This week's online education Q&A is now over. Thanks for joining expert Andrew Biemiller of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who answered your questions about how to help children excel academically.
Questions and answers are archived below.
Q: Hi, My son is two-and-a-half years old. He has an advanced vocabulary, can count to 20 in three lanuages, understands the concepts of adding and subtracting, and has an exceptional memory. What types of activities or classes would you recommend for him?
A: Unfortunately, I really have no experience with very advanced children. If you enter Gifted children Toronto in Google (click on Canada), you will get addresses of local groups plus relevant literature. If you click on "websites" and Canada, you will get a lot of book suggestions, and probably a lot else.
Q: If you believe your child may have a learning disability how would you go about getting him tested? My son is currently in Grade 2. He still reverses a lot of his letters and has trouble reading. His teacher believes that it has to do with his fine motor skills but I am concerned that the issue is deeper than this.
A: Reversing letters is not a predictor of reading difficulties. Dealing with sounds in words is (see answer to question below). Assisted reading at home would probably help. Find interesting books that he can read perhaps 90 per cent on his own. Some children do have a lot of "fine motor" trouble - I did. At this age, more important are what the child can understand and what sorts of stories and explanations he can provide, rather than what he can write.
Q: I have three children, ages 16, soon to be 14, and 12. The youngest is a girl and I have no problem at all with her settling into homework and assignments. She starts her assignments just as soon as they are given and the results show on her report cards. My boys, well that's a different story. I need to constantly monitor all their assignments and make sure they are doing their homework. Nag, nag, nag and even more nagging! Even when they complete projects on time, they forget to bring them to school to hand them in. I have heard it suggested that school has become too much of a "team thing" for boys to excel and get excited about. Academics are now geared to things that girls generally do better at. That is, the day of the "maverick" (which is more of a boy thing) is gone. Perhaps boys like "competing" with others rather than 'working' with others. Do you think there is any merit in this line of thinking? If so, do you think educators should change the approach to give boys a better chance at achieving higher levels in school?
A: I do not believe that making schools "more competitive" would help most children. Instead of around half of the children being perceived as doing well, only 1-5% would be "winners" and the rest would learn that effort won't do it--somebody is always better and "wins". We need competent children (and adolescents and adults) who can use their academic skills and knowledge for a wide range of appications in life. We don't need a few "winners" and many "losers" at school learning.
Q: If a child attends French immersion school (parents are not required to know or speak French) how much additional help will the child need as opposed to attending english public school? Additional help as in English tutoring or any other subject that parents will not be able to assist in. Are there any benefits in sending children to french immersion schools and should they go through high school as well?
A: I have yet to see evidence presented that shows that immersion French for English-speaking children yields the best possible English language development. A better case may be possible for "bilingual" education, is as currently given in Ottawa (and doubtless elsewhere). For children from bilingual (English/French) backgrounds, bilingual education may well be best.
Complicating the issue is the unfortunate fact that at some schools, immersion French is used as a means of segregating the more advanced children from the rest. Typically, able children are able to cope better with immersion French than others who are gradually "steered' back to English-taught classes. Again, whether this practice is good for able children or other children remains to be seen.
Q: How can I help my boys (ages 7, 11 and 12) improve their reading and math skills? Tips also needed to keep them motivated in these areas. What educational sites are available for homework help in both English and French?
A: See my earlier answers to the questions below, especially the first regarding assisted reading and another on the math curriculum.
Q: My son (age 8) has a slight case of ADHD. He is not taking medication for it. Is there anything my wife and I can do to help him focus and improve his behaviour in school?
A: I'm not a clinical psychologist, and I'm not sure what is meant by a "slight case" of ADHD. Many children do not attend or concentrate as much as we wish they would. Is there any area of activity in which your child is motivated AND persistant? (What does he "stick at"?) If there is, I would infer that he doesn't have a basic problem with focussing, but rather with his tasks at school. Most of us don't persist well at things we don't do well. Unfortunately, in an era when we are not willing to accomdate children by giving them some things they can do well as well as some things they are successfully learning, we wind up with many discouraged learners who think (correctly) that they will never succeed (when "success" is what the most talented achieve).
Q: Where can a parent get help with the new math curriculum? It is very difficult to help your child with homework when you yourself do not know what the questions mean. We are also concerned about the lack of basic computation skills being taught. We have four children. Two graduated under the old system and are doing fine in university. We are extremely concerned that the younger two will not be adequately prepared. They are currently in grades 5 and 11. They are so far behind their older siblings in basic math skills at these grade levels.
A: I am not an expert in math or math education. I am concerned that the current (Harris government) math curriculum contains some unnecessary sections (patterns and "algebra"), and geometry at the elementary level, and unwillingness to deal with the reality that children do not all progress at the same rate. Teachers are confronted with the provincial/Board expectation that "the curriculum" must be taught completely -- in effect, even if some children don't master it. We should focus on understanding numbers, computation, measurement, and various applied problems using math skills taught.
So what can you, as parent, do? Probably make sure your children understand numbers (basic numbers, place values, decimals, fractions) and computation, and help them to see how to solve mathematical problems.
Q: My 11-year-old son does not focus on his homework assignments. It is a constant battle to get him to complete an exercise. Work is usually messy and incomplete. I have had him tested for ADD. How do I deal with this?
A: Assuming that the homework assignments are reasonable both in specific expectations and total amount of assignments (not more than 1 hour for a diligent child), I think you should look at cutting down or removing other activities until assignments are done. This means organized sports, television, computer games, internet, and if necessary, outdoor play with friends before dinner. (After dinner, priorities should be homework first, other things second unless the homework is already done.) You can do your best to explain the necessity of good school achievement, but whether or not he accepts that, he must know the consequences of not doing reasonable homework. You are ultimately in charge.
Q: How do I get my 15-year-old son to focus and get serious at school? His grades are just passing but he has a potential to do very well, only if he wants to.
A: Been there. Done that. I wish I had a better answer for you. Fifteen-year-old boys are hard. I wish we were a little more flexible in our curriculum, being a little more guided by what children -- and especially adolescents -- want to learn. In my experience, when an adolescent comes to have a goal ("This is what I could do and do well"), it is a lot easier to be motivated. In my non-expert view, the best you can do is help your child find worthwhile hobbies and vocations around which some of his school skills can be applied.
Q: How do I engage my 4-year-old daughter who has been reading since age 3. She cannot write and has no interest in writing at all. She is able to write her name but is not willing to even trace or copy any letters. She still use both her hands to write her name with.
A: I would really not worry about writing skills in a 4 year old child who is reading. The motor skills in writing are often very difficult for children of this age. If your child can read well, be happy for that and leave the writing alone. For any child who reads well, writing will come easily when the motor skills allow writing easily.
Q: I have a son who turned three in July and he already recognizes letters and can spell easy words (like mom or dad) which we've incorporated into a game that we play each day. I don't really know where to go from here, how else can I encourage him to recognize and read more words? Is he advanced for his age?
A: Learning letters and a few words are positive indicators of interest in reading. (You probably read aloud to your child a lot -- a very good way of fostering literacy and interest in books and reading.) There are some children who go on to be "early readers." However, the large majority of even very high IQ children do not read earlier than others. Conversely, many "early readers' are not otherwise very advanced. Certainly, acquiring reading skills early is not a problem.
I would put more emphasis on reading interesting books with your child rather than emphasizing reading/writing skills. Among others, Richard Scarry's books are very useful, and provide a strong emphasis on vocabulary. Most children like them a lot. I would also find books that follow up some of your child's interests. If he likes animals (e.g., zoo visiting or watching animals at home), extend that interest. If he likes contruction, find more about that. Building on an interest is a good way to extend both language and knowledge.
I would not stress reading skills at age three. If your child asks about a written word, of course tell him. But pushing reading skills too early may "turn off" your three year old's enthusiam for books and reading rather than increasing them. Concentrate more on what interests the child.
Q: My 6-year-old son has started Grade 1. His teachers have told us that he loses his focus. Any ideas to help him keep his focus? It is just that there is a lot of information coming at him?
A: The first thing to check is vision and hearing. Your boy may need glasses or may have an ear infection that results in poor or distorted hearing. Both of these are readily treatable.
If there are no vision or hearing problems, your child's phonological sensitivity should be checked. This is the understanding that words are made of component sounds. For example, "Take the word 'pin'. Take away the '/p/'. What do you have?" (in).Children who can solve this and a number of similar kinds of items usually have little difficulty learning basic reading skills. Children who have difficulty with these phonological tasks often have more difficulty with learning basic reading skills. Phonological skills can usually be taught. If your child needs work in this area, find out if the teacher is routinely doing anything re phonemes or component sounds in words.
In what month was your son born? Some educators don't like to hear it, but as a group, the youngest children in a grade do experience more difficulty than the oldest children. Performance on the EQAO is lower by an average 10 percent, and twice as many young-for-grade children are referred for special education as are "older" children, although there is absolutely no reason to think that children who are born in Oct.-Dec. have more learning disabilities than children born Jan.-Mar. To some extent, maturation makes a difference.
Q: My daughter, who has just started Grade 4, is still having more difficulty reading than I believe is normal for a 9 year old. I'm a high school teacher who has worked with kids with serious reading and writing deficits, but these are kids several years older than my own daughter, so I'm less sure of my own diagnosis of what I believe is my daughter's LD. She has difficulty decoding, sometimes forgots familiar words or letter patterns, and is generally less fluent than I think is normal. Beyond regular reading, which we do, what suggestions might you offer? Thanks.
A: See my answer to the first question below. Assisted reading is a really powerful way to help a child improve her reading, and is something any parent can do (if there is no language barrier -- clearly you do not have a second-language problem). We have seen children improve markedly in reading fluency and comprehension as a result of 16 weeks of assisted reading for 30 minutes per day. (In our work, we used old basal readers from the 1960's which provide a systematic increase in reading difficulty. Our Grade 3 and 4 children read through at least 2 first grade reading programs, 2 second grade reading programs, and 2 third grade reading programs in 16 weeks, for 30 minutes, 4 days a week.)
Q: How do I know what homework my child is suppose to have every day? He is in Grade 9. All I can do is take his word, is there a away of getting the teachers to write it down or send an e-mail? Thank you.
A: In many schools, information about assigned homework is provided. Sometimes teachers do this by a posting on a website. Others send home a "contract" listing major assignments for a month or "unit." IF your teacher(s) report that your son is NOT completing homework, it is reasonable to ask to be better informed about assignments. Conversely, if your child's teachers report that work is being done satisfactorily, then you should leave the matter alone.
Q: My daughter in Grade 1 has a peanut allergy. The school principal is new and has not yet posted the children's posters at the school nor done the minimum amount of things to be done under the school board's policy such as advising the other parents. The principal was provided with this info before school started. The board policy also seems to not have taken into account Sabrina's Law either.
I know Sabrina's Law comes into effect in Jan 2006 but what can I do in the meantime to get the principal to live up to her stated responsibilities & protect our children now? The principal seems to view this as a bother and is not seeing that she has a duty of care while our children are in her school.
A: I do not have any expertise with this problem -- neither the medical aspect nor the school administrative aspect. It is probably best to talk to your daughter's teacher or the principal directly.
Q: My son is in Grade 6 and has an auditory processing learning disability. His reading and language is assessed at a Grade 3 level. His goal is to read at his grade level. He reads a half hour each night. Do you have any suggestions to help with reading and spelling words with consonant blends?
A: Reading half an hour each night is one of the best things you can do. However, I would try "assisted" reading. While reading, encourage your child to ask you about any word he can't read. You just tell him what it is, and let him go on reading. In our experience, in most cases after asking 1 or 2 times about a particular word, it is learned. While doing assisted reading (as in the half hour at home), the immediate goal is to maximize the amount of reading, not to stop to teach decoding (sounding out) words or other strategies for identifying words that aren't recognized.
I would also encourage your boy to ask about word meanings when he doesn't know them. Again, explain the meaning briefly in the context of the reading. (If you don't know the meaning either, say so, and together get a dictionary and figure out what it means in the context. It's okay for your son to see that you, too, sometimes don't know.) I wouldn't worry about consonant blends until the boy is reading at approximately grade level.