Friday, September 28, 2012

Hot Apps for Reading and Writing Literature

We're always on the hunt for useful new educational apps for a variety of platforms. The apps discussed below, primarily for Apple's iOS operating system for iPhone and iPad (although some are also available on Android and the web) have impressed us as being fun, effective tools for promoting different literacy skills.

Thanks to Mashable for their ongoing coverage of new apps for education and kids (and for the inspiration for this article).

Let us know what you think, and please share your favorites with us in the comments.

For Reading

Interactive Touch Books ($1.99 - $2.99 per book, with 3 complimentary books) – As they read, kids from 18 months to 10 years old can play with coloring pages and other built-in activities that accompany each story.

Storybots Starring You App, formerly JibJab Jr. Books, ($7.99 per book, with 1 complimentary book) –  allows kids to be the stars of stories by inserting a photo of themselves, which is superimposed into the digital pages. Reluctant readers will enjoy reading about their own adventures!

iBooks (free; cost of books varies) – iBooks lacks the fun, flashy features synonymous with children’s book apps, but its highlighting and note-taking tools, built-in dictionary, and other features make it such a fantastic tool for older students that we can’t leave it off of our list.

For Writing

StoryKit (free) – This app allows youngsters to read and enjoy old favorites like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Humpty Dumpty. But they can also edit the stories if they have a better idea for the plot, and it’s easy to share their created books with other users. Reviewers say that the interface is slightly tricky, so adults may need to be on hand to help kids navigate the app.

StoryPanda ($1.99 per book, with 1 complimentary book) – Kids can use the storybook template to create their own books to read again and again or share with others via email. The included book, called The Adventures of Anna and Dad, can be read as is or customized.

For Visualization

Doodle Buddy (free) – This app works well in conjunction with books that have vivid descriptions. After reading a story, ask kids to pick out a passage they found particularly descriptive and use their fingers to create an image of the passage using a variety of drawing and painting tools, and even glitter! Images can be exported and shared.

For Retelling

Popplet (free) – Kids can quickly and easily make mind maps to show the events of a story in order, even adding images to enhance their creations. Adults can add fields with sequencing words like first, then, after that, etc. to help get summary maps going.

Sundry Notes (free) – This app is very versatile. After reading, kids can simply draw pictures showing the different parts of a story, or take their representation up a notch by adding an audio recording of their voice explaining the story. Older kids can use it to create tables as well, and everything can be shared between devices easily, or exported in the form of PDFs for printing.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Claims Children Must Fail If They Are To Succeed

In a recent essay for the Wall Street Journal, author Paul Tough summarizes evidence presented, with increasing frequency, by experts and researchers in diverse fields (from neuroscience to economics) that will cause many parents to heave a huge sigh of relief: Your child’s success as an adult doesn’t hinge on the preschool s/he gets into. Really.

In his recently published book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough examines the factors that make a child a successful adult.  His Wall Street Journal article explains that the cognitive hypothesis, an idea which states that the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests is the strongest predictor of success, is logical and comforting to people. It seems so reassuringly simple: A (a high vocabulary, a solid knowledge of math procedures) leads to B (unadulterated, life-long success), and to increase the odds of B occurring, parents need only be sure that A is well in order. This means cramming as much information into children’s heads as possible, and starting young to maximize the time available to do this. However, Tough reports that numerous studies are calling this hypothesis into question. It seems that character, a list of personal qualities that make a person motivated and resilient, is pretty important, too. In fact, Tough believes it might be even more important.

Central to this notion is the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who compared the experiences of holders of GED diplomas (General Educational Development, also called high school equivalency) to the outcomes of high school drop-outs. In theory, the GED holders had the same knowledge base as high school graduates, and it seemed logical that they should have enjoyed the same positive life outcomes. Instead, Heckman found that GED recipients had the same rates of negative outcomes like illegal drug use, divorce, unemployment, and low income as high school drop-outs, despite their good test performance. This result caused him to consider that something more powerful than academic achievement must drive success, and to conclude that the traits which caused GED holders to drop out in the first place were a more important predictor of their futures than their intellectual prowess.

Tough suggests that parents need to step back and allow their children to fail (offering a child empathy, one assumes, but not a solution). In fact, he writes that teachers and administrators at high-achieving schools report overly protective parents as their primary concern for students’ well-being. Children work hard and many who attend prestigious schools experience pressure and stress, but their success in life is all but guaranteed. While many parents think they are being kind to their children by shielding them from life’s pitfalls, Tough posits that actually giving a child the chance to face adversity may be the kindest thing a parent can do.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Catch! Summary Ball Helps Students Build Retelling Skills

Summarizing a text can be difficult for younger students or poor readers. They may not know how to use sequencing language properly, or they might struggle to recall what they have read. A fun alternative to drilling students is to play Summary Ball.

Game play is simple. After finishing a book, the adult and the child face each other. (Classroom teachers may wish to allow students to play the game in pairs.) The adult begins the summary by saying a sentence about the beginning of the book. It is important to model good summarizing language, such as “In the beginning,” or “When the story starts.” Once the adult is finished with the sentence s/he tosses the ball to the child who provides the next sentence, then tosses the ball back to the adult. They should go back and forth until the story is complete. For more advanced students, adults may change the rules so that players may offer only half sentences if they wish, creating cliff-hangers that the other player must complete. Adults should continue to model good language used for sequencing information throughout, and children should be praised for using this language themselves.

Here is an example of the beginning of a game of Summary Ball played after reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree:
Adult: In the beginning of the story, there is a tree who loves a little boy.

Child: The little boy makes crowns from her leaves and eats her apples.

Adult: And the tree is happy. But then…

Child: ...they boy gets older and he doesn’t visit the tree as much.

Adult: And the tree is sad, until…

Here are some useful words and phrases to use while playing Summary Ball:
· At first,

· In the beginning,

· When the story starts,

· Then,

· Next,

· And,

· After that,

· But,

· Until,

· However,

· So then,

· As a result,

· Because of [event],

· Finally,

· In the end,

· At last,

Photo: Valentina Powers (modified) / Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Backpack Awareness

Today is Backpack Awareness Day, an annual event created by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) to highlight problems students face when carrying backpacks that are too heavy or which are improperly worn.

According the the AOTA, 55% of American students carry backpacks that are heavier than the recommended safe weight of ten percent of their body weight. That means that a 100 pound child should carry a pack that weighs no more than ten pounds. Also important is how a pack is worn. The AOTA recommends that the height of the backpack should extend from approximately 2 inches below the shoulder blades to waist level or slightly above the waist. They also recommended that the backpack should always be worn on both shoulders so the weight is evenly distributed.

Even though these suggestions seem pretty basic and easy to follow, studies have made clear that they are often ignored, to the detriment of children's health. The AOTA reports that a 2007 study found more than 2,000 backpack injuries requiring medical treatment that year and that another study found more than 64 percent of 11-15 year old students reported back pain related to heavy backpacks.

One solution recommended by the Occupational Therapists group is to hold a backpack weigh-in at school, so that students can be made aware of how much they are carrying around. Their website includes permission forms for schools to use to obtain parental consent for this program. They also provide an information sheet for families with tips on how to pack a backpack to avoid injury.

It's not just children who can be injured by carrying bags that are too heavy or carried in the wrong way. If you carry a heavy briefcase or tote you might want to review some guidelines to help avoid doing damage to your own back and shoulders!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Upcoming Event: What Educators Should Know About Executive Function

The Yellin Center is kicking off our new Professional Development Series with a special presentation for educators called What Educators Should Know About Executive Function. The presentation was originally planned for October 11, but due to high demand (the October 11 event is now completely booked!), we've added a second date for an encore presentation on October 25, at The Yellin Center in Manhattan, from 4:30 p.m. until 6:00 p.m.

In the presentation, Paul B. Yellin, MD, and friend of The Yellin Center, executive function specialist Terry Edelstein, Ph.D. will provide a detailed explanation of what is meant when we talk about "Executive Function," along with practical recommendations for educators to implement immediately with their students. Teachers, school administrators, school learning specialists, school psychologists, and related service providers are all welcome to attend.

The event is totally free for educators (unfortunately, we won't have room for parents or other interested parties at this presentation, but we do have a few talks in the works for parents, so stay tuned to our blog for details). Registration is required and space is limited.

To register, send an email to with "October 25" in the subject, and be sure to include your name, title, and school affiliation.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Happy (Belated) Roald Dahl Day!

Each year, fans around the world celebrate the life and work of Roald Dahl on his birthday, which was yesterday, September 13. During his varied and fascinating life, Dahl was, at various times, a salesman, fighter pilot, short story author, novelist, screen writer, poet, and philanthropist, as well as an amateur medical researcher! But he is best known for the enduring classics he added to the canon of children’s literature, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Matilda, and The Witches, to name a few.

Interesting Facts about Roald Dahl

As a child, Dahl was miserable at school because of cruel teachers and one domineering headmistress (who sounds a lot like Mrs. Trunchbull in Matilda). His fondest memories of those childhood days were visits to a local candy shop and, later, attending a school near the Cadbury chocolate factory, where the schoolboys were often put to work as taste testers.

Roald Dahl was 6 feet, 6 inches tall!

Despite his height, during World War II, Dahl joined the Royal Airforce where he had a number of adventures, including crashing landing several times (once because he was shot down). Read Going Solo (appropriate as an independent read for middle school and up) for more information about his action-packed military career.

Dahl never learned to type and wrote every word of each of his books with a pencil. He always wrote several drafts of his work before deeming it finished.

Dahl wasn’t too keen on the way The Gremlins, his first children’s book turned out, even though Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed it so much that she frequently invited Dahl to visit the family at the White House during his time in the United States. Dahl turned to adult literature instead. He wrote many short stories that were frequently compared with works by O’Henry and Saki because of their plot twists and surprise endings.

James the Giant Peach, Dahl’s first children’s book after his disappointment with The Gremlins, was written to entertain his daughters Olivia and Tessa. It was published in 1967.

When Matilda was published, it broke existing sales records for children’s books in the United Kingdom by earning half a million pounds in just the first six months.

As he became famous, Dahl became a noted philanthropist, donating money to charities supporting children or medical research. He also paid visits to sick children who required long-term hospitalization. 

Dahl’s death at the age of 74 (November 23rd, 1990) has done nothing to dampen the popularity of his books; in fact, sales have continued to increase each year!

For more information about Roald Dahl, visit his official website to read a short biography and interview and to flip through a digital photo album. The site includes other fun features for Dahl fans. One is a Buckswashling Book Chooser, in which a child clicks a color on a wheel, which in turn recommends a Dahl book associated with that color. Or, send your own peach on a “jumpswiffling journey around the world” by clicking on “Follow that peach!” You can email a virtual peach to a friend or download a paper-peach gram to put in the mail. By giving each peach a unique name, senders can track their peaches’ progress as friends pass it on to other friends. Recipients can upload photographs of themselves holding their peach-grams in their own locales, making for interesting and memorable photo trails.

But of course the best way to celebrate Roald Dahl is to lose yourself one of his fabulous books. Which of Dahl’s books is your family’s favorite?

Photo: Public Domain

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Build Your Child’s Fluency with Online Books

What if James Earl Jones could help your child read with expression? Visit Storyline Online  and you’ll see that this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. This wonderful site, developed with support from the Screen Actors Guild, features a host of celebrities like Jones, Betty White, Ernest Borgnine, Amanda Bynes, and Elijah Wood reading classic children’s books like Harry the Dirty Dog and The Rainbow Fish. The videos are hosted by YouTube, and we recommend turning on closed captioning by clicking on the small CC button on the lower right of the window. Encouraging your kids to read along as they enjoy the stories will build their fluency. And who better than professional actors to give your children lessons on prosody (the pitch and pace of one’s voice as one reads and speaks)? Challenge your kids to describe how the actor’s voice changes when they read an exciting part or a sad part, or how they use their voice to emphasize a certain word. Remind your child to try doing the same when they read to you.

Another site worth visiting – though this one lacks celebrities – is Inkless Tales. There are several short stories about the adventures of a character called Fanny Doodle and her trusty poodle, read aloud for students and accompanied by pictures. There are also a number of stories about animals that contain words from the Dolch list*, written in bold text to help parents or teachers preview the words with kids before reading. In both cases, the child can read along with the text as they listen to the narrator.

How to Get the Most Out of Digital Books

To build fluency, your child needs to read along with the stories as they listen. Some of the stories are so engaging that your child may want to listen to them again and again, building familiarity with the texts and helping children to recognize the words. Ask kids to say the words aloud along with the recording. If listening to a book at full volume will be distracting to other members of your household or classroom, children can listen through headphones. Ask him/her to whisper the words, or mouth them silently. Another option is to buy or construct a whisper phone. To make your own, obtain about six inches of PVC pipe and two 90-degree joints. Place one joint at each end of the straight piece of pipe so that you have the shape of a phone receiver. When the child whispers into the phone, the sound will travel clearly into his/her ear but be nearly inaudible to others in the room.

Happy Reading!

*The Dolch list is a list of 220 high frequency or sight words compiled by Edward William Dolch, PhD. According to Dolch’s survey of popular children’s books, these are the most commonly used words in children’s literature, accounting for somewhere between 50% and 70% of all words children encounter when reading. Unlike true “sight words,” many of the Dolch words can be decoding using standard phonics rules. Because of the frequency with which they occur, many reading teachers believe that learning the Dolch 220 by sight is an important milestone in reading fluency.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning Math Through Literature

Whether or not we think about it, much of our early education comes from storybooks. A great deal of what we understand about the world and how we should behave within it comes from stories we read or heard as children. We know that the kind-hearted characters are always the ones who prosper in the end, that trying again is the key to success, and that happy endings are worth working toward.

Children’s storybooks are a great way to teach academic concepts, and an article in The Reading Teacher* explores the use of children’s literature to assist in math instruction. Parents and teachers can use the books to introduce children to sometimes tricky concepts in an engaging way.

One recommended title is Arithme-tickle by Patrick J. Lewis, a book of appealing poems about a variety of mathematical concepts. Other recommended books deal with specific areas of math instruction.  Earlier this year we wrote about using literature to help teach children about measurement.

Area and Perimeter

For a fun way to introduce children to the geometrical principles of area and perimeter, The Reading Teacher recommends Chickens on the Move by Pam Pollack, Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! by Marilyn Burns, and Bigger, Better, Best! by Stuart J. Murphy, as well as other titles that will keep children entertained as they learn.


Parents and educators who use literature to help explain mathematical concepts to kids will find a variety of options available for geometry instruction. Their search for just the right text may be over, however, when they discover Cindy Neushwander’s Sir Cumference series. The intrepid Sir Cumference, with the help of his wife, Lady Di of Ameter, and his son Radius use different strategies to solve various geometrical dilemmas that arise in Camelot and the surrounding lands. Titles include Sir Cumference and the First Round Table, Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, and Sir Cumference and the Sword in the Cone, among others. Younger children will enjoy the stories and gain some familiarity with geometrical principles. But the series is valuable for older children learning geometry in school as well; it’s hard to forget key geometrical terms and concepts when they’re presented in this format!


Multiplication may be introduced during the first few years of elementary school, but it is a concept that students will use throughout their lives. Unlike other types of math that kids may not revisit much after taking the chapter test (how many of us use scientific notation regularly?), students will use multiplication year after year, even after they’ve completed their schooling.

The Reading Teacher recommends several storybooks that will introduce students to the concept of multiplication so that they will be optimally prepared to embrace this important concept. Multiplying Menace: Rumplestiltskin’s Revenge by Pam Calvert, the delightful folktale One Grain of Rice by Demi, and Amanda Bean’s Amazing Dream by Cindy Neushwander will give kids some palatable background, leaving them ready to tackle their times tables.


Here at The Yellin Center, we often work with children who have difficulty with their math facts. Division seems to be a particularly tricky concept. Kids will often tell us that they had little trouble with multiplication, but that they just can’t get their division facts to stick.

The Reading Teacher recommends that parents and teachers try explaining division to kids with engaging storybooks like Splitting the Herd by Trudy Harris, the spectacularly popular One Hundred Hungry Ants by Elinor J. Pinczes, or Bean Thirteen and The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating it Too by Matthew McElligott.

*Bintz, W. P. et al. Using Literature to Teach Measurement. (2011). The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 58-70. Unfortunately, this publication is not available online without a subscription.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Ideas for Kids: Second Childhood Reviews

Parents sometimes ask us how to find age appropriate books for their children. It’s a tougher question to answer than it should be. After all, terms like “children’s book,” “chapter book,” or “young adult book” are pretty nebulous. Does a fifth grader fall into the “children” category? How young is too young for “young adult”? Reading a brief summary on Amazon often does little to inform parents of the reading level and content of the book in question. Fortunately, there are resources out there, and one of our current favorites is the wonderful blog Second Childhood Reviews.

Heather, the blog’s primary contributor, has a master’s degree in literacy and works as a literacy coach at an elementary school. Her reviews are supplemented by contributions from Rachel, another literacy coach in the  same school district. Both bloggers spent many years delivering classroom instruction as well, and their knack for understanding what kids like to read is part of what makes this blog such a wonderful resource.

Second Childhood reviews books for readers from third grade through high school. Titles are accompanied by thorough descriptions of the books, as well as the bloggers’ opinions about them. Visitors to the site will quickly realize that most of the reviews are positive; the selection of titles is so excellent, however, that Heather and Rachel would be hard pressed to respond with anything less than glowing praise. The range of titles is diverse, and the analyses provide thoughtful commentary on good discussions the themes in the books may raise at school or at home, and which content may be objectionable to some readers.

Readers may enjoy simply scrolling through the posts by date; they’re great reads by themselves. Alternately, reviews are organized by labels like “science fiction,” “civil rights,” and “friendship,” making it easy for readers to browse by theme. Somewhat hidden farther down the right sidebar is a list of reviewed titles organized alphabetically. Alas, the site does not feature a list of reviewed titles arranged by grade. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful resource parents and educators should certainly bookmark.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Court Bars Limits on Physician Gun Counseling

Unless you spent your summer in an isolated locale with no news broadcasts, newspapers, or internet (is there such a place anymore?) you know that this has been a summer punctuated by devastating, deadly gun violence. So we were particularly pleased to see an article in the August issue of AAP News noting that U.S. District Court Judge Marcia G. Cooke has ruled that a 2011 Florida law which restricted pediatricians from asking about whether there are firearms in a home is unconstitutional. Judge Cooke has issued a permanent injunction which blocks enforcement of this law.

We had previously written about our concerns with this legislation, noting that it was intended to counter an initiative on the part of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and others to make sure that families were aware of the need to keep guns away from children and to counsel patients and families on the need to store guns safely. As we noted in our prior blog on this topic, this was not an effort to limit gun ownership, only to improve safety.

The judge's ruling followed a lawsuit brought by the Florida branches of the AAP, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Physicians, as well as several individual physicians. The plaintiffs argued that the law limited their right to free speech under the First Amendment because it did not allow them to exchange information about gun safety with their patients. The judge agreed and also noted that the law prevented patients from hearing preventive health information from their doctors.

There are several other states in which similar legislation to the Florida law has been proposed, but not yet enacted. We hope that the ruling in Florida gives those in other states pause before they push ahead with limiting the rights of physicians to try to keep their patients safe.