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.