Monday, 22 October 2012

Leave the teacherspeak in the staffroom

Teachers generally have my full support. I think the teachers at my daughters' school are brilliant and they are doing a fantastic job of educating my children. I trust that they always use appropriate language and explain everything in terms that the children can understand, defining new terms when necessary. So why can't they do the same when it comes to parents? We don't want to be patronised, but really, there's no need to use abbreviations or language that we have no idea about and that will just alienate us, and make us feel as if we have no place in our child's education, is there?

I've written about maths language before, and how difficult it is to help our children when we don't understand the terms used. So today when my daughter came out of school with a weekly plan, outlining the topics that their class will be covering this week I was disappointed to find references to "RWI sounds" and "positional language"! After some thought, I realised that the first refers to a new reading and writing scheme the school are introducing, and the letters stand for Read, Write, Inc. And after some more thought, that positional language is very simply using the words, under, above, on, inside etc, to talk about something. How difficult would it have been to use a few extra words to explain these two things to parents, and include us in the learning? If we know what positional language is at the moment we get the piece of paper in our hand as our children rush out of school, we can take the opportunity to have a conversation on the walk home about the person inside the blue car, the chimney on top of the house, and whether the post office is next to the shop, or opposite it. Instead, as the piece of paper is glanced at, not understood, and shoved in a pocket, the opportunity for learning, and engaging in our children's learning, is lost. What a shame.

So teachers, feel free, please, to use all the "teacherspeak" you want to in the staff room, but leave it there. As parents, we're not impressed.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Cuddling letters

I know I've blogged about handwriting before, but I'm currently having trouble again with my 5 year old, who is getting her letters increasingly muddled as she learns how to spell longer and more complex words. It seems that when she only had to think about a simple 3 letter word, she could remember, most of the time, how to write the letters 'd', 'o' and 'g', but when the words get longer, she is focussing so intently on getting the letters in the right place in the word, she forgets which way round to write them!

I watched her write the word angel the other day, and anticipated that she would have problems with 'g', which has become a regular culprit. It would confuse her, I thought, to try and point out that the tail on the 'g' points to the left, so instead I told her that the 'g' likes to cuddle the 'n' in the word angel. It worked! Maybe the tail was a little too long, as it curled around the 'n', but at least it was the right way round.

So what about other letters? 'Y' and 'j', like 'g',  always cuddle the letter before. The 'c' in chat is friends with the 'h' and likes to have a chat so it's got it's mouth open, facing the 'h'. The 'k' of course, is kicking the 'i' in kite, and the 'p' has its back to the 'o' in hop. Of course, the danger is that kids will then remember this and try to write the 'p' with its back to the 'o' in pond, which won't work. But hopefully, once they've practised, and started to write their letters correctly again, they'll remember this and it will automatically translate to their other words.

You can come up with your own silly ideas, depending on which letters your child struggles with, and which word they are trying to write. If we make it fun, it should take the stress out of writing, which will encourage them to write and practice even more, ultimately helping our children to develop beautiful handwriting!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Who are the miniature wives?

Due to a slight and hopefully temporary hearing loss that my older daughter has been suffering from, the correct pronunciation of new vocabulary in our house can be a bit hit and miss. Even without this issue, my younger daughter also comes out with some corkers - as I suspect all children do from time to time. We wear "curvy grips" (kirby grips - I think they're bobby pins for my American friends), and recently enjoyed watching the "Power-Olympians" - I particularly liked that mis-hear. When we say our prayers, I think we are sometimes asking God to give us our dresses (instead of forgiving us our trespasses). But my favourite by far was back last winter when we were listening to the beautiful Christmas number one on the radio, sung by the miniature wives choir! 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Wow words

The wow word in our house this morning was "frequency". And "frequent" and "frequently". We had a spelling list of "high frequency words", which prompted my children to discuss what this meant, and how else we could use this wow word.

According to Ros Wilson, creator of Oxford School Improvement's Big Writing, used in many primary schools,  wow words are words that you would not expect your child, at their age, to know and use, and you are impressed when they do. Children are encouraged in literacy lessons in school to expand their vocabulary and explore new words, and new ways of using them when speaking and writing. If your child comes out with a new word, and it makes you go "Wow, that's a great word to use - well done!" then that's a wow word. Wow words are different depending on the age of the child. While "frequency" was a wow word for my 5 and 7 year old this morning, I would not necessarily expect it to be a wow word to an 11 year old.

Help your children by using wow words when talking to them. Using a new word and then discussing what it means and coming up with other examples of when it can be used, will expand their vocabulary and have benefits for their writing and speaking in all areas of the curriculum, at school, and at home. Having a large vocabulary can be seen to be irritatingly rather than endearingly precocious, but by teaching them to discover these new words we are increasing their confidence in using English and increasing their chances of doing well in literacy especially but in all subjects in school. So I'll put up with a little bit of irritating precociousness while I teach them what precocious means.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Is text speak a bad thing?

I've always felt proud of the fact that I'm not very good at text speak. I was in my twenties before I got my first mobile phone, and as well as being a stickler for always using good grammar and correct spelling, I'm not always the coolest kid (or adult) on the block. I've discussed text speak with other parents, and the general feeling has been that the constant use of text speak in email, text messages, and instant online chat can only be a bad thing when it comes to learning and reinforcing good grammar habits. However, an article published in the Telegraph last week made me rethink this point of view.

Researchers from Coventry University assessed primary and secondary school age children, and although their sample was relatively small, their findings seem to show that there is no evidence linking the use of text speak, with its associated poor grammar and spelling, and the understanding of grammar and aptitude for spelling amongst children when writing standard English.

Perhaps rather than indicating a lack of ability to use good grammar, it actually shows that children and teenagers have the ability to learn a new language. As well as being competently literate in standard English, kids of today are also literate in text speak, able to switch from one to the other depending on the situation. So maybe, instead of worrying that constant texting will impede the ability of our kids to write and spell correctly in other areas of life, we should celebrate their bilingualism.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Back to homework

So after the first few hectic days of trying to get the kids up early again and remembering to label everything and coping with the back-to-school nerves and hunting out PE bags that have been lost in the bottom of the wardrobe, we can breathe again. It's amazing how quickly we settle back into the routine of the school run, the sigh of relief when they're safely dropped off and they become someone else's responsibility for 6 hours, and the joy we feel as they run out of school with a smile on their face, having had a good day.

And then there's the homework. I suspect that we will get our first homework on Friday this week, but some of your children may already have been given homework assignments or books to read. Now I have mixed feelings about homework. Part of me feels that my children have worked hard enough during those 6 hours at school, so why, when they're shattered, should they have to do yet more work. And then another part of me wants to be involved in their learning, and knows how important it is to involve parents in their child's education, and so I enjoy sitting down with them and finding out what they're learning in school, and thinking up ways that I can enhance their learning of a particular topic, and help to make learning at home fun too.

Even the dullest homework activities can be adapted and made into something more exciting, with a little bit of enthusiasm from us as parents. A school reading book can be read together in the garden, in bed, or in the bath. You can tell your child to shout the words on one page, and whisper the next page. You can ask them to tell you what happens next, after the book is finished. If they want to read alone, get them to retell the story to you in their own words, or suggest they make a comic strip telling all or part of the story. Make up a wordsearch, or play hangman or other word games to help them learn their spellings. Go the the library together to find "real" books to research projects, and then sit down at the computer together too. Make a sticker chart with a reward for when they have completed their homework for the week, or a certain number of pieces of homework. Rewrite maths problems on individual cards to do one by one if a whole sheet of problems seems overwhelming, and decorate this with stickers too when they get the answers right.

Teacher friends reading this, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think any teacher would mind if the homework is not returned on the same piece of paper and in the same format that it was given out on. The aim of a sheet of spellings is to learn to spell those words correctly, and returning a different sheet of paper to the 'Look, Cover, Write, Check, then write ten super sentences' one given out will not matter as long as the spellings have been learned and the sentences written. If the maths homework comes back to school on flashcards and decorated with stickers it may be a pain to fit into the child's file, but teachers can work around that I'm sure. And it's a better option than having a child who either hates homework, or refuses to do it at all.

So let's not be scared of homework this term, but embrace it with a new enthusiasm which will hopefully rub off on the kids!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Returning with confidence?

I've had a break from blogging over the summer, just like the kids have had a break from school. And returning to it, I'm not sure where to start or whether anyone is interested anyway. Maybe I'm having a crisis of confidence. A bit like my children at the start of a new term.

A new class, a new teacher, friends they haven't seen for 6 weeks - relationships change, and there's excitement about what the new term will bring, but also worries too. Worries about the challenges, both academic and social, that the new year will bring. Most children will have days when they are reluctant to go to school, whether that be the start of a new term, or just a tired Monday morning when a difficult week stretches ahead, and it's not easy to inject them with the confidence and love of school that we wish they'd always feel.

Whether your child bounced out of bed and raced to the school gate on that first day back, or whether they dragged their heels and clung to you for an extra moment for the goodbye hug, they all have to go in and face the day. Alleviate their worries by talking to them about what will happen in their new class and asking what their new teacher is like, stressing that some things are the same and that change can be positive; be organised and make sure they have everything they need for school so they don't have the worry of forgetting something or being unprepared; smile yourself and show outwardly that you are confident and happy and they will feel better. All these things and more will help your children to cope with the wobbles a new term, or even a new day can bring. And if you are lucky enough to have children who never worry about anything, count your blessings and enjoy it.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Holiday fun

My 7 year old came, quite literally, bouncing into our bedroom this morning, with excitement at the prospect of going on her school trip today. They're both off to a farm for some end of term fun, and it got me thinking about the learning that takes place outside the classroom.

We often think that these trips are just a fun day out to treat the kids at the end of a long and busy school year. They'll get to feed the goats and lambs, hold the chicks and stroke the guinea pigs, and hopefully have a play in the park if the rain holds off. When I stopped to consider it though, I realised there's a lot more to a school trip than just fun and games. I bet there's plenty of children there today who've never held a chick and stopped to consider where it comes from, and heard about the life cycle of a hen. Seeing a lamb up close and feeding it from a bottle raises questions about mammals and how they feed their young, and why sheep can't always feed more than one lamb themselves. The adventure playground and climbing frame is great exercise and can be a confidence builder for the less adventurous as they strive to keep up with their peers.

So let's continue these experiences in the school holidays. Days out, holidays, even playing in the garden are all opportunities to teach our kids something new. On a walk in the woods point out the variety of plants and see how many you can identify. (Or find out later, as we often do, as I'm useless at plant identification and have been known to take a photograph and bring it home to show my husband.) Listen to hear the sounds of different birds, and spot insects. Search in rockpools on the beach for creatures and seaweed, or talk about how fishing towns and villages along the coast have changed. The Newbiggin Maritime Museum is one of my recent discoveries - as well as being right on one of my favourite beaches in the northeast it also offers craft activities for children, a lovely cafe and interactive displays which teach about the history of Newbiggin-by-the-sea. This is just one of many great places like this around the coast.

If you're going away on holiday this year take the opportunity to sample different local foods. And not just abroad too. Here in the northeast we have stotties and pease pudding. In the midlands pork pies and stilton cheese both hail from Melton Mowbray, and yummy traditional bakewell tarts can be found in Bakewell in Derbyshire. And if you go down to Cornwall this summer don't forget to try the Cornish pasty and talk to your children about the history of mining and how the pasty was a complete meal that could be taken down the mine and eaten easily without cutlery and that stayed warm for hours.

Learning doesn't end with the school term, and while reading and practising academics in the holidays are useful, we must never underestimate the learning that takes place when we're just playing out and having fun.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Charity begins at home....

.... and with teaching our children about it. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how we respond to suffering in others, and how we care for people we don't even know. It's very easy to give them a pound to put in the box on a non-uniform day in school to raise money for a charity that they won't even remember the name of tomorrow, but it's much harder to teach them what it means to need the help of that charity.

I've started volunteering with a local food bank recently - we give food parcels to local families who are in real need, and I've been thrilled with the response from parents at my daughter's school who have donated food for the project. I'm always amazed at how generous people are, and the fact that it's being left in the school porch, where the children pass through every day, will hopefully mean that the kids take note of this very practical way that we can help people in need, on our doorstep.

We're taking our children to India this summer and we've tried to talk to them about the poverty we'll see while we're there, and the fact that there will be children we will meet who don't have enough to eat either, or even any toys. This second thing seems to have caught their imagination and they've started coming up with ideas of small toys and gifts that we can take to give to children that we meet - pens, bouncy balls, balloons. While I'm not sure how much difference a bouncy ball will make to an Indian child living in poverty, I'm hoping that the act of giving and thinking of others will have an effect on our children that lasts until they are adults and can make a more significant difference, by how they chose to live their lives.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Coping with disappointment

My 5 year old, who is at the end of her first year at school, has been very quiet this evening. The problem is that, in her own words, she has "worked really hard all year but didn't get the award for best work". The award, note, not an award. There is only one award given out in each year group for the child who produces the best work, and all the other children will be disappointed.

Unfortunately, such disappointments are a part of life. As adults we try our best in job interviews, but employers can't appoint all applicants, no matter how much effort and aptitude they display. How many of us felt the pain of unrequited love as a teenager when we failed, despite our best efforts, to win the heart of a gorgeous god/goddess and watched them fall for our friend instead? And after all Andy Murray's hard work and training, he still failed to lift the winner's cup at Wimbledon. That's life; there's often only one "winner", and my daughter, at the tender age of 5, feels like a "loser".

Cuddles, banana and chocolate cake, and lots of praise and reassurance have been my tactics. Acknowledging her feelings and allowing her to feel upset, while at the same time attempting to boost her confidence by pointing out the good school report she received, the positive comments from her teacher, and the great work she's done this year. Awards day in school happens once a year, but she knows that her and her sister get the awards for the best children in the world, from me, every day.

Friday, 6 July 2012

How much to say?

Whilst listening to the news on the radio recently, my 7 year old asked me what the word murder meant. It was one of those moments where you wonder how much to say and how far this conversation will go. And, as usual, I was surprised when it wasn't the definition of murder that interested her, but rather the subsequent discussion on mental illness. She found it difficult to grasp the concept of mental illness, and I'm not sure how far my attempts to explain how being mentally ill can affect a person's behaviour, were grasped by her.

How far do we go when our children ask us these questions? While we want to preserve their innocence for as long as possible, we have to accept that we live in the real world and they will hear things and see things that we don't necessarily want them to, and before we think they are ready. When they don't have the vocabulary or maturity to fully comprehend something as difficult as murder or mental illness it's tempting to shy away from the subject completely, but I believe that we have a responsibility to address the issues that our children ask about. Our knowledge of our own children and how much they can deal with will dictate how far we go with an explanation, but to dismiss their questions entirely does them a disservice and runs the risk that they will stop asking us altogether.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Boys and Reading

The National Literacy Trust has this week published a report showing evidence that boys are falling behind girls when it comes to reading. Carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Boys’ Reading Commission (now there's a mouthful!), the report states that at age eleven 20% of boys are failing to reach the expected level in reading, compared with only 12% of girls. The Commission also found that boys are more likely to want to watch TV than read a book and that they struggle to find books that interest them.

So why are boys not turned on by reading? And what can we do to help? I think this starts very early on at home, before children even start school. The gender stereotypes that we all claim to try and do away with nevertheless take hold, and parents find themselves playing lots of active games with their boys, claiming they have lots of energy and need to be on the go. Girls on the other hand are encouraged to be gentle and love doing “crafty things”. Even by the time they get to toddlers I can see a preference in many of the boys for racing round the room and playing on the cars and bikes, while the girls come over to the “messy lady” (that’s me) and sit quietly to glue and stick and draw. They’re encouraged to try writing their name and identify the shapes and colours and letters that I have out on the table. Maybe I’m guilty myself, of subconsciously making more effort to welcome and encourage the girls, thinking they’ll get more out of it, and allowing the boys to be boys, and run off their energy. The National Literacy Trust also found that boys are less likely to be given books as presents, and that role models in schools are more likely to be female (either staff who teach reading or volunteers who come in and help with reading).

Boys may not want to sit quietly for hours and read a book – some do of course, and we must be careful of making generalisations - but we can encourage our boys; our own children and the boys that we know, by praising them when they do spend some time, even 5 minutes, reading. We can make sure there’s a wide choice of reading material to choose from: comics, adventure books, non-fiction books, books linked to their favourite TV programmes, even sticker books. We can ensure they get positive messages about reading from men – grandfathers, fathers, uncles and friends of the family can be asked to talk to them about their favourite books and what they like reading. So often reading is seen as uncool for boys, so to get a positive message from a man about reading is very powerful, for both boys and girls.

A last word from me: Make books fun. Having the time to read a book, either together or alone should be a treat and something we enjoy, not a chore. Being passionate and enthusiastic about reading is vital to your child’s learning, so don’t be afraid to dance around the room when reciting a favourite poem or put on silly voices for different characters – if they see you engaged and enjoying yourself, they will be too.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Spelling Stress

We're coming to the end of the school year and we're all tired in our house. Things that we've coped with all year have now become a huge deal and we had a meltdown after school today over spellings. The rule in our house is that when we come home from school we spend anything from a few minutes to half an hour at the kitchen table, having a snack, chatting about the day and doing some homework. Today I decided to ignore the rules and the kids took their snacks into the garden while I sat down at the computer. There's no point in getting stressed over spellings when you're 7 (or 36), so I decided to try a new approach. I might get into trouble with the teacher, but at this point I'm going to take my chances, so I decided to make our own spelling sheet. By chance, this week's spellings are countries, so I found a helpful website and copied and pasted flags into a word document, and then made a wordsearch containing all of the spellings. Took up a bit of my time, but hey, if it works it's worth the stress free homework time tomorrow. 
I'm still trying to work out how to link the word document that I've created to this blog but feel free to post a comment below and I'll happily email it to you! 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Rose-tinted "progress"

I used to live in India. I taught at a school there with my husband, and my eldest daughter was born while we lived there. The pace of life was less hectic, we were a lot less stressed and we had loads of friends. We never argued with each other, and never had disagreements with work colleagues. The surroundings were beautiful and we had no issues with pollution, or water supply, or bills. The weather was always sunny, but not too hot. Hang on a minute - was it really that good? We're going back for a holiday this summer, which I think is a really good idea because we've started to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, remembering only the good times, and are beginning to think about working abroad again. Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but it will do us good to be reminded of some of the frustrations and difficulties of living in India before we go any further down that path.

My point here is that we all, at times, look back on the past as being some kind of golden age. Maybe not our own childhood, but we can all imagine a time when things were better, and the phrases "When we were kids..." and "It never did me any harm..." are commonplace among parents. And the Government too it seems. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education has now announced that he would like a return to O-Levels, qualifications that were scrapped when I was just starting secondary school. If change is needed to our education system (although I'm not convinced that such radical changes are needed) then surely we should be looking at moving forwards, not back to something that was deemed to be outdated in the 1980s. Mr Gove seems to be under the impression that a return to the way things were done when my parents were at school will better equip our children to live in the 21st century. That's right, a system that educated children to live and work in the 1960s and 70s, to be reintroduced today. Hmm.

If we want our children to succeed in the system that the Government imposes on them, then we will have to roll with the changes, and attempt to keep up to date with the methods and strategies that Gove sees fit to introduce. Progress and change are not bad or scary words but Gove has me in a tizzy at the moment - what on earth will he come out with next? At the end of the day spending time with my children and taking an interest in what they are doing (whatever that is!) at each stage of their education is the best way to help and support them and that's what I'll continue to do, whether that be learning Latin with them, or helping them to revise for their O-Levels.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Getting letters dackwarbs

Many children get their letters and numbers backwards at some point, and this is perfectly normal, but as parents, we do worry about it. If your child is 7, 8 or even older and still getting (or starting to get) their 'b' and 'd' mixed up, don't despair - chances are they will get the hang of it eventually, but extra stress from you isn't necessarily going to help!

The most common confusion is over 'b' and 'd' but talking to parents and teachers it seems that children can struggle with most letters, and with their numbers too. It's hard to get 'o' wrong, but other regular culprits include 'g', 'j', 'p', 'z', 'h', and 's', and in the number family '2', '3', '5' and '7' can be tricky, as can remembering that twelve is written as '12', not '21'. So what we can do to help our children? Here's a list of tips:

  • Gently correct your child when you see them make a mistake. Saying something like "This is the way we write the letter 'b'. Do you want to try?", can be much more effective than being too strict or worrying them.
  • Use a try of sand or foam to trace the shapes of letters and numbers with your fingers. They can copy yours or do their own, but get them to focus on the letters and numbers they struggle with.
  • When you're reading together, point out the letters they are finding difficult to write, and talk about them. The more they see the correct letter, the more likely they are to be able to identify their own mistakes because their writing will 'look wrong'.
  • Play a tracing game on your hand where you close your eyes and ask your child to trace a letter on the palm of your hand. They will want to get it the right way round so that you can guess the right letter; then do it to them.
  • Don't be afraid to talk to the class teacher if you are worried. Chances are they will be able to reassure you and give you some more tips to try at home.
  • Lastly, don't stress about it too much. Your child may pick up on your worry and become reluctant to try and write, thereby making the problem worse.
Interestingly, I have read that some teachers find that it is the more able children in their classes who continue to get their letters the wrong way round. They seem to be focussing so much on getting their complex thoughts and ideas down on paper that the task on concentrating on the detail is forgotten, and getting their letters the right way round becomes unimportant when the creative juices are flowing!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Kitchen learning

OK, so it's not easy to find the time to make a marvellous home cooked meal and dessert every day for the family, let alone involve our kids in making it. How many of us have the time to spend hours slaving over a complicated, nutritious meal that the whole family will enjoy? Other things take precedence - work, after school clubs, housework, homework. The question of whether you sit with your children and coax them to complete their homework, or whether you leave them to it, believing that it should be something that is completed independently, is one that can be left for another day.  But if we want to spend time with our kids helping them with their learning, and cook a meal for the family, why not combine the two?

Recently my daughter's homework involved identifying items bought from the supermarket that were measured in millilitres and litres. While I was cooking I was able to ask her how many millilitres a bottle of oil holds, and how many millilitres is in a half litre bottle of milk. Measuring things is an important part of the maths curriculum in primary school, and involving your child in measuring ingredients and talking to them about grams and millilitres is great practice for them. Even younger children can be involved in measuring and working with quantities. Before they begin to use standard measurements they can count the number of spoonfuls or cups to be put into a recipe, and they love to try breaking the right number of eggs into the bowl when making a cake. (Beware, this takes some practice - there's many a time I've ended up with raw egg all over the floor or the table)

Another important aspect of involving children in cooking is teaching them about healthy eating. Talk to them about why you're cooking a particular meal and the importance of a balanced diet. Show them that taking the time (even when you don't think you've got much of it to spare!) to make a nutritious meal, and then sit down and eat as a family, is something you value and try to do as often as you can. For fussy eaters, getting them involved in the preparation of a meal can be a great way to get them to try something new. If they're made it themselves they're more likely to want to eat it.

I know that we live in the real world, and we don't always have the time or the patience to use the mad rush of cooking the evening meal as a learning opportunity for the kids, but once in while let them make a mess in the kitchen and help you cook the dinner - you might be surprised at how much they learn.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The guilty pleasure of television

There's been much coverage in the news in recent years about the links between children watching too much television and obesity, ADHD, lack of early language development skills, lack of social skills... The list goes on. And of course, as parents we feel guilty.

It's very easy as a parent to feel guilty. We joke about being "rubbish mothers" but how genuine is that laughter? We know that our children shouldn't watch too much television, and when we're expecting our first child, we have all kinds of good intentions. I told myself that my children would watch no television until they were two years old; I would never take them to McDonalds or feed them sausage rolls; we wouldn't have a house full of plastic junk; they weren't going to be surrounded by pink (if they were girls) or blue (if they were boys). How quickly these good intentions vanish into thin air when faced with a long car journey, a hungry toddler and a big yellow M appearing as if the fairy godmother has just waved her magic wand. Or a tired, grumpy child, and a tired grumpy mother who can sit and cuddle up on the sofa together in front of good old cbeebies. And so I soon learned to let go of some of my guilt when it comes to television.

I'm not suggesting that letting your children spend all day glued to a screen is in any way good for them, but at times we all need a break and television is a very easy way of providing us with this break. However to get the most out of television there's loads we can do, grabbing the opportunity for a cuddle being just one of them. Talking to your child about television programmes can help with language skills. Describing how things happened in sequence and how they felt about certain characters or situations are a way of helping your child to develop essential literacy skills which will help them in school. Use a television programme as a starting point for a trip to the library to find out more about the topic, or even to find more stories about their favourite characters. Jump up and dance to the theme tunes (it'll make them laugh at you even if they don't join in!) or act out favourite episodes after watching them. 

I have met families who have banned tv altogether and don't even own a television. While very noble, and in my experience capable of producing children who are academically successful, there is something of the nerd about these families, and children who cannot join in with conversations about the latest episode of Spongebob Squarepants or BGT may find themselves at a social disadvantage.

I love watching television, and I don't want to deny my children the pleasure, but if it can be educational for them, all the better. 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Rhyme, but no reason?

The education secretary Michael Gove is set to announce plans later this week to make the teaching of English more rigorous in primary schools. While I have no problem with this in theory - we should indeed evaluate the education system on a regular basis to ensure that our children are getting the best possible education, I do have a problem with the idea that we should "start" to teach poetry "as young as the age of 5". Well, I don't know about you, but I was teaching poetry to my children before they could speak. And my parents did the same for me. As yours probably did too. So this is nothing new Mr Gove.

"Twinkle, twinkle little star"; "Baa, baa black sheep"; "Incy, wincy spider"; "Pat a cake, pat a cake" - are these not poems? My children could recite these and many more by the age of 3. I share poetry books with them at home; both traditional poems such as "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear and modern stories in rhyme like "The Gruffalo" by Julia Donaldson. Young children are able to predict the rhyme at the end of a line. Read them the words: "Poor Tyrannosaurus Drip tried hard to sing along, But the others yelled, 'You silly drip, you've got the words all...'" and wait for them to shout "Wrong!" (Julia Donaldson again, in "Tyrannosaurus Drip")

When mine started nursery they enjoyed the delights of Michael Rosen in fabulous books such as "Little Rabbit Foo Foo" and "We're Going on a Bear Hunt". They were encouraged to join in and came home quoting their favourite bits to me. At the age of three. When Christmas time came and they were starring in their first nativity play, they learned to sing the words of "Upsy Daisy Angel". Again they were both 3 years old.

So what I want to know is whether Michael Gove has spent any time with primary school age children recently, and actually asked them about their favourite rhymes, stories and poems. He might be surprised that parents and teachers are actually doing a pretty good job already of teaching poetry to children aged 5. And much younger.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

What time is it?

My children love this question. "What time is it Mammy?" is a regular utterance in our house. Why they need to know the time, I'm not sure. They are only 5 and 7 after all, and during the school holidays we're all more relaxed about bedtimes and mealtimes, so it's even less important. With no school day to start or appointments to get to, we can chill out about the time. And yet they still like to know.

I encourage them to have a go themselves. My 5 year old can tell me the o'clock, and is starting to get to grips with half past. The 7 year old has got the hang of quarter past and quarter to, but when they asked me the time at twenty to eight the other evening, the discussion that followed got rather complicated. How is seven-forty the same as twenty to eight? Why, when the long hand is pointing to the eight, does that make forty minutes?  Or twenty minutes to something?

Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that we have different ways of saying the same thing. So half past three is the same as three-thirty; ten forty-five is a quarter to eleven; twelve o'clock is midday (or midnight if your children can stay up that late). The five year old happened to ask me, at midday today if it was morning or afternoon. She likes to make sure she hasn't missed a meal, so this is a common question; if it's afternoon she should have had her lunch. We were in the car at midday and so had to hurry home to eat! But was it morning or afternoon? Well, neither, at the exact moment she asked me. And that started another discussion about time.

With preschoolers, parents can help teach time by talking about times of the day, and the order in which we do things. "It's breakfast time now, then we'll get dressed and after that it's time to go to the toddler group." Think back over the day with your two or three year old and talk about what they've done, and the order that things happened in. This gets them understanding that time is sequential, and that there are certain times for certain activities. Make a clock with a paper plate, some hands cut out of cards and a split pin so you can move the hands around, and let them play around, looking at the numbers and beginning to show them the time on the hour. This will be great preparation for starting school and learning to tell the time. Talking about the past as well is as important as times of the day. When you were a baby; when I was a little girl; in the olden days (which is very subjective, as was brought home to me when we were watching Back to the Future a few weeks ago, a film guaranteed to cause confusion around time concepts, and my 7 year old asked me if it was made in the olden days? Yes, when I was your age!)

Show your child different types of clocks and watches. My watch has no numbers on the face, but my children still like to look at it and see if they can work out the time. Our alarm clock in the bedroom is digital and they know that this is a different type of clock, although understanding how the digital display relates to an analogue clock face is tricky. Making a sundial is a great, and very simple activity. Next time you spend a sunny day on the beach, put a stick in the sand and mark where the shadow falls, then keep coming back to it during the day and marking the hours, talking about the way the sun moves across the sky and the shadow moves.  "What's the time Mr Wolf?" is a game I remember from school. Play this with your children; as well as being great fun, they start to learn the language of telling the time. There's loads of online games to help kids with time telling too. One of my favourites is on the bbc bitesize page but there are lots more out there.

Once children have been at school for some time and can confidently count in ones, they will begin to learn to count in twos, tens, and then, importantly, in fives. This step is vital for advanced time telling later on, as when you can count in fives up to sixty, you can count round the clock and get to 10 past, 25 past or 55 minutes past. And then if you can subtract you can make the connection between knowing that there are sixty minutes in an hour, so 55 minutes past is 5 to the next hour. We don't do this calculation of course, every time we look at a clock. Experience and practice teaches us that when the long hand is pointing to the 11 on a clock face, it's five to the hour.

Learning to tell the time is difficult; children won't grasp it overnight, and it takes years to progress from playing with a home made paper plate clock to being able to confidently state that the time is twenty to eight from looking at a watch with no numbers. But we can help our kids by talking to them about time, playing games with them, and helping them to use clocks and watches themselves.

Monday, 28 May 2012

A smile as wide as a ...

At first glance, the note that my daughter brought out of school today seemed to say that this week they will be using smiles. How lovely. To spend all week using our smile would indeed make for a happy school. Smiling is infectious; try out a big wide grin on a stranger in the street (go on, I dare you) and see if they smile back. Well, they might think you're as mad as a hatter, or as silly as a sausage, or as daft as a brush... oh yes, it was similes, not smiles. My daughter's class will actually be using similes in their writing and speaking this week.

I wonder what they will come up with? Daddy is like a bear with a sore head in the mornings; Mammy is cuddly like a big soft cushion; my sister is as naughty as a monkey. Maybe I should have a chat with her before she goes into school in the morning...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Spend, spend, spend?

We've all got less money at the moment. But one of the last things that we cut from our household budgets is spending on our children. We would rather go without a new outfit for ourselves, or a night out with our partner, than see our children miss their swimming lessons because we can't afford them. And that's right - our kids do come first. But too often there is pressure on parents to spend money on so-called educational toys that will help them at school and be fun at the same time. So what I want to ask is this: Do we really need to spend money on toys and activities for our children to ensure they get the best learning environment at home?

In short, no. If you want to treat your kids, and you have a bit of spare cash, great, but don't feel that you are holding them back if you don't buy the latest electronic gadget that teaches them how to read, or improves their maths skills. There's so much we can do with a good old fashioned book, or a pencil and a piece of paper. Remember hangman? And how about battleships - the old school type that you have to draw yourself. Try making large number-dominoes for your little ones out of card from old cereal packets covered with paper, or stick a picture they have drawn onto card and cut it into a jigsaw. I remember having great fun making those telephone thingys with string and plastic cups, and using them with my sister. For more great home-made science toys, click here, and links to printable maths games can be found here.

There's loads more ideas on the internet, so next time you're tempted to spend some money on a toy or game to help with their learning, spend a few minutes first seeing if you can find something that you can make together and play together, all for free. What our children need more than anything else is time - yours, and all the money in the world can't buy that.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Getting Jolly with Biff

When I say phonics to parents I often get a slightly scared response. What's that then? Should I know about it? I'm not sure if I can do that with my kids; it's very different to the way we were taught to read at school. It may also be because of the names of some of the characters in a common reading scheme used in primary schools. A girl called Biff hardly seems like a nice, wholesome character now does she? Not like the Jennifer Yellow-Hat that I remember from school!

Phonics is basically just a new name for teaching kids to read by using the sounds of the letters or groups of letters rather than the letter names. So when reading the word cat for the first time, children sound out the sounds c-a-t, as they sound in the word, instead of the names of the letters that we know and use as adults. As they progress onto more complex words they are taught that groups of letters make new sounds, so c and h make the sound "ch", like a choo choo train, and a and r make the "ar" sound that you make when you visit the doctor and she says "Say ah". (or "ar"). So when they read words like much they can sound it out m-u-ch, and card is c-ar-d.

Knowing that these individual letters and groups of letters make particular sounds is important in the teaching of phonics and there are sets of actions that can be taught to help children remember them. Jolly Phonics is used widely in UK primary schools and the actions, stories and songs that children come home with are all found on their website.

I have heard people question phonics as a system of teaching children to read, as we all learn in different ways and not all words can be sounded out.  Common words such as "said", "of" and "my" just have to be learnt by children. But phonics does not claim to be the total answer, and schools also teach whole word recognition, where children learn to look at a word and recognise it as a whole rather than trying to sound it out. Children learn the shape and look of their name, often before they learn to read the individual letters that make it up, and teachers are not claiming that there is anything wrong with this. Whole word recognition definitely has an important place in any system which teaches children to read.

Which brings me to our role as parents. It is not simply the job of the school to teach our children to read. Even before they go to school we teach our children letters, and share books with them, teaching them that a book is read from front to back and left to right and top to bottom. These things which seem obvious to us are vital for a child to know when they bring their first reading book home from school. And if as parents we also know how to break up words into sounds then it's much less stressful for us all to read "B-i-ff  i-s  n-o-t  a  b-a-d  p-er-s-o-n". So let's get jolly with our kids and make phonics fun!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Number hide and seek

I've discovered a new and way of helping my children to understand something today - get them to teach each other! Specifically, asking my older daughter to explain something to my younger daughter, although I can see the method might have merits the other way round as well, if only to consolidate the understanding of a new topic, by having to articulate it.

Early this morning when I was still half asleep and my brain wasn't fully switched on, the 5 year old (who was the 4 year old for those of you who've read my earlier posts; she had her birthday yesterday) asked me why the number 520 didn't have a zero between the 5 and the 2 to show it was 5 hundred. We've all been in this situation - we're asked by our children to explain something we have understood for years and take for granted and we don't know quite how to start, especially when we've just woken up. So in a moment of genius I turned to the 7 year old and asked her to explain it. This method could be risky of course, as the older child could well have misunderstood the question, or not know the answer, or pretend to know and give the wrong answer, or end up totally confusing everybody with a complicated explanation that only she can understand. However, I was pleasantly surprised when she succinctly and clearly explained that the zero that shows that it is 5 hundred, is merely hiding behind the 2. Wow. We all got it and we were all happy.

When I thought about it I realised that this idea of a hide and seek zero is brilliant, as when children start to add up larger numbers, one of the ways that they are taught quite early on, is to break up the large numbers into easy chunks. (Consulting with the 7 year old, who is sitting next to me as an expert adviser as I type, she has just informed me that they call this "partitioning numbers"). This is something that as adults we often do as it's the common sense way of adding up large numbers in our heads, but I was certainly never explicitly taught it when I was in the infants. A number like 520 is actually 500 and 20 (ah - there's the hidden zero), so when we do the sum 520+334, we can think of it as 500+20+300+30+4. The great thing about addition though is that it makes no difference in which order we add the numbers together, so we can choose the way that seems easiest and most common sense to us. Probably something like 500+300, which gives us 800; then 20+30, which gives us 50. 800+50=850 and then add the 4, making 854.

Try asking your child to explain to you how they have learnt something in school, or ask them to play schools and "teach" you, or each other if you have more than one child. You might be surprised at how well they can explain something which you can then use as a basis for helping them with trickier homework problems later on.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

To keep or not to keep?

Since my children were old enough to hold a crayon, they have both loved to draw and make things. We have boxes and shelves in the kitchen devoted to stickers and paper and glue and paint and cardboard tubes and beads and (the bane of my life), glitter. And when they started nursery I eagerly awaited the latest creations that they came out with every Friday: Handprints, their first homemade Christmas decorations, Mothers' day cards; even the scribbles on scraps of paper were treasured. I made a wall of my kitchen into a display area for their crafts and rotated their pictures, carefully storing the old ones in boxes and replacing them on the noticeboard with the newest arrivals.

Well, this was the theory. In reality I did pretty well up until the eldest was about 4, keeping most of their paintings and drawings but sometimes relegating the scribbles to the bin after a few weeks. But today I found myself throwing away a fresh creation, straight from school, with no more than a cursory glance. (Behind my daughter's back, of course). And now I hear you cry out "No!!" and throw your arms up in horror. What a terrible parent I am, not to nurture my children's artistic talents and appreciate every small mark they make on paper. I have spoken to other parents who claim to have kept every single one of their 7 year old's pictures and cards and scribbles, but I simply can't.  When I think of the mountain of art they have produced I realise that if I had kept every piece I would be risking becoming one of the poor unfortunates on hoarders from hell.

I love the fact that my children love to draw, and paint, and stick, and glue, and make. I allow them to make a mess while they're doing it (and they're getting better at clearing up after themselves too). I understand that being allowed to get sticky and make and draw things is really good for them: For their imagination when they are convinced that they can turn an empty cereal packet, some yellow paint and 4 cardboard tubes into a lion cub; for their fine motor skills when they were first learning how to hold a pen and form shapes and letters; for their understanding of science experimentation as they discover what happens when you mix paint colours together; for their spatial awareness as they learn what size piece of paper they will need to cover a box; for their concentration and ability to see a task through to the end because they feel such a sense of achievement when their picture is completed; and for the development of their confidence and self-esteem when I really love what they have made.

So even when I surreptitiously crumple up the art and push it deep down into the bin where they can't find it because I know they'll never miss that one small piece of paper with a circle and two lines scrawled onto it, my children still know that I think their artwork is brilliant and that there'll always be the space and time in our house to get messy.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Spelling dice

So, we've had fun throwing our letters out of the window this week, running around the kitchen making 'o' and 'i' shapes with our fingers. It's grabbed the kids' imaginations and the apostrophes are in the right place, even if the remaining letters aren't!!

While preparing for a session with parents tomorrow I came up with a dice idea for reinforcing spelling too. By printing out a cube net and drawing or writing different words, letters and pictures on each side before sticking together, we can play all sorts of games with our children. I'm not sure how the parents tomorrow will react to my drawings of animals, designed to get nursery age children recognising and making animal sounds, and reception age children spelling cat, dog (it's hard to draw a recognisable dog!) and pig. But hopefully they'll get the idea. Children will enjoy making their own - giving them a letter on each face they can name a work that begins with each letter. As they progress to more complex sounds, write 'ch', 'sh' or 'th' on the faces and ask them for a word that begins or ends with these sounds as they roll the dice. Or, as I made for my kids, 'have not', ' did not' and 'do not'; the question being how do you spell the contraction, or shortened version of the words?

Here's a link to website that will let you print a cube net (and other 3D shapes too if you're interested) to make your dice. Have fun, and feel free to share your ideas about what you write on each face and how you get on!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Our children and the internet

A favourite phrase in our house recently has been "Let's google it and find out". Our children have already realised that we don't always know the answers, but that the internet probably does! Like, why does this white glue dry clear? Or, what's the deadliest animal in the world? In fact, they asked me yesterday if there was anything that google didn't know! When I was 7 if my Mum and Dad didn't know the answer I'd have to go the library and look it up, or find someone who did know, by which time I'd probably lost interest in the subject anyway. But in this day and age of instant answers our kids can find out virtually anything, anywhere.

In a lot of ways, the use of ICT is a part of the school curriculum that we don't need to push them to improve. Most children love the chance to go on the computer, and for pre-school and nursery age children, there's loads of games to practice co-ordination and mouse skills. As they get older, there are games available on the internet linked to all the subjects they study in school, and other than directing them to suitable sites and then keeping an eye on them to make sure they're not going on sites we don't want them to, we can leave them to improve their computer skills, and practice their maths, or literacy, or geography, at the same time. A lot of schools have suggested websites for games that are linked into the work they do in school. And helping your child to write an email to Granny, or make and print out a birthday party invitation is fun and helps with their learning too.

As a parent of a 4 year old and a 7 year old I can already see the time on the horizon where they'll be wanting to use the computer for things that I don't necessarily approve of. There's nothing to stop a child from setting up a facebook account with a false date of birth. (At 13 they can, according to the rules of facebook set up an account anyway). And once that's done, they can share all their personal information and photographs with the whole world. Well, I say there's nothing to stop them, but there is - themselves. I'm not really looking forward to being a parent of teenagers, and only time will tell if I am successful in teaching them responsibility, honesty and safe behaviour as they grow up, but I'm sure going to try. I am realistic and know that I will not always be able to control what they do online, but I hope that I can teach them enough to do it safely. Because the day is going to come, and it might not be that far away, when they know more about computers and the internet than I do.

Difficult questions

All children go through that stage where they ask questions that we don't even know how to begin to answer. I ended up having a confusing conversation with my two the other day about whether other people taste things differently. Like, what does cheese taste like to someone else? I don't know, I replied, what does it taste like to you?

Asking difficult questions is a natural part of growing up and discovering things about the world, but there comes a time when a lot of us stop asking those difficult questions, and start to concentrate instead on what we can easily do or find out about, dismissing such things as what colour is the smell of pizza, and focussing on how we solve a maths problem, or pass our driving test, or get through the next few days at work. This ability of children to ask the random, awkward questions, to think "outside the box" and to come up with creative answers to problems is a skill that we can encourage them to develop and one which will serve them well in the long run.

The education systems in other parts of the world have been applauded for their results in traditional, academic subjects. China, for example has been held up as an example of a country where the students achieve fantastic results in maths. But is this limited and structured system what we want for our children? Or do we in fact want to encourage them to be the creative, innovative thinkers of the future - to discover a cure for cancer, to solve the world's economic problems, or to design a new form of sustainable energy?

Encourage your child to keep asking these questions - often we cannot answer them, but by really listening to them, taking their questions seriously and talking through things with them, we are teaching them that asking questions is valuable, and that life is often about a continued search for answers, not a quick fix, or an instant google answer!

I can't guarantee that you will be able to produce the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, but as parents we can help our children to retain their enquiring minds, and not to feel embarrassed or self-conscious about wanting to know why the sky is blue or how gravity works in water, or whether cheese tastes the same to your sister as it does to you.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Throwing letters out of the window

Some people learn better when they are given a picture or an action - either a real one, or something in their head to visualise. It's worth remembering this when helping your children to learn something new, as the teacher in the classroom doesn't have time to help each and every child come up with their own strategies for learning, and if your child is one of these visual learners, helping him or her at home to come up with pictures and actions can really help them to remember things.

Take apostrophes. It's hard to remember when to use them, and something I use both with the adults I teach ESOL to, and with my own children, is the idea that when we squish two words together, some letters get pushed out, and as we don't need them any more, we can just throw them out of the window. I do actions to go with this too - I actually throw the letters towards the open window with one hand as I rub the letter out on the whiteboard with the other. I think my ESOL students have a quiet laugh at me behind my back at these antics, but there's no denying that it helps them to remember to put an apostrophe in place of the discarded letter or letters. For example, when we squish is and not together to make isn't, the 'o' is thrown out of the window and we put the apostrophe in its place.

My 7 year old has apostrophes in her spellings this week - I'll let you know how much fun we had throwing our letters out of the kitchen window.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Maths language

One of the things that comes up again and again with the parents I talk to is that things are done differently in school now, and the language used, particularly by teachers, is all new. How can we help our kids if we don't understand the words that they come home with? Some of it no doubt, is that it's a long time since we were in primary school, and we've probably forgotten some of the things that we were taught, or at least the names for them, but some of it is that there's new ways of teaching and new names for things.

Maths is guilty of this. The way Maths is taught in school today is very common sense - children are encouraged to play around with numbers and experiment, and really understand what a particular Maths problem is about, and then use the way that seems most natural or common sense to them, to solve it.  Children can and do use lots of different ways of adding up, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, which is why you may have heard terms such as the grid method, chunking, and the one my daughter brought home on a letter from school today  - inverse operations. Basically, this idea involves turning the sum around. Subtraction is the inverse, or opposite, of addition, so if 3+1=4, then we know that 4-1=3. This works for multiplication and division too; multiplication is the inverse of division, so 3x2=6 and 6÷2=3.

The language that is used to teach Maths in school to our children may be different to that used when we were at school, but that doesn't mean that as parents we can't learn to speak it.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Having a Maths day.

I looked at the jumbled heap of toys, clothes, food and a large blue sleeping bag on the living room floor and realised that this activity had actually worked. My two children had understood the concept of a Venn diagram, and found objects that fitted into two hula hoops labelled "things that are blue" and "things we could take on holiday", with the space where the hula hoops intersected overflowing with the blue sleeping bag.  We were having a "Maths day". Is this a bit geeky, or is cool? I like to think it's the latter, but then I do love Maths. It was the first in a series of "challenges" that I set them, with little prizes as they completed each one - chocolate coins, sparkly pencils and stickers.

My four year old loved the idea of taking 5 big steps and 10 jumps then climbing up 12 steps to find the treasure, while the 7 year old found circles and cylinders in the kitchen. They both made me cuboids out of lego, after first sharing the pile of lego pieces equally between the three of them. (Yes, I know I've only got 2 children - we were playing with Flower, the 4 year old's imaginary friend that day).

Here's another idea - if you want 5 minutes peace (exactly 5 minutes that is), set a stopwatch for 5 minutes and sit your kids next to a window overlooking a road. Get them to fill in a tally chart that records the colours of the different cars that drive past. If they're up for it they can then make this into a bar chart. They might need your help for this bit, depending on their ages - this is why it's only 5 minutes of peace. Mine actually co-operated on this one, and worked together to spot and record the numbers of cars driving past. I have no idea how accurate their recording was, but did that really matter? Probably not.

You can adapt these to older kids too. Draw Venn diagrams on a piece of paper and write in the objects, or names, if hula hoops and toys are too babyish. Make it more difficult by adding another circle and labelling them with things that interest them: Names of x-factor, big brother and BGT contestants, or whatever they're into. They could do a survey among friends and family of favourite types of TV programmes, or music, or hair colour, or time spent on the internet every day! Then ask them to present the results in an appropriate type of chart. Play "I spy a shape" with more points for more unusual shapes. E.g. 1 point for a circle or square, 3 points for an oval, 5 points for a hexagon or pentagon.

I think Maths is fun and my kids love these kind of challenges. My only problem is the time it takes to tidy up after a Maths day - now where did they get that blue sleeping bag from?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Is it impoortent too bee abel to spel?

Well, if you understood the title of this blog, you could argue that it probably isn't that important. If the main purpose of language is communication, and I have communicated my ideas effectively, then what does it matter if the spelling is wrong? Well, I think it does matter. Employers, examiners and teachers all rate spelling highly; you are taken more seriously in formal situations if you can demonstrate that you are able to spell; if children (or adults) are worried about spelling, it limits the choice of words they will use when writing. In the days of automatic spell checks on computers, we can argue that the computer will do the work for us. But there are still times when we need to handwrite something, and correct spelling creates a good impression. Indeed, a computer spell check is not infallible. Despite the fact that my computer helpfully highlighted impoortent, abel and spel for me, it didn't pick up too and bee, because they are real words, but I have spelt them incorrectly in this context.

Many children struggle with spelling. I know from experience that the weekly list of spellings from school to cover, write and check can be a real battle to complete. It's not the most exciting activity and children don't always see the relevance of learning spellings. So how can we help them? There's no easy answer to this one because what works for one child may not work for another. Indeed, some children may love the write, cover, check method and achieve top marks every week. For others, games can be a huge help. Hangman, scrabble and anagrams may all grab the interest of some. Shannon's game is similar to hangman, but you give the person guessing the first letter of the word and they have to guess the correct letters in sequence. For example, if the word that they are learning to spell is question, you give them a piece of paper with 'q' and 7 dashes as in hangman. They must try and guess 'u' - if they don't guess it after 10 tries, write in 'u' and they have to try and guess 'e' and so on. When learning how to spell long words, you could write them on pieces of card and cut them up. Ask you child to put the words back together like a jigsaw puzzle. There's also plenty of online spelling games out there, and many interactive children's toys that teach spelling.

Do you remember learning spelling rules and rhymes at school? Try teaching you child some of these to see if they help spellings stick in their mind. "I before E except after C" is one we probably all know. It has plenty of exceptions though, and it's useful to add "Or when it sounds like A" (as in "neighbour" and "weigh"); "Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants" (Because); "Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving" (Rhythm); It is neCeSSary to wear one Collar and two Socks; and my personal favourite: "Dash In A Real Rush. Hurry Or Else Accident!" (Diarrhoea)

Finally, don't underestimate the value of reading when learning how to spell. How many times when wondering how to spell a word have you tried it out on a piece of paper, and chosen the one that "looks right"? If a child has seen a word before, in different contexts, they are more likely to be able to spell it correctly. And that can be reading anything; fiction books, factual books, comics and magazines, even cereal packets. Encourage them to look at words around them and make reading and sharing books fun.

The more that children encounter the written word and spend time playing around with words and letters, the more chance they have of remembering both specific spellings, and general spelling rules. It's not the end of the world when we spell something wrong, or when we have to rely on our computer to spell check our work for us, but helping your child to develop good spelling skills now will meen that they will always be able to maik a good impresion in their writing, even wen the compewter spel check lets them down.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The imaginative child

I didn't admit this in my first post, but as well as being a parent (of 2 children aged 4 and 7), I am also a teacher. I wear a number of different hats throughout the week. One of my favourite times is my voluntary work with the local toddler group, where I am "The Messy Lady". Glue, paints and glitter are in abundance during the session (and for the rest of the day!). Working with the little ones is exhausting but gives me the chance to hear parents' concerns, worries, hopes and joys about life with a preschooler, and to watch the kids playing make-believe games.

I also run the Parents' Learning Project in primary schools, which aims to help parents better understand what their child is doing in school, and so help them at home. It was at one of these sessions that we started a discussion on imagination. One of the parents commented that some primary school age children seem to be naturally more imaginative; more able to make up a story on the spot or engage in an imaginary game. It got me thinking; is it actually the case that some of us are innately more imaginative? Does a lack of imagination hold children back? And can we do anything to encourage and develop our children's imaginations?

We are big fans of Charlie and Lola in our house. For those of you who haven't encountered this duo, Lola is a highly creative and imaginative 4/5 year old who, with her older and somewhat more sensible but highly supportive brother Charlie, lives in a world full of weird and wonderful creatures, strange lands and imaginary friends: Soren Lorenson gives Lola a confidence and a way of dealing with and working through problems that most of us as adults could do with from time to time! They seem to have very few toys; one of my favourite adventures is when they are in the dentist's waiting room and make friends with the smiley boy and girl on the poster who only eat apples and brush their teeth until they sparkle. Unlike normal children Charlie and Lola are surprisingly self-sufficient when it comes to playing games. I cannot imagine them complaining that they are bored or have nothing to do. Even when Charlie is busy playing with his best friend Marv, looking for a terrifyingly tricky monster, Lola simply has a tea party under the table, eventually managing to inveigle her way into their game and catch the monster with the help of Soren Lorenson, a bunny, and some pink milk.

Most of us don't have children like Charlie and Lola. Most of us need to acquire some toys and games and provide some stimulation at least some of the time. But perhaps these things should be a starting point for imagination. Even television can encourage imagination. Try asking your child about an episode of their favourite programme - what did they enjoy about it? What were the characters like? Can we dress up as a favourite character? What would happen if...? Don't underestimate the importance of these 5 minute conversations; encouraging children to think creatively helps them with their problem solving; role play can help them to prepare for new situations; telling and making up stories together increases their vocabulary, and allows them to test out new words.

The national curriculum in the UK expects that children in primary schools will be able to participate in drama activities, to use language to explore situations and emotions and to be able to create imaginary worlds in their spoken and written English.(1) Parents can give their children a great head start at home by encouraging role play, dressing up, let's pretend games: We're in a boat made out of this old box and we're sailing to a desert island where we'll discover... Most importantly, let your kids take the lead. Start them off, and help when they get stuck, but let the story be theirs.

The toddlers that I get sticky with have bags of imagination. For them, the boundaries between what is real and what is imaginary is still blurred. It's a shame that by the time they get to school some of these kids will be starting to forget how to make up a story. Let's rediscover this as adults and get into that cardboard box boat with our children.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Right angles and left angles

New blog, new ideas? Maybe not, but hopefully some new things to think about when it comes to our kids' learning. We all want the best for our children - we want them to achieve more than we did and go further than we have. We want them to be happy first of all, but we also want them to do well in school and achieve academic success of some kind. We want them to achieve their own potential, but for many of us, we're not sure how to go about helping them. There exists a danger in society that we become complacent and too often we blame the schools and the individual teachers when our child is seen to be "failing" at something. But the truth is that as parents we are the primary teachers of our children and it is our job to do our best to understand what they are doing in school and to help them with their learning.

Which brings me to the discussion I was having with my 7 year old today about shapes. After discussing squares and rectangles I introduced the idea of right angles. I'm not entirely convinced, as she told me, that they have never learnt about right angles in school, but I accepted that this may be the case and decided to tackle it myself, it being one of the less complex concepts I have to deal with when it comes to her learning. (Often I too am guilty of saying "We'll leave that to your teachers" when it comes to teaching new ideas and embarking on fresh topics; surely, I think, this is best dealt with in the confines of the classroom, where all the children are learning together, and I trust that the education system has it right on the time to introduce new ideas to my children. I know deep down that this is not the case; I know my children and their capability for learning better than anyone but like all of us at times I take the easy option and brush aside difficult questions. But I digress). The right angles seemed to be sinking in. She pointed to the corner of the room and we looked at the corners of the kitchen table and even discussed right angled triangles. But then, when asked how many right angles the square on the picture in front of her had, she changed her initial, correct answer of 4, to 2. I started to point out that no, it did actually have 4 when she looked at me with that grin of hers, and said, "No, Mammy, it has 2 right angles on this side, and 2 left angles on that side. Look!"

As parents we are all teachers. More than that, we are all brilliant teachers, and our kids listen to us, and watch us, even when they are doing their best to ignore us. Doing maths at home with children often terrifies parents, especially when the parents struggled themselves with maths at school. (DON'T ADMIT TO THIS. Never tell your child that you can't do maths. It gives them permission to be useless at maths too, and to stop trying when they meet an obstacle.) Have a go this week; count the wheels on bikes and cars with your 2 year old; ask your 5 year old to share out a bag of sweets with a sibling (good luck!), talk about right angles with your 7 year old, get your 10 year old to work out the best money-off deal in the supermarket, persuade your 15 year old to explain to you what the statistics in that newspaper article really mean.

My 7 year old knew full well that there was no such thing as left angles, but having a laugh is a vital part of learning, and she was thrilled when I got the joke. If we can make maths fun every day, surely we're onto a winner.