Help For Struggling Readers

ImageFrom research, a student’s phonological and phonemic awareness is very predicative of being able to learn to read.  Phonological Awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate parts of words and syllables.  Phonemic Awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.  For example, if you take the word ‘cat’ it has three phonemes: /c/ / a/ /t/.  Students who struggle with phonemic awareness will tend to struggle with reading. The good news is, that both phonological and phonemic awareness can be developed by explicit instruction and practice through numerous activities.

Many students identified with a reading disability are past the age where phonological and phonemic awareness is taught in the classroom.  These students benefit from one-on-one or small group instruction in these skills.  Student’s attending the LDAWE’s ABC123 Tutoring Program are instructed in these skills.  Through developmentally appropriate activities and play, students practice and improve upon these skills either individually with a tutor or in a small group of two or three students.

Parents of my students ask what they can do at home to support their struggling reader.  Some activities I suggest to parents include playing word games.  Reading books with rhymes is also helpful.   I’ve put together a list of my favourite games, computer sites and iPad apps that help students improve their phonological and phonemic awareness.

Games

Scrabble Soup

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Chunk Stacker

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Reading Rods

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Rhyme Out

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Rhyming Bingo

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Websites

Turtle Diary

PBS Kids Island

Starfall

iPad Apps

Montessori Letter Sounds

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Word Wizard

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Bob Books #1 – Reading Magic

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PBPhonics 1 to 3

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ABC Spelling Magic

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What have you tried for your struggling readers?  Is there anything you would recommend?

When the Math Doesn’t Add Up: Math Anxiety and Learning Disabilities

Parents: Does your child struggle with math?  Completely shut down and become paralyzed when working on math homework?  Do they tell you that their mind goes blank and that they cannot remember anything? Teachers: Do you have a student that avoids math class and tends to flee by repeatedly asking to get a drink of water, or to go to the bathroom during that time?  ImageDoes your student exhibit helplessness and disorganization while math problem solving?  All of these behaviours are typical of math anxiety. Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D. defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”.  Some students that suffer from math anxiety may also have Dyscalculia.  Dyscalculia is defined by LD.org as: “a term used to describe a specific learning disability in mathematics. Individuals with dyscalculia have significant problems with numbers: learning about them and understanding how they work”.

Some common signs of Dyscalculia include:

  1. Understanding the one-to-one correspondence between number symbols and objects (4 cookies, 4 cars)
  2. Counting and calculating rapidly
  3. Learning/memorizing basic math facts (addition, subtraction)
  4. Learning counting strategies (such as by 2, by 10, by 100, etc.)
  5. Learning multiplication tables, formulas, and rules
  6. Making comparisons such as more than/less than
  7. Telling time
  8. Understanding spatial directions (such as left and right)
A more comprehensive list can be found on the NCLD.org website: Click here

Individuals that have math anxiety may not necessarily have Dyscalculia, however, individuals with Dyscalculia usually tend to have some form of math anxiety.  Two researchers Michael Eysenck and Manuel Calvo found that “the intrusive thoughts and worry characteristics of high anxiety are thought to compete with ongoing cognitive tasks for the limited processing resources for working memory.

ImageWhat this means is that students with math anxiety have negative thoughts and anxieties competing with working memory that is needed for solving mathematical problems.   If a student already suffers from poor working memory (which many students with learning disabilities do) being successful in math poses a challenge.  Interestingly, this study showed that students with severe learning disabilities suffered from poor working memory and that poor working memory contributed to a slow acquisition of mathematical skills even when the student had high intelligence.

 What can help my child/student with math anxiety?

ImageOne of the most beneficial things a parent or a teacher can do for a student with math anxiety is to reassure them they have do the ability to do math.  I have heard students say that they don’t have a math brain or that they are terrible at math!  This bias towards math ability contributes directly to math anxiety.  There is a wonderful book written by John Mighton called “The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child”.  In his book, John explains that all of us have a natural ability to do math.  Somewhere along the way in school, that ability gets distorted into an inability that can lead to math anxiety.  The philosophy behind The Myth of Ability is that when mathematical tasks are broken down and concepts described clearly, all students regardless of skill can understand them.  John is also the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) program that we are currently using in our ABC123 Tutoring Program with great success.

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Initially, JUMP was started as a tutoring program but has since then been implemented as a main teaching tool in hundreds of Canadian schools.  This program has helped many students to overcome their fear of math and thus improve their math ability.   I have seen improvements in my student’s math ability and more importantly improvements in their confidence and their perceptions of their own math ability.   Concepts are easily broken down in ways that students understand them.  With this understanding comes the confidence many students lack.  The books are easy to follow and align with Ontario’s math curriculum.  I have been using the program with my own son for the last two years with great success.   Using the teacher guides has enhanced my teaching of math as well.

The struggle that some students face in mathematics may be attributed to a combination of issues or one specific underlying concern.  What is important to understand is that math anxiety can have a negative affect on learning mathematics.  Helping students overcome their fears and anxiety is the first step to helping them be successful.  Celebrate the successes, no matter how small.  Each positive step will build confidence in your student and help them face math with a more positive outlook.  Breaking down math problems into easy to understand steps and using concrete tools such as manipulatives and pictures can help a student have a better understanding of mathematical concepts.  We are all capable of achieving success in math and as parents and educators we can help build that confidence in our kids!

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The Write Stuff: Handwriting Difficulty in Young Learners

Multiple-print-reversals-e1331590434434-300x286The first time I reviewed my son’s grade one assessment binder that came home from school I was overcome with worry.  Flipping through the pages, I noticed that every page had some letter or number reversal.   I got even more concerned as I read his teacher’s notes about the number of reversals he was making.  I had excused his writing because of his young age but now having a seasoned grade one teacher comment was making the gears in my head turn.  As a teacher myself who works with students with learning disabilities, letter reversals in writing is not new to me.   I knew how to help my son; I had all the right tools to help him improve his writing, tools that I regularly use with my students.  What I didn’t know was why these reversals occur and what is typical for younger children and what isn’t.  I dove right into books and articles to learn as much as I could about letter reversals in children.

frustrated writingWhat I learned from my research was that letter reversals in young children were common until about age 8 because generally, children do not develop directionality until that age.  Directionality means up/down, right/left and forward/backward.  Another issue is that some children do not learn to properly form their letters and what helps is to re-teach them how to write.  I also learned that for children who have dyslexia, 8 out of 10 will have an issue with directionality.   Younger children who have Dysgraphia will have trouble with forming letters, maintaining word spacing, and will complain about having sore hands.  These students may also have trouble forming ideas about what to write about.  Their writing may be illegible and may not fall on lines or within the page margins.

It’s a lot of information to take in and in my son’s case I’m not yet sure if the writing troubles are because of his age (he’s in the second grade now) or because there is an underlying issue affecting his handwriting.  As an educator, I know these handwriting issues will not just disappear regardless of the outcome and some work needs to be done.  While I strongly support modification and accommodation to support a student with difficulties I am an advocate for remediation in whatever capacity possible.   It’s the basis of our ABC123 Tutoring Program and it’s what I utilize with my students and my own son.

wetdrytryIn the ABC123 program, I have used the Handwriting Without Tears  program and while researching writing difficulties I came across their iPad app Wet-Dry-Try  and purchased it to try with my son.   He immediately took to the program and was willing to practice printing.  With the program he learned to properly form his letters from top to bottom, something I had tried to do with paper and a pencil, but which only frustrated him.  The app has been a game changer in our home, and my son has been learning how to form his uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers.

With students who have difficulty with writing it’s important to learn what strategies will work best for them.  For my son it was the iPad, for others it may be paper with raised lines or finding the right pen or pencil.  Practicing letter shapes through motor activities such as finger tracing in a tray of sand, or forming individual letters and numbers with play-doh are other methods that help students learn.  It’s also important to ensure that the student is using good writing hygiene, meaning that they are sitting properly, holding the paper down and have a good grip on the pencil since many of these bad habits will be harder to unlearn later on.  With many of my students, their grip is awkward which makes writing with a pencil difficult.   A strategy I learned from an occupational therapist was to have the student ball up a tissue in their hand to grip their pencil (see picture below).  For my son and many of my student’s it’s helped to find a commercial pencil grip that works for them.

kleenex grip

In the end, a wait and see approach is risky and many bad writing habits are difficult to change later on.  If you have a child or student with a writing difficulty, it’s beneficial for them (Dysgraphia or not) to try to remediate these difficulties because it’s likely that they will not improve on their own.  After remediation has been thoroughly examined accommodations such as keyboarding or Assistive Technology can be further explored.  For my son, I am taking it one day at a time and working with him to improve his printing for now.

To read more about Dysgraphia and the warning signs: http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/what-is-dysgraphia

What was that again?

Just before I graduated from the Faculty of Education, I began volunteering in a grade five classroom one day a week. The teacher pulled me aside one day and asked if I could read with Michael*. “He has some trouble with reading,” she said. As I sat with Michael, I was amazed at how well he read to me. It was perfect and he never stumbled, not even for one single word. I couldn’t understand why this student needed anyone’s help, much less mine! As I was wondering if the teacher had paired me with the wrong student, Michael turned to the question page that went along with the story. What happened next shocked me. As Michael began reading the questions it was evident that he couldn’t remember much of what he had read. He couldn’t really explain what the story was about. As I started prompting and quizzing him about the passage he had read, the more evident it became. Michael didn’t understand what he had read and he couldn’t comprehend the story. As I looked over at Michael, bewildered, I felt terrible for him. He was humiliated and frustrated and was done with the reading work. This experience was my first encounter with a student with comprehension difficulties and, unfortunately, not my last.

Frustration 2

As a Literacy Facilitator with LDAWE for almost three years, I have worked with countless students that have reading comprehension difficulties. While there are many different strategies for teaching comprehension, these are a few that I use with my students that have proven helpful:

1. Monitoring. Teach students to monitor their understanding when reading. When they are not understanding, they need to stop and identify what is giving them difficulty. Then they should use appropriate action to remediate the difficulty. These actions may include re-reading the text, looking back to a previous page, moving forward in the text, or asking someone for clarification. Once students are able to identify when they don’t understand something, they can then take steps to improve their understanding.

2. Identification. Have students use highlighters to identify important parts of a story. Teach them to look at only one page at a time and to highlight important text. For fictional stories, this may include names of characters or places. For non-fiction, this may include dates, names of places, or difficult words. Ask them what it is that they think is important and work with them in separating what is and isnot important

3. Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers help students construct meaning from the text that they are reading. Students can use a KWL chart (Know, Want, Learn) to activate their background knowledge prior to learning. Using their personal connections, students can then enter what they know about the topic, as well as the things that they want to learn about. Students can enter specific questions they are hoping the text answers. Finally, after reading the text, students can fill in what they learned. Character and Story maps (or Problem and Solution charts) can also be used to keep track of what is taking place in the text. Other graphic organizers can be found here: http://www.readinga-z.com/more/graphic_org.html

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4. Paragraph Shrinking. My favourite strategy to use is paragraph shrinking. Students will summarize each paragraph (for younger students, each page) and identify: 1) the who or the what of the paragraph; 2) the most important thing about the who or what; and 3) the main idea of the paragraph. Students should identify the main idea in 10 words or less, which encourages focus on comprehension.

5. Make Connections. Students will understand text they are reading if they can make a connection to it. I ask students, “Does this remind you of anything?”. If students have a schema about what they are reading, the text will be more meaningful and they will comprehend better. Connections can be a personal connection, a connection to something they have read or seen on TV, or something that they have heard about. When I sit with students, I will use self-talk to explain how I am making a personal connection to the text.

6. Read and Search. Teach students to re-read the text and search for answers. Students can read through the first time using the strategies mentioned above. Once finished, have the student read the question and then go back through the text until they find the answer. Often, students don’t realize that they should refer back to the original text. This is an important strategy for students to learn.

7. Visualize. It’s important for the reader to visualize what they are reading. I like to tell them to turn the information into a movie in their mind. I will start with reading to the students and having them close their eyes to imagine what is happening in the story. It’s interesting for a group of students to hear about other’s visualizations in order to see how everyone’s individual schema plays into the text. The next step is for students to independently read a paragraph and visualize what they are reading.

8. Read with Good Fluency. When students struggle with reading, their comprehension may suffer too. All the reader’s energy is being used to decode the words and get through the text, which means their focus is not on what is actually happening in the story. Good fluency helps with reading comprehension. One of the best ways to help students improve their fluency is to re-read short passages. For younger readers, re-reading their short stories a second time is a wonderful way to help improve fluency.

One of the most important things I have learned as an educator is that a one size solution does not fit all. It’s important for teachers to know how and when to differentiate. Every individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own likes and dislikes, and their own preferred methods based on their learning styles. I teach my students to know what it is they need in order to be successful and to learn to advocate for themselves. To speak up and say “I need this in order to learn.”

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These are my experiences and this is what I do. There is no manual to follow when teaching people to read. You do what works for the individual. Sometimes you really have to work hard to find what works. You search and experiment. When you fail, you go back and try again. When the “Aha!” moment finally comes for the learner, your inner teacher will jump for joy and you’ll know then that, in the end, it’s all been worth it.

*Name has been changed.