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. 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. 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. They might not be able to articulate to their parents what exactly they are supposed to do with an ambiguous worksheet. They might be just plain exhausted from working on the things that are hardest for them all day long. 

How to talk to the school about homework problems

When I assigned homework to my special education students, I always made it clear to the students and their parents at the beginning of the year that I was happy to assign homework if they wanted it, but it was always, always, up to parent discretion. If it was taking an unreasonable amount of time, or if the directions didn’t make sense, we would always defer to the experts in home learning: parents. For my students being assigned homework along with their grade-level peers, I encouraged parents to write a note on the homework or send an email to the teacher with feedback about challenging assignments. Teachers don’t know that homework took hours. They have no idea that buckets of tears were shed over an assignment 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 acdemic area (reading, writing, math), there may be weaker skills in that area. 
  • “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. “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. Click To Tweet

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.

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

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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 to read about reading and writing. From time to time, I plan to share some highlights on the blog.

Information comes in many forms

Books

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!

If you want to chat about some nerdy books about reading and learning, come check out my new Deep Roots Learning Solutions Book Club. We’ll chat on Facebook about our books. Right now, we’re reading Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Social Media

Text (Write down the words if you cannot easily formulate sentences.)

  • 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.  

Can schools diagnose 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!

Bad News About Dyslexia

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I wanted to respond to a disturbing phenomenon I’m noticing as more parents and schools are becoming aware of dyslexia, but not yet meeting kids’ needs. Parents are lost in the system, trying to figure out, “Can schools diagnose dyslexia?” and “How do I get an evaluation for dyslexia?”

In several instances, I’ve seen “online dyslexia tests” that claim to be able to identify dyslexia through a brief questionnaire and (surprise!) they know exactly what your child needs! 

Dyslexia, and other related conditions, cannot be diagnosed through an online quiz. There is no such thing as an “online dyslexia test” that gives a diagnosis. I feel silly writing those words but based on a product I encountered recently, it apparently needs to be said. 

What is dyslexia, anyway?

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as “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.”

See? That’s a lot. It’s not quick to diagnose “poor spelling and decoding abilities” or “a deficit in the phonological component of language,” even for a professional who is using appropriate tools. 

How NOT to diagnose dyslexia

So that’s why, when I was browsing Pinterest and I found an online dyslexia quiz, I was too curious not to take it. It was a series of maybe 20 multiple-choice questions that asked me to check one or more boxes for each item.

Without a real child in mind, I checked the boxes almost at random. If there was an option that seemed to correlate with a low probability of dyslexia, I chose that one. For some questions I chose none of these. I didn’t choose more than one symptom for any of the questions. I tried to describe a student who was as successful in reading and typically-developing as I could. 

Within seconds of putting in my email address, I had a PDF report in my inbox describing my fictional child as having “severe dyslexia.”

The report was full of typos as well as downright misleading and wrong information about dyslexia. I couldn’t even finish reading it because I was so angry but the end of the report offered something that so many parents are looking for when they turn to the internet for information about their child’s learning struggles. 

It offered hope. This hope, of course, comes at a price. Parents are invited to buy the program and spend just 15 minutes a day remediating their child’s dyslexia, at a cost of about $50 a month.

If you are a parent who has spent afternoons and evenings struggling over your child’s homework, miserable meetings with teachers about your child’s lack of progress, poor attitude, or declining behavior in the classroom, 15 minutes a day and a few hundred dollars seems a small price to pay if it will fix the problem, right?

do schools diagnose dyslexia?
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I hate to be the one to be dashing those hopes but a program like that, while it might be good for a child in some general way, will not fix dyslexia.

But, like desperate people with all sorts of problems, parents turn to the internet for a quick fix and there it is. This was the first such program I had seen, although I know many providers have built successful practices for themselves based on interventions for dyslexia that have little or no research basis.

What it really takes to help a dyslexic reader

Getting help for a child with dyslexia is, unfortunately, more complicated. And takes more than 15 minutes a day. To address the symptoms of dyslexia in a systematic and effective way, first parents and teachers and providers need to come to an understanding of what dyslexia really is. Kids with reading difficulties need to be thoroughly evaluated by educational professionals like educational psychologists, speech pathologists and special educators before a diagnosis of a learning disability, including dyslexia, can be given.

After diagnosis, the recommended intervention for reading impairments including dyslexia is systematic, explicit, structured, multi-sensory teaching of reading and language. 

Unlike the quick fix promised in the free pdf report, this can be a long road. If they are older when the problem is identified, children may need weekly tutoring for several years to close the gap that has grown due to years of inadequate instruction. They may need supports like audiobooks, copies of teacher notes, or spellcheck throughout their educational careers. 

Remediating dyslexia is a long process and that isn’t as appealing a package to sell to parents. They have been dealing with the symptoms of this reading disability for years and once they finally have a name for it, it is frustrating to think that the journey has just begun.

I’ve listened to many parents describe their child’s process after dyslexia diagnosis and I’ve read the accounts of many more. Parents who are trying to help their children, especially at the beginning of a journey with dyslexia, are sometimes in an enormous amount of pain. They’re watching their children struggle. Many are being told by the school that the child does not qualify for an IEP or that the school does not offer the help the child needs. Some find that the school won’t “say dyslexia” at all and it feels like parents and their children are being dismissed or ignored. 

Many parents are telling each other to not trust the school with any decision-making and to immediately begin the stressful, often expensive, and sometimes contentious process of getting an outside evaluator to diagnose the child and getting an educational advocate or a lawyer to fight the school to give the child what he or she needs. 

That process is daunting for even a parent who is an expert in the school system, but it can be completely overwhelming for parents who feel they are out of their element. A quick fix that you can buy on the internet in the middle of the night must be extremely tempting.

And that’s why the existence of these products make me so angry.

Reputable sources of dyslexia information

Recent research has shown that even most teachers don’t have sufficient expertise to effectively support their students with dyslexia. This lack of awareness makes it hard for people to recognize a fake solution when they see one. And that can lead parents and children down a path that wastes precious time and money and doesn’t help them read and write better. A child with dyslexia needs systematic, multisensory, explicit instruction in reading, writing and spelling, such as Orton-Gillingham or related programs.

A child with dyslexia needs systematic, multisensory, explicit instruction in reading, writing and spelling, such as Orton-Gillingham or related programs. Click To Tweet

So please, if you are concerned that your child has dyslexia, get some good information from an expert. Some good places to start are:

If you’re not sure if your child has dyslexia, or if you’ve been given a more general diagnosis like a “specific learning disability in reading,” structured, explicit literacy instruction at school or with a tutor can still make an enormous difference in your child’s reading and spelling. I work with many students who don’t have a diagnosis, but because Orton-Gillingham is a prescriptive, diagnostic approach, I use informal assessments and observations from my lessons to plan the next steps, based on what the student needs most.

If this sounds like the approach your child needs, contact us today for a free consultation and see if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is the right step for you.

Bad News About Dyslexia
Quick fixes for dyslexia sound like a dream come true for some struggling families. But those quick fixes can be time-wasters, or can actively harm dyslexic kids. Here’s how to know if a solution is real or too good to be true.

Becoming an Orton-Gillingham Tutor

When I realized I wanted to get out of the special education position I was in, I had no idea where I would go. I had heard of Orton-Gillingham but I didn’t really know what it was.

I was still passionate about education and I felt committed to the students I was teaching. But I was exhausted. My program was substantially separate, meaning my middle school students were in my class for the majority of the day, and when they attended other classes, like social studies or gym, they were attending with the support of paraprofessionals. Coordinating all those people and schedules, never having an empty classroom, and supporting children in both academics and social-emotional needs was more than a full-time job and I felt like someone was always getting short-changed.

Although being in a public school classroom limited what I could do in some ways, I also found a lot of satisfaction working with a team and helping my students succeed in our school community. But I felt like I really didn’t know everything I needed to to help them grow. Then I had a couple of lucky experiences that led me to become an Orton-Gillingham tutor.

Frustrations and Opportunities

Teaching Reading

I got my undergrad degree in psychology, with an elementary teaching license, at a time when my university was just beginning to rebuild their special education department. My state (Massachusetts) had just rolled out its standardized tests for teachers (MTEL) and the entire school of education was trying to learn together what was expected of new teachers. 

My courses on reading were almost all from a balanced literacy perspective. We learned about how to foster a love of reading, how to incorporate diverse literature, and how to engage students with books and learning. But we had just a couple of short class sessions on basic reading skills – phonics, sounds in English, assessment. The message was that, while we had to learn that stuff for the test, it wasn’t really what teaching elementary school would be about.

My entire master’s program in special education included one single class on reading and math instruction, called “Literacy and Numeracy.” I finished that master’s, went into a classroom teaching students with autism, and didn’t really question why we were only using sight word instruction programs. I moved on to a new school where some students were getting a bit of phonics instruction, others were getting mostly sight words, and no one was talking about whether one was better than the other or why. I dug into the closets and pulled out some dusty old readers to use with my groups. But I was still piecing it all together.

Orton-Gillingham, Finally!

In 2014, a new administrator brought in an Orton-Gillingham trainer to train a cohort of teachers. Up until that point, many of the teachers of students with moderate special needs were trained in the Wilson curriculum, and students whose needs were different, or who needed more intensive reading instruction, were often being taught by tutors who contracted with the district. The administration decided to get some of their own teachers trained so they no longer had to outsource those services.

From the first class, my mind was blown! Here was all the stuff that I felt like I was missing. I had known just enough to know I didn’t know enough to taech reading effectively, and here was the missing piece. Or the many, many, missing pieces. 

I realized that not only had I not been taught to teach phonemic awareness, decoding or spelling, but I hadn’t even been taught these skills myself. When I was growing up, whole language was the main method of teaching reading. Anything I knew about the writing system of our language came from my English teacher mother or things I inferred on my own from lots and lots of reading.

After 6 months of classes, papers and reading, and 100 lessons written and taught with feedback from our trainer, I was certified at the teacher level to teach using the Orton-Gillingham approach. 

If you’re an educator who wants to learn more about becoming a tutor, check out my educator resources.

The Grass isn’t Always Greener…Until it is

With my new Orton-Gillingham qualifications, I applied for a different position in my building. I moved from teaching students with severe special needs (the designation in Massachusetts for the highest-need students) to students with moderate special needs, in a resource room setting. That meant they came to me for only certain subjects. I taught reading to some students, math to others, and a study hall-type tutorial to many of the middle schoolers. Better than before, but with a schedule of 30-45 minute groups throughout the day, nothing was as intensive as my students needed. 

I started to tutor privately on evenings and weekends. At first, I was reluctant to offer Orton-Gillingham tutoring online, but as I learned new tools, I was able to offer better reading instruction online and I realized that there is certainly a demand for OG services everywhere, and some places just do not have enough trained teachers. Eventually, among the many changes brought in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, I quit my teaching job and started to tutor full time. 

Aah, finally. Now, through Deep Roots Learning Solutions, Inc., I have the freedom to meet students’ learning needs flexibly. I’m not limited by “service delivery minutes” or district policy. I love working with families to decide what students need, and how often, and offer it to them. And I love watching my students learn and grow as readers, as writers, and as people as their reading catches up to their other skills. 

A Happy Ending…For Now

I’m so thankful to spend every work day teaching what I love. I am helping students learn to read and spell in a way that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. 

Sometimes I get itchy, though, thinking about the students I’m not reaching. I know there are a lot of students, like the ones I used to teach in school, whose teachers don’t have the skills and resources yet to teach them in a way that’s consistent with the Science of Reading. So, while I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me or for my company, my goal is to bring good reading instruction to more kids, especially kids in my community. 

If your child needs more help to become a skilled, confident reader and writer, contact us today for a consultation and free demo lesson!

What to look for in an online Orton-Gillingham Tutor

What to Look For and Where to Find Them

For many parents and students, the possibility of online tutoring has opened up a world of options. Students who did not have any professional private reading tutors in their small towns can now find online Orton-Gillingham tutors to teach them. There has been an explosion in tutors offering their services across the United States and all over the world. Overall, this is incredible positive for students struggling to read. But it does mean parents have more complex decisions to make.

What to look for in an Online Orton-Gillingham Tutor

Certified Orton-Gillingham Tutors vs. Trained Tutors

There are an almost unlimited number of trainings that educators and parents can take about reading and writing. The Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading is considered to be a “direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy.” Orton-Gillingham tutoring is one type of “multi-sensory language education.” It is recommended by the International Dyslexia Association for teaching students with dyslexia. It’s also beneficial for students who are struggling to read but may not be diagnosed with dyslexia.

When you are looking for an online Orton-Gillingham tutor for your child, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples. One important thing to check is whether the tutor is certified in Orton-Gillingham or trained. Certified indicates that the teacher has completed a supervised practicum. They have taught a certain number of lessons under the supervision of a trainer. This is valuable because it helps them become more efficient, effective, and responsive teachers. Several of these programs also offer exams that educators can take to prove their knowledge.

There are several main organizations that accredit teacher training programs and train and certify Orton-Gillingham providers.

  • IDA – The International Dyslexia Association accredits literacy programs for professionals. It also provides individual certification in Structured Literacy through the Center for Effective Reading Instruction. Professionals who meet the qualifications and pass the exam are listed in their directory as Classroom Teachers, Dyslexia Interventionists or Dyslexia Specialists.
  • IMSLEC – The International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council is a group that accredits programs and set standards for educators learning about Orton-Gillingham, but does not certify individuals. 
  • ALTA – Like, IDA, the Academic Language Therapy Association also offers a certification exam for teachers who have completed qualified programs. Educators can test to become either a Certified Academic Language Practitioner (CALP), or with further training, a Certified Academic Language Therapist.
  • AOGPE (OGA) – The Orton-Gillingham Academy, (formerly known as the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and educators) is the third major organization for training and certifying educators in Orton-Gillingham. Like the other programs, a provider can be a Classroom Educator Level, an Associate or a Certified member, and each one signifies a different level of training and different supervised practicum requirements.
  • IMSE – The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education also offers Orton-Gillingham training and certification. This organization seems to be a popular first step for teachers learning about Orton-Gillingham for the first time, although they do also offer a supervised practicum.
  • Various programs and curricula – There are many reading programs that are based on the principles of Orton-Gillingham or structured literacy. These include some well-known programs like Wilson Reading and Barton and others that are less well-known. Like with the large OG organizations, teachers can be trained or certified in a particular curriculum and it’s important for you to know what that means. How long was their training? Did it cover students at all levels of learning, from beginning readers to students mastering upper level fluency and vocabulary?

Experience Online

Experience working online is another important piece of the puzzle when you’re looking for an online Orton-Gillingham tutor. Now that it’s become so common to tutor online, lots of tutors who prefer to work in-person are offering an online option, either temporarily during the pandemic or long-term now that they’ve discovered the benefits. 

But not all online tutors are created equal. Some have taken the opportunity to become online tutoring experts and some are offering it reluctantly because, although their students need it, they don’t feel comfortable. Tutors who don’t enjoy working online, frankly, aren’t as good. They might be distracted by technology challenges or limited in the tools they can use in lessons. So when you are interviewing an online Orton-Gillingham tutor, don’t just ask if they tutor online. Ask why they tutor online. Or ask what benefits they see of tutoring online.

If you need an online Orton-Gillingham tutor now, get in touch and schedule a free demo lesson today!

Experience with kids like yours

Everyone has a specialty, and online Orton-Gillingham tutors are no exception. Some are incredible at engaging young children and bringing fun and magic to the early stages of reading. Others have a way with older children who might feel embarrassed about working on basic skills with a tutor. Some have experience with children with different diagnoses or learning characteristics, such as learners with ADHD or autism. And of course, every student comes to tutoring with different strengths and needs, but the transition to tutoring can be easier when the tutor has some tools that have worked for kids like yours before.

If your child has particular needs, make sure you ask how the tutor might approach a student with that need. Even if they haven’t worked with a child just like yours, they should have some ideas to start with. If they sound clueless, you might not have found the right tutor!

Conclusion

Online Orton-Gillingham tutoring can open up a whole new world of reading and writing skills for children who are struggling, especially if there aren’t a lot of local services in your area. The good news is, you’re not limited to tutors in your town anymore. The bad news is tutors and their students are spread out all over the U.S. so it can be harder to get a good word-of-mouth recommendation. Know that you may have to speak with a few different tutors before you find one that is the right fit for your child but be patient! When you find the right tutor, the results are worth it!

Still have questions? Book a consult and free demo lesson today to see how online Orton-Gillingham tutoring works!

Online Orton-Gillingham Tutoring FAQ

Often, parents hear of Orton-Gillingham for the first time when their children are diagnosed with dyslexia. When I talk to parents about online Orton-Gillingham tutoring, they often have lots of questions about how OG works and what it will mean for their kids and for their family. Here are some of the questions I get frequently.

How long does online Orton-Gillingham tutoring take?

Like everything else, It depends. Some students have small gaps in their learning that hold them back. For example, some kids have attended schools without solid phonics instruction and they are missing key pieces of information, like knowing when a vowel makes a long sound when it makes a short sound. Those kids can work with a tutor twice a week for 3 or 6 months and see significant gains once they learn the particular skill they need.

Other students, including those with dyslexia, sometimes need one to three years of more intensive intervention, working with a tutor two or three days a week, to catch up to grade level.

Another factor is the age of the student, because the longer a student has struggled, the more time it takes to catch up. On the other hand, older students are sometimes able to learn more quickly because they “sort of know” lots of the things we teach and can also benefit from more deliberate learning strategies. 

How often do we need to meet?

At Deep Roots Learning Solutions, we offer Orton-Gillingham tutoring to students between two and four days per week. This is consistent with the recommendations of lots of dyslexia professionals, including The Orton-Gillingham Academy, which is one of the main organizations that oversees and sets standards for OG tutoring. https://www.ortonacademy.org/faq-items/does-the-og-approach-recommend-a-certain-amount-of-tutoring-per-week/

Can we meet less?

Meeting less than twice a week can make a student’s progress dramatically slower. In fact, meeting just once a week means progress takes more than twice as long because a week is long enough for students to need a lot of review between lessons. 

I won’t say we never meet with students once a week. Sometimes it’s the only option due to schedules or finances, particularly on a short-term basis. But in that case, it’s very important to include regular reading at home using the decodable text we recommend.

Can we have shorter meetings?

It truly does take an hour to teach a full OG lesson, for most students. This includes review, introducing a new concept for reading and for spelling, building phonemic awareness and reading plenty of words, sentences, and stories that support what we’ve practiced. It also includes fluency and comprehension components. 

For some students, especially younger ones or ones with challenges like autism or ADHD, sitting still for a full hour lesson is counterproductive. We always aim to work with families to create a tutoring plan that works for the student.

What technology should we have at home?

We run our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring sessions on Zoom. While just about any device can run Zoom, it’s preferable for the student to join the meeting from a Windows or Apple computer. A Chromebook runs Zoom but with fewer features. It’s important that the device has enough RAM to run Zoom without freezing or crashing. One thing that helps is freshly restarting the computer before a session.

A strong internet connection is also extremely important. 

Beyond that, it’s a matter of what makes the student most comfortable and productive. Many students prefer a mouse to the touchpad on the computer. Students who are younger and focusing on letter formation can also benefit from a touchscreen device, even if it’s an old phone or tablet used in addition to the main computer.

Headphones are helpful for reducing distractions and making sure the audio is clear. 

Can we do online tutoring on a Chromebook?

Tutoring on a Chromebook is not impossible, but it’s not ideal. Zoom does not enable Chromebook users to annotate on the screen or take control of the host’s mouse. This limits the ways we can ask a student to mark up what they are reading or play games. 

However, if a Chromebook is the device you have available, Google products (Docs and Jamboard, mainly) give students more options.

How old should my child be for online Orton-Gillingham tutoring?

I used to say, “no younger than third grade.” For a lot of students, an in-person connection is very important to their learning. However, in 2020, I started working with some younger students and now I say, “It depends.” Students younger than third grade often need a parent sitting nearby to help with technology – open links, troubleshoot the computer – and manage materials. 

Can you help with homework during tutoring?

For Orton-Gillingham tutoring students, our answer is usually no. Orton-Gillingham is a diagnostic, systematic, sequential, multi-sensory approach to reading instruction. It is counterproductive to work on school assignments that don’t fall within the range of skills we’re teaching. 

For example, if a child is working on learning the short vowel sounds in one-syllable words (cup, bond, crimp), it’s not productive for us to study spelling words that follow a bunch of other spelling patterns. Without knowing the patterns that are found in the spelling words, the student has to rely on just their memory to spell them right, and they don’t stick. So although you won’t see an immediate benefit of OG tutoring on spelling tests if your child is significantly below grade level, you can trust that we are building a strong foundation that, with time, will help them to develop those skills.

For students seeking support with reading comprehension and writing, we do work with school assignments when it aligns with what we are working on. 

Do you assign homework?

No, we don’t assign homework for our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring students. What we do is send the text the student read during the lesson so you can practice it at home during the week. We’re also happy to recommend text, many available for free online, for independent or family reading.                                  

What should we do at home to practice?

For practice in between Orton-Gillingham tutoring sessions, it’s important that students read text that lines up with what they’ve been practicing in class. We can recommend appropriate texts, many of which are available for free online.

Reading with or to your child is also a great way to support their growing vocabulary and share stories with them that they aren’t ready to read on their own.

The Florida Center for Reading Research also has many free, printable, games and activities that are great tools for practicing early reading skills.

Can you help my child read faster?

Yes, but it takes time. Programs that are specifically for reading fluency usually focus on repeated readings of the same text. Those can help some students, but often low reading fluency occurs when readers aren’t automatic with sounding out the words. And if they aren’t sounding out words automatically, that usually means that there are some phonics skills they haven’t mastered. Often, older students with weak reading and spelling skills are also missing some phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness is the ability to break apart spoken words into their sounds, or to blend together individual spoken sounds. Most kids develop those skills in the early grades, but sometimes readers struggle because they have missed some of these skills. 

Building reading fluency effectively means going back and filling gaps in the underlying skills. At the beginning, this can seem slower, but once we build those fluency skills on a firm foundation, students can read anything with confidence!

Can you help my child spell better?

Yes! The same skills (letter-sound relationships, syllables, and prefixes and suffixes) that help students read better help them spell better, too. And our online Orton-Gillingham tutoring includes practice in both reading and spelling.

What’s my child’s reading level?

Well, it’s complicated. I wish I could give you a letter or a number that universally represents what your child can read and understand. That would be so much easier! But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The main leveling systems used in schools for children and their books are Guided Reading Levels (letters A-Z) and the DRA system (numbers from 2 up to 70). When teachers assign these, they take into account reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. For a lot of readers, this is a good approximation of what they can read. 

For readers who are struggling to decode words, these assessments are nearly meaningless. They tend to be predictable, patterned texts. At the early stages, they are things like “I see the bear. I see the elephant. I see the crocodile.” So really, they’re measuring how well students use the pictures to predict what the page says. Lots of my struggling students hit a wall in second grade (or maybe third) because until they’ve learned all six syllable types and the majority of vowel team sounds, they will frequently be stumped by words in texts at this level. Until they have gotten pretty far in the Orton-Gillingham sequence, it’s very difficult to sync up what they know with a “reading level.” So instead, I recommend decodable texts.

Still have questions?

If you’re still wondering if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is what your child needs, contact us to find out more. We are always happy to schedule a no-cost, no-obligation trial lesson to see if tutoring with Deep Roots Learning Solutions is the right fit for your child!

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!

COVID Learning Loss: Is it Real?

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Are you as tired of talking about the 2020-21 school year as I am? COVID learning loss. The “COVID Slide.” Local fights about the best way to provide for children’s wellbeing. Worrying national news in the areas of health and learning. It’s a lot to process. 

For most of us, starting school in the fall (or sending our kids) and following that routine until summer has been automatic. Easy? Nope. But “normal,” just the way things are. 

But since March, 2020, when schools started closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing has been “normal.” My tutoring students, in grades 1-11, all over the US, have had schedules ranging from full remote to full in-person. They have adjusted to changes in schedule, transportation, and work expectations. And their teachers and families and school leaders have worked even harder behind the scenes to make it all happen. And with President Biden’s goal to open K-8 schools for in-person learning, more changes are happening every day.

What is COVID Learning Loss?

Compared to last year, many more young children in first and second grade are below benchmarks in reading. That makes sense because there have been so many barriers, especially for young students, to getting consistent instruction. Children in under-resourced schools in the US (disproportionately children of color) are more likely to have experienced these instructional gaps. Data from Amplify Education, which publishes the DIBELS assessment, reports that 40% of first graders in 2020 are below the target scores for reading, compared to 27% of students at the same time last year. Yikes!

Add to that the immense social-emotional challenges many students have experienced this year. Kids are often away from their friends, dealing with changes in their parents’ work, in childcare arrangements, and in every other aspect of their life. Teens, especially, are often feeling lonely, struggling to work independently, or missing connections with their teachers and classmates.

Taking stock of where we are now

With a couple of months left in the school year, depending on where in the U.S. students are, things are still in flux. Schools are doing what they can to get kids into the classroom. Most public schools are preparing for some kind of mandated testing before the end of the school year. In some ways, we are far from the end of the school year. In other ways, summer break is coming up fast! That doesn’t leave enough time to make up for the rest of the year.Next year, schools will have to deal with kids starting the year behind where they usually are. Am I worried that “all the kids are falling behind?” I am not. For a lot of kids, this year will be barely a blip on the radar because there is such a flurry of research and funding and programs to support students.

I am worried that certain vulnerable populations of learners have slipped through the cracks, though. I worry about the youngest learners. I worry about kids with identified and unidentified learning challenges. I worry about kids who missed out on language experiences, social support, small group interventions, and meals in the last year, because they couldn’t be inside school buildings. I worry about teenagers who have been asked to be independent and responsible when their frontal lobes weren’t developed enough. I worry about kids who made transitions from one school to another without a gentle, welcoming, handoff. There is certainly work to do!

What should we do for kids who struggled?

So, what can be done for kids with COVID learning loss? Lots of big players in education, from districts themselves to teachers’ unions, are proposing summer programs. These offerings from the schools would help make up for lost classroom hours during the summer. For some students, these programs will be the boost they need. District programs like these often miss a segment of kids who need them, though. Especially those that need parents to drop kids off, or pick them up in hte middle of the day. 

Other experts are promoting individualized tutoring programs, like those that have been shown to be effective for children with dyslexia. If we can summon the manpower, an individualized tutoring program could be incredible. Even one run by quickly trained non-teachers or college students can give students an academic boost. 

One idea I keep hearing that I hate is extending the school year. Some places are talking about extending the 2020-21 school year, and others are talking about bring kids back earlier in the fall. I hate it because I don’t know a single teacher who is not close to his or her limit right now. When I taught special education, I declined to teach summer school with my students because I knew I had nothing new to offer them by June. I don’t think even the threat of COVID learning loss is more important than time for teachers to regroup and recharge for another intense school year. I think teachers need a break this summer and I would rather see them have top quality professional development and let some other people teach the kids for a while. But then again, no one’s going to ask me!

How my family is handling it

The only thing that’s up to me, really, is the plan for my family. My daughter has been in daycare and that’s where she will stay this summer. She’s been there all year in a pretty small daycare center. They have done a terrific job with the changing guidelines and keeping kids feeling comfortable and happy and learning in a really weird year. And her learning amazes me at least once a week!

For my kindergartner, we’ve chosen day camp for a great deal of the summer. We are prioritizing time outside, socializing with peers, and the type of hands-on learning experiences that distance learning couldn’t offer. There are some first-grade skills he needs to practice, certainly. On rainy days, weekends, and quiet times at home, I have a running list of things I’ll offer him: books, math practice, and definitely some writing. We’ll probably continue the kindergarten’s daily journal writing routine as well as keep using Epic Books for a steady stream of interesting ebooks, including some great read-aloud and audio titles that support his fluency and keep him busy with something that’s not a tv show!

I know that as an educator, I’m in a unique position and I feel comfortable planning and organizing all this stuff myself. Not all parents will. That’s why I’m expanding my offerings to include some groups this summer. We’re focusing on keeping kids reading, building connections through discussion, and supporting middle school reading and writing skills through groups on vocabulary and paragraph composition. If that sounds like what your child needs, check out the details here.

What your child will bring home in the first weeks of school

The first couple of weeks of school is a blur of backpacks and new sneakers and lunchboxes or lunch codes and locker combinations and bus numbers and paper. So much paper. 

You’ll get in the groove, but until you do, here’s a list of things might come home in the first week or two of school that you need to find and respond to to make sure the year starts smoothly.

Requests from the school

These include anything that the school wants you to fill out and return. It might be:

  • Emergency forms/cards
  • Transportation information
  • Behavior contract/agreement (like an acknowledgement that you have seen and agree to the school or class rules)
  • School handbook (some schools ask you to sign that you have received and read it)
  • Conference schedule
  • Volunteer sign-ups/CORI forms
  • Information from the school
  • Calendar
  • Lunch menu
  • Teacher contact information/welcome letter
  • Supply list
  • Syllabus for each class (high school and maybe middle school)
  • Log-in information for you and/or your child
  • Schedules
  • Bus route information
  • Extra-curricular activity signups
  • Sports information
  • Registration for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts
  • Club schedules
  • Information on extra help from teachers
  • PTA/PTO sign-up forms

Questions you might ask

  • How will I be notified of school announcements/emergency information? – Most schools now use a digital program that lets them robo-call families and/or send out texts and emails, depending on what parents request
  • When is Open House/Back to School Night?
  • When are conferences? How do I sign up?
  • Is there a directory of other families in the school so we can set up playdates and carpools?
  • What are the policies on snacks/allergies, birthday invitations, staying home sick/makeup work, absences, consequences/rewards for behavior, dress code?
  • What are the expectations for homework? How much? When? In what form?

Schools mostly have systems for getting the key information out to parents, so you probably won’t have to track down the answers to many of these. In fact, they should be in the school handbook or on the school or teacher’s website. But keeping your eyes open for this information as it comes in means you won’t miss deadlines and you can get your child’s school year off to a smooth start. Happy back to school!

Don’t forget to download a free binder checklist and shopping list to build a system to keep all those papers organized for your child!