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January 30, 2008

Is College in Your Child's Future?

As parents know only too well, higher education in our country is expensive and becoming more expensive each year.

At the same time, modern nations know that if they are to have a productive population, they need to have a highly educated citizenry. That is why Ireland, over a decade ago, abolished tuition fees for all citizens in the European Union. This has been one of the key factors in the phenomenal economic transformation that has taken place in that country.

But back to the USA.

Steadily increasing tuitions have been taking place even as universities get richer. Tuition increases have outpaced inflation for years. At the same time, endowments have ballooned. On average, endowments at 785 institutions of higher learning in the US and Canada enjoyed investment returns of 17.2 percent – their biggest in a decade. In other words, as universities get richer, they charge more!

The disconnect has led some US senators to ask the nation's 136 wealthiest colleges and universities for information on their tuition hikes, financial aid, and endowments. Their goal is to try to force higher ed to make college more affordable as well as improve transparency in stating what it actually costs to attend a college. They also propose mandating that well-funded schools spend 5 percent of their endowments on tuition relief – just as nonprofit foundations must spend 5 percent in order to keep their tax-exempt status.

Pressure from Congress may already be having an effect. Harvard and Yale recently announced expanded tuition relief from their endowments, and other wealthy schools will likely follow.

But the issue is much larger than this. Most Americans in college go to public schools, whose budgets rise and fall with the economy, not endowments.

And as we speak, as with so many areas in American life, the statistics do not bode well. For example, in an international study of the affordability of college, the rankings placed us 13th--behind the following 12 nations
1. Sweden
2. Finland
3. The Netherlands
4. Belgium (Flemish Community)
5. Ireland
6. Belgium (French Community)
7. Austria
8. Germany
9. France
10. Italy
11. Canada
12. Australia

For more information, go to

January 28, 2008

Spelling: A Mirror into Reading

Years ago, spelling held a place of importance in literacy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to one of his daughters, “Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and, if you do not remember, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.”

For lots of reasons, that has changed. But if you want to get some insights your child’s reading, you would do well to take a look at his or her spelling.

For starters, don’t use the spelling tests that many, many children take each week in school. One of the most frequently heard comments I hear from parents is “Oh he does so well on the spelling tests. Almost always 90 or 100 %.” That is then followed by, “But it's so strange. A week or two later, he doesn’t remember the words--even though he spelled them perfectly on the test.”

If you did any cramming in studying for tests in school, you’ll understand the reasons how this happens. The cramming helped you pass the course. But if you needed any of the information a month or two later, it was nowhere to be found. It seems to have vanished into thin air. That’s essentially what happens with studying for spelling tests. It is a form of cramming that is aimed at holding the information for a specific period of time and it rapidly disappears as your brain makes room for the storage of other short term information.

But it’s very different if you look at what your child writes when he or she has an actual writing assignment (such as keeping a journal, answering a reading comprehension question, and writing sentences in various settings). That writing represents what your child has stored about words and how they are formed. And it tells you if your child is learning what is essential for effective reading; namely whether he or she is getting a handle on what is termed “automaticity.”

“Automaticity” refers to the idea that as we become competent readers, we do not have to go through the slow, painful process of sounding out the various letters to figure out what a word “says.” Instead, we simply “look and know.” That is how you are reading this material and that is how all effective reading occurs.

To complicate matters, children can appear to have automaticity when they in fact have a relatively weak mastery of this critical skill. For example, when the topics are still simple and the words are still short, they can use the theme of a story and one or two letters to “figure out” what a word is saying. So in a story about a plane, a relatively short word starting with “f” will be guessed at as “fly” while in a story about bear searching for food, a relatively longer word starting with “h” is guessed at as “honey.”

With spelling, however, the situation is very different. Knowledge of one or two letters will not enable a child to come up with the correct spelling. Knowledge of phonic rules will also not be too helpful. Using the rules they have been taught, even relatively simple words such as “bee,” “dog” “robot” and “bread” can be spelled in many different ways. (That’s one of the reasons why most phonics programs are content to let children write by using the whole language approach of invented spelling. Their “rules” are just not good enough to ensure accurate spelling and so they are willing to say that accurate spelling is unnecessary at the start of reading.)

The only way a child can display accurate writing is if he or she has developed the vital skill of long term visual memory for words. That skill—the skill of long term visual memory for words—is what allows effective readers to look at a misspelled word (such as beleive, cemetary or privelege) and–without any help (from parent or word processor), instantly know that something is awry—before knowing what exactly is awry. It is only later, after they have examined the word that they can identify the precise error.

How do you assess if your child has mastered this critical skill? The key is to calculate the percentage of errors that are made when he or she writes actual text. Leaving aside “big words” (such as “explorer” or “invention”) that a young child may use to beef up a piece of writing, the remainder of any writing should basically have less than 15 % error, and preferably less than 10% error. If the figure is consistently higher than this, particularly if it enters the 20% or higher range, it is likely that he or she has not developed accurate long term visual memory.

And now for two key questions that may be on your mind--

Why is this important? Well, as reading advances and longer and more complex words keep appearing, the reading will be adversely affected. This is particularly the case after about fourth grade when lots of Latin and Greek-based words permeate the page—words like population, decision, athlete, agriculture and so on). Unlike the short words of earlier texts, effective reading and understanding of these words requires accurate spelling skills.

What can be done? Fortunately, the answer is “a lot.” The key is to have your child carry out a set of copying tasks that involve the following. You take a sentence in a book that your child has read easily. You show the sentence and ask your child to say the first two to four words in the sentence. Then you cover those words and you ask your child to write the words perfectly. If the words are totally accurate, you move on to the next two to four words. If there is an error, you do not tell him or her where it occurred. Instead, you say that an error has been made, you remove the paper and provide a fresh sheet. Then you show the model again and you ask your child to redo the words. You continue in this manner until the sentence has been reproduced from memory with perfect accuracy. It is useful to complete up to three to four sentences a day in this manner. Generally, it will take about six to eight weeks for your child to develop the necessary skills. But once that has been achieved, it is there for life and it will serve as a tremendous aid in both reading and writing.

Oh yes, one last thing. Believe it or not, do everything you can to discourage your child from labeling the letters in the words. As long as a child relies on verbal labeling, he or she will not develop the necessary visual skills. So if your child insists on labeling, simply increase the number of words he or she has to write at any one time (so that it is not two or three but five to six. Once there are that many words, it becomes almost impossible to remember them via labeling and visual memory will come in its place.)

January 26, 2008

Jokes: Fun and Learrning in One Package

It's great to see kids' faces light up when they hear or tell a Joke. And because of the word play that jokes offer, at the same time, their language skills are enhanced. When you have a chance, you might try these out.

Q: What do you call a sleeping bull?
A: A bull-dozer.

Q: What did the farmer call the cow that had no milk?
A: An udder failure.

Q: What do you get from a pampered cow?
A: Spoiled milk.

Q: Why are teddy bears never hungry?
A: They are always stuffed!

Q: Where do polar bears vote?
A: The North Poll

Q: What did the judge say when the skunk walked in the court room?
A: Odor in the court!

Q: Why are fish so smart?
A: Because they live in schools.

Q: How does a lion greet the other animals in the field?
A: Pleased to eat you.

Q: What happened when the lion ate the comedian?
A: He felt funny!

Q: What fish only swims at night?
A: A starfish!

Q: Why is a fish easy to weigh?
A: Because it has its own scales!

Q: Why did the turkey cross the road?
A: To prove he wasn't chicken!

Q: What animals are on legal documents?
A: Seals!

Q: What is 'out of bounds'?
A: An exhausted kangaroo!

Q: What did the buffalo say to his son when he went away on a trip?
A: Bison!

Q: Why didn't the boy believe the tiger?
A: He thought it was a lion!

Q: What did the spider do on the computer?
A: Made a website!

Q: What did the computer do at lunchtime?
A: Had a byte!

Q: What does a baby computer call his father?
A: Data!

Q: What is a computer virus?
A: A terminal illness!

Q: Why was the computer cold?
A: It left it's Windows open!

Q: Why was there a bug in the computer?
A: Because it was looking for a byte to eat?

Q: Why did the computer squeak?
A: Because someone stepped on it's mouse!

Q: How can you tell the ocean is friendly?
A: It waves.

Q: What kind of hair do oceans have?
A: Wavy!

Q: What did Mars say to Saturn?
A: Give me a ring sometime.

Q: What did the big flower say to the small flower?
A: What's up Bud.

Q: Where does seaweed go to look for a job?
A: "The ""kelp wanted"" section."

Q: When is the moon the heaviest?
A: When it's full!

Q: What kind of flower grows on your face?
A: Tulips!

Q: What washes up on very small beaches?
A: Microwaves!

Q: What did the ground say to the earthquake?
A: You crack me up!

Q: Why did the music teacher need a ladder?
A: To reach the high notes.

Q: What kind of plates do they use on Venus?
A: Flying saucers!

Q: Why did nose not want to go to school?
A: He was tired of getting picked on!

Q: How do you get straight A's?
A: By using a ruler!

Q: Why did the kid study in the airplane?
A: Because he wanted a higher education!

Q: What do elves learn in school?
A: The elf-abet!

Q: What did you learn in school today?
A: "Not enough, I have to go back tomorrow!"

Q: Why did the teacher wear sunglasses?
A: Because his class was so bright!

Q: What holds the sun up in the sky?
A: Sunbeams!

Q: What object is king of the classroom?
A: The ruler!

Q: Why were the teacher's eyes crossed?
A: She couldn't control her pupils!

Q: When do astronauts eat?
A: At launch time!

Q: What did the pencil sharpener say to the pencil?
A: Stop going in circles and get to the point!

Q: How does the barber cut the moon's hair?
A: E-clipse it!

Q: What happened when the wheel was invented?
A: It caused a revolution!

January 19, 2008

In Praise of Immaturity

For lots of good reasons, we all take children's development very seriously and do everything we can to help them mature in the best way possible. But with our eyes always geared to the future, we sometimes overlook the fun and value in being immature.

Fortunately, the editors of Klutz are around to get us see things a bit differently. Their efforts which are aimed at "never growing up" started in 1977. It was then that they published their first book--Juggling for the Complete Klutz®. It showed that anyone and everyone can learn the totally non-essential, but fun-filled, activity of juggling.

Now they've written what they describe as the ultimate how-not-to guide for ages 8 and up. It is The Encyclopedia of Immaturity and it contains more than 300 entries such as How to Skip a Stone, How to Do a Wheelie, How to Hang a Spoon from Your Nose, How to Really Annoy Your Older Sibling. They are presented with lots of full-color photographs, illustrations and diagrams that can enable your whole family to do all lots of unnecessary things that make childhood a very special time. For more information, go to

January 17, 2008

Word Families: Is It Time to Disown Them?

If youve had contact with a child in the early primary grades doing "reading homework," you're bound to have seen what are typically referred to as "word families." Those are the words that end with the same sets of letters--such as fat, cat, sat, mat or sand, hand, land or fall, tall, call. In many reading programs, these word families occupy a central place --since the groupings are thought to help children learn to identify (i.e., read or decode) words more easily.

But is that really what happens?

Sadly, the answer is NO.

If you look carefully, you will notice that all word family training takes place not with meaningful material but with lists of isolated words. It has to be that way since the words have no connection to one another. So (except for a few word-play books created by masters such as Dr. Seuss), it's impossible to put them together and end up with a meaningful message. If you want to test this out, take any "word family" (such as those above) and try to create even three to four sentences where they might appear together and make sense. It can't be done.

As a result, despite hours of training with "word family" worksheets, when children get to real books, the word families offer no help--since no page is ever going to show sets of words with similar endings.

This is just one more example of the reasons why reading education fails. The area is by no means ignored. Huge amounts of classroom and homework time are spent on reading. But the activities carried out during those times are often of no value. Saddest of all, along with not being helped, children also get the message that efforts to learn have no payoff.

What can be done? Ideally, of course, the system should change. But that takes time. If your goal is to help your child now, the best course of action is to help him or her get through whatever word family assignments are offered. For example, if a child has to "come up" with several new members of a family (e.g., "Now write two more words from the 'and' family") just provide your child with the necessary information. That way, he or she does not waste time and effort on an activity that fails to yield any benefit towards improved reading.

Also when your child is reading to you and stumbles on a word (such as "stand") do not point to the end of the word and say, "what family is this?" or "what does this say?" The simplest course of action is to say the word, ask your child to repeat it, and then have him or her start the sentence from the beginning.

This route is so simple that many parents feel it "can't be any good." They have become so used to the children struggling that they think struggle is essential to the learning process. But once they disown the "word families" that should never have been part of the clan to begin with, they do see that the teaching of reading --when done right-- is easy.

January 05, 2008

Toys: The Right Choice

Parents and other family members often wonder about the best toys to give. Now there is a website that offers some valuable advice. It was set up by teachers and is called TRUCE--an acronym for Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Environment. The goal is to help adults make informed choices about toys--both inclusion (that is, by highlighting the ones that are most productive to play and thinking) and exclusion (that is, by eliminating those that encourage violence and overstimulation).
For more information, you can go to

January 03, 2008

Resource Guide for Children with Disabilities

For the vast majority of children with reading difficulties, the problems are confined to reading. Their struggles are a tragic result of the limited and inadequate systems used for teaching reading.

But for some children, the problems go well beyond reading. Typically the youngsters are termed "children with special needs." As those familiar with the children know well, the families face many challenges. They benefit greatly from knowing the resources that are available and how to access those resources.

One site that provides invaluable information is Among their offerings is a yearly resource guide. The 2008 is on its way. It offers comprehensive national directory of service organizations, associations, federally funded programs, parent and training information groups, and many other resources for the special needs community.

Those who want that material now can turn to the 2007 edition

Its content includes information on:
National Resources for Specific Disabilities
Parent to Parent Programs
State Assistive Technology Programs
State by State listing of Title V Programs
Association of University Centers
Early Intervention Programs
Adaptive Recreation Organizations
National Information and Advocacy Resources
Alliance for Technology Access (ATA)Centers
Vocational Rehabilitation Programs
Canadian Resources

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