What’s a Pen and Paper Mama?

Every time I hand out one of my business cards or take a Pen and Paper Mama Services deposit to the bank, someone is sure to ask me, “What is a pen and paper mama?”

Well, let me see… Oh! I know! It’s me!

A mama, of course … to 5 children of my own and any others who happen to wander into my life, and then to my 9 grandkidlings … and even to some of my many school and tutoring students over the year (some of whom have accidentally called me “mom” instead of my name!).

Did I mention “tutoring”? Well, that’s part of the “pen and paper” bit of my business title. I’ve been a teacher (elementary and secondary, public and independent schools) and tutor (all ages, multiple subject areas, often with emphasis on special needs) and homeschooling parent, tutor, and consultant, too. Lots of paper and pencil work there! You’ll find loads of information on many aspects of tutoring and life-long learning and parents as their children’s best tutors here on this site. Here’s a list of topics.

And then there’s the editing part of the business. I love to help other writers with their writing and publishing and marketing … lots more pen and paper there (and yes, computer work, too, naturally). You can find out more about that at my site, normajhill.com, dedicated to writing and editing.

And you’ll find some examples of my own writing at my various websites. I love to write–only sometimes I get so busy working on other folks’ writing that I fail to focus on my own writing. But I’m determined to change that, starting today! I’ll still be helping other writers through tutoring and editing–and writers’ groups and conferences and workshops–but my own writing will start each of my days!

Pen and Paper Mama! Onward ho!

Posted in adventures & explorations, Editing, home learning, life-long learning, parent-tutoring, tutoring, writing | Leave a comment

Summer Tutoring

After about 3 weeks of vacation with our family, I’m back to work! And one of the things I am most enjoying is “summer tutoring!”


What makes summer tutoring so enjoyable? Well, instead of sitting in my classroom/office the whole time, we head out into the great outdoors and explore! Then the students record our explorations in sketch pads, and glue their collected objects into “collecting boxes.” We learn about things we’ve seen in our explorations by researching guide books for birds, plants, local history,  animals, insects and more. As the students read and write, I make notes about any words they have trouble with, and we learn the skills (spelling, capitalization, phonics, etc.) they need help with. We also practice telling and writing stories about our explorations.

While we are exploring, we take along tools like collecting containers, magnifying glass, binoculars, nets, and so on. We also take a camera along, and we all take turns snapping pictures of our learning adventures. Finally, we make a website and write a blog post for each day’s learning, writing a story and illustrating it with the photos. Excellent!

The students love it and I love it! We are having an excellent time! (The parents love it, too!).


Posted in adventures & explorations, family learning, homeschooling, life-long learning, summer tutoring | Leave a comment

Memory Problems and Solutions




Difficulties retrieving information from your brain:

Memory difficulties often involve retrieving information stored by the brain. Usually, there are more problems with short term memory (things learned recently) than with long term memory–though working memory deficits can cause difficulties in organising information into long term memory … and then retrieving information from long term memory.

Short term memory is the ability to temporarily retain information by performing some operation or manipulation with it, to produce a result. Working memory involves attention, concentration, mental control, and reasoning.

Ability to pay attention:

The ability to pay attention is an important aspect of memory. This includes such things as being able to sit and read (or write, or do math or other assigned activities) for a given duration of time without straying off-track, and the the ability to focus on assigned work. Here are some tips for helping children who have difficulty paying attention:
– Provide a quiet place with minimal distractions (including minimising things to see, hear, smell, etc.)
– Provide a support helper who can assist the child in staying on track
– Observe the child to monitor when his or her attention is straying–and what triggers are causing it; then remove those distractors, if possible, and/or work individually with the child to learn to ignore them
– Provide reminders to stay on track. This can include gentle spoken reminders, written signs, or signals (such as raising 3 fingers, or other signals). These are more effective if the child helps to figure out what signals to use. It is also helpful to let the child choose a signal to let you know when he or she is starting to feel distracted.

Working memory and active memory strategies:

Here are some active memory strategies to enhance a child’s memory when learning:
– Present new material in small chunks, step by small step
– Put new information in meaningful contexts. For example, when learning to spell new words, present them in sentences, rhymes, stories or acronyms. If the child can help come up with these “tricks,” all the better.
– If the child enjoys drawing, allow her to come up with little sketches that she can connect with new information.
– Be prepared to repeat information more often than usual to help the child retain it.
– Be creative; while there is a place for saying or writing something over and over, it is often more effective if you can explain the new information in different ways, or present it in a variety of contexts, so the child can understand how it fits in “real world” situations. Go beyond just “theory” to practical applications.
– Check for understanding. Have the child explain to you what he is doing; have him “teach” the information to another child or even to a “stuffy.”
– Check the child’s progress more frequently to make sure he is on track. Provide frequent feedback.
– When teaching or giving an assignment, break it down into small steps rather than giving multiple directions all at once.
– Decide what things are truly important to remember, and what things can easily be “looked up.” For example, in Social Studies, is it more important for a child to understand concepts about economics, or to memorise long lists of “imports and exports.” Is it more important to be able to use an atlas, read a map, use a map key, and recognise and understand things like political boundaries, etc., or to memorise the spelling of the names of the capital cities of states, provinces and countries? In spelling, is it more important to learn the “spelling rules” and “phonics tips,” understand them, and practice putting them to use, or to memorise long lists of random words that could easily be looked up?

Strategies to use during activities to make them less frustrating:

If a child is already frustrated and overwhelmed by the expectations for the activity, memory will become even more difficult. Here are some ways to simplify activities to help your child relax and focus–and remember!

– Don’t expect the child to keep “random” kinds of information (eg. spelling, especially non-phonetic words; mathematical calculations; etc.) in mind and at the same time manipulate it in her head. Encourage her to write out the steps and information, using pencil and paper, to help her keep track. Allow her to “work it out” with manipulatives, drawing, talking it through (out loud), and so on.
– Likewise, when assigned to write a story or a report, divide the assignment up into small chunks, and have her do one part at a time. Sometimes it is helpful if she can “tell” the story first (either dictate it to a scribe or tape-record it and then write it out). Don’t expect her to edit while creating. Then, during the editing process, have her work on one aspect at a time (organisation/chronological order, spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.). Give a shorter assignment length (say, 1 page instead of 2 or 3) so she can focus better.
– In a workbook or textbook assignment, choose the most important assignment examples. Allow the child to use the time available to work through these questions carefully, step by step, rather than overwhelm with too much work in a limited time.
– Help the child to become more organised and tidy. Provide a binder in which she can place step-by-step “direction” sheets for different activities (if she can make such sheets herself, or with a little help, all the better). Help her set up a very organised desk-top, drawers, cubby, etc. with specific containers for different tools. Then she can focus on memory, not distracted by having to search for things.
– Make use of very clearly set out “planners.” For assignments due later, use not only “day by day” planners, but also “week at a time” and “month” calendars. Try using electronic organisers; children love them. The less “organisational” things a child has to store in his mind, the more he can focus on the things he really needs to memorise.

“Easy to Learn” Booklets with Memory Tips, Tricks and Strategies:

The tips in this post are just a few of the ways you can help a child (or an adult–maybe even yourself!) with memory difficulties. If you’d like lots more tips and tricks, check out my 3-part set of booklets on “Memory and Learning Strategies”:

1. Overview: General Tips: If you think you just can’t memorise – you can! This booklet will give you dozens of suggestions, and you’ll be sure to find different ideas that work for children, teens, and adults. Learn about short and long term memory, focus, health, stress, learning styles, memory and the brain (association, location, imagination) – and lots of practical tips and ideas.
2. Tips and Tricks: Part 2 provides a wide variety of other memory and learning strategies. Topics include: Multisensory Learning Methods (see & visualise; hear & verbalise; visual games for memory; auditory games for memory; physical memory games); short and long term memory strategies; active working memory strategies; the recall curve; and other memory and learning strategies, tips, and tricks.
3. In the classroom: Part 3 focuses on memory, learning, and study strategies directly related to the school, home school, or other classroom situation, and for learning broad concepts as well as facts and how they relate. This booklet also discusses the use of computers for word processing, learning programs, and research.

What memory tips do you have?

Please share them in the comments! Thank you!

Posted in home learning, learning tips, memory, special needs | Leave a comment

Setting Goals for Your Child’s Learning

Whether you want to homeschool, to be a good parent-tutor for your child, to encourage your child to be a life-long learner, or even to hire a tutor for your child, a really great, basic idea is to sit down and make a list of your personal goals for each of your children.

Looking through some of my old materials from when my children were of school age, I found a list of goals I set for my own son. He had a severe learning disability related to the use of symbols, including writing, numbers, and other symbols, and therefore found it difficult to develop literacy skills–and yet he ended up graduating high school on an academic program with consistent honour roll status. I truly believe that creating this list of goals really helped me to focus on his needs and encourage his learning.

Maybe this list of goals I created for my child will give you some ideas for your own goal setting for your children. Just remember, you need to make a list that comes from your own life situation, your personal beliefs about learning/education, and the specific needs of each of your own child/ren.  Here’s the list I made for my son; I hope it will inspire you!

  • Bring his basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills up to at least minimum average grade level. Then build on those basic skills to help him reach his potential and have the literacy skills he needs for the rest of his life–education, work, relationships, etc.
  • Encourage and help him continue to develop his love of learning, enthusiasm, and good work ethic.
  • Help him to see how “school learning” is useful in real life by doing as much home teaching as possible in the context of real life situations, kitchen science, nature study, practical skills, etc. “Whenever possible, literacy activities should be real-life activities.”
  • Help him develop research and study skills to the point that he can become a truly self-motivated, self-directed, independent life-long learner.
  • Help him understand that learning lists of “facts” has little value if those facts are not clearly related to “big ideas.” “Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information” – Charlotte Mason
  • Find and then make him aware of community and educational personnel and resources available to him, and how to access and profitably use those resources himself. Look widely – don’t just think “traditional education” – are there mentors, clubs, non-school courses, jobs, etc?)
  • Enable him to understand that all of life involves active, ongoing learning; that learning is not an isolated “school” activity by involves his whole life in an integrated way – intellectually, physically, spiritually, volitionally.  (Using a home-based “unit studies” approach can be helpful here).
  • Help him learn to pursue his interests until they become passions which will call forth his creativity and ingenuity. “Advance from taking a subject to being taken up in it.” – Northrup Frye
  • Help him understand that anything worth doing is worth doing well, to the best of one’s abilities; and ultimately to the glory of the Creator who gave him his abilities and creativity. “Aim for quickness of apprehension and expectation – expect good work.” – Charlotte Mason
  • Help him to develop positive character qualities (list specific ones you want your own child/children to develop).
  • Help to develop in him a wide base of information about the world he lives in, as much as possible in real-life learning situations (immersion in nature, involvement in work and service in the home and in the community, interaction with people of all ages, races, occupations, etc.)
  • Aim that he will not only “remember” what he has learned, but will “understand” – development of higher level, critical thinking abilities.
  • Help him develop his powers of attention, discrimination, patient pursuit, and classification – the skills of a naturalist – through use of hands-on, outdoors observation and study.  “Allow quiet growing time, out-of-doors, with space to wonder and grow.” – C Mason.
  • Help him come to love good writing through exposure to classic literature, both in English and translated from other languages.  “Use real books, written with literary power, rather than textbooks.” – C Mason.
  • Help him develop an appreciation for the wonder and beauty of creativity through exposure to the arts.  (Lessons from real artists, drama, band)
  • Help him develop a strong and healthy body so that health and fitness will become a life-long habit.
  • Avoid unhealthy competition of letter grades, marks, etc.
  • Remember: “Tell me and I may forget; Show me and I will remember; Let me do and I will understand.”
  • Find home-learning tasks for him that provide practice of “educational skills” while at the same time sustaining his personal interest.
  • Be patient; find something he is really interested in, then help him explore it from every angle possible.  “Immersion is required in a discipline before you produce anything of great novelty.”
  • “The gift that is in your power to give them is an awareness that whatever they need to know can be learned, and a sense that life only becomes more enjoyable as we learn more and more about the world around us.”
  • Keep in mind: “Because of their very broadly-based nature, schools are largely products of compromise.” – Wendy Priesnitz.  So it is up to myself as his parent to understand my child and his character, personality, learning styles, learning differences, etc., and to come up with specific learning goals and methods that can be used outside of school (and suggested to his school learning team) to best help him as a specific learner and person.
  • Remember: “And so it must always be the first and central task of any teacher [read: parent!] to help the student become independent of him [and of “educational systems”], to learn to be his own teacher.”  — John Holt

If you found this list helpful, maybe you’ll want to also check out my postSome Basic Learning Goals.”

What goals do you have for your child/children? Why not sit down right now and start making a list? And feel free to share some of your goals in the comments for others to consider. Thank you!

Posted in home learning, homeschooling, learning goals, life-long learning, parent-tutoring, passions and interests | Leave a comment

Math Adaptations for Children with Visual-Spatial Processing Issues

This is part 6 of a series of 6 posts about Visual-Spatial Processing Issues (and other related learning differences). Links to the other posts in this series are found at the bottom of this post.

math calculations with graph paper

(Remember that if your child has other “special needs,” the adaptations suggested in these posts may also be helpful for your child’s particular issues.)

What kind of math problems are caused by visual-spatial processing issues?

  • Difficulty in math due to weak spatial abilities can result in below average computational arithmetic skills as the child is “left behind” the rest of the class and develops gaps in basic skills.
  • The child may have difficulty with simple patterns, money comparisons, and graphs.

What are some useful adaptations?

  • Help the child identify and mark (with coloured pencils or highlighters) key details including patterns, symbols, and words that mean particular math operations. Be consistent with the colours chosen for different items
  • Encourage use of a highlighter when she sees visual differences in information. For example, she could use different colours to indicate if math problems involve addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.
  • Provide extra one-on-one help with telling time and understanding concepts of money and value.
  • Use well-spaced out worksheets rather than cluttered ones
  • Use “real money” instead of money worksheets. Count and sort coins into categories, and discuss more/less. Play “store”!
  • Use a real (or play) clock the child can physically manipulate. Point out various aspects of a clock and how it changes over time.
  • When doing “long math” computations such as long division or multiplication or adding several double digit numbers, use graph paper or encourage the use of a ruler to draw lines with a coloured pencil to keep number columns aligned.
  • Practice checking for math errors by making it into a game. As her adult helper, do the same work the child has been assigned, and purposely make errors you want her to be able to recognise and fix. Have her help you find your errors, and ask her to “teach” you how to fix them. This “correcting my helper” is a lot more fun than using commercial editing worksheets; also, “teaching” someone else is a very effective way to maintain newly learned skills.
  • Likewise, have the child “teach” a younger child or another peer-aged child who is still having difficulty. Younger children also enjoy “teaching” their stuffies, dolls or other characters.
  • Help the child to learn to use various measuring tools to find out real lengths and distances (rather than worksheet pictures), then learn to estimate lengths and distances without measuring.
  • Find alternative ways to present information other than charts and maps; or use very simplified charts and graphs with large, clear print, and only the most necessary information. Determine what kinds of graphs are easiest for the child to use (pictorial, bar graphs, circle graphs, line graphs…).
  • For math exercises and tests, include fewer questions on each page, and leave lots of white space for calculations, ideally with appropriate lines, graphing, etc. to guide the calculation writing columns.
  • Provide fact tables (addition and multiplication tables, math and science formulas, lists of key words), as well as allowing use of a calculator (a simple one with large, clearly marked keys that provides only the types of calculations needed).
  • Develop definite and consistent steps to use with particular operations and add clear step-by-step instruction sheets to the child’s personal reference binder. Ideally, have her help create her own sheets of steps.
  • Try using “Power of Ten” cards and games. I would suggest the child especially use these tools to work on place value, addition and subtraction of 2 and 3 digit numbers, and problem-solving questions that require the basic number sense skills mentioned above.

What other tips do you have?

Please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

In the posts in this series, we look at:

– the definition and symptoms of visual-spatial processing issues
– diagnosis of visual-spatial processing issues–and other learning differences
– some general suggestions to help a child with visual-spatial processing issues
 reading adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
– writing and spelling adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
math adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues

Posted in adaptations, learning differences/disabilities, math, perceptual issues, special needs, visual-spatial processing | Leave a comment

Writing and Spelling Adaptations for Children With Visual-Spatial Processing Issues

happy children with a large pencilThis is part 5 of a series of 6 posts about Visual-Spatial Processing Issues (and other related learning differences). Links to the other posts in this series are found at the bottom of this post.

(Remember that if your child has other “special needs,” the adaptations suggested in these posts may also be helpful for your child’s particular issues.)

Why a Child with Visual-Spatial Processing Issues may have difficulty with spelling and writing:

  • Children with these issues will often find writing difficult because there is a detachment between their thoughts and their ability to express them through writing. There can be trouble coming up with ideas at the same time as thinking about how to spell words, use correct punctuation, and produce handwriting that is readable.
  • A child with these issues will require much more handwriting practice than usual. The child may require much more “tracing” practice–starting with letters, then going on to words, and even tracing full paragraphs. Once the child is comfortable with a piece, then have them “copy” it in the lines below. Finally, you can introduce non-copied work. Try different forms of lettering to see what works best–manuscript, cursive, D’Nealian, cursive italic, etc.

Things to Avoid:

  • Developing a dependence on memorization of spelling rather than phonetic spelling; depending on memorization impacts a child’s writing skills as the child is limited to using memorised words.
  • Don’t penalise for messy writing.
  • Avoid traditional dictionaries as spelling aids, since they are difficult to use due to reading issues.
  • When writing, do not ask the child to edit/correct work during the initial draft. Once the first draft is complete, sit down with the child and help with editing, and/or teach the child to use editing tools (see below).

Tips for Writing and Spelling:

  • Support for writing assignments: adapt the assignment length (less writing), and/or allow more time for written tasks.
  • Provide the opportunity for keyboarding use as an alternative to handwriting
  • Provide access to a computer for writing assignments. Check out software. This article compares several good writing programs for children with writing difficulties
  • Use spelling dictionaries, especially online ones that recognise beginning letters of words and give possible correctly spelled choices.
  • Tape/record stories created orally, then play back and write, or have an assistant scribe the story, or use computer software that writes spoken material. After the entire piece is written, then help the child edit for spelling and flow.
  • Teach how to use spelling and grammar software. This allows the child to focus on her desired content first, then deal with editing afterwards. One step at a time!
  • Start with large lettering and use large writing tools: chalk on a blackboard, thick erasable markers on a whiteboard, coloured sidewalk chalk drawing and writing, finger painting, drawing letters in sand or whip cream or other textured surfaces, finger writing on textured fabrics, etc.
  • Allow extra time to proofread for accuracy, using tools such as proofreading checklists and spelling/grammar software. When using checklists, only edit for one or two items at a time. This will require going through the piece several times, so allow the child to write shorter pieces and provide more time.
  • When writing a piece, work with programs like Clicker 5 or Kurzwiel as the emphasis should be on paragraph development and not spelling.
  • Consider looking into having the school provide a personal laptop or tablet with a variety of useful software loaded on it; this is an option often available for certain learning differences.
  • I do think it is very important to also work on phonological awareness (phonics training) to provide the basic skills (including spelling) which underlie successful writing.

What other tips do you have?

Please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

In the posts in this series, we look at:

– the definition and symptoms of visual-spatial processing issues
– diagnosis of visual-spatial processing issues–and other learning differences
– some general suggestions to help a child with visual-spatial processing issues
 reading adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
writing and spelling adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
math adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues

Posted in adaptations, children's writing, copy work, Editing, home learning, learning differences/disabilities, parent-tutoring, perceptual issues, Phonics, reading, special needs, visual-spatial processing | Leave a comment

Reading Adaptations for Children with Visual-Spatial Processing Issues

This is part 4 of a series of 6 posts about Visual-Spatial Processing Issues (and other related learning differences). Links to the other posts in this series are found at the bottom of this post.

(Remember that if your child has other “special needs,” the adaptations suggested in these posts may also be helpful for your child’s particular issues.)




Things to Avoid:

  • Some of the reading “helps” often used in teaching reading actually have negative results for children with visual-spatial processing issues, as accurate reading methods are very important and should be the focus. It is better to read shorter materials and to focus on fluency and understanding than to expect the child to read more and more, which will lead to inaccuracy, frustration, and failure to understand the material. Reading orally is very important. Thus, the following should be avoided:
    • Attempts to read new words by “guessing” at the words in the context of the sentence may actually negatively impact comprehension (understanding of the written material).
    • Depending on memorised word recognition likewise should be avoided.
    • Don’t allow the child to just skip words he/she doesn’t know.

Some Tips for Reading

  • A child with these issues will often have difficulty using punctuation. It is important to really focus on recognition and use of punctuation. Lots of oral reading practice is essential to develop this skill.
  • Finger tracking and other tracking methods, such as using a ruler or bookmark (the plain side, not the marked side) or a paper “frame” may be helpful.
  • Encourage home reading on a regular basis–but for short periods of time. These reading sessions should be interactive and one-to-one with a helper.
    • Before reading, look together at the book or other reading material. Discuss the title, author, back cover blurb, and illustrations. Look at chapter titles. “Guess” what the book might be about.
    • Look for highlighted headings and vocabulary in non-fiction words and discuss them before reading.
    • Use a variety of methods such as choral reading (read together), I read–you read (modeled reading), reading of alternate sentences or paragraphs, or Reader’s Theatre (taking “parts” with materials that include dialogue).
    • Encourage and model slow reading with expression, pointing out the punctuation, and modeling expressive reading.
    • Choose reading materials that are entertaining yet at a level that does not require too much challenge.
    • When coming across an unfamiliar word, keep a pencil and paper handy, and write the word, then break it into syllables, and practice sounding it out.
    • If a child is at early reading stages, use flashcards with pictures and words, then graduate to cards without pictures.
    • While encouraging the memorization of the common sight words such as those in the Dolch sight word lists, don’t encourage memorization of other words. Use of phonics is very important, as most children, even those without visual-spatial difficulties, are quite limited in the number of words they can memorize.
    • Check the “reading tips” articles linked to from my Home Education Tips page for lots of ideas on helping with reading–emphasize patterns such as word families, blends, chunking, rhyming words, etc.).
    • If the child is “stuck,” have her “guess” the word from its beginning sound matched with the context/meaning of the sentence and paragraph–but avoid “just guessing.”
  • Decrease reading demands–focus on the most important information and on the context of the main ideas to improve both reading fluency and comprehension.
  • For spelling and vocabulary, make sure the words are in context of a sentence or paragraph rather than a list of words.
  • Consider trying software tools for spelling and reading, like ACT Spell and Phonics Made Easy 

What other ideas have you found helpful for reading with a child who has visual-spatial processing issues? Please share them in the comments, and we’ll add them to the list! Thank you!

In the posts in this series, we look at:

– the definition and symptoms of visual-spatial processing issues
– diagnosis of visual-spatial processing issues–and other learning differences
– some general suggestions to help a child with visual-spatial processing issues
reading adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
writing and spelling adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues
math adaptations for children with visual-spatial processing issues

Posted in adaptations, perceptual issues, reading, special needs, visual-spatial processing | Leave a comment