Friday, February 27, 2015

Getting It Down on Paper

Although computers are permeating the classroom, most school children still have to pick up a pencil and write. In fact most have to write everyday. Young students have to write numbers, spelling words, workbook answers, etc. They have to write during tests which are created to prove a child’s knowledge about a specific subject. But what if your child is not demonstrating what they know because they are having trouble getting it down on the paper?

There are various arguments about teaching manuscript (printing), cursive, or keyboarding to a child. This post is limited to helping your child in his or her current situation. Dysgraphia is considered a learning difference (LD) which affects a person's handwriting ability and fine motor skills. The Learning Disability Association of America lists several signs of dysgraphia.

Many first and second graders do not have dysgraphia but do have difficulty with handwriting.  
One reason may be poor fine motor skills.
"Fine motor skills are small movements -- such as picking up small ovjects and holding a spoon -- that use the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, lips, and tongue."

Children refine their fine motor skills by picking up and sorting tiny objects, threading beads, coloring between the lines with crayons, building with tiny blocks, or doing other activities that strengthen small muscles and improve eye-hand coordination.

American children often are expected to write without much practice on how to control a pencil. Unfortunately, the  abundance of electronic device play may give a child carpal tunnel syndrome before he learns to correctly hold  a pencil. And speaking of holding a pencil, children who are writing in school need to work at holding  a pencil correctly before 2nd grade. I often joke with children to let their pencil breathe. A tight grasp creates stiff hands and tired writers.

If your child seems at ease with a pencil the next check is letter formation. First, make sure your child knows how every letter and number is written. Some children start the letters in a way that forces them to trace around them several times. Other children get confused when writing a seldom used letter such as a “V”. Reversals are not uncommon with children up to second grade.

Another area that may create problems is the paper used for early printing. You know the type with blue, red, and dashed lines. That paper was adopted to help a child know where and how big to write a letter. The problem is the number of lines on the paper may make it difficult for a child with figure-ground problems to figure out where to put the letter. "Visual figure-ground discrimination issues: Kids with this type may not be be able to pull out a shape or character from its background."

Some hints to help your child with writing:

  • Explain to the young child that seeing things from a different angle usually does not change its name. Demonstrate with a toy that it doesn’t change names if we see it upside down, from the back, from the front etc. Explain that letters are different. Demonstrate how you can turn a lower case d around and make a p, q or b. Plastic letters are good for this demo. Say it is very important to know that a letter is that letter only when it looks like this. It cannot be turned around and stay the same letter. This link has some explanations on confusion with letters.
  • Put a small alphabet and a number strip on your child’s notebook so she can refer to it in class.
  • Help your child learn the shape of letter by having them write with a finger in shaving cream, sand, or on rough paper.  
  • Get large tablets of newsprint. Write the letters as big as possible and then have your child fill in the letter with smaller versions of the large letter. Let your child practice making large, small, tiny, and very fancy letters or short words.
  • After a child practices writing a letter or a word a few times on the newsprint have them close their eyes and write. Kids think this is great fun and usually are delighted at the results. One interesting outcome is that there are a few children who write better with their eyes closed.
  • Have your child copy a sentence you have written. If he has a difficult time with word separation draw a line with a highlighter or crayon between each word.
  • In the early grades find out how tests are given.  If spelling words must be written, have your child practice writing them - not just spelling them out loud. If math facts must be written, don’t just work with flash cards.

The above activities above should be brief and fun. Children still learning to write should not be overwhelmed with extensive written homework. Any extensive writing at home for a first or second grader should be split up with a few stretches or breaks.

With practice most children find writing easier. There is nothing more frustrating to a child than to feel stupid because he knows an answer, but gets it marked wrong because he can’t write it down on paper correctly or fast enough.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Setting the Foundation for Reading

In grades k through three children learn to read. After that they read to learn.” I am not sure who originated this quote, but it explains most schools’ expectations of their students. A child who can’t read, or a child who is not reading at grade level finds school more and more difficult as they progress through the grades. Below is a quick look at how schools define reading, a brief overview of some problems that interfere with learning to read, and some suggestions of ways parents can help prepare a child to read.

Children are usually tested on their reading ability in two major areas. The first is how well a child decodes or translates letters into words. The second area is how well a child understands what she reads. The first is needed for most children to achieve the second. In other words, most children have to be able to read the words smoothly (fluidly) to achieve good comprehension. Being able to read the words, however, does not guarantee comprehension.

What can get in the way of a young child learning to read?  A child with dyslexia is probably going to have difficulty reading English. One reason is because English, unlike other languages, has  several ways to write specific sounds, and several ways to read the same letters. Example: She likes to read.  He read two books yesterday. Research has shown that “dyslexia in fact appears to have a common neurological cause across borders, but that complexities in certain languages can make the problem worse.”   

All poor readers, however, do not have dyslexia. There are many skills needed to read. Language is the most obvious one. If you do not have an age appropriate understanding of English it is difficult to learn to read it. Being unable to listen or follow directions also makes learning to read difficult. Trauma such as homelessness, divorce, violence or illness affects a child’s learning. Hearing or vision problems make the learning process difficult. Memory (working, short, and long term) influences learning. Some poor readers have language, visual, auditory, and spatial processing problems.

That does not mean that a parents cannot help set the stage for reading instruction. Some things a parent can do include:

  • Reading books, sometimes the same book again and again, to a child
  • Reading for your own information or pleasure. How often has your child seen you read an adult book? Does your child see you reading recipes, labels, magazines, or articles on the Internet?
  • Helping a child recognize, name, and place letters in the alphabet. Plastic magnetic letters are great for this activity.
  • Using sequential words and demonstrating what they mean to a child.  Examples: first, last, middle, top, bottom, next, under, over,  right, and left.
  • Having conversation with a child and talking about items while you use specific vocabulary. The more a child hears and see the names of animals, foods, vegetables, fruits, buildings, plants, etc., the better he will be prepared for school and reading. Don’t let electronic devices such as a GPS take the place of visual references.
  • Reading nursery rhymes, poems, and books that have rhyming words.
  • Directly telling or teaching a child about rhymes without making the child perform. One can point out the rhymes in “The Cat in the Hat” while reading the book.  Parents need to throw in a lot of information when talking with a child. Sometimes an adult should provide answers to questions to model what you want from your child.
  • Asking a child school type questions before she goes to school should make academics easier.  Pick up a book you have read before. Ask one or two questions. Who is this story about? What happened at the end? Where were they? If the child doesn’t know, give a hint or suggest an answer. Make this is a conversation, not a lesson.
  • Before going to school children should understand what is expected as an answer for  the following questions: who, what, when, and where.  Other than the little science lover or the born storyteller, many children need a bit more maturity to adequately answer a “why” question.

None of these activities will hurt a good reader. They all will help a poor reader. A child with dyslexia or other LDs (Learning Differences) usually will need structured (sometimes individualized) reading instruction and often needs a longer time frame than other students to master reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Just Wait a Few Months

A mother recently showed me a letter from her child’s first grade teacher.  The teacher wrote, “Most of the children in today’s math class do not know how to…  Please work with your child  on this concept.”

Assuming the teacher was correct and a majority of the students didn’t understand the lesson, there are a number of reasons for this letter. This post is only going to focus on one reason an entire class may appear clueless. Nope, I don’t think there is more free floating dyscalculia. I do think, however, that too many curriculum writers display too little awareness of child development.

Do you remember referring to developmental timelines when your child was an infant?  Everyone knew there was a time to expect a child to sit, crawl, walk, and talk.  It wasn’t a specific date but a general time frame. We knew children were different, and we also knew that there were early and late walkers and talkers.  Most of us are aware of the angst of early adolescence and the fact that some teens are more mature than others.  Is it surprising that  children in elementary school also have developmental timelines? Just like toddlers, they do not march in lockstep when reaching specific cognitive milestones.  Piaget’s theory of development covers many of these steps. Current  brain research can visually show  the growth and changes in a child’s brain.

What does this have to do with math? Quite a bit. For example:
  • Many children in first grade can’t really understand reverse thinking.  It is apparent to adults that  6 + 4 = 10 so 10 - 4 = 6. This reverse process isn’t  clear to many first graders. That kind of thinking is a developmental step which some children haven’t reached by age six.
  • Place value and symbols representing it are also difficult for many children. Some children with good language skills appear to understand  place value only because they can parrot back the information. Those same children cannot apply that information to a differently worded problem.
  • Fine motor skills also develop at different rates. We often do not realize how much effort a small child may put into copying numbers, or writing answers in the correct place. As adults we use writing as a tool. For some young children getting the numbers down on paper is a huge part of the problem.

To reiterate: children mature at different rates. Some children find arithmetic easy. They may or may not be good at math throughout their school years. Others are mature for their age or have great language or fine motor skills. And some children aren’t quite there yet. This has nothing to do with intelligence, any more than early walking denotes a future track star.

Children’s brains are developing and changing as the child ages, but our schools are pushing higher academic expectations at a younger age.  Many older teachers will tell you kindergartners  are now given work done by first graders twenty years ago.

If your early elementary child is having difficulty with math you need to look at what is being asked of him. Is he the youngest in the classroom? Do you think of your child as immature for her age? Is writing difficult?

The most important question may be are the expectations too high for most of the children in the classroom. I asked two first grade teachers about math expectations for first grade. Both rattled off the curriculum expectations. Do the students really understand all those concepts? Both teacher laughed and said, “Heck, no” or words close to that.  

Having realistic developmental expectations is not watering down the curriculum. For a child to progress in math there has to be a building upon specific skills.  Rushing through these skills, while disregarding if a child is ready to learn that skill, almost guarantees problems later on down the road.

Oh course there are many other reasons math class may be difficult for a child. Some of those reasons will be covered in future posts.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Homework at 6!

          I recently had the following conversation with a parent.

Parent: "What can I do to help my child not cry over homework?'
Me: "How much time is she spending on it?"
Parent: "About three hours.'
Me: "What grade did you say your child was in?"  I thought I might have her daughter confused with another child.
Parent: "First grade."

Aggggggg! First graders should not have three hours of homework. At the very most they should have half an hour. They are young children who have been at school all day. Many have had a few hours of daycare added on to the school day. Quiet, shy children  have had to deal with noise and confusion. Loud, active children they have had to work with sitting still and trying to be quiet. Just like adults, children need to unwind in a way that works for them. If your child appears to be spending too much time on homework think about the following:

  • Is your child hungry? 
  • Does your child need to run off some kid energy?  Fifteen minutes of exercise might make sitting down for homework easier.  
  • Does your child need a movement break while doing homework? For a child under 10 a quick stretch or walk around the table might make it easier to move on to the next subject.
  • Does you child have a quiet place to do her homework? Is the TV on in the background, are siblings playing in the room, or are you talking on the phone? Does you child have everything they need at the place they are doing their homework? Having pencils, paper, rulers, and other tools close by helps your child become more organized, and keeps you from driving to the store at the last minutes looking for poster board.
  • Is your child tired?  Work done after bedtime is usually work done poorly.
  • Is the work too hard? I am not talking about a specific child not understanding an assignment. I am talking about a concept that is too difficult for a child.  In my next post I will write about children's cognitive development, and how schools are ignoring it when creating curriculum.

What's Happening?

It happened again. I met a child who was totally confused about something he or she should have learned at school. This time it was math, but I see it in reading, spelling, and other basic subjects.  These children, some as young as 5, find school a frustrating, confusing place.

The system probably can't or won't change in time for your child, but parents can help their child navigate through it. As a retired teacher I have seen how effective parents help their children. Here are some general suggestions:
  • I know it is personal but remember it is about your child - not you.
  • Before you talk with a teacher decide what you  need to ask, what you want, and what you will accept. It helps to write down questions before you have the meeting.
  • If you are having problems communicating with a teacher or with admin always, always, always take someone with you to the meeting. It can be a spouse, parents, in-law or best friend. Make sure to let them know you are going to be doing the talking, and you would appreciate them taking notes or reminding you of a topic you wanted to discuss.
  • If there is a surprise at the meeting, i.e your child is not going to pass, should be tested for an LD, etc., you may want to set up another meeting. This will give you time to gather your thoughts and write down questions.
  • Young children usually like school. Keep you negative statements outside of their young ears. Yes, you may dislike their teacher, hate the assignments, think that the other children are wild little animals, but your child needs to like school. It your child hates school, then you need to focus on why and not add fuel to the fire.