How much should my child be writing?

As a parent, trying to figure out if your child is meeting grade-level standards at school is a little like looking through a peephole. You get a tiny, distorted picture of progress from the work your child brings home, paired with grades and feedback from the teacher. But how do you know what “good” writing looks like in, say, third grade?

Signs your child is struggling with writing

Handwriting, Spelling and Mechanics – Oh my!

Messy handwriting – There seems to be this bell-shaped curve with handwriting. Early writers are learning to form the letters. They come out backwards, all different sizes, wobbly and not on the lines. Around the end of first grade, many students hit their groove. They have fully learned letter formation and have developed firm habits about how they write (for better or for worse!) Later, many stop being as careful with their daily handwriting and, while they may be able to write neatly for forms and Christmas cards, their grocery lists are a scrawl that is readable only to them. If your child is young, make sure they have appropriate lined paper, short pencils (not fat ones!) and opportunities for practice and feedback. If they are older and handwriting continues to be a barrier, consider using speech-to-text or typing to help them get their ideas out.

Indecipherable spelling – Early writers use what’s often called “invented spelling.” They go from scribbling random shapes to mixing in some real letters to beginning to represent the sounds in words, like “gmu” for grandma. In kindergarten and first grade, students are encouraged to “write what they hear” but they should be held accountable for including any spelling rules or patterns they have been taught. If your child isn’t writing letters that match the sounds in the word by first grade, or if they continue to use phonetic spelling into third grade (such as misspellings like sed and wuz for common words like “said” and “was,”) they may need some help in writing.

Incomplete thoughts – You may feel like you need a secret decoder ring to read children’s writing sometimes. If your child’s writing is vague, “We went there after the other time…” or if they never pause to end a sentence, “We had popcorn and we saw the previews and the movie came on but it was too loud and we watched the robots and we got pizza that was my favorite part,” they may need some explicit instruction in choosing descriptive words or identifying a complete thought/sentence.

Why there’s no easy answer

Whether a child’s writing is deemed “good” depends completely on the situation. Based on my experience in public schools, there seems to be much less consistency and money invested in writing curriculum than there are in math and English materials and planning. As a result, writing instruction in different schools, or even in neighboring classrooms, can be all over the map. 

Even looking at state learning standards can make the issue cloudier instead of more clear. The Common Core Standards don’t say how long a piece of writing should be in any particular grade. It gives broader goals that, while important and true, don’t give us enough information to evaluate our children and see if they are on track. 

For example, a fourth grader should “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” Cool. But within that, there’s a huge difference between “Koalas are the best animals because they are furry and smell like eucalyptus,” and “The bird in Horton Hatches a Who treated Horton unfairly because she left him to sit on her eggs while she went on vacation.” They both have opinions, reasons, and information, but one shows knowledge about koalas (I made up that eucalyptus thing, but I’m using my imagination here) and the other shows understanding about character relationships and connections to a book. 

How to help child with spelling
Students writing at a table in a classroom

Some schools or individual teachers use rubrics to take some of the guesswork out of evaluating writing. A rubric is a grid that specifies the expected parts of a piece of work and gives a number of points for each item. Sometimes, a rubric can serve as a checklist for completing the assignment:

  • The cover page should have the title, author’s name, and date.

Other times, a rubric can be almost as vague as the Common Core Standards. What is “adequate support,” anyway?

Would an editing checklist help? Download our free writing checklists by signing up right here!


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OK, but really, how long should the writing be?

For what it’s worth (I unfortunately don’t have any power over schools’ curriculum), here are some general benchmarks I like to see students meet. When I see these things, I am pretty comfortable that they are on their way to becoming competent writers.

By the end of Kindergarten: 

  • Form all 26 letters (some reversed b/d/p/q m/w g/q is still developmentally very appropriate at this stage)
  • Write words phonetically by sounding them out or spell them correctly by using resources (for example, looking at the school lunch calendar to spell the word school)
  • Produce simple sentences. Many (maybe most) kindergarten graduates can write a sentence of 4-8 words themselves. Others are still using an adult scribe to capture their whole thought before they forget. It won’t be spelled correctly, but it should be a complete thought and most of the words should be there.
  • Express themselves verbally in complete thoughts, given a model. So if you say, “I think we should have spaghetti for dinner because it’s delicious. What do you think?” they can say, “I think we should get pizza because it’s fast.” 

By the end of first grade:

  • Write a series of 3-6 sentences about a single topic. They may begin to have a main idea/topic sentence, like “I’m going to tell you about my dog.” The writing might be repetitive: She has fur. She loves me. She likes walks.
  • Spell words in a way that makes sense, even if they pick the wrong option for some sounds, like writing trane for train

By the end of third grade:

  • Here’s where things start to vary more, both in school expectations and individual development. Sometime between the beginning of second grade and the end of third, children should learn to write a paragraph with a topic sentence and an appropriate number of details. 
  • In a narrative/story, they should have a clear beginning (where a character has a problem), middle, and end (where the problem is solved.) 
  • Most of their writing is often based on personal experience or general knowledge.

By the end of elementary school:

  • Write a paragraph that refers to specific facts from something they have learned and comments on those facts. 
  • Write a narrative that is several paragraphs long and talks about characters’ feelings and motivations. Children should be using conventions like quotation marks and punctuation to make their story clear.

Middle School: 

  • In middle school, students should be writing more and more about what they are learning in class. 
  • They should understand at least 3 kinds of writing (narrative, persuasive and expository) and be able to identify differences between the types.
  • Before high school, students should be able to string together at least 3 good paragraphs, with specific details and quotes from text they ahve read, into a coherent essay. They might need guidance to do this, with graphic organizers or sample papers to get them going.
  • Understand that they are writing for reader and that there are things writers do – like explaining their thoughts in detail – that we might not do in a spoken conversation.

High school:

  • Write a paper of 3-8 pages, with structure and guidance from a teacher.
  • Use specific evidence quoted from multiple sources to support their points in writing.
  • Use “writerly” academic language, including words like however, meanwhile, and on the other hand to show the relationship between their ideas.
  • Understand themselves as writers and use their knowledge to plan their writing process. For example, do they prefer to write a detailed outline or just start with a draft? What tools do they need to organize their notes or to keep their draft on track? How long does it take them to write a page?

But what if they aren’t?

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Especially in a world of texts and emails, being able to write your message effectively can make an enormous difference. 

Not everyone is going to choose a career or an education option that requires a lot of daily writing, but all students need and deserve to be able to communicate clearly in writing. Click To Tweet

While every child’s development as a writer will vary, and my list above is only a rough guideline, children also sometimes need more than they are getting in the classroom. Without a strong writing curriculum, many teachers give students “inspiration” and “time to write,” which may not be enough structure for a child who just plain doesn’t know how to write. Other students need direct teaching about spelling or building sentences in order to do it successfully. If you have concerns about your child’s writing progress, or if they are avoiding writing or melting down, ask their teacher about writing expectations for the year. 

If your child is struggling with writing at school, whether it’s expressing themselves completely or spelling so others understand them, we can help! Contact us for a consultation and no-cost demo lesson today.

My child is Guessing Words When Reading!

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

If a child guesses words while reading…

The (Vastly Oversimplified) Process of Reading

To read written English, we need to:

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

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

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

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

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

How to Help Your Child Avoid Guessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Why is this still happening?

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

Is there hope?

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

Look into local Decoding Dyslexia or Reading League chapters. 

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

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

How to help a child read better at home

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

Identify the Problem

Sounding out words

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

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

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

Reading Fluently

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

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

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


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Sticking with a Book

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

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

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

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

You can help your child expand their repertoire by:

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

Kids Who Read More, Read Better

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

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

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

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


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How young is too young for online tutoring?

“I’m looking for a reading tutor for my first grader, but I think he’s too young for online tutoring.”

“Can an 8-year-old do online tutoring?”

“Could you really keep my second grader focused online?”

I have talked to a few parents who were looking for reading and writing tutoring for their young children but had not considered online tutoring because it seemed like their children weren’t old enough. While many of my students are in middle school or high school, online tutoring can also be a great approach for children who are younger, as long as they have the right tutor and a parent to help them get set up the first few times.

I started online tutoring using Zoom for video conferencing with a fifth grader. For the first one or two sessions, his mom helped him log in and made sure that the tools were working for him. Then she was able to step away. At first, I shared my screen with the student and he could watch me or I could give him control of the screen when it was time to practice. Gradually, he got better and better at using the online tools and learned to share his screen with me when he had something like a story that he wanted me to see.

After the first few sessions, that fifth grader was able to use the tools in Zoom as well as any teenager or adult I have used it with.

I’ve worked with younger students, too. I find that students in first through third grade need a little more adult in-person help than older students. For my younger students, a parent usually sets up the session and makes sure that they are sitting so that they can be seen on camera and that they can hear the audio. For some younger children, it works best when a parent hangs out where they can hear the session and checks in as needed to help with things like finding letters on the keyboard or positioning the camera. For these students, having the computer set up in the kitchen or living room, where parents can work nearby but siblings don’t interrupt, can work well. Some children, even as young as third grade, are pretty independent. Some students are able to sit alone at the computer and follow my directions and guidance to use the mouse and keyboard to participate in the lesson.

Some great features of online tutoring that I love for young learners are:

  • It’s easy to incorporate online games or quick videos that keep kids engaged and motivated.
  • I can quickly update my lesson, like by typing more words that they need to practice. My handwriting is not great, so if I write words out by hand it takes me longer. Typing also lets me pick a font that works best for students.
  • The student and I can shop for books in the ebooks section of my public library and read one together on the computer screen. With in-person students, I bring a selection of books and stories with me, but I don’t always have something that the student is excited about.
  • Convenience for the families. With young children at home myself, I know it can be challenging to get everyone into the car and to the place they need to be, let alone to have the other children in the house stay quiet and occupied while a tutor is visiting for one of the children. With online tutoring, siblings seem less distracted by the tutoring experience and tend to interrupt less than when I’m actually visiting someone’s home. On the flip side, if you are sitting somewhere waiting for your other child to finish sports practice or dance, all you need is a wifi connection and a quiet place to sit and tutoring can still go on! This flexibility can be a huge help for busy families.
  • Health. Another benefit for families is that online tutoring can help everyone stay healthier during cold season. I don’t do in-home tutoring when I’m sick, but there are days when I can tutor online in spite of a cough or runny nose. When you have sick family members, or your child is getting over an illness, but well enough to work, online tutoring can go on as usual. Meeting consistently is so important for students to make progress, and online tutoring lets us do that.

If you’re thinking about online tutoring for your young child, there is not much of a downside. Lessons are fun, engaging, and flexible. Thanks to digital games, ebooks, and video conferencing, your child can get anything they would get from in-person meetings and maybe even more!

If you’re interested in trying online tutoring, contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to help you decide if online tutoring is a good fit for your child.

How young is too young for online tutoring?

Creating Space and Time for Homework

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

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

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

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

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

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

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

Readiness

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

Close Supervision

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

Minimize distractions

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

Tools

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

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

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

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

 

Grades 2-5

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

Prepare to work

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

Increasing Independence

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

Managing Distractions

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

Having the Right Tools

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

Kids need access to the right tools to make homework time go smoothly

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

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

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

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

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

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

Internet Access

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

Accountability with Independence

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

Help to Plan

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

Someone to Manage the Schedule

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

A Place To Work

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

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

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

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

Changing Assignments

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

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

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

Keeping Them Organized

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

Finding Time for Sleep

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

The Pay-Off

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

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

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!

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

 

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

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

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

And then the fidget spinner nonsense started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else works as a fidget?

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

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

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

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