Most moms I know don’t have heaps of free time to devote specifically to fostering literacy with your kids.
Shh, Supermom who seems to have time for stitching clothes from scratch with one hand while creating award winning cakes with the other, I’m not talking about you.
For us mere mortals, even the bedtime story can sometimes get rushed or bumped for more pressing matters. We all know we need to nurture our kids’ minds as we do their bodies, but setting aside a lazy afternoon to indulging in deep, brain-growing activities just doesn’t happen.
Kids’ abilities to remember experiences, to make connections and to integrate their thoughts and emotions are not the same as yours and mine. Their brains continue to grow and evolve throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, our human brains aren’t considered “mature” until we are somewhere in our twenties (and, reflecting on some twenty-somethings I’ve known, a case can be made for brain maturity occurring even later than that). The best way to help kid’s mental development is to help your kids exercise their brains as they would a muscle. Here are some great things you can do on-the-go that can keep your kids thinking and communicating while life rolls on by.
Help your children practice remembering things, prioritizing, and expressing themselves by telling you two truths and a lie about their day. Play while walking to the park, eating dinner, or strolling the grocery store aisle. Have your child tell you three things about your day, two of which are true and one made up (in any order), then you (or a sibling) can guess which statement is the lie. This teaches kids to reflect on their experiences and it exercises their ability to remember things from the day. As kids get older and better at the game, you can extend the time frame — two truths and a lie about last weekend, last summer or last family trip. This little activity also enhances communication and story telling ability. The first few times you play, the lie may be glaring obvious (“A dragon ate my teacher”) but you’ll be surprised at how soon kids learn how to make a story believable — also a good literacy skill. Children are always excited to pick out the “lie” in others' stories as well, so be sure to tell two truths and a lie about your own day.
This can be as simple as throwing out a word and having a little one say a rhyme (cat/hat, etc.) or as complicated as coming up with a mini-rap about a shared event (that soccer game was took its toll until I scored the magic goal; the crowd jumped up and raised their hands, craziness ensued in the stands — ok, I’m far from Kanye, but you get the idea). I’ve played this game with my students and they began making up rhymes all the time — even months after I introduced the idea. I’ll admit, some days, it drove me crazy, but I know how good it is for kids to play with words. Having fun with language and understanding how words fit together fosters strong oral and written communication.
Creativity helps with everything from solving arguments, to beating the next level in a video game, to coming up with a great essay topic. This game can be played anywhere, and inspires creativity, communication and vocabulary building. It may seem overwhelming for a child to come up with a whole story with plot and characters and all that other stuff, but most kids can make up a title before you hit the next red light. With this activity you can get young minds thinking about what titles mean and how they grab readers’ attention. Have fun making up titles for stories your kids may want to read or star in or come up with titles inspired by things you’re driving by. Or just ask your kids what they think the funniest, scariest or most interesting story title would be. There are no limits. The goal is just to stimulate creativity and to have some fun. Promoting literary thinking is the happy by-product.
The essence of literacy is simply communication — it’s all about getting your message across and understanding the messages of others. And if literacy is just communication then, really, haven’t you been helping your kids with this subject from the day they were born? So, keep up the good work!
Have fun and enjoy the journey!
For more help with literacy, see Tips to Help and Struggling Reader. And if your family is just too busy for homework, see how you can Keep Some Perspective while dealing with school.
I recently read Melissa Gaston’s post Why I’m Going to Stop Telling my Daughter She’s Beautiful, a response to Erica Ehm’s post Why I Feel Guilty Watching This Beautiful Video. All this talk about image got me thinking about another thing we need to be careful about telling our kids. We need to try and stop telling our kids they are smart.
WHAT?!? Did you hear me right? Is this teacher saying don't tell kids they are SMART? Yep. You heard me. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very supportive, encouraging teacher and if your child is in my class you can be assured I am kindly urging them towards their learning goals, but I try (and I still have some work to do on this, especially when it comes to my own daughter) not to tell my students they are smart.
You see, it’s all about mindset. Once upon a time, I read a book written by Carol Dweck, titled Mindset. I think it is an important book for both educators and parents to read. Essentially, Dweck talks about two kinds of mindsets people have about characteristics — a growth mind set or a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset is one that supposes the traits we have are passed on biologically from our parents. They are things we can’t change through effort, practice and hard work. Height, for example, is pretty much a fixed trait. No matter how much you cajole, praise or consequence a kid, they just aren’t going to be able to grow taller through effort. Of course, growth can be affected by nutrition, disease or accident, but for all intents and purposes, it is a fixed trait. You are born preloaded with the genes for your height and with or without intervention, stiletto heels aside; you will grow to that height.
Conversely, a growth mindset is one that looks at traits as things that can be altered through behaviour, effort and work. Our ability to drive a car, for example, can be changed through practice. When someone first starts driving, they might be stiff and nervous, unsure of how to co-ordinate their hands and feet with what their eyes are taking in. But, through practice and effort, most people improve until they are no longer consciously aware of the movements necessary to drive a car.
So, where does intelligence fit in? Is it a fixed trait passed on by our parents, or a fluid trait that can be grown through effort? Obviously, our “smartness” comes a little from both camps. Sure, some of our ability to be clever is innate — the product of a healthy pregnancy and a great cocktail of genes from mommy and papa. But, our brain’s abilities are so much more complicated than that. We can absolutely grow our intelligence through practice and effort. Indeed, our brains are constantly growing and adapting without effort on our part — imagine how much further they can go with focused hard work.
When we tell our kids that they are smart, much like when we tell them that they are pretty, we are praising a fixed trait — something that they had very little to do with. Far better to praise their effort! When your student comes home with a great mark, it’s more helpful to say, “hey, you must have worked hard on that” or “tell me how you got all that material to stick in your brain.” These responses show your child that it is effort and work that earns success and that intelligence is something that can be improved upon. If your response consistently is, “wow, you must be so smart!” our children see intelligence as something outside of their control and may believe that it is just lucky that they happen to be “smart.” This view can cause our kids problems in the future.
As a society, we are all about well-intentioned praise to boost our kids’ self-esteem, but sometimes that praise sends the wrong messages despite our efforts. We are constantly heaping unhelpful compliments on our kids, as so many proud parents (myself included) are inclined to do. We tell our kids their artwork is museum worthy, their athletic ability is Olympic-bound and their schoolwork is nothing short of genius. This can have the unwanted result of a child being afraid to try, lest they achieve something less than perfection. When we say things such as, “amazing, you got top marks without even studying,” the child might think, if I have to study to get good marks, then mom won’t think I’m brilliant.
This is a hard habit to break. As a parent and a teacher, I hear the words tumble out of my mouth all the time. But, aware of their impact, I try to follow up this pointless, unhelpful praise by complimenting effort and hard work. “Baby girl, you learned that so quickly. You are so smart!” (my daughter thinking ”if I don’t get things quickly, then I must not be smart,” me mentally kicking myself). So I follow up quickly with, “I really like the way you worked hard to get that right. I like the way you concentrate on things.” Keep in mind, my daughter is only 14 months right now, so we’re talking skills like using a fork and walking, but still, I’m trying to create a habit. And, a toddler is the world’s greatest example of tenacity and hard work. No matter how many times baby girl fell, she kept on popping right back up until she mastered walking and now is striving for running. I can only hope this perseverance carries on throughout her lifetime.
Conversely, in my classroom, I see many students who have become convinced that they are not smart, and therefore they are completely disenchanted with learning and expect constant failure. They have come to believe intelligence is something that is given, and that they just didn’t get as much of it. It part of my job to show them that there is no such thing as smart and not smart, there is only working hard to improve and trying to learn something new every day.
I often cite the example of Michael Jordan to my students. When Michael was cut from his high school basketball team, he didn’t take it as a sign he should quit. He didn’t believe that athletic ability was fixed, and he just didn’t get the right amount of it to succeed in basketball. Instead, demonstrating that growth mindset, Michael just took it as a sign he needed to practice more. He practiced day in and day out, throughout his entire career. And look where it got him?
So, try not to tell your kids they are beautiful, and try not to tell them they are smart. Do tell them they are loved! Do praise those things that your kids have control over — practice, hard work, discipline (not to mention, keeping their rooms clean). Do help your children to learn from both their successes and their failures. Oh, and while you’re at it, please remind me to do the same!
Enjoy the journey!
In 1999, Ontario officially eliminated “streaming” high school students. Students entering grade nine no longer had to choose just one path; they could now opt for a mix of academic (university bound) and applied (hands-on) courses. The idea being, a student could begin in applied math in grade nine and later switch to the academic. The route to graduation no longer needed to be a linear journey, but rather students could move back and forth between streams as needed. Theoretically.
In reality, very few students actually select a mix of academic and applied courses. Even fewer switch to academic math or English once they begin applied. In the winter of their grade eight year, students must make their high school course selections and they seldom change their streams before graduation.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends delaying selective programming until later in high school, as is done in Finland, Poland, and Spain. And, I have to absolutely agree! The OECD is telling teachers what they already know. Grade eight is simply too early for kids to select their pathways through high school, especially since those pathways have a huge impact on success after high school.
Of course, there are those kids who sail through grade school—the ones who don't struggle with tests, who find assignments straightforward and easily completed, who have no difficulty focusing in class. For these students, choosing their courses at any point isn’t problematic. The choice is obvious—they select academic courses and follow that pathway all the way through until graduation.
But for our other students, those who might have some difficulty with the academic material, those who may struggle a bit with math or don’t always meet the standard reading level, for these students, selecting their path too early could spell-out disaster. And there are students who haven’t had many advantages, those whose home life or financial difficulties may be impacting their school performance. There is currently an over representation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds in applied courses. For our students who are having difficulties in elementary school, whatever the reason, the obvious choice would seem to be applied courses. These courses are taught a little differently, using a more hands-on, experiential approach, and tailoring the teaching pace to the student’s needs.
However, outcomes for students in applied courses are worse than their academic counterparts. Statistics show that students who take applied courses in grade nine are less likely to attend college or university, and are less likely to graduate high school at all. Provincial standardized tests show a significant achievement gap between students in applied and academic courses.
The transition from elementary school to high school is a big one. Students have all sorts of new things to deal with, socially and academically. I think it would be far better to support kids through this big change by teaching them in general, non-streamed courses for at least a year before students select their levels. It would be helpful for students to have some experience and understanding of high school culture—the homework, the exams, the constant rotary between classes, the social aspects—before being faced with this academic fork in the road. Delaying this choice would also allow high school teachers to assess the students and help guide their choices.
We know our human brains don’t mature until sometime in our twenties, so some kids need a little more time to catch up with their cohort. I have seen many students who have struggled with a particular area of study for much of elementary school suddenly start to “get it” toward the end of their grade eight year. Sometimes, it's because they finally understand their own learning style, sometimes because their maturity allows for a greater concentration when faced with a task, sometimes because they’ve finally been identified with a Learning Disability and have begun to learn how to manage it. Whatever the reason, often something significant happens for these kids around the end of grade eight or beginning of grade nine. If we were able to give these kids a little more time to grow into themselves, we would see greater academic success.
There will be some that argue it is difficult to teach students at a variety of levels in the same classroom, but that is what every elementary school teacher is expected to do and it is entirely possible. There will be those who argue that struggling students will “drag down” the stronger learners. Again, I point to elementary school. Those stronger learners keep growing, learning, and staying on a successful trajectory, no matter who is in the desk beside them. Research shows that having diverse abilities in a classroom is advantageous to both the lower and higher achieving students.
I really see no disadvantages to delaying this choice and many advantages. Let's let our kids grow up a bit before making their life choices. Let's give them a chance to figure themselves and high school out before choosing a path. Let's support struggling learners in every way possible to help keep many doors open to them.
Here’s hoping the Ministry of Education is paying attention to this report. Come to think of it, maybe the Ministry of Education should start reading my blog.
High school brings big changes, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey!
If you like this post, you might also like: "Is Special Education A Bad Word?" and "Survive Homework Hell: Keep Some Perspective!"