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 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.)