Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Importance of Reading for Pleasure

Image result for boy reading book

When parents call to ask for a tutor for English, reading comprehension, writing, or spelling, the first question I generally ask is whether their child reads for pleasure. The answer is usually no. You may be surprised to learn that avid readers are generally excellent writers because they know how sentences should be structured, what kinds of wording gets a reader's attention, and how words should be spelled. They don't need much instruction in grammar because they can immediately tell when a sentence doesn't look right. Because reading comprehension is a part of every subject in school, avid readers have a big advantage. They are good at it because they practice every day. I cannot emphasize enough how much reading for pleasure helps students succeed at every level of school.

This does not mean children need to read classics, fiction, or high quality writing. They will get better at reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and spelling by reading anything, as long as they read a lot. Reading should be a daily part of every family's life, starting as babies. But it is never too late to start. Here are some ideas:
  1. Until 3rd grade, read to your children daily. Be sure to let them help pick out the books.
  2. As they are learning to read, in grades K-2, let your children read to you. But remember, it may be tiring for them. Alternate reading paragraphs, pages, or chapters.
  3. Once your children become independent readers, they will probably find it more efficient to read silently. Encourage them to continue with the same book until it is finished.
  4. Your child may prefer nonfiction. Go to the library or bookstore or shop online for books in topics that interest them.
  5. Have a family reading time, when every family member sits around reading for 15-30 minutes, maybe after dinner or before bed.
  6. Do not abandon reading time as your children get older. Work together to find books that will pique your child's interest. Then find another book by the same author or read books in a series. Your children can ask friends what they enjoyed reading and look online for ideas.
  7. Be open to many types of reading, such as magazines, graphic novels, recorded books, and articles online. It is fine to read books that are easy.
  8. Do not take too much school work as an excuse to not read for pleasure. We can always find a few minutes a day to read.
  9. Consider reading the same books as your child and discussing them. Consider a neighborhood book club. Consider reading one of your child's assigned books and then discussing it. Discuss how you each visualize the characters and scenes.
  10. Read a book and then watch the movie. Then compare what you each visualized and how the movie depicted the same scenes.
I'm sure you can come up with more ways to encourage your children to read. I am here to tell you how reading for pleasure helps children succeed in school. But an added benefit is that reading really is fun and relaxing - a great way to get out of your life and into another zone. But you have to practice to become fluent and get the full benefits. Thanksgiving break is a great time to read, and if you are traveling, take those books along or listen to a recorded book on your car trip.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Is Homework a Source of Stress in your Family?

 Image result for student doing homework clipart

I used to wish my children went to one of those homework free schools so that we could have nice family evenings without the stress of homework. Many years ago, I showed the book The Homework Myth (by Alphie Kohn) to the principal at my children's school. This book demonstrates research showing that most homework given in elementary school does not improve students' success. To my surprise and delight, the principal asked the teachers to read the book, and I later noticed a distinct reduction in homework that was assigned.

However, when my children began middle school, the homework load was much worse. If I complained that Fairfax County guidelines stated a goal of no more than two hours of homework per night, I was told that this rule doesn't apply to honors classes.

When my children went to high school and took more honors classes and some AP classes, homework was way too much. This was true for many of our students throughout the DC metro area. I discovered that there are quite a few things parents and students can do to alleviate the homework load.
  • If your child qualifies for a 504 plan, reduced and modified homework can easily be added to the plan. Some children take more time to do homework and can learn as much from doing 10 math problems as 30. Extended time for homework assignments is another common accommodation.
  • If your child does not qualify for a 504 plan, you can still explain to the teacher that it takes him too long to do homework, at the expense of sleep and added stress, and negotiate a homework reduction.
  • Tests and quizzes count more than homework in many middle school and high school classes. One biology teacher told me that all the homework does not need to be completed since it only counts for 10% of the grade. If the student is short on time, it is better to spend time actively studying for tests and quizzes, which count much more.
  • Spending many hours reading test books is not always productive. Students should learn how to skim and scan by reading headings, introductions, conclusions, and highlighted areas first. Paying close attention in class and taking good notes is usually more beneficial than a thorough reading of the text. To be sure, ask the teacher what will be on the tests and how to best study for them.
  • Nagging your children to do their homework doesn't work. It is more productive for parents to support their children by setting a homework time together and being available for questions during that time, working with their children to make sure they know what their homework is and how to do it, and giving them help if needed. Many children accept help more readily from a tutor or academic coach than their parents. Research has shown that children perform better when respected, trusted, and given space to do their homework independently than nagging.
As my own children got older, I stopped asking them what their homework was and whether they had done it. Amazingly, most of it got done, and if not, they accepted the consequences.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Entering High School? How to Keep the Stress under Control

Amanda was excited to start high school.  She bought her materials in advance and tried to keep up with her homework load and daily cross country practice.  All went well the first week, but then she gradually began to fall behind.  Teachers' handouts were not making it to the correct binders, she forgot to write down her homework, and she was completely baffled with what she was learning in chemistry.  There were too many math problems to finish without getting to bed after midnight.  She became anxious and started avoiding assignments that she didn't understand.  By mid October, she had a C in math and a D in chemistry.  Her best laid plans were falling apart.

In my experience as a parent and tutor, high school is much more demanding than it was when I was a teenager, especially for students enrolled in honors and AP courses.  Students in the Washington metro area are getting a fabulous education, which includes public speaking, abstract thinking and analysis, and thought provoking seminars.  However, they are paying for it with decreased sleep and leisure time, and increased anxiety and stress.  Much of this stress can be prevented with efficient organizational strategies.

It is now the first week of school.   Some students already start to fall behind because they are overwhelmed with handouts.  It is important for students to work out organizational systems that are personalized and work for them.  If they don't think they will hole punch all the papers, perhaps binders will not work as well as folders. An accordion folder may be a convenient way to hold papers for multiple classes.  For block scheduling, it may be useful to have shared binders or notebooks on each day.  For most students, it is helpful to label every folder and binder with the name of the subject.  Color coding by subjects is another advantage.  It is imperative for each student to find an organizational system that will work.  And if it doesn't work, it is fine to try something else.  Many students will need help to set up a system, and any time spent on this is bound to pay off.

The first week of class, it is extremely important to pay attention to teachers' expectations.  How often will there be quizzes or tests, and how best to study for them?  Is homework required or suggested?  Are there long term projects to mark on the calendar?  Which type of planner will work best, a book, a giant calendar, or an online calendar?  Parents, make every effort to attend "Back to School" night, and pay attention to what teachers expect from students.  Then you can compare notes with your children.

Be sure to monitor homework right away.  Is your child able to complete it easily?  Are there too many math problems?  Is your child not understanding something?  You should encourage your child to get help from the teacher if needed.  Most teachers stay after school to help students.  Encourage your student to let you know if there are any problems so you can deal with them together before they grow out of hand.

I know from experience that when you let a teacher know that homework is taking too long, many teachers will modify homework as needed, especially for math.  Many students can learn as much from completing 15 problems as 30, and will benefit from more down time. Nearly all students need help at some point in their high school careers.  Be sure to communicate to your children that they should let you know if they need help early on, and you will work together to find solutions.
As a parent, the best way to contact teachers is usually by email.  Do not hesitate to convey your concerns to the teachers.

Parents can be support systems for their teens while simultaneously helping them to become more independent.  Assuming your teen is planning to attend a college away from home, by 12th grade your teen needs to be mostly self-sufficient.  By the beginning of 10th grade, I advise most parents to start to back off and encourage their teens to contact teachers themselves, either in person or by email.  Your teen should be transitioning into controlling his or her own organizational systems, planning, and taking the lead in getting help as needed. Students should also be setting their own alarms, two or three if needed, and getting themselves up for school, jobs, and events.

Even as your teen becomes more independent, he or she may still need support.  As you help your teens come up with support systems, keep in mind that there are many options for help with school subjects and with "academic coaching," which generally includes support with organization, planning, time management, developing efficient study skills, and motivation.  These supports include parents, teachers, peers, tutors, and academic coaches.  One of the cornerstones of independence is knowing when and where to get help if needed.

Most importantly, continue to monitor your teens for good eating and sleeping habits, mental health, and management of school and other commitments.  Try to spend quality time together and keep the lines of communication open by being a listener and supporter, not a judge.  Sometimes it seems like your teen is far from independence at the beginning of high school, but you will be amazed with what they can accomplish with maturity, support, and confidence in their ability to be self sufficient.