Use A Short Story to Teach Story Writing

Do you wonder how to study short stories with your children–and how to use a short story to help them understand how a good writer develops a story? Or perhaps you as a parent feel that your understanding of story writing is lacking, and you’d like to develop your own skills. Well, you can learn writing skills together by studying short stories!

Following is an example from a study I did with one of my tutoring students. The story is “The Wild Duck’s Nest” by Michael McLaverty, and we used the copy from p 230-233 of the anthology, Impact: 50 Short Short Stories, Second Edition, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, c1996. The story in this book is followed by Multiple Choice comprehension questions, Talking It Over questions, Setting and Character discussion, Vocabulary Multiple Choice and Matching, and Writing It Down description and sensory images exercises. The entire anthology includes exercises like these for each story, and if you can find a copy of the anthology for your short story studies, I do recommend it–though I think you will find the hints in my discussion below will help your child go beyond “paperwork” type exercises. However, if you can’t find this anthology, you can do an internet search for “The Wild Duck’s Nest by Michael McLaverty” and will find multiple locations with copies of the story, a number of which include useful worksheets and discussion questions. Or you can use the explanations below to develop your own study with a short story of your choice.

This blog post will describe how I approached the story with my student. This young lady was a teen who had some learning differences and was reading at about a grade 4 to 5 level, with a general comprehension level about the same. I was not sure she’d be able to succeed with this story–but as it turned out, she really enjoyed it and got far more out of it than I expected, ending up creating a story of her own that was well beyond anything she’d written previously.

The following description of our study (done over 4 sessions) provides some useful hints on how to work with students who may struggle with short stories. Parents should read the story first, of course, and search out the elements of the story they want to discuss, before studying with the student. Try to have the student relate the different story elements to his or her own life experience and understanding.

As we read the first part of the story, taking turns reading aloud, and stopping to discuss words she struggled with, I stopped frequently to discuss things an author does to start a good story, such as:

  • creating the setting, using the five senses to draw the readers into feeling they are right there experiencing the scene through the writer’s own eyes, ears, etc. I had my student identify what sense was being used in each sentence or paragraph, and we related the setting and scene to her own personal experiences.
  • introducing a character, by both direct description, and also by paying attention to his or her actions. We listed the protagonist’s characteristics as we came across them, and discussed how the author showed each one of them. We also discussed some characteristics the student personally shares with the story’s main character, and she thought of other people she knows who have other characteristics belonging to the protagonist.
  • introducing actions which will help us understand the developing “problem” and later the “solution” to the story. It may be helpful to students to create a three-column chart with actions in one column, a note on the “problem” each action introduces (or builds on) in the second column, and “solutions” in the third column.

In the second session, we reviewed what we discussed last time (about setting, characterization, use of senses, etc.). Then we carried on and read some more of the story. As we read, we continued to discuss what the author does to make the story well-written and interesting to the reader (as well as continuing to discuss difficult vocabulary). This included:

  • introducing the “action” which is building up toward the climax, (the boy, Colm, wades to the islet where the bird’s nest is, and he picks up the egg) and this action introduces an important part of the internal “conflict” he feels (the feelings he experiences about picking up the egg and then realizing it may cause the mother duck to abandon the nest and egg). I had my student talk about her own experiences and understanding of wildlife, and what she thinks she would do if faced by the character’s situation. If a student has pet birds, be sure to bring those experiences into the discussion; you might also extend this discussion by going to a pet shop and observing the birds there, or go out and observe wild birds and read about them in a birding book, or learn from an experienced bird watcher.
  • we talked more about how the author uses senses, and I had my student continue to locate examples of the use of the different senses (e.g. sound words like “splashing” and “squawking” and “whirring”)
  • more discussion on how the author describes action so clearly that we as readers can imagine we are right there, seeing and experiencing it (e.g. by using precise verbs instead of plain ones: “clambered” instead of “stepped” or “walked” as well as use of clear, vivid, concise nouns).
  • we talked about how the author hints about what will happen next (foreshadowing) (e.g. before the boy actually sees the nest, he sees gull feathers scattered around that have been blown from the nest). We talked about how carefully the egg’s colour is described (e.g. “with a faint tinge of yellow like the reflected light from a buttercup”) and other things she may have seen herself that were that kind of colour.
  • we discussed how the author helps us feel the emotions the boy is feeling–like nervousness, fright, curiosity, delight, guilt, sadness–so many emotions that make the story so relatable and clear. I had her talk about experiences in her own life in which she felt similar emotions, and how she reacted and what she did and decisions she made when she felt that way. I had her think about how she would react if she was in the character’s place and, if she thought she’d do something different, why she thought she and the character would make different choices.
  • finally, we talked about how we can feel “cold” both from low temperatures and from feeling guilt or sadness, just as the boy did in the story.

In the third session, we finished reading the story. We reviewed some of the author’s methods we’d discussed in previous sessions, and then we took note of other ways the author brings the reader into the story, etc., such as:

  • use of dialogue (the words the characters use–and how the particular words and “dialect” tell us more about them)
  • SHOWING experiences and feelings that most readers would relate to, rather than just TELLING us–and the way the author does that, through actions and dialogue. We talked about how the author could have just told/explained to us the character’s feelings, but how that would have been much less interesting and less relatable for the reader.
  • we looked at description that SHOWS rather than just TELLS (e.g. “the lake creased and chilled by wind”–rather than just “waves on the cold lake”; “smoky with drifts of slanting rain” and “dusty rain”–rather than just “misty”; “light cries of loneliness” to describe a bird’s sound rather than just “cawing” or “tweeting.” We talked about her own experiences with chilly, damp, windy days at our nearby lakes, and I had her try to describe them in her own unique words and phrases.
  • we looked for vivid descriptive words and phrases: rain that “dribbled”; “sodden” instead of just wet; “the day dragged on interminably” instead of just “passed slowly”; “stealthily” instead of just “quietly”; “He stood transfixed” instead of just “stood silently” or “stood staring.” We used the thesaurus to look up other words the author could have used instead of simple words like “silent” or “wet” and discussed how they have different shades of meaning, and when would be a good time to use those words. We also talked about how we may need to look thesaurus words up in a dictionary to be sure of the meaning.
  • we talked about how the author developed the characters by SHOWING rather than TELLING: for example, we could infer that the two boys are poor, due to the fact that they go to school in bare feet, and they have home knitted sweaters and homemade schoolbags.
  • we discussed the continuing use of different senses (e.g., “The wind was…rustling noisily the rushes…”; “…his heart thumping with excitement”) and what the author was trying to show us by using sensory imagery. We talked about how the author could have just said, “The wind blew the rushes” and “the boy was excited,” but how using physical senses (and emotional feelings) makes readers feel like they are right there with the character, in fact almost as if they are the character.
  • we talked about the surprise ending (twist): “There in the nest lay two eggs” (when all along he had been worrying about the mother duck forsaking the ONE egg that had been there before, and which he had touched), and how it made the ending so much more interesting and satisfying.

In our final session, we reviewed about how this story used very strong descriptive writing to create the setting and to tell the story. My goal was to help my student develop her descriptive skills. So I had her plan a descriptive piece about her hometown. We started by making a web with 5 categories she chose (each child might choose different categories, reflective of their viewpoint on what is important): her street and neighbourhood; mountains and beaches; schools; important buildings and places; and downtown.

Then I had her think about sensory items (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch) she could use to describe each category, adding details to each item/location on the web. At first, she found it quite difficult to “picture the town” in her mind and describe it in the given categories. She was quite eager to describe her own house and yard, but seemed puzzled as to why we would want to think about anything beyond that (due to her personal situation, she spends the majority of her time in just a few locations where she feels comfortable).

When I asked her to describe downtown, she said, “Well, there are stores.” What kind? I asked her. She said, “I don’t know.” I had to ask her quite a lot of fairly pointed questions to get her going, but eventually,her web starting filling in well and she became much more eager to list sensory descriptions.

Then I asked her to use the web to tell me about the town generally. I asked her to pretend she was on vacation with her family and how she would describe her hometown to someone she met who had never been there or even seen pictures of it. Then it seemed like suddenly the assignment made sense to her, and it didn’t take her long, using the web and the sensory list, to dictate quite an interesting piece. She went beyond just description to include personal commentary, such as how she feels (emotion) when she’s in the various locations, and the things she likes to do in each of them.

As you can see, a relatively short story like “The Wild Duck’s Nest” can be used effectively to help a student understand how an author develops a story with a variety of elements of writing–and help the student, through relating each of the elements to their personal life experiences, to develop their own well-written stories.

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A Step-by-Step Plan to Solve Math Word Problems

Many students have difficulty solving word problems–but if they learn this step-by-step method, they will find it much easier. Word problems are important because they illustrate the use of math in real-life situations! Also, while these steps might seem like an awful lot of work in the beginning stages of math, by the time a student starts doing more advanced math, like algebra, trigonometry, and calculus, these steps will be automatic and the “hard” math will actually be much easier. You might want to print out the following steps and post them on the student’s desk or in the front of his or her math binder.

  1. Read the entire word problem at least twice, so you understand the general flow of it.
  2. Circle the important number facts for each problem.
  3. Underline the question for each problem.
  4. Look for key words in the problem that will tell or hint whether to add, subtract, multiply, or divide, or use other math methods. Above those key words, write the sign for the method.
  5. If there is more than one question, underline the first one with a straight line, the second one with a squiggly line, the third with a dotted line, and so on. When word problems have multiple equations and/or steps, be sure to think them through very carefully indeed.
  6. Write out the equation. Be sure to copy the numbers (and signs + – x /) carefully from the word problem. Double check!
  7. If having trouble creating an equation, try drawing a sketch to understand the problem better. Do NOT try to “do it in your head.” You can also write the information and equation in words before converting it to numbers and signs.
  8. Write the equation down carefully and double check. Write the equation from left to right (horizontally). When you do the calculations, you can use the vertical methodbut you need to first have the equation right there to refer to. Compare the horizontal equation and the vertical calculations. Do they match?
  9. Is one equation enough, or do you need to answer more than one question? Should you use two or more equations, and in what order should they come? If you are more advanced, can you combine your separate equations into one equation?(Don’t forget, if you do combine equations, to follow the rules for order of operations and use parentheses to make the equation clear and in proper order).
  10. Read the word problem again, and double check your equation(s). Are you sure you are using the correct method(s)?
  11. Solve the equation, step by step, line by line (if it is a complicated equation, you might need to do it in several lines, one line for each step). Show all your work beside the equation, both for yourself to double-check, and so the teacher can see how you have approached the problem! Don’t be in a hurry. (You will be able to do calculations more easily if you have memorized your math facts. If you haven’t yet memorized your facts, you can use a calculator or “times table” to check your facts–but do the rest of the problem solving yourself.)
  12. Check the answer. Double check your calculations to make sure you didn’t make any errors. Also double check that you did the correct calculation–did you add where a subtraction sign is, or divide where a multiplication sign is? These are common errors. Always double check each step. Put your answer into the original equation and do the calculation to see if it works out.
  13. Remember, with the number answer, put the measurement units (kg, L, etc.) or the signs ($ etc.).
  14. Ideally, write the answer as a sentence. This is another good way to make sure you have used the correct equation(s) and solved them correctly. Also, when you write out a complete answer, if there are sets of word problems with later problems based on answers to previous ones, it will be much easier to find the information you need.

It is better to give a student a few word problems that include the math concepts you are teaching, and have the student work through them step-by-step, showing all their work, rather than giving a bunch of similar questions that cause the student to want to rush through. Rushing is often the main cause of errors! Understanding concepts and how to solve them is much more important.

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Creativity Tips for Students #4

This series of 4 posts covers the following topics:

  1. Creative Brain and Inner Creative Self
  2. Creative Relationships
  3. Creative Activities
  4. Keeping At It

KEEPING AT IT: Here are lots more useful tips to keep on stimulating your creativity every day:

  • Have a planner or a calendar on which you can write all your creativity goals and activities and check it every day. Check off things as they are done; give yourself stars or stickers. Be accountable.
  • Allow yourself to fail. Everyone fails sometimes. But don’t use that as an excuse to give up. Instead, figure out what went wrong and work on that. Maybe you need to learn a special skill. Or maybe you made a goal that was too big for the amount of time. Or maybe you slacked off and didn’t keep at it. But don’t give up. Keep working at it!
  • If your goal or plan isn’t working out: Sometimes it becomes obvious that something is not working out. It is okay to stop and try something else or start over again. Don’t feel bad about it.
  • Don’t waste your talents and strengths: Everybody has strengths, things they are good at, talents. Do your very best with whatever strengths and talents you have. Let your light shine! Don’t hide it or waste it.
  • Don’t worry about things you can’t change. We all have times or events that we can’t control. But keep an eye open for things you can change, and do your best to make good decisions and changes.
  • Get enough sleep!
  • Build good habits: Choose the creativity tips you find helpful and put them into action regularly until they are habits.
  • Exercise and eat healthy foods: good health leads to greater creativity.
  • Reward yourself. Set goals for your creative activities and reward yourself with something that you’ll likea visit with a friend, a special snack, etc. Something to look forward to!
  • Look ahead. If a goal seems to be too big, think of the future (for example, learning a couple extra languages will help get you into good universities (including international ones), will help you get good-paying jobs, and will allow you to really enjoy your world travels and even get jobs in other countries.)
  • Don’t just think about these creativity tips do them! Start putting them into practice every daystarting right now!

Your turn: Are you enjoying these creativity tips? What tips can you add—we’d love to have you list your ideas in the comments! Thanks!

If you’d like creativity tips directly related to writing, why not check out this series at my blog:

What is Blocking Your Creativity?
Creativity: Planning and Organizing
Creativity: Be Unique, Original
Activities to Stimulate Creative Thinking
Creative Writing Relationships
Try Lots of Different Writing Formats

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Creativity Tips for Students #3


This series of 4 posts will cover the following topics:

  1. Creative Brain and Inner Creative Self
  2. Creative Relationships
  3. Creative Activities
  4. Keeping At It

While there are dozenslet’s face it, millionsof creative activities out there that you can copy, why not try to come up with some that have your own special, fresh, twist? Be a young child again, and see the world through fresh, curious, eyes. Get messy. Stretch your imagination. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Try to create your own fun jokes and puzzles and other humorous thingscreativity and humour go together. Don’t worry if no one else gets the joke. If you laughed, that’s awesome!
  • Try to do one small creative thing every day. Walt Disney has been quoted as saying: “When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.” You might extend that to say, “When you explore, explore all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”
  • Follow the 4 C’s: be curious all the time; have confidence (it’s easier if you start out with small things and succeed; then you can try bigger and bigger things); be courageous and believe in yourself; be constant (do something creative every single day even if it’s a little thing: step by step by step).
  • Look deep into nature – what is creative in nature? What can you learn about creativity from nature?
  • Learn that your creative work is workand play. Find creative activities you enjoy and work diligently at them to become really good at thembut at the same time don’t lose your inner child’s sense of adventure, curiosity, enjoymentplay!
  • Learn (or rather, relearn) something small children enjoylike the fine art of taking a nap, or colouring outside the lines, or experimenting with all kinds of things. Be interested! Create!
  • Watch TV and films and play games: If you are writing about a certain topic, watch documentaries about that. If you want to write a story in a certain genre (adventure, mystery, etc.) watch TV programs that are in that genre to get ideas on how to tell those kinds of stories. In everything you watch or play, consciously pay attention to the creativity and storytelling in it.
  • If you want to earn money, don’t just look for a job. Instead, think of creative ways to start your own small business. For example, if you wanted to mow neighbours’ lawns in the summer, what creative things could you offer that would make them want to hire you instead of someone else? (Offer to pull weeds in the garden, use a spade to dig along the sidewalk, plant flowers, etc.). If you prefer to be an employee, think of creative ways you can make your job more interestinghow can you stand out as a creative, amazing employee?
  • When you’re sitting around feeling bored, expand your mind. Create a crazy plan (for example: how to catch the little green men on Mars and bring them back to earth and have them live with you)–the crazier, the better, as it stimulates the creative parts of your brain!
  • Look at good, unique, creative art you really like and try and figure out what makes it so creative and why it appeals to you so much. Then try out some of the things you’ve discovered—in a variety of arts like writing, drawing, painting, dance, music, theatre, and so on. Apply your discoveries to your school assignments to make them unique and freshyour teacher will be delighted!
  • Keep at it. Do something unique and creative every day, even if it’s something small. Useful things, too, like trying out new pizza toppings for supper, or a new way to do a chore like dishes to make it more fun!

Your turn: Are you enjoying these creativity tips? What tips can you add—we’d love to have you list your ideas in the comments! Thanks!

If you’d like creativity tips directly related to writing, why not check out this series at my blog:

What is Blocking Your Creativity?
Creativity: Planning and Organizing
Creativity: Be Unique, Original
Activities to Stimulate Creative Thinking
Creative Writing Relationships
Try Lots of Different Writing Formats

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Creativity Tips for Students #2

This series of 4 posts will cover the following topics:

  1. Creative Brain and Inner Creative Self
  2. Creative Relationships
  3. Creative Activities
  4. Keeping At It


Find a Mentor: someone who is already good at what you want to be able to do, and ask them for pointers. Maybe they would be willing to mentor you.

Ask questions: Find people who have been learning to do what you want to do. Ask them if they have had any problems and how they solved them.

Learn to set boundaries. Don’t let people push you to do things (like friends pushing you to do activities you’re not really interested in) when you have creative endeavours you really want to use the time for.

Learn from masters. Find people who are experts in what you are interested in and learn as much as you can from them.

Practice every day for a thousand days or ten thousand hours or however long it takes to master your goal. Take lessons, imitate, watch, participate.

Learn how to say no when someone tries to get you to do something is not the right thing for you, and learn to accept no when others don’t want to do something you are doing.

Don’t compare yourself to people who are ahead of you or behind you. Just keep doing your own very best.

Cooperate and be a good team member.

Your turn: Are you enjoying these creativity tips? What tips can you add—we’d love to have you list your ideas in the comments! Thanks!

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Creativity Tips for Students #1

This series of 4 posts will cover the following topics:

  1. Creative Brain and Inner Creative Self
  2. Creative Relationships
  3. Creative Activities
  4. Keeping At It

Creative Brain and Inner Creative Self:

To become more creative, you need to do creative things to exercise the “creative” parts of your brain! Any kind of creative activity, such as any of the arts (drawing, dancing, music, theatre, etc.) or anything else creative in life will help your brain’s creative centres to become stronger.

Listen to the voices in your head. If you hear yourself saying “I’m not good at this” or “I’m not creative,” tell that voice to be quiet. Instead, say out loud (affirm) “I AM good at this and I AM creative and I‘m going to keep trying.” Don’t listen to the negative voices; keep being positive.

Learn how to be bored! Spend time relaxing, just letting your mind wander to come up with interesting new ideas.

Learn to have a thicker skin–when people criticize your creative work (or anything you try hard at and enjoy).

Learn to embrace change. Change keeps life interesting and keeps you in a creative mode.

Learn something you think you’re too old to learn, or something you think you’re not strong enough, or not smart enough, or whatever. If you are interested in something, at least give it a good try.

Believe in yourself that what you do is important. Don’t brag and be stuck up, but also don’t look down on your efforts. Get to know yourself. Think about what you can do and do it. Be proud of it.

Don’t be afraid of trying new things.

Stretch your creative “muscles”: Use your brain/learning in many different ways (logical, graphical, musical, active, interpersonal, etc.). Avoid stress and frustration.

Think about things that make you kind of uncomfortable or that you don’t like doing or are scared to try, and think of ways to overcome that fear or discomfort. Then try out those things, step by small step, to build self-confidence.

Your turn: Are you enjoying these creativity tips? What tips can you add—we’d love to have you list your ideas in the comments! Thanks!

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Memory Tips

My best-selling booklets on Teachers Pay Teachers is the 3 booklet series on memory tips. Here are some of those ideas:

  • Make associations between what you want to memorize, such as the spelling of a word or a math fact, and a picture or object. One way is to draw a little sketchif it’s funny, all the better: you want to make the association memorable.
  • But you can use other sensory associations, too. For example, if learning to spell the name of a food, try tasting it, smelling it and feeling it while practising the spelling. Likewise, if learning a “sound” word (like whistle”), listen to the sound and/or make the sound while learning the spelling.
  • Practice in a variety of ways: flash cards, books that contain the word (or formula or whatever you’re memorizing) in context.
  • Write the item to be memorized in context of a practical kind of writing (e.g. use a spelling word in an email or letter to a friend or grandparent; do a practical demonstration of a math or chemistry formula, and practice writing the formula on the board).
  • Play games that strengthen vocabulary and word retrieval: Scrabble, Spill and Spell, Boggle, hangman, crosswords and word searches. Play dice games like Snakes and Laddersbut before taking a turn you have to spell a word. Start with the easiest ones and work toward harder ones. If you spell it incorrectly, you can only move 1 place or half the places indicated on the dice (avoid having to miss a turn or other similar “punishment”). Do the same kinds of activities for math facts.
  • Visualize: create a mind’s eye picture. Imagine some particularly memorable aspect of the word or item to be memorized. Concentrate on getting a “flash” of that element. For example, if learning to spell “shoelace,” close eyes and picture a bright, colourful, shiny shoelace on a favourite pair of shoes or boots. Then close eyes and visualize the spelling of the words. Then try to visualize them together.
  • Association is very helpful in memorizing any sequence of data (including spelling). For example, you are memorizing a list of spelling words: banana, gloves, guitar, flashlight, midnight (they don’t even need to have much in common). As you practice each word, visualize it or draw a sketch. Then link those pictures (and spelling) together.
  • Create a fun sentence or story. Imagine putting the gloves on your banana-sticky hands before you play your new guitar by flashlight at midnight. Use any kind of linking story that pops into your mind. Crazy is memorable!
  • Use a variety of writing tools when drawing or writing. Try pencil crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, paints, black/white boards, or “write” with fingertips on textured surfaces (fabric, sand, finger paints, shaving cream, sandpaper, etc.).
  • Study the word or math fact or formula for 15 to 20 seconds. Don’t just read the letters or numbers themselves, but look at the shape of the item, the shapes of the letters and numerals. Close eyes and recall as much as possible. Then open eyes and take in more detail. Close eyes and add new observations to the original mental picture. Repeat until you have all the details in mind. Then write the word with eyes closed (on a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard, etc.), drawing the “word picture” from your mind.
  • Write the item to be memorized with different kinds of letterseg. manuscript, cursive, different fonts (you can also do this typing on a word processor like Word), different sizes of letters, uppercase, lowercase, different colours, highlighted with different colours. You can even “decorate” difficult-to-remember letters and letter combinations. For example, for the word “between”, sketch little eyes in the circles of the “e” letters, and emphasize the “smiley” part of the letters to put the “ee” into memory.
  • Say or sing the item, set up a beat (tap, bounce a ball), say a syllable (or letter) for each beat. While this works well for spelling and math facts, it’s also really helpful when memorizing poetry, verses, etc.
  • Set up a pattern: for example, for a spelling word, listen to someone spell it aloud, spell it aloud yourself, write it in the air with giant imaginary letters, close eyes and visualize it, write it on paper, type it on the computer, write it in a sentence. Figure out a pattern that works well for you. Do the same for math facts, formulas, etc.
  • Make up catchy rhymes or songs of the material to be memorized (or search a poetry or song book for poetry/lyrics that repeat that word/soundchildren’s poetry/songs like Mother Goose are especially good).
  • Have a family discussion related to a spelling or vocabulary word. Talk about what it means, how it is spelled, any spelling rules, similar wordsand how the word is used in practical ways. Find it used on cereal boxes, how to instructions, recipes, newspaper articles, etc.
  • Have a helper spell a list word (start with the simplest one). You repeat it. Then the helper spells that word and the next easiest one, and you repeat. See how far you can go with this. If a word is very difficult, start with one letter, then add a second, then a third, and so on. Or do it by syllables and/or by vowel combinations, consonant blends, etc.
  • Use repetitive, rhythmic physical actions/activities while doing memorization. For example: spell the word or repeat the fact or formula while playing hopscotch, climbing stairs, jumping on a trampoline, bouncing a ball, skipping with a jump rope, or playing catch with a friend.
  • When using the memorized word or fact in writing or math assignments, don’t be afraid to whisper or speak the spelling, use the sketch you developed, close your eyes and visualize, etc. These associations and actions will bring the word back to your memory.
  • Make up funny acronyms of words you need to remember. Almost everyone can spell “because” due to that little sentence you learned in grade one: Bunnies Eat Carrots And Usually See Everything.
  • Use a puppet. Have the puppet repeat or act out the idea to be memorized.
  • Teach someone else how to memorize the fact in as many ways as possible. Teaching a newly learned fact or concept is one of the best ways to retain it.
  • On small cards or slips of paper, make a collection of individual letters, vowel combinations, consonant blends, etc. (Make at least 2 or 3 of frequently used ones). Spread them out on the table or floor. Instead of writing the words, find the correct letters/combinations and put them together side by side. Then have someone remove one or two important letters (without you looking) and say what letters were removed. This can also be done with numerals and math signs when memorizing math facts.
  • Create a “bingo” game, but use spelling words or answers to math facts instead of numbers or letters.
  • Act out the item to be memorized with gestures or role-playing.
  • Play charades and similar traditional parlour games, using the items to be memorized, with family and friends. Personal interaction can add greatly to memorization.
  • Long-term memory strategies: Once you’ve memorized the item in the short-term, you’ll want to make sure it sticks with you. Here are some tips:
    • “Store” new words in memory categories with words you already know how to spell, that have similar attributes. Practice by making a list of similar words. With math facts, write out the math fact “families.”
    • Use rote drill. But do short daily practice sessions (10 minutes or so) for 6 days in a row, then take a day off. This is much more effective than long sessions a couple times a week.
    • For rule-based learning (as in spelling) combine practice and discussion. Give examples of words which follow the rules, and similar words which break that same rule. The learner identifies which is the “broken rule word” and which is the “rule word” and then explains the rule.
    • Knowledge is best consolidated right before sleep. Read, practice or review material for 5 to 10 minutes (don’t spend a lot of time; that just causes frustration and disturbs sleep) before dozing offthen immediately turn off the lights and go to sleep. Your brain will continue to practice. “Test” briefly the next morning.

What memory tips work well for you? Why not share some of your memorization tips and experiences with us, in the comments. Thanks!

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Ideas for Chapter Book Reading With Your Child

Do you sometimes wonder how you can help your child develop reading skills while you’re reading a chapter book aloud together? Here are suggestions that I used with a child who was struggling a bit with reading Ramona and Her Father (by Beverly Cleary) but didn’t want to try another “easier” or “just right” book. You can use these methods with nearly any book that is at a “just right” level (no more than 5 “difficult words” per page) or a book that is challenging for your child, but she (or he!) really wants to read anyway.

First, we prepared for reading the book by looking at and discussing:

  • The front cover [What does the title suggest? What do you know about this author? Have you read other books by her? What were they like? Why did you choose this book? Did a friend recommend it? Why? What ideas do you get from the picture? What does the sub-title tell you about the story?]
  • The back cover [Read the blurb and discuss from it what might happen later in the book; look at the list/photos of other books in the series and discuss ones already read; talk about what is already known about the characters, about the way the stories go, etc.; read about the author (this may be inside the book, as may a list of other books by the author)]
  • Other pre-reading strategies: preview (as with the cover material; also pictures inside the book, etc.); personal connections (What does this story remind you of? Other books? Movies? Own experiences in your life?) and predicting (What do you think will happen next? Later in the story? What clues in the story make you think that will happen? What else could happen instead?); vocabulary introduction (an important part of comprehension: even if your child reads a word or sentence smoothly, if you aren’t sure she understands, stop and talk about it); KWL (What do I already know? What do I wonder about? and after reading, what did I learn?)

Then have your child start to read aloud. After each couple of paragraphs, I ask some objective comprehension questions (information that comes directly from the text) and some inferential questions (information that comes from clues in the text: “reading between the lines”). If there is a picture related to what she has read, have her look at the picture and re-tell that part of the story in her own words. Looking at the picture, her memory of even small details not actually shown in the picture, but told in the story, will be stronger than just remembering from the words. If she includes details that weren’t in the story, that’s fine–part of good reading is using your imagination. These activities will help develop a child’s graphical strengths and her story-telling abilities.

While your child is reading, watch for things that she needs to work on and things that will help improve her reading skills. Introduce these ideas as they come up in her reading, but don’t cover them all at once or you’ll only cause frustration. You might work on one aspect per reading session. Some may take repeated practice. Don’t overwhelm. Encourage slowly and steadily.

  • Punctuation: If your child seems to ignore punctuation marks (doesn’t stop momentarily at commas and periods; doesn’t use an appropriate tone for question marks and exclamation points, etc.) take time to discuss their use and read the sentence correctly to your child, then read it together, and finally have her read it herself.
  • Does your child tend to add, or leave out, small words such as articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (joining words like: and, so, but, if, etc.), or prepositions (words that begin phrases like: in, from, for, with, etc.). This can happen as she tries to make sense of what she is reading, and she may also be thinking ahead and kind of guessing what comes next or thinking how she would tell the story in her own words (this is actually quite common with children–and even adults–who are good story-tellers). Or her focus may be on what she considers “important” or “difficult” words. Just gently remind her to read all the words. Even those little words are important because they affect the meaning, and because reading correctly will be helpful in learning to write correctly.
  • Some children tend to mix up the lines or skip lines. Using a pencil or finger or ruler or bookmark to follow the lines can be helpful, but this can slow down comprehension of longer, more complex or detailed sentences. In that case, read the sentence to the child (using your own finger for her to follow), then read it together, and then have her read it. She’ll gradually be able to read these longer, multi-line sentences. For a child who has difficulty with lines that seem to blur into each other, try creating a paper “frame” that fits neatly around the words/line so she can only see one or two lines at a time; or try placing a piece of transparent plastic in a light colour over the page so the page isn’t so bright for her eyes (brightness can blur the words/line). Alternatively, a pair of light-tinted sunglasses might help, or move to a place without such bright overhead lighting.
  • Does your child have difficulty reading expressively? Some methods you can use to help include watching for punctuation clues and looking for “hints” in the text (words like “she exclaimed” or actions the character takes in the story). Other useful methods include reading “readers theatre” style stories, poems, and short plays (even acting them out), and doing you read/I read (modelled or echo reading) and choral reading). Talk about the value of reading aloud, and encouraged her to read to a “safe” audience–a sibling, friend, grandparent or even a pet or a stuffy! Have her read a paragraph silently first, then have her re-tell it in her own words, then have her read it aloud to you. This will build confidence, expressiveness, and comprehension skills.
  • If your child is having difficulty decoding words (sounding them out) try these methods: refer to picture clues; guess the word and then decide if the guess fits the sentence’s meaning (if it does but is still the wrong word, help her sound it out); skip the word or phrase then come back and try reading it again; sound it out with individual letter sounds and with “chunks” (combinations of letters she already knows the sound for). If a word really doesn’t follow “spelling rules,” write it down and add it to her “personal spelling and vocabulary list” so she can practice it, both in writing and speaking.
  • Some children can read smoothly–and yet they actually have difficulty remembering and understanding what they have read, not to mention things like drawing inferences and conclusions and making predictions. If your child has difficulty with comprehension, stop frequently (every paragraph or two) and ask questions such as: What just happened? Who did this or that? Why do you think the character did that or said this? Do you think that makes sense, and why/why not? What would you do if you were this character? What do you think will happen next? What is the problem in this story? How might the problem be solved? What would you do? What might this character do? Do you like this character and why/why not? Use questions that require more than a one-word answer! As your child gets better at comprehension, you can wait until she has read a full page or two, then a full chapter.

Here are a few other things you can do with your child as you read together:

  • Teach her to watch out for quotation marks. They mean someone is speaking. Tell her to glance ahead to see who is speaking, so she can use that character’s kind of voice. Encourage her to use a different kind of voice for each character.
  • Teach her to look for “key words” and actions that give ideas of how the person might be speaking (sighed, confided, contented, complained, calmly … jumped up, slammed the door, slumped into the chair, )
  • Have her watch for words that sound like the sounds and emotions they describe, and say them as much like the sound as possible (tee-hee, yuck, shrieked…)
  • If your child tends to read really quickly and is making errors because of it, encourage her to slow down. If she’s having trouble reading slowly and clearly, read together (chorally) as if you were singing a song or repeating a rhyme she knows together.

Here are some actual examples of how to help your child decode words, taken from my reading time with the child who was reading the Ramona stories. You can use these ideas with other words, of course!

  • since (find the small word “sin” … Ask: do you think that c sounds like “k” or like “s”? Try it both ways with “sin.” What makes sense?)
  • anxious (tough word … needs to memorize … discuss meaning and practice spelling)
  • newscaster (divide into words and sounds you know: news – cast – er)
  • strike (remember: magic e at the end of the word makes the “i” say its name)
  • merest (tough word … discuss meaning of root word “mere,” then with the ending)
  • smidgen (new word … sound out: smid-gen … discuss meaning)
  • ensnarled (take off the prefix en- and the suffix -ed … “snarl” is left … then add the prefix and suffix again … discuss change of meaning)
  • shudder (explain: when a word had a double consonant, we divide it into two syllables: shud/der … this usually happens when the vowel before the double consonant has a short sound) (then have her act out “shudder” and she’ll never forget the word!)
  • touched (take off the suffix “ed” = touch … then add it back on)

Want more tips? Check out the “Home Education Tips” page for links to all my posts, divided into topics; and also the Tutoring Tips on Quora page for links to more tips. If you feel overwhelmed and would rather hire a tutor, check the Tutoring Topics page for links to posts with how-to tutoring information. Specific questions? Share them in the comments for this article, or email me from the Contact page.

Posted in home learning, parent-child relationships, parent-tutoring, reading | Comments Off on Ideas for Chapter Book Reading With Your Child

More Fun Hands-On Math Activities

Math is a subject that can cause a lot of anxiety–for parents as well as for students. While lessons (school or tutoring) and homework help by parents is important, if you can make math FUN, your child will be less anxious and will learn more easily. I have posted quite a few ideas previously: you can find Home Math Tips: Games and Family Fun here and Everyday Math Fun for Families here. By the way, if you’re a tutor, why not use a few of these ideas to start a session, or for a brain break when a child is feeling anxious, or as something to look forward to at the end of a lesson? It really helps!

Here are a few more fun math activities that I’ve used with my tutoring students and my children:

  • There are some great books about the history of math that cover topics like the history of particular numbers, and children find these stories intriguing; for example: how Roman numerals developed, the Mayan math system, and how our numeral system developed; and the development of different computing devices such as the abacus and calculators (did you know that abacus-type devices were developed independently in several parts of the world? Did you know that abacus users are often able to solve complicated equations faster than those using calculators? Why not give it a try? It’s fun–and surprising).
  • Lots of table games use math skills … but so do sports like bowling and mini-golf. A lot of bowling alleys now have electronic scoring–but most of them still have paper score sheets available. Teach your kids to keep score on paper, and then compare their scorekeeping to the electronic results.
  • Strategy games can involve math, too. As you play these games (even games like Monopoly or Clue and card games), discuss the strategies you are using, and encourage your children to come up with their own mathematical strategies.
  • When kids are getting stressed with math that involves grids, introduce fun uses of grids such as drawing books that present a drawing on a grid, with a blank grid opposite, and the child can transfer the picture by following the grid lines. They can also put “points” on the original picture, and transfer using the points. You can also put letters up one side of the grid and numbers across the bottom, and then transfer the picture by “naming” grid points which the child can place on the original and then use those given points to do the transfer.
  • Check out the “Maths Mansion” YouTube videos. These 8 to 10-minute videos on a wide variety of math topics truly make math fun and entertaining!
  • Buy a geoboard–or, which is much more fun, and can be really inexpensive, using items you’ll find laying around the house, make your own (just google “How to make a geoboard”–there are so many options!). Draw designs on graph paper marked with as many points as you have on your geoboard. Show your child how to reproduce them on the geoboard with elastics (get a package of multi-coloured ones). Then let your children create their own designs, on graph paper to be transferred to the geoboard, or vice versa. You can reuse the same graph paper multiple times by slipping it in a clear acetate cover and drawing with erasable markers. A geoboard is a great way to introduce geometry concepts; for example, you can teach about right angles, acute angles, and obtuse angles, and at the same time introduce the use of a protractor on the designs drawn on the graph paper.
  • Hands-on probability experiments are another thing you can do with simple objects laying around the house. For example, place crayons in a bag: 1 brown, 1 red, 1 yellow, 2 blue (or whatever colours your child chooses). Predict which colour will be drawn from the bag most often. Keep track of the results (do at least 40 draws) with tally marks (kids love doing this) and then chart them on graph paper. Were the predictions accurate? If not, why not?
  • Similarly, draw a coin from a container which has 2 pennies, 2 nickles, 2 dimes, and 2 quarters (to prevent the child figuring out which coin to draw by its size and shape, try using a simple magnet to draw a coin–kids also love magnets!). Which coin is most likely to be drawn? Again, use tally marks to keep track, and then chart on graph paper. Discuss the results. What could skew the results? The size and weight of the coins? The metal they’re made of (if using a magnet)?
  • Likewise, try using dice. Roll two dice together and record and graph how many times each possible combination comes up (1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 2/2, 2/3, 2/4, 2/5, 2/6, 3/3, 3/4, 3/5, 3/6, 4/4, 4/5, 4/6, 5/5, 5/6, 6/6). Do the combinations come up equally or do some combinations happen more frequently? What could cause differences? Might it have anything to do with the number of little holes on each dice face making a slight difference in the weight? Do 40 rolls the first time, then do another 40 rolls. Are the results more equal when you do it more times? Or try rolling onto different surfaces. Does that make a difference? Why? (Science and Math are closely interrelated–so be sure to bring up “science” related questions as well as straight math.) You can also “apply” these probabilities by playing Yahtzee (or another dice rolling game) and keeping track of how often different combinations come up in the game. Does it have any relation to the dice probability experiments? If so, could the probability experiment help you with game strategy?
  • Probability travel activities: predict, record and graph how frequently certain objects are seen on a road trip; predict what proportion of licence plates from different provinces/states will be seen and why; and so on.

What fun activities can you think of to make math more entertaining and “real”–and reduce math anxiety? Share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!

Posted in adventures & explorations, anxiety, art and learning, family learning, homework tips, learning games, math, math games and activities | Comments Off on More Fun Hands-On Math Activities

What tutoring tips do you need?

It’s been a while since I’ve added useful new material to this blog–but I am going to change that! I am still tutoring regularly; in fact, that is part of the reason I’ve neglected the blog: I’m so busy with the tutoring I haven’t had a chance to add material here. But all the tutoring I’ve been doing has provided me with lots of new ideas and tips which I will be adding regularly now. Still, I’d really like to know what specifically you’d like advice about, so please feel free to let me know in the comments for this post, or send me an email from the “Contact” page or on my Pen and Paper Mama Facebook page (and I’d be happy to have you follow me there, and on this site, too).

I have been answering quite a number of questions about tutoring and home learning on my Quora page; you can check out links to my answers here.

Just a reminder: I have other sites, too. If you’re particularly interested in my writing and editing tips, check out my Norma J Hill site. You’ll find links to posts on different topics on that site here and answers on Quora here. If you’re interested in my other sites, you’ll find a list of them, with links, here.

Thanks for checking out this site, and remember, I’d love to know what tutoring and home learned topics you’d like me to cover.

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