Children’s ability to write well is heavily dependent on prior knowledge of vocabulary. If you don’t know the right or correct word you can’t use it in your writing. A good place to start supporting your child to learn a wider vocabulary is by looking at topics or themes being taught at school.
Schools frequently send home information about themes and topics to be taught over the term. Teachers will spend time teaching specific vocabulary but if your child is struggling with writing, introducing these words at home can give your child that extra opportunity to consolidate their learning. As an example, a commonly studied topic at primary school is recycling. Vocabulary associated with recycling are words like, rubbish, compacting, sorting, ecological, ecology, waste, habitat and so on. Introduce these words into your conversations (dinner time, driving in the car are good times) talk about their meanings and how you might use them in a sentence. You can also talk about their opposites and other words which might mean the same thing. Looking for books, fiction and non fiction about these topics and including them in the before bed reading routine is another way of introducing subject specific vocabulary. For upper primary and high school students a useful resource is www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist which is a series of lists of the most commonly used words in academic writing.
As always, ensure that discussions are upbeat and short, unless your child becomes deeply interested in the topic in which case follow their lead. If you come across a word you the parent don’t know use this as a great opportunity to model a growth mindset and enlist your child to help you to engage with the challenge. Work together to figure out what this word means and enjoy the satisfaction of learning something new.
Last week I talked about taking the pressure off your child if they are taking a little longer to acquire automaticity with reading, writing and arithmetic. This week I’d like to share some strategies that I’ve used when teaching children who are struggling to get to automaticity in some aspects of their learning. Many of the ideas are very simple and you may have tried them previously. The key is to select an approach, give it a go, if your child enjoys it and you find it doable then keep going with it for a while. Once you and your child have had enough of it, select another approach.
One of the most debunked but continually perpetuated myths about learning is that people have a learning style. I continue to run into people who talk about a child’s learning style. The research in this area is very consistent in its findings that people do not have a learning style which dominates compared to any other learning style. For more information and links to research check out this link from Yale University Centre for Teaching and Learning, https://ctl.yale.edu/LearningStylesMyth
What is true is that when we learn we need to be presented materials in a range of different ways so that it makes sense to us. We can’t predict accurately which way is going to work for everyone at a specific time, given their developmental and ability levels. Therefore, it is ideal to present information in a variety of ways. Anyone trying to learn something new should be given the opportunity to engage with this learning in different ways. So, pick something that appeals to you and your child and give it a go.
The kinds of things that are often best learned using the following strategies tend to be things like sound to letter correlation, or the understanding that a symbol such as A can sound like a as in apple or a as in paste, simple recognition of the name of a symbol such as the alphabet or numbers or symbols for mathematical operations such as + and - or basic maths facts.
Tips to ensure success and a fun (pain free) session:
Tip 1 limit the number of items to be learned. For example, if you are learning spelling words just start with 3 words. Once your child is confident with these then add in one or two new words, keeping the known words. This approach means that your child gets to quickly experience success and a sense of mastery from which they can build new learning.
Tip 2 choose a ‘good’ time. I know it’s hard to think about what a good time might be. My first option would be to ask your child when they would like to do this work. Driving in the car or walking somewhere together or while you are waiting for another activity to begin are all options.
Tip 3 be regular about sessions. Every day is ideal.
Tip 4 keep the sessions short and upbeat. A couple of minutes up to about 5 minutes is probably enough if the sessions happen daily.
Resources that might be helpful:
Flash cards, cards with individual pieces of information on them. This could be an alphabet letter or a number or a word. Flash cards can easily be created at home using sturdy card and a marker pen or you can purchase them.
Magnets on the fridge (or another magnet suitable surface). These can be purchased from two-dollar shops or the Warehouse and are usually in individual letter or number form.
Word or number rings, small numbers of words, letters or numbers threaded onto a small metal ring.
This kind of learning can also be done without any resources at all, through using body movements, to help with learning.
Smart chutes, https://www.smartkids.co.nz/collections/smart-chute. These are somewhat pricey so may not be ideal for everyone. A range of cards can be purchased ready made with high frequency words, basic facts, colours etc. I have also made my own cards which work just fine.
Play dough or other modelling clay
Crayons, paints, pens of various colours and thicknesses, paper
Let’s start with the no resource ideas. To keep things simple, I’ll just refer to one kind of learning, but most strategies could be used for either numeracy or literacy activities.
No resources required:
Ask your child to write out their spelling words, on the carpet or the wall, back of the car seat in front of them (any textured surface) using their finger. Sounding the words out at the same time.
Ask your child to spell out their words in the air using their finger. This can be done in the car while you are travelling to and from school or activities. If this approach seems to be working you could add in a tray of sand, salt, flour or any other textured material you can think of and ask your child to spell out their words in this material while saying the words aloud.
Once it turns dark you can use a flashlight to spell the words out on a wall or in the air.
When the weather is nice, and you can go outside, use a paint brush and a bowl of water to paint the words on concrete.
Minimal resources required:
Competition can sometimes keep children engaged in this kind of learning. If your child is learning to recognise high frequency words (check with your child’s school for a list of high frequency words) or basic maths facts, you can set up a table and time your child to see how quickly they can read their words or complete their basic maths facts. Children can compete against their own times or against a parent. This should be done with care to ensure that the child is experiencing success. I’d only try this once the child knows the information but perhaps needs to keep revisiting it so that they maintain their fluency. For example, if a child is learning basic facts and they know their doubles up to 10 (two times table) I’d perhaps start using the competition to maintain knowledge of doubles and increase fluency. I’d then begin teaching the three times table by having a ring of three problems that we went through daily adding one more problem once the child is competent with the first three.
Put the cards into a bag, take a word/problem/letter out and say it as quickly as possible.
Hide the cards around the house to create a treasure hunt. As each card is found read it out/solve the problem.
Hide the cards outside (on a fine day) to create a treasure hunt. As each card is found read it out/solve the problem.
Lay the cards out on the floor and encourage your child to jump from card to card reading it out/solving the problem.
Use the cards to create words. Often this will involve cards with alphabet letters on them create a selection of vowel letters (aeiou) and consonants so that children can create consonant vowel consonant pattern words. These are typically, cat, sat, mat and so on.
Lay the cards out on the floor and throw a bean bag or other on top of a card. Read the card aloud/solve the problem.
As your child reads the word on the card a loud ask them to trace their finger over the letters.
Lay the flash cards out on a flat surface with the words facing down. Ask your child to turn them over one at a time reading the words as they turn them over.
Magnetic letters or numbers:
Point to letters and ask your child to name them or produce their sound - recognising that some have more than one sound.
Ask your child to group them into words
Ask your child to create words and then exchange letters to create a new word. For example, ask your child to create sat then take the s away and ask them to make a new word such as cat.
Playdough or other modelling clay:
Ask your child to make letters using the dough or clay.
Join the letters together to make words.
Ask your child to create shapes to illustrate what they are learning
Flatten the dough and use a satay stick or toothpick to inscribe the dough with letters or words.
Select a few items to be learned, write them on sturdy card and attach to a split ring.
Use in a similar way to flash cards adding items to the ring as your child reaches competency with the first ones.
Word rings can be very useful when teaching basic facts, add enough cards to create one basic fact then add more so that the child can create more. For example, if you create a ring with a 1 card a 2 card and a 3 card you can ask your child what is 1+2 or what is 2+1 or what is 1+3 or 3+2.
Smart chutes are tubes with a lot at the top and bottom the child posts a card into the top slot and inside the chute the card is flipped and comes out the bottom slot upside down. The cards are marked on both sides. For example, a child posts a card showing 3+2 in the top and then it comes out the bottom showing 5. There is enough of a delay for the child to say the correct answer.
Crayons, paints, pens with a variety of colours and widths:
These provide the opportunity for children to be creative and choose different types of medium to write their words.
I hope you can find one or two ideas from this list to help you to support your child to become fluent in their knowledge of spelling words, letter knowledge, high frequency words, maths problems or symbols. If you have some ideas, I haven’t mentioned please share them in the comments section.
As adults most of us have had the experience of doing something without really thinking about it. We drive a car, read, talk and complete simple daily tasks like brushing our teeth without having to think through each step. If asked we’d find it quite difficult to think through all the separate component parts of many tasks to explain step by step exactly what we are doing. One step beyond knowing something is becoming fluent in applying that knowledge. Again, if we think about daily tasks there are some that although we know how to do them it might take us a bit longer to get them done. You may know how to drive a car and you are fluent when driving from home to work, if you are asked to drive to a new destination or undertake an unfamiliar manoeuvre, such as backing a trailer you might take a bit longer. You may need to think ahead a bit more about how you are going to perform the task. During the task you may have to think step by step what you are doing.
Children learn to read, write and do arithmetic moving through these stages of being complete novices needing to learn every component of a skill step by step to knowing the skill to becoming fluent in applying skills. What’s useful about a skill becoming automatic is that it leaves our brains free to do something more than just apply the skill in the same way. When children become fluent readers, able to automatically read text, they then begin to learn from what they are reading. When they can write automatically they can begin to create interesting and useful text. When they become automatic in their understanding of number and arithmetic they can start to learn about how to apply this knowledge to develop further understanding of the world using mathematical concepts to help them.
Sometimes children get stuck or take a bit longer to acquire the required level of automaticity compared to their peers. This can be a huge pressure for parents and students. For some thinking about the idea of how this might be playing out in our modern education have a look at this Ted talk from Sir Ken Robinson in which he discusses some of the challenges facing modern education systems. The talk is about 11 minutes long and is very entertaining. It’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it. It was posted in 2010 and in my opinion much of what is happening in education in New Zealand is already reflective of a different way of thinking.
As Sir Ken points out children are going through the school system in batches based on their ages. As any psychologist, parent or educator knows children all develop skills at different ages and stages. We have broad guidelines which help us to understand when we might look for certain skills to develop but the bands in which children develop these skills are wide. If you have a look at the New Zealand Curriculum you will see that children are expected to develop skills across several years in each curriculum level. The skills children are developing in level one of the curriculum level start to be developed in year one, continue through year 2 and year three and tail off in the beginning of year 4.
My first key message to you and your child is that if they are not developing the skills at the same time as their peers they might just need to take a little more time. Developmentally they may not be ready to acquire the skills. Your child is special and unique and as adults we need to remind them and ourselves of this. Take the pressure off the situation by acknowledging that everyone learns at a different pace. I’m not suggesting abandoning the learning process but instead removing the expectation that all children are the same should be expected to go through the same teaching and learning process and come out with the same result. Every child will need an individual approach. Sometimes this is very subtle and sometimes a bit more explicit. Next week I have some suggestions for helping to keep the learning process fun when it ends up taking a bit longer.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.