Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Study Shows Online Education Has Promise

Online education, particularly when it’s free, is exploding in popularity around the planet. A recent article in the New York Times explores the success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Traditionalists may be surprised that one of the primary findings reported in the article is that MOOCs can be more efficient and effective than traditional classes led by a teacher. Surprised? Duolingo, a popular Web-based language instruction site, commissioned a study to determine how effectively their product teaches languages such as Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, and English to non-native speakers. The results showed that the average learner with no knowledge of Spanish would need to devote 135 hours to cover a semester’s worth of entry-level Spanish curriculum, whereas the same content could be learned on Duolingo in only 34 hours! The study was small and its results can’t realistically be generalized beyond its preliminary findings. Still, the indication seems to be that, done right, MOOCs can be effective indeed. And the best part? MOOCs are free.

One problem with MOOCs, however, is that students are unlikely to finish courses in which they enroll. Perhaps it’s easier to drop a free service than one that charges tuition, or maybe students are less motivated by a computerized instructor than they would be by face-to-face interactions with classmates and a professor. Whatever the reason, the New York Times piece reports that fewer than ten percent of MOOC students complete their coursework. Still, the article reasons, if 5,000 people out of the 100,000 who initially signed up walk away with a new knowledge base, it’s hard to say that the MOOC was unsuccessful. We agree.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Important Lessons In Financial Literacy

Wisconsin, as we all know, is the home of delicious cheese, Bucky the Badger, and…great tools for teaching financial literacy? Educators in Wisconsin have made a commitment to teaching students the money management skills they’ll need someday to achieve their financial goals, whether they’re facing college tuition, career decisions, debt, or long-term planning.

These important lessons seem hard to teach. Happily you don’t have to be a resident of Wisconsin to benefit; a great deal of information is available to everyone through Wisconsin’s Educational Communications Board.

The Financial Literacy: TEACH IT! site features a series of videos to help educators introduce topics like saving and investing, risk management, and being a critical consumer. Sound dry? Watch the video in which a teacher helps her children understand the relationship between risk assessment and insurance and you may change your mind.

(Click through the image above to access the video.)
In it, Ms. Pingel directs her second and third graders to place houses they've constructed into a tub filled with dirt and trees to resemble a landscape. After talking about their rationale for locating homes in different areas, she passes out a sheet of insurance options and the kids pick the ones they think they’ll need—accident, chimney, earthquake, etc.—based on the location of their house. (Prices are measured in recesses to help kids get the idea of value – personal liability insurance will set a child back five recesses!). Then disaster strikes: Ms. Pingle dumps a pitcher of water into the tub! Some houses are washed away, but the ones on high ground are untouched. Then Ms. Pingle leads a discussion about the kids’ insurance choices now that they face hard times. The TEACH IT! page has links to the handouts used in nearly all lessons, and educators can view excerpts from a Q and A session with the teacher after the lesson for further information.

The financial literacy lessons are divided by age: pre-kindergarten to grade four, grades five through eight, and grades nine through twelve. This website is an outstanding resource for teachers, but also for parents who want to teach their kids about money management but are not sure where or how to start. The ideas and videos are great starting points for important conversations that will help kids make smart decisions for years to come.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun with Math Facts – Really!

It is widely accepted that drilling with flashcards is an effective way to get children to memorize math facts. It is also widely accepted that flashcards are hardly a fun way to spend time. Try motivating kids to do math by making a few minor adjustments to games that are already family favorites, however, and kids won’t be able to get enough (and may even want to keep playing on their own)!

Math War

Works for: addition, multiplication

In this version of war, each player lays down two cards at once instead of one and, depending on the skill being targeted, has to either add or multiply the numbers on their cards together. The player with the higher total gets to keep all four cards. Face cards and aces can be removed from the deck, or you can add an extra twist by assigning them other values (they can be 1’s, higher numbers, wild cards, or negative signs for older students). Note: If there are more than two players, shuffling two decks together might be best to avoid running out of cards too quickly.

Math Checkers

Works for: addition, subtraction, multiplication

This game requires a bit more preparation. Cut post-it notes so that they are small enough to stick onto the black squares of a checkerboard, and write random numbers on each. Then use tape to affix more numbers on each of the checker pieces. If you are targeting multiplication or addition, the numbers can be random, but be sure that the numbers on the pieces are higher than the numbers on the board if you are targeting subtraction; the exception is if you want the student to practice negative numbers as well. Then play checkers as usual. Each time a player moves to a new square s/he must combine the number on the piece with the number on the board. This game takes jumping to a whole new level, as students will have to perform several operations for each square they hit!

More-Math Monopoly

Works for: addition, multiplication

Monopoly already provides lots of practice with addition and counting money. You can easily add another layer of math practice by requiring each player to add or multiply the numbers on the dice together each time s/he rolls. The whole family can play this game if younger players need only add while older players are required to multiply. Note: This concept can be adapted to any game that is played with two dice.


Works for: addition

It’s no secret that addition skills are needed for this game, but it’s not one parents typically think about playing with their children on a wholesome family game night. Blackjack is fantastic for improving math fact knowledge, however, and it teaches children about probability, too. Remove the gambling aspect by playing a best-of-ten series and keeping score, or else bet with pennies, M&M’s or poker chips that can be cashed in for additional minutes of video game time, choice of dessert at dinner, or some other treat.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Foldable Flashcard Alternative

Out of index cards? Worried that your child will lose his flashcards after he takes the time to make a stack? To study for tests that require paired associate memory (the part of memory that links two pieces of information together, such as a Spanish vocabulary word to the English translation), try this fun foldable flashcard alternative:

1) Fold a piece of notebook paper in half vertically.

2) Unfold the paper and cut along every third printed line until you get to the fold. You should have a series of tabs on one side of the fold and solid paper on the other.

3) Fold the tabs back down. Write one of the element symbols/vocabulary words/math facts to be memorized on each one.

4) Lift the tab and write the corresponding element/definition/answer so that it is positioned underneath the tab.

5) Quiz your child, or show them how to do it themselves.

6) Pass the test with flying colors and celebrate!

For more resources for parents, teachers, and students, visit

Photo: Jeremy Koren 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winners of the 2012 Children’s Choice Book Awards

The start of a new year inspires the publications of many "best of" lists. One of our favorites is the Children’s Choice Awards, a list of outstanding new books selected annually by 12,500 children around the country who choose what they like best from over 500 of the year’s best offerings. And (drum roll, please) the results for 2012 are in!

The Children’s Choice Awards are a nationwide search for the best books out there, chosen by the people who matter most: the kids themselves. Organized by the International Reading Association and cosponsored by the Children’s Book Council, Children’s Choices aims to help young readers find books they will enjoy. Between 20 and 30 books are presented for each of three levels of readers: Beginning Readers (kindergarten through second grade), Young Readers (third and fourth grades), and Advanced Readers (fifth and sixth grades).

The same principle is behind Teachers’ Choices, which identifies about 30 books selected by education professionals as excellent choices for curriculum use. And teens can peruse the Young Adults’ Choices list to learn which new novels their peers liked best. Each list presents the titles in alphabetical order, a brief description of the book, and a picture of the front cover.

Access all three children's lists, in age order. Maybe you’ll want to show them to a reluctant reader in your life, choose the perfect gift for a special child, or get some ideas for your own reading!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Apps and Tools for Students: Graphing Calculator and V.Reader

An iDevice app for advanced math students and a "kiddie Kindle" for early readers are two of the many new ways that technology can help students of all ages.

For Advanced Math Students: Graphing Calculator

This news might make you feel a little bit better about breaking down and buying your child that iPhone he or she has been begging for: Thanks to the app Graphing Calculator by Appcylon, there’s no need to shell out another $150 for that powerful, essential accessory to all advanced math courses. For just $1.99 from the iTunes store, Graphing Calculator does all that a standard graphing calculator does, and does it better, too. The display is sharp and clear, lines can be presented in different colors, and the interface is streamlined instead of being clunky. Graphing Calculator works on all iOS devices.

A word of caution, though: Be sure that your child’s school will allow him/her to use a phone/iPad/iPod Touch in class and on tests before relying solely on this app for all calculation purposes.

For Beginning Readers: V.Reader

Think of Vtech’s interactive e-reading offering as a "kiddie Kindle" -- kids read downloaded electronic books on its high-resolution screen, look up words they don’t know, and much more. The device is rated for users from age 3-7, so while pre-readers can choose to have stories read to them and enjoy the animated pictures that accompany the words, beginning readers can read the stories themselves. V.Reader also features a helpful tutorial function in which tapping a word with the stylus or just a fingertip provides the reader with a definition or help sounding the word out. Kids can play games or create digital artwork as well, and a tracking mechanism allows parents to monitor their kids’ progress. New e-books can either be purchased in cartridge format or downloaded via a computer and transferred to the device. The V.Reader is made of durable plastic and comes in either pink or blue, and parents will be relieved to know that they can silence the beeps and whistles typical of children’s electronic games by plugging their tots into the headphone jack.

The downsides are few, but are worth pointing out. For one, the V.Reader plows through batteries – it requires 4 AA’s to run – so investing in a battery charger may be wise if you buy a V.Reader for your child. Additionally, the stylus is not tethered to the reader and can be easily lost, so it may be a good idea to require that it live in a special place while not being used. Overall, however, reviews of the V.Reader have been overwhelmingly positive. Kids seem to love it, and parents report that they are seeing literacy progress. At $39.99, the V.Reader is a good deal, one parents will appreciate even more when they don’t have to read the same bedtime book to their little one for the tenth night in a row.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Super Single-Sentence Summaries

Summarizing is a great technique for boosting reading comprehension. Students who learn to produce great summaries are practicing saliency determination (figuring out what is most important as they read) as they work to separate the main ideas from the details. They’re also putting their memories through valuable exercise regimens by practicing information retrieval. But sometimes creating the same old summaries again and again can get a bit stale.

One way to spice up the summarization routine, as well as to help kids put new vocabulary words to work, is to ask them to provide short summaries around specific words selected from the text. Imagine a child reads an article about a NASA rover sent to investigate the surface of Mars. Parents and teachers can pick several words from a reading and prompt students to create single-sentence summaries. For example:

  • Think of a sentence that uses the word “crater” and describes something important you learned from this article. 
  • Think of a sentence using the word “geology” that tells something important explained in this article. 

Students learning in groups might all take turns contributing their own sentences in response to the instructor’s query.

Single-sentence summaries would be great tools for exploring themes in literature, too. Rather than asking for a basic summary of a book or a chapter, a teacher could select several individual words that express different themes explored in the reading (or, for older students, ask them to contribute) and ask students to create sentences based on those words. For example:

  • Can you think of a sentence using the word “imagination” that describes Harry? 

These brief summaries might be enough to get kids thinking, or adults may want to use this activity to prepare students for writing/telling longer, more traditional summaries about reading. Either way, they’re a great way to encourage students to use new words and for teachers to lead students to consider certain angles of a text. And they’re certainly more interesting and fun than having to do the same old summary exercise again.

This article is based on ideas found in “Simple Summaries, Fabulous Finds” in The Reading Teacher, 65(8).

Photo: CC by garysan97

Friday, January 11, 2013

Motivating Reluctant Boys to Read

Most teachers will tell you that when it comes to motivating their students to read, boys are a much harder sell than girls. We've certainly met lots of boys who are voracious readers, but we agree that when we ask kids if they read for fun, boys are more likely to scoff, “No!”

This aversion to reading is a problem. In the younger grades, pleasure reading builds important fluency skills. And, as they get older, kids acquire more and more of their vocabularies from the words they encounter in text rather than from words they hear in conversation.

A recent article* in The Reading Teacher caused us to reflect on our experiences in language arts classrooms and libraries over the years. While it can be tough to engage boys in literature, here are some considerations we've found to be helpful when making reading recommendations:


Many boys seem to like books that are action-packed or funny. Some parents shy away from offerings like Captain Underpants, and this is understandable. Still, we like to see boys engaged in reading, even if they’re reading silly books. All too often, boys find themselves forced to read the kind of “classics” embraced by their parents and teachers. This can lead to listless reading and hostility toward reading in general, which is a scary prospect. Graphic novels and humorous books, frivolous as many adults consider them, may be just what’s needed to spark a boy’s interest in reading. (We've seen boys enthralled to discover Roald Dahl for the first time, so don’t forget that his canon includes many funny stories. And Calvin and Hobbes is practically unparalleled in its use of sophisticated vocabulary.) Another genre often not considered by adults or by boys themselves is non-fiction. Boys seem to be keen to learn about things that interest them and this tendency should be whole-heartedly embraced. Offer boys factual books like the wonderful Eyewitness series, developmentally appropriate magazines about topics that fascinate them, and, if they’re ready, newspaper clippings. Pleasure reading should be just that – the chance for boys to read what they enjoy. Let them experience more traditional literary experiences at school while they build a love of reading at home.


Boys tend to gravitate more toward books about sports and action-packed adventures. Sports books by authors like Matt Christopher (grades 3 and up) and Mike Lupica (grades 5 and up) indulge boys’ fascination with athletics, and most of them teach important lessons about sportsmanship, fairness, and perseverance. Adventure books abound as well. Malcolm Rose’s Traces series for instance (grades 5 and up), chronicles the adventures of prodigy Luke Harding, the youngest person ever to qualify as a forensics investigator, as he attempts to solve crimes based on evidence the criminals left behind. Boys love these realistic, adventurous novels. They also seem to be particularly captivated by survival stories. Point boys toward My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (ages 8 and up) and the Hatchet series (grades 4 and up) by Gary Paulsen. Many boys also find science fiction enticing. Start with futuristic reads like Feed by M.T. Anderson (ages 14 and up) and The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (ages 12 and up).


Boys (and girls, for that matter) should be given plenty of choice when it comes to picking out their leisure reading material. Parents and teachers should feel free to offer plenty of suggestions, but a boy is most likely to be engaged in the texts he chooses himself. And engagement in text is critical for building comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary skills. After all, aren’t those the reasons we want kids to read independently in the first place?

*Senn, Nicole. (2012). “Effective Approaches to Motivate and Engage Reluctatnt Boys in Literacy.” The Reading Teacher, 66(3).

Photo: Katie Hiscock / Creative Commons

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Parent Resources from Pediatricians

We were recently reminded of the many resources for parents available through our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). While many of the features of the main AAP website are only available to pediatrician members, there is no such restriction on the AAP sponsored website

The Healthy Children website, which is available in both English and Spanish language versions,  features information for parents on each stage of child development, in a section called "Ages and Stages". It also has timely information on current issues, such as flu prevention and treatment and winter safety tips. There are links to new research findings and a "find a pediatrician" feature.

We were also pleased to see the website information available in a new free app for iPads and iPhones as well as android phones. A web based magazine, also titled Healthy Children, seems excellent but has not been updated since it was launched in the fall of 2012.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Meaningful Transportation Services

As New York City parents contemplate plans for getting their children to school in the face of a threatened strike by school bus drivers -- who transport 152,000 of the City's school children along 7,700 routes daily -- we thought it might be a good time to revisit transportation to and from school.

For students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), transportation is considered a "related service", like physical or occupational therapy or counseling. For a student to receive transportation other than that which is provided to all students in the district (whether that is a bus pass, a Metrocard, or some other entitlement to free or discounted public transportation) transportation must be included in that student's IEP.

The regulations that implement the IDEA note that,
It is assumed that most children with disabilities will receive the same transportation provided to nondisabled children, unless the IEP team determines otherwise.... If the IEP team determines that a disabled child requires transportation as a related service in order to receive FAPE, [a Free Appropriate Public Education, the core requirement for students classified under the IDEA] or requires accommodations or modifications to participate in integrated transportation with nondisabled children, the child must receive the necessary transportation or accommodations at no cost to the parents. This is so, even if no transportation is provided to nondisabled children.(U.S. Department of Education, 1999a, p. 12551)

There are two other kinds of transportation services which are far less common than busing, but which can provide crucial assistance for some students. One is Orientation and Mobility Services which are available only  to students with visual impairments. The other is Travel Training, which is defined by the Regulations to the IDEA as: "providing instruction, as appropriate, to children with significant cognitive disabilities, and any other children with disabilities who require this instruction, to enable them to---

(i) Develop an awareness of the environment in which they live; and
(ii) Learn the skills necessary to move effectively and safely from place to place within that environment (e.g., in school, in the home, at work, and in the community)."
[emphasis added]

While most schools will not think about travel training for students with learning and/or attention problems, parents are well advised to consider  their child's need to get around their larger community and to determine  whether their child might need assistance learning the skills needed to navigate beyond their school building. These can range from reading a map, understanding travel zones and fares on local transport systems, looking both ways when crossing a street, and personal safety issues when they are out and about in their neighborhood. Even driving lessons for older students could be considered among the "... skills necessary to move effectively and safely from place to place ..." 

Thinking about travel and transportation in a broader way can help create a meaningful IEP that will assist students in navigating their world safely and efficiently.

school bus photo courtesy cc

Friday, January 4, 2013

With thanks to our friends at Newsday's College Prep Talk, we want to share some lesser known but helpful sites for students applying to college. We hope that this year's seniors have their applications in and are waiting for news (and know that students applying early admission will have received their responses). But for high school juniors and sophomores and their parents, this is the time to start thinking ahead about how to select a college -- and how to pay for it.

If you missed the webinar on this topic, in which your blogger was joined by a college guidance counselor and an admissions officer, you can still view it on demand -- just click on the "To Register" button on the Newsday webinar website.

In the meantime, check out the following sites, all of which are free but which require registration:

Fastweb - offers information on scholarships and matching students with available scholarships. 

Cappex - matches students with colleges and recommends scholarship sources. 

Zinch - another matching services for both colleges and scholarships. Here, the information is provided to college representatives, who may then reach out to students.

College Prowler - a discussion board for a variety of college questions that also features a tool to assess your chances of being admitted to a particular school.

This might also be a good time for sophomores and juniors with learning disabilities and ADHD to pick up a copy of the award winning book Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, which includes numerous resources, including helpful websites.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Crucial Role of Recess

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just issued a Policy Statement, reaffirming what researchers have noted for years -- that recess plays a crucial role in the well-being of children and that cutting recess time in an effort to devote more of the school day to academics is a short-sighted practice, which can deprive students of significant physical, social, and academic benefits.

The Statement, issued by the AAP Council on School Health notes that recess is different from physical education, which it describes as an "academic discipline", and stresses the need for unstructured playtime. The Statement notes that  students are able to perform better on cognitive tasks after a period away from the  classroom, and that what matters most is that students get a break from academics, not what they do during this break or even how long the break lasts.

Social benefits to recess include building skills such as cooperation, negotiation, sharing, and problem solving. There are physical benefits, as well, even for those students who are not particularly active on the playground; they are still moving more than they would at their desks. The AAP notes that while there is much discussion about structured play time and playground safety, too much supervision and structure can impede spontaneous play and creativity. They note that while supervision is important, there needs to be a balance so that recess is really a time for play. They also note that while students traditionally have recess time after lunch, that there is merit to the "recess before lunch" movement. When students get to play before their lunch period they take more time to eat, waste less food, and their behavior is improved both at mealtime and after lunch.