How can I help my child with phonics?

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Letters-and-sounds-fishing-game-with-ping-pong-ballsIn a recent BBC news article, Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said that children who are behind at 7-years-old are unlikely to catch up. He also pointed out that some children start school with the odds stacked against them because they lack the ability to follow instructions and have poor social skills. In my opinion, this is why preschools are so important for children especially, as some parents believe that children should not be taught letter sounds or numbers before they start school at all. Research suggests that children who enter school with a good knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds become better readers and that it is beneficial to teach pre-schoolers phonics in a fun way (Phillips et al. 2008).

Most preschools teach letter sounds but a parent can help their child become more familiar with them at home. If you are not sure how to say the letter sounds, there are DVDs that go through letter sounds for children in a fun way. CBeebies also has a programme called ‘Alpha blocks’ which teaches letter sounds and how to blend sounds together to make word.

Children who become good readers at school often have good phonological and phonemic awareness. So what is phonological and phonemic awareness?

Children who have phonological awareness can: identify and make up rhymes; they can clap out the number of syllables in a word and they can recognize words with the same initial sounds like ‘money’ and ‘mother.’

Children with phonemic awareness can recognise individual sounds (phonemes) in words. For example, the word ‘mat’ has three phonemes m/a/t. Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school instruction.

So how can parents develop their child’s phonological and phonemic awareness? Here are some ideas:

1) Show two cards with the word ‘mice’ on one and ‘ice’ on the other. Ask your child ‘if you take away ‘m’ from the word mice, what is left then?’ The cards could have pictures on to enhance the learning.
2) Say a single speech sound such as ‘t’ and show six pictured words. Your child then has to pick the picture that begins with ‘t’.
3) Present two pictures of similar sounding words to your child such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’. You then say such just one of the words and your child has to pick the correct picture.
4) Change the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ to ‘m’, and ask the child what the word becomes.
5) Get your child to think of as many words as they can that rhyme with ‘fox’.
6) Get your child to clap out the syllables in a word so that they recognise how words are made up of different sounds e.g. you could clap the three syllables in ted-dy-bear.
7)Play ‘I spy’ to help your child focus on the letter sounds at the beginning of words.

Children often know when they are behind and this affects their self-esteem. So don’t get frustrated with your child if they don’t get how to blend letter sounds together even after a number of attempts. Go away and think of a way to make the learning fun. Remember that children (and adults) have different learning styles. Some children are visual learners and take things in by reading and looking at pictures, some children are auditory learners and learn through listening, and some children are kinaesthetic learners and learn through movement. Kinaesthetic learners may only get phonics, if they learn it in other ways than on paper.

Here are some ideas to make phonics learning creative and fun:

1) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Get a children’s golf club and ball. Your child then has to hit the ball onto a letter, say the letter sound and think of a word beginning with it to score.

2) Chalk out words on your garden patio. When you say a word, your child has to kick a football onto the word/hop to it/throw a disc onto it/hit a tennis ball onto it/skip to it etc.

3) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Show your child pictures of certain words, your child then has to think of the letter sound the word begins with and spray out the letter with a water gun.

4) Put lots of foam letter sounds or words in the bath and get your child to find them as you say them.

5) Put white stickers on Duplo with different letters on and put the Duplo together to make different words.

6) Make letters and words out of play dough.

7) Make biscuits in the shape of letters and form words with them.

8) Write letters on ping-pong balls and place them in a water play basin. Get your child to bat certain letters across the water or pick them up with a water jug.

Some of these ideas come from a blog ‘Train up a child’, which I really recommend.

So should parents be pushing their child to read as early as possible?

Research suggests that children who are taught to read early do not have an advantage (Sharp, 2002). Children in some countries do not start formal learning until 7-years-old but it does not seem to be a disadvantage. However, these children have been taught reading skills such as a good understanding of letter sounds and rhymes at kindergarten so they are ready to read when they start school. This research suggests that there is no need to push a child to read early. On the other hand, if your child is interested in letters and blending them together then don’t hold them back. Every child is different. All parents need to remember, is to keep learning fun. So don’t push your child to do anything they don’t want to do and make sure your child is in the right mood.

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Parents express concerns about levels on their children’s preschool and reception class reports

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Preschool story time children transformed into...

Preschool story time children transformed into Easter Bunnies (Photo credit: San José Library)

I am on my son’s preschool committee and this year many parents have expressed concerns about the way their children’s progress is being reported in the Early Years Curriculum. Some parents say that although they know their child has good personal, social and emotional skills that their child has not been reported to be working within the 40-60 month bracket. Other parents have said that although they know their child can read very well for their age, their child is still not working within the 40-60 month bracket for literacy. When I have talked to the preschool teachers, they have said that even when children are performing above average overall, if they don’t meet all the criteria for the 40-60 month bracket they must be placed in the 30-50 months bracket. The preschool teachers admitted that there are problems with the way the assessment bands have been labelled. However, as the assessment areas and bands have been set by the government, it is not within their control to change it.

One anomaly with the labelling of the bands in the Early Years Curriculum is that teachers say that most children starting reception are unlikely to be working within the level 40-60 months old even though the children are at least 48 months old and some are 60 months old if they are born in September. I personally cannot understand why the framework does not go to 72 months old? I also think it would have been better if they assessment bands had been labelled as level 1-4 rather than as age bands. Then parents would feel less upset when they hear that their 60 month old child is still not working within 40-60 months.

The problem with the labelling and assessment of the bands seems to continue all the way through reception. I have heard many parents complain about their children’s reception reports too. One of the problems seems to be that children at the end of the reception year are only expected to be able to count to 20 and to be able to work out one less than or one more than a given number. The parents of reception age children are telling me that they know that their children can do much more than this and that they can count to 100 easily and do addition and subtraction at a higher level than one more than or one less than. In contrast, there seems to be much higher expectations for literacy at the same age. Children by the end of reception are supposed to be able to read and write simple sentences. The same parents that feel that their children are way ahead of expectations in mathematics are at the same time worried that their children are lagging behind in literacy. This suggests to me that there are problems with the way the Early Years Curriculum has been written and that the levels have not been adjusted to match the average child. The emphasis on literacy rather than numeracy is also slightly strange as mathematical ability is a much better indicator of later achievement than literacy.

My son is due to start reception next year, I hope that I will be able to ignore the way the reports are written and not get too worried about the bands when I do receive his report. Especially as I know that children in some countries who don’t start formal education until 7 years old are easily able to catch up with us in terms of literacy and numeracy. However, the government should reduce parents’ stress by re-labelling the bands and making sure the mathematics and literacy criteria match the average child.

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Is the UK school starting age too young? http://wp.me/p29Oas-2b

Should I let my child bring his teddy to school?

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My friend’s 4-year-old son had his first induction day at his new school recently. He was reluctant to go into the classroom and things seemed to get worse from there. The teacher told him that he was not allowed to bring his beloved teddy ‘Mr. Snuggles’ into the classroom. My friend felt that this would only make things more difficult as she was struggling already to get him used to the idea of starting school in September. When she relayed the story over coffee to me, I felt that the teacher was probably misguided. Many people believe that when children start school, they need to leave their teddies at home as this is part of growing up. However, starting school is an important transition for children and teddies and security blankets can help children manage that transition more easily.

Parents may worry that if they allow their child to bring their teddy or other favourite toy to school in the first few weeks that their child will never be able to leave it at home. However, your child will realise at some point that they don’t need their special comforter with them at school anymore. On the other hand, in the early days of settling into a new school, comforters are useful items to help your child deal with the changes and increasing independence. Litt (1986) found that children who used security blankets or teddies were more independent and more self-confident. Children use these objects to soothe themselves when they are feeling anxious and upset, which can only be a good thing. Security blankets and teddies also allow children to comfort themselves when separated from their parents.
I am pleased that the new school my son is going to go to in September is having a ‘bring your teddy day’ at the beginning of the year. They obviously don’t feel that it is a problem for children to bring their teddies to school when they start. Another friend of mine said that they even have a special teddy corner at her daughter’s new school. So it seems that some schools do recognise the importance of transition objects but unfortunately not every school.

Should bullying be a criminal offence?

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English: this is my own version of what bullyi...

I saw in The Sun newspaper recently the tragic story of a boy who had committed suicide due to bullying. His parents who must be experiencing unimaginable sorrow and anger towards the bullies were asking other parents to sign a petition to pressure the government into making bullying a criminal offence. This story is a complete tragedy and I feel for both the parents and what this boy must have gone through. Bullying can take many different forms, for example, name-calling, spreading rumours, offensive texts and emails, physical harm and messing around with other people’s belongings. Experiencing bullying can destroy a child’s self-confidence and lead to anxiety and depression. It should be taken seriously and schools should act quickly to stop it happening. However, I am not sure we should be criminalising bullies. One problem with making bullying a criminal offence is that it occurs at very young ages. Even amongst 5-year-old children, you will hear bullying in the playground. For example, the other day I heard two 5-year-old children ridicule another child for speaking in a funny way. Needless to say, I did intervene but I won’t be taking them to the police station. Another problem is that some bullies are also victims of bullying; as bullies they may just be copying behaviour shown towards them. Yet another issue is that both bullies and victims are more likely to have low self-esteem and mental health problems. Salmon, James and Smith (1998) found that children who are high in anxiety are more likely to be victims of bullying and that bullies tend to be more depressed. Perhaps we need to look at why children feel the need to bully in the first place and how to stop vulnerable children becoming victims of bullying.

So what can be done to stop bullying?

Schools and parents need to teach children about the problems of bullying from a young age. Involving children and teenagers in the development of anti-bullying strategies is important so that they take ownership of how to stop bullying themselves. Children can often be bystanders in a bullying situation but feel helpless to do anything. However, once they are involved in developing anti-bullying strategies, they are less likely to stand back and let bullying happen. Some schools produce posters with the help of students with captions such a ‘98% of students think bullying should be reported to a teacher.’

Peer-support can also reduce bullying. Increasingly, schools have peer-mentoring programmes, where some students act as mentors to other students after training. Children can discuss issues with other children of a similar age that they can’t with teachers and so this can reduce the likelihood of bullying.

If parents find out that their child is being bullied, they should contact the school immediately. Parents can speak to their child’s tutor initially and ask them what can be done to tackle the bullying. If the bullying is occurring within the tutor group, it may be possible for the tutor to discuss bullying during tutor time. If the bullying is being carried out by children outside the tutor group, for example by other children in the year group or by older children, parents should contact the relevant head of year/house who may be able to do an assembly on bullying. Parents can also ask the head of year/house whether they have an anti-bullying programme that is delivered by tutors during tutor time. Sometimes parents may need to contact the school several times to inform them that the bullying is continuing. Otherwise, busy teachers may think the problem is solved.

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Should parents help with homework projects?

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Homework

Homework (Photo credit: niclindh)

I keep hearing my friends moan about the latest difficult project their primary school children have been set to do at home. The common comment is ‘We are going to have to spend all Sunday now trying to do this project because my son/daughter only told me about it on Friday.’ One project involved making a game about the town they lived in. Now my friend had told me she had no intention of spending too much time on the project but I met her one Sunday afternoon going round the town taking photos of it for the project. She said she has already spent about 2 hours taking photos and they now had to go home and print them out for the game not to mention write all the game rules and questions.

Another project involved making a Powerpoint presentation or a written project on the Egyptians. A different friend was stressing about this because she didn’t really know how to use Powerpoint. I told her to let her daughter just do a written project but my friend was adamant that she had to help her daughter do a Powerpoint presentation. Apparently last time she hadn’t helped her daughter, the teacher didn’t really recognise or praise her daughter’s hard work. Instead, a boy whose father had spent hours helping him to build a wooden aeroplane had got top marks. Herein lies the problem, teachers need to recognise and praise work done by the children on their own.  Research suggests that homework has a greater impact on school performance if children do it on their own (Cooper et al, 2000). Secondary school students need to be able to complete homework independently so this should be encouraged in primary school as well. Obviously, young children need help with reading and maths problems but by 7/8 years old, they should be allowed to complete homework on their own. This also allows the teacher to understand what level the children are working at.

The project that seemed the most ridiculous to me was one where the children of group of parents I know were asked to produce a mosaic. They had to draw a picture and cut it up into little pieces and then stick them together again so that it looked like a mosaic. Apparently, it took them hours and hours to try to piece the picture together again into a mosaic. In this instance, they did complain to the teacher.

My son hasn’t started school yet but I hope that when he does, I won’t get sucked in to spending hours doing projects for him. I know that it will be difficult to stop myself because I want him to produce good work and be recognised for it but I will try to remind myself that in the long-term he will benefit from doing his own homework.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords.com.

Lower grade boundaries for summer-born children?

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English: A typical Junior Certificate exam hall.

English: A typical Junior Certificate exam hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently a BBC Radio 4 programme highlighted the differences in achievement between children born at the beginning of the academic year (September to December) and those born at the end of the academic year (May to August). This is not surprising as there can be almost a year difference in intellectual development between a child born in September and one born in August. What seemed to surprise many people s that month of birth affects children even when they are doing their A-levels. So what is the evidence?

Crawford, Deardon and Meghir (2010) examined the differences between the test scores of children at different ages by looking at their performance in national tests such as SATs, GCSEs and A-levels and college/university admissions. They found large differences in achievement at age 7 between children born in September and children born in August. This difference was also linear, which means that September born children performed on average better than children born just one month later in October. The difference between the oldest and youngest children in the year did reduce over time but it was still evident at 18-years-old and affected college/university admissions.

Do other countries have the same problem?

Yes, younger children do perform worse than older children in their year group in other countries too. Fredriksson and Ockert (2005) used Swedish administrative data for the population born 1935–84 to look at the impact of school starting age on education and found that increasing school starting age by one year increases grade point average at the age of 16 by 0.2 standard deviations. Black, Devereux and Salvanes (2008) studied the impact of school starting age on IQ scores and educational attainment using Norwegian administrative data and found that starting school younger has a significant positive effect on IQ scores at age 18 but little effect on educational attainment.

So what can we do to reduce the month of birth effect on achievement?

One solution is to set different grade boundaries at GCSE and A-level for children based on their month of birth. Personally, this seems like the fairest and most practical method of dealing with the issue despite the fact that I have an October-born son who would have an advantage under the current system. All children need to take public examinations at the same time so that teachers can cover the material that is required; therefore, the only practicable solution is to change grade boundaries. However, this would need to be very carefully done to avoid discrimination against any age group.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords.com.

Identifying dyslexia in children and getting help

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Visual-dyslexia

Visual-dyslexia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Studies suggest that identifying dyslexia early and getting help is important as 95% of children can benefit from intervention programmes. The British Dyslexia Association (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk) recommends that if you think your child had dyslexia then it is better to get them assessed as soon as possible by an Educational Psychologist or a Specialist Dyslexia Teacher qualified to carry out the assessments. Some schools may be resistant to getting a diagnosis as it costs money. However, as a diagnosis will allow your child to get the support needed, it is probably best to go ahead with the assessments. Allowing the problem to continue may harm your child’s self-esteem as they continue having problems with reading and writing. Also research suggests that children who are poor readers at 6 years old find it difficult to catch up with other children (Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). So what are the signs of dyslexia and what can a parent do?

If there is a history of dyslexia in your family then there is an increased risk that your child will develop it. Early signs of dyslexia are: problems speaking clearly, no interest in letters or words, difficulty with motor tasks such as getting dressed, catching a ball or fastening buttons and confusing directional words such as left/right and up/down.

The most effective intervention programmes in schools seems to focus on phonological awareness. Children with poor phonological awareness may not understand that if you change the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ to ‘h’, the word would become ‘hat’.

Parents can teach letter sounds at home. For example, they can teach that the letter ‘c’ is pronounced as it sounds at the beginning of the word ‘cat’ rather than ‘see’ and that ‘k’ and ‘ck’ have the same sound. There is an excellent DVD made by the BBC, where all the different synthetic phonics sounds are presented. I bought the DVD on Amazon very cheaply for my son and it came with a workbook and poster of the different sounds.

You can also practice phoneme deletion with your children using word and picture cards. For example, you might have two cards with the word ‘mice’ on one and ‘ice’ on the other. You could then ask your child ‘if you take away ‘m’ from the word mice, what is left then?’ The cards could have pictures on to enhance the learning. Another technique is phoneme identification. You might say a single speech sound such as ‘t’ and show six pictured words. Your child then has to pick the picture that begins with ‘t’. Phoneme discrimination helps your child to really listen to speech sounds. This is where you present two pictures of similar sounding words to your child such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’. You then say such just one of the words and your child has to pick the correct picture.

Parents can also play word games such as ‘I spy’ to focus on the letter sounds at the beginning of words or rhyming games such as how many words rhyme with ‘fox’. Getting children to clap out the syllables in a word also helps children to recognise how words are made up of different sounds so for example you could clap the three syllables in ted-dy-bear.

One study used a 14 week home- and computer-based training in phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships with children who were genetically at risk of dyslexia.  Initially, the trained at-risk children kept up with untrained not-at-risk controls in reading ability. However, once the children started school, the trained at-risk children had delayed reading relative to the not-at-risk control children. This study shows the importance of support at school as well as at home and how the advantages of early intervention can be undone unless on-going help is provided. Therefore, it is important that parents push for support at school whilst continuing their efforts at home.

The good news is that schools are becoming more aware about how to support children with dyslexia and so if your child is identified as having dyslexia, they should get the help necessary.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon, Smashwords.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.

 

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