Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Great homework

Our son's teacher created an awesome homework assignment.

And it's something parents could do, too.

I just asked my son and his friend if they've finished their homework (it's just two days into the winter break). They both said yes. Even though there was a lot of reading involved, and some math. Here's why.

It's a detective story. It covers about three pages (yours could be shorter), and leads the reader through several interesting "logic puzzles."

Here's a sample plot:
A detective receives a note.
The note says there's going to be a bank robbery.
The reader (child) has to figure out when the robbery is going to take place, at which bank, and who the culprit is.

The clues, and the steps to solve them, are in the story.

For instance, the note can say, "A robbery is going to take place at 1 2-1-14-11 9-14 20-15-18-15-14-20-15."
Detective Bill thought, "I can figure out the blanks by substituting letters for each number. For instance, "A" is "1"."

So now, the message says: "A robbery is going to take place at A BANK IN TORONTO."

Then the detective had to figure out which bank.
He got a list of banks like this:
Bank of Montreal, 24 Quebec St., 431-1435
Royal Bank, 91 Queen St., 987-1243
TD Bank, 43 Canada St., 332-1322

The note told the detective the robbery would be at bank #428.
The detective decides to use a formula for figuring out which one was #428. (Something like, add all of the numbers in each phone number and multiply them by the street number).

You get the idea.

The last clue was about whodunnit.
The note was signed, "Raymo."
The reader had to rearrange the letters to figure out that the culprit was the city's "Mayor."

Kids will get excited about reading and math when the story is about them, and lets them figure things out. Your story could be about a detective who has to solve a mystery surrounding a baseball team. Or with Hannah Montanna. Or in a dinosaur museum. Or a video game parlour. Or whatever your kid's into.

Use your child's name in the story, the names of siblings, pets, her school - whatever will catch her eye as she's reading. She'll love it!

So right now you're surfing the net. You're reading this blog (way to go, you rock, incidentally). But obviously you've got a few minutes before the boss comes back. So use this time to write a quick story. Steal liberally from my ideas, above (after all, I stole them from my son's teacher, a-hem). Don't even worry about including a "mystery" if you want - just make it a story. Don't worry if it's simple, if it's not as good as Robert Munsch would do. Your kid will love it - and she'll be reading.
Photo: iStock.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Toys for the CHUM Christmas Wish

I had some unopened toys that companies had sent me to review.

Some of them weren't literacy-based, so I hadn't opened them.
And others didn't need to be opened in order to review them.

Anyway, I had quite a stash, so I brought them over to the CHUM Christmas Wish. Apparently, they'll be sent on Wednesday to kids in time for Christmas.

Thanks, companies! (You know who you are.)
Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!

Image: Wikipedia Commons, www.commons.wikimedia.org.
I like it, because it's pencils (much like what I dropped off for the kids) but it kinda looks like a Christmas star.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Club Penguin

My son is hanging out in Club Penguin these days.

And, um, so am I.

Club Penguin is a virtual world for kids - each kid is a cartoon penguin.

You take your penguin around the island, into various buildings, down ski hills, onto a pirate ship. (Still with me?)

Theoretically it's free, but all of the fun games are behind the membership wall, and that's $5.99 a month. My son and I are trying it for one month.

I set up my own penguin so I could play with my son online.

He wanted to join up because it's something his friends are doing.
I agreed, because I thought it would get him typing more (the penguins can talk to each other).

The literacy angle
Long-story short, I just found a terrific area on Club Penguin that may provide a good incentive for him to type. It's in the "book room" (natch), in the Coffee Shop. There are several books there that feature stories which you have to type in order to read them. As you type the tale, more story is revealed.

At the end, not only have you read a story but you receive a bunch of Club Penguin coins, the local currency.

And you've done a bunch of typing, which is the whole point, as far as I'm concerned.
Here's a link to Club Penguin.
It's known for being very safe, with excellent parental tools such as the ability to limit the amount of time your little penguin hangs out there, and they're very responsive to people writing them with queries.

I have no idea if this Club Penguin thing is good or not, or has anything to do with literacy. Probably not. But I am enjoying exploring stuff my son's interested in, and we're having fun.
Incidentally, if you think Club Penguin is a little thing, it's not. There are about 50 servers on the site, and at any given time most of them are full, with thousands of little virtual penguins. It's a big club.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wonderful book - Tiny Tyrant

Here's a masterpiece kids will love.
I've never thought of a graphic novel (high-end comic book) as a masterpiece before, but I think the moniker fits Tiny Tyrant.

The hero is a six-year-old king; a kind of likeable spoiled brat. King Ethelbert rules Portocristo - and we have no idea why, or where his parents are, but we don't care.

He has an equally diminuitive and bratty cousin Sigismund, with whom he feuds, and there are some adult handlers who keep the mayhem from getting too out of control.

Even better than the plots - which are silly enough for any kid - are the gorgeous illustrations. They're simple and clean, in the best French tradition (think Asterix), and rendered in beautiful, rich colours.
Good readers will devour the book fairly quickly, but younger readers may be able to get a few more hours out of it. Either way, it's time well spent. The books never condescend to young readers, which is part of their charm.
There are two volumes, but beware that Volume 1 has a chapter featuring Santa Claus, that may shine too fine a light on the legend for young readers.

Ever since First Second Books sent me Tiny Tyrant Volume Two: The Lucky Winner (I subsequently asked to see Volume I as well), I've been a bit obsessed with the books. The covers are beautiful - that soft, deeply saturated paper. And each chapter is printed on a different coloured pastel background. I can't put them down, and neither could my son.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A great "travelling" word game

Here's another great word game.

Our family recently travelled to Ottawa. Early one morning, we broke out a game we'd brought called Scrabble Apple.

We really enjoyed it. What I like about it is that it's portable, all of the pieces go back in the apple when you're done, and there's no board to lug around.

As a literacy tool, it's great because you can play with it any way you want. There are rules, but essentially it's just a bag of letters that stack.

The traditional rules are: You put all the letters out, and each person turns over a letter. You try to make words with your letters; you get points for every word. A red letter doubles the points.

The twist is that the letters stack. So if you had the word BAG and I turn over an E, I can create BEG by putting the E on top of the A.

While gramma may have been better at creating words, our son was faster at re-creating words - so it sort of levelled the playing field and made it really fun. It was a toss-up as to who would win.

I'm going to play this with the six-year-old I'm working with. We'll play "find the vowels." The first person to turn over the vowels and say the sounds they make will win.

Hasbro sent me this game to try (but otherwise I'm in no way connected to them). I've seen another game in toy stores called Bananagrams, by a different company - in a banana rather than an apple. It seems to be the same idea, although they play it so the words connect, like Scrabble. I'm sure you can play that game any way you want as well.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Make a book for Christmas

This is a great time to make your child a book for Christmas or Hannukah.

Children of all ages are motivated to read a book about their favourite subject - themselves.

Here's how
*Buy a small scrapbook with stiff pages. (Craft stores have them. You can also use a photo album.)

*Select five to 20 photos of the child, her favourite activities, family and friends, and events from the year. I usually print them out on one of those machines in Shopper's Drug Store - they're just $.23 per print, or so and I don't have to wait.

*Put them in some kind of logical order.

*Tape them into the book.

It's best to type the text for the book on your computer, print it out, and cut it into lines that you can paste below each photo. Use a simple font like Times New Roman (don't get fancy - the goal is legibility.)

For really young children, print one or two words in a large font under each picture:
"Susie's teddy"

For slightly older children, try one-liners:
"Sebastian turned 4 this year!"
"Sebastian loves to play hockey."
"Daddy and Sebastian at the museum."

For kids who are reading, try writing your own short story.
Each page can have a few lines or a paragraph, with pictures on some pages. Reflect on the year, and write about some of the highlights:
"Our trip to Hawaii was incredible. Dad got seasick on the boat, and Mom lost her wedding ring - but she found it again! I couldn't wait to try Mahi-Mahi - it was delicious."

Another idea is a book that shares some of your insights about your child.
"Daddy and I love you, and we are so proud of you for always trying to do the right thing. Remember when Bradley at school was getting bothered by that boy? We were so proud when you stepped in and stood up for your friend. That took courage!"

Or, help your child keep track of milestones.
"I am a good hockey player. Just two years ago, I was barely skating... now I'm a fast skater and I can do a hockey-stop. I played in goal twice this year; I've scored six goals and gotten a whole bunch of assists. The coach says I'm a good team player. Next year, I want to join the Select team."

Other tips:
In your captions, try to go beyond what's obvious in the picture: "At the beach," could be "This is where we found the big orange conch shell."

Write from the child's perspective, "I, I'm" and the book will be more interesting to them.

Include the names of your child's friends. Wouldn't you love a record of names and photos of your friends from when you were really young? Do it for your child.

Cut some of your photos into shapes if they don't fit on the page.

Pick a great photo for the front of the album, and don't forget to date your book.

A book about your child will be something that fascinates him, and makes him want to read every word. He'll pick it up again and again - and for years to come.

The book in the picture is one that I started for my son this time last Christmas, but never finished. I picked it up, blew off the dust (literally) and flipped through it. I teared up - you forget how fast they grow, and how small they were last year! I'm going add the captions and a photo on the front and give it to him this year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Great learn-to-type website

Get your child typing!

Kids get frustrated because they can think up story ideas faster than they can write them. Unfortunately, they may give up on writing stories, or end up writing one- or two-line stories because their hands get sore or tired.

The principal at our school had a great idea. If our son could learn to type, he'd be allowed to use the computer in the school (at appropriate times) to write stories.

This is also a good idea for kids who are into computers (and video games) but who aren't yet interested in creating stories. It hooks them on a different level - they get to use the computer.

I searched all over and tried various "fun" software applications, until a teacher told me about "Dance Mat Typing," a learn-to-type program created by the BBC.

It's a bit silly, a bit loud, a bit nerdy - and kids love it. And it worked for my son.

The reason I like it, is that within a few times of using it my son is typing using the home row, and without looking at his fingers. In others words, he's doing "real" typing.

Some of those "game" typing software programs can be fun, but the kids end up hunting and pecking, which isn't what you ultimately want.

When my son wants to play a computer game, but it's during one of his "non-video-game" times - for instance, mid-week - I let him do Dance Mat Typing. He enjoys it, and he's using the computer for something fun and educational.

I realize that of course, kids have to learn to write. This isn't taking anything away from that. But typing is going to be one of those skills that will be necessary in the business world our kids will one day enter. I think it'll separate the cans from the can-nots. (OK, that sounds like a recycling program, separating the cans. But you know what I mean.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Boys don't like school

Send the message, "I want to hear the story you want to tell."

OK, here are some final highlights from the Leonard Sax seminar:

1) Many more girls than boys graduate from university. This is true for Canada, the UK, and the US. Sax says boys have given up on school and on marks - they been given the unintentional message that "school is for girls." His theory is that boys have been marked according to girl-based systems. When boys get low marks because they haven't put enough colour in a drawing, or because the drawing is violent, they give up; they figure they just can't do it. Then they say, "school is for girls."

2) The same applies to reading. When they're faced with a book like Jane Eyre, which doesn't immediately appeal to the "boy brain" they say, "reading is for girls."

3) And writing: When a boy writes a story that contains action (and/or violence) and limited character development, they get marked down for it. So they say, "Writing is for girls."

4) It's our job - as parents and educators - to find a way to make boys find reading, writing and studying relevant to them. Sax says, "want to hear the story your boy wants to tell." They want to tell a story that has action, excitement, car crashes! Why do we insist they tell stories the "girl way"?

5) The top three factors at age 15 that determine who will graduate:
-grades at age 15
-reading ability
-study habits
Gender in ability isn't a factor! So boys can do it - they've just become demotivated to do it. (See 1-3, above.) They think that "school is for girls."

6) This isn't to say that girls don't have problems. They do. They're more likely to have an eating disorder, be clinically anxious or depressed and become moody.

7) Boys understand boundaries. Instead of saying, "no throwing snowballs," make some boundaries. "Snowball throwing within this area only." Boys get "inbounds vs. out-of-bounds." And they're good with it.

8) Boys like action and that includes violence. Give them boundaries, says Sax. "generic and classic violence (wars, car crashes) is allowed; personal/threatening (specific to a person) violence is not allowed."

9) 40-year-old men and women can sit still for the same amount of time. But a six-year-old girl can sit still and pay attention about twice as long as the average six-year-old boy.

10) There are boy-oriented teachers, and girl-oriented teachers. Sax says very few teachers are both - nearly all teachers prefer to teach one gender over the other. And it has nothing to do with the gender of the teacher.

11) Boys learn better when they're standing. It's been researched. (At our school, one grade-six teacher offers exercise balls rather than chairs if kids want to use them. Great idea.)

12) When girls have a personal bond with a teacher, they'll work harder for them, so as not to disappoint them.

13) Girls' eyes and brains process colour and texture earlier than boys. Boys' brains process movement. It explains why girls use 10+ crayons in drawings, while boys use one or two. It explains why boys' drawings have scribbles (it's hard to draw action!) and car crashes. It explains why girls like dolls and boys like trucks.

I talked to my son about colour. Without prompting, he said, "Mom, when I draw at home I use one colour. But if I'm at school and I want to get a good mark, I use lots of colours." That could have come right from Sax's lecture. Boys prefer to use one colour, but are graded on using many colours. (Having said that, my son's teachers are awesome - and very empathetic to boys, so I'm definitely not dissing anyone here. But he definitely has gotten the message that more colour is better.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Boys' and girls' brains develop differently

Part II of our coverage of Dr. Leonard Sax's seminar in Toronto about how boys and girls learn.

It's not that boys' brains develop more slowly than girls' brains, according to Leonard Sax. "It's more nuanced than that."

Researchers have found that:
* the areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature about six years earlier in girls than in boys;
* the areas of the brain involved in targetting and spatial memory mature about four years earlier in boys than in girls.

Boys mature faster in some areas than girls (for instance, at age two, a boy is likely to be able to build a bridge out of blocks more easily than a two-year-old girl).

And girls mature faster in some areas than boys (3.5-year-old girls may be able to interpret facial expressions than boys who are five years old).

The bottom line - rather than getting frustrated that your son is "being lazy" or "not trying hard enough," it may simply be that his brain just isn't ready for that particular skill.

And in that case, it's more helpful to focus on what he is doing well, and help him work on those areas.

In reading, it's often best to take a step back - and breathe. If he has a parent who cares enough to be reading a blog like this, then chances are he'll be fine. Scatter books around the house. Read to him every day. Let him see you reading. These are the single most important elements that help to build a great reader.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Getting boys reading - start in the middle

Start from the middle.

This was Leonard Sax’s counter-intuitive (and possibly brilliant) suggestion to English teachers who want boys to enjoy great literature.

Boys’ and girls’ brains process information differently. Girls process emotional information throughout their cerebral cortex, where language and analysis are also processed.

Boys, however, process emotional information in the amygdala – which doesn’t connect with the “talking” part of the brain.

So girls take in emotional scenes and can talk about them, analyse the characters, and empathise easily. The boy's brain is more attracted to action.

And if there’s nothing “happening” in a book, boys’ brains aren’t going to find it engaging. So Dr. Sax says, skip right to the action. In Jane Eyre, that’s page 233, when Mason is having his shoulder bandaged – for teeth marks that have punctured his skin.

The boys will be instantly hooked by the action and the mystery. Ask them, “why would someone bite a person, rather than use a knife, which would be more efficient?”

“Maybe the person didn’t have a knife!” one boy will offer. “Maybe the person was crazy!” another might say.

A-ha… now you have them. And now you can take them back to the beginning of the novel, looking for signs of the crazy person who, you know, bites Mason on page 233. Now the boy is engaged in the action of Jane Eyre, rather than having been turned off during the actionless opening scenes.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Reading" English

Mispronouncing uncommon words can be the mark of a reader.

People who read a lot will come across uncommon words that aren’t normally used in conversation. So they won’t know their correct pronunciation—just the one that’s in their head.

The other day my son said, “Tan-za-NEE-a? I thought it was Tan-ZANE-ee-ah.”

That was how I pronounced Tanzania when I was a child too, because I’d only ever read the word.

Here are some others:

I always thought there were two words meaning pinnacle: “EP-i-tome” in books, and “e-PI-to-mee” in spoken English. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized those were the same word: epitome.

My friend always read that people were “MI-zled” – sent astray. In fact they were misled.

In my grade 6 classroom, there was a sign that said:

For years, I thought that sign said “DISCO-very” and had no clue what they meant by that.

If your child mispronounces a word, she will likely be embarrassed. Explain to her that if it’s a word she has only ever read, she would have no reason to know the correct pronunciation. And tell her that you’re proud of her for reading.

The map? That's Tanzania (or Tan-ZANE-ia in "reading" English). From http://www.wikimedia.org/. Do you have any reading-English mispronunciations? Please share them in the comments or e-mail me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Great reading tool - Boggle Jr.

I'm excited - I've got a great reading tool your (young) kids will love.

I e-mailed Hasbro and asked them to send me some word games and I'm really glad I did. (I have no affliation with Hasbro, by the way.) I tried Boggle Jr. with the six-year-old I'm working with, and it was really helpful.

Boggle Jr. has a set of large dice with letters on the sides. And it has flash cards - a picture of a car with the word "CAR" underneath it, for example.

A holder sets the flash card in front of the child, who finds the appropriate letters and builds the word using the dice. You can also hide the word and get the child to spell the word just from the picture.

There are tons of ways to use the game, depending on what the child needs to learn. I used them to talk about vowels. He had to find the vowels and tell me what each one says.

We also put letters together to discuss what the letter pairs say (th, sh).

What's so great about it is that the dice are bulky and just perfect for little hands. There's a game aspect because the child has to turn the dice over to find the right letters. And the flash cards allow for four levels: three-letter words and four-letter words, with and without looking at the words.

I'm excited about this new discovery because it's going to make teaching easier, and learning more fun. I think there will be a limitation - for instance, my own eight-year-old wanted to play with it, but it was clearly far too young for him. However, the six-year-old had a great time playing with it.
Update on my sessions with the six-year-old. They're going great, and we're both having fun. But guess which book he picked - from the 15 on offer? SpongeBob Squarepants. Oooooof course.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Helping a six-year-old read

I’m working with a six-year-old.

I’m really excited about it, because he’s totally into reading. In fact, he’s frustrated because he says he’s learning too slowly. What a great problem to have – a child who wants to push himself to read faster!

Here’s how I prepared for our first reading session (and I’m hoping you’ll find something helpful here to apply to reading with your child):

* I asked his mom what his interests are (Lego, Star Wars, soccer, basketball, dinosaurs, animals).

* I asked what he’s reading now.

* I went to the library and asked the librarian for advice on books for a six-year-old. I thought I knew a lot about books, but getting the librarian involved was very helpful. She brought her own likes to the table, and made a couple of great suggestions like using the early-reader I Spy books.

I took out 15 books, to offer my friend as wide a range as possible including:

-a Spider-Man early reader (very cool – makes a little guy feel like a big kid);

-a scary book (“The Hairy-Scary Monster” – not really scary);

-a book about baseball (“The Littlest Leaguer”);

-Inspector Hopper (the cricket sleuth – because I love him);

-a dinosaur book (“Magic Matt and the Dinosaur”);

-a Mr. Putter & Tabby book (lovely, endearing, charming);

-a SpongeBob adventure (I know, I know);

-a Frog and Toad adventure (characters you will never forget – plus, you can read them as short stories);

-the I Spy book;

-“Drip Drop,” by Sarah Weeks (the librarian uses it often with groups); and

-two new Mo Willems books.

Because this boy is staunchly independent, I’m going to let him choose the first book, and we’ll take it from there. Besides reading together, I’m going to try to work on some consonant blends (th, sh).

I have another trick up my sleeve, which I’ll use in a future session. I’m going to write him a short story about himself, based on his interests. It will be very simple… and you know, I might include some photos of him in it as well. I’ll have to talk to his mom about it. Hmmm, this could be fun!

Sorry I haven't blogged recently - I've had writer's block. Mo Willems is the specific writer who has blocked me, actually. Well, him and/or his publicist. Last week, I approached his publisher for rights to put a little picture of one of his bookjackets with this post. She said I'd have to call his publicist, which I did. He said he'd have to ask Mo Willems. I don't know if he did or didn't, but they haven't gotten back to me and it's been a week. I give up, and I'm posting without them. Boo!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Internet word game: Dungeon Scroll

They won't even realize they're learning.

If you've got a child who's into computer games but you'd rather they read, here's something that will make you an ultra-cool parent.

It's called Dungeon Scroll, and it's simple and fun.

In each "dungeon" you face an enemy.

You defeat the enemies by casting words at them, which you create from the random letters you're given.

Each enemy requires a certain number of words to defeat it.

At the same time, your "health" decreases so you've got to think fast.

You can't use the same word twice, and longer words defeat the enemy faster. Good, and good.

There are three levels, for kids who are really good at scramble games and kids who aren't.

You can play 80 minutes of the game for free. After that, you have to download it for $6.99.
The free time is long enough so you'll know whether your child likes it well enough to pay for it.

Seriously, your child will enjoy this game. And seriously, you'll be the coolest parent ever. Again. Thanks to Getting Kids Reading. (Yer welcome.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A fun literacy activity - Acrostics

Do you know about acrostics?
An acrostic uses the first letters of words in a sentence and forms a "hidden" word from them like this:
"Read everywhere, all day!" spells "read."
For younger children
You can send your child secret messages using acrostics. Teach your child how acrostics work. Then write her a note, using colourful markers and fold it up and seal it in an envelope. Include a pen and blanks for the child to fill in as she decodes the message. Don't worry if your clue doesn't form a proper sentence - the goofier the better.

For older kids
Acrostics can be very tricky to create. Older kids can create poetry or prose, with acrostics hidden in them. Get them to challenge themselves by taking a crack at creating one.
Acrostics in Alice in Wonderland
Oh, that Lewis Carroll! He wove acrostics into Through the Looking Glass.
The last five lines in the final chapter spell out "Alice."
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear.
So, yeah, writing a masterpiece wasn't enough - he had to include an acrostic? Show-off. (OK, that's jealousy talking. That dude was one talented rabbit.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hallowe'en literacy

Some ideas for working literacy into your Hallowe'en festivities.

* Spell Hallowe'en. Talk about why it has an apostrophe (All Hallow's Evening). It's also interesting to note that many people no longer use the apostrophe and that's OK too. Kids are often surprised to learn that spelling evolves.

* Sort candy by type, or shape, or size, or grossness (personally, I put candy corn in that category. Yuck.) Sorting is a good math exercise.

* Do a Hallowe'en recipe together. A perfect combination of math, reading and - yum!

* Read Twilight (or another scary-type book) together.
* Google Hallowe'en. Why do we have it? Do all countries celebrate it?

* Dress your child up as a dictionary. Just kidding.

Some of the tips and the picture were provided by the ABC Literacy Foundation. How they got that little girl to pose with a rat - or is it a guinea pig? - I don't know. (You've got to look closely - it's on the book.) Scaaaary. Oh well - Happy Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates

You know you've struck book gold when your kid can't wait for you to read to him, but picks up the book himself and finishes it.

That's what happened with us and Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates.

I sent a plea out to a friend (who is a great librarian and kindergarten teacher). It was this: "I need a book to read to my son!"

As you know, this is an ongoing problem for us. I read the Mary Poppins series out loud to him. Then we spent about a year reading the Harry Potter novels. And then Alice in Wonderland. And then I was stuck.

My friend suggested Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates, by Sean Cullen. Cullen is a successful Canadian comedian (Last Comic Standing, JFL) and actor (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and a singer (Corky and the Juice Pigs) - but who knew he was an author as well? (Don't you just hate him?)

Well, we started reading the book at bedtime. The beginning is a bit rocky - the first three chapters deal with Viggo, who rounds up orphans and sets them to work making a biohazardous cheese called Caribou Blue. Orphans in haz-mat suits. I nearly gave up on it but I'm glad we read past chapter three because that's when Hamish X appears on the scene.

And that's when my son decided he could no longer wait until bedtime, and began to devour the book every chance he got. Within two days he'd finished all 34 chapters, 293 pages. (My son is eight. This is some good book.)

Hamish X is a great hero. An orphan himself, he is forced to work in the hazardous cheese factory, and yet you know he's going to find a way to liberate those cheese-making children. He has mysterious boots that can't come off, and a book about plumbers supposedly given to him by his mother. And yes (spoiler alert) he does rescue the orphans.

The book is, like Sean Cullen himself, quirky. And funny. And kind of odd. But it's highly readable. I'm reading it myself now and thoroughly enjoying it. My son is on to book two in the three-book series, Hamish X and the Hollow Mountain.

The Hamish books include quirky footnotes that are sometimes real and sometimes complete nonsense. Again, much like Sean Cullen himself.

Here is a link to Sean Cullen's stand-up routine - the "Food that will end your life" bit at the 6:52 mark is pretty funny.

Cullen's working on his next series of books about a "Prince of Neither Here nor There."

Good lord, is there anything Sean Cullen hasn't done? He was in The Producers. He looks good in a porkpie hat. He has a radio show on CBC. And he makes up most of his stand-up material as he goes along. And you don't know him because...? (Oh yes, he's Canadian!)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Teaching long and short vowel sounds

I’m going to be working with an eight-year-old to teach him long and short vowel sounds.

I know him fairly well, so I know he’s into Lego, and computers and art.

So I’ve come up with some activities that take advantage of those interests. I’m going to start by asking him (ahead of time) to make a big S and L from Lego. That will give us our categories – long and short vowels.

Then I’m going to bring some drawing materials and get him to draw, very quickly, the things I shout out – like, “Tree!” “Ball!” “Table!” “Snake!”

After every drawing, I’m going to have him put it under the Lego L or the Lego S, depending on whether its vowel is short or long. We’ll discuss each one as we go.

And at the end of it all, I’m going to teach him a “trick” about the silent “e” (how it makes vowels long) – and I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring a silent e made out of clear plastic.

Oh, and before we start, I’m going to talk to him about nicknames (he loves nicknames). I’m going to discuss how every vowel has a “name” and a “nickname.” In other words, the long sound that is the vowel’s name, and its short sound, that is its nickname.

I think that should be a good 20-minute first lesson, don’t you?

Update: The lesson went really well. He caught on really quickly. At first he didn't want to do the lesson at all, but his parents persuaded him. After we chatted for about two minutes (mostly about Star Wars), he was fine with it, and even enthusiastic.

Used the walk over to my house to talk about "nicknames" for letters - boys learn best when they're able to move their bodies at the same time. He got the concept immediately. Afterwards, instead of cookies, we played checkers. We're both looking forward to next week.

I have to think of a reward, after the lesson's done. Maybe we'll play with the Lego. Yeah, who am I kidding - more likely I'll bring cookies!
Oh, and that picture is Einstein built out of Lego (from Wikimedia Commons). Rather fitting, I thought, don't you?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Boys learn differently

Here’s an interesting educational development.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is proposing a boys-only public school and boy-friendly teaching strategies. The TDSB is Canada’s largest school board.

“When every bone in your body is telling you to get up and move around, we’re telling (boys) to sit down,” Chris Spence, the TDSB’s education director, told the CBC yesterday.

An editorial in today’s Globe and Mail noted that, “26 per cent of (Canadian) girls scored at the top level in reading, compared with just 19 per cent of boys.” And there were many more boys than girls at the bottom level. I suspect these statistics would bear out for other countries as well.

It gets worse. Only 57 per cent of boys were at the national standard on Ontario’s Grade 6 writing exam (compared with 78 per cent of girls). And the Globe points out that “the testing arm of the Education Ministry says it has no publicly available research on the reasons” for that.

Well, I think we know. Spence was right on the money when he said that boys have to move around when they learn, which is the polar opposite of what the school system generally demands of them.

But that's fine. Because if our schools can't handle it, then parents can just fill the gap.

Walk outside with your boy – let him read the signs and ads that are all around us. When you’re reading to him, give him a ball to quietly toss from hand to hand. Talk to him about long and short vowel sounds while you’re kicking a soccer ball. "That tree - short or long vowel? This ball - short or long?"

The new boy-centric school could be open as early as next year. In the meantime, there’s a ton that parents can do to get their boys reading.

By the way, Chris Spence is the author of a number of books, including The Joys of Teaching Boys and Creating a Literacy Environment for Boys. He also has a blog.

The props for this picture were immediately at hand. They're six of the ba-zillion balls we have around the house. Boys need to bounce, toss, throw, catch and generally move around. They just do. And if you're smart, you'll use that moving-around time to discuss important stuff with them, because when their bodies are in gear, so are their minds.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Great books for kids

If you're looking for great kids' books, look no further.

Here are two lists of books that have been nominated for top prizes - so you know they're the cream of the crop.

Here are the five books nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
The site has a review for each book, and information about the author(s).

And here is a list of books nominated for the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Awards. The winners will be announced on November 17 (stay tuned).

The website has the list of finalists for children's literature - English and children's literature - French, with a very brief (one-sentence) description for each. There are 70 books on the shortlist.

I got nothin' for the fine print today. Nothin'. Thanks for reading it, though. I always appreciate readers who go that extra mile.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reading the signs

The other day on the subway, I noticed some ads.

PizzaPizza’s ad said, simply:
XL craving?

and Bell’s said:
More 3G coverage.
Facebook anywhere.

So let’s say you’re a child who’s just learning to read.

These examples do two things:
1) They illustrate just how difficult reading can be. And tricky!
2) They’re a terrific learning opportunity.

You can talk about how XL means “extra-large,” and that it’s usually a label for clothing. But here, they’re applying it to – not pizza, but appetite. You can talk about how X can refer to other things like “a kiss” or even “Christ” (as in Xmas).

Ask your child what they think the ad means, and why PizzaPizza would use the short form rather than the whole phrase “extra-large.”

Bell’s ad is more cryptic, and requires the reader to know a lot more about what’s being sold. You can talk about how some ads are written just to appeal to certain audiences, like teenagers. So if someone doesn’t understand an ad, it may just be that it’s not targeting them.

And then you can both go out and get an XL pizza.

I actually just had pizza for lunch. Come to think of it, in our household it’s not really that tough to encounter that particular co-incidence. Clearly, we eat too much pizza chez nous.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Get your six-year-old reading

A mom came up to me in the schoolyard this morning.

She said she wanted some help getting her child reading. Her son is six years old and in grade one.

He’s frustrated because he’s not picking up reading a bit faster – so he’s clearly motivated to read.

I know there are lots of other parents out there in the same dilemma.

Here’s some basic advice to start with:
1) Most kids in grade one aren’t reading by October. In any grade one class, you’ll find a very wide range – from kids who can’t yet sound out the letters, to (a very few) kids who are reading books by themselves. So don’t panic.

2) Read to your child every night. Every single night. Studies show that this is the number-one most important thing.

3) Scatter books all around the house. In the bathroom. On his bed. On the floor. In the kitchen. On the couch. In the basement. On your bed. Have them available everywhere.

4) Read, yourself. Let him see you and your husband and other children reading - a lot.

The above steps create a “reading environment” for your child. It’s very important that your home be a reading environment.

The next step, at his age, is to make sure he knows his alphabet and the sounds each letter makes. There are lots of fun ways of doing that, including making up songs about each letter (B says Buh!) to simply pointing to pictures and saying “What letter does dog start with? Duh – Dog! What letter is that? Right! D!”

Stay with this step for as long as it takes – it’s fundamental. Spend days, weeks, months working on the sounds the letters make. Point out letters on outdoor signs. In books. On T-shirts. On the cereal box. Everywhere!

The next step is understanding what your child’s interests are, and then teaching him that he can find out information about that interest in… books. This will create a sustainable, life-long attraction to books because there will be a pay-off to his reading.

The picture? It's supposed to represent "books scattered all over the house." Yeah, I'm a writer not a photographer, that's for sure...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

GKR strategies at work

Last month, I talked to a mom whose son wasn’t reading.

She was really distraught about it, and was searching for ways to get him interested in picking up a book.

I gave her some suggestions:
*Since her son is active, go for a walk and the read signs and ads outside.
*Let him play with a ball as you read to him.
*Scatter books around the house.
*Make reading its own reward – show him how he can find facts and interesting stuff in books.
*Offer him fact-filled books like the Guinness World Records.

And an e-mail I sent her:
I think the most important thing is to make reading have a pay-off for him – the act of reading will give him information he didn’t have. I used to give my son a book, and I’d say, “Oh, there’s something really cool in here about sharks’ teeth. You’ll see it – it’s on page 19.”
Then he reads it, and then comes down and tells me all about it. Pay-off.

That makes reading really sustainable for him.
It’s what will make him find solace in books, and intrigue, and excitement.
It’s what will make him a great reader.

I also told her that it thought her son was at about the norm for reading, for his age and grade level, and that she didn’t have to worry.

Here’s what she wrote me the other day:
“I wanted to tell you all of your advice has paid off.
Even just setting my mind at ease has really helped to let the tension go, and encourage O. to read at his leisure.
He's really getting it now.”

Now that's exciting.

Read other success stories here.

Until I talked with this mom, I hadn't realized how much pressure we put on ourselves to get our kids reading. And when that pressure is relieved, how easy the whole thing becomes. So like life.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Munsch contest for Canadians

Here’s a very exciting contest for Canadian kids.

I’ll start with the best part – the winner gets a home visit from Robert Munsch! How exciting is that? (Extremely.)

To enter, simply write a short story with your family and submit it here.

If you win (and we’re gonna repeat this 'cause it’s awesome) Robert Munsch will come to. your. home. And he’ll read your story. And he’ll do a free reading at a school or library of your choice.

Plus, your story will be published in a newspaper or magazine and posted on the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation’s website.

*A child must be the primary author, but one adult must also be involved.
*250 words or less.
*The story must have a “singing” theme to tie in with the 2010 Literacy Day “Singing for Literacy” event.

*December 11, 2009, 5 p.m. EST.

Family Literacy Day was created by ABC Canada and is held every year on Jan. 27. There’s lots of other stuff happening to celebrate that day.

Well, not only is this a great contest, but this is the first video I've ever embedded on my blog. Good for me! (Let's hope I don't get sued - I assume this video is copyright-free? I mean, it's basically an ad, right? And they'd want as many people to, uh, see it as possible? Gulp.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More than you probably want to know

Full disclosure – it’s just the way I roll.

My friend Julie sent me an article about new US legislation forcing bloggers to disclose when they’ve received products or money from companies they're blogging about.

We don’t have that rule in Canada (yet), but transparency in journalism is always a good thing, so I’d like to address the issue.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t get paid to write this blog. In fact, the darned thing costs me money. (I’m paying a girl to put up some flyers around town – flyers which I paid to have printed. I also buy research materials about literacy to ensure I stay on top of the subject.)

I do hope to turn this blog into a book at some point, but that may be awhile off. But my motivation is, and will always be, just what the title says: to Get Kids Reading.

In my money-making job, I’m a freelance editor and journalist. When I worked for newspapers and magazines in the past and wanted to review a product, the large corporation which owned the publication bought any products I reviewed.

However, my blog obviously doesn’t have a corporation backing it (yet… hint, hint to any of you CEOs who want to back this blog…) So I don’t have a budget to buy products or books I want to review.

So when I review a product like Tag reading products or Crayola writing products, I contact the company and ask them to send me one. Sometimes companies also send me products or books (Scholastic, for instance), unsolicited, to review.

Here’s how I work. I usually find out about a product or book online or through word-of-mouth. If I can’t borrow it, I’ll contact the company and have them send me one. After checking it out, I’ll decide if I think it’s good or not. If it’s good I’ll write a review. In that review, I’ll also list any negative aspects of the product or book. If I think a product or book is not good, I won’t write a review about it.

I try to be unbiased. I truly do love LeapPad products, for instance, and think they’re excellent for literacy. That wouldn’t change if they never gave me their products to try out. (But if they didn’t, I wouldn’t review something I’d never tried.)

I believe in disclosure – I think it’s professional and I think readers appreciate it when you let them know what your biases may be. So going forward, I’m going to add disclosures to posts I write, in which I’ve been given the book or product. Going backwards, I’m going to add disclosures to past blogs in which I’ve been given the product or book. This might take awhile, but I think it’s a good idea.

Oh, one more thing. I don't believe in copyright. I know it's blasphemous for a writer/editor who makes her living from writing to diss copyright, but there you are. I think copyright has become more about lawyers and less about authors, which is why I don't believe in it. Having said that, I do respect other people's copyright. So I search long and hard to find copyright-free images, or I take pictures myself (which typically suck - I'm no photographer, but there you go). From time-to-time I find the perfect photograph and can't figure out if it's copyright-free or not. In that case, I will contact the originator of the image to obtain their permission to use it. Sometimes they don't get back to me, in which case I cite them and post a link to their website. I figure if they ever object, I'll take the image off my blog, and in the meantime it's good publicity for them. Plus, isn't "sharing" what today's web is all about? (Yes, it is.)

So that’s it. I’m glad the US has decided to force bloggers to tell people when they’ve received products or been paid by the company. I’m hoping that my fellow Canadian bloggers (and those in other countries) won’t wait for our government to do that, and will self-disclose before we get legislated to do so.

If this were the Academy Awards, this whole post would be that part where the president of the Academy gets up and bores everyone. If it were a car ad, it would be in mice-type. If it was a drug commercial it would be that weird fast-talk where they list all the creepy side effects. As it is, being a literacy blog, the main side effect is that your kids will be better readers. Suh-nap!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hallowe'en books for kids

Now's the time to start gathering Hallowe'en books.

It's a great idea to have seasonal books, that only come out during certain holidays like Hallowe'en, Hannukah, Easter, or Christmas.

Most of your child's favourite authors will likely have at least one Hallowe'en book. The Berenstain Bears, Robert Munsch, Clifford, Froggie, Angelina Ballerina, Arthur, The Rugrats, and magazines like Chirp, to name a few.
You can buy them new, but I like to start looking at this time through the bins at Goodwill and at garage sales and church bazaars. You can usually get them very inexpensively and they're usually not overly abused, since they're seasonal.
Here's a list from Amazon, which someone compiled of their favourite Hallowe'en books for kids aged 4 to 8. And here's another collection of Hallowe'en books featuring kids' favourite characters like Clifford and Arthur.

I find that even very young books, if they're about Hallowe'en, are fun for kids no matter what their age. When you bring them out of storage, there's a brief novelty to them that makes kids want to pick them up. They're only going to read them quickly once or twice anyway, and then back up into the attic they go - until next year.

Books like Winnie the Witch are not specifically for Hallowe'en, but they work just fine. And for grandparents - they make a great gift to send to your grandchild for Hallowe'en.

So... I went to Yellowknife and I missed Word on the Street last weekend. Argh! Oh well, I still have last year's Word on the Street pictures to reminisce with. Plus, Yellowknife was amazing - well worth it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Great book: Dumb Bunnies

Dumb Bunnies beats Capt. Underpants.

Ever get so excited about a book you just have to tell someone?
Hayley did – and I’m so glad.

She e-mailed me about the Dumb Bunnies series, which she is enjoying with her whole family (ages 3, 7, 9, 39 and 39).

If the illustrations look familiar, it’s because author Dav Pilkey also does Capt. Underpants (of which I am not a huge fan - but millions of kids are, of course).

That’s why Dumb Bunnies is such a great series. It’s fun like Capt. Underpants, but without some of the edgier aspects. (Such as, say, a school principal in his underpants.)

Every book Dav Pilkey writes has its own website, with printable crosswords, online activities and behind-the-scenes information about the books. Here’s the website for Dumb Bunnies.

There are four books in the series so far. Here's how Hayley describes her family's reaction to them:

"Our son borrowed it from the school library last week and we were all laughing at it over dinner one night. The pictures and text are very funny. Our youngest pretended to read it again and again to himself. I guess I will have to break down and buy it."

Oooh, that Capt. Underpants! Why, oh why, do kids have to love him so and why does he have to be so exhibitionist? Strangely enough, it's less his underpants and more that he's the principal of a school who is being humiliated that bothers me. And it's exactly that that intrigues the kids, of course. Sic 'im, bunnies, sic 'im! Grrrr.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy First Birthday, Getting Kids Reading!

This month marks our one-year anniversary.

We had another milestone this month too – our 100th post.
(Woo-hoo! Streamers! Horn sounds in the background!)

We also finished 21st out of 178 blogs in our category in the BlogLuxe Awards. Thank you to everyone who voted.

More importantly, we have helped a number of children who weren’t great readers before, start reading. Their parents applied our suggestions and now the kids are reading. You can click on “Successes” to read a couple of the stories, but I know there are many more out there.

We recently started a postering campaign in Toronto and, strangely enough, in Yellowknife, NWT. If you’d like me to send you some Getting Kids Reading posters to post at schools, libraries, churches, grocery stores – just send me your address and I’ll be happy to send them out to you. And I’ll appreciate your help spreading the word.

But in the meantime – I’m gonna celebrate! Woo-hoo!

Thank you to Val, who designed our poster (it looks better in real-life than my crummy photo of it here) and Grace, who is doing most of the postering. And Laura and Patti, in our Yellowknife branch. Thank you so much! (And Michele, in our Scarborough branch.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sequencing game (online)

My friend’s daughter needs some practice with "sequencing."

Sequencing is important for reading, because it helps you understand what comes first, what comes next, and what’s last. That goes for words, sentences and stories.

A game you can make
One thing you can do to practice sequencing is to take a loooong (two or three feet) piece of paper. Write a sentence on it in marker. Then cut it up into words and mix up the words. Have your child piece the sentence back together. (She can use cues like the word with the period goes at the end; the word with the capital letter goes first.)

An online game
Here is an online game about sequencing.

Pick a game that matches your child’s interests.
Click on “Play this game.”
And then ask the child to tell you which activity goes first. Type in the appropriate number in the little box and click on “Check answer” or just hit Return.
Every time you get it right, it will reward you by turning over part of the image.
What, you may ask (and I wouldn't blame you), has the picture of the old car got to do with anything? This car-bit is one of the images that will get turned over as you guess the sequencing correctly. You end up with the whole car, and a couple of newlyweds, I think. Other reward images are snakes. You'll see.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Teen book recommended by Michael Cera

Actor Michael Cera really likes the book Youth in Revolt, by C. D. Payne.

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Cera said he is a “rabid Payne fan.”

This is a cool one to tell your teenager about - Cera’s career is smoking-hot right now. He starred in the huge hits Juno and Superbad, and will soon appear in the Toronto-centric film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (also a series of books, btw).

In Youth in Revolt, he’ll be playing two lead characters (Nick and Francois) in the movie based on the cult hit novel.

“The 21-year-old says he first got hooked on the novel when he was 16, and loved the book because, ‘it was the one thing I’d read that didn’t condescend to teenagers’,” the Globe article said.

Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the book.

I must admit that it did occur to me that if some teenagers happened to Google Michael Cera, they might just come up with this website. But if that’s what it takes to draw teens away from the streets and over to literacy – well, hey, I’m willing to get my hands dirty. Guerilla literacy - it's just how I roll, baby. Joyce out!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Great books for teens

Teenagers are reading lots these days.

CBC Radio recently had two young book aficionados talk about what teens are interested in, and it’s more than just Twilight (although Twilight’s in there as well).

They said that some hot teen genres are:

*Speculative fiction (this used to be known as science fiction and fantasy) – including post-apocalyptic fiction where the world has virtually been destroyed and the characters are forced to create a new society with new rules for survival.

*Series – they like to be able to keep reading about the characters, even if it means they’ll have to wait awhile for the next book to be written.

*There’s also a trend in which the classics are being rewritten.

Here are some of the books they presented as great for teens.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart – a fun, smart book set in a school.

The Well, by A. J. Whitten – a horror apparently based on Hamlet.

Hunger, by Michael Grant – the sequel to Gone, and the second in what is to be a six-part series.
The Uninvited, by Tim Wynn-Jones – a mystery set in the Muskokas

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe, by Bryan Lee O'Malley – Number five in a series; the film (starring Michael Cera) was recently shot in Toronto

A lot of what the teens are reading these days freaks me out. The world has been blown to bits and everyone's fighting over the last remaining jar of relish for dinner. Brrrr. But hey, not understanding teenagers is the price we pay for being an adult, right?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Tag books

Tag has some new books for learning short and long vowel sounds.

You know I love the whole LeapFrog system. My son learned so much from it when he was little.

So when I received these book kits, I was excited.
What I discovered, however, is that you have to:
a) Find your Tag reader (difficult enough, if you have the kind of kid I have - which is to say, not particularly organized).
b) Find the original box in which you've kept the Tag cord and CD.
c) Go through the books one at a time and download audio for each one from the LeapFrog website.
d) Save it on your Tag reader, ensuring you don't go over 20 MBs.

I managed to get 13 books on my reader before it told me I was over my limit.

Then I was ready to begin. Now, if I was the child, all of this would be transparent to me. My parent would be doing all the work. (So like life.)

The books look pretty good. Kids can read each one, using the Tag reader (by pointing to the words or letters, or the page icon to let it read an entire page out loud).

There are games in the back of each book that reinforce the ideas from the book. For instance, help a cook find ingredients for his "short-a" cookies - all the ingredients have the short-a sound.
So all-in-all, Tag is a pretty decent value for the money, and worth the up-front work to prepare it for your child.

If you want to know more, here's an awesome, in-depth review on the Tag system by KidsTechReview website. They give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Disclosure: LeapFrog gave me a Tag system and the books to review. However, I don't work for them or receive monetary compensation from them and I'm free to write whatever I want about their products. If they sucked, I'd tell you - or more likely, I just wouldn't blog about them.

Product review - I'm going to have one or two of the neighbourhood children try this product, and the books, out. Then I'll let you know what they think. Much better than hearing about it from me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Creating comics online

I made this comic myself - and it was fun.

Imagine how much your child will enjoy creating their own story lines.
And afterwards, they can print them out and put them in a binder, or e-mail them to their friends.

Making comics not only ensures that your child will be reading, it means he'll be thinking logically about plot lines, beginning-middle-and-ends, character development and so many other things that are important to budding writers.

It's simple to do - and did I mention it's free (you don't even have to sign in).

The software is very intuitive, so there's no need to "learn" a software program.
You choose one, two or three boxes. Then you pick a character and his or her "mood." Then you choose a balloon and type in the words.

What I like about this is that it's easy enough so that kids can do it themselves, but sophisticated enough to provide lots of options for the child to make the cartoon his own.

Visit Make Beliefs Comix and try one yourself. Then let your child loose on the site.

Oh, and you know you and your spouse are gonna end up as characters in your kid's comic scenarios, right? The sacrifices we make to get our kids reading.

BTW, the image on this post is a bit blurry - but that's because I'm fairly inept at photoshop, not because of the site. It's very crisp.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Goofy titles draw kids in

If you lie, your butt will grow.

I don't know if that's true or not, but my son sure wants to read this book.

We were at the library today. I was trying to get my son to check out some books. He was more interested in the computer game the kid next to him was playing.

And then I saw - a-aaah! - this book. "Tell a lie and your butt will grow," by Dan Greenburg. I passed it over to my son, and it got his attention instantly.

He stopped looking at the computer. He started giggling. He got red in the face he was giggling so hard. He couldn't believe they would put that title on a book!

Now, here's another example of why I love series so much. Bless Dan Greenburg's socks, he wrote a number of these "The Zack Files" books, so I was able to get a handful. The first one, with the Butt title, has drawn my son in - and having read one, I know he'll read the others.

Update - Sept. 10, 2009 - OK, so my son didn't take to the Zack Files books. Fortunately, he did read all six of the "My Weird School" series that I got out of the library the same day. Meh. (However, I still think that the "butt" book got him on the reading track.) Anyhoo, I'll do a review of the "My Weird School" series in an upcoming post.

I tossed all of the Zack Files books onto my son's bed. This is a great trick for parents - put new books somewhere really accessible. When he wakes up tomorrow morning, he's going to run across the books, and, well let's just say he'll be delayed for breakfast. In a good way.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Brain-training exercise

Brains - especially young brains - benefit from exercise.

Here’s an exercise that Bernadette Tynen (the brain researcher) does with her students. She says that if you do it with your child once a week, it will help to make his thinking more flexible and creative.

She gives the child an object. It could be a stuffed animal, like a snake or a gorilla, or it could be a hat or a scarf – any kind of object. Then she asks the child to tell her what could be done with the object.

At first, the child may say, “you can sit on it,” or “you can put it on your head,” and his thinking may stall there.

You can prompt him by saying, “what else could it be used for?” and he may start to come up with less conventional uses: “You could wear it as a bracelet,” or “you could use it as a frying pan,” or “it could be a garden decoration.”

In Tynen's documentaries (“Make Your Child Brilliant”), it’s astounding to see how quickly children change their thinking from the usual, normal ways of looking at an object, to finding truly creative and out-of-the-box ideas for things.

We know that brain-training exercises like this help the young brain become more agile, which helps with future learning. Plus, it's fun!

I tried this with my son - I gave him my glasses case. Within a few seconds it became a hat, something you could balance or float, a toy... I was laughing my head off at the crazy and wonderful things he came up with. Playing with your kid like that is better than TV, I tell ya.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Respecting the reading bubble

I can tell when my son is reading - and I leave him to it.

There's a certain hush that falls over the house, over his room.

A certain intermittent squeak to his armchair. A kind of quiet that I can't explain, but which I know means that he's upstairs in his room reading.

That's when I leave him alone.

The other day I was heading up to his room to ask him if he'd brushed his teeth... and I heard that silence that meant he was reading. I stopped in my tracks on the stairs. I didn't stick my head in his door. I didn't call out and ask if he was reading. I just went quietly back downstairs.

When kids are actively reading, they create a quiet bubble around themselves.

It's a bubble they fill with the fantasy creations they imagine as they read.

It's a bubble so necessary for a reader, and yet so easily burst.

If you catch your child reading, remember that bubble. Remember that your child needs that special quiet fantasy world where he can dissolve into the words on the page.

Let him go there, give him some time to himself within that bubble, and you'll be helping to create a reader.

Last weekend I was watching a child, on the edge of a baseball diamond during a tournament, who was in a Harry Potter bubble. Last fall I remember seeing - in the midst of a noisy kids' marathon - a boy sitting on his heels, reading, in his quiet bubble. I remember my own reading bubbles from my childhood, and how precious that book-time was to me. Sigh.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kids' writing contest (note: Americans only)

Here's a little gift for our friends to the south.

Unfortunately, only Americans can enter this contest. (I've got an e-mail in to one of the contest judges to ask why-oh-why they've limited it. But I digress.)

It's such a great-looking contest, that I want to point it out to GKR's American readers (you know who you are).

Remember Mimi, that large, clown-faced woman from the Drew Carey show? The actress' name is Kathy Kinney, and post-Carey she started a kids' reading website called Mrs. P.

Her site is hosting a writing contest for American kids, aged 4 to 13.

The two winning entries will be made into books complete with illustrations. (Let's hope they won't be drawn by the same person who did Mimi's make-up! Paf!)

The site is accepting entries starting Sept. 1, so it would be a great end-of-summer writing assigment for the kids. Uh, unless your kids have already started school? Ours don't start until Sept. 8 - but maybe Americans have already started.

Oh, someone, please inform me about what's going on south of Canada these days, because clearly I'm out of touch!
Here's a link to the contest. Good luck!

Additional info: I received a very thoughtful response from a contest judge and from one of the Mrs. P. website creators explaining why the contest is limited to Americans only.

It's a legal thing apparently. With gift certificates involved, it would be too difficult to administer internationally (according to their lawyers. Yeah, that's what I said too. A-heh.).

Anyway, they said that if they get a lot of response from non-Americans, they'll consider holding another contest that's not US-exclusive. So there's your homework, everyone!

Canadians (and Brits and everyone else - again, you know who you are)... do check out the Mrs. P. site. It's quite a major site and clearly they've got a lot invested in it. I found it a bit cumbersome to download, and everything had rather lengthy introductions before the "good stuff" so you should check it out before sending your kids there. However, there is quite a lot of content on the site, from games to Mrs. P. reading aloud.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reading extensions work

You may be wondering why I've been pushing the Disney movies.

It's because extending reading beyond books -- into movies, soundtracks, games and toys -- gets kids reading.

Of course, it all has to start and end with the book. Which is where parents come in. You make sure the child doesn't become sidetracked and, like, skip the book.

Let the movie draw them into the book. But then you have to show them how much more exciting the book is than the movie.

And it will be, because only the book can engage the child's imagination fully. The reader can add detail and let the adventure fly. The book can become whatever the child wants it to be. The movie, on the other hand, gives it all to them on a plate - so of course it's limited.

It's like... my son would rather have cookies and pizza than vegetables or fruit. But it's my job to make sure he eats right. And afterwards, he always feels better. And as an adult, I know he's going to be a vegetable-eater.

OK, enough of that metaphor.

My point is, that however you get your child interested in a good book is fine. Movies and other book extensions (Potter Puppet Pals on the Internet, for example) that get them interested in the book, are fine. And they work.

We're turnin' kids into readers, here.

Yeah, the metaphor definitely couldn't go on much longer or you'd find out that I'm actually pretty terrible at getting my son to eat his veggies. Some days I am forced to count ketchup, pizza sauce and relish as "veggies."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer reading program

Is your child collecting library stickers?

The other day, my son and I went to the library to report four books and get stickers for his poster. (The stickers are the rewards in the library's summer reading program.)

Unfortunately, the librarian would only give my son one sticker. He said we'd have to come in each day for the rest, one at a time.

I understand why he said that, but I think it can be a deterrent to reading. If a kid knows that he's going to have to work that hard for a sticker, he's going to stop reading after one book. Why read more than one a day?

Today, though, a different librarian gave me a whole sheet of stickers, and my son can report the books to me at home. I'm thrilled, because he was really balking at going in to report to the librarian - and yet he wanted his reward.

I really love this summer reading program, especially now that there was a bit of flexibility to it. Every kid is different, and I'm all for tailoring reading plans to suit the child.

While I was at the library, I picked up the Walt Disney soundtrack to Alice in Wonderland (which we just finished reading) and I'm going to rent the Disney video as well.

Now we're reading The Phantom Tollbooth. I started out reading it to him, but he's taken over the job and is reading it to himself every night. I will try to track down the video to that, as well.

The library's program also lets kids write out their book report, or just draw a picture about it. If you haven't yet signed up for a summer reading program in your area, go online and see what there is. It's not too late - and anyway, you could just turn it into a summer-slash-fall reading program.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Internet word game

Once again, I'm going to help you be a cool parent.

You want your kid to read. Your kid wants to play computer games.

The website promises, "64 levels of mind-numbing word action."

Mind-numbing - well, kids love that in a computer game (did you know that when kids play Nintendo they don't blink? It's true. Watch your kid sometime. It's eerie.)

And word action - well, you love that.

Which makes BWLO the perfect game to entice kids to work with words.
In a nutshell, the game gives you some blocks (with letters on), which you move around to make words. Since the blocks only move certain ways, you've got to figure out which block to move first, which to move second, etc., to create the desired word. So there's a logic element to it.

Plus, the words aren't given to you. You have to figure out from the scrambled letters, what the word should be. So there's a literacy element.
The reason this game will make you a cool parent, is that the game's not a pushover. It's not like those academic sites that claim to have "fun" games. This really is a legitimate game in its own right - it just happens to be a fairly healthy one.
You should definitely try these games yourself. More Blocks With Letters On is, as one reviewer put it, "freakishly difficult." Some of the letters change before you can place them, so of course it's even harder to figure out the words. Try the first one first, before the sequel. And then let your kid show you how to play the second one.

I know I haven't been blogging as much lately - that's summer for ya. But I have tons of ideas, tips and resources up my sleeve. I'll post more often, I promise. In the meantime, thanks for visiting the site. I appreciate everyone who finds this blog, and enjoys it. Thanks for coming.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Books for boys

One of our recent posts listed stuff boys like.

Here's another look at those categories, with some reading choices for each one. I also encourage you to post your own suggestions in the Comments.

Gross stuff
Here are some suitably gross books boys love.
Walter the Farting Dog, by William Kotzwinkle, Glenn Murray, and Audrey Colman;

Capt. Underpants, by Dav Pilkey (not my favourite - but boys love them);

Grossology, by Sylvia Branzei (there's a whole series including Animal Grossology and Virtual Grossology);

The Gas We Pass (The Story of Farts), by Shinta Cho; and

Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.

Lots of boys like to read about wars, especially WWII.

Paschendaele: Canada's Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders, by Norman Leach - This book flew off the shelves during our school book fair. (There's also a movie starring Paul Gross.)

Also, see "Superheroes" below. (Superheros spend their days fighting. Punching. Being punched. It's a living.)

Boys love joke books. Joke books are best purchased rather than borrowed from the library, because kids will refer to them again and again. Ask the staff at your local bookstore for a popular one, and then for pete's sake read a few of the jokes before you buy it to make sure that they're age-appropriate but even more importantly, that they're funny - because you'll be hearing them. Again. And again. And again.

Boys also like funny or silly stories. For instance, Chester by Melanie Watt, is a picture book in which the author's cat, Chester, scratches out and rewrites the story to his advantage.

Books that my son confirms are "hilarious," are The Weird School series by Dan Gutman (Miss Daisy is Crazy is the first one) and the extremely popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.

We've talked before about the Encyclopedia of Immaturity, a Klutz book. It's very funny, and kids will read it over and over.

To help them quench their thirst for all things factual, consider the Guinness Book of World Records, joke books, biographies and magazines.

There's a great "-ology" series (Spyology, Monsterology, Egyptology, Dragonology, Wizardology, Pirateology, by various authors). They can be a bit pricey because they have pop-outs and special features, but boys really love them. They also have factoids and lots of images, which also attracts boys.

You can also buy (or take out of the library) non-fiction books on the topics that most interest your child. Think about what he likes, and Google the topic to find non-fiction books on those subjects. Your librarian can be a great asset here, steering you towards age-appropriate books.

We've talked on this blog before about how important magazines are. Visit any large bookstore, and you'll see tons of kid-friendly magazines on every topic imaginable. For instance, there's a kids' Sports Illustrated, a kids' National Geographic, car magazines, video gaming magazines, etc.

Many of the books in this list are very visual, with bite-sized chunks of text and lots of images, illustrations and photos, including: the -ology series, the Guinness books, the Encylopedia of Immaturity, and Reader's Digest.

Think Superman, Batman and Spiderman - comics and books. But for older boys also consider classics like Beowulf, and Homer’s The Odyssey.

There is a whole list of great superhero books that aren't comics here and here.

The Internet
Here's a "cool-parent" tip. Get the name of one of the video games your son's playing a lot right now. Then Google it, with "cheats" or "walkthrough" like this: "Mario Super Smash Bros. cheats" or "Zelda walkthrough".

You'll get a big long page of tips that will make your son's gameplaying experiencing more fun and more enriched. (Don't worry - they're not "cheating" - they're called cheats, but it really means hidden extras. On the other hand, the walkthroughs are actually cheating, but games are so complicated these days, everyone uses them.)

Your son will love you and think you're uber-cool, because you're showing him something new about his game. And you'll be happy because boy, there is a ton of reading to those cheats and walkthroughs!

All of the above
Reader’s Digest - It has many of the elements boys love: pictures, short articles, games, jokes, non-fiction, competition and it’s compact so it's portable.

The Sports section of your newspaper.

The Guinness Book of World Records and the Guinness Book of World Records, Gamer's Edition.

Please share with us your favourite gross, factual, humorous, visual or non-fiction books boys love.

Please also check out the "Great books" category on this blog for more suggestions, and for more information about many of the books listed here.

For more gross books for boys, check out the blog, Getting Boys to Read.