Monday, 22 December 2014

How much is enough and when do you know if it is too much?

A couple of friends of mine were interested in ways to support their children with their learning at home.  It's a really tricky and very personal decision as to how much you support (as opposed to interfere) with what your child is doing in school.  I think that ultimately, you need to know your child and understand what the school is doing for them in terms of providing learning opportunities that are stimulating, challenging and fun.  Doing too much at home can turn a child off learning completely but equally, missing opportunities to reinforce and extend learning if the child is keen (see also happy to be manipulated with rewards - it's all for their own good after all) is a shame if you have the time for it - I'm not suggesting parents wear sackcloth and ashes because they have busy lives and don't have the time, by the way.  I probably make my seven year old do quite a lot at home compared to many within a similar education setting but this is grounded in what I hope is a sound philosophy to encourage the naturally enquiring mind and instill a love of learning which does requires discipline. 

A lot of what I have come to expect from children has been informed by my own teaching experiences. I know that it is hard to stretch children (not literally although sometimes that is very tempting) in a class of 30 where you have: gifted and talented; special needs; low achievers; behavioural issues; difficult home circumstances; non-existent aspirations and self confidence; chaotic family situations and not forgetting the quiet ones who don't call attention to themselves because they are guaranteed to get on with whatever is asked of them and just keep their heads down.  You have to provide for each and every one of them.  In such a mix as this, where Every Child Matters and you as the educator are expected to get them all to a level of competence which the government deems acceptable, there is a distinct pressure to tick boxes and provide evidence for everything which happens in class: its educational purpose; how it links in to a myriad of other expectations and where it takes the child next.  And I haven't even begun to talk about the fun that should be an integral part of learning.  Is there even time for fun?

The school where my son goes is fine.  It was in special measures and isn't now.  His teacher is brilliant and he does really interesting projects.  There appears to be plenty of opportunity for investigation and self directed learning.  So why do I also expect him to do a maths programme, a reading comprehension programme, spelling, multiplication tables, silent reading, listen to me reading and then read to me?  Every week day.  Wow, even I think I sound like a control freak/dictator when I see that little lot.

So let me explain.  You remember when you used to take worksheets home for homework?  This is essentially because parents like their children to have homework.  Seriously.  Even parents whose children never actually do their homework, complain when nothing comes home.  So, clever people who saw a niche to be filled, created programmes that can be used in school and at home.  These are pretty good really as both the teacher and parent can see just what the child is doing and where they need to improve.  In class, in no way does it replace teaching by an actual human being but they are great for consolidating ideas and previously taught concepts and they can provide a challenge too.  The reading one is especially good for comprehension.  A surprising number of children are brilliant readers but when you ask them, have no idea what they have read. To be a good comprehender,  essentially, you really just need to read a lot and think about it a lot.  Why did that happen?  Did you expect it?  What would you have done?  Why was that character acting in that way?  What did she really mean when she said...?  Would you have done anything differently in the same situation? You get the idea.  Unfortunately, a lot of children don't enjoy reading so reading short books online with built in questions at least gets them into the habit.

Habit.  There it is.  Personally, I really do think that having a reading or studying habit is something which has to be learned and encouraged. If you need to use online programmes (like Reading Express) with built in reward systems and celebration assemblies in school for when goals are reached, then great.  It is creating a habit for learning.  The same goes for the maths programme (like IXL, MyMaths and Mathletics).  As for spelling and multiplication tables, the spellings they come home with once they are in key stage 2, will mainly be the tricky words that can't be read by knowing phonics patterns - they just need to be learned.  Sometimes there are little tricks to learning them, often not.  Ditto for multiplication tables.  Squeebles is probably as fun as it gets with those.  Again, a built-in reward of game playing is an integral part of its lure.  But ultimately, it gets the job done and immediate recall of multiplication facts is invaluable for all aspects of maths so whatever it takes to learn them...

Lastly, the reading.  Reading stamina needs to be built up.  As adults, we rarely read aloud (unless to a child) so it is unsurprising that this slightly alien way of engaging with a book is unpopular with many children.  However, we need to be hearing our children read so we can be sure that they are recognising what the punctuation is there for, using correct intonation and expression for dialogue, pronouncing words correctly and understanding what they mean, reading at the right speed... the list goes on.  And of course, we hope that they are enjoying it too.  Reading silently to yourself is a quiet, focused skill that children have to practice.  As they go up through school, they will be expected to be reading longer and more complex books and as they go into secondary education, textbooks will rear their ugly heads (unless ipads take over but even information on them needs reading before any understanding can take place).  I also read to my children at bedtimes and these are usually books which the children find exciting and fun but are either too long or have complex sentence structures, plots or language which would slow a seven and four year old down so much as to render the reading completely boring and pointless.  Books that I include in this category and which have been very well received include: Five Children and It; MoonFleet; Samauri, The Hobbit - you get the idea.

A love of reading comes from hearing wonderful books!

Nobody ever said it was easy being a parent and knowing the right thing to do.  But it's a pretty exciting journey to be on.  And if mine never finish learning and being interested in the world and their place in it, I will be happy with the job I've done.

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