Learning to Read

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As children learn to read, the world around them takes on a whole new dimension; signs become meaningful, directions become more clear, and stories and books offer an entirely new world of fantasy, adventure, and discovery. While your child will certainly receive great instruction in school, there are tons of fun and simple ways to reinforce those lessons at home and on the go. Below you will find an overview of how great reading skills develop, and our favorite tools for supporting literacy growth.

The first building block of reading is phonemic awareness, which is a child's ability to hear and identify the sounds in spoken words.  This is a skill that can easily be developed on-the-go as you shuffle your child around the city by challenging her to think of rhyming words, or by playing I Spy with beginning or ending sounds (I spy with my little eye something that begins with a /d/ sound). 

Once your child is able to hear these individual phonemes (which is just a fancy word for sounds), she can begin to learn learn the letters that go with each one. This predictable sound-symbol association is called phonics. While this word is often synonymous with dull and repetitive exercises, it doesn't have to be. With hands-on games such as Alphabet Go Fish and Alphabet Bingo, you can spend quality time with your child and help her learn letter names and sounds. Digital resources also offer the opportunity for engaging independent practice, and the best of them allow you to monitor your child's progress as well. Some of our favorite phonics apps include Learn with Homer, Phonics Island, and Letter School, which also targets handwriting skills.

After these foundations have been laid, it will be time for your child to work on developing her fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. The first is a question of practice makes perfect. The more your child reads, the better she will be able to quickly identify words; and the more your child hears a fluent reader model how to read with expression (pausing at punctuation, showing excitement at exclamation marks, etc.) the better she will learn to do this herself. The last two building blocks of literacy will develop as a result of talking with your child about books. It is important to not only ask about who, where and what is involved in a chapter or story, but to also think about bigger picture concepts and connections that can be made. What motivates a character? What are some of the problems or challenges she faced? How did she overcome them? How was the book similar or different to your child's real-life experiences? 

Most importantly, though, reading should be fun. The more you, as a parent, are able to express and share excitement and enthusiasm for stories and books, the more likely your child is to embrace the exciting possibilities of written language!

Executive Function: How School Fits In

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and classroom discussions are tools that teachers use to evaluate just how neatly and deeply students have stored content knowledge in their brains. They range from multiple choice and short answer questions to word problems and essays. The former assess a student’s rote knowledge - how well he or she can recall a definition or perform arithmetic; the latter gauge children’s ability to actually use information in order to answer a question or solve a problem.

 
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Genuine learning occurs when someone can build their understanding of a given concept from the ground up, from knowledge through evaluation; it is the difference between cramming for an assessment by memorizing a collection of vocabulary terms, and giving your mind time to learn those words in context, with the support of graphic organizers, outlines, mnemonic devices, and other memory aids. While the latter may take more time and effort in the short term, that energy will pay off when it comes time to study for a mid-term or final exam because even if you don’t remember everything, you have an efficient set of familiar, useful resources to fill in the gaps. By taking the time to build a strong, connected, sticky schema the first time around, students can avoid the chaos and anxiety that comes with last-minute academic efforts.

“But I have too much reading to do, too many assignments to finish, too many exams to study for. I just don’t have enough time.” Sound familiar? It does to me. And the truth is, students do have a lot on their plate. Balancing studies with extra curricular activities, family responsibilities, and fun is hard. Effective time management strategies will make it easier, but it will never be easy. That is what separates the diligent, neurotic A students from their peers, brainiacs aside.

So then students must ask themselves if they are ready to commit to building positive learning behaviors.  Are they willing to put in the time and energy to build their executive function skills, so that they can become better students? Are they ready to more consciously identify learning goals, and then plan and follow-through with a strategy for their accomplishment?  Are they prepared to think flexibly about their progress, and reflect more thoughtfully on their achievements? The choice is theirs ...

Executive Function and Learning 101

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While learning seems like a fairly automatic process, it is actually a pretty complicated one.  That’s because in order for a piece of information to really stick in the brain, and stay stuck, we have to make sure that it gets to the right “place.”  That way, when we need it to answer a question on a test, connect a string of ideas in an essay, or find our way from school back home, our mind knows where to find that piece of data in order to help us solve the problem at hand.  So the question is, how to we make knowledge more sticky?

You can think of your brain like a giant closet, and yourself like a shopaholic.  All of the items you see in the store are like the data coming into your sensory memory.  You will purchase what looks good, and pass on the rest.  Then, your working memory will kick in to either decide if you want to return an item you are not so hot on, or if it is appealing enough to place in a pile with other similar articles or objects.  Last, once you have sorted through your purchases and identified “the keepers,” it is time for you to put everything away some place safe where you will be able to find it again.  This is like your long-term memory building schema.  Whether you sort your items by color, use, size, or shape doesn’t matter, so long as there is an organized system that you can rely on to track them down whenever necessary.  The stronger and more thoughtful that organizational strategy is the better.

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When we learn, our brains are constantly working through this process.  Whether in a classroom, or sitting at home, we tune out distractions and extraneous information, focus on identifying the main ideas and supporting details or explanations, and create a strategy for building that information into a sticky schema.

For the brainiacs this happens fairly automatically; their minds are like a giant gob of super glue - everything just sticks.  The process isn’t quite so simple for those hard-working A students; instead, this group knows how to use subject-appropriate mnemonic devices, graphic organizers, and other processing tools to sort their knowledge into well-defined, easily accessible chunks. Lacking an organized system for schema development, the last group of students, will try really hard to remember everything, but lose most of it in the process.  Some bits of knowledge will be passed over by the sensory memory as unimportant, other ideas won’t make it past the confines of working memory, and the parts that stick in long-term memory just won’t be enough to build a useful schema come test time.

That's why it is so important for instructors and parents to teacher their child how to learn.  Any successful person has developed a repertoire of organizational and study skills over the years. Some are super efficient, others are less useful.  But, the point is to have a "toolbox" full of strategies, and to understand when, where, and how to apply each one.