Monday, July 28, 2014

Importance of Reading Nonfiction

I have two sons, aged 9 and 7 years, so I naturally assume that I’m quite aware of how much time kids usually spend watching TV, playing video games or reading books. However, I was completely taken by surprise when I came across some of these findings.

The Kaiser Family Foundation report of 2010 found that youngsters (8–18 years old) in the United States spend roughly:

·         4 hours, 29 minutes a day watching TV

·         2 hours, 31 minutes listening to music

·         1 hour, 13 minutes playing video games

Well, that’s a lot of time spent on leisure activities. So the obvious question that came to my mind was: Where does this leave reading?

It seems like children spend roughly 25 minutes a day reading books, 9 minutes reading magazines, and 3 minutes reading newspapers. We would all agree that the amount of independent reading, or out-of-school reading, is important in improving students’ reading skills. Students who read more would learn more vocabulary and therefore, would become more skilled readers.

Research indicates that the less-skilled readers read less, and lose ground over time. What is important to note is that these differences create an increasing gap in learning over time. The student who spends 65 minutes per day reading, reads 4,358,000 words a year. That is quite impressive!

My sons’ school recommends at least 20 minutes of reading in Grade 2, so of course I am interested in that number. It seems like students who spend 21.1 minutes reading every day come across 1,823,000 words a year, and students who spend less than a minute reading each day read only 8,000 words a year.

Cunningham and Stanovich research in 2001 of fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students indicates that reading volume contributes significantly to vocabulary knowledge. The amount of reading is understandably the result of advanced reading ability. Students who are skilled readers tend to read more, and this contributes significantly to the development of verbal intelligence.

Okay, so as we always said: Reading is fundamental. But research indicates that it's not just how much students read that’s important, but also what they read. Students need to read and grasp informational texts as often and as easily as they do narrative texts.

We know that on average, children spend 25 minutes a day reading booksbut how much do they spend on reading nonfiction? Well, it seems like it’s less than 4 minutes a day. Yes, that’s not a typo. It’s less than 4 minutes a day.

Even in classrooms, nonfiction material is not widely available. A study by Duke in 2000 involving 20 first-grade classrooms found that informational texts constituted 9.8 percent of texts in classroom libraries. On average, students spent just 3.6 minutes with informational text each day.

The new Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (“the Standards”) in the United States are trying to correct this discrepancy by placing emphasis on reading nonfiction. This emphasis on literature and informational text will start right from elementary school.

So, what is this Common Core?

State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working toward implementing the Standards, which are intended to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to either take credit-bearing introductory courses in college programs or enter the workforce.

As part of these core Standards, students are expected to develop research skills across content areas, with a strong focus on nonfiction, including literary nonfiction, essays, biographies and autobiographies, journals and technical manuals, charts, graphs, and maps.

Why so much focus on reading nonfiction? One reason reading nonfiction is so important is that it helps students develop their background knowledge, which is essential to reading comprehension. Comprehension requires that the reader knows something about what s/he’s reading. Children who grasp what they are reading are using prior knowledge to understand new concepts. A broad knowledge base is essential as a child’s reading level increases. When there are gaps in knowledge and vocabulary, it becomes difficult to understand accurately.

So, what this means is that lots of nonfiction reading leads to lots of background knowledge or information, which improves kids’ ability to analyze accurately and make correct interpretations when they read.
Background information becomes more important in later years of elementary grades, as students begin to read more content-specific books that include graphs, charts, diagrams and other elements that are not often found in the fiction books they read in the lower grades.

Nowadays, educators stress that reading more nonfiction early on enormously helps children reach the appropriate reading levels in later grades. A 2006 report from ACT, a non-profit organization, found that the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready, and students who are not, is their capability to grasp complex texts. Research indicates that nonfiction reading is a great way for students to develop critical thinking and analytical skills and, you guessed it, the ability to read and understand complex texts.

If nonfiction reading is as important as fiction, if not more, then how should we as parents respond to these findings?

First of all, it’s important to understand that nonfiction reading may be different from fiction reading. Nonfiction reading may require active participation by the reader. For instance, nonfiction books may contain experiments, or encourage readers to engage in further research. Readers may want to stop to try out different experiments or explore certain concepts more.

Secondly, we should realize that nonfiction books can be equally as interesting for children as fiction. We should try to find out what our children are interested in reading. Is it sports, science, history, geography, or something else? Whatever it is, look for books that are engaging and age-appropriate in those areas. Our goal is to get them to read nonfiction regularly and enjoy it.
Although increasingly more emphasis is being placed on reading nonfiction, especially in schools, both fiction and nonfiction reading have their place. It’s important to encourage kids to read fiction as well as nonfiction. Reading fiction develops children’s imaginations and creativity; reading nonfiction provides background information, triggers their interest and opens their minds to both old and new possibilities!



Sunday, June 8, 2014

Social Media Enhanced Learning Platforms

I came across an article recently that talked about various alternatives to blogging in the classroom. Of course that piqued my curiosity as my 9-year-old son blogs as part of his school work. Some of the tools mentioned in the article were new to me so I explored further, and thought I’ll share my views here as other parents might find it useful too.
The first one I checked out was Storify. I had not heard of it before, but here is what I found out:
Storify - Create stories using social media

Storify is a social media tool that lets users create stories from a variety of sources. So, one can use information from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, and other web sources to pull together a story.

In a school setting, teachers can ask students to write a story or a report on a given topic. Students can search for information on a number of social networks and add their own comments, thoughts, and views. The tool provides students an opportunity to make sense of what they have pulled together and put it in a coherent form. After project completion, students can share the link with others for comments or further class discussion. They can even share it on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

So how is it different from any other blogging service or is it any better? I believe when you have a project or presentation that would benefit from incorporating information from a variety of online media, Storify seems like a good choice for creating that piece of work. It’s very easy to use and makes learning fun.  

Storybird - Artful storytelling

The next one I checked out was Storybird. Storybird lets users create visual stories. In schools, teachers can ask students to create their own individual stories, or work together in small groups, or even as a class to create a story by writing their own text and inserting pictures. Stories can be embedded onto blogs, emailed to parents, downloaded or printed. Students have the opportunity to read their peers' stories or other people’s stories on Storybird. Assignments can be set on a theme, artist or a particular topic. The main purpose of this tool is to inspire students to write.

Glogster EDU - 21st century multimedia tool for educators, teachers and students

The last one I checked out was Glogster EDU. Glogster allows users to create interactive posters, or glogs as they are referred to. Glog is an acronym for graphical blog. I guess after visiting Glogster I not only learned about this tool, but also added a new word to my vocabulary. Glogs!
Anyways, students can use Glogster to create interactive posters by including text, videos, hyperlinks, music and images. When students are done, the teacher has to approve whether or not to make the Glog private to their classmates or public on the internet. Students can embed their Glog into their Myspace, Twitter or Facebook pages. The teacher can also post a Glog to Edmodo. I’d say it’s a modern day alternative to offline boards and posters.

I believe all these tools provide an outlet for immense creative expression online, and encourage a peer-learning and peer-support environment. They help in improving students’ writing skills with ample opportunity for critical thinking, creativity and an understanding of social media. The goal is to make student learning more fun and engaging.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Importance of Technology in Children's Lives Today

I read an article recently that talked about how comfortable kids are with the use of technology these days. The survey of 500 children stressed how important technology has become in the life of children nowadays.  
Well, I knew that much since I have two kids of my own but what I found interesting was that most six to fifteen year olds turn to Google to ask questions rather than their parents.
It was somewhat surprising. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely want my nine-year-old to be more independent and do at least some of the research himself, but it never occurred to me that even six-year-olds are turning to technology first and parents second. Do I like it? Not sure, still trying to figure that one out.  Teachers also didn’t do too well in the research conducted by Birmingham Science City. Only three percent of children would ask their teacher for an answer.
What’s more astonishing is the fact that most kids don’t know what an Encyclopedia is. Almost half of the children surveyed (45%) have never used a print encyclopaedia and nearly a fifth (19%) have never used a print dictionary.
Now here’s the clincher: “Guesses as to the strange 'encyclopedia' device’s function included that an ‘encyclopedia’ might be something you travel on or use to perform an operation.“
Hmmm. Not sure how to express my feelings on this one. This definitely made me bolt to my kids’ room. I really needed to know how my kids will fare, and I’m happy to say that my 9-year-old knows what an encyclopedia is and what it’s used for. BUT I certainly don’t have a print dictionary at home. Have been planning on buying one for a while but you know how busy our lives are today so haven’t gotten around to buying one. They definitely know how to use Webster online. I know this because I’ve shown them how to use it instead of coming to me all the time. So, I asked my older son thinking I already know the answer but I was pleasantly surprised, “Yes, Mom I know how to use a dictionary.”
Really! But how? I never showed him.
“I learned it in school.”
Then he went on to explain how to look up a word. He’s even used a print Thesaurus in school. My feelings: Bless The School!
Even my six-year-old knows what a dictionary is. He has one in his classroom. It’s entirely a different matter that he just flips through it; doesn’t really know how to use it. No worries. Flipping through pages is a good start. We’ll take it to the next level when I buy one or I’m sure school will come to the rescue.
The article went on to say that children regardless of the generation they grow up in are inquisitive by nature. Since technology has become so commonplace today, kids are comfortable using it. Use of technology and their comfort level may not be a bad thing.
I certainly don’t disagree that use of technology in itself is not a bad thing. But I do limit its use. I don’t want them spending too much time on iPad, laptop, and other electronic devices. I worry about the adverse impact it could have on their eyes. I also want them to write things down on paper rather than typing everything. There are clear advantages of longhand writing over typing for kids and adults.  Having said all this, I know there’s a place for technology. What’s important I believe is the safe use of technology.
So, I did my own research in this area and I found out that there are safe search engines for kids. May be you already know  about them but I was not aware.
Google’s Safe Search for Kids is a child friendly search engine. The safe browsing feature on this website overrides your computer search settings to help remove potentially explicit material when searching Google. I did use the tool and entered a few search terms to see if it really works. I’m not going to mention the terms here. You’ll have to come up with your own search terms. But happy to report it really works.
Quintura for Kids is powered by Yahoo. It gives a more visual way of searching using a keyword cloud. Quintura for Kids filters undesirable adult content. I typed in the word "dinosaurs" and related topics such as "types of dinosaurs", "prehistoric animals", “Science & Nature” etc. appeared in a cloud surrounding the original search term. You can click any of those results to narrow the search further.
Searchy Pants is another search engine that allows children, parents & schools to create a custom search home page for their children to use. You can customize your custom search page by adding background themes, links to your page, and post messages. Searchy Pants uses School Safe Search technology to prioritize delivering safe and suitable content.
Recently, Microsoft also launched a search engine for school students to search with ad-free and adult free content, through a program called “Bing for Schools.
Armed with my research findings, I called my older son to show him which search engines he should use. I had only started to say that there are search engines that are safe for kids to use. He nodded his head and told me that he already knows, and mentioned KidRex.
I had thought that I was introducing something new to him, but again school had beaten me to it!
Shabana Muhajir
Would you like to share your thoughts on this topic? Leave your comments below.

Articles I Read





Monday, August 5, 2013

Summer Slide

I came across the term Summer Slide recently. Did not know what it meant initially but soon found out.  I thought I would share my thoughts on this topic here.
Summer Slide is the loss in academic skills and knowledge during summer break. Children actually slide backwards academically if they don’t study at all during the break. What I found interesting is that children don't just stop and pick up where they left off at the end of term, they actually go backwards.
Consequently, parents often plan learning activities during the summer holidays to prevent summer slide, Activities range from private tuition, online learning, literacy/numeracy applications, etc.
In our haste to stop brain drain during these summer months, we often overload our kids. They go from one class to another or one activity to another. They might not be in school but the focus on academics and school related learning continues in another setting or format. As a result, some people argue that students come back to school tired. They have had a long academic year and by the time they get to the end of term they are tired and they need a break. They need to play, they need to engage in practical activities that make sense of what they have learnt in school. They should not be studying hours after hours.
Well, I personally don’t disagree with the fact that kids study hard during the year and they need some time to unwind, relax, and enjoy before the next school year starts. I’ve seen it with my two boys. They go to school, go to extra curriculum activities, come back and do homework … So, their days are packed!
However, these summer days can be long and we as parents often struggle to fill them. I personally feel that in addition to playing, drawing, painting, having play-dates and other fun activities, kids can still read and write every day or every other day for a few minutes. I think the key to keep in mind is balance.  Overburdening the kids with school related work will not give them time to enjoy their break from school and they may very well go back to school tired and exhausted. However, if they study for a while and then play and engage in fun activities it should be beneficial all around.    
Another thing I would like to point out is that the learning loss seems to be higher among lower-income families compared to higher-income families. The achievement gap is often explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. What is most disturbing is the fact that summer learning loss is cumulative which means that these periods of differential learning rates contribute significantly to the achievement gap over time.  

So the question is how to help our kids and prevent summer slide regardless of family income or social standing. I read quite a few articles; tried to find out what the research is saying and drew on my own experiences. Below are some of the strategies that families can use to avoid summer brain drain: 
  • Reading: Research shows that reading just six books during summer may keep students from regressing. When you are choosing the books, make sure that they are just right for your child; not too hard and not too easy. You don’t have to buy books or download books on iPad for them. Pay a visit to local libraries. Libraries also run summer reading programs that can motivate kids to read.   
    • I take my kids to local library to borrow books. I read with them every day but it’s not necessarily a book. Some days we read newspaper, and other days we read magazines, flyers, sign boards, etc.  
  • Writing: Ask your kids to write a holiday journal. This gives them the opportunity to talk about things they have done and have a lovely project at the end of the break.   
    • I ask my kids to write every day on any topic of their interest. I must admit sometimes instead of every day it gets to every other day or three times a week. I check their writing for grammar, punctuation and spelling. I also ask them to write postcards and birthday cards. You don’t even have to buy expensive cards; they often make them themselves.  

  • Cooking: This is one of the best ways to promote language development, cooperation, following directions, sequencing and a host of other skills.  
    • I am not much of a cook but I do include my kids whenever possible. They love to read out instructions to me, measure ingredients, whisk things and see their creation once ready. I use this time to talk about good nutrition as it can lay the foundation for healthy eating later on.  

  • Playing board games: There’ll be days when you cannot go out because it’s raining or for some other reason. Board games are a great way to keep them engaged, happy and make them smarter. Not only will they practice basic reading and math skills, but they will also learn problem solving, strategy, and critical thinking skills. For example, monopoly lets them deal with money. They learn addition, subtraction and multiplication. Snakes and ladders help them learn counting. Scrabble helps them discover new words and learn how to spell them.  
    • I often play scrabble, monopoly, snakes and ladder and brainbox with my boys and my husband plays chess and checkers. This gives us the opportunity to bond as a family and keep their minds sharp. 
  • Learning from everyday activities: There are so many little things children can do without really sitting down and studying. Counting coins and bills, spelling words on sign boards, calculating the total cost of tickets to parks, cinema, etc. are all ways by which kids can learn something. 
    • I often ask my kids to spell words I see on sign boards while driving; buy stuff and get correct change; tell me whether the number is odd or even etc. I try to find learning opportunities in everyday things.

It is also important for children to learn non-school related skills like riding a bike, swimming, roller-blading, ice skating, skate boarding, soccer, taekwondo etc. It’s not just about academics; we need to provide our kids with a well-rounded education.
I know it's not always easy to keep up with a routine during this season. What we need to keep in mind is that we don't have to do everything every day but now and then. The suggestions provided above should fit into a busy schedule and make summer break fun without sliding back academically. Summer is a great time to enjoy time-off from school but it does not have to be time-off from learning.
Happy Summer! 
Shabana Muhajir
Would you like to share your thoughts on this topic or share tips on preventing the summer slide? Leave your ideas in the comments section.

Articles I Read

Summer Learning Loss Study: Can 'Summer Slide' Be Prevented?