Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Learning to Read is a Mind / Body Experience

June 13, 2013

This will be my last blog post. I have greatly enjoyed serving the Tewksbury Township learning community as Interim Superintendent. As you know, our school district contains wonderful children, supportive parents, great teachers, excellent support staff, and talented Board of Education members. I hope that you have learned a few things from me during my tenure at Tewksbury. I know that I have learned a great deal from the experience.

I will certainly miss everyone, but change is a good thing and we all must move on. This final post may be a bit lenghty since I am trying to get as much in as possible. Possibly you will pick up a couple of additional tips that may help you work with your child and your child’s teachers.

First Steps

I want to help my child to increase his reading skills. So, what do I do first? I usually jokingly respond to this question by saying that you start at the beginning. However, this piece of advice may not be the best when we are determining how to address specific reading difficulties.

Based on what I know about how the human brain learns best, the very first things that need to be considered are the physical and emotional well being of your child. This is what is meant when the research points to the fact that learning engages the entire physiology. In other words, it is not just about mental ability; it is also about rest, nutrition, emotions and physical activity. Sometimes we think of reading as only an intellectual process. It is more accurate to think of reading as a total mind body experience.

Sleep to Learn

Let’s start with one of my favorite topics. I have been accused of doing this while sitting on the couch watching television. You guessed it. The topic is sleep.

Appropriate amounts of sleep are something that most of us do not get enough of. Especially, adolescents. Individuals between the ages of 11 and 19 need almost as much, if not more, sleep as younger children ranging in age from 5 to 10. The problem here is that because of social pressures, early start times at school, the need to work after school hours and various after school activities the likelihood of students getting enough sleep is not very good. It has been noted from a variety of sources that about 10 hours of sleep is what is needed by most children. Adequate sleep is very important to the efficient functioning of the human brain and especially the unnatural tasks of learning how to read. Sleep deprivation can have a major affect on the child’s ability to concentrate, recall information and respond with appropriate expressive language. Simply put, your child has a much better shot at reading success when he is well rested. You have probably heard before that establishing routines for younger children at bedtime can help a great deal and provide the best chance for a good night’s sleep. Your routines can include quiet games, reading favorite stories and listening to soothing music. All of which are activities that are brain compatible. My three adult children, (Peter, Jason, and Megan) still talk about how I read certain books to them at bed time. They each had their favorites. This practice not only helps children relax and gain exposure to literature. It also creates meaningful memories that can last a life time.

Think about it for a moment. Don’t you feel more relaxed and are able to fall asleep faster after you have settled down with a good book, listened to some good music and simply relaxed a bit? Guess what? It works for your children, too! Let me move on now since my purpose here is not to put you to sleep!

Eat Well To Learn Well

Some say that you are what you eat. I may not go that far, however, I do believe that nutrition does affect learning and especially learning to read. Again, it is all about the fact that we need to take into account the entire physiology of the individual. The brain is connected to the body and is nourished by the food and water that we consume. In fact it has been estimated that the brain uses up about 20-25% of the glucose that is produced from our bodies. I guess you can say that the organ of learning likes to take more than its share since it is less than 5% of out total body weight. With this fact in mind (no pun intended), it is important that we nourish our bodies well. I have heard the tale that you feed a cold and starve a fever. I am not sure about that fact, but I do know, however, that you feed your brain well and you get better cognitive results! In the case of learning to read, it means good nutrition equates to better chances of success at a very difficult and complex process that we call reading.

So then what is meant by good nutrition? As far as the brain is concerned, good nutrition includes appropriate amounts of protein in the diet along with plenty of water. Here are a few rules and tips that will help to boost your child’s alertness and memory. Both of which are important to focusing on learning to read.

Boost Alertness: Increase Mental Performance

Rule 1: Proteins early, carbohydrates later.
Rule 2: Avoid high sugar and high carbohydrate combinations.
Rule 3: Eat carbohydrates with protein.
Rule 4: Take multivitamin supplements, especially B vitamins.

Boost Memory: Six Types of Nutrients that Boost Memory

1. Lecithin: (egg yolks, wheat germ)
2. Folic Acid: (leafy green vegetables, liver, beans)
3. Selenium: (seafood, whole grain bread, Brazil nuts)
4. Boron Rich Foods: (broccoli, apples, pears, grapes, peaches, nuts)
5. Zinc Rich Foods: (fish, beans, whole grain, dark meat, turkey)
6. Iron Rich Foods: (dark green vegetables, meat, beans, fish)

Three Brain Based Eating Tips:

1. Drink a great deal of pure fresh water (8-12 glasses a day)
2. Eat unsaturated fats (fish oil, cottonseed oil, unsaturated butter)
3. Eat often (nibbling diet : 5-9 small snacks or meals per day)


Emotions can Spark or Sabotage Learning

A good night’s sleep along with a brain compatible diet will go along way to help facilitate the learning process. However, one of the most influential factors relating to learning to read involves the emotional state of the individual. It is a fact that the emotions in a person develop well in advance of the ability to plan and rationalize. Children are not equipped with the ability to make accurate sense of everything that they experience. I have always told my teachers that because of this fact we need to serve as the emotional coaches of our children. In other words, we need to take the time to explain things to them over and over again in order to help them cope with many things that they can not seem to explain.

For example, you tell your child to study and he disobeys by putting down the textbook and playing a video game. You can either reprimand your child for doing this or you can sit down with him and explain why it is important that he reads the textbooks and completes his assignments. And again, you may have to repeat these explanations over and over again!

You might say that he is taking advantage of you and simply just trying to get his own way. Well, okay then; go ahead and say that. However, there is a very strong possibility that if you do not give up easily with your explanations and demonstrate a good deal of patience and trust in your child’s ability to learn from you, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results down the road.

Educational consultant and author, Alphie Kuhn, would explain that you should not simply try to achieve temporary compliance in your interactions with your child but strive for more long term and intrinsic results. (Kuhn, 1995) Simply put, do not require that your child display appropriate behaviors out of fear of punishment or because they will receive a nice reward. That is the easy way out. Rather, strive to have your child display behaviors because they know why it is important to do so. Not an easy task for the parent and /or teacher, but a very worth wild one in deed.

With all of this said, please be very much aware of how negative emotions can be destructive to learning how to read, whereas, positive attitudes go a long way to facilitate the learning process. Think about these points before you react to the way your child handles her homework assignments and responsibilities. Since emotions are so critical, please allow me to make one last point on the topic. Hopefully, you will be glad that you did.

It is a fact that the human brain is unable to distinguish between verbal and physical threats. That is right, if a person attempted to do physical harm to you, or put you down verbally; the same types of chemicals will be secreted such as cortisol and adrenalin. The secretion of these chemicals can produce adverse effects to the human body and if it occurs on a regular basis it will affect the body’s immune system. (Sylwester, 1995)

This is why both physical and verbal attacks can not be ignored. This also states a powerful case for the need to be positive as much as possible. A positive approach to learning to read will help a great deal.

Let’s Get Physical

I can still see images of my daughter, Megan, at four years old belting out the tune, “Let’s Get Physical.” The song that was made famous by Olivia Newton John caused me to be a bit concerned when my little girl was singing it! However, what I was unaware of at the time is that learning engages the entire physiology. We need to put some motion and movement into the learning process in order to better anchor memories and learned concepts.

Geoffrey Caine, an educational consultant, writes about a time he observed a fourth grade classroom. As he entered the room and sat down, he noticed a group of students reading books as they walked around. At times the students would stop and then jump and begin walking until they stopped again. Curious, Mr. Caine asked the teacher to explain what the children were doing. The teacher said they were practicing their punctuation. As they read they would walk, and when they came to the end of the sentence they would stop. Sentences begin with capital letters so the children would jump up once when they began reading the new sentence silently. (Caine & Caine, 1991). Teachers sometimes jokingly say that getting some fourth grade students to start a new sentence with a capital letter is a foreign concept. Well, let’s not exaggerate too much; however, activities that involve movement do help to facilitate the learning process.

You can get creative at home. By reading while you walk about the house or outside. Doing some exercises at various breaks in the written material. Speaking of exercises, here is something to consider….

As far back as the 1960’s, Roger Sperry initiated research studies relating to the functioning of the left and right brain. As you may know, the brain is divided into a left and right hemisphere. According to Sperry, the left side is mainly more rational, sequential and concerned with the parts of things while the right brain is intuitive, open ended and concerned with the patterns of things. The trick, I believe, is to get the left and right brains to work together. This produces the most powerful learning opportunities. I like to use cross lateral exercises in order to accomplish this.

Having a child do some exercises, like running in place, jumping jacks, etc .is a good thing to do. It increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain and allows the child to better focus on the written materials. However, add some cross lateral moves (right arm to left side and left to right, etc.) and you have an even better response. For example, I will have the children make circles in the air with their right arms, left arms and then both arms. Then I ask them to have one arm go in one direction while the other one simultaneously goes in the opposite direction. Making figure eights in the air with the thumbs and going in opposite directions is fun and stimulating. My favorite is having a child grab her nose with her right hand and at the same time grab the lobe of her right ear with her left hand. Then you have the child switch. Grab the nose with the left hand and the left ear lobe with the right hand. These activities help to get the nerve impulses flowing across the brain structure called the corpus callosum (by the way it is larger in the female brains). The corpus callosum is actually a bunch of nerve fibers and theses cross lateral exercises can stimulate the flow of information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The result is better clearer thinking and often better comprehension and expressive (written and verbal) responses. Teachers in the primary grades have told me that they do cross lateral activities daily with their students. These exercises can be as simple as touching your left shoulder with your right hand and then switch and standing on one leg, and grabbing your right heel with your left hand. A great balancing act, also!

Positive Learning Situations

It is important to note at this point that learning is influenced by both focused and peripheral attention. Essentially, this means that the child not only learns by focusing on the material, but also from the surroundings. With this fact in mind, we need to think a great deal about the learning environment.

It is well documented that chemicals produced in your brain (neurotransmitters) can affect your feelings. (Sylwester, 1995) These neurotransmitters can also affect memories, learning and relationships. In order to get the best results, we need to make sure that when we work with our children, we do so in a brain compatible manner. You can help a child’s body chemistry by reducing stress as much as possible by creating a learning situation or environment that will produce the best results:

1) Use music to create a calming atmosphere. (Classical music from the Baroqu era)

2) Make sure that your child knows that it is okay to make mistakes.

3) Allow your child to make some choices.

4) Model a positive attitude.

5) Provide as much feedback as possible.

Let me elaborate a bit on number 5. By feedback, I mean the information that you give to your child. It does not mean that you say simply that this is right or this is wrong. Feedback should be specific and timely. In other words make sure that you give information back to your child as soon as possible and make it clear what you mean. For example to say that is a good job, is not quite enough. Try to be more explicit and say “That is good the way that you used more than one descriptive word to describe the character.” Or, “You did a good job at answering questions that were about the details of the story but you did not say why that you thought the story was good or bad.” The ongoing specific and timely feedback that you give to your child is what they say in the Visa commercials “priceless.”

Structure, Structure, Structure

As noted, reading well is a total mind body experience. An important part pf this mind body process deals with the way we set up the learning environment. In real estate it is all about location, location, location. In boosting reading skills it is centered on structure, structure, structure.

Since reading is an unnatural thing for the human brain to do, direct instruction is needed by most children. When you set out to help your child with her reading skills you need to consider how you will organize the tutoring sessions. Where will you and your child work, how often and for how long? Consistency is so very important. Try not to leave anything to chance. Think through what you want to do and what you want to achieve.

Make sure that the tutoring area is comfortable and equipped with the necessary materials. For young children 6 years of age and under, it is good to have picture books, flash cards, pencils, crayons, paper, scissors, magnetic letters, clay, colored squares to name a few. We will discuss how to use these materials at different points in the book. For older children it is a good idea to have a computer in addition to paper, pencils and books.

The human brain likes structure. Planning ahead to create a functional area and establishing appropriate routines will help to provide the brain boost that will help a great deal in your efforts to improve your child’s reading skills.

Memories of the Dining Room Table

When I was growing up the space that was designated for homework and help was the dining room table. It may not have been the best place to work, but it was all that we had at the time and at least it provided some structure.

When I think about this, I recall something my mother said more than 40 years ago. “I always complained about the mess my children made on the dining room table. They always did their homework and special projects there, and it was cluttered with books and materials. Now that you’ve left the house; I wish the dining room table was as cluttered today as it was yesterday.”

As a parent, I tried my best to setup good study spaces for my three children. The efforts that we put forth in establishing the needed structure will not only serve to meet the needs of our children in terms of their studies but also in terms of lasting memories. This is truly brain compatible and very meaningful.

Rocket Science

At this point, do you think that it will be easy to help your child improve his reading skills? I am sure that you look upon it as a challenge. In fact I usually tell teachers that they need to be rocket scientists in order to teach reading effectively. However, if you become aware of how the human brain learns best and take the time to learn how to utilize the most appropriate strategies and activities, you are well on your way to providing the type of support that will help your child become more successful at learning how to read.


Parent Trap:

The following provides some insights into situations that potentially could cause some problems for you as you set out to help your child boost reading skills.

Parent Trap: “The Right Stuff”

Sometimes parents will shy away from trying to help their children with improving their reading skills or only do a superficial job. The reason for this is sometimes do the notion that they believe that they are not able to do so or that they simply do not have “the right stuff.” Let me state that you certainly have the right stuff as a parent. You are very important to your children and can influence them a great deal. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are not qualified to help. You can gain greater confidence, however, by learning as much as you can about the recent research on the human brain and how this information can be applied to learning how to read.

Now that you are aware of the fact that it is unnatural for the human brain to read and that gaining knowledge about the functions of the human brain can serve to help address this issue, you are ready to move forward and make a difference with your children. You are in a great position to do a great deal of good in this area due your unique role as a parent. I have stated that, “The best learners make the best teachers.” This especially applies to parents!

All My Best!

I wish you the best of everything as you and your children continue on with the journey of learning. My advice is to not only do your best to enjoy the learning expereinces; but also never stop learing. I certainly do not plan to stop learning anytime soon!

Jim Gamble


How To Improve Comprehension

May 31, 2013

You may recall in a previous post that I stated that reading is comprehension. This is a very important point. For example, someone who can call out printed words in a fluent matter may not be actually reading because he or she does not actually comprehend. With that said; the question that must be thoroughly addressed is; “What can I do to help my child learn to comprehend / read?

Comprehension Facilitates Communication

Reading is not decoding words. It is not memorizing rules. It is not breaking up words into syllables. Although these skills help with the process, it must be very well communicated that reading is comprehension. When we are successful at conveying understandings /comprehension from one person to another via printed symbols; then we are truly reading.

The ability to communicate through the printed word separates us from other animals. Birds and apes communicate by bowing and waving. Honey bees dance. One-cell organisms emit chemicals. Human beings read and comprehend. They also think about their thinking. This thinking about how we think is called metacognition.
Well, enough of the educational terminology. We need to be aware of the fact that we cannot assume that our children will actively think about what they are reading or doing. In fact, the skill of thinking about one’s thinking is not well developed at all in young children.

The Need For Strategies

Dr. Jay Carter, author of the book entitled “Executive Function,” talks about how we can become upset at children because they can’t say what they’re thinking and feeling. Actually, they do not have this ability until about age 14. The same thing can be said about children being able to think about reading actively.
The bad news: It is not natural for young children to make predictions, formulate questions and effectively interact with the text. The good news: We can help them in this area through coaching and modeling. In my many years of working with children, I have seen how good teachers will coach and model appropriate behaviors and skills, which help students before they develop and acquire this higher-level thinking ability.

I remember a kindergarten teacher who showed her class a tray that contained a certain number of objects. He told the students to look at the objects and then he covered the tray. The short-term memory of the students was then tested when the teacher asked them to name the objects on the tray. The students did not do as well as expected. After class I asked the teacher if the students knew any strategies for remembering the objects that were on the tray. He had a puzzled look and wanted to know what I meant. I proceeded to explain that the children needed to know how to think about the objects on the tray and facilitate their short-term and working memories.

As we know, there are limitations to short-term and working memory, so I suggested that the teacher tell the students about making associations and looking for clues to help their memory, such as locating and grouping certain objects. In other words, the students needed a strategy to help with their recall.

Seven Strategies That Help Children Comprehend

Below is a list of seven strategies that can be used to help your child to understand or comprehend the written material. I believe that each one of the strategies take advantage of how the human brain learns best. We will take a look at each one separately. Again this is exactly what reading is all about!

1. Its Your Turn
2. Make A Test
3. What If?
4. SQ3R
5. QAR
7. Reciprocal Reading

It’s Your Turn

Let’s start out by taking a look at a very simple but powerful strategy that can help to increase reading comprehension. Taking turns with reading passages from novels and textbooks is a procedure that is not used nearly enough. You can start out by reading a few sentences orally and then have your child read a few sentences. Go back and forth that way through the written material. You can determine when to switch readers in multiple ways: a) every two or threes sentences, b) every other paragraph, c) the person who is reading decides when to pass the task over by pointing or passing a baton, etc. , or d) you can set up a timer, e) have a third party decide. A little bit of novelty can go a long way to add interest to the activity and thus increase performance.
There are a number of benefits for doing this activity. Hearing you read parts of the written peace provides your child with a good model for what we call “fluency.” Fluency is the ability to read quickly with expression. Now, when I say read quickly, I do not mean the reading needs to be super-fast. It just needs to flow without much hesitation and / or stumbling over words. The human brain needs to detect patterns and it loses the meaning of the written text when there are long pauses in the reading. So, your modeling of fluent reading and ongoing practice sessions with your child taking turns with the reading can help to greatly improve this critical skill. Have fun at taking turns!

Make A Test

You know, one of the things that I remember about my days in elementary school (I certainly do not remember much) is a time or two when the teacher allowed us to construct some of our own questions for an upcoming test. She even used some of the questions on the test. Wow! What a way to study. We took ownership of the material and were motivated by the fact that we were actually allowed to write some of the questions.
The same type of motivation can result from allowing your child to construct a set of comprehension questions after she has completed reading specific story. If you tell your child that she will do this prior to the reading, you will be reinforcing a very important reading skill which is known as question generating. When children read, they should have some questions in mind about the written piece. This engages the child and makes them an active participant in the reading of the material. Too often we approach reading without thinking about what questions may be answered and by the time we have completed a few sentences, we do not have a clue about what the written passage means.

What If?

Similar to visualization; imagination is another powerful tool or strategy. You can tap into this power by simply asking your child to use his imagination after he has finished reading a written piece. One way to stimulate a child’s imagination is by posing to them “What If” questions. For example after reading the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone you could pose a couple of “What If” questions to further your child’s imagination and increase comprehension. For chapter 6 The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-quarters you might ask, “What if Harry did not hear the woman talking about muggles? What do you think would happen next?” Or… in chapter 7 The Sorting Hat “What if Harry was sorted into Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor?”

You can use this strategy at all age levels. For example, in Beatrix Potter’s classic, Peter Rabbit, you could ask your young child, “What if Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were just as naughty as Peter? or… What if the friendly sparrows did not overhear Peter when he was caught in the gooseberry net?”
You can have a great deal of fun with this activity and you will help to improve your child’s comprehension skills in the process. To me that is what we call a “Win-Win” situation!


This happens to be one of the grand daddies of all of the comprehension and organizational strategies. SQ3R (Robinson, 1970) is a method for the comprehension of material that you read, say in a textbook. Here are the five steps that you can use with your child:

1. Survey: Before the actual reading of a story or textbook chapter begins, have your child look through the whole chapter. See what the headings are — the major ones and the subheadings; this type of structure seems to be particularly easy for our brains to latch onto — check for introductory and summary paragraphs, references, etc. Resist reading at this point, but see if you can identify a few of the major ideas in the chapter.
2. Question: Next ask your child what he thinks the chapter or written piece is about: What is the question that this chapter is trying to answer? Or — along the curiosity lines — What question do I have that this chapter might help answer? Repeat this process with each subsection of the chapter, as well, turning each heading into a question.
3. Read: As your child reads the text, he should look for the answers to the questions that were identified. This is what is meant by active reading and requires focus anc concentration.
4. Recite/Write: Have your child retell or write down the answers to the questions. It is important that he uses his own words and does not just copy a phrase from the book. We tend to remember our own (active) connections better than ones given to us (passive).
5. Review: Finally ask your child questions about the written piece or have your child ask himself questions. This is important to do right away. Have your child re-read sections that were not recalled.
Again, the SQ3R strategy has been around for a long time, but it does provide the structure and organization that the brain needs in order to be most effective with the reading process.


Another basic and brain-compatible comprehension strategy is sometimes overlooked ( Raphael, 1986). The strategy is Question Answer Relationships (QARs).
The QAR strategy enables your child to think about her own thinking (meta-cognition). Once your child is aware of how to approach specific comprehension questions, she becomes much more confident and successful. We cannot assume that all children already know how to do this.

The QAR strategy addresses the four ways to approach answering questions:

•Right There: Children learn that the information needed to answer a question is “right there” in the text.
•Think and Search: Children learn that the information from the text must be put together in order to answer the question. They have to think about the implications of the question and search through the text for information that can be combined to reflect the inference, interpretation or conclusion derived from the thinking and searching.
•The Author and Me: Children learn that information and ideas from the text have to be put together with information and ideas they already hold in their memory, and drawn from context schema (prior knowledge).
•On My Own: Children learn they can refine, extend, elaborate or expand on ideas that are stipulated by the text material.

Again, sometimes we assume that children know how to look at questions in this manner. My experience proves that assumption wrong. As an elementary school principal I supported the use of this strategy beginning in the primary grades. We used to have huge QAR letters posted in the lower grades with illustrations of a book for “Right There” and “Think and Search” and pictures of people for “The Author and Me” and “On My Own.”

Reciprocal Reading

Another excellent comprehension strategy (A.S. Palinscar and A. Brown, 1984). This strategy requires one person to serve as the leader .The leader reads the selected written piece in advance. You can serve as the leader of the session first and then allow your child to assume a leadership role. The leader sets the stage for discussing each one of the four objectives. The four objectives are:

1.Prediction: Children hypothesize what the author will discuss in the text. To do this successfully, they must activate the relevant background knowledge they already possess. Children learn that headings, sub-headings and questions contained in the text are useful ways to anticipate what might occur next.
2.Question Generating: Children become more involved in the reading activity and the text when they are pondering and answering questions.
3.Summarizing: This excellent tool helps integrate the information presented in the text.
4.Clarifying: This emphasizes the need to read for understanding. Poor readers get in the habit of just saying words correctly and do not follow through to clear up the meanings of certain words and concepts.

After the predicting and question generating segments are completed your child will then read the material. Following the reading a discussion takes place in reference to summarizing the information that is presented in the written piece and clarifying terms and phrases that are not clear. These are necessary steps that are not always followed as children and adults read for pleasure and information.
In my experience, the reciprocal approach has worked very well from grade 3 and upward. Some students who are not good active readers begin to develop the good habits of prediction, question generating, summarizing and clarification from the interaction with their peers.

GRASP (Guided Reading and Summarizing Procedure)

You can help your child with summarizing information through the guided reading and summarizing procedure. Any type of reading material will work for this activity.
Start out by selecting story to read. Figure out how much you want to read at a time. For first and second graders it is a good idea to have them read orally. You can start out by selecting a paragraph or two to read and then gradually increase the lengths of the passages that are to be read in one sitting. Introduce the story by making predictions as to what the passage is about and try to come up with some questions that might be answered in the passage. Once the passage has been read by your child, ask him to turn the book face down.
Now it is time to ask your child to tell you about what they remembered about the passage. You should write down their responses. (It is a good idea to keep a record of your child’s responses. It will be interesting to see how the responses change over time and with practice.)

At this point, it is a good idea to have your child re-read the passage to see if there is additional information that needs to be mentioned. You can then ask your child to identify the main points that were made in the passage and write these down on chart paper or on a note pad that your child can see.
Now, ask your child to identify any subordinate points and place them under the appropriate main points. You and your child are now ready to write a summary of the passage based on the main and subordinate points. You may even want to take a short break (a protein snack would be a good idea) and then come back to the passage and possibly revise the sentences a bit. Have your child read the summary that you wrote together and then move on to the next passage.

You Know Your Child

You may not wish to use all of the seven comprehension strategies. Use the ones that will work best for your child. You may have to try a few out initially and then you may stick to two or three that work very well. Remember that all children are unique. The brain also likes different approaches so you can change things up a bit when you sense that things are becoming routine. For example, you may only what to use the “What If” strategy once in a while to add a little spice to the tutoring sessions and you may use “SQ3R” daily. Just go with what works best and be confident that you know your child!

Jim Gamble

Our Unique Learners

May 17, 2013

When it comes to learning how to read well there is no magic approach. Every child is unique and what works to improve the reading skills of one reader may not work with another. The good news is that the human brain is unique to each individual and this fact makes for a very interesting world. The bad news, however, involves the sometimes challenging task of determining what will work best for each individual.

At school, the differences among the students present a challenge to the teachers. It is not easy to meet the needs of a group of individuals within a given space of time. You can see how your role as a parent is very important here. You not only have information about your child that will be helpful to the teacher, but you also have an opportunity to work one on one with your child. The information that you exchange with your child’s teacher will provide you with a good place to start. Possibly you might learn that your child needs visual cues such as pictures, graphs, charts, etc. to help him with comprehension. You then set out to reinforce that in your work sessions, but may also find that you need to incorporate specific types of graphs and charts. Your search for what works best may not end there. There are many other things to consider. We will take a look at these things now.

Different Ways of Processing Information

It is a documented fact that the human brain processes different types of information simultaneously in very personal and unique ways. This is a huge fact when working with children! Just like they all seem to have a different shoe size, they all seem to take in information and use it differently. What a challenge this is in the classroom and at home.

I have three children, two step children and nine grand children. Guess what? Each one is very different and each one learns in different ways. I often have said that it is amazing that my three children all grew up in the same household! How could this be? Well, the how is out of my control but the what to do is not.

 Let me give you an example to further illustrate this point. Each one of us has a different level of being convinced about ideas and learning new skills and / or facts. The difference usually is found in three factors.

 #1 We all seem to differ in the number of times something needs to be repeated in order to accept it and thus learn it. 

 #2 We all have a different need for the duration between the intervals of the repetition and

 #3 We all seem to learn things best in different ways or styles (sometimes referred to as learning styles). 

For example, I may review the phonic rule that refers to the silent “e” sound. For one of my sons once may be enough, for the other maybe three or four times. For my daughter maybe once maybe five times. She seems to fluctuate in this area. The duration or time between the repetitions better be very brief for one of my boys but it can be somewhat longer for the other. My daughter, well it can take a very long time and that is fine. When it comes to learning styles, verbal instructions for one son, visual representations for the other and I better act it out with Megan! 

What do we mean by learning styles?

When we talk about learning styles we are referring to the best ways that individuals learn. We can repeat instructions and ideas a number of times and we can alter the length of time between each repetition, however, it is most important that we are aware of the best or dominant ways that our children actually learn or understand the instructions / ideas. 

For example, your child may need to see a picture or some type of visual representation of an idea. You may need to use gestures more frequently and convey feelings through visual expressions. Possibly you will need to rely on very well articulated speech and additional audio aids such as tape recordings. It is also possible that you may need to demonstrate ideas through movement as much as possible. So, in other words your child may learn best through…

1) The use of visual examples,            (Visual Learner)

2) The use of audio examples or         (Auditory Learner)

3) The use of physical movement.      (Kinesthetic Learner)

What is your child’s learning style?

Now that we have defined what is meant by learning styles, you may be wondering how to determine which one best describes the way your child learns best. Here are a couple of things that you can look for:  

1)      When you introduce a new word to your child does he do best by just looking at the word, sounding it out or writing it?

2)      When your child is learning a new skill like putting words in alphabetical order or outlining chapters does he do best when talking about it, viewing examples / pictures or just by simply doing it? 

So, if seeing the word works best for your child his dominant learning style would be vusual. If listening works best, your child is a auditory learner. If movement and activity work best he is most comfortable with kinesthetic activities. You may find that your child’s strengths are found in more than one learning style. If this is the case, then make the most out of the multiple strengths and use more variety in your approach to the learning situation.

There are also a number of different types of learning style inventories that you can give your child. Just go to the internet and do a search for learning styles inventories. You will find that, in addition to the categories of visual, auditory and kinesthetic; there are numerous terms describing learning styles such as concrete, abstract, global, spatial, multi-modal, etc. You can really get into this or just try to keep it simple for now. This makes me think of the cliché, “The more I know the more I know I don’t know.” 

I do know this; however, it is very important that we present information in the way it is best received and processed by our children. If that means presenting words and ideas visually instead of verbally then that is what we should do and vice versa. Let me give you an example: Let’s suppose you are reviewing the definitions of vocabulary words that relate to story character traits such as integrity, empathy, etc. and your child is not grasping the meanings. Instead of just listening to the words you might try to find pictures that demonstrate these traits. Maybe you and your child can draw a symbol or something else that may represent the character traits. You could also act out these character traits. Remember what we said earlier about repetition and the intervals between each repetition. It just may take a few times going back to the words and their definitions. Possibly coming back to the terms a couple of times a day or two later might work. Whatever it is, you have the opportunity to work with your child one on one and find out the best way to present the information.

More Ideas on Learning Styles

Would you like to help your visual learner with memorizing specific vocabulary words? Silly question… Of course, you would! Let me tell you an interesting story that references visualization and sight vocabulary. One of my special education teachers in another school district was frustrated with the progress her students were making with learning sight words (individual words that students should memorize on sight). She explained to me how she was giving the students extra practice using flash cards. I then told her that I remembered reading two studies on shape and color recognition and the human brain. One indicated that the brain recognizes the color yellow before other colors when presented simultaneously; it also recognizes circles before other geometric shapes. I asked, “What if you were to present your flash cards as yellow circles?” To make a long story short, the teacher did exactly that and told me later that it helped a great deal.

Now, this is certainly not a scientific experiment, but the exercise worked. Maybe it was the placebo affect kicking in, and if that’s the case, so be it. But again, we need to go with what works, and the best way we can be more successful at finding out what works is to learn as much as we can about how your child learns best.

What about your kinesthetic learner?  You know; the one who likes to move around a lot and be active. Add some movement to your work sessions and you may really solidify memories. Geoffrey Caine, an educational consultant, writes about a time he observed a fourth grade classroom. As he entered the room and sat down, he noticed a group of students reading books as they walked around. At times the students would stop and then jump and begin walking until they stopped again. Curious, Mr. Caine asked the teacher to explain what the children were doing. The teacher said they were practicing their punctuation. As they read they would walk, and when they came to the end of the sentence they would stop. Sentences begin with capital letters so the children would jump up once when they began reading the new sentence silently. The movement enhanced learning for these students.

You can also try the movement approach with a little bit of a new twist. When your child struggles with a specific word, have him touch something or move to another space when he is able to decode the word. When he touches the object or moves to the associated space, his recall of the appropriate pronunciation will be stronger. I’m not suggesting that you have your child touch things for every word, or constantly move about the room. But providing opportunities for movement and anchoring memories with physical objects may be just the thing that will work best for your child.

Celebrate Diversity

No two children have identical abilities, experiences, and needs. Learning styles can vary widely within a group of children and within your family. Do not become upset by this fact. Look at it as a gift. The world could be a very boring place, if everyone did things and learned things the same way. Celebrate the diversity in your family by planning fresh approaches to learning and helping your children become aware of how they learn best. 


 With all of that said; here is something else to consider…

Parent Traps:

The following provides some insights into situations that potentially could cause some problems for you as you set out to help your child boost reading skills.

Parent Trap:  “That’s My Style”

As you know, we all learn best in different ways. Your learning style may be the same or, more than likely, it will be different from your child’s learning style. Try not to get caught in the trap of instructing your child in your learning style because it is more comfortable to you. Do what works best for your child and then you will both benefit form the results.

Well, I hope that this makes sense and helps a bit. I will provide you with a few more tips within the next few weeks! 

Jim Gamble

Reading is Comprehension

April 4, 2013

During the last two years many of you have heard me talk about how reading is not a natural process for the human brain. Teachers and parents work together in order to provide their children with the resources and strategies that will serve to meet their individual needs. At Tewksbury we have introduced “cutting edge” technologies such as Fast ForWord and the Reading Assistant. We have addressed the need to improve the comprehension of text through the use of Reciprocal Reading strategies and Visualization / Verbalization strategies that are gleaned from the Lindamood-Bell program.

In my final few blogs as Interim Superintendent, I plan to focus some additional attention on the topic of learning to read and reading to learn. Let me start with a brief story… 

A number of years ago while observing a lesson in a kindergarten classroom, I witnessed a light bulb go off in a young student. The teacher was walking around the room and asking students to share their journal entrees. The entrees varied from simple pictures to various combinations of words and pictures. All of these variations represented different levels of literacy development which is very common in the elementary school classroom.

I listened closely as the teacher asked one of the students to read his journal entry to her. He paused for a moment and said, “I know that I can write, but I can’t read.” The teacher, in a very positive and encouraging tone, said it looked like that there was a great deal written in his journal and that she would really like to know what it says. After another pause the youngster began to read to the teacher what he had written. In the middle of his oral reading, he stopped, looked at the teacher and said with excitement, “I can read!”  Needless to say, that this was a very special moment in deed.

The comment that was made by the kindergarten student was significant because it represented what reading is all about. He understood what was written in his journal, even though it was not in traditional or standard form. Reading is comprehension. It is communication from one person to another through the use of written symbols.

On numerous occasions I have observed students in some of the upper elementary and middle school classrooms who sounded out words very well, but who struggled to retell what they had just read. They were unable to summarize the written passage and place events in the appropriate sequence. Simply sounding out words without appropriate meanings attached to the words, is not reading.

In order to help your child boost his reading skills it is important that we take a moment to define what effective reading looks like. Reading does look a little different for each child. This is because each child is unique. However, we can point to some specific characteristics of what can be defined as effective reading in general.

One of the first factors to reference in our definition of effective reading deals with engagement. The reader needs to be an active participant in the reading process. By this I mean the reader needs to be thinking about things relating to what is being read before, during and after the words are sounded out.

For example, effective readers do not simply begin to read when they are handed some printed material. The first thing that a good reader needs to do is make some predictions of what she is about to read. This allows the brain to look for patterns and make connections to prior experiences that the individual has had. This is very important since the human brain is a pattern seeker. To illustrate this point take a moment to read the following paragraph: 

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid aodccrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dnsoe’t rllaey mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are squeneced, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the hmuan mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azmanig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuoht slpeling was ipmorantt!

Were you able to read the paragraph? I bet most of you could, once you realized it wasn’t one large spelling error. Good readers can identify many words on sight, especially when the first and last letters of the word are in the right place. When reading texts rather than lists, proficient readers use prior knowledge and context along with letter and sound knowledge as they identify words and construct meaning (K.S. Goodman, 1973; F. Smith, 1988). Even though readers may see all the letters of a word, they identify the word before recognizing all the letters separately. Again, it is possible to actually read the above paragraph because once the patterns were detected you were not only able to sound out the words but you were able to comprehend the material.

With all of this said, here is a list of some of the important characteristics of an efficient reader: 

An efficient reader…

–          Makes predictions.

–          Asks questions in his mind about what is about to be read.

–          Detects patterns based on prior knowledge.

–          Is able to utilize context clues or hints that are include in the text, sub headings, illustrations, etc.

–          Reads the material with fluency, intonation and accuracy.

–          Is able to sequence and summarize the written material.

–          Seeks to clarify unfamiliar words, phrases, and or concepts.

–          Displays motivation and interest in the written material.

–          Is able to write accurate summaries and orally retell the main ideas and supporting details of the printed material.

As you can see, it is one thing to simply sound out words. It is more important that meaning is attached to these words and that the words together present a coherent message that is conveyed form the writer to the reader. This is certainly a tall order for the human brain and thus a challenge for both teachers and students on a daily basis.

All of these facts point to the importance of ongoing support at home and positive approaches to a very complicated task. Like anything else in life, good things take hard work and commitment. Reading is a very good thing to be able to do and do well. With that said; be on the lookout for future blog posts that will provide additional strategies and ideas that may help your child to do a better job at comprehending text.   

Jim Gamble

What is good teaching?

March 11, 2013

During recent professional development sessions with the faculties at the Old Turnpike School and the Tewksbury Elementary School, we discussed what good teaching looks like. In order to be objective, we referenced the Danielson Framework for Teaching. The Framework identifies teaching responsibilities within the context of specific domains and components. The domains of learning environments and instruction provided the focus for our discussions.

One of the points that came through during both sessions was the realization that no one is perfect. However, it was noted that it was absolutely necessary to strive for perfection in order to achieve and maintain excellence. I was very impressed with the insights and specific examples that the teachers provided as we analyzed instructional techniques utilizing video clips and written activities.

As many of you may be aware, teacher and principal evaluation procedures have been recently outlined by the state via legislation and detailed regulations. The Tewksbury staff has been ahead of the mandates by having used the Danielson Framework for a few years. We are now in the process of refining the evaluation tool and further enhancing instructional skills. The bottom line is that I believe that we are observing good teaching becoming great teaching on a very large scale throughout our school district.

During the weeks ahead, the staff will be working together on the ongoing process of teacher evaluation and the ongoing enhancement of instruction. The Tewksbury learning community is poised to move forward by utilizing a software application that aligns with the Danielson Framework. The web based application is called Teachscape.

As I have stated in the past, “The best learners make the best teachers.”

Jim Gamble

Addressing the Two Sigma Problem

January 21, 2013

One of the most stimulating insights in contemporary educational theory is Benjamin Bloom’s (1984) discussion of solutions to what he calls the “Two-Sigma Problem.” Bloom shows that students provided with individual tutors typically perform at a level about two standard deviations (two “sigmas”) above where they would perform with ordinary group instruction. This means that a person who would score at the 50th percentile on a standardized test after regular group instruction would score at the 98th percentile if personalized tutoring replaced the group instruction. This improvement is not a wild dream. Bloom supports his claim with valid research, and numerous experts agree with his conclusion.

Obviously, the problem that surfaces here is that public schools are not able to provide one to one instruction to every single student. Some students receive individual support during specific time slots throughout the school day.  Our teachers work hard to differentiate instruction and provide feedback to individual students as much as possible. However, the fact remains that whole group and small group instruction is the norm while one to one instruction remains the exception in the public schools throughout the country.

What can we do?

The effective integration of technology into the curriculum provides an excellent opportunity to address the Two Sigma Problem.  Technology applications serve to create the conditions for learning that motivate students and provide them with the needed individual attention.

At Tewksbury, we have considered and implemented a few strategies that utilize technology as an integral part of instruction. One specific example is the implementation of Study Island in grades 3 through 8.  Study Island is a web-based program that incorporates instruction, remediation, diagnostic assessment, and real-time reporting. Study Island’s web based skills and standards mastery program ties directly to our current curriculum.  The real time reporting provides our teachers with formative data that can help to differentiate instruction. The students work individually, receive timely feedback, and can utilize the program both in school and at home. The program is being phased in this year with full implementation scheduled for September, 2013.

Fast ForWord is another web based intervention that serves to meet the needs of struggling readers on a one to one basis. Specifically, Fast ForWord is a series of computer-delivered brain fitness exercises designed to produce dramatic language and reading improvements in a variety of student populations by improving memory, attention, and processing skills. The intervention evolved from studies that showed children with abnormal temporal processing and language learning impairment.  Students who have difficulty processing the phoneme blends may have their phonological awareness improved in parallel with their temporal processing through the Internet based protocols of this brain compatible reading intervention. Six teachers at the Tewksbury Elementary School implemented Fast ForWord last year and our Action Research revealed that the pilot group of students in grades 1 through 4 benefited a great deal from this one to one web based program. We have been expanding the program at the elementary school and will be implementing the program at The Old Turnpike School next month.

In the spirit of addressing the Two Sigma Problem, the staff will be reviewing a program entitled The Reading Assistant. The Reading Assistant is a web based program that is designed to help students develop fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension skills. Scientific Learning Reading Assistant software uses speech recognition technology to “listen” as a student reads aloud. Monitoring for signs of difficulty, the guided reading tool intervenes with assistance when the reader is challenged by a word. The staff will participate in webinar sessions to become introduced to this “cutting edge” technology and decide how to best implement the program at both schools.

In summary, The Two Sigma Problem has plagued education since the inception of the K-12 school organizational system. Teachers are skilled at meeting the needs of their students but limited as to the time that they have to spend with students in one to one instruction. The effective integration of technology into the instructional program provides some light at the end of the tunnel of large group instruction. The staff, Board members, and community have supported these initiatives and a great deal of progress has been made to date. At Tewksbury; we plan to address the Two Sigma Problem in an ongoing and aggressive manner.

Jim Gamble

Safe and Positive Learning Environments

December 16, 2012

On the evening of December 11, 2012 I presented to a class of graduate students on the topic of safe, positive, and efficient learning environments. There were approximately 15 students in this class at The College of New Jersey.  All of the students were working toward their masters degree in educational leadership. During the discussion we talked about safety procedures, drills, and the role of the administrator. We also focused on positive learning environments and how this just does not automatically happen. Educational leaders need to work hard to achieve these goals which are so important to every learning community.

Three days later the unthinkable occurs at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. I know that all of our thoughts and prayers go out to the members of the Sandy Hook school community.

Sandy Hook has been recognized for its positive learning environment and for the efforts that have been made to provide for the safety of the children. The principal of Sandy Hook has also been described as a proactive and positive educational leader.

Obviously my thoughts turn to our school district and the wonderful children, teachers, support staff, and parents that comprise our vibrant learning community. We believe that our learning environment is also a very positive and safe place to teach and learn. Our school district has spent a great deal of money on security to include cameras, keyless access, locked entrances, and the recent renovations at OTS that included better monitoring at the front entrance of the building. Safety drills are also held on a regular basis at each school.

With all that said; the fact remains that we can never be completely satisfied with the safety and security measures that we have taken to date. Sandy Hook upgraded their electronic equipment and prepared the staff and students through regular drills, also.

The administrative team at Tewksbury is meeting to look at ways to further enhance security and safety at both OTS and TES. We need to evaluate our equipment and safety protocols. We will look at everything from sign in and signing out procedures to the manner in which visitors are provided access to our schools. We plan to meet with the facility committee of the Board and address the topic at our upcoming Board of Education meetings.  We certainly are open to suggestions and input from everyone.

The events of December 14 have touched a nation. Parents and grandparents from every city and town in the county have viewed the recent events with tears and a great deal of compassion for the families of another wonderful community.   I know that what we are doing at Tewksbury will be repeated in schools across the country.  Our children are our most valuable resource.  We will do whatever it takes to protect them!

Jim Gamble