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.