* Update #2 on student using multiplication.com

16Wow.  I am amazed.  I admit it: I was a bit skeptical about the process of learning “stories” for each multiplication fact, but Khalil is making tremendous progress!  First of all, he could not multiply ANY numbers when we started, not even by ones or zeroes.  Yesterday he completed a 40 problem online quiz for the zeroes, ones, and twos times tables in just over a minute with 100% accuracy!  And he only sees me twice a week!  (And we have to complete his homework, too!)  This is a kid who has never had any math fluency.  In three years of trying to learn addition and subtraction facts, he averaged about 12 problems per minute.

Here’s the coolest part to me.  Of course, Khalil has been asking for a copy of all his quizzes because he is thrilled to experience success.  So yesterday he showed his mother the super results and I finally told her how he is learning these facts.  I knew that if I had some initial doubts, she would most likely think this process is crazy.   Her first reaction was, “How come you just don’t say, two times nine is eighteen?”  And Khalil answered, “THIS IS THE WAY I LEARN!   IT HELPS ME!”  Go Khalil!  And a big thanks to multiplication.com.  The best is yet to come for Khalil!

* Phonological Awareness: early intervention is key

baby-195669_640A recent article published in Brain in the News describes research suggesting that babies’ attention to relevant sounds predicted “both how well they would speak at at age 2 1/2 as well as their phonological awareness at age 5” (written by John Higgins, The Seattle Times, September 21, 2104).  How do babies learn these crucial differences between relevant and irrelevant sounds?  What might parents and teachers of young kids do to encourage this development?  The researchers suggest directing a baby’s attention to “what’s important with lots of warm, loving, face-to-face talk using that kind of singsong voice that dips and rises and stretches out vowel sounds.”  Reading aloud to kids, conducting meaningful conversations, and engaging in dialog that helps develop vocabulary are all important interactions which make it more likely that a child will be a successful reader.  The researchers indicated that just one adult engaging in quality connections can make a huge difference, regardless of family income or education.

Another feature of their research was the use of online instruction to provide specialized instruction for kids who had already shown evidence of dyslexia.  Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers can see how the brains of learning disabled kids activate differently from typical learners during reading tasks.  After specialized instruction, those brain difference often disappeared  and the kids’ reading and writing skills improved.  Again, the researchers emphasized that intervention before five years of age was especially important.  As Higgins wrote, “brain chemistry becomes harder to change as children get older.  So it’s better to get it right the first time, when efforts to strengthen weak connections stand their best chance for success.”  However, the window of opportunity persists, as many of us who teach special needs kids can attest.  One parent, also a professor at the University of Washington, enrolled her daughter in the study because dyslexia ran in her family and her ten-year old was struggling to read.  Systematic instruction opened the door to effective reading skills; her daughter happily reports that she is now reading Harry Potter books.

Interested in learning more?  Check out the Dana Foundation for the latest in brain research.

* Worksheets and Walkthroughs

worksheets and walkthroughsWorksheets and Walkthroughs is a terrific math site heavily loaded with videos, worksheets, and classy worksheet generators.  The site is not “pretty” but it’s a wonderful FREE resource for teachers and parents.  Walkthroughs are the massive collection of almost 100 videos on a variety of math topics for grades 3-5.  I haven’t watched every video, but all the ones I’ve viewed have been excellent.  The instructor works carefully through the topic using a smart board; color and diagrams assist in student understanding.  Each video lesson is correlated with Common Core standards and is linked to an available worksheet on the homepage.  The teacher in these videos is knowledgeable, personable, and articulate.  Here’s a glimpse of the beginning of a video on the lattice method of multiplication:worksheets and walkthroughs 1

This site also features videos of Singapore math visuals for problem solving.  The Singapore method of math instruction places heavy emphasis upon the pictorial representation of word problems, along with true mastery of key concepts (as opposed to the two week fly-by method which drives me crazy!).  The diagrams presented will give you a good foundation for applying these visuals to many kinds of word problems.

The worksheets on this site are a special educator’s dream come true.  They are visually clear, have few problems per page (what a relief!), and actually provide sufficient space to solve the problems.  I have found those qualities in short supply in most commercially prepared materials.  The worksheets may also include steps for computation.  Here’s an answer sheet for long division that gives you a sense of how the paper is organized.worksheets and walkthroughs 2

Did I mention the impressive worksheet generators?  They are available for all operations and can be customized to an astounding level.  Here’s an example of a generator for simple multiplication:worksheets and walkthroughs 3

I highly recommend Worksheets and Walkthroughs for teachers and parents alike.  The videos are as good as any teaching I’ve seen and would also make an excellent supplement for kids who are lagging behind.  For those kids who require more than one careful explanation of skills, this site would make individualized instruction much easier.  For parents who do not recognize any part of their kid’s math homework, this is a great place to tune up your skills!  This site is a great resource for home schoolers as well.  Did I mention that it’s free?

* Turtle Diary

turtle diary 2Turtle Diary (yes, that’s its name) is a huge site with an enormous range of games in math, reading, and science.  Teachers and parents can register for free to access the vast and diverse number of games (K-5), videos, online books, puzzles, experiments, and worksheets for grades K-3.  All videos and recorded books are read in fluent English.  The lessons which seem best suited for English language learners are read a bit slowly, to my ear, but are probably helpful for learning the language.  Users are encouraged to sign up for yearly membership in order to access all materials, but I have not yet come across any game, worksheet, or activity to which I was denied access with my free membership.  Membership also allows users to track student activity and responses on games.  The primary advantage of membership would be the removal of ads running on every page.  I don’t know if that increases the size of the games and books, because I am using the site for free.  You can see below how much of the page is NOT devoted to the actual materials.  And yes, turtles really are swimming continuously along the sides of the page.

turtle diary 1

Aside from the excellent games, the descriptions of activities are quite entertaining.  The writers aren’t native English speakers, for sure.  Here are a few of my favorites: “As each lesson bears a sense of newness, kids never get bored out of it.”  “The simple approach suits a child’s tender mind.”  “There is science behind everything. The popular saying proves the importance of the subject.”  And my favorite:  “Each one is fun to play, and is great at keeping fifth graders entertained and engaged. They are the perfect complement to the seemingly endless classes and lessons they have to sit through.”  (No joke there!)

If you want some really good games, check out this site.  Just remember that each page is loaded with distractions.  At least I didn’t see any Victoria’s Secret ads swimming by!

* Crucial Conversations #7: restart

checkered_flagWhew!  The rubber meets the road in Chapter 8: Explore Other’s Paths.  This chapter is a map of how to open/ restart dialog with someone when they have resorted to “silence or violence.”   Conversations shut down when someone does not feel safe.  That leads to default methods of interacting under stress, not necessarily effective ones.  The authors continue to focus on humility, sincerity, and positive expectations.  And patience.

It is much easier for me to apply this in teaching students than in my personal or professional life.  I think that’s because I have a large comfort zone with special needs kids, so I am not dismayed when they strike out or withdraw.  If my husband ever did that, I would react quite differently!  (He’s pretty amazing and could have written crucial conversations.)

Kids who have been identified as autistic or having emotional disorders can benefit greatly from conversations with teachers who do not take offense, who are willing to explore the students’ perspectives, and can help them safely review what they actually heard or saw.  Primarily, these students need to know it’s safe to share their feelings, no matter how upset they are.  I remember a kid talking about bombing the school.  I could tell that he wanted to scare me, but I encouraged him to talk and draw what he was feeling.  After creating a number of violent pictures, he asked me what it would take to get expelled from school.  I asked him why he wanted to get expelled and the whole story poured out.  He had been violent at home, terrified a younger sibling, and ended up living with an aunt.  His goal was to get back to his mom.  If he acted crazy in this new school, he hoped to be sent back.  Eventually he was reunited with his mom, although he obviously still had a lot of anger and jealousy issues to be resolved.

Another student told me about his plan to “get even” with two classmates.  At first, he was embarrassed to talk openly about his violent feelings.  When I simply listened (ignoring my regular schedule and growling tummy), he ended up describing a troubling “triangle” in which he felt left out.  His perspective was that of a victim, denied HIS special twosome by a new kid in the class.  It took many conversations to eventually move him from that role to exploring new relationships.  It was a bumpy path.  I reminded myself (and him) that it takes time to work out relationships.  I could not force any solution; instead, he had to see that there were alternatives to the bleak picture he had painted.  Again, his relational difficulties persisted, but he did not resort to violence because he could safely talk about his problem.

In contrast to my behavior with students, I recall fleeing a room just so I could hold my tongue before I did irreparable damage to a relationship.  Well, duh.

* Update on student using Multiplication.com

learn a factIn a previous post, I shared information about the unique mnemonic strategies developed by Alan Walker of Multiplication.com.  I purchased the materials for use with a fourth grader who has been unsuccessful in memorizing any addition facts, much less multiplication.  Due to holidays and other scheduling issues, the student has only had three sessions of about 20 minutes each using this approach.  In that time, he has memorized the mnemonics for each numeral from 1 to 9 and knows FOUR facts!  Khalil and I are obviously really pleased!  I think he was amazed that he really only had to memorize 36 facts (excluding ones, zeros and repeats; with all the practice on multiplication.com for his two’s times tables, Khalil no longer struggles with 1s and 0s! ).  His confidence has improved, the stories for each fact are appealing to him, and if we didn’t have the tyranny of inappropriate homework, he could be a lot farther along.

The back story:  I am still unhappy about his homework.  I do know there’s no easy solution for kids who are years below grade level.  However, I think that if he could work on underlying skills, Khalil has a chance at catching up.  He did move up to grade level when we focused on reading for two years; he shot forward when I taught him basic phonological and phonics skills.  But I suspect that Khalil has a math disability, based upon how intervention-resistant he is.  He is now being considered for a Tier 3 intervention in the Response to Instruction program.  As I feared, all these school frustrations have led to some significant behavior problems in the regular classroom.  Khalil is adorable but is getting a reputation as aggressive and defiant.

I’ll keep you posted!

* Update on 2e student with writing difficulties

In case you are just joining this conversation, I previously posted about using writing graphs to better understand students’ strengths and weaknesses, using examples of feedback from a 2e student I teach.  In partnership with Tony’s parents, I am pursuing multiple avenues to improve the quality of his school life, some of which will require more Crucial Conversations!  Simultaneously, I am addressing his difficulties in spelling and adding details to sentences.  For spelling, he is using the Megawords program successfully.  (I will share more on these materials in a later post.)

As I noted before, Tony experiences considerable anxiety when asked to write sentences with details.  A closer look at his problem suggests that he has a relative weakness in his use of adjectives.  After trying some commercially prepared materials, I am now “on my own,” with the help of Super Teacher worksheets.  I am taking advantage of his superior memory, enjoyment of timed work, and my knowledge of the types of writing assignments he must complete.  During our sessions, we work systematically on two activities related to adjectives, along with special recognition of any adjectives used in Megawords.  The first activity is a 3 minute timed “game” where Tony must produce as many adjectives as possible for five different nouns.  His scores currently range from 3 to 14.  I allow him to use only three color and size descriptors, and he may not use his default adjectives of “annoying,” “nice,” and “helpful.”  In our last session, he was able to generate 13 words to describe tables but only three to describe boys.  After his dismal score on “boys,” Tony indicated that he was unable to describe people.  I shared a number of possibilities and then gave him another person category.  He scored 11, remembering the adjectives I suggested.  We continue to complete adjective-noun matching worksheets as described in my last post.  Tony can now complete the sheet in about 40 seconds after first reviewing the lists of words.

Overall, Tony is much more adept at suggesting adjectives for common objects than when we started; he was able to generate about five words and now averages 12.  But his weakness in descriptions of people, even their physical appearance, will be our next focus.  I am more concerned with his ability to describe character traits than appearance, since the former will be an ongoing requirement in writing throughout his school years.  Here’s a sample sheet for that work: adjective 2

* Starfall

Starfall has come of age!  I first started using this site back in 2002 and am pleased to see that it has gone BIG.  Of course, it’s no longer all free, but $35 for a “more” Starfall family subscription is reasonable.  If you’re not familiar with Starfall, it originally featured books and songs on beginning phonics skills for  pre-K and kindergarten age children.  There were also additional fun activities for kids related to holidays, with some math activities.  Look at it the new and improved version!

starfall 1

This site has long been popular with teachers and homeschoolers alike.  It’s a great way for English language learners to hear short vowel sounds properly pronounced.  It’s also ideal for young special needs learners (more on that below).  I’ll describe the features of the “more” Starfall site below.

What kids do:  Most kindergarten and first graders would enjoy spending time on this site even if it weren’t assigned by a teacher.  As you can see from the graphic, the site is well-organized with clear visual clues about its content.  The phonics stories have been expanded to include skills through r-controlled vowels.  There are also stories emphasizing sight vocabulary.  Starfall now includes an excellent selection of books in its library, I’m Reading section, and BackPack Bear’s Books.  The math section is vastly expanded with teaching materials and games.  The site still has a wide selection of holiday stories and activities, all of which include a “listen” option with real kids’ voices.

What teachers get:  Starfall has developed excellent curriculum materials for both pre-K and kindergarten classrooms.  The teacher resource section includes a variety of generators (such as word cards and math sheets), ongoing assessment forms, and many graphics for whole classroom SmartBoard use.  In fact, teachers may purchase plush figures featured in Starfall’s phonics readers.  Students are also introduced to American Sign Language.  Both reading and math sections feature games and instructional materials.


  • The graphics are some of the best I’ve ever seen.  All activities open in full-screen mode with no clutter or ads.  They also follow a predictable format for closing and returning to the main menu.
  • The materials are culturally diverse; one of their best nonfiction stories is a biography of Ruby Bridges.
  • The recorded voices are actual kids and adults.  Nothing robotic (except in the place value game “Make a Robot” which is introduced with a deliberate robotic voice!).
  • Games are highly engaging without wasting precious time.  They are also easily understood and provide excellent practice.
  • Special needs kids can easily focus on the appropriate skills and make good use of their online work.  Kids with weaker skills benefit from the optional “listen” feature.
  • The teacher’s resource section provides a wide range of materials for a complete year of instruction in pre-K and kindergarten.  It also explains the importance of phonological awareness and HOW to teach it.  You’d be surprised at how many teachers would appreciate that.
  • The generators are easy to use and also have wonderful graphics.
  • The range of materials would engage students through first grade and into second grade.


  • Hmm….
  • Hmm….

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars