Category Archives: technology

Frustration in teaching virtually

As an online tutor, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Osmo, using manipulatives online, keeping students’ attention, and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles or three time zones away.

In four words:  I have been overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, I used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us.  That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.

But after a pandemic break from tutoring so I could babysit and teach grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom.  For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me.  I couldn’t have done it without him.

For me, learning to teach via Zoom has been like trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side.  I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology.  For example,

  • If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it.  With time, I learned how to solve this problem.  Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom.  It took me weeks to learn that.  But not all parents have scanners.


  • And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson.  I have learned to scan and input, but I don’t do it often enough for the process to stick  I keep a little notebook next to my computer with “how to” directions in it.


  • If I want to see what changes my student is making in her hand-written document, how can I? Her writing surface–a desk or table–is out of camera range.  I learned that if she rereads the corrected writing, I know if she has changed it.


  • I can see only the tops of some students’ heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later.  I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.  I have learned to accept this if the student remains engaged.  If not, I ask the student to sit up.  Again.  And again.


  • For some students, especially pre-K, K and first grade students, I need to use manipulatives like letter tiles or easy-to-read books.  I have found using Osmo allows the students to see letters as they appear rather than flipped.  My husband set up the Osmo, and I use a two-dozen step process to make it work.  But it does work, and Osmo has allowed me to teach a group of young students I might not otherwise teach.


  • One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep.  When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him.  But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice.  I am still working on this problem.  Maybe a whistle?


  • Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smile, and say nothing.  I know I have not made my message clear.  I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes.  I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on.  I send everything as an email to both the  parent’s and student’s email.

These are small problems.  Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology.  On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student.  My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of:  At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet.  At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons.  Duh.  (The placement might be different on your screen.)

Many of your children’s teachers are going through the same frustration with virtual technology.  They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely.  They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps.  Older teachers like me, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve.  What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.

Fifteen months teaching in this online mode has not been enough for me to master it. As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”  I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.

Add “Alphablocks” to your strategies for teaching phonics

If your beginning reader is enamored with all things technology, let me highly recommend a colorful animated series which teaches basic phonics.


Alphablocks is a step-by-step reading program created by British literacy experts and award-winning web designers.  The “stars” consist of 26 colorful letter blocks with distinctive faces who jump, twirl, sing, and dance to form words like “hen” and “tub.”

The series is divided into five levels.  Level 1 teaches young viewers to recognize sounds associated with the most commonly used letters, creating short-vowel, one-syllable words.  Level 2 introduces the rest of the alphabet.  Level 3 teaches about “letter teams” or digraphs.  Level 4 teaches blends.  Level 5 introduces long vowels formed with “Magic E.”

Segments last about four or five minutes.  The innocent letter blocks find themselves in silly situations as they hunt for other letter blocks to help them form words.

I watched with my five-year-old grandson who read aloud the words as they  formed onscreen.  Even his three-year-old brother was engaged.  At one point I said, “Now I wonder what letter that is?” as a letter skipped across the TV screen.  “L,” shouted the three-year-old.  He was right.

We watched on Netflix, but Alphablocks is also available through YouTube, and apps can be downloaded free.  A companion series on numbers is also available for preschoolers and primary grade students.

For more information, go to


Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

Did the Common Core eliminate handwriting as a skill kids need to learn? I can’t believe it!

The Common Core requires legible manuscript (printing) in kindergarten and first grade, but after that there are no standards relating to handwriting. 3rd grade student writing

In fourth grade, the Common Core requires students to be able to keyboard or type a full page at one sitting.  Learning cursive writing is not required.

However, the Common Core developers have encouraged individual states and school districts to modify the standards as appropriate for their populations. Some states have included handwriting. In California, kids need to learn printing in second grade and cursive in third and fourth grade. Massachusetts requires legible handwriting of any kind in fourth grade. Private schools, which may or may not follow the Common Core, usually include handwriting as a necessary skill.

Does your state require children to practice handwriting? You can find out by going to your state’s department of education and searching for the state-required curriculum. You may find that your state has adopted the Common Core as a whole, without modification, in which case handwriting will not be taught after first grade.

But that does not mean you can’t augment your child’s learning. Teacher supply stores sell booklets on how to write in cursive. Or you can go online to buy such materials.

There is good reason to do so. Handwriting (as opposed to writing with a keyboard)

  • Develops dexterity in fingers
  • Improves hand / eye coordination
  • Activates many parts of the brain not used when keyboarding
  • Encourages children to write longer passages, and
  • Improves letter recognition.

Another reason to learn cursive is to be able to read letters and documents of the past. I have many letters from my aunt—written in cursive. I have a letter and post cards sent home from Europe by my father during World War II—written in cursive. I have copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—written in cursive.

Like much of the Common Core, the reduction in emphasis on handwriting is controversial.

What causes dyslexia?

Dyslexia (the brain’s inability to read, write and spell with ease) has many causes, not all of which apply to every impaired reader.

In people with dyslexia, nerve cells in the brain are thought not to work well together in order to achieve reading. Or those cells might cooperate, but at slower rates than for average readers. Why?

What might cause dyslexia?

faulty genes

brain injuries

problems connecting sounds to symbols

blockage of brain pathways

using the right hemisphere for left hemisphere functions

migrating neurons

hearing problems

unskilled reading teachers

  • Genetics might play a role for some readers. Defects in a gene known as DCDC2 and its interaction with another gene, KIAA0319, have been identified as related to dyslexia, according to researchers at Yale University.
  • Physical problems in certain parts of the brain might cause dyslexia. Sections of the brain specializing in language or vision, in particular, are needed to see letters; to associate those letters with sounds, syllables and words; and to derive meaning by combining words into sentences. If one part of the brain used in reading is damaged, dyslexia could result. Injuries to parts of the brain might have occurred before birth—a stroke, for example—or they might have happened after birth—a fall, for example.
  • Problems identifying sounds within words and connecting those sounds to letters or to letter patterns is the most studied possible cause of dyslexia. Children with this problem have trouble sounding out c-a-t. When they hear words like “Tyranasaurus Rex,” they don’t hear syllables or individual letter sounds; they hear words. No problem. But when they learn to read, they must take the sounds inside words apart and attach letters to those sounds and put the letters back together again to know words. For some people, this is hard.
  • Failure (blockage?) of the pathways normally used in reading could be a cause of dyslexia. Or weakness at connecting points along the brain’s pathways could cause slow processing.
  • While most readers use the left hemisphere of the brain in a dominant way when reading, it is thought that some dyslexic readers might use the right hemisphere more dominantly, or they might use both hemispheres equally. If so, reading becomes a labor-intensive undertaking.
  • Some researchers think that when the brain is developing, neurons that should be part of one section of the brain “migrate” to another spot in the brain and develop there. When a reader tries to access those cells, they are not where they are supposed to be, hampering the reading process.
  • Young children who have hearing problems might develop a life-long problem associating sounds with symbols for those sounds, resulting in dyslexia.
  • A well trained reading teacher who can identify anomalies in a child’s struggle to read can’t undo the above problems, but she can suggest strategies to lighten or even overcome some of these problems. However, if a child’s teacher is not savvy concerning strategies in the field of reading, the child might flounder. A teacher isn’t the cause of dyslexia, but her lack of skill can make the child’s struggle to read harder.

Reading is about a 6,000-year-old activity for human beings, a new activity in the evolution of the brain. The brain is not programmed to read any more than it is programmed to sing opera. Rather, in learning to read, we humans use parts of the brain which our non-reading ancestors used for something else—seeing and speaking, for example. Those same pathways which evolution streamlined for one purpose are now being used for additional purposes relating to reading, writing and spelling.

Work with brain imaging technology is revealing to researchers the parts of the brain involved in dyslexia. Work with the genome is revealing gene interactions which might have an effect upon reading. The answer to your question—What causes dyslexia?—is the brain and the complicated way in which the brain works.

For detailed information on some of these causes, read expert Maryanne Wolf, Ph.D., author of Proust and the Squid; The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Survey shows number of kids reading for fun is decreasing

Fewer children are reading books for fun, according to just-released results of a survey sponsored by Scholastic, an American publisher of children’s books.Young girl reading a book

According to the survey of 1000 children aged 6 to 17, 31 percent said they read for fun in 2014, down from 37 percent in 2010.

Some of the other findings include:

    • Children aged 6 to 11 who were read to aloud, and who had their time online restricted, correlated with those children who read more.
    • Having time to read on their own at school correlated with more reading by children aged 12 to 17.
    • 17 percent of all children surveyed said they have time to read independently at school, with the percentage dropping as the grade of the children increased.
    • Children aged 6–11 who identified themselves as frequent readers read about 43 books per year. Infrequent readers aged 6 to 11 read about 21 books annually.
    • Among children aged 12–17, frequent readers reported reading about 40 books annually while infrequent readers said they read only about 5 books annually.
  • The study says there are three predictors of which children will become frequent readers:
      o Children who say they “really enjoy reading.”
      o Children who believe that reading for fun is important, and
      o Children who have parents who read frequently.

To read the report on the survey, go to

Are you surprised by this survey’s findings? I’m not surprised, but I am concerned. In the past week I spent a great deal of time with more than 100 teenagers. Almost all had smart phones and ear buds which they used nonstop, even during classes. Many balked at reading passages in their text book. Some said they could not find information buried within paragraphs.

As electronic equipment grows more dominant in our lives, will the ability and willingness of our children to read anything more complicated than a text message decline as well? –Mrs. K

How can I help my child navigate ebook technology? There are so many features to remember.

In 2012 the most popular interactive parts of ebooks (according to research) were voice narration, hot spots (places on the screen that respond to touch), games, sounds (music and sound effects), and text highlighting.

None of these features are present in traditional print books.

Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

What this means is that before children can “read” an ebook, they need to know how to navigate its interactive features. For some children, navigating is fun. If they have wrestled with video games, like Mario Brothers, they might find navigating an ebook a challenge or even easy.

But for children new to electronic equipment, or for children who find new situations difficult, learning to read an ebook can be frustrating. For example, ebook readers need to familiarize themselves with numerous icons, whose meaning changes depending on the ebook. Tapping a backwards circling arrow in one book might mean go back to the previous page, while in another book it might alert the narrator to read the book aloud.

What can you as a parent do to help your child navigate ebooks?Boy on floor reading an ebook on his tablet.

  • Show your child various versions of the same book—a print version, an audio version, and a digitally available one, for example. Or show several different digital stories. Point out that reading each one requires different skills. Try to name some features that are the same and some that are different.
  • Model how to navigate an ebook, talking to yourself out loud so your child can hear you think aloud. Ask your child for suggestions. Explore the technology of the book together.
  • When you or someone close to you gets a new phone or tablet or other device, explore its features with your child. Point out to your child the new features and how important it is to stay up-to-date on these changes. Imagine together what features your next device will have.
  • When the child reads an ebook and encounters a problem, help him to solve it with minimal involvement from you, so he develops a “can-do” attitude. Remind him of another situation like this which he has already encountered. Encourage him to try various approaches. Be persistent.
  • Most importantly, make your child comfortable with the idea of change.

Will watching TV help my child learn vocabulary or do better at reading?

Most studies of the effects of television viewing by young children show negative effects, but it is hard to single out effects on only vocabulary or reading readiness.

Child sitting in front of a large screen tv.

  • Kids two to five years old spend 32 hours a week—almost five hours a day—watching TV, DVD’s, DVR’s, videos, game consoles, tablets, and smart phones. Most of that time is spent watching live TV programs.
  • Toddlers 29 months old who spend two hours daily watching TV risk lower vocabulary and math skills, and by the time they go to kindergarten, have lower attention spans and are physically weaker.
  • Many homes (as many as 51%) report a TV on in the background most of the time. In such situations, children watch more TV and read less often than other kids. They are less likely to be able to read. One, two, and three-year-olds have shorter attention spans. Parents and children interact less frequently than in homes without constant TV. (the University of Michigan)
  • When the TV is on, adults speak 75 fewer words per hour compared to when the TV is off. Children speak 25 to 50% less when the TV is on. (the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute)

What can you take away from this research?

  • The more time children watch TV, the less time they devote to reading, academic work, physical play and social interaction—all important for a healthy, well-rounded childhood.
  • The more time the TV is on, the less time adults talk to children, and the less time the children talk—all detrimental to healthy, developing children and especially to vocabulary building which is so important for learning to read.

Is reading from an electronic screen just as good as reading from a paper book for my child?

Have you seen the You Tube videoAngry child thinking a book is a tablet app. in which a one-year-old child swipes the family iPad screen to make it work? Then she does the same to a magazine but it doesn’t “work.” She pinches the magazine and swipes back and forth across the picture but the image on the page does not change. In frustration she presses hard with her index finger, still with no results, and then just to be sure, she presses her finger against her leg to see if her finger is working.

Even at one-year-old, children are using electronic devices to learn. It’s a given. Does it help? Does it harm? Most of the research comparing electronic reading with old-fashioned book reading uses older children or college students as subjects, so it is difficult to apply the results precisely to younger children. Even so, here is what some of the research shows.

  • A book has a physical presence that an electronic device does not. The reader knows intuitively how big the book is, how hefty the book is, and how many pages have been turned or still need to be turned. A little child can figure this out quickly even before he can talk.
  • An ebook’s physical size, by contrast, is difficult to gauge. Is it 24 pages or 48 pages long? All ebooks books “weigh” the same. If you are at location 304-6 out of 4020, what does that mean? A bar across the bottom helps to show that 7% of the book has been read, but since you can’t “see” the turned pages, what does 7% mean? Most books for little children are not more than a couple dozen pages, but can children tell that? Do they have any sense that they are halfway done?
  • Old-fashioned books allow an intuitive navigation of the text. You read an idea on page 33 that reminds you of something you read a few pages earlier, on the top of a left-handed page.Indian girl on the floor reading a book. You can easily go back to just the left handed pages and reread the tops while holding your finger or a bookmark in the place where you left off. If a child suddenly notices a tiny frog on page ten, he can go back quickly to find out if there is a frog several pages back by flipping pages.
  • Ebooks also allow you to go back, but you need to check every page since there are no left and right-handed pages. Ebooks don’t allow for flipping back without skipping pages, or for scanning ahead. And if you forget how to go to the beginning of the book, or to chapter 2, you need to stop and go to the electronic device’s directions. Little children can’t do that. Ebooks do not allow for easy highlighting or jotting down notes, though this is not important for young children.
  • Research shows that reading from old-fashioned books leads to more serious and focused reading and more retention. Because of books’ easy navigability, older students approach handheld books seriously, and they absorb more.Boy on floor reading an ebook on his tablet.
  • Reading ebooks, on the other hand, is a more casual experience. Kids browse, scan through a document, look up keywords and tap a hyperlink before finishing a document. They often read information once without rereading it. Do little kids see this distinction between old-fashioned books and ebooks? It’s hard to say without more research.
  • Books with tiny type faces or books read in inappropriate lighting can strain eyesight and even lead to wearing glasses in young children.
  • Onscreen books’ typefaces can be increased in size, and most ebooks come with an internal light to create sharp contrast for easy reading—both real advantages. But the screens can also cause glare leading to headaches and blurred vision. Time in front of a screen needs to be monitored.

Nooks, iPads, smart phones, notepads and other electronic devices have been around for only a few years, so much more research will be done on them, including research on young children. Also, manufacturers are improving the technology to meet the shortcomings of past versions, so a newer version might be more kid-friendly than an older version. My Kindle purchased just four years ago seems like a reading machine compared to the latest Kindle Fire which downloads apps, plays games, lights up internally—and allows me to read books.

Unlike us, little children today are growing up using old-fashioned paper books and electronic screens at the same time, much like a bilingual child uses two languages interchangeably. An engaging storybook with a good story and excellent illustrations might be just as attractive as an online book if read and shared enthusiastically by Mom.

We shouldn’t fear the new technology but rather search out what it can do better than the old-fashioned book. Can it read a story aloud to a child? Can it allow the child to match rhymes with a swipe of his finger? Can it allow the child to email his voice reading a book to Grandma?

So should you encourage your child to read from a screen? Sometimes, especially if you are guiding him. Are onscreen materials just as good as old-fashioned books? Some are, some are not. Each offers real advantages.  –Mrs. K

What is Accelerated Reader? Is it appropriate for my kindergartener?

Accelerated Reader (called A.R. by most students) is a computer software program that can be purchased by school districts.  It is designed to encourage reading by children.  A child selects a book from more than 25,000 titles (fiction and nonfiction), reads it, and then takes a quiz on the contents.  The books in the database are classified according to their reading level.  When a child masters a certain number of books at one level, she is encouraged to choose books at the next level.

Because each child is reading at his or her own level, children are competing with themselves, trying to better their previous reading levels.  One student might be reading Junie B. Jones books while another student in the same grade might be reading Harry Potter books.  Teachers usually set individual goals for students based on the number of books read, their quality and their difficulty level.  Often school time is used for quiet reading of A.R. books and students are assigned A.R. reading for homework.Two students taking reading tests on portable NEO computers.

When a student begins an A.R. program, he is assessed to find his reading level.  He is offered hundreds of books to read in this range.  When he finishes reading a book, he takes a multiple choice test (usually ten questions) on that book online using a classroom computer, a media center computer, a NEO 2, a tablet, Apple apps, or other electronic equipment.  Immediately the student receives his score which is converted into points using this formula:  (10 + reading level) x (words in book ÷ 100,000).

How do students know the reading level of a book?  Some libraries have three-ring binders listing A.R. books and their reading levels.  In my neighborhood school, books have colored dots attached to their spines, and nearby, a prominent chart lists the colors and reading level they signify.  Students look for books with their color on the spine.  But other media centers have other ways of differentiating reading levels.

In my neighborhood school, students accumulate points to “buy” a cap and later buttons to attach to the cap.  The more buttons, the more reading the child is doing and the more success the child is having.  Hats are usually not allowed in the school, but students who earn A.R. hats can wear those hats and do so proudly.  Other schools reward students in other ways.

Teachers receive feedback from the program, allowing them to intervene in a child’s learning if he is not making progress.

Students in my neighborhood school each have a Neo 2 assigned to them.  This is a portable electronic device that they can keep in their desks and use to take A.R. tests.  Additionally, they can use the device for other software programs, such as computing math facts.  The Neos allow a student to take an A.R. test at almost any time of the day without forming a queue at the classroom computer.  Students who finish assignments early are often allowed to work on their Neos.

Is the A.R. program appropriate for a kindergartener?  The child must be able to read a bit in order to take the quizzes.  And if she does poorly on a quiz and wants to take it again, she can’t.  She must move on to another book.  But if your child can read, it’s a way to encourage more reading and to prove to you and her that she is understanding what she reads.

–Mrs. K

Accelerated Reader was a popular program in the school where I taught.  There were competitions each month and each quarter to see who had earned the most points.  A school winner was announced at the Honors Assembly.  High scores were posted, and occasional ice cream parties recognized achievement.

Many teachers and parents liked the program because it got children reading.  A child who detested “reading for fun” would read an A.R. book.  The competitive nature of the program encouraged some kids to read more and more.  Teachers required a certain number of A.R. points to be earned as homework.  Because the A.R. books were good, teachers and students assumed the child was reading quality books.  I noticed kids talking about books and recommending books to each other.  They remembered the name of the author and then read his entire collection.

One criticism of the program is that the test questions are based on the ability to remember trite facts, not to comprehend the information.  For example a typical question might be “What was the name of Tom’s cat?”  A student who did not have the skill to remember details would do poorly, even though he may have truly understood the symbolism and irony of the story.  Another criticism is that a student could choose easy books, not challenging books.  Fifth graders were reading “picture books” to earn 2 points, rather than chapter books worth 12 points.

Even so, I think A.R. is a good program.  My children did not read for pleasure.  I forced them to read 30 minutes a day.  Had there been an Accelerated Reader program in their school, I know they would have been motivated to earn points.  Reading a picture book is better than reading no book.  Reading twenty picture books and earning perfect scores on the tests might encourage students to try reading something a bit more challenging.

Accelerated Reader is not a free program.  Each test must be purchased by the school district.  It requires a lot of work to set up, but once it is implemented, it is great.  More books/tests can be added every year.

If your child does not have A.R. in his school, talk to the media specialist or the principal.

–Mrs. A