Category Archives: learning

How to get children to focus for a reading lesson

Is your child having trouble focusing during his or her reading lesson?  Here are some tips.

Establish a routine for the lessons, so the child knows what to expect. Be consistent with time and place.  Try working on the hardest thing first, such as reading lists of phonics words.  Try ending with a game—something fun but related to the work you are doing.  The younger the child, the more important it is to segment lessons into predictable parts.  If possible, identify all parts of the lesson before you begin so the child has an overview of what he will be working on.

If the child is distracted by sounds, while you work run a low, constant sound in the background—perhaps one of those baby sound machines of a heartbeat or of ocean waves.  Or run the dishwasher or a hair dryer.

If the child is distracted by sights, create a bland space to work in—soft colors, no patterned draperies, no posters. If there is a window, close the blinds or pull the shades to limit distractions.  Keep the surface of the child’s desk or table clear.

Consider whether the child will have trouble putting down electronic equipment. If so, save that part of the lesson to the end.Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Model the behavior you want from your child. If he is to read a paragraph, then you read a paragraph.  If he is to read a column of words, you read a column of words.

Before your lesson, encourage the child to have physical exercise—to run outside, to take a walk with you, or to bicycle, for example. The exercise will bring oxygen to the child’s brain and it will get rid of the “willies.”

Allow the child time to consider an answer to a question. If she seems to be having trouble, ask her to think out loud.  Perhaps give her hints, but let her struggle a bit to find the answer.

Allow the child to have a say in the “rules” of your lessons. If he wants a five minute break every ten minutes, allow it so long as he pays attention during the lesson.  If he wants to stand on the chair or  twist like a pretzel while he is reading, allow it so long as he is doing the work.  Kids with sensory integration issues need this leeway to hang in there.  Compromise so that you can achieve what you need to during each lesson and so that he feels like he is being heard and respected.

Before one part of the lesson ends, tell the child what will happen next. Let the child mentally prepare for what comes next.  Let the only surprises be good surprises.

Let the child wear comfortable clothes and work on a comfortable chair.  Put a box or a pile of books in front of the chair so the child has a place to rest her feet.

When you talk to the child, wait until she is looking at you, until you have her complete attention. Use small, easy to follow sentences.  Put one idea in each sentence.  If directions are three steps, say one step, allow the student to follow it, and then say the second step.  For some children too much incoming information is distracting.

Try to find game-like ways to teach. Children will be more cooperative if they think they are playing a game.

When and how to teach blends

Blends are two adjacent consonants in a word which maintain the sound each has when pronounced separately.  For example the “s” and “l” in “sled” are blends, but the “t” and “h” in “that” are not blends because the usual sounds of those letters are not maintained when they are used together.

The right time to teach blends is once students master CVC words (words formed by a consonant, vowel, and consonant, such as “cat”).   Make sure students can pronounce CVC words made with every vowel before moving on.

Teach beginning-of-word blends first.   End-of-word blends are much harder for students to learn.

The letter “s” is a good letter to start with since it forms more beginning-of-word blends than any other letter.  Use real CVC words which become real CCVC words when the “s” is added, such as nap/snap, led/sled, kid/skid, top/stop and lug/slug.  Little children are concrete learners, so being able to picture the words helps with the learning.

You can write the CVC word and then put an “s” in front of it.  Or you can use letter tiles, gradually moving the “s” closer and closer to the CVC word, saying the “s” sound and the CVC word separately at first and then more quickly until the child can hear the blend happen.

The child might consider the process a game if you slide the “s” letter tile gradually while you say the “s” sound and the CVC word.  Usually the child will shout out the blended word when he figures it out.  At first this will be after you say the blended word.  But as a child learns the skill of blending, he will shout out the word before you get close to saying the blended letters.  The process needs to be repeated with many consonants and many CVC words.

Some consonant blends are easier to hear than others.  CVC words that begin with “l” and “r” are easy to hear.  

Don’t be concerned if the child adds the blended letter to the end of the word, such as saying “leds” instead of “sled.”  Remind the child that the “s” is going at the beginning of the word, and repeat the process.  This is a common occurrence and will gradually lessen as the child practices blends.

Try to teach every letter that can be blended.  These include “b,” “c” “d,” “f,” “g,” “p,” “s,” and “t.”

Don’t teach three-letter blends at  this point.  They are much harder to hear than two-letter blends.  Wait until the child is farther along in learning to read.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

How to teach –ight, -ought, -ind, -ild and word families that don’t follow rules

Words ending with –ight don’t follow the rules of phonetics.  The “g” and “h” are silent, and there is no silent “e” after the “t” to make the vowel “i” long.

Some word families, such as –ought, -ind, -ild, and -ight need to be taught as exceptions to phonics rules.  Essentially, they are a group of sight words which follow the same spelling rule, but they are not pronounced the way they look.

It’s probably better to delay teaching words like these until students learn the basic rules of phonics.  Exceptions to rules are confusing.  Better to get the rules understood before introducing exceptions.

That said, how do you teach such exceptions?

  • Teach one exception family of words at a time, giving several days for the student to get used to that family.
  • Post a list of the family of exception words so students can see them on and off many times a day.
  • Ask the children to read short paragraphs containing such words.
  • Ask the children to compose a silly verse using a familiar song for rhythm. For example, to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” students could write, “My brother Dwight did pick a fight, EE I EE I Oh.  He picked a fight with a mighty knight, EE I EE I Oh.”  The sillier the better.  Write down the song, show the words to the students, and sing it daily to reinforce the family pronunciation and spelling.
  • Play games using the exception word families. Students could write the 15 –ight words plus 10 –ite words on a blank BINGO board. You could call off a definition of each word which students would need to identify on their boards.
  • Have a spelling bee using the words.
  • Students could write a paragraph using as many of the words as they can. This could be a group project the first time and later an individual project.

Students should be reminded about words with the same sound as the exception but which follow the rules of phonics.   Students need to remember which words go with which rule.

English has many words which don’t follow the rules, but it helps when there are a whole group of them which follow their own strange rule.  They can be taught in groups rather than singly.

Colleges offer remedial reading and writing courses, but too late for most students

Many community colleges and four-year colleges in the US offer remedial reading and writing classes to incoming freshmen to raise lagging students to the base level expected for beginning freshmen.  These remedial courses offer no credit, so by the end of freshman year, students who pass these classes will not have accumulated the 30 or so credit hours expected for the first year of college education.  These students’ chances of graduating in two years from community colleges and four years from traditional colleges and universities are almost impossible.  And this means that many poor readers and writers drop out and never earn a college degree.

Colleges and universities are rethinking their remedial English courses for many reasons.

  • These remedial courses, in both English and math, cost about $7 billion each year.

 

  • Few freshmen who require remedial courses ever earn a degree.

 

  • 96% of two- and four-year colleges and universities enroll students in remedial courses.

 

  • In one state, California, more than 70% of community college students qualify for remedial English courses, and of those, only 60% pass the remedial courses and start credit courses, according to a 2016 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Of those 60% who do pass, most never finish a college level English course with a C grade or better.  California is pretty typical of the rest of the country.

 

  • Starting in the fall of 2018, all such remedial courses will be eliminated at California State University, the largest public university system in the US. The stated purpose is to enable more students to graduate in four years.

 

What does this mean if you are teaching a young child to read?

Reading and writing are two of the most make-it or break-it life skills.  If a little kid is having trouble, now is the time to intervene.  The longer a student flounders, the more he falls behind and the less likely he is to catch up, even with help.  By the time a student reaches college, high school, or even middle school, it’s usually too late.  The time to learn to read and write is when a child is four, five, six and seven years old.

If you want your children to succeed, do whatever is necessary to ensure that they can read by the time they start third grade.

Can listening to music help kids to focus?

Yes, it can if it is the right kind of music.

For work requiring focus and concentration, children should listen to instrumental music with no voices or lyrics.  Such music works even better than ambient noise, such as a ceiling fan or hair dryer in the background.

If listeners become accustomed to hearing the same kind of music when learning, they respond repeatedly in the same way, much like Pavolov’s dogs in his famous experiments.  Children learn to associate a particular stimulus—the instrumental music—to a particular behavior—focused attention.

On the other hand, for work requiring little thought but a great deal of energy, children should listen to music with a quick beat and energizing lyrics.

Why does music help?  Listening to music releases a chemical called dopamine which turns on different parts of the brain known to be important for learning.

 

Kids who retain primitive reflexes can have reading, writing problems

Babies are born with primitive reflexes—automatic physical responses that increase their chances of being born properly and of surviving infancy.  These same primitive reflexes, if they persist beyond the first few months of life, can indicate poor physical functioning in the toddler, and reading and handwriting problems for the young child.

Some common primitive reflexes include:

Moro Reflex (or startle reflex):  This reflex has three parts.  First, the baby rapidly extends his arms.  Then, just as rapidly, he pulls his arms close to his trunk.  Lastly, he cries.  When a baby feels he is falling or losing his balance, he displays this reflex.  It is the baby’s way of showing fear.  The Moro reflex shows for the first four months of life and then subsides.  If it persists beyond four or five months, the child may show sensory processing problems, anxiety, balance and coordination difficulties, poor muscle tone, motion sickness and poor impulse control.

ATNR:  The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex shows when a new baby moves her head from one side to another.  If her head turns to one side, her arm and leg on that side extend into a straight position while her arm and leg on the opposite side bend.  The ATNR reflex is sometimes called the fencing reflex because the baby takes the same pose as a fencer.  This reflex develops before birth and helps the baby navigate through the birth canal.  Usually it disappears by six months, but if it continues, it could show as several problems.

  • Handwriting can be difficult because each time the child turns her head, the hand on that side will want to straighten and the grip on the pencil will loosen. Children compensate by holding their pencils tightly, causing stress in the hand.  They focus on the physical process of holding a pencil rather than on the ideas they are writing.  The handwriting might slope every which way.
  • Reading can be difficult because of eye tracking problems. Instead of moving smoothly across a page of text, the eyes jump.  The child might lose her place and lose comprehension.
  • Mixed laterality can show as a child not developing a dominant hand for writing, holding utensils and catching a ball, and not developing a dominant foot for kicking, walking and running. The brain is more efficient if one side dominates.  Otherwise both sides compete for dominance.  Poor coordination can result.

STNR:  The symmetrical tonic neck reflex shows between six and eight months of age.  When a child is on his tummy, this reflex allows the child to straighten his arms and bend his legs in order to crawl.  This reflex is needed for crawling and for developing hand-eye coordination.  As the child grows, the STNR reflex allows the child to read without losing his place and to follow his hand with his eyes while writing.

TLR:  The tonic labyrinthine reflex causes the baby’s arms and legs to extend when the baby’s head turns up, and causes the arms and legs to fold when the head bends down.  This reflex helps a baby to crawl.  Children with poor posture, or who walk on their toes, or who have trouble playing with a ball may have this reflex persisting long after four months of age.  If it persists it can also interfere with speaking because the tongue wants to extend.

Spinal Galant Reflex:  When an infant’s skin is stroked on the side of her back, she will tend to move toward the stroked side.  This helps during birth but usually disappears by nine months.  If not, problems could include an inability to sit still; a dislike of tight clothing, especially around the waist; bed wetting; and poor short term memory, making reading comprehension difficult.