Five Ways to Maximize Learning at Home

“What can I do at home to help my children improve their reading and writing skills?”

This is a question I hear often from parents who visit my learning center. Even after signing their kids up for classes, they want to do as much as they can to encourage learning at home. And this is smart.

In today's hyper-competitive job market it's important that we arm our children with as much know-how as possible. They need to be able to write with ease and read effortlessly, because the effective writers and voracious readers of today will be the successful entrepreneurs, CEOs and world leaders of tomorrow.

So here is a list of tips I have accumulated from ten years of teaching and eleven years of parenting experience to assist the concerned parent:

1. Use Your Child's Love of Electronics as Leverage

This is the first tip because it addresses a problem all parents face today: how do we tear our kids away from video games, mobile phones and computers and get them to sit down and read or write? The answer is to let them enjoy their electronic toys, but only after having done a certain amount of reading and writing first.

What I do with my kids is require that they do at least an hour of reading a day (on school days) before playing video games. If they don't want to read, I give them the option of writing, but I let them write about something they enjoy. (“Give me a five-paragraph essay on why you prefer Terraria to Minecraft,” for example.)

If they know they will get a reward at the end of their reading or writing task, your kids will be more eager to do as they're told.

2. Make Sure Your Child Has Access to Quality Reading Material

Encourage your children to check out books from the school library and local public library. If this is inconvenient, make sure you have a variety of quality books at home.

For children in grades 1 through 8, the best books to buy are the winners of the John Newberry Medal. These are easy to spot, as they will have a large, round, gold stamp on the front. Other good choices are books with positive reviews on the back cover from Horn Book, School Library Journal (SLJ), and the American Library Association (ALA).

To know which books are appropriate for each grade level, read the “Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.” Despite the mind-numbingly boring title, this PDF file is invaluable, as it tells you which texts students are supposed to be able to read and understand at their grade level (which is what they test for with standardized exams like the PARCC).

3. Let Your Child Choose What to Read

If you want your children to develop a of love of reading, give them flexibility with regard to the books they select. They won't ever enjoy reading if the reading materials are too hard or uninteresting.

One fourth grader complained to me that her father only let her read nonfiction, as he felt reading fiction was a “waste of time.” When I asked her what she wanted to read, she said, “Harry Potter.”

Now the Harry Potter books happen to be an excellent series for children of any age to read. What I like best about the series is that it exposes children to Latin words and roots. (Many of the spells are in Latin.)

After telling this to her father, he gave her permission to read the books, and over the next few weeks the student borrowed volume after volume from my small learning center library and her eyes shone with joy.

Other series I encourage children to read are Percy Jackson and the Olympians, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games, and Divergent.

Remember that if your child is reading at all, you have achieved a victory already, as most kids are glued to screens, frittering away their time online. So give your young one some leeway to read what he or she wants.

4. Keep an Appropriate Dictionary at Home

Learning vocabulary is a crucial way to boost reading comprehension. Most schools today teach children how to find context clues as a way to divine the meaning of a word they don't know. This is a good skill, and I teach this (along with guessing meanings using word roots, prefixes and suffixes) in my classes. But the only way to know for sure the meaning of a word is to look it up in a dictionary.

Many parents balk when I tell them to buy a dictionary for their kids. “They can look it up online,” they say.

I discourage this, however, because having your child consult an electronic device while reading can be a distraction. Unless you are watching your kid closely, who's to say that while he looks up a word he isn't texting his friends, or she isn't checking her status on Clash of Clans?

It's best to have a good old-fashioned hard copy of a dictionary your child can consult. (Or a copy on his or her e-reader.)

But what dictionary should your kids use? For students in grades 1 through 5, I recommend they consult a Children's Dictionary. This provides definitions using simple, easy-to-understand language,

For grades 6 through 8, I tell parents to buy a School Dictionary. Once in high school, students should use a college dictionary.

As to the publisher, I prefer Merriam-Webster (they make the Children's and School dictionaries mentioned above). Because I was a journalist before I became a teacher, I have always viewed Merriam-Webster's as the “bible” of American English. But the American Heritage Dictionary is a fine publication as well.

If your child has no choice but to look up words online, the best website is Merriam-Webster.com. I do not recommend Dictionary.com.

5. Encourage Your Child to Keep a Journal or Write a Blog

The only way to improve as a writer is to write, which is why I assign essay homework to my students in every class I teach. At home, you can help your children to practice writing by encouraging them to keep a journal (diary) or a blog.

Whether you can help them with their writing or not doesn't matter. The simple act of putting words to paper, or typing, will give them practice, and make the act of writing less daunting for them.

It's critical you let children write about what interests them. One of my sons was into rocks at one point, so I told him to write an explanatory essay about the different types of minerals found in rocks. This he did quickly and happily.

Another son is obsessed with Minecraft, so I let him write a narrative based in the Minecraft world. He was been writing it on and off for quite a while now, and it is over 40 pages long.

Sometimes what motivates kids is getting feedback from people online. That's why I suggest that if your child has a particular interest you should let him/her post compositions on the Web.

My third son is a big fan of the game Terraria, and he has some very strong views on the best way to play the game, so I encouraged him to share his opinions online. He has published several posts so far and has reveled in the feedback from online readers. Some of these comments have prodded him to post lengthy responses.

Of course, we have to be careful when children do anything online, so I urge parents to make sure your child uses a pen name or pseudonym, and never reveals any personal information. Also, monitor the comments readers post, as they can be cruel and insulting.

Keeping a journal or diary allows your child to get practice writing, while, at the same time, giving him or her a constructive way to vent feelings. Once, when I was very upset with one of my children, I took away his iPad and threatened to end his Minecraft playing time as well.

He apologized for his bad behavior and begged me repeatedly to lift the Minecraft ban. After I cooled down I relented and told him that if he read a 21-page New York Times Magazine article about the game and wrote a persuasive essay explaining why it's educational, then I would consider allowing him to play.

He spent the next two hours reading diligently, and wrote a well-worded essay that effectively proved his point, so I let him play the game.

Another time all my boys were upset with me about something or other, so I told them, “You don't like it? Write about it in your journals.”

What they wrote ended up being highly critical of me, but I didn't care. At least they were writing.

Lester Gesteland is the founder of Tiger Workshops Learning Center in Metuchen, New Jersey. Parents call him “Mr. G.” His children think of him as "The Martinet."

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