Helping my child thrive in school

Practical suggestions and advice Melanie Hartgill - Educational Psychologist

To thrive means to prosper, flourish and grow vigorously, in other words, it means to develop and grow appropriately, which is necessary in order for a child to succeed at school.

Isn’t this what most parents want? But how come we don’t all get this? Basically, schools are set up to get information across in a certain way and not all children are geared to learn this way. Every child has a different learning style and it is essential that this is identified and built upon. But there are general things that parents can do. Success in life and at school is about more than just the child intellectual ability or IQ, it is essential that we consider a child’s emotional intelligence as well. Children have talents in many different areas but these must be identified and nurtured if we are going to help children to improve their areas of weakness. It is essential that they feel they are worthwhile and capable as this builds their confidence and allows them to have the assurance to attempt to unfamiliar things.

Thriving at school is the result of getting the right combination of “switched on teachers, supportive parents and enthusiastic learners” according to Dr’s John Irvine and John Stewart (March 2008). It’s also about learning how to follow a system and specific routines and doing what is expected, which, as any parent will know does not always come naturally to children!

School is becoming more formal at an earlier age in terms of what our children are expected to achieve. Preschool, known as grade R or grade 0 is no longer just a nursery school year of painting, playing and making friends. Our children are expected to sit at tables and work for extended periods of time and it is apparent that many children are not ready for this. The tasks are no longer as much fun to learn and so tasks such as the 3 R’s, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, become a real challenge for many. Teachers and many parents have great expectations the children, in fact school is becoming exceptionally competitive, but for many of our children their groundwork is sketchy or incomplete simply because it is presented at a time before the child is ready to work with it. This means we could be breeding and training a group of children who are resentful and reluctant to learn.

Schools use different methods to teach reading. For example:

The phonics method; this is the term used for teaching reading wherein individual letters of the alphabet are matched with the specific sounds of the languages pronunciation. So ‘cat’ is read as ‘c-a-t’ and the child then runs the sounds together to say ‘cat’. This method endeavours to eliminate the child’s attempts at guessing the meaning of words, which, if incorrect, can affect everything being read.

The whole word method; this involves making use of flash cards to teach the child to recognise the whole word when it is seen. So a series of flashcards are created depicting words such as the, my, we, cat, good, etc. and the child is shown a card and told the word and is expected to remember it, so whenever they see the word ‘good’ they are able to instantly recognise it without having to sound it out, as in the phonics method.

The whole language method; this method involves a lot of discussion about what is about to be read before the actual reading begins. So a child is asked to predict what the story is about by looking at the title and the pictures. Thus a child is already thinking about the text before they begin reading and they are encouraged to guess at unfamiliar words, using the context and pictures as clues to the words meaning.

Ideally however, children work best with a combination of these strategies in order for them to gain appropriate reading strategies while keeping reading fun and exciting. If your child is put off reading at a young age, you will have a long, hard battle trying to rekindle their interest in books again. Children need to develop reading skills that allow them to recognize words automatically so they can focus on the meaning of the words. Take the following passage for example, most adult readers will have no difficulties with reading this, as decoding of words has become automatic but this will be near impossible for most children.

According to a research at an English university, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and llast letter are in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it withou a problem. This is becasue we do not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.

There are two really useful strategies that parents can make use of when reading with their children at home, as we need to bear in mind that children are individuals and one method is not necessarily going to work for every child.

Paired reading becomes useful, as instead of listening to the child read, the parent reads with the child and this is how you do it

Step 1: Reading together

Sit close to your child so you can both see the book; relax and make sure you are both comfortable.
Explain that you are both going to read the story at the same time. You need to read at your child’s pace
It’s important to make sure your child looks carefully at each word, so encourage him to point to the words as he reads them.
If your child gets a word wrong or struggles for more than 5 seconds, just say the word correctly for him. He must repeat the word and then you both continue together as before.

Step 2: Reading alone

As your child becomes more confident he may want to read part of the story alone, so it is useful to decide on a signal (a knock on the table or a tap on the page) which the child will give when he is ready to read alone
When your child gives his signal you stop reading straight away and let your child carry on.
Once more, when he struggles for more than 5 seconds, you read the word out loud. Make sure he repeats the word.
Then, you both go on reading out loud together until your child decides he wants to read alone again.

There are some things you need to remember when using this method:
Make sure you choose a time when there are few distractions.
Read every day but approximately 15 minutes is long enough.
Make it fun! Talk about the pictures and laugh at the story if it’s funny. Try to predict what might happen next.
Give your child lots of praise
Don’t go on about the words he gets wrong
Don’t ask him to sound it out or break it up

After the paired reading strategy, parents can use the 3P strategy, which is useful for a child who has more automatic decoding skills as well as for readers who are not entirely fluent and struggle with the comprehension side of reading. The key to using the strategy is that the parent listens to the child reading aloud and corrects mistakes where necessary but in doing so the focus remains on praising the child and avoiding negative responses to the mistakes at the child makes. As the strategy is based on meaning, it encourages the child to think about what is being read. So how is the strategy used? The 3 P’s stand for Pause, Prompt and Praise.

Allow your child to start reading on his own and listen carefully to him. If he makes a mistake, pause and give him time to work out the unknown word for himself. Praise him if he is able to decode the word for himself but of he can’t then you intervene with a prompt. These can be any of the following…

Starting at the beginning of the sentence again and reading to the end of the sentence making use of context cues
Look for a picture to help identify the word
Use the first letter of a word to predict what the word may be
Encourage your child to break the word down or help them to identify endings on known words (such as go-ing)
Encourage them to sound out the word alternatively sound out the word for your child and see if he can put the sounds together
If necessary simply give your child the word, discuss the meaning of the word and continue

If while reading, your child reads a word incorrectly encourage him to consider the context that the word appears in to see if he can work out whether the word fits or not. Remember to praise any corrections that he makes. It is essential that you do not let your child struggle for long periods of time over difficult words because not only does this interrupt the flow the story, it makes your child become very stressed and they are going to quickly lose interest in reading.

Here are some other strategies that you can make use of:
Pre-reading strategies; look at the title and available pictures with your child and discuss what you think the story may be about.
Question, question, question; stop reading at regular intervals and ask your child questions about what has been read so far and what she thinks may happen next in the text.
Help your child to sound out an unfamiliar word and see if she can make sense of it (be careful of words with incompatible spelling and sounds).

Context clues; based on the surrounding text and what had happened previously in the story; encourage your child to guess what she thinks the word may be.

Help from pictures; encourage your child to take notice of the pictures as they may help her to identify an unknown word. Don’t cover up pictures as they read.

Memory; persuade your child to use her memory to recall previous elements of the story that may give her the meaning of the unfamiliar word.

Coherent reading; remind your child that what she has read must make sense, so look at the word she has used to determine whether or not the story still makes sense.

Paraphrase; try telling your child part of the story using different words to what is written so that she gains an understanding of the text for when she attempts to read it.

Punctuation; you may need to explain to your older child what the various punctuation marks mean so that she is able to pause, stop and use appropriate reading strategies at the right time. Punctuation includes the full stop (.), the comma (,), the question mark (?), the exclamation mark (!), apostrophes (’) and inverted commas (“ ”). Although rare in beginner reader books, you may need to identify the colon (:) and semi-colon (;).

What’s really important in this entire process is raising your children with a love of books so they are interested and keen to start reading. Here are some suggestions on how to do that.

Birth to 3 years
A child’s earliest learning comes to him before the age of 5 years in the environments he is exposed to, which are most often the home and perhaps a day-care centre or pre-school. Obviously then, the more you expose your child to in this period, the more extensive his learning will be. Every time a child is exposed to a new concept, a neural pathway in the brain is created, and the more this neural pathway is activated, the stronger it gets. This stands true for everything a child may be exposed to from hugging and caring to reading and learning.

Very young children can have their reading experience, and thus their neural pathways, expanded and strengthened through the following activities;
Singing nursery rhymes, songs and lullabies to him
Reading his favourite stories over and over and over again, particularly those stories with words that repeat
Give your child books that he can page through by himself without destroying them (board books, cloth books, plastic bath books etc.)
Showing him easy, bright and interesting picture books. All of the books in this series are bright and colourful, but the early ones are presented in such a way that they draw the beginner reader into the story and encourage them to want to hear and see more.
Read or sing action stories and rhymes to your young child, going through the actions with him or simply bouncing him to the rhyme and rhythm.
Find books that have smells on the pages or different textures that he can touch or even books that have squeakers in them or make other sounds.

Ages 3 to 5 years
At this age, children are beginning to develop an appreciation of different letters, numbers, symbols and what they represent. They have also nearly mastered an understanding of different seasons, colours and shapes, as well as the basic concept of time, in terms of past, present and future (or yesterday, today and tomorrow).
Expose your child to pop-up books and books with tags that must be pulled to move or change the picture
Look for stories that have actions in them that your child can act out as you read the story to him. Even if the story does not lend itself to actions, then assign one action or gesture per character that you use every time that character appears in the story.
Start to read longer stories to him (just bear in mind the length of his attention span).
Read books that have concepts in them, such as time, shapes, colours, numbers, the alphabet and opposites to name a few.
Choose books with lots of rhyming and repetition in them, as well as nonsense sentences and words.
Children at this age love books about things they are exposed to in their daily lives.
Books should have only a few words per page.
When reading to your child, use your finger to follow the words as you read them.
Be part of a book club that will send books regularly addressed to your child, he’ll love this.

Ages 6 to 8 years
At this age, your little baby has grown and changed in leaps and bounds and her appetite for knowledge is almost insatiable. She is able to understand feelings and relate them to other people (no longer being as self-centred as she was before now), as well as being able to see things from other people’s points of view. Her imagination at this age is astounding.
Choose books that have pictures directly relating to the written words, as all the books in this reading series have.
Find books with slighter smaller text and also with more words per page.
Talk about what you read together; ask questions that are specific to the text and also those that go beyond the text and make predictions about the story
Introduce simple joke books at this age as well as basic riddles and verbal word puzzles (what animal’s name begins with ‘g’, ends with ‘t’ and rhymes with ‘boat’?)

It is crucial that throughout this entire process reading is kept as something that is fun, so it is worth playing games with your children to enhance their love of reading.

Pre-reading games:
I spy: play I-spy to introduce phonics, ensuring that you use the letter sound and not the name, for example, ‘ah’ (a), ‘buh’ (b), ‘cuh’ (c), rather than ‘Ay’ (A) ‘Bee’(B), ‘See’(C). The game goes like this: “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘d’” and your child must name the things she can see that begin with the ‘d’ sound
Rhyming games: “find something in the lounge that rhymes with fish”. Children love to play this game from the age of 4 or so
Alphabet cards: buy or create a set of alphabet cards that have the alphabet written as the letter names on one side (A B C) and the letter sounds on the other (a b c) – it may be useful to have a picture that goes with the relevant sounds and use them to play card games, such as Snap. As your child becomes more proficient, have two sets and play pairs with them where you encourage them to match the lower case letters (the sounds a, b, c, etc.) to the upper case or letter name (A, B, C, etc.)
Scramble up letters of the alphabet and as your child recites the alphabet in the correct order, look for the correct letter and put them in order. Alternatively, have the letters in order and call on letters for your child to identify. Take letters out and see if he can determine which ones are missing
Select a letter per day and have your child try to identify that letter throughout the day – on product packaging, in books, magazines, sign posts, shop names, etc. Initially you could give them the letter written of a piece of paper
Give your child a letter, such as ‘h’ and page through a magazine encouraging them to identify as many pictures as they can that begin with that letter, such as horse, house, hotel, hamburger, etc. Make sure the picture chosen matches the correct sound of the letter initially, so don’t choose ‘angel’ for the letter ‘a’ for instance.
The alphabet game. This can be started as early as age 3 with just reciting the alphabet going back and forth between parent and child (in the car is always a good opportunity for this). As your child masters the alphabet then the game can be played with words going back and forth, such as, apple, bread, cat, dog, etc. Further still, you can restrict the words to one category, such as foods, animals, boys’ names, etc. or you can select single syllable words, followed by double syllables.
Let your child create her own book with one alphabet letter on each page and she must cut pictures from a magazine or draw pictures that represent that letter
Ask him to identify what sound a particular picture begins with (he must not name the picture) and then he must name as many other words beginning with the same sound, for example, a picture of a mouse, he identifies ‘m’ and then lists man, monkey, moose and magazine, for example
Story sequencing: The object of this game is for players to rearrange cut up comic strip pictures in the correct order, as this will strengthen their sequencing ability (necessary for reading) and their comprehension skills. There are also games on the market that you can buy to do this with as well, but comics tend to be more fun. As your children get older, choose strips with (more) words or give them three strips of the same character all mixed together that they need to organise into three stories. Can they use the existing pictures in a different order to create a new story? Let your younger children tell their own story of the pictures.
Phonemic awareness is important and you can play games with your child that involve breaking up and altering words, for example:
Say coolbox, now say it without saying ‘cool’ (or ‘box’) or butterfly without the fly
Say cucumber without the ‘cum’ (therefore they must say cu-ber)
Say night without the ‘n’ sound (ight)
What sound can you hear in ‘date’ that it not in ‘ate’? (d)
If you added ‘m’ to the beginning of ‘eat what would you have? (meat)
If you added ‘k’ to the end of ‘stay’ what would you have? (stake)
Create one-syllable words (initially) with letters and encourage your child to sound them out, such as jun, vut, des, etc. progressing to two and more syllables as their skill develops. You could also help your child create definitions for the made up words, just to add an element of amusement to the game but also to develop their comprehension and reasoning skills

Early reading – sight words and basic spelling words:
Word Bingo: create a grid on a page and laminate it. Write your child’s sight words or spelling words on the grid with a white board marker and play bingo. She would need to read the word as you call it out and cover it up until all words are covered and she shouts Bingo!
Passwords: for words that your child is struggling with, place them on the doors of the house and he has to read it aloud in order to gain access to the room
Word association: Give your child one word and they have to think of as many words as they can that are linked to the word – you can play this with a number of people with everyone taking it in turns. This works nicely in the car as well. Alternatively, you can give a category and people need to list words from that category or ask that words be given beginning or ending with a specific letter that fit in the category, such as foods that begin with ‘b’.
Snap: write out two sets of the words and you read aloud yours as you put it on the table, face up, and she has to read hers aloud and if they match, then the first to say ‘snap’ wins the pair. As she develops this skill then the reading of the words can be silent
Fishing: using a rod with string and a small magnet on the end, create a fishing rod. Write out the words onto card and attach one paper clip to each word, your child must ‘fish’ for the words, reading them as he catches them. If he reads it correctly he can keep the word, otherwise he has to throw it back
Create a series of cards with sound blends on them, such as br, st, cl, sl, gr, etc. and when your child selects a card she has to say a word that either beginning with, ends with or simply contains that letter combination.
Play dominoes with sight words
Use the letters on number plates to create words
Using a snakes and ladders board, cover the numbers with sight words written onto cards and when you land on a square you have to read the word
Help your child to create or write their own story on the computer and illustrate it either by hand or with clip art pictures
Write out the instructions to make something that your child is interested in, a recipe, bubble bath, etc. and she must follow the written directions. If the instructions are for something she has made before then she will be able to rely on her existing knowledge to identify unfamiliar words
Create mnemonics and rhymes to help your child remember the spelling of irregular words, such as ‘friend’ – I fried my friend and that’s the end.
From the beginning of the year, create a list of all your child’s sight words and write them on small pieces of paper, placing them all in a jar or tin. Everyday your child can shake the jar and pick out 10 (or more) words to read.
Play Scrabble to assist with spelling or simple use the tiles to identify the alphabet, or to practice spelling difficult words with three dimensional tiles, giving an additional dimension to learning.
Use word searches, either commercially bought or created at home to help your child identify words he is finding difficult
When your child learns a new syllable or sound blend, encourage them to rewrite the words using a different colour for each sound to create visual interest as they read

The second area in the 3R process is ‘riting. Children need to be able to communicate appropriately in written form. Unfortunately this no longer means strictly pen on paper and so things such as in the writing and perfect penmanship are almost considered a thing of the past but this does not mean that your child should be allowed to scribble and work untidily. Writing requires concentration to form letters and keep them aligned, as well as needing the child to express their knowledge and monitor their spelling. Here are some suggestions to ensure that this remains fun.
Practice writing skills by sending an email to friends weekly or even writing letters and you could purchase some fancy paper and envelopes for this
Words from a magazine and gives and your child and encourage them to use them as part of the story so they will write part of the story stick in the word from the magazine and continue the story.
Provide a variety of ideas than to write about
Discuss story topics with your children make up stories together so they have something to write about when they get to school if they need it
Remember to praise every effort they make and focus on what is right about what they’ve written rather than what is wrong
Draw or cut out cartoon pictures and post them on to a page and encourage your child to create the speech bubbles for each character
Provided steps for them to follow in terms of completing assignments such as the introduction, the body and the conclusion of the essay.
Help them to create mind maps (there are many books available as well as Internet sites to give you this information), in order to allow them to plan what they want to say and not lose track of their thoughts
It’s never a bad idea for your child to write something out in rough, check through for errors (be very careful about how you help your child do this) and then write or type the work out neatly

Although this doesn’t fall in with the 3R’s, we can’t ignore spelling. There are 26 letters in alphabet, which make about 44 sounds individually and combine into a possible 577 letters and sounds. This can be intimidating for even the most confident child. Consider the following:

Our incredible language
When the English tongue we speak
Why is “break” not rhymed with “freak”?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say “sew” then likewise “few”?
And the maker of the first
Cannot cap his “horse” with “worse”.
“Beard” sounds not the same as “heard”,
“Cord” is different from “word”,
Cow is “cow”, but low is “low”,
“Shoe” is never rhymed with “roe”,
Think of “hose” and “dose” and “lose”,
And think of “goose” and yet of “choose”,
Think of “comb” and “tomb” and “bomb”,
“Doll” and “roll” and “home” and “come”,
And since “pay” is rhymed with “say”,
Why not “paid” with “said” I pray.
We have “blood” and “food” and “good”,
“Mould” is not pronounced like “could”,
Wherefore “done” but “gone” and “lone”,
Is there any reason known?
And, in short, it seems to me
Sounds and letters disagree.
Author unknown

So you see, spelling is not quite as simple as understanding what sound each individual letter makes, a child also needs to understand what sound it makes when combined with other letters in a variety of situations.
Here are some useful strategies for you.
Get a list of the sight words that your child’s teacher uses, print them on pieces of paper and place them around the house on the objects that they designate
Print the action words used by your child in their daily life, such as walk, run, laugh, etc. review these with him and have him act them out, then dictate the words to your child and have him write simple sentences using the action words.
Do the same thing for words with similar endings or beginnings or words that differ by only one vowel in the middle, such as dog/dig, live/love and has/had. These are specific problem words.
Get a box of alphabet cards with lowercase letters and each night during homework sessions, use them to spell problem words.
Use objects such as flour, sand, clay or Lego to ‘write’ new words as this allows the individual to utilize his/her creative outlet and accomplish an otherwise frustrating task. They will develop mental pictures, concepts or ideas using the “hands-on” materials.
Write spelling words on different coloured pieces of paper or in different coloured inks according to the word, for example, a young child would have action words on blue and nouns on red paper and older children would have ‘ie’ words on green paper and ‘ei’ words on yellow. The different colours provide extra visual stimulation which is very helpful
Write out two lists of the spelling words and play pairs with the words or even snap, with your child having to read the word when he matches a pair
Use mnemonics to teach unusual spellings, such as:
Because – Bake Every Cake And Use Six Eggs.
Said – I said, Sally Ann Is Dancing
Again – Again, Gorillas Appear In Nighties.
Friend – I fried my friend and that’s the end
Could – Can Oliver Understand Long Division
Rhythm – Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving
Group together word families, which are words that share certain visual and auditory characteristics as they become easier to learn and spell if they are taught at the same time
Play games such as Scrabble, Boggle etc to help with spelling
Go outside and practice spelling words on the bricks with chalk, or write on the wall with a paintbrush dipped in water.
Make up words from the number plates on cars

Finally, we come to maths or ‘rithmetic, the final part of the 3R’s. Unfortunately many kids dislike math. It’s almost become a mental block and this is not helped by parents who happily claim, “oh, I was no good at maths either”. The funny thing is, most young children enjoy learning to count as they enjoy the rhythm and the precision involved. And it’s really quite easy for parents to help their children develop an interest or even a love for maths from an early age so they feel more confident when they tackle tasks in school.
Allow the children to have concrete aids to assist with counting, such as, timetable or number sheets, abacus’s, beads, etc.
Encourage the child to highlight or identify the key elements of that question for example the sign in addition or subtraction sums
Play Battleships, Bingo, Dominoes, Ten Pin Bowling, Snakes and Ladders, Darts, Monopoly and Sudoku
Get your child involved in the shopping – what is cheaper? Two 125g boxes of cereal at R25 each or one big 250g box for R46.
Pretend to buy things at home and help your child to make change for the items bought
Books, such as the Guinness Book of Records, are great for showing how useful numbers are (and it’s a great read too!)
Involve your child in cooking and baking in order to follow recipes and measures amounts of food; get them to double the recipe or half it
Encourage your child to guess the weight of an item and you can see whatever is available in your house-apples, a squash, a hammer, nails, and paintbrushes. Each player guesses the weight of an object and tells the others what she has guessed, you can then weight the item to see how accurate the guess was. This could also be done guessing the length, height and breadth of objects, as well.
Create and solve word problems based on what is going on around you. Here is an example based on simple observation: “One car is carrying two people. Another car is carrying three people. How many people are there altogether?” A more complex problem might involve money: what coins can be used to make up fifty cents?
Your child must roll two dice and add up the numbers, with the aim of being the first one to reach a pre-determined number, without rolling “snake eyes” (two 1s). Any player rolling snake eyes is wiped out and eliminated from that round of play.
Create and solve problems from information found on boxes or cans of packaged foods in your home. Each player chooses a box or a can and uses the numbers on it to create a math problem: “If one serving of cereal contains 24 grams, and 6 of these grams are protein, and 4 are carbohydrates, how many grams are left for the other nutrients?”
Play blackjack (also called “21”) with cards (just don’t involve the betting side!!); alternatively many card games are useful for developing good numerical skills
Think of a number and the others must try to identify the number by asking yes/no questions-for example, “Is it an even number? Is it greater than 5?” Players may guess the secret number after all have asked one question. If a player’s guess is incorrect, the next player may ask one question and then guess. Play continues until someone guesses the secret number. The winner is the one who guesses the opponent’s number first.

The intention of this article is to help you help your child to enjoy their time at school. The strategies and suggestions given here are not intended to replace any additional assistance your child may need at school. In addition to this, if your child is still displaying difficulties, even though you’ve attempted many of these strategies, it may be necessary to have them fully assessed by educational psychologist. (Please note that he and she were used interchangeably in this article)

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