How to use your textbook to study

So you’re studying for finals. What exactly are you supposed to study? Is there a study guide? What DID you learn this year? Once you have a big-picture plan for tackling all your finals, it’s time to dust off that textbook – yes, the one made from dead trees – and use it to study.

Textbooks can be some of the driest and most challenging reading that we encounter in school. Did you know that many textbooks are written at a reading level higher than the students they’re written for? You may have a 7th grade history book that is written at a high school level. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me!

But even if reading the textbook is not your favorite way to learn, the textbook can be a great resource when you’re getting ready for exams.I’m going to talk about a few different ways you can use your textbook to study for final exams.

Table of contents

First, use the table of contents. If your class this year has pretty much followed the textbook, then the chapter headings and subheadings are your first stop for a to-do list for what to study. Your teacher may give you a study guide that has more specific information but the table of contents is a great place to start. Make a list of important topics from the table of contents to cross off topics as you cover them.

One way to figure out how much you know about the topic is to ask yourself for each chapter title and heading, “What is the most important thing I need to know about ___?” You could list each heading on a section of notebook paper and under it list each fact that you think is important to remember. This will give you a baseline for what you know. When you open the book you will likely find out there’s more to it than you remembered but you will want to measure what you actually know and that will help you plan how much to study.

End of chapter questions

Textbooks often have questions that are written at the end of each section or each chapter. Some teachers use these questions as homework assignments or assessments for students. Especially if your teacher has not used these questions and you haven’t answered them before, getting ready for your final is a great time to try to answer them. Like you did with the chapter headings, answer as many of them as you can from memory but especially take note of the ones you aren’t able to answer without looking back in the book. Those facts are where you’re going to need to spend some time studying.

Bold vocabulary words

Your textbook likely has some key vocabulary words that are in bold throughout the chapter. They may also be listed at the beginning or end of the chapter and they will almost certainly be defined in a glossary at the end of the book. Make sure that you know these terms and that you can use each one in a sentence that talks about the content of the class.

Maps, tables, and charts

Sometimes these visuals in your textbook are a supplement to the content in the paragraphs, meaning they don’t give you any new or key information that you need to remember. Sometimes they’re there to illustrate an example or a point. Other times, they are there to highlight the importance of a certain piece of information. Use maps to help you answer questions about – obviously – countries, borders, cities, and other geographical features. Also use maps to help you develop answers to why questions:

  • Why did Germany invade Poland?
  • Why were the ancient Greeks sailors?
  • Why does the US export corn?

Looking at the geography of a place can help you better understand the people who lived there. Charts and tables are visual ways of presenting data. For some people, these are better ways of understanding the information and remembering it than reading sentences that say the same thing. If your textbook has charts and graphs, try to figure out what you can learn from them.

Supplemental textbook resources

Newer textbooks often have related websites or digital study tools that can be great resources as you study for your final exam. Look for website links in the introduction to the textbook or in the end of the chapter review materials. Also, check your teacher’s website for links to online textbook tools.

Read it

Sometimes you will actually have to read a chapter in your textbook. This is especially true if you haven’t kept up with the reading lately or if you haven’t done well on some of the quizzes. But don’t try to sit down and read straight through one or more chapter. Use the tips above to organize your reading and read each section and subsection with a question in mind. If your reading doesn’t answer the question, you might need to read again. And take notes or explain to someone what you learned right after you read it, so it doesn’t disappear! You can even make a video or audio recording on your phone of you summarizing what you read that you can play back later.

Weightlifting

In some classes, the teacher seems to actively avoid teaching from the textbook. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how schools work: sometimes teachers are required to use a certain textbook because the school or state picked it or because the teacher who taught before them chose it. So you have to think about whether the textbook has actually been a tool for learning in this class. If your teacher often use other resources, like articles videos and class discussions, then the textbook may not give you a great foundation for studying for this exam. In that case, feel free to use your textbook during study breaks for some bicep curls or some overhead presses. Getting some physical activity in the middle of long study sessions will help your brain work better and help your body feel better after sitting in your study seat for a few hours.

To find out more, check out my video, coming soon to YouTube: How to use your textbook to study

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use your textbook to study
How to use your textbook to study

Creating Space and Time for Homework

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

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

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

Homework in Elementary School: Laying the Foundations for Success

Homework can be overwhelming for young students.

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

Kindergarten Through Second Grade

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

Readiness

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

Close Supervision

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

Minimize distractions

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

Tools

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

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

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

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

 

Grades 2-5

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

Prepare to work

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

Increasing Independence

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

Managing Distractions

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

Having the Right Tools

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

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

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

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

 

Homework in Middle School: Increasing Independence 

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

Some other things middle schoolers need for homework:

Tools

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

Internet Access

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

Accountability with Independence

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

Help to Plan

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

Someone to Manage the Schedule

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

A Place To Work

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

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

High School Homework: Supporting an Independent Learner

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

Changing Assignments

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

Helping When You Don’t Feel Like an Expert

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

Keeping Them Organized

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

Finding Time for Sleep

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

The Pay-Off

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

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

Stress less about homework and enjoy more family time!

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

 

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

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

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

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

1. Coordinate your class materials

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

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

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

2. Match your Google Drive folders

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

3. Code Your Papers

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

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

4. Make your Planner Pop

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

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

5. Tie in your Google Calendar

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

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

Five ways to organize your school materials and your digital files to help you stay organized and find things quickly.

If your child needs help getting or staying organized, a tutor can help. Email me at bethsullivantutor@gmail.com to schedule a 30-minute free consultation.

The Transition to Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we protect our middle schoolers?

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

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

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

Preparing for academic success

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

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

When to get expert help

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

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

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

 

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

 

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