reading

Reading for all Ages

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LETTER FROM MARA

Reading is such a fundamental part of our everyday existence, we often take for granted what a complicated task it can be. We read emails and work communications to do our jobs; we read the news and articles of interest to stay abreast of what is happening in the world; we read directions and agreements to make decisions; many of us read academic texts for work; and when we have time, we read for pleasure. Each of these tasks requires us to read differently, but because of practice and experience, our brains understand how to adapt the way we read to get the most out of the task at hand - for example, looking for important details and taking notes when reading for work, versus skimming the news or getting lost in the story of a book without worrying about remembering every detail. These are subconscious choices we make as experienced readers that come to us as second nature, which is why it can be so hard to understand why kids have difficulty with reading comprehension.

For children, mid-to-late elementary school marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. At this stage, we expect students to be fluent decoders capable of investing their mental energy into making meaning of what they read. We want kids to learn to make connections to the text based on their knowledge of the world, their personal experiences, and other books or articles they’ve read. While this is the expectation, though, it is important that we help students along as they learn to think more deeply as readers. With that in mind, Talking to Kids About Books includes a great list of questions you can use to guide more meaningful conversations with your child about what they are reading, and Reading to Learn offers a list of helpful strategies to support comprehension.

For more advanced students, 7th and 8th grade is when kids must learn how to analyze a text. Knowledge of reading must go hand-in-hand with ideas about how an author used subject, form, and diction in order to create a more compelling story. Learning to read closely in this way can require a lot of guidance and practice, and that is why it is so important that students understand how to go about this process strategically. A 7th grader isn’t likely to pick up on themes of isolation or male companionship when reading Of Mice and Men, just as so many high schoolers (and, at times, adults!) struggle with Shakespeare.However, understanding how to utilize online resources to preview themes, or watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet before unpacking the text, can make a world of difference by assisting students to read and annotate with purpose. Next Level Annotation provides useful ideas for helping kids develop these more advanced reading skills.

Next Level Annotations

As students grow older, the demands of their classwork evolve; rather than merely summarizing plot or retaining historical dates, students are challenged to think critically, as they take their base of skills and knowledge and use these tools to forge original analysis. In parallel with this evolution in their education must come an evolution in the way they read, and in the way they annotate. With luck, students will have been building up simple annotation habits for some time by this point — but now, the purpose of annotation shifts, from a tactic for staying engaged with the reading, to an active commentary that records insight and evidence with a grander end goal in mind: the analytical essay.

When students read with the aim of collecting evidence to use in an essay, they do so under a variety of different circumstances. Some teachers might provide a framework or prompt before reading begins — others will wait until after the class has finished reading a text before distributing the essay assignment. In either case the goal of annotation is the same: to activate the mind as students read, and start them down the path of critical analysis. The key here is reading with a clear purpose. If the prompts are distributed ahead of time, students should come up with a key — by numbering them for example — and mark the text with the appropriate number whenever they find a quote that could be of use in responding to that prompt. For visually-oriented learners, pens or post-it notes in different colors for different themes can enhance the process. Even if they don’t have the list of possible prompts before they begin reading, students should use a site like LitCharts to preview the text, searching for important themes that they can annotate in a similar way, as these are likely to be helpful for the eventual essay. It’s best to focus on two or three themes at a time — and remember that one piece of evidence might be helpful for more than one theme, and should be marked with more than one number or color. 

If they’re writing a research paper, and using sources that they find independently, many students will find that the challenge is sifting through the text to find relevant evidence. Here, too, there is a shift in the approach to reading; rather than starting from the beginning and reading a stack of library books through the end, students should begin with a focused question and use strategic searches to isolate the evidence they need. This means using the table of contents, learning to navigate an index, focusing on headings, and searching intelligently through online databases. As students encounter the information they will need, they should be compiling quotes into a central location, making sure to include source information and page numbers as they read and record to smooth the process of creating a bibliography later on. Online tools such as easybib.com, citationmachine.net, and the reference materials at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab make creating citations easier than ever, but most students will need an introduction to the process — both in order to understand the required formatting and its intention, and to avoid unintentional plagiarism. 

The right kind of annotation will make the process of writing a critical essay or research paper ten times simpler, and much more effective at the same time. Not only can annotation provide the kind of record that students can easily transfer into a brainstorm and outline, it will activate their way of thinking about the text as they read, setting them up for success as writers.

Smarter Summers: Elementary

For so many kids, the end of the school year is synonymous with a total break from learning. Sure, they may (and should!) read books over the summer vacation, but math is out of the picture, writing is forgotten, and spelling is given little to no consideration. However, this lack of engagement can have a serious impact on growing minds. Studies show that students on average lose 2.6 months of math skills and two months of reading gains when they check out over summer break. With this in mind, here are some tips for keeping your little one engaged.

Be a book worm!

- Take lots of trips to local libraries or book stores so your child can continue to consistently explore new books, just like they do in their classroom and school library.

- Read with your children! Chances are they are interested in books that are a bit too complex or challenging for them to read on their own, but with your help, these stories become accessible. Plus, these higher level books will include great vocabulary words for your child to learn.

- Have your child keep a journal of her summer adventures. Not only will serve as a great way to continue writing, it is also a really nice way to encourage creative story telling through a combination of words, pictures, drawings, mementos, and more. Plus, they'll have an incredible book of their own creation to look back on to remember their super fun summer break!

Don't forget about STEM!

- Building math fact fluency is central to later mathematical success, and luckily there are tons of great apps to help kids master their facts. Some of our favorites include Operation Math, Sushi Monster, Number Run, and Marble Math

- Legos and puzzles are a great way to develop visual thinking and problem solving skills. Let students work on their own creations, or give them a challenge to solve.

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Learn with Smarten Up!

We will also be offering a two-week elementary academic workshop for rising 1st and 2nd graders this summer. We want our students to return to the classroom with confidence, feeling excited to show off all that they’ve learned, and eager to learn even more! Our carefully planned half-day program is designed not only to prevent learning loss, but to actually keep kids moving forward with the important skills that will help them excel in school. We target foundational reading, writing, and math skills using research-based programs within the context of a fun, game-based learning experience.

For more information visit the Smarter Summers section of the website, or email mara@smarten-up.com.

Learning to Learn

Our primary goal at Smarten Up is to help students become learners. We want them to learn how to read and do math, to learn about the history of our world and the science behind it, and to learn about themselves. To do this, we empower them with a robust set of tools and strategies that they can use to tackle the wide range of challenges they are likely to face in their academic careers and beyond. The key to making this happen is teaching students the difference between “knowing” and “understanding.”

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and classroom discussions are tools that teachers use to evaluate how effectively students have learned the material. As we know, assessments range from multiple choice and short answer questions to word problems and essays. The former evaluate a student’s rote knowledge—how well she can recall a definition or perform arithmetic; the latter gauge children’s ability to use information in order to answer a question or solve a problem. 

Genuine learning occurs when students 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 learning 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 before the test, that energy will pay off when it’s time to study for a midterm or final exam. Even if a child doesn’t remember everything, she will have an efficient set of familiar, useful resources to fill in the gaps. By taking the time to learn and understand the information the first time around, students can avoid the chaos and anxiety that comes with last-minute scrambles or disorganized efforts (or both).

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This is where it becomes most important for us to teach our students about themselves as learners. We need students to understand the difference between working smart and working hard (or not so hard in some cases).  They’ve been told to create outlines before they begin writing an essay, though they often don’t do it. Teachers ask them to annotate as they read, but their books often show either pristinely clean pages or ones that are so filled with highlighted text and underlined sections that they are impossible to navigate. They have to study for a test or quiz, and often they simply reread the relevant information and declare themselves “prepared.” They are told to create a plan of attack for short-term and long-term assignments, and they simply open up their portal to look at what is due the next day. 

A large part of this disconnect is due to a lack of understanding. Students know what they should do, but they don’t always understand why or how to make those extra steps meaningful. The goal of Smarten Up’s March blog posts will be to share our favorite tips, tricks, and strategies for helping students learn how to become learners. 

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!