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My holiday tradition is to give my grandkids books as stocking stuffers. Now most of them have tablets. Is the pleasure of choosing and wrapping books for them over? Please give me guidance on selecting eBooks. How does the transaction work?

What a wonderful tradition! Studies by Clemson University reading expert Linda Gambrell show that having access to books outside of school and owning books both increase children’s motivation to read.

You don’t need to give up your tradition, says Carl Harvey, library media specialist at North Elementary School in Noblesville, Ind. “If there are early readers on your list, you can’t go wrong choosing a classic print book. Most love a great picture book or chapter book. While they certainly enjoy digital/eBooks, there still is something about having a book in your hand.”

As young readers grow, they like to choose their leisure reading. “It’s motivating to select books based on their interests or a series that really hooks them,” says Harvey. If you want to add titles to their tablets, “know that devices are designed for individual use, so it is hard to buy for another user. The best route is gift cards. They allow the child or parent to load them onto the device and purchase as needed.”

Before purchasing, learn what type of device your grandkids have, says Harvey. For example, iPads use the iBooks app, so books can be purchased through Apple’s iTunes store. If your grandchild has a Nook, books can be purchased through Barnes and Noble. For a Kindle, they can be purchased through Amazon.

“Often gift cards work for other purchases on the device, such as games and other apps. If you want to focus on reading, make sure to let the child — and parents — know that you’d prefer it be used for books,” suggests Harvey.

What makes eBooks especially appealing to children is the ability to enjoy rich content. “Both Android and Apple iOS devices also have apps you can download for various books that expand the content. They have added features such as links, read-alouds and games. Again, gift cards allow children to buy the ones they want.”

Annual publications, such as almanacs and atlases, are also available in eBook format. “It really is a personal preference whether to buy a print or an online version,” says Harvey. “Come January, some children love to tote to school the almanac Santa brought. Others love the added features of the eBook, such as interactive maps and graphs and search functions that might make the online version preferable over the print.”

When it comes to price, most eBooks are the same or a little cheaper than print books.

If your grandkids are nearby, suggests Harvey, take them to a bookstore and browse together. “Family members don’t realize that kids want the gift of your time. If they aren’t nearby, arrange a Skype or FaceTime session where they read to you.

“Both will show your grandkids that you value reading. That’s an important gift to give a child.”

My fourth-grader, Karina, has way more homework this year than last year. She works hard on it, but despite the time spent, doesn’t always remember what she studies. Any suggestions?

Schools focus on the content that students should learn, but very little on cognitive skills such as time management and study strategies to make sure that the learning “sticks.”

Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that teaching cognitive strategies works. Students who use cognitive skills the most “to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment — that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years — than students who use these strategies the least,” the group’s report stated.

Unfortunately, “we don’t often teach helpful ‘cerebral’ strategies, such as visualizing time, taking notes and sequencing events,” says Donna Goldberg, a learning coach and author of “The Organized Student” (Fireside, 2005).

Ask yourself what key cerebral strategies Karina can learn, and which she might already be using. Does she use what she already knows about a topic to learn new material? Ask herself questions as she reads? Draw pictures or diagrams to develop understanding? Discuss the subject with others to clarify new concepts? Practice material several times to build understanding? Make notes on things she doesn’t understand to ask the teacher? Review an assignment before moving on? Organize her time to be most efficient?

Does Karina see the big picture in what she’s studying? “Some teachers fail to tell students what they’ll be learning during the year,” says Goldberg. “They tell how they’ll grade and what the class rules are, but don’t say, ‘This year we’ll study ancient history: We’ll start with Mesopotamia, then Egypt, Greece and Rome.’ Teachers who explain the game plan, and with each lesson place the topic in the context of the curriculum’s broader goal, really help students retain the material much more effectively. You can help reinforce the big picture with Karina.”

Another thing to check is her understanding of time. “Parents assume that because kids can tell time that they can manage it,” says Goldberg. “Kids can tell you, for example, that it’s 12:30 — lunchtime — but can’t gauge how long it will take to eat or the time left before next class or until study period.”

Goldberg recommends students use a paper planner to manage time. “The tool makes time visible,” she says. “It captures activities, assignments and deadlines in one place. It allows a student to block out both study and personal time; keep track of immediate deadlines and pace long-term projects; gauge how long things take and calculate time needed to complete a project.”

The Time Timer (timetimer.com) can help make time real for some students, says Goldberg. Another good tool is the My-Time Kid’s Planner (mytimekidsplanner.com), a large magnetic, dry-erase scheduling board.

If Karina doesn’t grasp these strategies immediately, don’t worry, says Goldberg. “What’s important is that you’ve started a dialogue. Reinforce (the techniques) with her, by doing things such as checking the planner. Soon, she’ll see their benefits and start using them.”

My daughter just started universal pre-kindergarten. At the open house, her teacher told us about new standards for our state and begged parents to help kids at home with skills. Single working parents like me don’t have time or resources. This is the teacher’s job. Does what I do at home really matter?

It matters. The teacher’s delivery may have been awkward – the new Common Core State Standards have many educators scrambling – but research backs her up.

A parent’s time and attention, especially in early language development and setting expectations for success in school, are powerful tools that can boost a kindergartner’s academic success.

“Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15 percent of their time in school,” says Annie Murphy Paul, author of “The Brilliant Report,” a popular newsletter on learning. She also has a forthcoming book, “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart” (Crown, 2014).

“While there’s no doubt that school is important,” she says, “a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so.”

Parents “don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses,” says Murphy Paul. “What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.”
But not just any talk. Murphy Paul points to research from psychology professor Susan Levine at the University of Chicago that shows “children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject.

“The amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world – how big or small or round or sharp objects are – predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.”

A 1995 landmark study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents, creating a 30 million “word gap” by the time children are three.

“More recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school,” says Murphy Paul. She points to one study showing that two-way adult-child conversations “were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking.

“Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter.”

Don’t underestimate the benefits of reading to your daughter for a few minutes each day. Reading aloud helps children build word-sound awareness, stimulates language and cognitive skills, and develops vocabulary and print knowledge. It also builds motivation, curiosity, memory and gives a child a chance to practice listening, which is a critical learning skill. If all that weren’t enough, a shared book at bedtime with your daughter will help her learn to love reading throughout her lifetime.

Our first-grade daughter brings home sight words to practice, so I ordered sight-word flashcards. When I showed the teacher, she said the flashcards were based on a “Dolch” list and preferred that we practice the words she sends home. What’s the difference?

Sight-word practice is one of the best investments a parent can make in an early reader’s progress. Knowing them by heart builds young readers’ confidence and frees their brains to decode more challenging words.

“There are a few ‘little’ words that hold the English language together,” says Dr. Marilyn Adams, one of the nation’s top literacy experts. “I call them ‘glue words.’ They are so basic that nothing can be written for or by children without at least some of them.

“The good thing is that most of these words are short. The bad thing is that most are badly spelled.”

Adams explains that the influential 220-word Dolch sight-word list, created in 1948, was “compiled during the ‘look-say’ era of reading, before research established the critical importance of early phonics instruction.”

Why does the teacher prefer that you not use Dolch flashcards? “The Dolch list contains lots of decodable words,” notes Adams. “Because the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize phonics instruction, children have tools to decode words such as ‘big.’ What they struggle with — and where phonics skills don’t help — are high-utility words that don’t follow basic rules, especially articles, prepositions, helping verbs and pronouns, such as the, there, of, to, my, you, is, are, does.”

Children have to learn these from memory. “They actually have to ‘overlearn’ them,” says Adams. “The goal is to make sure these words help a young reader, rather than get in the way. If children try to decode the word ‘the,’ for example, every time they encounter it, they slow down their reading, break their train of thought and become frustrated. Learning high-frequency irregular words by heart propels them forward.”

Primary teachers encourage parents to help kids master high-frequency words, says Jessica Kelmon, reading editor at GreatSchools.org.

“Mastery takes practice, and there’s no way that teachers can give each child enough practice time during the school day,” she says.

Working with California reading specialist Jen Kaufman, GreatSchools editors created “Snap Words” worksheets for preschool through first grade. “We call them ‘Snap Words,’” say Kelmon, “because kids have to know them in a snap! Parents love them because they can squeeze in some practice when they have a few extra minutes. All of our Snap Words worksheets are pegged to CCSS for kindergarten and first grade.” (GreatSchools.org will soon offer parents Snap Words games to download on their smartphones.)

Don’t toss the flashcards. Instead, cover them up and each week write the teacher’s word list on them. “And don’t forget that children need help using these words, too,” says Adams. “Have fun, for example, with rebus play, such as ‘the mouse is in/on/by the house.’

“Emphasize the words when you use them in sentences, so children see their role in our language.”

Vocal parents in our district are fighting Common Core State Standards. Some say it’s federal government intrusion; others worry they’re too hard for kids. Our school board (I’m a member) believes that these standards are a good thing. How can we get parents on board?

First, address misconceptions about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They were created by the states — not the federal government or US Department of Education — using private dollars. The standards and assessments are voluntary.

The Common Core is the result of a 20-year process initiated by state governors to improve college and career readiness of US students. The public was invited to participate in the development. Thousands of parents, teachers, researchers, subject-area specialists, business, civic, and policy leaders across the political spectrum weighed in.

The result should appeal to “anyone who thinks our kids might learn more than they’ve been learning and that the bar on our education expectations should be raised,” says Chester E. Finn, Jr., president, Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a veteran observer and evaluator of “standards-based” reform.  “The Standards content-and-skill expectations for grades K-12 in English language arts and math are, by almost everyone’s reckoning, about as rigorous as the best state-specific academic standards and superior to most.”

States (and districts, schools, teachers) “can tailor their own curriculum to the Common Core, make their own instructional preferences; they can add to the Common Core,” Finn explains. “And if there’s stuff there they don’t like, they can disregard it. Moreover, states that have adopted the Common Core are free to drop it if and when they come up with something better.”

Second, get folks to read and discuss the standards. Finn says, “I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually looks at the standards and finds anything there they don’t think kids would be better off learning. When parents look at Common Core’s expectations, grade by grade, I’ll be surprised if they don’t come away impressed.” (Find them at http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards).

Third, compare the Common Core to your current curriculum. For example, parents in a New York district were happy to learn that the Common Core includes phonics, which the district had abandoned, and requires elementary students to know their math facts “cold” and waits until upper grades to introduce calculators.

Fourth, discuss the advantages of comparability and continuity.  As Finn puts it, “CCSS opens the door to comparing student, school, and district performance across the land on a credible, common metric—and gauging their achievement against that of other countries on our shrinking and ever-more-competitive planet. Plus, the Common Core brings the possibility that families moving around our highly mobile society will be able to enroll their kids seamlessly in schools that are teaching the same things at the same grade.”

Finn has yet to meet “anybody who is truly satisfied with the college and career readiness of today’s U.S. high school graduates. Anyone content with the education status quo should by all means resist every kind of change.”

For articles, go to Common Core Watch at http://www.edexcellence.net.

During the first week of school, my second-grade daughter’s teacher suggested a conference. This soon? Does it mean there’s something wrong?

Successful teachers often make efforts to connect with parents early in the school year, rather than wait until the end of the first grading period to establish communication.

It makes sense, says Stephen Edwards, a California teacher, who tries to schedule informal get-togethers with parents during the first week of school. He doesn’t call them conferences, so as not to raise worries.

“The goal is listening to parents’ questions, concerns and hopes. It gives parents a chance to describe their child’s special interests, unique challenges, family structure, and prior school experience,” says Edwards.

Early-year meetings give teachers a jump on planning successful learning experiences. “One little comment is often key to understanding what motivates the child, what her special interests are, or the easiest way to modify unwanted behavior,” notes Edwards.

Marilee Rosen, a New York kindergarten teacher, recalls one mother asking for five minutes of her time at the end of opening day. “Out of earshot of her daughter, she said, ‘Selena loves to read. She’s proud of her library card. She just finished Little House on the Prairie. Please challenge her with new books.”

Rosen says, “With 20 kindergarteners, it would have taken days to learn just how advanced she was. I walked her to the school media center the next day where she met the librarian and checked out an armful of books. I was grateful for this mom’s initiative.”

Rosen tries to have a conversation with each parent during the first few days. “I ask about about the child’s summer, get feedback on the prior school year, and ask about goals for their child this year. Sometimes parents volunteer important information. Last year, one dad asked to meet first day of school. He said Ben’s uncle had been killed on a motorcycle a few weeks earlier and that Ben was having a hard time. That information shouldn’t wait until October’s conference week. Right away, Ben got counseling that helped him succeed in kindergarten.”

These days parents and teachers e-mail each other to facilitate communication. “Digital dialogue is wonderful, but more effective if we’ve met early on,” says Rosen.

Parents should take the initiative, advises Edwards, if there are things you’d like the teacher to know. “Call or e-mail for an appointment. And it never hurts to ask them how they take their coffee!”

What topics should an informal conference cover? Focus on your child’s interests, strengths, and areas for improvement. Describe your goals. If you’d like, share information about home routines such as afterschool activities, homework, sleep and exercise habits. Tell the teacher how you support your child’s learning and describe any TV and media usage rules you might have. Ask how best to support your child at home, especially in core subjects.

My son Rashan got into a new accelerated STEM program at a magnet middle school. He was excited until he and other STEM students were taunted for “acting white.” He gets ridiculed for reading on the bus. I called the principal — she just seems overwhelmed. My husband tells him to “toughen up” because the world is full of bullies. While Rashan likes the program, he misses his elementary friends (who are stuck in a really bad middle school). I want him to stay in the STEM program to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. Any advice?

While your husband has a point, school bullying and harassment threaten students’ safety and emotional well being and shift their focus from learning to self-protection. Being taunted for wanting to achieve can erode a student’s confidence and decrease motivation to excel in school.

Over the last decade, much effort and money has been spent to help the nation’s schools create a positive supportive climate for all learners. This principal needs to get her middle school on board.

There are several concrete steps you (and other parents) can take to put a stop to this behavior, says Marissa Gehley, a California youth counselor and founder, KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom).

• Educate yourself. “There are great resources, such as casel.org, Stopbullying.gov, and the search-institute.org, “ says Gehley. A little research will show you and your husband ways help Rashan deal with bullying and give you important information when working with the school.

• Be a squeaky wheel. The principal’s overwhelmed? Meet with a counselor, assistant principal, or Rashan’s advisor. Ask about the school’s anti-bullying and harassment policy. What programs are in place to discourage this behavior? What are bus drivers’ responsibilities? Join your school’s parent group to raise awareness. “The more folks in the loop, the easier it is to change school culture for the better,” says Gehley.

• Keep lines of communication open. “This is key! It’s great that Rashan is talking with you about it,” says Gehley. “It means he trusts and values your advice. Check in with him often — about friends, schoolwork and activities. Don’t make bullying the only thing you talk about.”  Encourage him develop a trusting relationship with an adult at school, such as a teacher, counselor, or coach, who he can turn to for advice.

• Teach Rashan to deal with bullies. “Using humor, saying “stop” with conviction and directness, ignoring, or simply walking away are often effective techniques to stop a bully,” says Gehley. “Discuss and practice techniques that fit Rashan’s personality. He has to feel comfortable with them to be effective.”

• Support Rashan in doing what he loves. “Pursuing activities, hobbies and interests can help him make new friends and can boost his confidence,” notes Gehley. “There’s strength in numbers so encourage him to invite new friends from the STEM program to your home. Since he wants to be a doctor, find an area mentor and role model who can help him keep his eye on the prize.”

My third-grade son struggles with reading. His teacher isn’t concerned. She says he needs more practice and suggests we read with him. I’m worried. His sister read well in second grade. Does he need a tutoring program?

The teacher’s suggestion is a good one.  Educators have an adage: Children learn to read by reading. It takes practice to put new skills together to become a reader. It’s hard to get enough daily practice in school.

“Each child’s reading develops in different ways and according to different time frames, as you have observed with your son and daughter,” says Dr. Vicki Risko, Professor Emerita, Language, Literacy, and Culture, Vanderbilt University.

Given the comments from your son’s teacher, tutoring doesn’t seem warranted. “Extensive reading seems to be the most appropriate way to support your son’s progress,” notes Risko. “When it comes to developing fluency and comprehension, reading to and with our children is one of the most important gifts we can give them.”

She explains how this works. “The more students read, the more confident and fluent they become. With confidence comes interest and increased attention to reading for understanding.” Understanding brings pleasure, and more reading. Think of it as a virtuous circle.

Drawing on the work of Dr. Richard Allington, a leading reading researcher, Risko recommends a steady diet of daily reading, engaging children in reading books that are interesting to them and not too challenging.

Make a plan to read together at home read together for 10 to 15 minutes each day, at least three to four times a week, suggests Risko.  “It might come before dinner or as a quiet activity before bedtime.  It could occur during homework time, while your son is researching on the Internet, or when reading directions to play a game or follow a recipe.”

“Reading at home can involve a variety of activities that occur on different days.  On some days, read to your son – modeling your expressions and explaining what you are thinking.  For example, you may draw attention to an author’s choice of words, by saying ‘I love the words this author uses because they make me laugh’.”

Ask your son to choose a favorite text to read to you. It can be a couple of paragraphs, or a longer text read over several days. Risko says research shows that kids are more engaged and read more when they choose their reading. “As your son reads, ask him to pause at times and explain what is happening, how he feels about the characters, or to generate questions about the content. Make these discussions informal and focus on reading for understanding.”

Relate these discussions to other life experiences.  “For example, while visiting the park, ask your son to recall what you read about squirrels.  His learning continues to develop as you encounter new experiences and make connections to books you have shared.”

Continue to check in with the teacher. “Your observations provide helpful insights for supporting your son’s continuing reading development,” says Risko.

My two teens text constantly. Is there research showing that all those “LOLs” and grammar shortcuts hurt students’ writing skills? I’d love a reason to make them put down their phones.

If you’re looking for a reason to reduce teens’ texting, research on writing skills won’t provide one.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that texting in class distracts students (Duh!), leading to low grades and discipline problems. But that puts “texting” in the category of yesteryear’s note passing and pigtail pulling – mere diversions from the important business of focused learning.

Many folks worry that texting reduces actual conversations, resulting in poor oral language skills. Employers who hire today’s teens say they now put more effort into training employees on how to speak to customers, use complete sentences, make eye contact and engage in responsible conversations.

But don’t blame texting for poor writing scores, says Ardith Davis Cole, a literacy specialist with 30 years of experience in the nation’s public schools.

“Actually, texting has increased students’ interest in writing,” she says. “Not so long ago, students never wrote at all, unless writing was assigned. Many saw writing as only a school activity. It was common for kids to dislike it; some actually feared writing.”

Texting came along, and “today’s kids write all the time,” notes Cole. “Some may only write text messages to friends and family, but others use the Internet for a variety of writing. They blog, post on Facebook, express their opinions on forums and tweet.

“Texting? I say, write on!”

Does texting make it harder to learn the rules of good writing, such as grammar, punctuation and spelling? Cole says no: “Research over decades shows no link between grammar instruction and writing proficiency. What does promote good writing? Reading! Encourage your teens to read lots of different styles and genres.”

Cole says some educators think creativity suffers when students spend time texting rather than journaling or composing.

“They shouldn’t worry,” she suggests. “A quick Google search demonstrates how few of the world’s creatives were inspired through their own creative writing experiences. However, collaboration does inspire creativity!”

While creative writing is a wonderful skill, “it’s not what most adults use in their lives,” says Cole. “When a boss emails her salesperson to ask, ‘Why are sales down?’ that employee doesn’t create a poem or a story, because most bosses expect a clear, factual, brief but comprehensive emailed response that sheds light on the problem.”

Let’s not throw the technology out because it’s misused or overused, Cole says: “This isn’t a writing issue. It’s a social issue. Many parents are catching on. They tell their kids, ‘Put away your phone for a while because it’s family time.’”

If you’re looking for evidence to dissuade teens from texting, consider data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing how much texting distracts drivers. And who has the highest proportion of “distraction-related” fatal crashes? Teens. So go to YouTube with your two and watch Werner Herzog’s new documentary, “From One Second to the Next,” a haunting examination of victims of driving-while-texting accidents.

My daughter is a fifth-grader. On her teacher’s website, it says the class will have “Maker Days” once a month. Students should bring “raw materials for tinkering.” My daughter professes ignorance. What’s this about?

You have one lucky daughter! Her teacher has joined the “maker movement,” a growing initiative among educators to provide students with more hands-on activities to stimulate their imaginations.

A couple of events accelerated the movement. A Los Angeles boy, Caine Monroy, made an entire game arcade of used cardboard and tape. A neighbor’s video of it went viral. (Visit cainesarcade.com.)

Joey Hudy, a 12-year-old from Arizona, demonstrated a marshmallow cannon he constructed at the 2012 White House Science Fair. When President Barack Obama used the cannon to launch a marshmallow across the State Dining Room, the maker movement made national news. (See Make Magazine to recapture the moment: makezine.com.)

The maker movement is fueled by a sense that schools are focusing too much on testing and not enough on creativity, draining students of opportunities to explore, imagine, problem-solve, design and invent real things in the arts and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

The movement is also fueled by parents who want kids to learn to create with technology, rather than simply consume it. A fast-growing array of technology tools — like robotics programs, coding websites and 3-D printers — makes it easier than ever for young people to dream up cool projects.

A new book, “Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager (Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013), gives educators and parents guidance on how to support young makers in learner-centered activities. The authors say, “Projects are what students remember long after the bell rings.”

They add that the “maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of curious children and the power of learning by doing.” They say that middle school, “where students can shift seamlessly between childhood play and preparation for serious academics,” is the perfect time to engage in the real work of mathematicians, scientists, composers, filmmakers, authors, computer scientists, engineers and so on.

Edsurge.com contributing editor Marie Bjerede runs a local makers club with her daughter. In an Edsurge blog post, she writes about ways parents can inspire and nurture kids like hers: “What does it take to inspire, raise and nurture young makers? Do they need lots of ’stuff’ lying around the house to create with? Do they need Internet access to connect with and learn from other makers? Do they need parents who respect and protect their need to make?

“Let (young makers) go their own way, support the accumulation of maker treasure, and help (only) when asked (and provide the minimum amount of help needed to make it possible for them to take that next step).”

Heather Russell, a Seattle mom says, “Our boys learn so much by tinkering. Neighbors save junk for them to cobble together into spaceships, submarines, robots, whatever. But it does accumulate, so our rule is to triage every few weeks.”

That, too, is a learning opportunity. What to save? Toss? Trade with friends? It’s worth it though. Each project becomes a memory maker.”

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