Let Them Play! The Best Medicine for Summer Learning

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Collins

The importance of play over the summer

If you’re like most parents, you’re probably scrambling to fill up the summer break with activities to keep your children busy while they are out of school. Some new research says you can put down your dailyimportance of play planner and leave some space on your calendar for unstructured free play. There is no need for you to arrange to have every waking moment filled with planned activities like swimming and tennis lessons, day camp, dance classes, sports activities and even summer school. The value of unstructured play is often overlooked. It results in increased executive functions (EFs), which control and manage cognitive processes. This helps children to develop skills like working memory, impulse control, decision-making, troubleshooting, and organizational skills they need for a successful future.

The University of Colorado recently published a study confirming the value of just letting children play. The study found that unstructured play increases “executive function” skills. This means that children who engage in free play are more likely to work independently as students, establish their own goals and concentrate better in a crowded classroom where chaos sometimes reigns.

Even experts who recommend some structure during the summer break for those who need help keeping up with or improving their reading skills note that play is an important part of the improvement plan. So, just what is meant by unstructured play?

Unstructured play versus structured play

Remember when you were a child and pushed chairs together and arranged sheets or blankets across them to create a fort? That is only one example of free or unstructured play. When children let their imaginations run wild and pretend a living room chair is a car they are driving to another country, they are engaging in free play. Having a backyard camp out is another example when children can make their own plans and rules.

Examples of structured play are things like swimming classes, dance lessons and sports activities. The events happen at defined times and places and are generally led by an adult. Even board games fall into this category since the children follow the established rules. If, instead, children create their own board game and use the freedom to create their own rules, it would become unstructured play.

Sometimes, the activities may seem to overlap. Avid readers may consider it play when they read their favorite book. That would be structured play. Writing their own story and turning it into a book they make and illustrate themselves is unstructured or free play.

Tangible benefits of free play

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long been advocating for children to spend more time in free play. Specifically, the Academy states: “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” Some of the benefits of free play discussed by the AAP include:

  • Opportunities to practice decision making skills.
  • Discovering their interests and passions.
  • Assuming adult roles where they can control outcomes and overcome fears.
  • Working with other children in groups.
  • Negotiating, decision-making and creating rules for games with their peers.
  • Promoting health through physical activity.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Learning the value of social bonds through interacting with other children.
  • Building self-confidence since they are in charge.
  • Learning self-direction (this may be the most valuable lesson children learn from free play).

Join in at playtime!

Parents should also spend time playing with their children. If your child wants to play “restaurant” and tells you to be the diner, comply with the request and enjoy watching him or her create a menu, take your order, and bring you pretend food. If your children invite you in to their blanket fort, go in and enjoy eating s’mores by the pretend campfire.

Have fun with your children as you encourage and participate in their unstructured play, knowing that they are developing valuable skills that will help them in the classroom and throughout their lives.

Key Takeaways:

  • Don’t overbook children with structured activities over the summer.
  • Free play helps children develop valuable skills, such as decision-making.
  • Get involved! Let your children lead the activities during unstructured playtime.


Related Reading:

Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day
Building a Fit Brain: The Serious Work of Play


4 New Research Findings About Autism

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Autism AwarenessWith approximately 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States, millions of families are looking for research progress in this area. For Autism Awareness Month, we’ve compiled 4 of the latest research findings.

1.  Autism is in the Genes

One of the most exciting recent developments in ASD research stems from large, genome-wide studies that have identified genes and genetic mutations that may contribute to ASD. Two such studies have uncovered 60 genes that have a greater than 90 percent chance of contributing to ASD among 500 or more genes associated with ASDs overall  [Ronemus et al, (2014) Nature Reviews Genetics 15, 133-141].  More investigation is needed to dig deeper into the roles of these genes and how they affect the developing brain, but those data are emerging.

For example, a recent review of the genetic research published by Michael Ronemus and his colleagues has specified de novo mutations (that is, new mutations) in 12 genes that show strong causality of ASDs among boys.  In another recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the authors reported on the impact of the gene CNTNAP2 on brain function. CNTNAP2 is associated with ASD and has been implicated in impaired language and thinking abilities. Scientists performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to compare brain function in carriers and noncarriers of the genetic risk factor. The study demonstrated that the nonrisk group had significantly lower activity in the medial prefrontal cortex during a task requiring processing of reward information. Additionally, there was increased and more diffuse functional brain connectivity in carriers of the genetic risk factor. Although higher connectivity may seem like a good thing, it may actually reflect an inefficient, immature profile of brain functioning. New research just published this month identified a gene that is very important to the development of neurons in utero, CCNND2, associated with ASD in girls found in families in which two or more females are diagnosed with ASDs. [Turner et al., (2015) Loss of δ-Catenin Function in Severe Autism. Nature 520, 51-54)].

2.  Problematic Brain Pruning May Contribute to ASD

To understand exactly how these genetic mutations affect brain maturation, neuroscientists are also investigating what happens differently in the brains of children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  From this perspective, researchers have begun investigating how the process of brain cell pruning may go awry in children with ASD. Pruning is the process by which a brain weeds out unimportant connections and strengthens the important ones, based on experience. In a recent report published in Neuron, the scientists reported that ASD may be associated with higher levels of a molecule that may impair the ability of brain cells to get rid of dysfunctional cell components.

3.  White Matter Fiber Tracts Differ in Children with ASD

Another area of investigation of brain differences in children with ASDs has investigated white matter tracts,  the superhighways of the brain  that allow efficient information transfer between brain regions. Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the development of white matter tracts in infants who later went on to be diagnosed with ASD. They found that at 6 months of age, infants with ASD had higher fractional anisotropy (FA) in key white matter tracts. FA is a measure of the directionality of white matter fibers, with higher FA signaling better microstructural organization. However, those infants with ASD had a slower change in FA over time, such that they had much lower microstructural organization by 2 years of age. This suggests that the trajectory of white matter development may be abnormal even a few months following birth in those who go on to receive an ASD diagnosis. In simple terms, the superhighways of the brain are not working as efficiently in children with ASD as they are for typically developing children. 

4.  Early Intervention Helps!

Scientists using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a behavioral intervention, previously showed that this treatment significantly improved IQ and language abilities in toddlers with ASD. Researchers also investigated whether the intervention changes brain functioning. They used electroencephalography to assess electrical activity in the brain during a task involving looking at faces versus objects.  Children who completed the ESDM intervention had faster neural response and higher cortical activation when looking at faces compared to objects. Those who received treatment as usual (a common community intervention) showed the opposite pattern.  Additionally, higher cortical activation during face-viewing was associated with better social behavior. This suggests that the ESDM intervention may cultivate brain changes that result in higher IQ, language abilities and social behaviors.

Together, these exciting findings highlight the excellent work that is being done by scientists around the world to combat autism. From understanding the impact of individual molecules on brain cell structure to constructing more effective interventions, researchers continue to answer important questions about autism and give loved ones hope for the future of ASD care.

Further Reading:

Loss of mTOR-Dependent Macroautophagy Causes Autistic-like Synaptic Pruning Deficits

Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism

Dozens of Genes Associated with Autism in New Research

Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2

Differences in white matter fiber tract development present from 6 to 24 months in infants with autism

The role of de novo mutations in the genetics of autism spectrum disorders

Related Reading:

Understanding Autism in Children

Ben's Story:  Intensive Intervention Helps a Young Boy on the Autism Spectrum Succeed


How Learning A New Language Actually Rewires the Brain

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
English language learners know that mastering a new language is mentally taxing. Until recently, however, less was known about what actually happens inside the brains of those learning a second language. New research findings reveal that the brain undergoes a powerful reorganization in bilingual individuals.
Impact of Phonological Competition on Thinking Abilities
In a recent report from the journal Brain and Language, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston studied brain activity of monolingual and bilingual participants. In particular, the researchers were studying a phenomenon known as phonological competition. This is the process through which we determine what word is being spoken, meaning that effective resolution of phonological competition is critical to language comprehension.
Our brains engage in phonological competition thousands of times each day. When listening to spoken English, auditory cues from the beginning of a word -- for example, “p-r-o” -- lead to activation of several possible target words (“process,” “project,” “progress,” etc.). Each of these possible targets competes for selection. As more auditory information is received, the competition becomes lower as the correct word is selected.
On a neural level, previous research suggests that each of the possible target words are activated in the brain at the same time. The brain must suppress the incorrect items to allow the correct word to be selected. Although both monolingual and multilingual individuals do this, people who know more than one language have more potential words to suppress. For example, someone bilingual in Spanish and English has significantly more words beginning with “p-r-o” to compete for selection (“progreso,” “pronombre,” etc.). Thus, bilingual children become great at suppressing incorrect information when presented with several competing choices. This translates into stronger cognitive control in math, logical reasoning, and other areas of functioning.
Novel Research Findings About Brain Structure in English Language Learners
The brain is plastic, meaning that it changes its structure and function in response to learning. Learning a new language is associated with increased brain volumes in the left parietal lobe, which is the brain’s language center. Additionally, in line with the improved cognitive control observed in bilingual people, areas of the brain that control attention and the ability to ignore distracting information also grow in size.
In conjunction with studies looking at the size of certain brain regions, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity during a task. Functional MRI is a method of measuring the amount of blood flow to a brain region while a person performs a particular task. More blood flow is thought to reflect greater activation in that region compared to the rest of the brain. This allows researchers to identify which brain areas control certain abilities.
In fMRI studies, bilingualism is associated with increased activation of a network of regions throughout the brain, including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. This includes the brain’s language centers, which grow larger in response to learning a new language. The network also includes regions thought to help with executive control, which allows the brain to reduce interference between the two languages being activated at a given time.
Interestingly, bilinguals show lower activation than monolinguals in the anterior cingulate cortex and left superior frontal gyrus, regions associated with executive control. This lower activation reflects improved efficiency in bilinguals; their stronger executive control abilities means that they do not need to exert as much cognitive effort to complete a task. Thus, they are better at choosing which language to use and which to ignore during a specific task.
Similarly, a study examining neural activity in native English speakers who learned Chinese for six weeks scanned the brains of participants before and after their language learning. The investigators focused on network-level differences in brain activity, which reflect the exchange of information throughout numerous brain areas. They found that successful learners had more integrated brain networks than non-learners, particularly in language-related regions. More integrated brain networks translate to faster, more efficient flow of information. This means that bilingual individuals may have structural and functional brain differences that make it easier for them to process new information. 
What This Means for Instructors of English Language Learners
  • English language learners aren’t necessarily slower than their monolingual counterparts (and may actually be faster!). In the study published in Brain and Language, there was no difference in reaction time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Although educators sometimes perceive that English language learners take longer to master certain tasks, this may not be the case. Bilingualism may actually make the brain more efficient at complex tasks, particularly those that involve ignoring irrelevant information.
  • Increased executive control may translate to other domains of life. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people have stronger executive control compared to monolinguals. In fact, they show larger brain volumes and more integrated brain networks in areas associated with executive abilities. This may translate to other classroom areas. For example, when presented with a math word problem that contains pieces of irrelevant information, a bilingual child may be better at ignoring distractors and finding the correct answer. English language learners may also tune out classroom distractions more effectively than their monolingual counterparts. Studies have found robust effects in which bilingual individuals outperform monolinguals across verbal and nonverbal tasks.
  • Successful language use transforms the brain to a greater degree. When it comes to English language learning, the quality of education matters. An experienced educator is likely to achieve better results. Students’ successful learning results in significantly better efficiency of language networks in the brain. These efficient brain networks also improve functioning in other areas of life. This highlights the importance of investing in good educators and training programs for English language learners.
  • Learning a new language results in lifelong changes to the brain. This area of brain research is relatively young, but evidence suggests that the brain changes resulting from learning a new language may last a lifetime. Thus, fostering strong abilities among English language learners may translate into a lifetime of higher cognitive control. 


Further reading:

Learning a Second Language:  First-Rate Exercise for the Brain

Related reading:

Educating ELLs:  4 Trends for 2015

5 Things You May Not Know about ELLs


Assessing ELLs for Special Education: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 20:15
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Assessing ELLs for special educationWhen educating English language learners who seem to be struggling, how do you know when it’s time to think about a special education referral? How can you be sure you are assessing ELLs fairly, not mixing up linguistic and cultural diversity with cognitive ability and intellectual functioning? Clearly, it’s not easy – as evidenced by the widespread overrepresentation of ELLs in special education.

Consider this: not long ago, Latino ELLs in San Diego USD were 70% more likely to receive a special education referral than Latino learners who were not English learners. ELLs were also identified for special education earlier, on average, than non-ELLs and tended to wind up in more restrictive settings.

But that was before districtwide reforms instituted a “pre-referral process” – essentially a well-implemented RTI program – to exhaust other possibilities before considering special education referral for English learners. Avoiding common pitfalls can help schools and districts achieve a more fair and accurate identification of ELLs with special needs:

  1. Overlooking the “silent phase” of language acquisition.

When students acquire a new language, they typically go through a silent period while learning basic vocabulary and syntax rules. Behaviors like listening, pointing, choosing, and matching – in the absence of English speaking – may signal that a learner is still getting comfortable with language foundations.

The silent period tends to decrease with age, lasting for weeks to months in older learners and for as much as a year or more in preschool age students. Understanding typical timeframes for the silent phase of language acquisition may help educators to better understand the trajectory students follow as they progress in a new language and have a stronger sense how long might be too long, suggesting the possibility of additional learning challenges.     

  1. Discounting extrinsic factors.

Before assessing a student for special education, educators need to consider other factors that might be at play. Is the student receiving enough parental support? Are there gaps in attendance, and why? Are there family issues such as health problems or a history of frequent moves? Historically, has the student had access to effective instruction?

Has the student received quality research-based interventions, and how well has he responded? Taking a look at progress monitoring data should yield important insights that can result in a special education referral or in providing additional language support for the student.

Experts recommend that educators create a 360-degree view of factors affecting students by collecting medical and developmental histories and conducting classroom observations in addition to interviewing parents, teachers, and the student.

  1. Dropping the ball on general education interventions.

San Diego USD made significant progress in fair and accurate identification by escalating general education interventions according to a step-by-step process throughout the district. By exhausting intervention options first, the district prevented premature referrals.

Implementing a districtwide procedure for carefully screening students and delivering instructional and behavioral interventions can be part of every district’s RTI process.

  1. Not assessing students in their primary language.

Imagine taking a test that evaluates your ability and lacking proficiency in the testing language. It’s a scary thought. How does the evaluator distinguish your degree of knowledge and competence from your ability to understand and respond to the questions being asked? IDEA 2004 recognizes the challenge and calls for special education assessments to be conducted in a student’s primary language.

Experts agree that testing in a student’s first language is an important part of the assessment process, but not everyone agrees that it is sufficient. For one thing, there may not always be appropriate testing instruments available (e.g., recommended assessments might include Communication, Cognitive, Academic, Social-Emotional Behavior, and Adaptive Functioning). In addition, some experts argue that cultural factors play a greater role than assessment language in the misidentification of students for special education.

  1. Ignoring cultural differences.

When working with students from unfamiliar cultures, it can be hard to recognize the cultural factors that can influence a student’s approach to education. Do gender roles play a part in a student’s participation or investment in her education, or affect the degree of parental support for the student? Does the student “go with the flow” instead of raising his hand when he needs help because he comes from a culture that puts the group before the individual? Is there a cultural perception of time as more open and flexible that might be a barrier to attendance or meeting assignment deadlines? When cultural differences are ignored, academic performance may be mismeasured as a result.

Best Practices

Experts recommend a broad approach to assessing students for special education, including collecting information from a wide range of sources so the result of the assessment team’s integration and interpretation can be as unbiased as possible. Language background counts. Cultural background counts. Response to intervention counts. Include them all.

Educators should also be aware that over-representation is not the only risk to ELLs. Some studies indicate that under-representation can also be an issue – typically in areas with higher proportions of ELLs. Being aware of the patterns in their schools can help teachers and assessment teams avoid similar pitfalls. Are English learners represented in special education at about the same rate as other populations? If the proportion of ELLs is higher or lower, everyone involved in the assessment and referral process can be advised to stay alert to possible oversights. Implementing nondiscriminatory evaluation of academic progress by ELLs can go a long way toward solving both problems.

For further reading:

Culturally Competent Assessment of English Language Learners for Special Education Services

The ELL Companion to Reducing Bias in Special Education Evaluation

Cultural Factors That Influence Learning for ELL Students


4 Ways to Use iPads in the Classroom

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

Use iPads in Classrooms The iPad has made rapid inroads into the K-12 school tech environment – and that doesn’t seem to be a bad thing. As we saw in a recent blog post, when students work with iPads at school, the result can be increased student engagement, greater collaboration, and heightened perseverance – all great things for learners. And less “techie” teachers need not fear – students can teach each other what they need to know. Asking for and giving help provides valuable oral language practice and can build learner confidence.

So what are some ways that teachers can use iPads in the classroom, besides having them work on literacy apps during tech time? One great option is to assign projects that require learners to construct their own multimedia presentations using free apps that come pre-installed on the iPad.

Most learners love working on multimedia projects to share with teachers and classmates, and projects like these have a lot to offer. As they actively combine still imagery, video, audio and text to communicate and illustrate concepts or ideas, students are able to:

  • Learn at their own level and speed
  • Practice language skills and synthesize learning
  • Connect academic learning to the bigger picture of life outside the classroom
  • Express themselves more fully

iPad Project Ideas for Students

Getting students creating with the iPad is as easy as knowing what tools are available and imagining how those tools can be used to support classroom learning. Teachers who aren’t sure where to begin can try one of these ideas, easily adaptable to learners of different ages:

  1. Plan a Party with Numbers and Keynote

Learners can have a lot of fun and learn a ton planning a party with the Numbers appParty Planner tool. Working in small groups, they can discuss what kind of party to plan. Younger learners might enjoy planning a Valentine’s Day class party or holiday celebration, while older learners might like to plan an Oscar party or presidential inaugural ball. Students gain practice reading and writing as they decide on food, entertainment and guest lists; create to-do lists with dates, tasks and notes; and research local prices (e.g., how much would it cost to rent a jumpy house for the Valentine’s Day party, or tents for the inaugural ball?). They apply math skills as they work to balance their vision against an assigned budget and real-life costs. Learners can create spreadsheets and generate interactive charts with Numbers, then insert the charts into Keynoteto present to the class along with sample menus, photos of food, music samples, videos animations and more.

  1. Create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) with iMovie

Students begin by studying the elements of a PSA before creating their own. Learners can watch a variety of examples on the SchoolTubeand AdCouncilwebsites and then work individually or in groups to select and research a topic, decide on a message, write the script, select a location for the video shoot, and record and edit the PSA. SchoolTube is also a great place for students and teachers to upload student work to share with the world!

  1. Create Digital Books with iBooks Author

Authoring an ebook is fun for learners and can feel like a significant achievement. With the help of the iBooks Author app, learners can create ebooks with photos, audio, video, web content (e.g., Twitter or blog feeds), and fully formatted slideshow presentations with animations. Learners can use ebooks to deepen their learning about topics covered in previous assignments, offer study advice to other students, or to explore an area of personal interest. Once created, the ebooks can be distributed via the iBook app available in the Apple App Store.

  1. Student Stories with iMovie or Garageband

Audio and video are powerful mediums for storytelling. Students can record a video narrative of their family history or their own personal history, or pick a family member to interview. Photos from the family album can be scanned and sprinkled in with the video footage in iMovieto make the past more real and provide a multigenerational perspective. Or, students can also record audio-only versions of family stories using Garagebandfor insertion into a Keynote presentation or ebook.

Setting the Stage

No matter how learners use iPads in school, it’s important to establish and enforce routines for use right out of the gate. Students need to understand check-out and check-in procedures, how to handle and maintain the iPad, whether they may take their assigned iPad out of the classroom, and what counts as appropriate use (e.g., are learners allowed to change settings, download apps, visit social media sites, IM their friends, etc.?). Using the iPad in a structured way benefits both teacher and learner by ensuring that classroom goals and learning needs are met.

As important as structure is, it shouldn’t take the fun out of using the iPad to learn. Fun is part of its appeal. Teachers should let the iPad be different and special, making use of it for activities that can’t be done on paper. Use it for all of the bells and whistles that draw students to it in the first place. Encourage learners to use the camera, sound, video, and internet – and let the learning come to life.

Related reading:

Using Twitter in School: 4 Ways Students and Teachers Can Connect With the World

The iPad® and Student Engagement: Is There a Connection?


Keep Learning This Summer - Four Must-Watch Webinars for Teachers

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (All day)
  • Alexis Hourselt

Must-Watch Webinars

School’s out for summer! While it’s a great time to relax and reset before the start of the next school year, it’s also a great time to catch up on professional development.

This summer, check out some of our most popular webinars on topics to help your students.

Comprehension: Going Beyond Fluency

Although fluency is important for reading success, it is not sufficient. Students must also actively work to make meaning out of the texts they read. In this webinar, Dr. Timothy Rasinski shares some of his favorite approaches for helping students engage in texts meaningfully and productively. Watch now.

How the ELL Brain Learns

What does the latest research reveal about the ELL brain? In this session, Dr. David Sousa provides an overview of how the young brain acquires the first language, and then looks at how trying to learn a second language affects brain development. Learn about the challenges that ELL students face when learning both conversational and academic language simultaneously and explore ways to help them. Dr. Sousa also debunks some misconceptions about ELLs and English language acquisition. There are some surprises! Watch now.

Use Brain Science to Make Dramatic Gains in Special Ed

This session features Dr. Martha Burns and special guest Kelly Winnett of Blount County, AL. Dr. Burns shares the latest research on the brain and learning (especially in students who struggle) and Mrs. Winnett shares how the Fast ForWord program has helped her students in special education make tremendous growth (AYP!) - in some cases moving learners from non-readers to readers and from non-verbal to verbal. Watch now.

New Science of Learning for Your Struggling Readers

Dr. Martha Burns discusses the ability of neuroscience to profoundly impact education. Hear how the science of learning has guided the development of breakthrough technologies to enhance underlying memory, attention, processing and sequencing abilities in struggling students. Watch now.

Related reading:

Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

How to Create an Effective Summer Learning Program


Latin and Greek Morphemes Build Vocabulary

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 (All day)
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

Teaching vocabulary

I think the next game changer when it comes to vocabulary learning, and by extension reading comprehension, will come when we make the direct teaching of morphology or meaning-bearing word patterns a priority in our school curricular programs. In particular, I feel that morphemes derived from Latin and Greek should be given particular emphasis. Why? Did you know that most of our academic words in English are derived from Latin and Greek? Did you know that when new academic and science words are added to English scholars and scientists turn to Latin and Greek roots? Did you know that most longer, multisyllabic words are derived from Latin and Greek? And, did you know that languages, particularly Spanish, are largely derived from Latin? Indeed, knowledge of Latin roots can help Spanish-speaking students bridge into English. For these reasons, the Common Core State Standards specifically and repeatedly mention the teaching of Latin and Greek roots or morphemes as essential for school literacy and vocabulary building.

It’s the multiplier effect that makes teaching Latin and Greek morphemes so powerful and efficient. Phonics teachers know that knowledge of word families or rimes (e.g. all, ing, est) can help students sound out many words such as tall, call, sing, calling, west, crest, tallest, etc. It’s much the same with Latin and Greek morphemes, except that in addition to helping with the pronunciation of words, morphemes can also help students determine the meaningof words. Knowing, for example, that terr(a)-means “land or earth” gives students a powerful clue to figuring out the meaning of words such as terrain, terrace, territory, subterranean, extraterrestrial, terra cotta,and even Mediterranean.Knowledge of one Latin or Greek morpheme can multiply students’ understanding of 20-30 or more English words. And, as I mentioned earlier, many of these words are the academic words from science and the arts that are critical to students’ content or disciplinary literacy comprehension.

If you took Latin (or Greek) in high school or college, I am sure you are aware of how Latin and Greek has connected to your own understanding of English words. Even though you may no longer be fluent in Latin or Greek, I am certain that you are constantly making connections to English words that are based on the Latin or Greek morphemes that you learned years ago.

While I think that teaching Latin and Greek morphemes in high school is valuable, I’d like to see instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes reach all the way down into the primary grades. The brain is a pattern detector. If young children can notice the structural patterns in word families such as –alland –ing,there is every reason to think that they can recognize the morphemic patterns in words as well. Introducing one or two prefixes or roots per week, and helping students notice words that contain those prefixes and roots and how their meanings are related to the roots, can be powerful instruction. Think, for example, of the numerical prefixes – if young students learn the numerical prefixes uni, bi,and tri( one, two,and three) they will be able to not only learn the meaning of unicycle, bicycle,and tricycle, they will also be able to distinguish the differences and similarities in meanings of those words.

This is not beyond the abilities of our younger students. In a recent blog entitled “ Do We Underestimate Our Youngest Learners?” psychologist Daniel Willingham notes and cites research that suggests that young children may have the ability to learn much more than we think - material that may be thought of as “developmentally inappropriate.” Our own work with vocabulary instruction with primary grade students suggests that instruction in Latin and Greek morphemes, even for younger students, may indeed be the ticket to larger and deeper vocabularies; improved abilities to analyze and determine the meanings of challenging words often found in complex texts; and, of course, improved comprehension through new strategies to engage in close reading.

Related reading:

Teach More Vocabulary, Faster, Using the Power of Morphology

Help Your Young Child Build Literacy


Social Skills in the Digital Age: What’s Screen Time Got to Do With It?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

social skills and screen time Most of us who spend time with kids know that good social skills are a must for navigating life. Some child development experts report that children who spend excessive time in front of screens are not developing the social skills they need to effectively handle interpersonal relationships.

One reason is that they aren't getting the same practice in two-way conversation as children of previous generations; their time is given instead to engaging with a device that doesn’t reciprocate. That’s a problem, because kids need to learn how to initiate a conversation, listen and respond appropriately, and deal with the uncomfortable pauses and conflicts that sometimes arise when interacting with real people.

Children who depend heavily on devices may use them to avoid the discomforts of social interaction by, say, checking every few minutes for text messages or retreating into a video game while waiting for dinner to be served at a restaurant.

For some, the dependence has gone so far that pediatricians have coined a new term for it: “screen addiction.”

A Keystone Skill

Attributing life success to good social skills is nothing new. Nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie’s bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence Peopleoutlined a “self-improvement” plan based on social skills that are still considered highly relevant today. His advice included tips on how to:

  • Have a conversation
  • Communicate in a way that can influence a situation’s outcome
  • Show consideration for others
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Demonstrate leadership

Carnegie recognized that social skills are life skills – and so did his readers, who have purchased more than 15 million copies since the book was first published.

Today, educators are also recognizing the central importance of social skills. With the awareness that academic skills alone are not enough, many schools have begun introducing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs as a core component of the curriculum. And many parents, recognizing that their children could use some help, are welcoming and even requesting such programs.

The High Cost of Poor Social Skills

Parents and educators are right to be concerned. Underdeveloped social skills can keep kids out of the running for the kind of opportunities that move them ahead. Consequences of poor social skills include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social exclusion
  • Poor academic performance (indirectly)

Good social skills help children:

  • Develop positive relationships with parents, teachers, and peers
  • Show resilience during times of stress
  • Avoid social rejection
  • Take personal responsibility for a safe, positive school environment

When little kids are given devices to soothe them, or older children are allowed to retreat into the safety zone of texting, there’s a lot they miss out on. They don’t learn how to handle boredom. They don’t learn how to read other people’s subtle social signals. They don’t reach out to others as much for comfort or support – one of the ways that we build close connections and community.

The consequences are greatest for those who are most at risk. It’s the kids who are already uncomfortable interacting socially who are most likely to turn to screens as an avoidance mechanism, while children with strong social skills tend to use their devices to increase and further social connection.

Is All Screen Time Bad?

There doesn’t seem to be much question that kids are spending too much time on electronic devices. A 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that children 8 - 18 years of age are getting as much as 5 - 8 hours of dedicated screen time each day. But it turns out that screen time may not always be bad for social development.

There’s growing evidence that children who engage with different types of media develop 21 stcentury skills that connect them to the world and other people. Participating in virtual worlds and video conferencing with family and friends can benefit social skills and support play. Texting and instant messaging may also make it easier for teens to initiate offline friendships – despite the toll it takes on family time at the dinner table.

Management & Self-Regulation

In a fast-paced world where tech is here to stay, it’s up to parents and educators to teach and model some essential 21 stcentury skillsrelated to the use of screen time in everyday life:

  • An awareness that there are healthy and unhealthy types and amounts of screen time;
  • The ability to recognize when screen time is healthy and when it is unhealthy; and
  • The self-regulation skillsto avoid using screens when it’s inappropriate (e.g., during dinner or a social event) or even dangerous (e.g., texting while driving).

Are you teaching your children or students these important skills? According to the Kaiser Foundation report, up to half of parents don’t set or enforce rules about screen time. It’s something to think about.


Bindley, K. (2011). When Children Text All Day, What Happens To Their Social Skills? Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/children-texting-technology-social-skills_n_1137570.html

BMJ-British Medical Journal. (2012, October 9). Curb kids' screen time to stave off major health and developmental problems. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121009112138.htm

Elements Behavioral Health. (2012). Screen Addictions Can Cause Children to Lose Social Skills. Retrieved from http://www.addictiontreatmentmagazine.com/addiction/internet-addiction/screen-addiction/

Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/report-generation-m2-media-in-the-lives/

Koutamanis, M., Vossen, H.G.M., Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2013). Practice makes perfect: The longitudinal effect of adolescents’ instant messaging on their ability to initiate offline friendships. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 6, 2265-2272. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.04.033

National Association of School Psychologists. (2002). Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/socialskills_fs.aspx

The Children’s Media Foundation. (n.d.). Parents’ FAQs on children’s use of media. Retrieved from http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/parent-portal

Related reading:

Why Limit Screen Time? Scientific Research Explains

Limiting Young Children’s Screen Time for Long-Term Health




The iPad® and Student Engagement: Is There a Connection?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

iPads and student engagement

When students at ACS Cobham International School (UK) got iPads, Richard Harrold saw an opportunity. As an assistant principal at the lower (elementary) school, he had been hearing glowing reports from other educators about students seeing remarkable gains when using iPads. Were the gains real? And was the effect due to something special about the iPad, or were students just responding to the newness of the technology?

Harrold decided to find out. With the help of his school’s “Project i” team, he launched a formal study with 1 stand 2 ndgraders to see if they would experience the same increases in engagement and understanding that he had been hearing about from other educators.

Harrold's study confirmed the benefits of iPads in schools:

  • iPads benefit learners of different ages, sometimes in different ways
  • iPads have special benefits for learners in the very early grades
  • The iPad makes typing easier for 1 stand 2 ndgraders

More generally, results indicated that:

  • iPads improve student engagement
  • “iPad buddies” collaborate more
  • iPads boost perseverance

The effects discovered were more than a reaction to a fun, new “toy.” In fact, to ensure that their results were not due to a honeymoon period, the team delayed the study until learners had been using their iPads for a full eight months.

These findings are exciting, especially for learners requiring intervention. Struggling students can be harder to engage and may have trouble enduring learning challenges. Giving them the opportunity to use an iPad-based intervention can motivate learners to persevere and achieve.

In a time where “grit” is getting a lot of attention as a key indicator of future success, anytime that perseverance goes up – as with iPad use – educators would be wise to take notice. But don’t rule out the appeal of classic technologies. Early-grade learners would still rather read a bound book than an ebook on iPad.


Harrold, R. (2012). Measuring the Effect of iPads in the Classroom. The International Educator.Retrieved from: http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/74482139/measuring-effect-ipads-classroom

Harrold, R. (2012). The iPad Effect: Leveraging Engagement, Collaboration, and Perseverance. The International Educator. Retrieved from: http://www.tieonline.com/view_article.cfm?ArticleID=100

Related reading:

10 Big Benefits of Using iPads in Schools

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow


Self-Regulation Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

Self-regulation strategies

When a student with a learning disability struggles academically, it’s logical to think that the issue is related to the student’s deficit in a specific ability. And while that may be true, there might be more to it. Students with learning disabilities often encounter academic difficulties, at least in part, because they don’t have effective strategies for working through challenges.

One effective tool that students can use to improve academic performance, regardless of ability, is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the process by which students take charge of their own learning, monitoring their behavior and progress and making adjustments along the way to get from idea to execution. It’s the transformation of thought into purposeful action. Here are several strategies teachers can introduce for use in the classroom and at home:

Setting Goals

Goal setting is an important part of self-regulation and can be foundational to other self-regulation strategies. When used effectively, the process of goal setting gives students an opportunity to observe their own behavior and pinpoint areas for improvement. It helps students identify what they need to do, lets them see how they are progressing, and motivates them to act productively.

Students should set goals for themselves that are specific and challenging, but not too hard. A goal should be quickly attainable so students can experience a sense of accomplishment and move on to tackle the next one. For example, when two students are struggling with homework, each might need to set a different goal to see improvement. The first student might identify time management as a problem and decide to cut out a leisure activity in order to achieve the goal of completing homework before dinnertime each day that week. The second student might realize that he needs to bring his class notes home from school every day so he has the information he needs to achieve his goal of completing all of his homework assignments for the week.


Students self-monitor by asking themselves whether they have engaged in a specific, desired behavior. Building on the goal-setting examples above, our students might ask themselves, Am I using my time in the right way to complete my homework by dinnertime?Or, Did I put all of my homework assignments in my backpack to take home?Students may find it helpful to self-monitor for behaviors like paying attention, staying on task, following strategy steps, and meeting performance expectations such as completing all homework problems or spelling 8 of 10 spelling words correctly.


Self-instruction is also sometimes called “self-talk” and is part of normal development for many younger children. It can also be quite powerful when used by students of any age to purposefully self-regulate and direct learning behavior. For example, a student who is struggling to comprehend a challenging text might think, I need to look up the definitions of these unfamiliar words and read this page again.

Students can use self-talk to remind themselves to focus their attention, to take positive steps when faced with difficulties, to reinforce positive behaviors, and more. Teachers can model effective self-talk, but should allow each student to create and use her own statements. A little advance planning can be helpful here. Coming up with the right phrase in the heat of the moment – when focus has been lost or frustrations are running high – is unlikely to help. But taking a little time to write out some useful statements before starting a new project or beginning a homework assignment can enable students get themselves out of a tight spot.


Self-reinforcement occurs when a student chooses a motivating reward and then awards it to himself when he achieves a milestone. Self-reinforcement can be used over shorter and longer timeframes and can tie into goals. Our student who has identified time-management as an issue, for example, might decide, I can go to the movies on Sunday because I finished all of my homework before dinnertime every night this week.

Self-reinforcement can also work well in the classroom. Teachers and students can select rewards together and teachers can let students know how to earn them. Once a student has met the criteria for a reward, she can award it to herself – say, by selecting a sticker for her journal after completing the day’s writing assignment and getting her teacher’s approval.

Purposeful Learning

Becoming a better self-regulator isn’t a panacea for academic difficulties, but students with learning disabilities who learn effective self-regulation strategies will have some advantages. They will have tools in their toolbox that they can try out in a variety of situations before seeking outside help, or when help is not immediately available. They will understand how their behavior influences their results. And they will understand that their learning is a purposeful, active process in which they play the leading role.

Best of all, these self-regulation strategies can benefit all learners, not just those who are struggling. Why not give them a try?


Reid, R., Lienemann, T.O., & Hagaman, J.L. (2013). Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities,(2nd ed.) .New York: Guilford Press.

Self-Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cehs.unl.edu/csi/self.shtml

Related reading:

Teaching Persistence: How to Build Student Stamina

5 Reasons Why Every Parent Should Be Familiar with Executive Function


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