Monday, June 29, 2015

"If at First You Don't Succeed, You are Running About Average"*

One neat thing about little kids is they don't understand grades. An "F" to them is no worse than an "A"; but, of course, what they usually receive are smiley faces. We don't want a small child to have any failures. But as children move through schools and life they are going to experience things not going as expected. The lesson of failure is not the failing but the trying again, the improvement, the mastery. So this post is about failing and, more importantly, not letting failure conquer effort.

I use to tell children, who were shocked when I asked them to do something again, that school was a place to learn. I don't expect you to know everything, I would assure them. If you knew everything you would not need to be in school.  But you can't move on until you accomplish this. 

Too much bubble wrap not only doesn't prepare a child for life, but it almost guarantees the inability to deal with future failure.  Looking at the number of teen suicides, drug use, and school drop-outs indicates that many young people aren't sure how to pick themselves up if they are knocked down by events.

Sports once did a pretty good job of encouraging effort and practice while acknowledging that there are winners and losers. Michael Jordan said, "I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed." 

So how do we teach children how to "try, try again"? Parents should encourage children to work in one area in which a child may be gifted or loves doing, and another that gives them problems. Both efforts will teach them something. In the talented area they will learn "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." In the problem area they will learn that yes, effort will make you better. The talented artist may tackle ice skating to improve gross motor skills. The talented baseball player may need tutoring to improve in math. Parents can help a child learn to keep trying if they keep a few things in mind.

  • Being loved is not dependent on being a star athlete, a star student, or a star anything.
  • When something is difficult we need to slow down, and break activities into smaller steps. Sometimes we need to take a break, rest, eat, just walk about for a bit, or even wait to attempt it when we are a bit more mature.
  • Everything a child does is not great. Overpraising often negates the joy in being praised. It also may encourage a child to continue doing something that then becomes annoying. Too many children decide very early in life they must be the always be center of attention, because they were told they were the greatest dancers, singers or storytellers when they were four. 
  • Some things that must be done in life aren't fun, entertaining, or fair. Tolerating the whining and complaining teaches a child that effort is not to be expected. 
  • Children often rotate through a number of activities before they find one they stick with. That is to be expected - after all they are new to this world.  
  • Talent is not just demonstrated in group activities. A child may be good at art, with animals, or collecting bugs. A talent does not have to be something a child can make money with when she grows up. 
  • Role models are important. Has you child seen you attempt something difficult? Have they seen you enjoy something outside of work or family? How do your react to failure? 
  • Children's books have wonderful stories of coming back from failure. Make sure you child hears or reads some great biographies about people such as Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Nelson Mandela or Helen Keller. Many children's fiction books also have heroes or heroines overcoming obstacles to achieve success.
Remember a child who has a learning problem needs an activity in their life where they experience easy success. A child for whom everything appears easy needs to try something difficult. 

All children need to learn how to face failure and success. A wise man once said, "The person has not yet been born who cannot do more than he thinks he can." It is a magical moment when a child discovers that she can do more that she ever thought she could.

* title quote by  M.H. Alderson  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Break and Learning Problems

Since June is rapidly winding down I would like to once again encourage parents to help your child keep their academic skills during the summer. Yes, I have written about Summer Loss but if your child is dyslexic or has dyscalculia it is so much easier for skills to evaporate during the summer. This is especially true if the skill isn't solid, in other words, a child with dyslexia who knows how to read maintains that skill better than a child who began the summer just starting to read.

Two and a half months off with no reading (or basic math for the child with dyscalculia) often puts a child back to having to relearn skills that she already has learned with difficulty. Think about the class your child goes back to at the end of summer. Usually her classmates consist of the following:
  • Children who find school easy, mastered reading and math, and either improved during the summer or maintained their high skills which had been thoroughly learned.
  • Children who had easily mastered the skills, perhaps forgot a bit during the summer, but with a quick review in the fall readily catch up to where they were when school ended.
  • The children who did not quite master the skills but have no learning problems. A fall review is all they need to thoroughly learn the skill.
  • And finally children, who due to learning problems, are having difficulty learning the skill. They appear to be beginning to understand how to read or do basic math, but it was a struggle. Too often these children experience major loss of these skills with the summer break. They go back to a skill level of six to eight months ago. Once again, they have to struggle to relearn a skill that already took an immense amount of effort to learn before. The older they are the more  aware are they that what is difficult for them appears easy for their peers. They start each school year academically far behind their friends and the loss becomes cumulative.
As a teacher I was always saddened to see how much ground some students lost during the summer. Talking to their past teachers I found that the students often had improved during past years after a difficult start but seldom caught up with their classmates. This was a private school and these students always "forgot" to do their summer reading or math practice. Since this was an expensive school these students were generally upper middle or upper class. Despite intense remediation, some of these children were still attempting to learn to read in the 4th, 5th and even 6th grade. Many of them had given up by middle school. 

So if you have a child with LDs between the ages of 7 to 10 and that child has difficulty learning to read or do basic math, don't waste those summer months. Make time to do some Read Alouds. Do some alphabet activities. Start a family vacation journal. Spend 10 minutes a day three times a week on math facts.  Don't get frantic about being a teacher to your child,  but use the lazy summer days as a way for your child to relax and enjoy learning. Your child may only remember vacations and days at the pool, but these small moments of summer academics hopefully will make future memories of school more pleasant.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meaningful Words

Prefixes, Suffixes and Everything In Between

Reading is inconsequential if there is no meaning. Meaning is found through an understanding of vocabulary. Children who do well on vocabulary usually have been exposed to words orally; have an understanding of base and root words, as well as suffixes and prefixes; have an ability to generalize and compare words; and are usually able to determine what part of speech a word is.

Many children with Learning and Language Differences(LLDs) have a difficult time distinguishing base or root words. (Although there is some disagreement of the definitions, for this post a base word is a word that stands alone without a prefix or suffix, while a root word may or may not be able to stand alone. For example: Run is a base word. Add a prefix and you have rerun, a suffix and you have running.  Cis is a root from Latin meaning to cut or kill. Incision or scissors have the root cis which helps with understanding the meaning but by itself cis is not a word.)

There is a method of teaching spelling that focuses on meaning through the understanding of roots. One example is the word every. Looking at the morphology of the word we see that it came from the word ever. Instead of telling children the origin of the word, we often encourage them to mispronounce the word as ev-er-y so they remember to include the second e on a spelling test. A child may then be left mispronouncing the word or forgetting how to spell it after the test.  If you are interested in reading more about teaching spelling through word meanings you might start with these websites: Edutopia, LEX, and Real Spelling.  

However, children with dyslexia or other language LDs often have a difficult time being aware of a base word, let alone finding a root from Latin or Greek. Part of the problem is that while a child is learning to translate the letter into sounds it is difficult to look at the words within a word. This is also why the meaning created by adding a suffix or prefix often is overlooked when attempting to read.

But most upper level vocabulary (the words that add richness and preciseness to our language) is acquired through reading.  And much of this vocabulary is learned through context as well as understanding and applying that knowledge to base and root words. So. is a child with dyslexia doomed to have a poor vocabulary? I believe there are steps to overcoming this.

  • Familiarize a child with the idea of a base word before formal teaching. Read Alouds are a great time to stop and ask about a word and point out the base or root word. A spectacle includes the word spec  - which means to see or look at. Spec is found in words such a spectacles, inspect, or respect(to look up to someone). This isn't a class in which a child has to memorize or take tests, but rather an activity that points out how people understand words. Obviously, you don't do this every time you read to your child.
  • Make sure a child can read and spell a word before expecting him to use it as a base word in spelling. What good does it do a child to know that every comes from ever if he can't spell ever?
  • When a child has difficulty with a word, highlight the base word. The prefixes and suffixes can then be read. For example: preheated looks complicated to some children but highlighting heat and then reading heated and then preheated breaks the word into manageable segments.
  • Remember it helps some children to point out the root of a word, but confuses others. The younger child often will find such information confusing as will a child with severe dyslexia who is still working on sound/symbol representation. 
  • Be patient and point out the obvious grouping of words on vocabulary or spelling lists. A child who has difficulty reading often doesn't catch the similarities on his own. 
  • Encourage a child to follow along in the book when listening to a read aloud or books on tape. 
  • Find a chart of root words, prefixes and suffixes that an older child can refer to when learning vocabulary or spelling words. The link is just one of several charts available online.

Monday, June 22, 2015

All we need is . . .

I recently posted some of my views questioning the role of technology in education. Here is an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. It appears that basic skills and motivation are the real stepping stones to acquiring an education.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Off to See the World

Just got back from a road trip with friends. What did we find?  Fog, rain, muddy roads, and a broken toilet. Despite the bumps in the road we had a great time. Of course we were all adults, but a road trip with children usually includes some bumps in the road while producing fond memories. Ever notice how bad times create better stories than good times?

But there is something else one can create on a vacation, and that is a family journal. This is a journal in which everyone contributes. If the youngest can't write, she can dictate her memories to an older sibling or parent. If anyone or everyone has a difficult time getting started ask them to write the one thing they remember about the day. It's fun to read how parents interpret a day on the road versus how children perceive it. While parents remember arguing about a lost reservation, a child remembers the blue snow cones on the beach. Family members can contribute one picture or small item a day for the journal if they want.  

I didn't do this for every family vacation but every time I re-read the few journals we have I realize how delightful those moments were - even the bumpy ones.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Curriculum Quandaries

Most parents don't think much about curriculum.  One current definition  of curriculum is "the means and materials with which students interact for the purpose of achieving identified educational outcomes." But if you think of a curriculum as defining what is being taught in a school you must think beyond identified educational outcomes.

Accredited schools have a written curriculum. The reality in many schools is that textbooks, not curriculum, dictate the everyday lessons. With the emphasis on testing, what your child doesn't learn in school is as telling as what he is taught and tested on. Also, although curriculum is that which is supposedly taught, it is not necessarily learned. Finally, what is learned isn't always on the written curriculum. Yes, children often pick up a teacher's idiosyncrasies: a love of the rain forest, or semi-colons, or a historical time period; but they also learn what behaviors are tolerated, what gets attention,  how the administration reacts to bullies, absences, or poor sportsmanship despite what is written in the rule book.  

So what is a parent to do?

  1. Be observant. When checking out a private school sit in some classes and talk to a few parents. Remember what a school says it does and what goes on everyday in the classroom may differ greatly.
  2. Think about what you want your child to learn. I have heard adults comment on the inability of many teens to make change. Maybe schools didn't teach that skill, or maybe they attempted to and it didn't stick, but every parent can teach their children how to count money. There are many life skills that can be taught at home better than at school. Children can learn how to use maps, read directions, set a table, be polite, and a multitude of other things at home. A great deal of life is helping your child to be aware what is happening and how to affect it. 
  3. Listen to your child. If she is learning something at school that goes against your moral code, explain your beliefs to your child and explain how to follow those beliefs. 
  4. Remember that individual children react differently to the unwritten curriculum. My non-school example of this are two of my cousins and their different reactions to their mother's rules on curfew. One cousin always made it home on time. The one time she was five minutes late she called home immediately. The other ignored curfew constantly. I remember her telling her "good" sister, "You are so dumb. Mom gets mad and yells if we are five minutes late or two hours late so you might as well go for the two hours." A good talking to by the principal strikes fear and promotes good behavior in some children. In others it is a time to roll their eyes and think they got off the hook because they don't perceive a lecture as a real punishment.  
  5. Remember some academic skills require a basic foundation to stand on while other skills can stand alone. Math usually requires previous skills to build on. For example, you must be able to subtract to do long division. But memorizing a new poem is possible even if you haven't remembered three other poems. Schools often dance to the tune of a curriculum that demands everyone be on page eighty-two the first of October, even if the majority of students didn't understand the last three lessons.
  6. Finally, as the child ages the most influential teachers of the unwritten curriculum are your child's peers. Know your child's friends.  Just as importantly make sure your child knows you are the person he can come to with any problem because you spent time on number three of this list.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Read Aloud and Ramblings on Words

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet is a wonderful read aloud book.  A biography that includes many historical facts (including a timeline!) this picture book also encourages a love of language and words. When a parent (rather than a teacher or librarian) reads a book to a child the child has to opportunity to explore the illustration in detail. This is a picture book in which the pictures are as informative as the story.

"The limits of my language means the limits of my world." said Ludwig Wittgenstein.  A thesaurus expands the limits of language for many a writer. According to research, money (or lack of)  appears to limit language. A 2003 study found "that on average children from family on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families hears around 1,250 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour." The researchers cautioned that the findings should not be extrapolated to people and circumstances not included in the study but the "30 million word gap" has become a commonly quoted statistic. 

This early vocabulary gap was shown to influence school achievement. Of course economics and class are not the only influences on vocabulary.  Learning differences and trauma also may impact a child's vocabulary.

So the question becomes: how can we improve vocabulary? Making it another subject in school or handing a child a thesaurus doesn't do much to close the gap. Using a thesaurus is a good example of why understanding language requires more than words. Yes, I can look up a word and see a list of synonyms but there is another step in selecting the the best word for my purpose. How does a person understand the subtle differences between loneliness, solitude, and isolation?  Being surrounded by people who use a rich vocabulary and reading a plethora of books seems to be the best way to expand a child's vocabulary.  I am not sure that I agree with Madeleine L'Engle  that we think because we have words; but I do agree with her statement that "the more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually."  

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reflections: Teacher or Tutor?

I have been a teacher and a tutor. What is the difference between those two jobs? Teachers have to cater to parents, school boards, and administrators. A good teacher has to be a genius at group management. Teachers have to prioritize a great many activities that have very little to do with children learning. Teachers have to work with someone else's idea of a curriculum. Teachers have to attempt to teach whoever ends up in their classroom. And today, public school teachers have to deal with testing, testing, and more testing. In exchange for this a public school teacher, who hangs in there, gets a decent (but certainly not a fantastic) salary, a great retirement, and pretty good benefits. If she is lucky she has some wonderful students, great parents, and a supportive administrators. Private school teaching is similar, but often has smaller classroom size, less testing,  smaller salaries, and a much smaller (if any) retirement. 

A tutor has autonomy, no administration, the right to turn away a student or parent, and the freedom to choose what to teach and how to teach it. The student has one-to-one attention of an adult who can change the curriculum or method immediately if need be. Of course, there are many types of tutors, but I am writing about independent, private tutors.

After many years of teaching in private schools I retired. Now I tutor a small select number of children. Being a teacher improved my ability to tutor and being a tutor has improved my ability to teach. Being a teacher introduced me to various curriculums and paradigms about special education. I was sent to numerous workshops. I watched presentations on brain research and saw sales pitches on various programs based on "current" research.  I saw computer programs, and all inclusive boxed programs (which included teacher manuals, workbooks, flashcards, games and access to a website). I met teachers who for years varied nary a micron from rote instruction, and I saw creative teachers who, in the creative process, somehow lost the goal of what was to be taught. 

But, most importantly, I saw children succeed and I saw children fail. I knew children attending expensive private schools that specialized in teaching children with LDs; children exposed for several years to researched computer programs, small classrooms, and focused reading programs, who somehow never quite learned to read or calculate. Many of these children had been pulled from good public schools that had, despite wonderful IEPs, failed to teach them to read or comprehend basic arithmetic. I met parents desperately trying their best to find something to help their children who, despite average or high IQs, were not learning basic skills. 

So now that I am a few years away from school and a few years into tutoring what have I learned?  I've now concluded some children are pushed too hard at too young an age to read and write. I believe that children have to be challenged, not coddled, if they have an LD; but the challenges don't negate the need for remediation. A child can memorize poetry, understand literature, learn history, explore science, and still need to be in a beginning reading program. We must remember, especially in the lower grades, that we teach children, not curriculum. I now have the time to back track if something is obviously too difficult for a child. 

You don't let children give up, but you don't push them beyond their abilities. Time and time again I have seen the importance of TIME. A child who wants to quit because he can't get the letter q oriented in the right direction is (after a two weeks of just writing it on paper with his finger) begging to try it again with a pencil. That child is delighted that he can now write a great q! A child who can't remember a single sight word at age six, flies through 10 words a week at age seven. 

In a perfect world we would have no more than five children in beginning reading and math classes. Those who needed more time would get it. Those who didn't need constant repetition would move on. There would be individualized help for a child who was having a difficult time learning to read. We would have patient, intelligent teachers who would focus on the goal while having a plethora of methods and time to reach that goal. These teachers would receive the same praise and salary as the high school coach. Think of it in cost benefit terms: If everyone could read and understood basic math by the time they reached high school, tax dollars for remediation wouldn't be needed and graduation rates would go up.   In addition all school athletes would be able read.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Multi-sensory Learning

Multi-sensory teaching is often recommended for children with learning differences. All children, all people in fact, benefit from this type of teaching. When person says, "I need to see something on a chart to understand it," or "I can listen to a lecture and learn much better than by reading," or "I need to do it, not just see it," they are saying they learn better by seeing, hearing, or doing. In order to reach all her students a good teacher does more than just lecture. And, despite individual learning strengths, we all do better with a combination of methods that allow us to hear, see, and do something while learning.

Children, of course, do not always know their learning strengths. Think of how many older students aren't sure how to study for a test.  If your child is having difficulty with homework you might try various methods to see which one helps her the most.

Some ways to study may include:
  • Visual learning (sight): Charts, graphs, pictures, flash cards, reading material before a lecture, drawing a picture
  • Auditory learning (hearing): Tapes, music, audio with video, mnemonics, having the student say a word or describe a procedure's steps aloud
  • Tactile (touch - fine motor skills): Making models, feeling materials such as writing in sand or shaving cream, puffy paint flash cards, student-made flash cards
  • Kinesthetic (movement - gross motor skills): Jumping onto the correct answer, games requiring running or throwing, large in-the-air writing
How might this translate into specific activities?

Math:  Concept: division  with a remainder
  • Visual: Demonstration on board or paper - Color coding numbers for place in equation  
  • Tactile: Demonstration with items or have child demonstrate with items
  • Kinesthetic: Large problem written on sidewalk with chalk which allows a a child to jump to number's places and then write, dance to the Division Song
  • Auditory: Saying a mnemonic to remember the procedural steps. For example: Does McDonald's Serve Cheese Burgers? [D]ivide, [M]ultiply, [S]ubtract, [C]heck, [B]ring down
Spelling:  Learn words for spelling tests
  • Visual: Writing the words in different colors - have child put phonemic marks on words
  • Tactile: Writing words with a finger in sand, shaving cream, or lightly on sandpaper -write words several times, spelling words on fingers
  • Auditory: spelling the words out loud, singing the spelling of a word  
  • Kinesthetic: Writing difficult words as a large as you can on a board, closing eyes to write words on large sheets of paper
Homework involving memory or learning a new concept is easier when you think about how your child learns best.  Confucius's quote, "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand," overlooks the fact that children learn best if they hear, see and do . . . and maybe sing, dance, and color.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Summer Loss

Many of us believe our school year was based on agricultural roots, but actually the heat of the summer is the main reason we adopted our current school calendars. Today's schools usually have air conditioning, but nevertheless retain a summer vacation. While this gives time for swim club, family trips, and reading for enjoyment, many children lose academic skills during the summer.

loss of reading skills over the summer appears to be income related. Following summer break most middle class children show a slight improvement in  their reading skill while poorer students show almost a three month decrease in the same skills. Some researchers believe that this accumulated loss is the reason for the widening achievement gap between middle class and poor children as they move through the grades.

Summer reading is cited as the main reason for improvement in middle class children's reading level.  The number of books in a home is highly correlated to the amount of summer reading activity.

Income does not seem to affect the 1.8 months of math skills lost by most children during the summer. The inclusiveness of this loss is thought to be because children of all income levels do very little math during the summer.

So should we worry about summer loss of skills?  My personal belief is all children should have some relief from academics during the summer.  On the other hand a child with LDs doesn't benefit from a summer totally without academics. Although there seems to be a general belief that a student with an LD often loses ground during the summer, I could find no research specifically about summer academic loss for children with LDs. My experience as a teacher of children with dyslexia, though, taught me that most of my students had a pretty big loss of reading skills over the summer. Many of these children didn't like to read and so didn't read anything on their long break.  Children with poor math skills also appeared to forget more than a child who was good in math. 

Parents can do a few things to alleviate summer loss.
  • Get a good chapter book and read to your child.
  • Take your child to the library and let him check out any book that draws his attention.  Any book - Guinness Book of World Records, a history of a sport, how to books, picture books. Don't worry if it appears too easy or appears to have too many pictures. This is a time for your child to enjoy books at the level he wants to enjoy them.
  • If she has just learned math facts have her do five a day at least 4 days a week.  If your child knows the facts but has just completed long division or fractions get some materials for short practice.  No more that 10 minutes each day. Consistency is more important than amount of material or time.
The great thing about summer is that it gives a child time: time to ask questions, to practice, to understand.  So as your child enjoys a break from school take advantage of this time.