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.