Category Archives: learning

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.

How to make reading anything easier

boy reading on the floorBefore you read:

  • Read the title and look at the photos, drawings, charts, and maps. Try to figure out what they mean without reading  the text.
  • Read the subheadings. Ask yourself, “What is this about?”  Try to predict the topic you will be reading about.
  • Read vocabulary words out loud, find out how to pronounce them (ask an adult) and ask or look up what they mean.  If there are vocabulary words in the margins, or if words are highlighted in the text, they are there because they are important and because you might not know them.

girl with ipad in bed

While you read:

  • Figure out the main idea. Usually in nonfiction it is named at the end of the first paragraph.  If you own the book, underline the main idea.  If not, start a mind web with the main idea in the middle.
  • Figure out what details are important. Add those to your mind web.  It’s easier to study a mind web than it is to study a whole lot of paragraphs.
  • Highlight or write down every word you don’t understand.
    • Look for clues in the nearby words.
    • Ask an adult to help you.
    • Or look up the words in a dictionaryWrite down what they mean, and read over the words and meanings until you know them.
  • If something is difficult or confusing, ask an adult to explain it.
  • Define important words on your mind web.
  • Summarize each paragraph into one or two sentences to be sure you understand it.  If you can write down what it means, you understand.

Talk to babies, even before they are born

Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week.  As much as possible, I held him.  And when he was awake, I talked to him.

EPSON MFP image

I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was.  I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.

His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little.  I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch?  Milk or milk?  Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead?  How’s your diaper?”  He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.

Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero.  Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.

We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth.  Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old.  But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.

How can we help new babies to develop language skills?

EPSON MFP image

  • Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken.  This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself.  Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
  • Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers.  Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech.  We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
  • Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results.  Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.

Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child?  Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?

In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life.  That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies.  If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish.  It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.

*Hart, B and Risley, T.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children.  Baltimore:  Paul Brookes.

Teaching “and” and “but”

Learning new vocabulary words in elementary school is important for reading comprehension.  But vocabulary instruction needs to include a deeper understanding of words students use all the time, words they haven’t paid much attention to, such as the conjunctions “and” and “but.”

boy reading

Children know what “and” and “but” mean.  But do they realize they use “and” to connect two words or ideas which are both positive or both negative?  And do they realize they use “but” to join one word or idea they favor and another word or idea they don’t favor?

Helping students learn to read means pointing out the relationships which conjunctions create.  Here’s how.

  • Start with the word “and.” Write a sentence such as “I like ice cream and cookies.”  Point out to the student that you used “and” to join two ideas you feel the same way about.  Ask her if there are any other ways she could say “I like ice cream and cookies” without using “and.”  If she is stumped, suggest, “I like ice cream.  Additionally, I like cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream as well as cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream.  Also, I like cookies.”  Point out that “and,” “additionally,” “as well as” and “also” all are used to connect ideas which we feel the same way about, either positively or negatively.

Other words which mean the same as “and” include consequently, because,  moreover, and furthermore.  A semicolon between two sentences usually indicates that the idea in the first sentence continues in the second sentence.

  • Now write a sentence such as “I like ice cream but not anchovies.”    Ask her if there is any other way to say that idea.  She might say, “I like ice cream.  However, I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream although I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream even though I don’t like anchovies.”  Point out that “but,” “however,” “although” and “even though” all are used to connect ideas we don’t feel the same way about.  One idea we like and one idea we don’t like.  One idea usually uses a form of “not” or a prefix that means “not” such as un, im, ir, or dis.

Words which mean the same as “but” show contrast.  Some other words are though, despite and yet.

  • To reinforce the difference between “and” and “but” and their synonyms, suggest two ideas, such as summer and winter. Ask the student to say or write a sentence saying how they feel about those two times of year.  Now ask the student to change the word or words they used to connect summer and winter to a word or phrase which means the same thing.  Now do it again to another phrase or word which means the same thing.  Try another relationship, such as snakes and dogs.  Again, ask for synonyms for the connecting words.

Being aware how “and” and “but” and their synonyms create different relationships between ideas is important in reading.  If a child is reading and comes to the word “however,” she knows the thought has just changed to an opposite kind of thought.  If she comes to the word “moreover,” she knows more of the same kind of thought is coming.

Another way of teaching these ideas is to suggest that “and” is something like a plus sign, but “but” is something like a subtraction sign.  Or “and” is something like walking straight ahead while “but” is something like taking a U-turn.

Reading tips from Scholastic

Scholastic, the publisher of so many children’s books, offers seven tips to increase reading opportunities for children on its website, http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/more-reading-resources/reading-tips-parents.  I have paraphrased them below.

  • Label everything in your home with masking tape or Post-it notes.  This is a great way for young children to learn vocabulary, including long words such as refrigerator and calculator.
  • Find a book that is “just right” for your child.  Have the child read the front cover, the back cover, and the first page of a book.  If the child can read all the words, the book might be okay or it might be too easy.  If the child can’t read five of the words, the book is probably too hard.
  • Teach the child how to read a street map of your neighborhood.  Reading diagrams, maps and graphs is an important skill in Common Core curriculum.  Have the child translate the diagram into word directions.  “Go down the front steps.  Turn left.  Walk to the end of the street.  Turn left onto Delaware Avenue and keep walking until you get to Lincoln Park.  Be careful crossing the street.”
  • Read greeting cards together.  Go to the grocery store or drug store’s birthday card section.  Read the cards together and vote which one is best.
  • Take pictures during an outing or vacation.  Later, ask the child to create captions for each photo and gather them into a photo album.  Or make a booklet of photos and words.
  • Read the Sunday comics with your child.  Cut out good ones to hang on the refrigerator.  Reread them.  [Inference can be learned from this activity, looking at facial expressions where words are not used.]
  • Help your child write a letter to his favorite author.  Most authors have a website which will accept emails.  Or you can find a mailing address on the publisher’s website.

What kinds of questions help students learn?

Asking the right kinds of questions can help students learn, according to Robert J. Marzano*, an expert in the field.  He divides questions into four kinds, those that elicit

Students shouting I Know to teacher

  • details (narrow information or facts),
  • characteristics (general information about the category into which the details fit),
  • elaborations (enhanced details about the information within a category, including the reasons why certain things happen) and
  • evidence (sources that bolster or debunk the reasoning made by the student when elaborating, or reconsideration by the student of his own thinking and logic ).

Let’s apply his ideas to some reading that children do.

For third graders reading Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great,

  • Details: What are some things Sheila is afraid of?  Where does Sheila live most of the time?  Where does she go on vacation?
  • Characteristics: Is Sheila the Great a book of fiction or nonfiction?  What kind of fiction?  Can you name some other books that fit into this category?
  • Elaborations:  Why is Sheila afraid to learn to swim?  Why are other kids afraid to swim?  Are they the same reasons why some kids are afraid to ride bikes or to touch spiders?
  • Evidence: Where could you find information about why kids are afraid to swim?  If you use the internet, what key words would you use to find out?  If you talked to a person, what person would be an expert?  a non-expert?

For preschoolers being read William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,

  • Details: What kind of animal is Sylvester?  Where does Sylvester find the magic pebble?  What kind of animal scares Sylvester?
  • Characteristics: Are there really such things as magic pebbles?  What do we call stories that are make-believe?  Can you think of another make-believe story?  Why do children like make-believe stories?
  • Elaborations: Why is Sylvester sad after no one can see him?  Why are his parents sad?  Would I be sad if you were lost like Sylvester?
  • Evidence: If you became lost, who could you go to so I could find you?  What would be some information about me that you could tell the police?

Each level of questions becomes harder to answer, so if you use this questioning strategy, begin with details questions and work your way to harder questions. The first two levels, details and characteristics, can be asked of a group, but the other two levels require more thought and might better be considered through discussion.  Evidence-based questions might require time to answer, so might be given as homework, or be talked over again when the child has had time to consider his response.

To make this line of questioning easy on you, the parent or teacher, think details first, then genre and characteristics of that genre, then questions beginning with “why,” and last sources for more information.

*Marzano heads Marzano Research Laboratory and is author of books on teaching.  He wrote about this questioning technique in the February 2013 issue of Educational Leadership.  For examples of his questioning technique, go to   http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el201302_marzano.pdf.