Best Apps for Time Management

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. We had independent work folders. I loved working at my own pace and not having to wait for others. I remember thinking very clearly, at the age of seven, “I’m going to use folders like this in my classroom.”

In the years that followed, I tried many planners, lists, folders, and eventually technology to give me that same sense of organization and productivity. My system is still a work in progress.

Which has led me to my favorite apps for time management!

I love a good productivity tool. I crave lists and organizing structures. In fact, I like the system-creating part so much more than I like the actual doing part. Oops. So if an app is going to help me be more productive, it has to be simple to use, integrate smoothly with my other tools, and avoid stealing my limited attention. I’ve tried them all, so if you’re looking to get yourself more organized or if you’re looking for the best apps for time management for students, I’ve got you covered!

My favorite apps for time management

Keeping track of time – clocks and calendars

Calendar: Google Calendar  is my go-to app for time management for students, and for myself. For students, plugging in their recurring commitments (lessons, practices, games, family commitments) gives them a visual of how much time remains for their work. The thought “That paper isn’t due for a week!” is easier to defeat when they can see that 4 of those 7 days have after-school activities.

Clocks and Timers: I use my cell phone clock for just about everything. Alarms remind me to get up, pick up the kids, take things out of the oven, and leave for events. For my kids, asking the smart speaker to set a timer is the simplest way for them to remind themselves. My son sets one for his after school break to remind him to start his homework. Set recurring alarms for daily events, or set them as needed for anything you might forget to do (or forget to stop doing!)

Advanced tip: Label your alarms. One goes off at 8am every day here, when everyone but me has left, and I have NO IDEA what I’m supposed to do at that time. I haven’t cancelled it yet, because I’m afraid I’ll never figure out what I was supposed to do!

Work time: When I am having trouble getting started on a task, or when something feels like it’s going to take forever to finish, I use the Pomodoro Technique to manage periods of work and breaks. The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes of work, then a 5 minute break timer, and repeating this pattern until the work is done or you get to a “long break,” which for me is either lunch or the end of the work day. I usually use the web-based timer at pomofocus.ioForest is a cool app for Apple and Android that represents each Pomodoro/task as a tree. To care for your trees, you have to finish your task!

Keeping track of tasks

The simplest way to keep track of what needs to be done is a list on a whiteboard or scrap paper. If the person you’re trying to help with time management is a child or teen, hanging a whiteboard in their workspace (or in a common family space) is a very simple way to make tasks – homework or chores – visible.

For a more high-tech solution, I recommend Google Keep for anyone with to-do’s in just one or two domains. You can have a single “Homework” list and add and delete things. A new note for each homework task works, too. But if there are more than you can see on the screen, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. You can copy cards, share notes, set reminders, and archive notes you don’t need anymore.

For complex organization needs, like keeping track of tasks for a whole business or a family, I recommend Trello or Notion. I think if you’re looking for best apps for time management for students, Trello and Notion are probably too powerful and complex for what students need. But for parents, teachers, and professionals, I think they are amazing. I am in the process of moving my lists and systems into Notion and I’m finding it exciting but overwhelming. With templates for recurring things like my blog, I can make a quick copy for a new task. I’m also still working on setting reminders that work.

Keep track of care and feeding of humans

As I sat down to write this section, I realized I never finalized my grocery order for the week, which is Bad News Bears because I’m working with a narrow window for picking groceries up this afternoon. And my family is weirdly obsessed with eating several times a day. So I know about the struggle of making sure I – and everyone in the house – get enough food, water and sleep. And I also know how hard it is to keep track of those things on a busy day (especially for certain kinds of brains)!

The best apps for time management around taking care of your body and brain depend on which things you are responsible for. For a student who needs to remember to unload the dishwasher, drink water and remember to stop for lunch, an app like Habitica might be the solution you’re looking for. Habitica is an app that gamifies completing routine tasks. You pick the task and how often you want to do it, and the app prompts you to get it done, then gives you points for doing it! To keep your avatar alive and healthy, you have to show up consistently and do your habits.

Habitica works for many adults, too, but for me, I’m juggling too many different things. Putting it all in the app became overwhelming very quickly.

Although I use Notion for work stuff, Trello is still my favorite solution for all those family management tasks. I use it to plan meals, including dragging and dropping favorite recipes from old lists. I use my grocery store’s app to fill my cart and comparison shop, then pick up my groceries curbside. A timer reminds me when I need to leave my desk and cook dinner.

I also know a family that loves the Paprika app. You can import recipes from anywhere online, or type in your own. Paprika can sync between devices, track your pantry, and help build your shopping list. With Paprika, the main shopper can

Keep it simple!

You must remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that!” It’s tempting to go for a high-tech solution, one more app to help you become more productive. But sometimes the best “apps” for time management for students are actually low-tech. Things like whiteboards, or features on a device that you already have are sometimes best. Keep things simple and keep your focus on the task at hand.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list, set a timer and get something done!

If any of the homework on that list involves writing, grab my FREE Editing and Revising Checklists down below.

5 Simple steps to beat writing homework overwhelm

The thing about adolescents is: they are often elusive, independent creatures…until they aren’t. They often want to be independent, but they don’t realize they lack the executive functioning skills to get the job done alone.

So when the teen in your life gets overwhelmed by homework or falls behind in school, it can feel really overwhelming for you, too. Maybe for a couple months now, school has seemed fine. A late assignment or missed homework here or there, but kids are only human. And then BAM! The progress report hits you like a ton of bricks. Your child has some catching up to do.

And while I do believe that teens should experience age appropriate consequences for their choices, I also don’t think we learn by failing. Struggle, yes. Failure, no. So if you find your family in this situation, here’s what I recommend.

Make a list

Gather all the information you need in one place.

Start with the progress report. Every worrisome grade tells a story of some assignments that need follow up.

Log into your school’s parent portal, or have your child log into their system. Some schools use Canvas, others use Google Classroom or another platform. And unfortunately, some schools use more than one, with can complicate this process. Teachers tend to use these platforms in unexpected ways, so here are some things to look for:

“Gradebook” listing of assignments and their status. If the assignment isn’t described, check the assignment date against other info sources.

  • Notice/Memo/Announcement fields. Sometimes these are used for due date reminders or important assignment info.
  • Daily posts. Google Classroom calls this the Stream. It’s where you can see the history of assignments in chronological order, including any comments or details from the teacher.
  • If there’s information you can’t find, it’s time for an email to the teacher. I strongly recommend that kids, from about 6th grade on, participate in the writing of that email. By high school, it should come from them, even if you have to sit by them and help with the wording.

Quick wins

Take the list of missing assignments and do some triage. Is anything too old to turn in for credit? Let it go!

Are there things in there that are done, but not turned in? Turn them in now! If it’s work that can be turned in digitally, do it! If it’s on paper, I suggest snapping pictures and emailing them to the teacher, before filing them in the folder. That way, if the backpack gremlins attack, or if your kid is like mine and tunes out at the most inconvenient times, the teacher will at least know to ask about it.

OK, the rest of the stuff on this list is real work. If you’ve been sorting through the piles for a while, it might be time for a break. But is there some piece of work that could be finished tonight? Something that’s half-finished? Something that’s just a couple of days old and fresh in their memory? You want your child to walk away from this planning session feeling calmer and more confident that they can sort this out.

Do the dumb stuff

Next time you sit down with your child to work through the homework backlog, start with the low hanging fruit. Because of the way grading works, there are some points in a class that are much easier to earn than others. Like class participation. In some classes, that’s remembering to say “present” when they call your name and not audibly snoring. In others, the teacher has specific criteria for the quantity and quality of participation.

And sometimes homework points can be easier to earn than test grade points, or project points. Take a look at the small things, like notebook checks, worksheets, study guides, that are quick to complete. The points add up! Unfortunately, those “dumb” assignments can seem like they aren’t worth your student’s time on a day-to-day basis, but over time they make a difference.

Due dates? Do dates.

All that homework comes with a due date (or maybe it came with a due date, but that ship has sailed and you’re trying to catch up). That date is based on the teacher’s plans – other lesson plans, school events, marking period dates – along with his estimation of how much time students need to do the work.

What the teacher doesn’t know when he writes the due date is what your week looks like. That’s why, next to every assignment on the list, you need a DO date. This is the date you are planning to do the thing. This takes into account your family’s schedule and the student’s capacity for taking on more work. Sometimes this means rearranging family responsibilities, temporarily. Can someone else unload the dishwasher tonight if it means your kid can turn in a missing Spanish assignment? If your family needs some tools for better time management, to fill in some gaps in executive functioning skills, read more here!

Guard against next time

Well, this isn’t fun. I have been in many of these situations, as a teacher, as a tutor, as a parent, as a friend or family member, and as the struggling student, too. One thing all those experiences have in common is that no one had a good time! This is a painful, embarrassing, overwhelming problem to solve. Kids would avoid it if they could.

I can hear you now: But it’s their work, and I’m busy too! I know it feels like a huge step backwards to go back to checking your teen’s homework every night. And you probably don’t have to go that far. But remember bumper bowling? A 50-pound kid’s 5-pound ball would wobble down a regular bowling lane and into the gutter 9 times out of 10. He’d never get a chance to knock down the pins! You have to be your kid’s bumpers here. Adolescents are still developing their executive functioning skills. What seems obvious to you, including how they should spend their study time, may completely elude them.

To help prevent problems and catch them earlier next term, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Take that list of info you gathered at the beginning. Where does most of the info come from?
  2. Make a daily and weekly checklist to help your student collect all the work they need to do (until they are doing it independently).
  3. Schedule a very quick after school check in. Your goal isn’t to tell your child what to work on. It is to ask them if they have made a plan for what they need to work on.
  4. Consider a whiteboard for your student’s wall where they can list the assignments for today and erase them as they are done. That way they (and you) can see at a glance what kind of evening lies ahead.
  5. Plan a more substantial weekly checklist. I like to do either a Friday afternoon debrief or a Sunday evening planning session at home. But for my students, we check in when I see them, even if it’s the middle of the week. Include planning for the week ahead (sports, appointments) and checking in about any homework or ongoing projects. Remember to set “do” dates!

Hang in there

Your kids have come so far over the years! Remember when you had to hold their hands when they walked, or they would fall over?

They don’t need that anymore. But there was a time when they really, really, did. Think of this kind of homework support as that. While your child’s executive functioning skills are still developing through the teen years, you are there to provide structure, guidance, and balance, while your child does the hard work of learning to stand on their own. This too shall pass!

Checklists are a great tool for getting and staying organized. Grab my free checklists for editing and revising writing right here:

When grades start to drop

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There is nothing worse than seeing your child work hard and go to school every day, only to watch their grades drop. Working harder isn’t solving the problem. Your child needs some new strategies for conquering this year’s new school challenges! d 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 English grades dropping as the quarter goes on?

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. If this month is busy with sports, holidays, and social commitments, it’s a good idea to take the calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.

A word of warning: teens don’t always appreciate it when parents help with homework. Some do. Some appreciate help with schoolwork because they are truly in over their heads. But it can be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for teens to admit they have fallen behind. No one likes that! Please make sure you’re helping your teen through this with empathy and patience (or find them someone who can!) because if they are upset about the kind of help they are getting, their brain just doesn’t work as well and it can be counterproductive.

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, or a post-it note for each task, 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 yourselves 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, the 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, 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!

It’s partly the world around us…

My focus isn’t at its best all the time, either. We are still recovering (medically, educationally, financially, emotionally) from a pandemic, even though things are looking “back to normal” in most places, most days. Parents are working at least as much as they ever did to keep their kids fed, safe and housed. There is not a lot of quiet space and time in our 21st century lives. The pressure on teens is very real and they can feel overwhelmed!

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 stress the world throws at us by keeping the predictable routines that work for us. 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 academic stress. The marking period will end. The soccer season will end. Even this difficult English class will end. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. The lessons you take from this situation 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, the hard part of the school year 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!”

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Best Apps for Time Management

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved the independent work folders my second grade teacher used because they meant I always had something to do while I was waiting for the people around me to finish their work. I remember thinking very clearly, at the age of seven, “I’m going to use folders like this in my classroom.” In the years that followed, I tried many planners, lists, folders, and eventually technology to give me that same sense of organization and productivity. But what does this have to do with my favorite apps for time management?

I love a good productivity tool. I crave lists and organizing structures. In fact, I like the system-creating part so much more than I like the actual doing part. Oops. So if an app is going to help me be more productive, it has to be simple to use, integrate smoothly with my other tools, and avoid stealing my limited attention. I’ve tried them all, so if you’re looking to get yourself more organized or if you’re looking for the best apps for time management for students, I’ve got you covered!

My favorite apps for time management

Keeping track of time – clocks and calendars

Calendar: Google Calendar  is my go-to app for time management for students, and for myself. For students, plugging in their recurring commitments (lessons, practices, games, family commitments) gives them a visual of how much time remains for their work. The thought “That paper isn’t due for a week!” is easier to defeat when they can see that 4 of those 7 days have after-school activities. 

Clocks and Timers: I use my cell phone clock for just about everything. Alarms remind me to get up, pick up the kids, take things out of the oven, and leave for events. For my kids, asking the smart speaker to set a timer is the simplest way for them to remind themselves. My son sets one for his after school break to remind him to start his homework. Set recurring alarms for daily events, or set them as needed for anything you might forget to do (or forget to stop doing!)

Work time: When I am having trouble getting started on a task, or when something feels like it’s going to take forever to finish, I use the Pomodoro Technique [https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique] to manage periods of work and breaks. The technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes of work, then a 5 minute break timer, and repeating these intervals until the work is done or you get to a “long break,” which for me is either lunch or the end of the work day. I usually use the web-based timer at pomofocus.io. Forest is a cool app for Apple and Android that represents each Pomodoro/task as a tree. To care for your trees, you have to finish your task!

Keeping track of tasks

The simplest way to keep track of what needs to be done is a list on a whiteboard. If the person you’re trying to help with time management is a child or teen, hanging a whiteboard in their workspace (or in a common family space) is a very simple way to make tasks – homework or chores – visible.

For a more high-tech solution, I recommend Google Keep for anyone with to-do’s in just one or two domains. You can have a single “Homework” list and add and delete things. A new note for each homework task works, too. But if there are more than you can see on the screen, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. You can copy cards, set reminders, and archive notes you don’t need anymore.

For complex organization needs, like keeping track of tasks for a whole business or a family, I recommend Trello. I think if you’re looking for best apps for time management for students, Trello is probably too powerful and complex for what students need. But for parents, teachers, and professionals, I think it’s amazing. I use Trello because the app syncs with the web version, I can add collaborators to individual cards or boards, and it can sync with Google Calendar. With templates for things like my blog, and I can duplicate a whole board, or a template card, for a new task. I am also still adding to my systems for automating reminders so nothing falls through the cracks.



Keep track of care and feeding of humans

As I sat down to write this section, I realized I never finalized my grocery order for the week, which is bad news bears because I’m working with a narrow window for picking groceries up this afternoon. And my family is weirdly obsessed with eating several times a day. So I know a lot about the struggle of making sure I and everyone in the house get enough food, water and sleep. And I also know how hard it is to keep track of those things on a busy day (especially for certain kinds of brains)!

The best apps for time management around taking care of your body and brain depend on which things you are responsible for. For a student who needs to remember to drink water and stop for lunch, an app like Habitica might be the solution you’re looking for. Habitica is an app that gamifies completing routine tasks. You pick the task and how often you want to do it, and the app prompts you to get it done, then gives you points for doing it! To keep your avatar alive and healthy, you have to show up consistently and do your habits.

Habitica works for many adults, too, but for me, there are just too many things I’m juggling in an average week and I quickly got overwhelmed by wanting to put everything in the app. 

For me, Trello is still the best solution to all those family management tasks. I have a template for a weekly meal plan and when I’m organized enough to plan meals, I can drag and drop our favorite meals onto the weekly list. I use my grocery store’s app to fill my cart and comparison shop, then pick up my groceries curbside. A timer reminds me when I need to leave my desk and cook dinner. 

I also know a family that loves the Paprika app. You can import recipes from anywhere online, or type in your own. Paprika can sync between devices (although you have to pay for each different platform you use), track your pantry, and help build your shopping list. It has worked well for the family’s main shopper and cook to share their knowledge and some responsibility with others in the house.

Keep it simple!

You must remember that old Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that!” It’s tempting to go for a high-tech solution, one more app on your phone or iPad, to help you become more productive. But sometimes the best “apps” for time management for students are actually low-tech things like whiteboards, or features on a device that you already have, but can use more effectively. Sometimes the best time management technique is not wasting a ton of time looking for the perfect solution, but instead using the tools you have to quickly implement a solution that’s good enough.

So what are you waiting for? Make a list, set a timer and get something done!



How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition

Almost any class you take in middle school, high school, and college, will be introducing you to new vocabulary. Sometimes it comes up organically and it just becomes a part of the conversation. I remember a college professor who loved the word “salient” and made it part of my vocabulary by the end of the semester. Other times, you need to make a particular effort to study vocabulary and learn what seems like an endless list of new words. This is especially true in foreign language classes, but it can also be true in science or history classes. So what’s the best way to study vocabulary?

Brain research shows that we learn best when our studying is spread out over time. In fact, forgetting is an important part of the learning process. Your memory for a fact is strongest when you learn it, come close to forgetting it, and relearn it a few times. Through that process of learning and relearning, you are building stronger connections that make the word stick in your memory for longer. The technique for studying this way is called “spaced repetition.” 

Lots of memory experts use spaced repetition to learn new material. There is software to help you do it. 

Setting up spaced repetition

But my favorite tool is a file folder and some envelopes. Here’s how I set it up.

  1. Get a file folder and open it.
  2. Get two or three regular mailing envelopes, seal the flaps and cut them in half.
  3. Glue or tape the flap side of each envelope to the file folder with the open ends facing up. You now have a file folder full of pockets.
  4. Label the pockets
    1. Every Day
    2. Every Other Day
    3. Twice a week (optional)
    4. Once a week
    5. Once a month
    6. Review (optional)
  5. Make flash cards for each word or term. Make sure they fit in the pockets.
    1. Put ONE piece of information on each card. For example, don’t write out all the parts of the face in French on one card. Have one card for nez and another for les yeux
    2. Put the definition of the word and/or a picture clue on the back

How to use a spaced repetition system

Starting out your study system

Day 1: First, don’t try to study too many terms at once. Start going through the pile. If you come to a word and you know everything on the card, put it in the Every Other Day pocket. If you are at all unsure or shaky about it, or if you miss any information, put it in the Every Day pile. Keep going until you have about 5 cards in the Every Day pocket. 

Day 2: First study the cards in the Every Day pocket. If you get them right, move them to Every Other Day. If you get them wrong, they stay in the Every Day pocket. There are lots of things you can do to strengthen your memory for these, like reading them out loud, watching a YouTube video that explains the concept, or drawing a detailed picture to help you remember more. 

Second, study the Every Other Day pocket. If you get the words right, leave them in the Every Other Day pocket (you’ll move them at the end of the week). If you get them wrong, move the card back to Every Day.

Day 3: Study the Every Day pocket. As you move words to Every Other Day, start putting new words in your Every Day pocket so you always have about 5 you are learning.

Day 4: Every Day and Every Other Day pockets. Keep moving the Every Day words to Every Other Day if you get them, and leave the Every Other Day words where they are until the end of the week.

Day 5: Every Day words. Keep adding more as you are ready

Day 6: Every Day and Every Other Day. 

Keep it going!

Day 7: New week! Study your Every Day words. When you study the Every Other Day words, you are ready to move some to Weekly. If you get them right, move them on to the Once a Week pocket. If you get them wrong, they go back in the Every Day pocket. Today, your Every Other Day pocket will be empty except for the ones you added today.

When to stop reviewing

Keep repeating these 7 days. On the first day of each following week, move Every Other Day and Weekly words on to the next pocket when you get them right. 

After 4 weeks, go through all the words in the Once a Month pocket. If you get them right, retire them! Don’t throw them out because you might want to review them before a big exam (or sell them to a less-prepared friend?) but you can take them out of your study system.

To find out more, check out my video on YouTube: How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition.

Do Kids Outgrow Dyslexia?

I was explaining to a student how our brains process language when we read and how some brains don’t do it as efficiently, which can lead to slow reading. I named dyslexia as an example of what can cause reading difficulty. My student nodded knowingly and said, “I had dyslexia when I was little, but I outgrew it.” I mentioned that there are lots of different types of reading difficulties, but that dyslexia isn’t something a person outgrows. But it’s a common perception about dyslexia that it only affects children.

Why can’t you outgrow dyslexia?

What is dyslexia?

The International Dyslexia Association has developed this definition of dyslexia:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

For young children, it often looks like poor reading and spelling, difficulty remembering or pronouncing words, trouble rhyming, and resistance to reading. At this stage, teachers often say that kids are learning “at their own pace” or that we should “wait and see” if they catch up. But research has shown us that kids don’t outgrow dyslexia! They need systematic, explicit, literacy instruction to get the skills they are missing.

Often, older children with dyslexia have learned some reading and spelling skills but their reading remains slow, or they have poor comprehension. They sometimes avoid reading or writing, and might demonstrate behaviors (like arguing or goofing around) that take the focus off their difficulties and make it easier for them to avoid what they struggle with. But even if a child with dyslexia can learn to read, that doesn’t mean they outgrow dyslexia.

If you learn to read, is dyslexia cured?

Unfortunately, learning to read and spell isn’t the end of the journey for a person with dyslexia. Through the IEP process, schools will complete formal testing and sometimes, if instruction has been effective, they will determine that a child no longer qualifies for an IEP because their scores are average now. Unfortunately, that isn’t the same as outgrowing dyslexia. 

While reading and spelling skill gaps can be remediated – meaning students get the skills they were missing – the brain of a person with dyslexia can still process information differently. They may need explicit instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, or writing. Older students and adults with dyslexia may also use assistive technology to help them do reading and writing tasks.


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What happens to adults with dyslexia?

Adults with dyslexia continue to exist! They become scientists, teachers, athletes, writers, lawyers, parents, and many other things. With skills, accommodations, advocacy and support, people with dyslexia can grow up to be successful, powerful members of our communities.

Unfortunately, without the right teaching and support, people with dyslexia have outcomes that aren’t as good. According to ProLiteracy.org, there are over 43 million adults in the US who struggle with math, reading and writing tasks above a third grade level. Many of those adults may have dyslexia and not even know it. Poor reading skills can lead to a lack of job opportunities, as well as making people more likely to end up incarcerated. 

If you can’t outgrow dyslexia, what should we do?

A dyslexia diagnosis is something that will be with a person for the rest of their life. It will affect the way they learn, the way they communicate, the jobs they choose, and the tools and supports they use every day. Many adults with dyslexia are proud of their identity as dyslexic and say it also includes strengths like creative thinking that help them succeed! 

But embracing dyslexia is not the same as ignoring it. For a person with dyslexia to succeed and thrive, they need high quality, explicit instruction in reading and writing and consistent support from teachers and family who understand dyslexia and advocate for the student’s needs. 

If you suspect that you or your child has dyslexia, learn more from the International Dyslexia Association. If you are looking for systematic, explicit, literacy instruction, contact us for a consultation to find out if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is right for you! 

Too Much Homework and Not Enough Time

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Homework comes and goes as a hot topic in the news. Sometimes the focus is on what percent of students stay up late doing homework. Other times it’s on the idea that too much homework can be harmful, that kids aren’t playing outside or spending time with their families. Sometimes it’s about how students are suffering, other times it’s about the burden on parents. But it is all pretty murky. I don’t think the data are conclusive on whether homework is, on balance, a good or a bad thing for students. What I do worry about more, though, is the impact of too much homework and not enough time on students who are struggling. 

Child keeps forgetting homework
Boy bent over papers on a table in a dark room

Why too much homework is bad for struggling students

I asked my son’s first grade teacher how long homework should take. Her answer? “Not too long.” It’s usually a math worksheet that’s totally within his capabilities. If I look at it with my teacher eyes, I’d say it’s a 10-minute task for any kid who understood and remembers that day’s math lesson. But there are so many other things that can interfere with that quick 10-minute task. At my house, my child keeps forgetting his homework – like literally forgets it exists between the time he puts it down (on the couch? in the bathroom? by the fridge?) and the time he wanders into the next room.

By the time we defeat the many distractions and get him seated, with a pencil, in the general vicinity of a parent, we might already have 30 minutes on the clock! And that was 30 minutes of nagging, negotiating, prompting, reminding, and sometimes whining (although I try not to whine at the children…).

My point is that the teacher is planning homework with the best-case scenario in mind. She’s imagining routines like in her classroom: Everyone takes out their pencil from their desk while she passes out papers. She reads the instructions out loud. And then, just like that, everyone begins quietly scratching away with their pencils.*

* It is painfully clear to me that classrooms rarely actually run this way, but we teachers are often optimistic about what we can get done on that perfect unicorn of a school day!

In real life, struggling students might not remember how to do this work because they didn’t master it in class. They might not be able to read the directions. Kids might not be able to articulate to their parents what exactly they are supposed to do with an ambiguous worksheet. Often, kids are just plain exhausted from working on the things that are hardest for them all day long. 

Maybe homework is hard because of lagging skills

If a child is struggling with academic skills, it makes sense that they would resist homework! Find out how we can help your child build better literacy skills and more confidence. Check out our tutoring services here and request a consultation!

How to talk to the school about homework problems

Sometimes, because parents asked, or the principal expected it, I have had to give homework. The deal was, I would assign it and review it. But how much time kids spent was always, always, up to parent discretion. When students get difficult homework from other teachers, I encourage parents to write a note on the homework or send an email to the teacher with information about what the child struggled with. Teachers don’t know that homework took hours. They can’t tell an assignment was hard if it comes in looking perfect (or doesn’t come in at all!).

Child keeps forgetting homework
Here are some things about homework that the teacher needs to know to help your child:
  • “It’s taking X amount of time.” If you are working with and supervising your child, and homework is taking hours, something is wrong. There is some kind of mismatch between the child and the assignment. 
  • “He doesn’t know what the word __ means.” If the directions don’t make sense, or if he doesn’t remember how to do the assigned work, he may need a quick review or more extended support.
  • “She cries every time she has to read.” Maybe she’s tired or sad to be missing out on time with friends. But if the problem is specific to one academic area (reading, writing, math), there may be weaker skills in that area. Read about how tutoring can help. 
  • “I had to type/write it myself to get it done.” Some teachers don’t care who is holding the pencil when those vocabulary sentences get written. Sometimes the focus of homework is the thinking and idea generation. Other times (and the older students get, the more true this is) teachers expect full independence in the area of homework, and may be grading the results. If it’s not possible for your child to do the homework on their own, find out if there’s a way to shorten the writing, or an option for them to type if that would make it go more smoothly. 

Remember, you and the teacher have the same goal. For your child to learn the content and skills for this year’s classes. If your child is struggling with homework more than their peers, you need to ask more questions than the other parents and try to figure out the best path through the challenges.

If your child is having trouble keeping track of homework all together, check out my 7-part free email series, “Academic Planners for Success” for strategies for using a planner to identify and prioritize homework.


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My child won’t do his homework

If the child isn’t even attempting the homework, there can be a few things going on. It could be a pure “behavior” situation. But I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Ross Greene that “Children do well if they can.” If your child is refusing to do homework, think about what that behavior is telling you about them and what they need.

If the child refuses to attempt the homework, consider:

  • The timing: Fatigue and hunger make it hard to work.
  • Amount: If they don’t see any light at the end of the homework tunnel, why begin?
  • Directions: Where and how should they start? What does that even look like?
  • And content: Did they understand it in class?

My child keeps forgetting homework

Forgetting homework goes along with the “won’t do his homework” problem in many cases. Leaving everything at school can be an attempt to avoid the unpleasant situation of facing homework at the end of a long day of school.

In other cases, though, children forget their homework at school because they are overwhelmed or rushed through routines. 

Here are some troubleshooting steps:

  • Set up a simple homework folder. Label the two sides “Keep at home” and “Return to school.” Homework goes in the “Return to school” side and comes home.
  • Find a planner system that works for your child. It might be paper or digital
  • Use the school’s online resources. For older children, many schools use Canvas, Google Classroom, or another website to post assignments. Find out from your child’s teachers how they notify students of assignments, and create a home routine of checking it with your child.
  • Make a locker or backpack checklist for your child. Laminate it and put it in the homework folder or backpack, or hang it on the inside of their locker. 
  • Have them find a buddy. Brainstorm a reliable friend (or a few) who always have their homework done. This will be the person to ask if they’re not sure what page the homework was on, or if they forget a due date.
  • Make homework part of the daily routine. Ask about it when you see them at the end of the day, and establish a time and a place for getting it done.

Whose homework is it, anyway?

Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. “Good” homework can be a helpful way to reinforce skills taught in class. But “bad” homework steals a student’s personal time and causes stress.

Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. Share on X

At the end of the day, homework is part of the academic relationship between students and teachers. If you find that your child’s homework is causing you stress and taking as much of your time as it is your child’s, it’s time to talk to the teacher and work on a plan to make homework more effective.

II your child is struggling with reading and writing, contact us today for a consultation to see if online tutoring works for your family.

For more about homework, check out these other blog posts:

Too much homework and not enough time
Is homework helping your child or harming them? What to do if the burden of homework is ruining your family’s evenings.

What I’m reading about reading

The thing about reading researchers is they just write so much. It’s like they expect reading experts to read constantly or something! I have a long and growing list of books about reading and writing to read. From time to time, I plan to share some highlights on the blog.

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Information comes in many forms

Books About Reading

There are so many books just here in my little office. I have books from courses I took, books that changed my reading life, and books that I know are important that I can’t quite bring myself to pick up. So the ones I’ve chosen here are just a couple that stand out in my mind. If you’re curious about how reading works and how to help the readers in your life, any of these would be a great investment of your time.

  • How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene is a pretty heavy read about how our brain processes information and how learning to do something like read and write changes the way different parts of the brain are used. It’s not an easy read by any means but it gave me a lot of “aha” moments about why certain kinds of teaching work the way they do.
  • Speech to Print by Louisa Moats. I read this during my Orton-Gillingham training but when the new edition came out, I picked it up right away. 
  • Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf – this is the most readable of my current recommendations. It’s laid out as a series of letters on different aspects of reading. Wolf explores reading as a technology (our brains weren’t designed to read, but our brains have done an incredible job accommodating our new habit of reading and writing language) and what it means to read on a screen instead of on paper. It’s thought-provoking and very readable for the non-expert.

Blogs

I click links all week long and have a pile of blogs and research to read. But these are sources I look at consistently. 

  • Tim Shanahan – Dr. Shanahan is my go-to source for evidence-based, common-sense, interpretations of reading research and instructional trends. 
  • Fordham Institute’s Flypaper Blog – I often disagree with their conclusions, but I think it’s important to look at education data through another lens and I often learn new things.
  • Margaret Goldberg’s Right to Read blog – I was recently introduced to Margaret Goldberg when she was interviewed on Science of Reading – The Podcast. I haven’t been reading her blog for very long, but every post I’ve read has answered a need I’ve had as a teacher or a reading tutor. This post on questions to ask about the reading instruction at your child’s school is very readable and pure gold!

Social Media

  • The Literacy Nest – Emily Gibbons is an Orton-Gillingham tutor as well as a prodigious creator of resources for literacy teaching. Everything she posts gives me something to use or something to think about.
  • Science of Reading-What I Should Have Learned in College is a Facebook group that does just what it says: give teachers, parents and other stakeholders a platform to get their questions about reading answered and gather resources to make reading instruction better for students. The group is professional and kind and inspiring! There are lots of posts to wade through but it’s one I always take the time to check.
  • Lindbergh: Leaders in Literacy is a Facebook page run by parents in a school district in Missouri. They advocate for strengthening literacy in their schools by “embracing the science behind reading instruction.” This is a great example of what community advocacy can do for reading and a wonderful resource for parents just digging into the science of reading. 

You have to start somewhere

I have trouble starting a book, or even committing to an article, podcast, or video sometimes. I have limited time for professional development and I know that once I start learning something exciting, I won’t want to stop to feed my kids or tutor my students. I also don’t want to waste time reading the wrong thing – something repetitive, out of date, or not detailed enough. 

So here’s my advice to me, and also to any of you that are interestd in learning about reading. Just. Start. Pick something from this blog post or pick one source like Reading Rockets and start to get your feet wet. One resource always leads to another. And you can come back here for more recommendations next month, too!

Want some reading company? Join us in the Deep Roots Learning Solutions Book Club!

Can schools diagnose dyslexia?

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What is up with schools and their weird dyslexia myths?

Even though dyslexia is listed by name in IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, lots of public schools in the US get really weird when a parent asks for evaluation for dyslexia, or when a student receives a dyslexia diagnosis from a provider outside of the school. Teachers, even special educators, are quietly asking each other, “Can schools diagnose dyslexia?” And the answers are totally inconsistent! It shouldn’t be this way.

IDEA has been a US law since 1975, and it was amended in 1990 and reauthorized in 2004 and 2015. Along with the laws in individual states, IDEA governs the whole system of special education for children with disabilities, including requiring that children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). While states have their own varying laws about education, including serving children with disabilities, no one is allowed to do less than is outlined in the IDEA.

OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about how some schools handle requests around dyslexia services and what approaches are effective.

What IDEA actually says about dyslexia

The IDEA identifies a “specific learning disability” as “a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations” and goes on to say “Such term includes such conditions as dyslexia.” It’s right there in the law. 

IDEA also includes a component referred to as “Child Find” that requires “All children with disabilities residing in the State … regardless of the severity of their disabilities, and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated.

This seems pretty straightforward, right? But school districts, including many I have worked in, absolutely refused to bring up dyslexia in IEP meetings. Teachers received little to no training in identifying or supporting students with dyslexia. Even as a graduate student in special education in the early 2000s, I learned about dyslexia only in the most general way, certainly not enough to meet my students’ needs. And I had plenty of students who fit the dyslexia profile over the years, with and without diagnoses.

In fact, there was so much confusion and contention about dyslexia in public education that in 2015, Michael Yudin, the assistant secretary of the US Department of Education, published what is known as the “Dear Colleague letter.” In the letter, Yudin highlights the definition of specific learning disability under the law and reinforces the requirement that schools evaluate students for these conditions. He also clarifies that, while districts or states may use RTI (Response to Intervention) to teach students at risk for “poor learning outcomes,” the process cannot be used to delay a formal evaluation. Parents can also request an evaluation at any time, even if the child is participating in the RTI process. Further, Yudin encourages schools to consider the use of the specific terms “dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia” to describe children’s needs in evaluations and IEPs.  

Do schools test for dyslexia?

Many parents are being told by school special education teams the school “doesn’t diagnose dyslexia” or, even worse, that the school “doesn’t recognize dyslexia.” Um, there are lots of people I wouldn’t recognize if I saw them on the street, but they do continue to exist, and so does dyslexia! Unfortunately, whether there is someone in the school qualified to actually diagnose dyslexia varies by state, and even by district.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, a thorough dyslexia evaluation should include assessments of: 

  • Oral language skills: speaking, listening, following directions, making inferences from spoken language, etc.
  • Word recognition: reading words in lists
  • Decoding: sounding out words, particularly nonsense words that can’t be memorized
  • Spelling: this counterpart to decoding involves writing words using knowledge about letter-sound relationships and spelling conventions (like dropping the e to change bake to baking.)
  • Phonological processing: identifying and manipulating sounds in spoken words. 
  • Fluency: reading accurately, smoothly, and automatically.
  • Comprehension: understanding what is read
  • Vocabulary: understanding and defining individual words both in written and spoken forms

A thorough assessment will also discuss the child’s performance in the classroom and background information about educational and family history. A cognitive assessment is often part of an evaluation for dyslexia, but more recent research shows that intelligence is not directly tied to success in reading and writing, so an intelligence test is not the best way to show that a student is underperforming.

OK, but can a school provide that? It depends. Different states have different guidelines about who is qualified to provide those assessments and to provide a formal diagnosis of dyslexia. A school-based team, which may include a school psychologist, special educator, speech-language pathologist, or others, can evaluate in all these areas, but may not be permitted in the state to give the dyslexia diagnosis. In other states, school-based professionals with expertise in dyslexia and/or formal assessment tools may be able to diagnose dyslexia in-house.

Where should we go for an evaluation for dyslexia?

If the school won’t address your child’s dyslexia, you may need the support of another assessor. If you have formally, in writing, asked the school for a special education evaluation, and you are not satisfied with the results, find out about your state’s Procedural Safeguards. These guidelines (states are required by IDEA to have them) explain what steps parents can take if the school does not provide special educatoin evaluation and services as required by law. 

In many cases, parents choose to seek the support of a special education advocate or an attorney to help them navigate these challenges. A lot of the experience a family can expect in this process depends on the school district and its administration, unfortunately. 

If you do choose to get a private evaluation, rather than pursuing an independent evaluation through the school district, a neuropsychologist or, in some cases, an educational psychologist can provide a formal diagnosis. This process can be lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. Check your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter or network with local parents to get recommendations for evaluations in your local area. It can be difficult to tell if someone will be a fit for your child’s needs just by looking at their website. Neuropsychologists and psychologists are humans. Some are great with kids and terrible with paperwork. Others are less pleasant to meet with but write detailed reports. And some are all-around fabulous. If you find one of those, don’t lose their card! You may need more testing down the road.

What if my child's school doesn't "recognize" dyslexia?
Dyslexia could not be any more real, but schools have the strange (and wrong) idea that they can’t or don’t have to talk about it. Here’s what to do if your child won’t recognize dyslexia and support your child.


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What kinds of services should a student with dyslexia have?

Another disturbing lie that some school districts have told parents is “We don’t give IEPs for dyslexia.” I’ve heard repeatedly from parents that they were told they could get a 504 (a different federal law governs this program and provides accommodations to help students access the curriculum but doesn’t provide any specialized instruction in the areas of need) but not an IEP. 

can schools diagnose dyslexia
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Students with dyslexia, or other specific learning disabilities, should have services that constitute a Free and Appropriate Public Education, according to IDEA. Students with dyslexia, in particular, need a structured literacy approach to learn to decode and spell words, work with the sounds of spoken language, and read fluently and with comprehension. Evidence-based approaches (also referred to as the Science of Reading) are based on research findings that support their effectiveness. Orton-Gillingham is one widespread approach under the structured literacy umbrella, and OG, in turn, has informed and influenced many different programs and curricula. 

My child’s school is doing it wrong. Now what?

I’m sorry you’re struggling with this. With all the many things we know about the brain and how we learn to read, it is so frustrating and disappointing that parents have to beg and fight for the things their children need in school. There is no reason that there are so many different answers to the question, “Can schools diagnose dyslexia?”

Here are some tools and resources that can help empower you to push for informed educational decisions for your children:

  • Get connected: Join your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter (find them on Facebook) and look for groups connected to The Reading League and “Science of Reading.” The first one is more parent and education-focused and the second and third are great resources to educate yourself on how we learn to read and what the best practices are.
  • Get educated: There are many, many, excellent books that explain dyslexia. Some that I highly recommend are:
    • Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz – a researcher at Yale, Shaywitz has written an incredible book describing the science of dyslexia and shedding light on the experience of people with dyslexia. A new edition came out a year or two ago, with lots of excellent updates.
    • The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan by Ben Foss – I had the opportunity to see Foss speak a few years ago and it was memorable. He is an adult with dyslexia and hearing him speak about his experience of growing up and attending school, as well as hearing about his strengths and needs as an adult, was eye-opening and encouraging.
    • Reversed: A Memoir  by Lois Letchford – the parent of a child with dyslexia, Letchford educated herself so she could help her son who (spoiler alert!) went on to complete his PhD. It’s an incredible story.
  • Get support: Connect with an educational advocate or attorney if possible, and connect with local parent groups who can give insight into how things work in your local school district (which is often very different from how things should work according to state and federal law). 
  • Look into reading instruction outside of school: There are non-profits like the Children’s Dyslexia Center, as well as other local organizations that provide less expensive or no-cost tutoring to students with dyslexia. You can also look for tutors who are completing a practicum in Orton-Gillingham or Wilson Reading who need students to tutor as part of their training. And, of course you can also find help through a tutor trained to help students with dyslexia.

If you’re ready to get your child some individual reading support and you’re wondering if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is the way to go, contact us for a consultation today!

What are Sight Words?

And Why do they Matter?

Hey parents! Welcome to the school year! Here’s your supply list and oh, here’s the list of 50 or 100 sight words your child needs to master this year. Please practice at home. And here you are wondering, “What are sight words?” 

Usually, when we talk about sight words, what we really mean are irregular words, words that cannot be sounded out with the rules that a child knows at this stage. Many reading programs – whether they are consistent with the Science of Reading or not – have sight word lists that students need to master.

Teachers may call these sight words, trick words, high frequency words, or irregular words. Usually, they’re referring to the same thing: a list of words like the, a, for, once, two, too, to and who, what, when, where, why, and how that are frequently found in stories for children but that do not follow the early rules we teach kids for recognizing words.

Ideally, these words should be taught thoughtfully and systematically as part of comprehensive classroom reading instruction. For some reason, though, they are often turned over to parents or volunteers and these adults are given very little direction except to help children learn the words. 

Some teachers send home a few words every week as part of their classroom instruction. Others send the whole list and just let you know when it needs to be learned. If teaching sight words is left up to you, what should you do?

What’s the best way to help kids learn sight words?

Even though we often focus on what makes these words “weird” or hard to read, at the end of the day they are just words, made up of sounds. In fact, very few words are totally irregular. Almost all words on a typical early grade sight word list have just one irregular sound. That makes it much easier to teach these words because you can use what a child already knows about letter and sounds and build on that.

Decide where to start

You may have gotten a long list of words that is supposed to last the entire year. Or you might have gotten a shorter selection of words for this week or this month. Either way, the first step is to assess what your child already knows. Looking at the whole list of words can be overwhelming for kids, so consider putting a few at a time on a whiteboard or on index cards. If you can, make a game out of it. You can put numbers on the words and roll dice for your child to choose which one to read next. For school, your child may be required to read and spell the target words, or read them only. Either way, writing the words will help build a stronger memory than reading them alone.

Some of these words may fit patterns your child already knows. For example, if your child can sound out the word cat, they can read the high frequency word can. If they don’t know it right away, remind them of the strategies they already have for sounding out words, like tapping sounds on their fingers. On the other hand, don’t worry if your child is sounding out words that the teacher says should be sight words. Being able to automatically read those words comes from multiple exposures, not from some kind of magic that leads children to recognize them as whole words.

A sight word is really any word that we can recognize without focusing on the sounds. For example grandma, grandpa, McDonald’s, and their own names maybe sight words for your children even if they are words they cannot yet sound out. They recognize those few words visually, maybe even before they can really read. The trouble comes when kids try to learn all the words they read visually. The

(Good) Practice Makes Perfect

Study the parts

Looking at the irregular sight word was and chanting “w-a-s, w-a-s, w-a-s,” maybe with multi-colored tracing or writing and rewriting, is a popular strategy for practicing sight words, but these flashcards and games are also mostly practicing the look of the word. 

Instead, focus on the sounds of the word and how each sound is spelled. 

Kids often spell was “wuz” because they hear the /w/ sound and spell it with a w, then hear the /u/ and /z/ sounds and spell those the same way they’d usually spell those sounds. To spell was correctly, they need to notice that the /u/ sound has an unusual spelling here, letter a. Same with the /z/ sound. It might help to remember that s can spell the /z/ sound in other words they might know, like is and has. By drawing their attention to the unusual spellings in the word, parents can help kids remember these irregular parts.

The really cool thing is that once kids start to think about words this way, they notice the irregular sounds in other words and start to teach themselves to “map” sight words this way. I noticed my 6-year-old started doing this with new sight words after about six months of me taking the lead in introducing tricky irregular words. 

So don’t worry, you probably won’t be helping your child learn sight words forever! Instead, you’re helping them build a set of tools that’s going to help them learn on their own.

Learn the history

Another tool that really helps when teaching sight words is remembering that we spoke English long before we started writing it. Spelling was invented as a way to write down that spoken language. The way we spell words doesn’t just reflect how they sound. It also reflects their history and where they come from (Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek – so many influences on English).

Sometimes a sight word doesn’t make sense because it’s an old spelling pattern (like in though and said) where the pronunciation has changed over time. Sometimes comparing an irregular word to another word you know can help you remember the spelling.

For example:

  • say  They say, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + s = says She says, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + ed = said She said, “Hi,” yesterday. (It happened in the past)

When kids write “said,” they often spell it “sed.” This makes sense because it’s what they hear. But if they think about this pattern and remember it’s a form of the word “say,” it’s easier to remember to spell it with an e. 

(Older students might also know that sometimes when a word ends in y, we change it to i when we add an ending, like happy and happier.)

Going through the words this way is slower. You might only practice one or two words at a time. But the good news is, once you teach a word this way today, it will be much quicker to review tomorrow.

What does sight word mean, anyway?

OK, now that we have the nuts and bolts of sight word study at home, you might still be left with the question, “What are sight words, really?”

Scientists used to think that readers recognized words automatically by knowing them as a visual whole. Now we know that the brain uses its language system to recognize and store printed words. Basically, mature readers see a word and convert it into sounds so fast that we’re not aware of it. That’s what lets us read words in all capital letters or different fonts.

Yet, the visual approach is what most teachers emphasize. Even in groups of highly trained teachers, I often see questions about how to explain the spelling of a word like “though” and a comment like, “that’s just a sight word.” It’s not just a sight word. Sight words are incredibly important because the more words a reader recognizes automatically, the more fluently she can read, and the more she can focus on understanding the story. 

When we tell a kid, “that’s just a sight word,” we’re shutting down the conversation and missing an opportunity for learning. If they know it, it becomes a sight word. And if they don’t, telling them “it’s a sight word” doesn’t help them. 

Can you tell I get a little fired up about this? 

Hopefully these tools for learning sight words will help your child become a more confident, knowledgeable reader and save you some time supervising homework!

If your child still needs some help with their reading and writing development, contact me for a free tutoring consult. We have openings for one-on-one tutoring and some small groups, too!