Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Do not make excuses!

This is very important!

Whatever your expectations from your child- they deliver. If you make excuses for them- He is lazy, or She is bored, or He is learning disabled- you give them a reason you yourself accept for their sub-optimal performance. You must not give excuses for not being good. OR getting better.

Bright children, who may be any of the above will be poor at work not only in school but also later in life if parents find a valid reason to justify the poor performance.

If we accept any excuses for poor performance, we perpetuate it.

However, it is very important that the expectation be stated with love- and even compassion. Both punishment and reward can perpetuate harmful behaviour patterns, says Child Psychologist Dr MD Whitley. And he is right. If good grades are rewarded- the pleasure comes from the reward, not from the performance. If bad grades are punished, the pain comes from the punishment, not from the poor performance.

The locus of personal control shifts oout- much to the detriment of the growing child. The child, then, is not responsible for anything! Neither the good nor the bad are owned by these children and they are always finding a valid and acceptable excuse for both their successes and their failures.

It is usual for these children to say they are not doing well because they are bored or that the teacher dos not like them or even that they do not like a teacher. It is equally likely they will 'blame' their success on an easy paper due to good luck. It will never be they themselves who are responsible.

In this case, the parents, teachers and care-givers have the onerous task of trying to show them that the good they get is BECAUSE they put in the effort needed as well as that the bad they experienced is the result of - at some point- having decided- consciously or unconsciously- to not follow through.

The pain associated with such a revelation is tremendous- because these are basicaaly good children, simply caught up in less than perfect mental traps. Their conscience and their values make it impossible for this to be a painless experience. And when they feel the pain- we ahve to be around as parents to show compassion- but allow the pain to manifest. There is no other way out.

If we have to prepare a child to be able to stand up in the world, we have to give him the confidence that his legs can take his weight- not give him crutches that make him disabled.

Excuses are just crutches that destroy the muscle that the young children must develop. The pain is a gentle reminder that they have legs- and brains- and can work.

There can be a million reasons not to do something. There is ONLY one reason to do it. And that reason is- IT NEEDS TO BE DONE!

The discipline and the commitment have to be consistent.

And persistent.


Saturday, 28 May 2011

If you want to learn more and better...

There is new research that makes learning and memory easier. It says that students remember more and perform better if what they have read is in unfamiliar and difficult to read font.

Remembering is not made easier by making the key points stand out in bold font. It is not helped by highlighting text either. The brain works extra hard and with more concentration on difficult to read fonts. This builds circuits that sustain and last. Thus, though time consuming in the initial run, the reading done this way creates lasting memories. These memories are also easily retrievable.

So highlighting and making notes on the page margins may not help as much as an unfamiliar AND difficult to read font.

The other way to help remember more and remember better is to create pictoral notes rather than lines upon lines of text. The tetchnique of mind mapping was elevated to a level of fail-proof art form by Tony Buzan. It is easy, it is fun and it is long-lasting.

Mind maps do to studies what no other single technique can. They create unshakeable memories. And solid memory pegs.

Make them graphic, make them bold and make them colourful for mind maps to be effective tools of learning. Tony Buzan proposes a mind map for mind-mapping steps/ process

And be sure to go back your mind map the next day, then the next week and once more at the end of a month. The clear benefit of mind mapping is that the whole chapter may fit on a A4 sheet and the final preparation for exams is literally a breeze.

And do not let the fact that you are not an artist stop you! The more insane your graphics are, the more easily you will remember the information.

Always start with THE main idea in the centre of the page, create 5-7 subheadings which radiate from and are attached to the main point of origin. Focus only on COLOURS and IMAGES and the most important- CONNECTIONS.

Try these two techniques for the next exam!!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

A writing exercise to exercise the reading and alphabetic muscle!

As an exercise this is simple. As a task, it can be daunting for most people. I do not know if it is a named technique or even if it has been used earlier.

It is a challenging exercise for most people.

Ask your child to write down the alphabet.

MAke sure (s)he can read out the names of the letters (s)he has written. It helps to have them in proper order, too.

Now using this as a refrence grid, the child must compose a passage with each subsequent word being in alphabetical order.

Encourage the children to use dictionary and thesaurus to hunt words with different alphabetical beginnings.

Encourage children to use new and fresh words. Good, bad, tasty should not be allowed! FAntastic, aweful and pitiable would generate three alphabetical openings!

The sentence structure needs to be maintained. Thus, a noun will need to start with an alphabet and its adjective would need to start with teh immediate alphabetic partner! Thus, Amazing Boy Catches Dogs Expertly could be the beginning of an Alphage! ( alphabetic passage)

If this gets too difficult, Try having each sentence beginning in alphabetic order.

Sometimes it would help to allow verbs like is or are irrespective of the alphabetic order.

Children show a remarkable degree of imagination and rep[ertoire....

Allow them to play with the alphabet. The only condition being that the order has to be maintained and the structure has to make grammatical sense! It could be an outlandishly funny flight of fancy and make no real sense in terms of real world. In fact, the less sense it makes, the more children enjoy this exercise. So you could have ghosts jumping from Canberra to Helsinkie. Or you could have people breathing in water instead of air and radiating fire... So long as flow is maintained, order is kept and the grammar is adhered to, everything is allowed.

So go ahead... enjoy this as much as I did in my Book Club!!!!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The First week

The first week must introduce the children to letter names. The children, all of them, learn the alphabet song quite easily. A good place to start is the ABC song done to the Twinkle... twinkle little star tune. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoN8grI_SQ8

Once the alphabet is clear and easily recalled, it is time to move on to the next step- letter names. Now the child needs to identify the letters by the sounds. It is preferable to do three to five letters in one session and build in small increments. Thus, the child would now say the letter sounds

  • A as in cAt
  • B as in Bat
  • C as in Cat etc
It does help to have picture cues for the child to start with. Gradually the picture cues will not be needed and can be done away with.

When the letter sounds are clear and the letters can be read as letter names ( sounds), the next step can be introduced.

This will need to be repeated and revised everyday for at least a month for difficult children and as little as a week for children with a strong sense of language.

Early clues to dyslexia may include a delay in speech. Later, baby talk that persists beyond a reasonable age may indicate some problem in language processing, too. These children also have a difficulty in sound letter association so that recognition and understanding of rhyming words may not be easy. The sensitivity to and recognition of rhyme indicates that the child is developing an awareness that words have component sounds and these sounds can be broken down.

Thus, present words like cat and bat, and ask your child whether they sound similar. Explain that a similar ending sound means rhyming. When the child seems to understand this move on to more familiar words- walk and talk. Also present some words with common beginner phonemes rather than endings and ask whether these rhyme. So you could present bit and boon with the bit and pit and ask the child which is the matching pair.

You could start working on building your own lists. Roughly these lists should fall into three categories:
  • Rhyming words
  • Alliterative words
  • Phonetically Unrelated words
Thus a rhyming word pair list would have examples like
  • Car, Bar
  • Mat, Hat
  • Bet Let
  • Get Pet
  • Let Met
  • Hit Pit
  • Kit Lit
  • Pot Lot
  • Cot Not
  • Hut But
  • Cut Gut
Once the rhyme is clear as a word ending sound, move on to introduce letter combinations:
TH- the, this, that, them, these, those, with, Beth, Math, path
take care that you focus on word beginnings and endings specifically. Help the child identify patterns and sequencing. Take him through baby steps. Help her identify the phoneme being introduced. It is now time to introduce words with these phonemes in the middle... Bethlehem, Wither, weather, bother, brother, mother, father. spend a week on one phoneme. Go slow. Allow the child time to understand the sequence of sounds. Do not insist on correct written spelling for the time being. There will be the time for that, too. Let reading become more natural and effortless before insisting on correct written form from children.

SH- Shop, Shoe, Shampoo, wash, wish, bash, washer, bashful
Try to introduce these concepts with familiar words. This makes it easy for the kids to follow the words and the phonemes. Always introduce the sequence in this order- beginning, end and the middle. Repeat. reinforce.

CH- chop, Chicken, which, watch, CHurCH, watchful

Finally, we must understand that a dyslexic KNOWS what he or she wants to say, it is pulling out of the correct word from the memory bank that is defective. So constant MULTI SENSORY INPUT is the only way around the difficulty. Repetition is never too much for these children. They can often IDENTIFY the correct word from a set of words. So show a child a written word, write it in front of him, use magnetic letters that the child can feel, encourage the child to write his own letters and say the sounds.

For the first month of a reading programme with an early reader, this is as much as a child may be able to digest. All this will need to be repeated in varying degrees throughout the programme to keep the circuits fresh and open.

How to measure the reading/ language ability?

By the time a child can sit or, in some cases, even earlier, children will begin to enjoy picture books. Even before they can begin to articulate words, the children hear and form memories of words. These words then form the data bank from which retrieval helps children to develop language. Colourful pictures and associated words help them to tackle more complicated tasks later.

Though, controversial, the writing ability tends to lag a little behind the reading skill. Controversial, because most reading writing experts and programmes treat the two skills in a parallel manner.

Motor skills develop later than cognitive and sensory skills. thus, it is easier for a child to 'read' a picture book than write a word in the early stages. Writing, when it does develop, aids and speeds up reading proficiency. Language is a learned art.

When a child is exposed to literature early in life, he has a bigger memory bank. This has been shown to give a child a distinct advantage in later learning years.

The child in preschool to kindergarten years should be able to:

  • Understand that things have names.
  • Name and label objects
  • Maintain focus for short durations- say follow a short book of 15 to 16 pages with one to two lines per page and not more than one to two word changes a page.
  • Start to make the association of written letter to letter sounds.
  • Begin to understand that words are formed of letters.
  • Begin to understand the concept of chronology.
  • Develop enough skill to start using 'bookish' language- Once upon a time. Long, long ago. etc
  • Form letters.
  • Decipher small words and form early word memories. A, An, The, their own name.
These form a reasonable benchmark for a kindergarten child's caretakers to lead the children on into the magical world of words and fairies or even monsters.

The early scribbling and squiggles begin to appear on paper and newspaper and even walls. At this stage provide the young ones with several media to experience the words. Paper, play dough, card board, crayons, pencils and even paints. You will be surprised at what a child can accomplish given the opportunity. I still have both my children's 'art' work!

When allowed to DO something with their hands, the motor skills become proficient enough to handle usual writing instruments on usual writing surfaces.

Activities like play dough and cutting- pasting and tearing-pasting tend to promote the development of these motor skills. At the same time, it is important to promote small tasks like zipping up and down, buttoning and unbuttoning, tying laces and untying laces, putting and taking out things from pockets to the same end. It also has a spin-off in making the kids more independent in their daily lives.

Next we will explore the first few lesson plans to have ANY CHILD, yes ANY child reading in the short span of a few weeks. It takes a lot of repetition and reinforcement... and a lot of dedication but it works.

The children's early reading programme Hooked on Phonics or HOP works on the same general principles and gives a ready made easy to follow plan. You can preview the programme at http://www.hookedonphonics.com/

The programme emphasises on early start. There is a programme for babies- upto 18 months, toddlers, preK, Kindergarten, and upwards.

The programme is fun- very important, and effective- equally vital.

So.... on to the lesson plans.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Is my child reading? Well enough?

Each child must LEARN to associate the written word with the spoken sound it makes. This is ultimately the code that needs to be cracked. Reading is NOT a natural ability, IT IS AN ACQUIRED SKILL.

For some it must be acquired painfully slowly or even not at all. This is sad because it is unnecessary. Every child can read. And if any child that enters a schooling system fails to do so, it is the failure of the teachers and the system, not the child. This requires a deep understanding of the process of reading, its developmental landmarks and its natural history. It also requires immense courage on the part of the teacher or the primary caretaker to admit that a system may not be working for a given child and switch to something that does work.

The 'Whole language' method of teaching language skills was how even I learned my language skills. I was lucky to be naturally endowed with the ability to decode. Some children may not be so lucky. The whole language method expects the children to 'work out' the words they do not know in the text from the clues in the text. This method relies on clues EXTERNAL to the word that needs to be decoded. Sometimes struggling readers, and even experienced readers unfamiliar with the text may not be able to 'work out' these words. This method of teaching or learning language does not equip the reader to tackle unknown words. It makes reading easier and faster IF the vocabulary is already strong enough...

My daughter was not so lucky... The systems at the time of her early schooling were neither decided completely FOR nor completely AGAINST this method of learning. .Her teachers did not make any special effort to make sure that children read. My daughter has a very strong auditory memory. And once her mind was exposed to spoken lesson, she could repeat it VERBATIM. Her teachers never realised that she was not reading at grade level. I kept pleading with them. I even suggested accomodation and special instruction so that she could catch up. She is brilliant! Her teachers would not have any of it! One even threatened to SHOOT me! That is if I ever mentioned the "D" word in relation to my own daughter. It is left to me to DIAGNOSE, 'MEDICATE', STRATEGISE, REMEDIATE and EDUCATE my extraordinarily gifted child whose brain is wired differently.

I set upon my own quest and came upon the Phonics method of teaching Language. Now this was FABULOUS even for a gifted adult reader like me. It gave me an anchor to peg my daughter and monitor her progress. It has been an uphill task, surely. The schools do not accommodate for borderline cases that can not be clearly labeled. They CANNOT! The doctors cannot make an unequivocal diagnosis. As a mother and a highly literate adult, I am left with no option but to find my own way in this stormy sea and teach my daughter to swim not only with the current but also sometimes hold her own against it.

SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO BE LABELED. SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO GO TO THE SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST. She is not like Darsheel, she retorts. Aamir Khan may have, infact, done a disservice by depicting a dyslexic in as bad a light as he did in TZP.

Dyslexia may not be as dramatic as depicted in that movie. It may be a hidden inability to develop reading skills as naturally as other age matched children. It may not be associated with attention deficit or with distractability or even with destructive behaviour.

In preschool, my daughter could not only memorise what was going on in her own class, but also what was being sung in the neighbouring class. It only needed to be loud enough to reach her ears. She learned nearly double the number of rhymes that her official class did. She was phenomenal. Even today, her learning is based majorly on being read to. Her ideas are remarkable, astounding, and ground-breakingly creative. She can say things better than she can write them. She has not yet started using the computer to her advantage. I am hoping she soon will. She loves Mathematics. Not because she has an extraodinary mathematical ability, though that may be part of why it is enjoyable for her- she loves Mathematics because "I do not have to write much in it!" She may be a borderline dysgraphic or someone who is lagging in a certain decoding skill, so she makes up in several other areas. This is not unusual. This often is more likely than the Darsheel story. Often these children are mistaken to be lazy/ simply uninterested. Far from it.

Teachers need to note that at some stage when the child is transiting from" learning to read" to "reading to learn", the gaps in reading skills can critically affect the performance and the self- esteem of the child.

Fortunately, now there are scientifically designed tests available that take less than five minutes and can be delivered with ease to your child even on a weekly basis. Unfortunately these tests have not become a part of Indian curriculum. It is extremely important for early educators, whether at home or at school to be watchful for the landmarks that reassure them that the child is on track or warn them that the child needs attention and to provide a nurturing and encouraging environment for the child to progress at an acceptable pace. This may factor in his or her natural learning (dis)ability or may provide that oft needed nudge to a struggler transforming him into an expert swimmer who will gracefully and easily cross the seas without drowning.

The Texas Education Agency has one such assessment availaible for early reading assessment- TPRI ( Texas Primary Reading Inventory) at www.tpri.org This assessment takes less than five minutes and is easy to conduct. There are a few others which are all from the US and validated for the various states there in. These are the PALS from University of Virginia and DIBELS from Oregon.

The Reading Panel constituted in the US strongly recommends identifying those who are falling behind and remediating EARLY. This benefits ALL children irrespective of the nature if their learning disability. And additionally this provides the children with strategies to break what has now come to be called the reading code.

Unequivocally I would strongly recommend any parent or teacher to start the Phonics way and do it in a structured and explicit manner. The structure needs to be logical and incremental. It needs to expose the children to progressively more difficult words and equip the child to read even the words he does not know by using the understanding of sounds they develop from their Phonics instruction.

A suitable sequence would be
  1. English alphabet 'names'
  2. Reinforcing the consonant sounds
  3. Introducing the concept of vowels and the short vowel sounds- bat, beg, big, bog, bug
  4. Introducing the long vowel sounds and the concept of the silent 'e'. Mat-e, bit-e, cop-e, cut-e.
  5. Introducing common digraphs- a letter combination composed of two letters that say a single sound- sh(shoe, ship wish); ph(phone, photo), ch ( church, chirp, chill), th( thing, three, Beth), -ck( clock, black)
  6. Progress to trigraphs or even quadrigraphs (-dge as in ledge, -tch as in itch), (-eigh as in neigh, -ough as in roug, -augh as in laugh). From here clusters of words can be taught to the children involving bigger and bigger letter clusters- SHOULD, WOULD, OUGHT, NAUGHT etc.
  7. Specific emphasis on alliteration and rhyme. Introduce the concept of beginning sound and the terminal sound. Here it is helpful to use flash cards with printed letters and play with the child. Ask hin to make a word with the letter cards b, i, g beginning with the B sound. Now ask the child to replace teh BEGINNING sound with a P sound and ask what they get. Similarly with the terminal sounds, play replacement to get bit etc.
  8. Introduce the concept of syllables, create the awareness for sounds that go on to make the syllable- PHONEME. Start SPELLING GAMES.
  9. Introduce letter blends ( commonly occuring clusters where each consonat is pronounced- CLock, rOUnd,
  10. Practice writing.
If you notice, I have arrived at writing at the tenth step in the sequence. It is important to recognise that the cognitive skills required to read develop earlier than the motor skills needed to hold a stylus. Also, as a general rule in early reading and literacy programmes, it is preferrable to make a child spell only the words that he can read.

As an easy assessment, whenever a new rule is introduced in the Phonics based teaching, a child can be made to read nonsense letter combinations that do not really make words. This tests their ability to sound out the letter combinations even if these do not make sense to them.

Specific exercises will come next.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Automaticity and fluency.

Automaticity is the ability to recognise words automatically... that is- without making effort or taking time. Automaticity is a good predictor of comprehension and fluency. Automatic recognition of words marks the Stage 1, 2 in Chall's Reading staging. In stage one, the early reader begins to decode letter sounds and put them together to form words. This progresses to word recognition and decoding of Stage two. By Stage two, the early reader not only begins to decode the words but also begins to attach meanings to the text.

Fluency, however, is not only automatic word recognition but also addition of expression and prosodic features to the text being read ( rhythm, intonation and phrasing). Apart from these components that add to the comprehension of the written text, fluency also involves Anticipation. Fluency, thus, can easily be seen as a function of speed of recognition of words ( automaticity) and of the meanings there in ( prosody).

Both are vital to reading comprehension.

Reading is uniquely a human attribute and one that has no genetic basis! So... we do not have genes that decide whether we will read or not, or how we read. There is some evidence, however, that the brain wiring may play a significant role in the reading abilities or the lack of them. It is encouraging to note that reading, like several other behaviours CAN be learned. It may take a sporty child one evening to learn how to cycle and another not so sporty child a week to do so. Once the skill of cycling, or swimming, or driving is learned, however, it is yours for life... a spinal reflex. So is reading.

Exposing the children to written word early, repeating often and making it fun all go a long way in nurturing automaticity. A child who KNOWS more words verbally, is able to readily recognise them when exposed to them even if they do not follow the rules of phonics.

English is not an easy language to master. A set of twenty six alphabets presents us with forty phonemes. The same sounds may be represented by several letter combinations, or even letters. Consider Car, Kite. Both the c, and the k say the K sound. Circle and set both say the S sound. If this was not bad enough, ch can say Church and Chemistry, ea can say EAr, hEArt, hEAd, rEAd ( as in reed AND as in red!)

The clues provided by contexts in these situations are readily used by fluent readers to attach not only the right sounds but also the right meanings to those sounds.

Thus, fluency also involves abstraction and synthesis of teh written words into meaningful texts. The quiggles become words BECAUSE we are able to CONSISTENTLY attach teh same meanings to them. It is this attaching meanings that MUST be taught early and reinforced periodically.

Also important is the fact that struggling readers are working with a psychological handicap. Who, in his right mind, would WANT to do something that they are not good at?! It is, therefore, important to move in logical steps, presenting easy to decode age appropriate texts, allow the child to succeed(!) and progressively raise the difficulty level of material presented.

It is also important to emphasise on HOW a child learns not WHAT a child learns. This is a concept difficult to grasp for present day parents as they focus on Class appropriate scholastic skills. If a child is able to read and answer questions from their text books, they are smart! This could not be farther from the truth. Today, the schooling is, infact, killing creativity of our children. It forces them to conform. It does not allow them to make mistakes. And if they do not make mistakes they do not uncover anything new for themselves.

In the initial stages, the child is 'learning to read' and then goes on to 'read to learn' in the middle school. Orthographic knowlege and its application necessarily has to become automatic by this reading stage. While most readers move effortlessly from stage to stage, some students need special strategies to be taught in order to acquire word automaticity. This is most easily taught by
  • Introducing and expanding sight word recognition. These lists may be fifty to hundred word long for kindergarten and expand to 150- 250 words in a single academic year in class I. Language acquisition is rapid at this time. Repeat often.
  • Use syllable patterns to teach word vocalisation. There rae essentially six patterns of syllables. These can be introduced at progressive stages as the child begins to understands and recognise each pattern. These patterns are:
  1. Closed- where the vowels are 'closed' by consonants on either side- BaT. The vowel makes a short sound in these orthographic patterned words.
  2. Open- where the vowel is bounded by a consonant only on one side- Go. The vowel speaks its own sound here, except with the 'e' endings where the preceding vowel speaks its own sound... Mat v/s MaTe.
  3. Silent e- where teh e is not spoken but makes the preceding vowel say its own sound ( mentioned above)
  4. vowel combinations- these are a little difficult to teach and must be introduced with care and in clusters of words. EA- read, bead, head, plead/ AI- ail, bail, fail, grail, hail, pail/ EI/ IE/ OU/ etc.
  5. Controlled r- as in girl, bird, weird Here the ' i' is saying the 'u' sound.
  6. Consonent l + vowel e- as in table, able, fable, circle etc
English orthography can be seen to result in four major types of words:
  • Words that are read and spelt regularly. These words follow the phonics rules and are easy to read and write. Red, Bed, Mat, Ink, Drink etc
  • Words that are read regularly but can be spelt wrongly following phonics principles. 'Goat' may be spelt Gote; Head may be spelt as HED.
  • Rule based. These can easily be taught through well defined and consistent rules." i always after e except before c, or when said as A, as in neighbour and weigh". Or doubling for making continuous consonant ending words - run- ruNNing.
  • Irregular these are the words that do not seem to follow any rules nor phonics- cue/ queue, beautiful.
Each of these orthographic patterns must be presented to readers and reinforced and repeated for orthography to become an automatic response to the written word.

For fluency to become as reflexive as automaticity, functions of syntax, chunking, punctuation marks, intonations and emphases need to introduced early.

On a light note, we may end this heavy section by an anonymously writtena nd often quoted poem that once found its way into my mail box, too!

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps. Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead - it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt). A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword. And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start! A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.