Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing in the park

Reading and writing aren’t necessarily indoor activities.

Facing a blank page is daunting, even for professional writers. The next time your child has to write a story for school, start by taking them outside.

Before you start, remind your child that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Something happens – then there’s a problem – then that problem is resolved.

Also, a story has characters, a plot (stuff the character does), and a setting (where all the action happens).

Get outside
While you’re outside, have your child describe the main character. Who is in the story? What are they like? What do they look like?

Then, get walking. Boys, especially, tend to think best when they’re doing something, so even bouncing a ball might be a good idea. As you walk, get your child to talk about the beginning of the story. What’s happening? How does the character feel? Where is it happening?

Your child will likely look around and be inspired by what he sees. Great – incorporate it. An ice cream truck? A mailbox? An airplane. Use them in the story.

The walk home
Use the walk home to hone down some of the ideas, simplify things, edit a bit. Take out some of the plot or character points that don’t really add to the story. Keep what moves it along.

Your child should now be ready to tackle that blank piece of paper. Get them to write down what they’ve already discussed during your walk, and bring the story to a logical conclusion.

If all else fails, your child can write a story about “a cruel mom who ruins a kid’s day out by making him talk about writing.” Plenty of angst and pathos in that; probably get an A.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A brilliant TV series

Make your child brilliant.

One of the inspirations for this blog was a TVO series called Make your child brilliant, which I saw last year. It's airing again on TVO starting on Sunday, May 24, at 8 p.m.

It's a documentary featuring a woman in the UK, Bernadette Tynan, who selects "average" kids from a number of schools, and helps them develop their potential. Not just that, but she helps them achieve some really big things.

She studies the children to find out what their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes are. She helps them value their own gifts. She works with the parents to help them foster the child's gifts, and she conducts simple brain-training exercises with the child.

It's these brain-training exercises that are so fascinating. They're so simple we can all do them at home. I encourage every parent to watch Make your child brilliant. At the very least it's an interesting documentary. At best, it could help you... well... make your child brilliant.

There's a companion book for the series, which I've just purchased. I'll be doing some posting based on my reading. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cool games on the Internet

Here are some funky literacy games even your child will agree are pretty cool.

I stumbled across this site, and I love it.
It's easy to navigate, fast loading, has great graphics and the games are fun.
And it's by the BBC, so you know your kids will also learn something.
There are games focussing on spelling, phonics, rhyming words, alphabetical order, synonyms, punctuation, and sentence construction. The site also has math games.
The site is called KS1 Bitesize.

If your kids try it, please let me know how they liked it, and whether you think it will help their literacy skills.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Explain the exclamation mark!

This activity will boost your child's reading in five seconds.

One of the most exciting things about reading is the exclamation mark.

The other day, I was reading a book to a couple of kids in a kindergarten class. When I got to a sentence with an exclamation mark, I stopped and pointed it out.

I told them that whenever they see one, they're to say the sentence in a really excited voice.

We practiced the sentence in a normal voice, and an excited voice. They caught on right away.

Now when they're reading aloud, the sentences with exclamation marks (and there are a lot of them in children's books) are going to sound really exciting! And so they should.

This is a really fun thing to teach your child, and it will boost her out-loud reading from monotone to interesting in about five seconds. And that will make reading more exciting for her.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Literacy activities that appeal to kids

Go with what your child enjoys.

I strongly believe that the best way to get kids reading is to give 'em what they like. But maybe you think that their interests – their real interests, what they would spend most of their time doing if they were allowed free reign – are not compatible with reading.

Video games
-Show him the Nintendo DS’s PICTOCHAT message function.
-Teach him to type. Let him use Word to type stories and poems.
-The best book ever: Guiness Book of World Records, Gamer’s Edition.
-Magazines for gamers.
-There are lots of websites with educational games. Here’s a good one.

-Subscribe to Sports Illustrated for Kids.
-Active word games for active kids.

-Subscribe to an appropriate celebrity- or TV-oriented magazine.
-Teach your child how to write (a letter, preferably, rather than an e-mail) to her favourite star. She might even get a letter back.
-Show your older kid how to do “research” on her favourite star using Google.
-Check out the biographies at your library. Maybe there’s one on her favourite star.
-Set limits on “screen-time.” Something like no more than two hours a day, computer/video/TV time. Not as a punishment, but as a new kind of lifestyle. TV-time eats up reading time “like a tiger eats a deer” (my son supplied this helpful analogy). Research backs me up on this (and so does your gut instinct).

The Get-Kids-Reading challenge
What is your child's interest? E-mail me. I'm certain I can come up with something that will appeal to him or her. C'mon! Throw your best at me. I can take it!

E-mail me or put your child's activity in a Comment on this site. I'll come up with some stuff that will appeal to your child, and write a post about it. No names will be used.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Getting your kid to write an essay

The key is to make it relevant to your child.

I spoke with a mom recently who said that her son has to write an essay and isn’t motivated because he doesn’t like the topic.

She wondered how to make the project more interesting so he’d want to do the work.

Here’s what I think the key to getting kids motivated to do homework is: find a way to make it relevant to them. When it's relevant, it's always going to be more fun.

Here’s what I mean.
“Discuss Shakespeare’s attitude towards women in his plays.”
Think about it this way:
-If you’re a girl, put yourself in the picture. Become Portia, Ophelia. Are you happy with the way you’re being portrayed? Why or why not?
-If you’re a boy, imagine yourself about to marry Juliet. Is she interesting to you? Why or why not?
This makes the question relevant for the child. Now, he or she can write about whether Shakespeare’s depictions are realistic, or misogynistic, or somewhere in-between.

Another example:
“Discuss violence in hockey.”
Let’s say your child hates sports. Well, maybe he likes video games.
So mentally reframe the question: “Discuss violence in games and sports.” Now he can lead into the question with something more interesting to him – what if video games were completely non-violent? What would they look like? And then - what would hockey look like?
Of course you have to come back to the original question, but in the middle there the child can choose something more interesting to them, and make comparisons.

Start by thinking about your child's hobbies or interests, no matter how remote they seem from the question at hand. Then get your child thinking about how to link up that interest, and the essay question. From there, it just becomes a "compare and contrast" essay. A++!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The mark-my-time stopwatch bookmark

Please give us your ideas about how to use this reading tool.

It’s a bookmark with a stopwatch on it. So - kind of cool.
As soon as my son saw it, he wanted to use it right away – for sure, that’s a good thing.

But then I got thinking. If I was a kid who wasn’t that into reading, would I want to have that inexorable clock, ticking down the minutes? Mightn’t it make reading more of a chore?

So I spoke with some teachers at my son’s school. Here are their ideas:
*It’s good, because the child knows that when time’s up, they’re done for the day.
*You can use it to “count up” the minutes – and give them a reward after a certain amount of time.
*Kids can set it to two minutes. When the two minutes are up, that’s their cue to stop and think about what they’ve read. In this way, it could be a reading comprehension tool.

So I’m thinking that the mark-my-time bookmark could be really great for some kids. Anyway, for about $10 (or $8.95 US), it’s worth a shot if it’ll get your kid reading.

Disclosure: When I read about this product online and decided I wanted to blog about it, I contacted the company and they sent me the product to review. I haven't received any monetary compensation, and can write whatever I want about the product - if it was no good, I'd tell you. (Or probably just not blog about it.)

You probably have other ideas about how to use this product, or some other kind of "reading-timing" device. Please post 'em in the comments!

Yes, I took this picture in my garden. Don't ask me why.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reading gets easier

As kids learn to read it becomes, quite literally, easier for them.

Younger children exert more effort and have to activate more of their brain. As children get older, and read better, they can use less effort, and less of their brain's real estate, to understand what they're reading.

To decipher letters and words, the beginning reader has to use a large amount of cortical space in the visual areas of both sides of the brain. They use a slower, less efficient pathway (the "dorsal route") to decipher parts of words.

As kids get better at reading, the brain uses a more efficient route (the "ventral" or "lower route") in its left hemisphere.

"Once we know a word well, we no longer need to analyze it in a labour-intensive way," writes author Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid, The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

As kids get better at reading, the decoding process becomes more automatic, and the brain can concentrate on higher reading functions like comprehension.
Why do we need to know this?
So we can assure our kids, "It gets easier."
'Cause it literally does.

So it's kind of like exercise. When you're out of shape and you need exercise the most, it's the hardest - you're pushing all that extra weight, your muscles are flabby. When you're in shape, your metabolism is working better and your muscles are strong and exercising's easier.

All of this scientific-brain-information was taken from Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf. Once again, I have read and processed the hard stuff so you don't have to. No, no, your coming here is payment enough.
Photo by zetson.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Twilight series

What you need to know about Twilight.

So you’ve heard about the Twilight series and you’re wondering if you should get the books for your daughter. There are four books in the series: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

Here’s what you need to know about Twilight:

1) What is it about?
Bella (a 17-year-old girl) falls passionately in love with Edward (a vampire who looks 17 but is in fact over 100 years old). Together, they face dangers including other vampires who want to kill Bella, and werewolves (the vampires’ natural enemy.) To complicate things, Bella’s best friend, Jacob, is a werewolf.

2) Will my daughter read them?
Yes. If you’re trying to get your teenaged daughter to enjoy reading, these’ll do it. They contain everything girls love. Well-developed characters and an “emotional plot” – girls like books that allow them to follow the thinking of the characters and understand their motivations. This has it in spades.

3) What’s good about them?
They’re a quick and easy read – like a better-than-average romance novel. They’ll keep your daughter interested, from one chapter to the next and one book to the next. The characters will stay with you.

4) What else is good?
My teenaged friend, Megan, appreciates Bella and Edward’s strong family values. They unselfishly try to protect each other and their families throughout the books. Also, Edward is a “good” vampire, part of a coven that has sworn off killing humans, opting for big game instead. (They call themselves “vegetarians.”)

5) What should I watch out for?
I'd recommend that you read the books and discuss them with your daughter. Emotions run very high in the Twilight series. Bella and Edward fall “irrevocably” in love after laying eyes on each other just a couple of times. In very short order, Bella is ready to die for Edward, and vice-versa. It’s all very dramatic, romantic and highly glamourized. Remember, this is essentially an older man in the body of a 17-year-old, and he admits that vampires are “the most efficient predators.” If Edward was, say, 40, how would we feel about the plot? That’s the stuff you need to discuss with your daughter – just to kind of underline the difference between fiction and real life.

The other thing that’s kind of iffy is that Bella, although she is presented as quite mature, tends to hide things from her parents and make big life-and-death decisions without doing a whole lot of research first.

6) The movie and the merchandise.
There is one movie (available on DVD) and another on the way. The author’s website is There are also about a zillion “fansites” about Twilight. Twilight is huge – think “Harry Potter” huge.

7) Cool facts you can tell your daughter.
*The interesting spelling of Stephenie Meyer’s first name comes from her father, Stephen.
*She has brothers named Seth and Jacob (both names of prominent werewolves in the books).
*She is working on a fifth book, Midnight Sun, which is Twilight written from Edward’s perspective. However, it was leaked on the Internet and that bummed her out. Here’s a link to the author’s statement about the leak. She is still planning to publish the book, likely this year. Update: Nope, she's not doing the Edward book now. Blame the leak. Instead, she'll publish a book from Bree Tanner's perspective (from Eclipse). Read about it here.

Something that bums me out - the books contain some spelling mistakes. (Who’s instead of whose, the odd missing word, and disturbingly, "Bella and I" when it should have been "Bella and me"). But I guess it’s inevitable since the books are, like, 600 pages long. But next time – Stephenie, I can recommend a great proofreader (, hint, hint.