Friday, September 22, 2017

Raising Active Readers

Parents often ask me how to get their student reading at a deeper level. And honestly—there isn’t a quick fix. There is no magic way to get your child from Dick and Jane to Pride and Prejudice. And if she is reading Jane Austin, how can you be sure that she is understanding all that she reads?

As in writing, the development of reading comprehension skills is a process. But it is a process that can start even before your child can read or write his own name! It is a process that is never too soon to begin.

First, it is important to realize that reading comprehension isn’t just knowing which character said something in a conversation or the order of the plot points. Comprehension is understanding the broader context of the time period through the language the writer uses as well as identifying the motivations and complexities of each person in the story.

A student with strong comprehension skills should be able to make reasonable inferences about what a character “might” do in a given situation or draw conclusions about what the author is trying to communicate through these characters.

To do this, it is helpful to strengthen vocabulary. Having a thorough knowledge of the words an author uses is half the battle in comprehension improvement.

Encourage your student to jot down words she doesn’t know in each chapter. Make this part of the process. Then use these words as a vocabulary list and study them...of course if you’ve been following my newsletters for any amount of time, you know that I’m a fan of family wide vocabulary learning!

Next, begin when your child is very young and ask open ended questions about a text. An open ended question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.  

“Why do you think Winne the Pooh is so patient with Rabbit all the time?”    

And what happens if you disagree with your student’s answer? Super! This is a chance to have him defend his reasoning...ask him to use examples from the book to support his thoughts. This is the beginning of a literature paper. And all of this can begin in preschool with Winnie the Pooh!

Start these types of discussions early in your reading-together days as it will train your child to begin active thinking while he reads. This is what teachers truly mean when they tell students to “active read.” But this is a skill that can’t just be turned on one day in 5th grade. It needs to be modeled and cultivated one book at a time.

As your child grows and matures into higher level books, enjoy reading the same literature and create your own family book club discussions. You might be surprised to find that he has more complex insights than you give him credit for.

Friday, September 8, 2017

One on One Instruction is Best!

Writing instruction has been in the news a lot in recent years. Why are our students falling short in the realm of written communication? How do we best teach them these skills?

Teachers and experts banter back and forth with ideas and “fancy” curriculums, but as it turns out (and as we at Online Scribblers knew all along) “fancy” isn’t the answer.
Recently, Nell Scharff Panero, a veteran English teacher and PhD in education leadership, set out to find the best ways to improve student writing outcomes in the classroom. What she learned is maybe not what most schools want to hear—but it IS what works.

What she found is that 75% of students in grades 8 to 12 in the US are below grade level when it comes to written skills. Even more shocking is that teachers continue to move on to teach grade level writing skills each year regardless of where students are on the spectrum of skill.

But you can’t build upon skills that aren’t there. Presenting 9th grade skills to a student who has mastered only 5th grade skills  is ludicrous. It would be akin to teaching calculus to students who have not even had basic algebra. Yet, this is what is happening in classrooms across America.


There are several reasons.

First, students are not tested annually as they are in reading and math, so we don’t have a “writing level” established for them.

Second, even when students are recognized as lacking in writing skill, fixing the problem takes time and manpower.

You see, it isn’t a matter of simply filling the gaps and bringing kids up to speed with an extra lesson or two. To really improve an individual student’s writing skill, it takes precious time. A teacher must look at a sample of work, assess the actual breakdown in understanding, and remediate to that exact level and situation.


For every, single student.

While one student may need to remediate all the way back to basic sentence writing, another may need paragraph basic remediation. There is no one size fits all. And, of course, once the remediation is made, there must be continued, frequent practice to retain and build true skill.

There is no quick fix.

There is simply no substitute for one on one instruction for each student at his or her own precise level. Writing education should begin early and occur often for best results. But it is never too late to begin the process.

There is no shame in remediating students to simpler skills and solidifying the experience. The only shame exists in pretending that there is not a national crisis in student communication and refusing to address it with the resources it requires.

More about Nell Scharff Panero’s study can be found in the article The Writing Revolution in The Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Writing is a Process

Writing well is not something that can be achieved overnight. Anyone who has stared at a blank sheet of paper and wondered where to start knows this.

Writing begins before the pen hits paper—or fingers hit the keys as it may be. Writing begins with thought. Thought becomes ideas and then the ideas come to life on the page. The form on the page is only the final step.

It is the careful training of how to transform thought into ideas and then transfer them to ink that takes time...and what makes writing excellent. This is the process that we often refer to as prewriting or outlining. It is also the process that most students avoid because it takes time and doesn’t really seem like “writing”. And it is a major reason why writing is difficult to is a daunting task to teach our children how to think and form ideas. But if we take the time to teach the process and insist on quality, our children will indeed be great writers!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Put Literature on their Curriculum!

As a voracious reader since elementary school, I have always preferred character driven, relationship laden stories to non fiction or action based thrillers.

Now, more than ever, there seems to be an excellent reason to make literary fiction part of a child’s regular curriculum.

In a 2013 study, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that “reading literary fiction improves theory of mind.” Theory of mind in the world of psychology are the processes involved in a person’s understanding and expression of empathy and sympathy: those life skills missing in
much of today’s world.

The findings of the study, then, suggest that exposure to literature and creative characters who reveal complex emotions and relationships help readers to develop their own expressions, most notably empathy for others’ situations and feelings as well as intuitive sympathetic responses. Readers of literature are better able to understand their own feelings and those of others.

It seems logical.

After all, we have all seen the studies that show that repeated exposure to violent video games can increase a child’s predilection toward aggression and desensitization to it.

How wonderful that we have an equally powerful alternative to help us enliven and enrich positive emotional awareness in our students—and how appropriate that this successful method is traditional and “old school” as many things of high value often are.

Empowering our children with selfawareness, generosity, kindness, and the ability to form healthy and empathetic relationships might be as easy as placing good literature in their hands and on their curriculums!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top 10 Fiction Choices for Teens

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak    (WWII era)

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee    (Great Depression era)

3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell    (American Civil War era)

4. Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi    (Medieval era)

5. Fever 1793 by Laurie Anderson    (1793)

6. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Chlodenko   (Great Depression)

7. Pirates by Celia Rees    (Reign of Pirates era)

8. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne   (WWII era)

9. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys    (WWII era)

10. The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt   (1967) New

Homeschooled Olympians

Well, the Olympics have come to an end and my family will definitely miss the late nights shared watching swimming, gymnastics, and track and field while cheering for our favorite athletes.

As I watched the games this year, it became apparent that these were not just talented athletes in their chosen field, but many were also dedicated homeschoolers too!

2016 Rio Olympians: Simone Biles (gymnastics), Serena Williams (tennis), David Boudia and Steele Johnson (diving)

So I looked back and found that the US Olympic team has been full of homeschoolers for many years: Carly Patterson (2004 gymnast), Bode Miller (2002 skier), Michelle Kwan (1994 figure skater).

Of course, these are just a few of the many homeschooled Olympians. So I got to thinking, there must be more than the benefit of a freer training schedule that breeds success for these homeschoolers. Undoubtedly the following homeschool skills and lessons were also contributing factors:

1. Dedication: homeschool students are not passive learners who sit idly in a classroom and wait to advance with a class—they attend to their work with diligence to learn and better themselves daily.

2. Independence: homeschool students learn to depend on themselves for answers and success.

3. Responsibility: homeschool students are accountable for their own mistakes and successes...they learn to be ambitious.

4. Time Management: homeschool students value time and don’t waste it.  

5. Confidence: more than anything else, homeschool students have unbelievable confidence that they can do, learn, or be anything.

With all of this in mind, I’m eager to see where the next generation of homeschoolers leads us! Who will we see competing in the 2020 and 2024 Olympic games?

Choosing the Right Class for Each Student

Some children have a particular interest in writing and know just what class suits their ability and interest set. However, other students are less inclined to the written arts or have specific learning challenges. These parents often ask which Online Scribblers class is the best fit for their children.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no one size fits all when it comes to our children and learning. There are many different routes to take, but I want to share a few thoughts on the subject.

Beginning or Struggling Writers: 

Do not underestimate the importance of strong paragraph writing. Just because a student puts a string of sentences together and indents the line doesn’t mean that she understands the proper way to form a paragraph.  If your student can’t identify a topic sentence versus a body or closing sentence, then  perhaps Paragraph Writing Basics is your best fit. Similarly, a student should understand the importance of using details, transitions, and adjectives while maintaining a single main idea. If any of these concepts are weak or lacking, I suggest Paragraph Writing Basics for students of any age or grade level.

Reluctant Writers:

If you have a student who is adept at writing strong paragraphs, but he is struggling with confidence or is a reluctant writer”, consider enrolling in a creative  based course. Creative Writing courses allow for students to boost confidence and skill at the same time that they are having fun and learning to express themselves. Poetry, Short Story and Techniques of Creative Writing are excellent places to begin the process of building up reluctant writers of all ages.

High School Writing Students: 

Students in high school have the unique opportunity at Online Scribblers to experience genres that are often unavailable in mass curriculums. It is in high school that students often begin to dread the “work” of writing. The high school years are the best time to try something out of the box—perhaps journalism, journaling/blogging, creative writing, or even business writing.

These ‘new’ genres often wake up a sleeping interest or hidden talent that transforms a student’s idea of what writing is and can be in his life. This is not the time to back away from writing, but a time to embrace its full potential.