with your child is an investment in his or her future as a reader. And using any of these tips, even if you pick a few and use them sometimes, can help boost your child’s reading achievement!

 

 

Stay Organized with Google Keep – at Home and at Work

I’ve always been a list-maker. I used a paper-based system for years, and I would keep a running list on scrap paper or in my planner. But when I got out of college and stopped going everywhere with my backpack, I started leaving my lists behind. So I have turned to digital systems for to-do lists to help me stay organized. After trying Evernote for a few years and using the notes feature of an iPad and a few different cell phones, I was really excited to learn about Google Keep. I have started using Google Keep to help my students plan projects and keep schoolwork organized. Here are some of my favorite features.

Using Google Keep at Home

Groceries

I keep a running grocery list. I use the share feature to share the list with my husband. The list has check boxes so I can check off items I bought and uncheck them when we need them again. Once a week, the reminder feature tells me I need to plan my shopping for the coming week.

Google keep is great for this because it syncs between all my devices. If I am sitting at my desk planning meals for the week, I can pull up the list on my laptop. Then I can use my phone to look at it while I shop and check off items as they go into the cart. When I find an unusual item or a terrific price, I take a photo and attach it to the list so I don’t forget.

Meal Planning

I have a plan of recurring menus that my family likes, that are quick enough to prepare on weeknights. It’s not a perfect system but it gets us fed. One of the tools I use is a weekly to-do list that pops up on Google Keep. For example, if I’m serving tacos this week, Google Keep has a list of all the advance prep steps that I would do the weekend before: chop the peppers, grate the cheese, check the pantry for salsa, etc. I have a reminder set for that list every two weeks, because that is how often I have tacos on the menu. I archive the note when I’m done with the chores and don’t see it again until the following week, when it’s time to prep again.

Seasonal Chores

I have a recurring reminder for seasonal chores like changing the smoke alarm batteries, switching out everyone’s toothbrushes, and calling to get the boiler maintained every year. They are not items I put on my calendar, because they can be done somewhat flexibly. Also, I don’t want to flip ahead 6 months to find out when daylight savings begins before I can put an event on the calendar for changing the batteries. So it pops up once every 6 months around the week of the time change and I just leave it up on my Keep to-do list until I take care of it.

Holiday and Seasonal Shopping and Activities

I have a holiday gift list, a list of fun things to do this summer, and a list of new clothes my son needs. For example, when I realize he is outgrowing three pairs of pants, I put pants on the list and pick some up next time I see a good sale. This prevents me from buying things I don’t need, because I’m trying to shop from memory. It also stops me from standing panicked in the middle of the mall in December trying to remember the great gift idea I had for my father.

Knitting Pattern Notes

I love knitting and crocheting, but I don’t often have time to work on my projects. I tend to forget where I am on a project and it takes me forever to look at the piece, read through the directions, and get oriented. When I’m knitting a complicated pattern, I paste the row by row instructions into a note in Google Keep and I add checkboxes. Then, as I knit, I can check off each completed row with a quick gesture. No fumbling for a pen or shuffling index cards, which was the system my grandma taught me as a kid for keeping track of pattern repeats.

Chores

I have a list that pops up every Saturday morning, early. (Too early, but I have to get started before my family wakes up and the fun starts.) It has all the things that perpetually need doing, like sweeping and mopping the floors, washing sheets and folding a staggering amount of laundry.

To those regular items, I add any special errands or chores that I want to do in a given weekend. A checklist gives me accountability and a sense of satisfaction when I check off items.

Distracting my Toddler

Last but not least, Google Keep is a great tool to hand my son when we are waiting for dinner in a restaurant. I can pin the app open, so he can’t get out of it, and open up the drawing feature in a new note. He quickly learned to choose different types of markers and highlighters and to change the color. Sometimes he draws faces, other times he just scribbles and experiments with color. Either way, he is proud to show us his picture, and I never have to pick up crayons that have rolled across the floor. When he gets older, I’m excited to teach him to play tic-tac-toe on the screen, too.

Using Google Keep at Work

Client Notes

When I talk to a parent interested in tutoring for her child, I open Google Keep on my laptop while we are on the phone. I jot down any information I get about the student and family. A recent set of notes includes test scores, favorite books, names of siblings and pets.

Then I add to the note anything I want to cover in our first session, like stories we might read or assessments I want to use. During or after the meeting, I can jot down test results and observations. It helps me remember the details about new students, especially in a season when I am meeting a lot of families.

Professional Goals

I have another note, with a weekly reminder, that prompts me to check in on my goals. Am I posting on social media as much as I planned? Have I designed the flyer I want to share with parents? Am I meeting my scheduling goals for this blog? What was that YouTube video I wanted to add?

That reminder means that I can’t ignore those goals for weeks at a time. Every time it pops up, even if I don’t have time to sit down and address those items, it refreshes my memory about what I should be doing. Google Keep helps me keep my eye on the prize!

Drafting Blog Posts

Since my list of blog topics is on Google Keep, it makes sense that I often start blog post drafts there, as well. When I’m out of the house and have a couple of minutes, it’s quick to open up Google Keep, start a new note, and outline the post I want to write next. By long-pressing on the note, I can choose the option to “Copy to Google Docs” and move the blog post over when I’m ready to format and finalize the post. I can also open the Keep note on my computer and paste it right into the blog post editor on my website. Google Keep is a flexible tool that gives me a lot of options for quickly starting my writing. For some reason, it’s a lot less intimidating to sit in front of a little note screen, designed for quick things like grocery lists, than a stark, blank document on my computer. It makes it seem like no big deal to just jot down a few ideas.

The Takeaway

When a tool has as many uses as Google Keep does, it’s no wonder it has a place of honor on the favorites tray of my cell phone. It’s right there with the camera and my text messages. I have my personal account and my professional account linked to my phone, which lets me access either set of notes with just a couple taps. Between the checklist function, bulleted lists, sharing, photos, and drawing, Google Keep is an all-purpose tool that should be in anyone’s productivity suite. 

Come back soon to read how I teach students to use Google Keep to organize their school work and avoid forgetting what they need to do.

Create, share and use lists and notes in Google Keep

Creating Space and Time for Homework

Although some researchers question the usefulness of homework, it is still a standard practice in most schools to assign some work for students to do after class. This can vary from independent reading to elaborate projects that involve multiple trips to the craft store. My philosophy on homework is that it should be minimal and that it should be reinforcement and extra practice of things that the child has already learned in class. That means if they did not master the concept in class, they shouldn’t be expected to spend hours learning it at home, especially in elementary school.

That also means that in a perfect world, teachers should be assigning homework that students can mostly do on their own. As a parent, you can help your child succeed by creating a space and time in your home where he or she can do homework to the best of his or her ability. You can also check their work to make sure they have put in their best effort and not made any obvious, careless mistakes. However, I believe that if homework is taking a lot of parental effort every night, something is wrong. Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher if the homework seems extremely difficult or if your child doesn’t seem able to complete it. It could be a sign of a more serious problem.

Here are some ideas for creating a homework-friendly environment in your home, no matter how old your child is.

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

In many schools, homework begins as early as kindergarten. Although I don’t think this is the best use of after-school time for five- and six-year-olds, families that have to get in the habit of homework for their youngest learners have some specific things to consider.

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

These are the years that children are building their homework habits, so it’s very important to help them develop a positive attitude towards the work they have to do. And investment in good habits now will make the homework process go more smoothly for years to come.

Readiness

Make sure your child is ready to work before you sit down to do homework. Younger children may come home from school hungry, tired, or just fidgety from being in their chairs all day. Follow your child’s cues to determine whether they need a play break when they first get home, or maybe a snack. Some children, on the other hand, do their best work right after school when they’re still in “learning mode.” Develop a schedule that works best for your child’s energy level.

Close Supervision

The younger children most likely need a parent in the room or even at the table with them to read directions, redirect them if they get distracted, and give them praise and encouragement. As your kids get more familiar with the homework routine, try to set short independent goals, like asking them to copy their spelling words onto the paper while you load the dishwasher. Be sure to give them lots of praise for their independent work when you check in a few minutes.

Minimize distractions

Young learners can be distracted by a TV on in the house, other children playing while they’re trying to work, or just the stories or worries going on in their own brains. Set up homework in a quiet part of the house where your child is unlikely to be distracted by family members or other excitement. Gently redirect your child to the homework task when they become distracted it try to change the subject or tell a story. You are trying to help them learn to redirect their own attention. This skill, part of executive functioning, is essential for managing attention and keeping themselves motivated as they get older.

Tools

Have the right tools available. The type of homework your child brings home will vary, but helpful tools to have on hand are:

  • Pencils, a sharpener, and erasers
  • Crayons or colored pencils
  • Lined paper that’s appropriate for the size of their handwriting
  • For math, a ruler, graph paper, object like coins or small blocks that they can count and used to help them solve problems
Resources

Children this age are likely to complain if you try to tell them something that is different from the way their teacher taught it. However, they’re also likely to need help doing the work. Your child’s teacher will likely share resources for homework at the beginning of the school year for along with the homework paper. If he or she does not give you the information you need, ask whether the school district or textbook they use has a website with parent information. There are often videos and demos that you can use to learn how to help your child.

How Much Time?
  • It won’t be productive for your young child to spend too much time at one sitting in front of their homework. If you notice your child getting fatigued or distracted, and you find it’s too hard to get them back to work, it might just be time for a break. Try splitting homework time up between after school, evening, and the morning before school, if needed. Some parents report that homework that might take an hour in the afternoon takes just 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning.

 

Grades 2-5

Homework is pretty common by the time students are in second grade. They are likely to have math practice, spelling or vocabulary work, and maybe an independent reading assignment. Many elementary teachers stick to a predictable weekly routine for homework, which means you can usually do the same at home. Here are some tips for helping your elementary students get their homework done.

Prepare to work

Just like the younger children discussed above, older elementary students might also need a break after school or snack to help them get ready to sit down and do their homework. However, by this age, they should be able to communicate to you how they’re feeling and help you strategize about what they need to get ready to work. That doesn’t mean they should do whatever they want before they start their homework. Come up with a reasonable plan by working with your child that might give them a short time to play followed by homework, followed by the reward of more time to do their favorite activities.

Increasing Independence

As children move through elementary school, they develop more independence and more responsibility for completing their work. By third grade, students should be able to complete a simple assignment such as questions about a story or a math worksheet without direct help from the parent. they may still need you close by. Many elementary students are not ready to work on their homework all alone in their room, and may do better at the kitchen table or another public part of the house where an adult is available if needed.

Managing Distractions

While older children might be able to manage their attention a little bit better than they could a year or two ago, they are still likely to be distracted by the TV computer or cell phone in their work environment. If you are supervising homework, it’s a great idea to make this a no screens time for yourself as well. That ensures that you were available to help your child, as needed, and keeps your child from being distracted by your device.

Having the Right Tools

Children should be bringing home any tools that are specific to their assignment, like multiplication charts or science notebooks that have the information they need to refer to. It’s still great to have a set of household homework tools, though, which will keep your child from rummaging through the house for the things she needs to complete an assignment.

Kids need access to the right tools to make homework time go smoothly
  • Pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners
  • Lined paper, blank drawing paper, and graph paper
  • A calculator if your child works with one in math
  • Ruler, protractor, and other math tools needed for their curriculum
  • Highlighters, glue sticks, colored pencils, markers, and crayons
  • Parent knowledge/resources: Many schools or textbook publishers have online resources like videos to refresh your child’s memory about a concept or skill. If the teacher has a class website, make sure to check it for homework reminders or tips and strategies.
How Long Will It Take?

The amount of homework assigned increases from year to year throughout Elementary School, with schools often following the recommendation that students should have 10 minutes of homework per grade. That means first graders would have 10 minutes of homework while 5th graders might have 50. However, students are very different from each other, so homework that takes one child 15 minutes might take another child an hour. Be mindful of time of day when scheduling your child’s homework, and be willing to intervene if you find that the homework is taking too long. It doesn’t benefit your child to struggle alone over an assignment they don’t understand, and it certainly doesn’t help them if you give in and leave them through it step-by-step. If they are struggling with an assignment, encourage them to try their best and help them communicate with their teacher to explain where they got stuck.

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

By 6 or 7th grade your student should be able to complete their assigned homework independently. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook! As a parent you can continue to give them appropriate setting to work on their homework and to monitor to make sure they are doing what needs to be done and that they understand the material. By this time in their school career kids are finding the teachers grade many of their independent homework assignments. That’s why it becomes extra important that you not hover over them and that you don’t help with the work itself. Teachers are using homework to measure what students learned in class and how independently they can apply it.

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

The same kinds of tools that they did when they were younger: pencils, pens, highlighters, markers and scissors.

Internet Access

Middle schoolers are more likely to need an internet connection to complete their homework, either to read an assignment or to do research. Many teachers use online format for studying, practicing math skills, and turning in assignments. The stayfocusd extension for Google Chrome is a free tool that prevents users from going to certain blocked sites (chosen by you) too much, or within certain hours of the day.

Accountability with Independence

Monitor your middle schooler and make sure they are using their access productively, and not just texting their friends. Help them manage their time to make sure they can get done all parts of the assignment in the time they have.

Help to Plan

Middle School also tends to be a time of longer, independent projects. Help your middle schooler break down the project into all of its steps and develop a timeline for completing it that doesn’t have them staying up all night the night before it’s due!

Someone to Manage the Schedule

Keep a family calendar that includes family events, sports commitments, and other activities that will keep your student busy in the coming days and weeks. Refer to it when the student is planning a project or preparing to study for a big test.

A Place To Work

Middle schoolers are often trying to gain more independence and would prefer to do their homework in their room or in another location where they have more privacy. For most kids this is a good choice, but you know your child best. If you feel they’re not ready to work without direct supervision, set a policy that homework gets done in the kitchen or dining room.

Consider getting a portable box or caddy that holds all of the homework tools so your child can choose to work flexibly, such as using the floor for a big poster or doing long reading assignments in their quiet bedrooms.

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

By high school, your student will be almost completely independent with doing their homework. But your job’s not done yet! As classes require more homework and more long-term projects, students will probably need more help with the planning and scheduling of their homework. Continue to use a family calendar like the one recommended for middle schoolers and continue to talk to your child about their upcoming deadlines. Helping them keep these assignments in mind means that they are less likely to forget something and less likely to leave it until the last minute.

Changing Assignments

Besides having more homework in high school students are also more likely to have in depth, detailed assignments. They are less likely to have simple worksheets. Help your child learn to set reasonable expectations for how long a piece of homework will take to avoid staying up way past bedtime trying to finish an assignment that is taking longer than expected. Another way to help your child finish his or her homework efficiently is to make sure they have a range of study and reading strategies that are appropriate for the material there being asked to work with. Often, these strategies are taught as part of academic classes. If your child class is not teaching the difference between skimming and close reading, or different tools for note taking while reading, you might want to seek out a study skills class or some tutoring for your child. These strategies are essential tools that he or she will need to succeed in high school and Beyond. Some students are able to come up with strategies of their own and put them to work while others need to be explicitly taught how to do these different kinds of reading.

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

It’s tempting to take a hands-off approach to high school homework because your child is likely to be studying material that you haven’t looked at in years, if you ever studied it at all. However, you don’t have to be an expert in the content to help your child study or complete their work. Offer to quiz your child on material for a test using the questions at the end of the chapter or the study guide they’ve been given. Invite your child to talk through their understanding of a complex concept. Even if you don’t know enough to tell them whether they are right or wrong, hearing themselves explain the concept will help them to identify any gaps in their understanding.

Keeping Them Organized

One final and very important step that parents can take to help their high school students succeed is to help them keep their materials organized. For some students, that just means getting them some supplies like appropriate binders and notebooks and some kind of file box or accordion file for work that does not need to be kept in the binder but should be stored for future reference. Other students need a more Hands-On approach to organization. If your child needs it, make sure to sit down with them periodically, once a week once a month or once a quarter, to go through all of the papers in their binder. Make sure that they are filed with the correct class materials, that old papers are cleaned out and either thrown away or filed, and that work is dated and put in order so that assignments are easy to find. Even good, responsible student fall into the Trap of cramming papers in a folder or binder thinking that they will remember where they put them or that they will clean it up later. By giving your child time space and encouragement to organize their materials, you are helping them build good habits.

Finding Time for Sleep

Beyond helping your child organize and complete their homework, it is important that parents promote sleep for high school students. Successful students are often very busy with sports, activities, classes, and social engagements. Sleep often takes a backseat to all of these more exciting activities. But research shows that when teenagers don’t get enough sleep, their academic performance and their mental health are impacted. Consider household rules like keeping cell phones out of bedrooms or setting a lights-out time for homework activities. It might not be easy for your child to fit everything in earlier in the evening, but it is important to prioritize their sleep and health!

The Pay-Off

So why should you put so much energy and effort into getting homework done, when your name isn’t even going on the paper?

Although it’s still a hotly contested topic, homework is here to stay. Unless your child attends a school that does not assign much (or any) homework, these assignments will be part of your life for years to come. Creating good homework habits as early as you can will help your child succeed and reduce the stress in your home in those precious hours when you are all home together!

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!
If homework is overwhelming at your house, consider finding a tutor. Contact me at readingwritingtutor.com for a free 30-minute consultation and find out if online or in-person tutoring is the right way to help your child succeed!

 

Five Ways To Use Color To Get – and Stay – Organized For School

We live in an exciting, fast-paced, colorful world. On your next trip to the grocery store, take a moment to drink in all the vibrant hues that companies use to catch your attention and get your shopping dollars. Notice how quickly your eyes can tell the difference between the bright yellow Cheerios box and the blue of Frosted Flakes. Are you taking full advantage of your brain’s response to color in your organizational systems? 

Below are five ways to integrate color into your organizational system for school materials. Try one at a time in the least organized area of your school life, or go nuts and spend the weekend putting together a comprehensive color system that makes you feel organized and prepared for the challenges ahead!

Does it matter what colors you pick? Nope. Choose colors that make sense to you, or that make you feel good about what you’re doing. For example, I tend to make science stuff green because it makes me think of nature. In my personal folders, writing stuff goes in purple, since it’s my favorite color, and I want to do more writing. I’m hoping my brain will tell me how much I want to write when I see those pretty purple materials, or see writing time blocked out on my calendar in purple pen. Do whatever makes sense to you, but do it, and stick with it to see results!

1. Coordinate your class materials

Give each class in your schedule a color, like pink for math, green for science, etc. Match your notebook, binder, and folder for that class. This can take some setup at the beginning of the year, since it’s not always easy to find the colors you want for each type of supply.

*Tip: when you find the colors you need, stock up! Those pocket folders and one-subject notebooks won’t last all year. 

*In a pinch: if you can’t find the colors you want, use a neutral one like black or white and decorate it with markers or colored yard sale sticky dots. This can help when you have the right binder and folder, but you’re down to the last few notebooks in the county.

2. Match your Google Drive folders

This has been a game-changer for me. Between my own classes, material for my students, and my own projects, I have A LOT of folders in my Google Drive. Assigning a color to the frequently used or super important ones makes them jump out at me. Use the same colors as you do for your physical class materials to make things easier to find.

3. Code Your Papers

When you are picking out colored school supplies, grab a set of colored pens, pencils or highlighters, too. When a teacher passes out paper, grab the matching pen for the class and write today’s date in the corner in color. This is especially important if you don’t have a chance to hole-punch papers during the school day, or if you tend to let papers pile up somewhere.

*Bonus points- next to the date, write a verb that reminds you what to do with the paper, like study, file, answer, or get signed. That extra info will save you time when you deal with those papers at homework time.

4. Make your Planner Pop

Remember those colored pens you’ve been using to date your classwork? Put them to work in your planner or agenda book, too. Use the assigned color to write down homework for each class. Have some extra colors? Use one for sports, after school activities, family stuff, or appointments. Or have a special color for tests quizzes, or friends’ birthdays.

*Tip: Use colors for whatever is most important to you, but don’t go too crazy. If you make the system too complicated, you might avoid writing in your planner altogether.

5. Tie in your Google Calendar

All this magical color coding can be carried over in Google Calendar, too! Put your class schedule in as a set of recurring events, then edit today’s event to include any assignment from that class.

All these systems take a little time to set up, but the payoff is huge! Spend a little time before school starts, or some Saturday afternoons, getting all your materials organized, then relax and enjoy knowing that all your stuff is where it belongs!

Five ways to organize your school materials and your digital files to help you stay organized and find things quickly.
If your child needs help getting or staying organized, a tutor can help. Email me at bethsullivantutor@gmail.com to schedule a 30-minute free consultation.

Should You Buy Fidget Spinners?: The Good, The Bad, and The Distracting

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A couple months ago, I noticed that a hobby shop in my area that specializes in remote control cars had a hand-painted sign out front: “We Have Fidget Spinner Toys!”

I thought, “How great! What a boon for parents of kids with ADHD or anxiety! They’ll be able to find what they need locally, instead of ordering fidgets from catalogues.” Then I thought, “Fidgets are going mainstream! Kids with autism and ADHD are going to look cool!”

And then the fidget spinner nonsense started.

Teachers I know started confiscating them. Kids started fighting over them and stealing them from each other. Schools started banning them, and kids started figuring out how to sneak them into school.

In short, fidget spinners have followed the trajectory of any other elementary school fad, from Silly Bandz to Beyblades to POGs in the 90s. I’m sure it was the same with marbles back when they were the thing.

But is that all they are? Do fidget spinners really benefit kids or are they just toys?

The idea behind fidgets is this: some kids – heck, some people, because adults do it, too – concentrate better on work when their hands are busy with something else. For years, my occupational therapist and teacher colleagues have been building in creative, age-appropriate ways for kids to fidget. We have recommended strategies for kids with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and disruptive behaviors. In grad school, I had a professor who passed a basket of fidgets around to us at the beginning of each 3-hour class.

I teach fidget use in my class. I have a basket of slinkies(like these), Silly Putty, stretchy critters, and stress balls. I get a lot of them from the dollar store, or from the party aisle where I can get a pack of 4 or 6 items for a couple bucks.

From second grade on, my students seem to really enjoy having something in their hands while they are working hard. Most first graders and kindergartners find it too distracting, so far.

My introduction goes like this: “These are fidgets. Some people find it easier to concentrate on their reading or listening if they have something to keep their hands busy. So pick one out that you want to try. But remember: your job is to [lesson we are about to do]. If your fidget distracts you from [lesson], it might not be the right fidget for you today. We might decide to put them away if they are distracting.” I give the same introduction to second graders as I do to middle schoolers.

My students learn to ask, “Is this a good day to get a fidget?” and “Can I put this back? I’m distracted.”

They learn to accept, “That fidget is distracting both of us because it keeps rolling away. Please put it away, and try a different one tomorrow.”

I am 100% in favor of fidgets. I use them myself, and my students benefit from them.

But I have concerns about the explosion of fidget spinners. They’ve become a status symbol, like the fads I mentioned above. Kids are trading them and collecting them instead of using them quietly .

I am sure that the excitement will fizzle out soon. I just hope that teachers don’t get so fed up with fidgets that the kids who find them helpful aren’t allowed to use them when the excitement dies down.

What else works as a fidget?

In my master’s program, I took a behavior class. We were asked to pick a behavior of our own, develop a plan to reduce it, and collect the data. I had this Puzzle Ring, made of four interlocking silver rings. I wore it every day, and dozens of times a day, I found myself taking it apart, spreading the pieces out along my finger, and putting it back together. I was having the worst time decreasing this behavior, until one day, I was playing with it in the car. It slipped down between the seat an the center console, and I never saw it again! My behavior dropped to zero instances a day! I shaped my behavior! Sort of…

But I replaced that fidget with another. My favorite pens are the best because they come apart in five places. It gives me plenty to do in a staff meeting. Plus they write beautifully.

And this is the essence of a good fidget: It is functional (I can write with it, and it doesn’t distract others). It helps me think (When I’m busy with my pen, I’m listening instead of wandering around in my email). And it doesn’t distract the people around me, because we all have pens. And at the end of the day, no one notices that I need it to get my job done.

So do fidget spinners serve that purpose for your kids? Or is it time to look for something different?

Summer Reading Bingo!

Go read your book.

Did you read today?

You’re bored? How about reading?

How many different ways can you suggest, beg, cajole, or nag to get your kids to pick up a book this summer? We know summer reading is important because it helps student avoid “the summer slide” and maintain the skills they gain during the school year.

Whether your child’s school assigned summer reading books with a book report, gave a recommended list, or just said, “Make sure you read!” the burden of making them read falls to you.

Anywhere they will read is the perfect place

 

Research on learning and motivation shows that giving kids some choice of how they learn increases their engagement.

For kids in the middle grades, getting them to read one hour a day, and at least 11 books a year, raises their reading achievement. But external reinforcers, like prizes, can backfire by sending kids the message that reading is so boring or unimportant that no one would do it unless they got something out of the deal.

The same study showed that reading-related rewards improve the self-concept of middle grades readers who earn them.

So how do you get your kids to read this summer without driving them (and especially yourself) crazy? Try making a game out of it.

My FREE Summer Reading Bingo board has 24 reading-related activities that give kids ideas for where to read, what to read, when to read, and who to read with. Offer your kids a new book for scoring a bingo, or just foster a little friendly competition in the family. Either way, this game gets your child thinking about reading, and sometimes that’s half the battle.

Subscribe to my email list, below, to get your copy of the Summer Reading Bingo board (by email), as well as emails about blog updates and other tutoring news.

 

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Is Reading to Our Kids Enough?

Some links in this post are affiliate links

Some kids do teach themselves to read. But that doesn’t mean all kids can.

How about those people whose kids just taught themselves to read? I saw a Facebook comment recently (because my vice is reading the comments on articles, even though I know I’ll end up angry) where a mom announced she simply “read to her kids and labeled everything in the house and the kids were reading by age 4.” Therefore, she concluded, what’s all the fuss about teaching reading? Clearly, all the other parents in the world just weren’t labeling enough things around their home.

Um, no.

For some kids, it does work that way. I’ve heard plenty of stories about kids whose parents “discovered” they could read instead of “teaching them” to read. As in, one day, little Susie picked up a newspaper and said, “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” But those magical stories stick out because they are not so common. Peter Gray’s article on Psychology Today’s website even claims that “The written word is not essentially different to them than the spoken word, so the biological machinery that all humans have for picking up spoken language is more or less automatically employed in their learning to read and write (or type).” However, the research shows that it’s quite different, and not intuitively learned. I guess my question is, if learning is as natural as people claim, how come it took until 3500 BCE for the Sumerians to come up with written language?

Some kids get left behind by classroom reading instruction.

Although U.S. elementary schools teach the nuts and bolts of reading beginning in kindergarten, and wrapping up, give or take, in third grade, kids don’t always move through the stages at the same pace. Public schools base their teaching on the belief that six is the ideal age to learn reading, but maybe that’s not true. In this article in Today’s Parent, Susan Goldberg talks about kids (some home-schooled) who learned to read anywhere between the ages of 4 and 9. And in almost all those anecdotes, they ended up successful readers who learned easily when they were ready. On the other hand, one turned out to have dyslexia. The real risk for a slowly-developing reader in a traditional classroom is that they will fall behind their classmates if they can’t read the material in class.

The wait-and-see attitude seems risky. Growing up a poor reader can have serious consequences for education, employment, and even health. By fourth grade, teachers have stopped teaching how to read, and are expecting students to use their reading skills to learn new information. That makes it much harder to catch up.

So if you are concerned about your child’s reading, don’t just wait patiently. Talk to her teachers. Listen to what they are doing in class, and find out what else can be done. Consider requesting testing for learning disabilities if your child is getting good instruction and not making progress.

In the meantime, what can we do at home, besides reading regularly?

  • Phonics games – Try this Superhero Phonics Game, or any of these spelling and reading games.
  • Sight word practice – Some kids do well with flashcards, but others need more in depth practice. Try pouring some salt in a shallow pan and having them write out the sight words, or write them with a stick in the sandbox, to help them make the connection between the shape of the letters and the word they make up.
  • Authentic writing activities – Some kids just aren’t interested in learning to read or write when reading instruction starts and they need to see what’s in it for them. One thing that helps is letting them see you write. Send postcards to friends, make a shopping list for their favorite meal, write a story about your last trip to the park and let them illustrate it.
  • Reading with a purpose – Another way to get kids engaged in learning to read is to move beyond the early reading books and have them read something important to them. Show them how to read recipes, or instructions for a science experiment. Hand them driving directions to their favorite places. Have family members send you texts and emails for your child.

These strategies are no substitute for good reading instruction. But if you pick activities that help your child feel confident and interested in learning, you can do wonders for their motivation and make that good reading instruction more effective.

When parents read to children, it enhances vocabulary and comprehension, as well as building positive associations with reading that last a lifetime!

Ways to build responsibility and important life skills in kids (That aren’t homework)

Scouting offers many benefits for growing hearts and minds, but do we have time?

I’m looking at the side of a box of Girl Scout Cookies. (Samoas, if you’re curious. Yum!) As much as I love the cookies, I love buying them from Girl Scouts even more. The side of the cookie box says that the goals of the cookie program include “Goal setting” and “Decision making” . When I was a kid, that meant going door-to-door in my neighborhood, my Nana’s neighborhood, and usually at least one more. It meant dragging all those cookies door-to-door in a wagon, right around Thanksgiving, making deliveries and collecting cash. Although it’s not a strategy I would advocate for an eight-year-old today, it taught me things that sending the order sheet to my parents’ offices never could.

Do kids today have fewer opportunities to learn responsibility?

This has come up a few times lately. A teacher at my son’s daycare complimented me for waiting and insisting that my son (who is two) put away the toys he was playing with instead of tossing them over his shoulder when he saw me walk in. I see that as an important opportunity to teach him about respect for his classroom and teachers, and an extra lesson in the ongoing course Cleaning Up After Yourself 101, which I will be teaching every semester until he moves out, I am sure.

I was also recently talking to colleague who is an occupational therapist. We both work with students with various types of special needs, and we both see the hazards of letting kids grow up without functional skills. But we both admit that our kids (mine a toddler, hers school-age) don’t have enough opportunities to practice them. We both work full-time, and are too busy to fully engage our kids in learning to take care of themselves. When I have a day off, I try to let my son help in the kitchen (he loves to make rice in the rice cooker!) or with other chores (he knows you say “corner to corner…and fold it” when you fold a washcloth, but the rest eludes him so far). But on  weekday mornings, it is all we can do to get two adults and a child fed, dressed, and into the car. And in the evening, I am completely willing to put on a TV show and hope he sits quietly while I make dinner, load the dishwasher, and do whatever else I can manage before bed.

At my house, my son has (and will have, as long as I work full time) fewer chores and responsibilities than I had at his age, if only because my husband and I don’t have enough time to teach and supervise as much as my mom did when I was young. So while I was doing laundry at 10, cooking my own mac and cheese at 9, and peddling those cookies at 8, I don’t foresee my child having the same opportunities.

Are chores and responsibilities important?

The Girl Scouts believe that their cookie sales program teaches “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics,” among other things. The Center for Parenting Education cites benefits like improved sense of responsibility, more self-esteem, and increased ability to tolerate frustration and wait for what they want.
Parents also worry that their children need to learn to:

  • manage time better
  • communicate or speak up for themselves
  • understand the value of money
  • work independently
  • take care of themselves (this means different things at different ages)

So how do you balance the “must-do’s” of your life with the “should-do’s” of building responsibility?

I keep telling myself that the time I’m investing in teaching my son that dirty clothes go in the hamper and dirty plates go in the dishwasher in the toddler years is going to pay off when I no longer see him finish every meal or change every outfit. *fingers crossed*

But what else can we, as parents, do to promote independence in our kids?

  1. Sports – belonging to a team gives your child a whole bunch of people to be accountable to who are not relatives or teachers. Let’s Play names improved confidence, consistent exercise, respect and relationship-building as benefits of playing on a team. For students who struggle academically, it’s important to have something to be good at. For kids who aren’t athletically inclined, it still is important to find them a physical outlet they will enjoy. Maybe swimming, dance, martial arts, or cross-country running will give your child an athletic routine at their pace, even if they aren’t the best, fastest, or most coordinated.
  2. Chores – Simple, but tried and true.
    Age-appropriate chores are tricky to find, but rewarding!

    Giving your kids a routine of chores to be responsible for can help you out, make them feel like team members in the family, and teach them core skills that they will use all their lives. And hopefully, they’ll be more likely to avoid dripping toothpaste on the counter if they are the ones that wipe it down each evening. It can be tricky to find the right, age-appropriate chores. But if you start with things your child is motivated to do, you’ll have won half the battle.

  3. Personal growth goals – What does your child want to get good at? Do they want to become better artists? Learn how to program computers? Write novels? Look for opportunities in your community or online, and then build time for it into your family’s schedule. My husband is (from my lowly perspective) a computer genius. He learned it all fooling around on the family’s computer after school as a teenager. Who knows what your child can accomplish if you give them the basic tools and teach them to make time for what they love!
  4. Learning music has many benefits for a child’s development

    Musical instruments – This might fall under the category of “things your child loves” or it might just be another thing on the schedule. But either way, musical practice teaches your child time management (I quickly learned that practicing 45 minutes the day before my trumpet lesson was not the same as practicing 15 minutes a day all week long). Laura Lewis Brown, writing for PBS.org, cites several long term benefits of music lessons, including improved IQ, increased language skills, and  improved skills in visualizing information (like those needed to solve math problems).

So why didn’t homework make my list?

The wrong homework can be a waste of time!

Eh, I’m not a huge fan of homework. As a teacher, I know that’s borderline sacrilegious. And as a tutor, it seems like a total business-killer, right?

But hear me out.

The average teacher assigns the average homework assignment to the average student, right? Because otherwise, assigning homework would be a planning and management nightmare!

The research shows that homework is not effective for elementary students. In fact, for students with good home support, good homework can be beneficial. For kids with less support around homework, or for students who didn’t understand the lesson to begin with, it’s not so useful. I would still argue that for students struggling to master basic skills (those with reading disabilities) or those with attention difficulties (who have been expending huge amounts of energy to get through the day), homework is a much lower priority than spending an afternoon and evening playing, resting, and doing activities where kids are happy and successful.

Here’s my wish

I wish teachers didn’t have to assign homework. I wish families used that time for a few activities that are meaningful for the family. That’s going to vary a ton between households. For some families, it would be cooking dinner together, for others playing in the yard or attending sports practice, and for others it would be working in the family business. All of these options give kids valuable perspectives and life skills. And I hope everyone would have a routine of reading before bed, or maybe in the morning before school!

For most elementary kids, that type of quality family time, combined with how well-rested and prepared they felt at school the next day, would be what they need to succeed in school. I think kids would do better because family stress levels would be lower and relationships in the house wouldn’t have to revolve around math facts 5 nights a week.

Other kids may need some extra help somewhere along the line. Tutoring, provided in short, frequent, focused lessons, helps kids strengthen weak skills and catch up to their peers so they can make the most of each school day. Although it takes a chunk out of a child’s available time in the afternoon or evening, carefully planned tutoring can make a huge difference in your child’s school success, long-term!

Fighting the Summer Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transition to Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we protect our middle schoolers?

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

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

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

Preparing for academic success

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

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

When to get expert help

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

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

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

 

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

 

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