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Teaching ESL students

Teaching ESL students

Teaching ESL students

Advice for parents and educators

Teaching ESL studentsTeaching is hard, period. You know this whether you’re a public school teacher or a homeschooling parent. You take on an enormous workload, pull long hours with little or no compensation, and always need to present yourself with a fresh face, whether you’re truly happy or not. And yet there are some things about the process that you won’t even know you’ve been taking for granted until you have to go without them. One of those things is a common language.

Working with students who are learning English as a second language, or ESL, presents a unique problem, because whether they’re a child you’ve adopted or a student in your classroom, you likely won’t share a language with the child you’re teaching. This can be extremely difficult to work through, but if you work diligently, it’s doable. We’ll try to explain the best way to go about teaching ESL students in this post.

The pitfalls of conventional teaching techniques

Right off the bat, teaching ESL students is not like teaching any other students. ESL students are more than just non-native speakers of English; they’re often also very insecure about their lack of fluency in the language, and that might creep into your lessons in ways you don’t anticipate. Communication takes many forms, and it’s much more complicated than the grammar of the language you’re speaking. It’s important to keep that in mind, because you might get less mileage out of your standby teaching techniques when you use them with ESL students.

For instance, it’s standard practice in American teaching to expect students to respond to questions you ask, and to Teaching ESL studentsexplain what they don’t understand if they’re pressed. ESL students, though, might not know exactly how to respond to your questions, and that might frustrate them to the point that they check out. Then, if you ask what they don’t understand, you’ll be dealing with someone who’s substantially less receptive to your teaching than would be normal.

In my experience working with ESL students, they will often develop a dependency on your teaching. This is a problem for teachers in any configuration of languages, but it’s a particular risk for ESL students. Like I’ve outlined above, you might find that your usual Socratic techniques are not working. Your ESL student is not following your questions or has trouble responding to them, so you resort to working through problems with them on a very minute scale. At some point in this, the dynamic might switch to you supplying them with the answers. At that point, you’re just nurturing dependency in the student. Their English is not going to improve, because you’re effectively speaking for them, and they’re going to find it harder in the future to work on their own. In all the teaching you do, that’s the scenario that you should try hardest to avoid.

So what are you supposed to do? If your basic repertoire of teaching techniques is not available, how do you reach an ESL student? There’s no easy answer to that, but there is one rule of thumb I can always recommend.

If your basic repertoire of teaching techniques is not available, how do you reach an ESL student? Click to Tweet

Focusing on the language

Teaching ESL studentsThe key to teaching ESL students is to remain extremely focused on their needs. Always remember that their mastery of English is the most important thing. (ESL students tend to excel in math and science, where the language barrier is lower.) So when you’re working on reading and writing with them, make sure that you stop and work through every grammatical construction at whatever pace you need.

You will probably wind up learning a lot about English. It’s a nice perk of teaching ESL: you learn to explain things like when to use a definite article, when to use an indefinite article, and when to use no article, which you have probably never really thought about as a native English speaker. At first these things can be devilishly difficult to explain to a child who has grown up speaking Korean or Amharic, but it’s important that you work on it, because otherwise your student will develop a lot of linguistic gaps. You want to prepare your students as well as possible for the world they’re about to enter, so you owe it to yourself to slow down and work on the language at a granular level.

Obviously, this is easy if you’re homeschooling than if you’re in a conventional school. Being able to work on things for as long as you need without a district-mandated sword hanging over your head is one of the great advantages of homeschooling. Teaching ESL in a conventional school might require you to organize a special study group for ESL students, or use some quiet reading time to work with your ESL students. In a perfect world, the district would hire a dedicated ESL teacher, but if you’re being asked to teach ESL students yourself, you’re going to need to fit in dedicated language instruction where you can. Try to stay extra-involved with the students’ parents, who will likely be anxious that their children receives the best education they can. But whether you’re in a homeschool or a conventional school setting, remember that the most important thing is to make sure you’re working towards independent, confident English. If you can get even some of the way toward that goal, you’ve done an excellent job.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Reaching out to struggling students

Reaching out to struggling students

Options for parents and educators

Reaching out to struggling studentsHomeschooling’s not easy. In some ways it’s the hardest thing in the world. Having sole responsibility, not just for a person’s upbringing, but for their education as well—it’s pretty daunting. And yet you can ameliorate most problems in homeschooling with a little help from the community. The internet and the proliferation of at-home courses of study are powerful tools for any homeschooling parent looking for solutions. There are some problems, though, where the little edifice of homeschooling solutions will not be a lot of help.

One of those problems is a failing student. When a student is apparently getting all the help they need and is still struggling, it can be a painful experience for everybody involved—but it’s also a thorny conceptual problem, and you’re not going to get a lot of outside help solving it. Despite all the resources at your disposal in the homeschooling community, nobody knows your children better than you do, and if you aren’t sure what to do, other people’s opinions are not going to be much assistance.

Still, there are heuristics you can use to figure out why your child is struggling. People tend to fail in predictable ways, and if you can figure out the particulars of your student’s difficulties, you can help them improve. We’ll try to provide some advice about those particulars in this post.

Listening to your students

Students in homeschooling situations tend to struggle for one of a few reasons. Do they need structure? Do they need expert instruction in a particular subject area? Do they need to develop study skills on their own? If you can figure out exactly what’s going on, you’re golden. But the rub is figuring out the problem in the first place.

A good rule of thumb is to listen to your student. They might not understand exactly what they’re struggling with, but if you listen to them, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to figure it out together. And I don’t just mean ask them what the problem is, although that certainly helps—you can turn it into part of the curriculum itself. A member of a forum I read while I was researching this post mentioned that her kids had always had trouble sounding out words when they were learning to read. Simply working more on sounding out words didn’t work, but when she asked her kids to write lists of words they had trouble with, a pattern emerged: they were words like light, gnome, and ought. So, she thought, we’ll step back and do some work conceptualizing silent consonants—and it worked. So as a first step, always ask your kids what they’re having trouble with and go from there.

That’s a pretty simple intervention, though, and if you have a student you think might really be failing, chances are you’ve already tried something along those lines. If you’re still not having any luck, we have some basic rules of thumb for what you can try.

As a first step, always ask your kids what they’re having trouble with and go from there. Click to Tweet

Potential solutions for teachers

One thing to try is a step back to basics. Remember, assignments are just a means to an end, and one of the great things about homeschooling is that it allows you the freedom to change your curriculum whenever you need to. When I was in high school, I was terrible at math and I could never seem to remedy the fundamental problems in my understanding of the subject. It was obvious that I needed to work on the foundations of my understanding before I would really be comfortable doing calculus, but with another assignment constantly on the horizon I never had enough room to breathe. Well, homeschooling gives you that room. If you have a student whose understanding of the concepts at hand just seems to have some holes in it, you may have gotten over-reliant on your curriculum, whatever it is, and you might need to take a breather, diagnose whatever conceptual issues your student is hung up on, and focus on those for as long as it takes. It’ll pay off in the long run.

Reaching out to struggling studentsAnother thing might be structure. This comes up a lot in the blogs I’ve read on the subject—a student without enough structure might be neglecting their assignments, and it might be on you to provide some of that structure. If your student seems bright and engaged but just doesn’t do the work, it might be good to implement a study hall as part of your homeschooling, when you stop teaching for a certain amount of time and let your child simply work on their assignments. This is different from simply letting school be out for the day—you should make sure they’re doing their work in a public space, under supervision, so that they don’t simply drift off. In my experience, even the most dreamy student will finish an assignment if they’re kept on track for the first few minutes of work.

(You might also want to radically reduce the amount of structure if you think your student would do better with more room to be creative. But that’s much more intuitive than the paragraph above, so I won’t belabor it here.)

If your student is struggling despite the fact that they seem to understand all the relevant concepts and be comfortable with the level of structure you’re providing, then the problem might lie with something outside the classroom. If you suspect that might be the case, I’ll return to my above point about talking to your student. There’s no substitute for good communication with your student, and that goes for personal issues as well as academic ones. In fact, if there’s one overriding heuristic I’d like you to take away from this post, it’s that. If you have a student who’s genuinely struggling, the most important thing is to let them express why. It’s easy to get so caught up in your teaching that you forget to communicate, but sooner or later it will become a classroom problem, and you should always address it before it gets to that point.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Developing a Work-life Balance in Homeschooling

Developing a Work-life Balance in Homeschooling

Practical Solutions for a Persistent Problem

Developing a Work-life Balance in HomeschoolingIf you read a lot of homeschooling blogs (and I do!), you’ll notice one thread of complaint come up again and again: homeschooling parents consistently have a hard time separating the work of education from their lives outside of teaching. Either they’re letting their lives come first or letting their educational work sprawl until it’s consumed everything else in their life. The first scenario is probably more familiar to homeschoolers: it’s the nightmare situation in which kids get out of bed at noon, stroll downstairs for breakfast at 2 pm, and never get any work done because their parents are busy with other things. The second scenario might be more unpleasant, though, at least for the students: days that drag on and on, with no well-defined breaks, in which kids are constantly resentful and parents are constantly anxious about having to teach.

Every homeschooling parent has to think about heading these problems off. Learning how can be a challenge, for reasons that have to do with the structure of the homeschooling relationship. But it is doable, and in this post, we’ll provide actionable solutions for the problem of boundaries.

Work-life Balance in Homeschooling

Work-life balance is a buzzword right now—there’s a growing awareness that employers, who can call, text or email at any time, have gained too much control over the lives of the people who work for them. That’s a pretty clear-cut problem, but the issue is a lot fuzzier for homeschoolers. Who works for whom in homeschooling? Where does work end and life begin?

The sticking point is that many people choose homeschooling precisely because it lacks the artificial divisions Developing a Work-life Balance in Homeschoolingbetween life and work that conventional school has created. There are no bells, there’s no passing time. You don’t get sent to the principal’s office for tardiness. Families come to homeschooling specifically to escape the strictly regimented world of conventional schooling. So while the solution to work-life problems in the outside world might be reducible to a strict time past which employers are not allowed to contact their employees, the problem with homeschooling is murkier. Many parents have the sense that their kids’ innate creativity simply can’t flourish in a heavily regimented system—so why would they want to create regimentation in their own homes?

There are no easy answers to this as an ethical argument. However, in practical terms, if your homeschooling days are either endless or nonexistent, you are probably going to need rules and boundaries. It’s a bitter pill, but it’s important to at least set a clear start and end time to the day. Clear times for snacks and lunches help too. And if your homeschooling is more elaborate—if you’re a member of a co-op, for example—you might also need to develop classes that start and end at specific times.

That might sound bleak to parents who have been imagining blissful days of education with no regimentation, but don’t be afraid. In the next section we’ll give some simple solutions and explain how to create flexibility in your homeschooling life.

Who works for whom in homeschooling? Where does work end and life begin? Click to Tweet

Learning the Rules in Order to Break Them

My Latin teacher in high school told me that it was always better to learn a set of rules first and then break them later, as opposed to experimenting first and then trying to build discipline out of that. He was talking about learning the convolutions of Ciceronian rhetoric, but if you’re a beginning homeschooler the statement applies to you as well. If you set rules and enforce them early, you’ll be more confident when the time comes to break them later.

Developing a Work-life Balance in HomeschoolingThe same goes for homeschooling. There’s a great list of suggestions in this post from More than a Homeschool Mom, but the gist of it is that you need to set clear times for snacks and lunches, and banish everything that’s not pedagogy to within those boundaries. That means when class is in session, there’s no snacking for the kids, and no calls, emails or social media for the parents. Everybody is completely focused on the task at hand. Then, when the timer goes off (the blog suggests you use an egg timer or other machine, to make sure you don’t get too flexible with snack breaks), all those things are allowed again.

Learning to fit your teaching into those timeframes will, in turn, teach you to design more elegant lesson plans. You’ll develop a sense for what can and can’t be taught within a given timeframe. And as you get more confident doing that, maybe the need for regimentation will start to fall away. But you need to start by being strict with yourself. In the end, it’ll be to the benefit of you and your students.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Integrating New Students: A Guide for Educators

Integrating New Students

Integrating New StudentsIntegrating New Students: A Guide for Educators

Giving Confidence to Children in Homeschool Co-ops and Traditional Classrooms

Any teacher can tell you how hard it can be to introduce a new kid to the classroom mid-year. And any parents who have been through it will talk at length about the anxieties it stirred up in them. It’s an inherently stressful situation not just because you want your students to make friends, but also because it has real educational consequences: poor first impressions can throw successful students off and send struggling ones into a downward spiral.

This might seem especially difficult if you’re leading a homeschooling co-op, because the usual structures that organize classroom introductions aren’t present. As if that weren’t enough, homeschooling co-ops tend to be smaller, tighter-knit, and more idiosyncratic than conventional classrooms. With all of that in mind, it might seem like an insurmountable problem to introduce new students to the co-op, especially partway through the year.

However, as in so many other cases, the apparent weaknesses of homeschooling will become strengths in the right hands. The adaptability and freedom of the homeschool model will furnish you with a number of options for integrating new students, and we’ll try to explain how in the body of this post.

The Stakes of School Changes

Even if you haven’t been to public school, you probably have an image of the classic first day at a new school. Students stand up in front of the class and introduces themselves shyly. Later, new students eat lunch alone, play by themselves at recess, and talk to their parents in a shellshocked voice when they get picked up. If they’re lucky, they might make a new friend or two, but it’s far from a sure thing.

There’s a lot of truth to this, and those agonizing first days at a new school may have long-termIntegrating New Students consequences. Students who change schools frequently are 35% more likely to fail a grade and 77% more likely to have behavioral problems. This isn’t strictly because of their school changes (poorer students tend to change schools more often, and poverty likely has more of an effect on behavior than new schools) but it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t contribute. It should follow that it would have long-term benefits to make first days as easy as possible.

So what are you supposed to do as a homeschooling teacher? First days for new students at your co-op probably don’t look anything like they do for most American kids, and you might feel adrift when you look for resources. This article from Teachthought has a lot of suggestions, but they mostly apply to public school teachers. And Google will turn up a lot of results for parents thinking about joining a homeschooling co-op, but not a lot of classroom advice.

Our advice, as in a lot of other cases, is to take conventional curriculum advice and adapt it to what homeschooling—and, in particular, your style of homeschooling—does well.

The apparent weaknesses of homeschooling will become strengths in the right hands. Click to Tweet

Homeschooling and Flexibility

Let’s return to that article from Teachthought. It offers 5 things teachers in conventional schools can do to make students feel more welcome, from group work to team-building games. There’s nothing that precludes homeschooling teachers from taking advantage of these techniques, and in fact, the freedom that homeschooling offers can let you use them to their full potential.

Integrating New StudentsGroup work, for example: a public school teacher might be limited by the need for students to produce material that administrators can assess. Homeschooling, which doesn’t have arbitrary curricular benchmarks, can be a lot freer in its approach to group work. A public school teacher might place a new arrival in a group of welcoming students, but that group will probably not last more than a few days and might not do its job making the student feel at home. In a homeschooling co-op, however, a teacher can group students for long periods of time, keep a closer eye on the new arrival, and make sure they have support from their peers for as long as they need it. That flexibility is unique to homeschooling, and it’s an asset you should take advantage of as an educator.

Take another example, this time from an article on Teachhub: student mentors. Teachhub mentions student mentorship as its first suggestion, and a lot of other classroom blogs agree with them. I had a good experience with student mentors in high school, so I can attest to the effectiveness of the model. But homeschooling offers whole new landscapes of flexibility for an educator. You could buddy an older student up with a new arrival for long periods of time, and even delegate some teaching to the student mentor—after all, making sure students can teach the material is an excellent way of making sure they retain it. In a homeschool setting, student mentorship can be a way to teach leadership and responsibility much more comprehensively than in a public school setting. It can even be a way to hammer home some lessons you might have gleaned if you’ve taken our advice and made philosophy a core part of your curriculum: you might use mentorship as a way of putting philosophical lessons to work in real life.

All of these possibilities are only open to you if you’re a homeschooling teacher. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t find a lot of resources that are specific to your situation in homeschooling: a lot of ink has been spilled about introducing new students to your classroom, and all you have to do is adapt it.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Cutting Through Overcomplicated Classrooms

Cutting Through Overcomplicated Classrooms

Advice for Teachers In Public Schools

Cutting through overcomplicated classroomsAt YesPhonics, we typically write about issues around homeschooling and parenting. We’re not narrowminded, though, and today I thought I would write about something a little further afield: problems facing teachers in the public school system.

As you’re probably aware, public education has a lot of problems in this country. Some of them we’ve written about before, particularly a scourge of standardized testing that makes it almost impossible for teachers to do their jobs. Others are more complex: funding cuts, the ballooning class sizes that they create, and an overreliance on technological boondoggles. In practice, these three problems all boil down to an over

I’ll try to round up those problems in this post and discuss ways that you, as a teacher, can make your life a little simpler.

Bloat and Simplicity

All of these problems—the testing, the tech, the class sizes—are symptoms of a broader trend in American society. Education, like everything else in American public life, is bloating out of all proportion to what it really takes to do well, and if you’re a teacher, the people who suffer the most from this process of bloat are you and your students.

In the face of changes like this, it’s often good to get back to the fundamentals. After all, the essential model of teaching—a group of people learning from a central figure—has mostly stayed the same since Socrates and Confucius. The roots of that model go very deep, and bureaucratic mismanagement is never going to completely dismantle it. Your job, in the face of all this bewildering complexity, is to stay as true to that model as you can in your classroom. That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out SAT prep and smartphones completely—I’m sure many readers would like to do that, but the district probably won’t let you. What it means is that you should strive to create a sense of personal connection in your classroom.

Conveniently for us, this kind of personal connection is what we prize most in the homeschooling model. But it’s not exclusive to that model, and if you’re a good teacher you can create it in the classroom as well. If you can do that—if you can make your classroom a place of simplicity rather than complexity, and a refuge from the world outside—then you’ve got it made. I’ll try to explain how you can create that kind of environment in the next section.



If you can make your classroom a place of simplicity rather than complexity, and a refuge from the world outside, then you’ve got it made. Click to Tweet

How to Combat Bloat in the Classroom

If you’re teaching a 30-person class in elementary school, or a 60-person one in high school, it’s probably hard to imagine forming a real personal connection with every one of your students. There are ways you can work around unmanageable class sizes, though. Consider assigning solo work or small-group work more often to your students, then making the rounds and trying to work through problems with your students. If you lean on this model often in your classes, you’ll have gone a long way toward creating the kind of active, personal environment that characterizes homeschooling, and you’ll have made the classroom a smaller and more comfortable place for your students.

Likewise with standardized testing. It’s probably not kosher to encourage your students to opt out of standardized testing, no matter your personal feelings on the matter. But consider trying to make teaching-to-the-test the kernel of your lesson plan rather than its ultimate goal. If you’re being asked to teach the single-variable equations over and over in order to juke the stats, consider writing up a problem set that includes single-variable equations as well as multivariable ones, then teaching multivariable equations as an advanced option. Again, this will allow you to cultivate personal relationships with students who might otherwise fall through the cracks thanks to the transactional model of teaching to the test.

Finally, if the problems in your classroom have to do with technology, consider paring it back almost completely. A lot of technological utopianism in education, especially in high school, is implemented poorly and without a lot of real thought toward how it will work in practice. So, for example, a school might ask teachers to field questions on Facebook in order to keep students engaged. That sounds smart and forward-thinking, but in practice, as you and other teachers probably realize, it’s going to lead to a lot of students disengaging, phoning their questions in, and disappearing into social media. If you can avoid that kind of technological gimmick, it’ll help you retain the judgment it takes to tell when lesson plans could actually benefit from technology.

I’ll try to give an example that captures all three of these. When I was in high school I had a very by-the-book Latin teacher who spent most of his time drilling us on case morphology and word derivations. When it came time for finals my third year of Latin, though, he instead had us each submit a complete portfolio of translations of Catullus, including audio recordings of us reciting the poems so that he could be sure we were understanding the prosody. After we had turned them in, he gave us each a long personal write-up along with a grade, which showed how engaged he was with our progression as Latin readers.

I still think of that project as one of the high points of my educational life, and it demonstrates the above attributes extremely well: my teacher was bent on finding personal connections with each and every one of us, and he maintained a healthy skepticism toward technology that could still turn into enthusiasm if it provided good pedagogical techniques. On top of all that, he was doing this at the time of the year when other teachers might have had us prep for the National Latin Exam—clearly, individual skill-building and creativity were more important to him than test scores.

Obviously you won’t be able hit all three of those points every time—neither was my Latin teacher. But it’s an ideal to shoot for, and if you can come close reliably you’ll be doing your students a real service.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Allaying Fears About Friendships in Homeschooling

Allaying Fears About Friendships in Homeschooling

Allaying Fears About Friendships in Homeschooling

Advice for Undecided Parents

Allaying Fears About Friendships in HomeschoolingHomeschooling is ipso facto appealing to a lot of parents. The opportunity to get out of the conventional school system, the chance to spend more time with your kids, and the creative fulfillment of coming up with a curriculum of your own design can all be extremely rewarding. However, it’s understandably intimidating for other parents.

That’s not just because it’s a lot of work—after all, who wouldn’t do a lot of work for their kids? Homeschooling is intimidating because it doesn’t seem to present your kids with a lot of opportunities to make friends. And if you’re the parent in a two-parent household who’s hung up on that, it can put a strain on a lot of things—not just your education plans, but potentially your marriage as well.

If you find that that’s the case in your house, let us allay your fears for you: homeschooling does not have to be an asocial experience. Your kids can have a lot of opportunities to make deep and lasting friendships while homeschooling, just like they could in conventional school. In fact, we’ve done some in-depth writing on this blog to explain how.

Homeschooling Co-ops: an Opportunity for Socialization

It makes sense to be skittish about homeschooling if you’re worried about socialization. The lack of built-in school support networks, plus the ingrained stereotype that homeschooled kids are “weird”, can make socializing seem impossible.

It’s worth remembering, though, that conventional school comes with its own set of social ills. Conventional schools can breed bullying and social ostracization, neither of which you’ll have to worry about if you homeschool your kids. Conventional schools, especially daycare programs for very young children, can also lead to impulsiveness and feelings of abandonment for years down the road. We’ve written about issues around daycare before. What we want to stress here is that conventional school is by no means a free ride to social success for your kids—plus, you can save money and (counterintuitively) time by homeschooling your kids.

Besides, homeschooling doesn’t need to be just you and your kids in your house. There are a lot of options homeschooling parents can consider to help their kids make friends. The one we’ve written most about in the past is the homeschooling co-op.

Homeschooling co-ops are groups of homeschooling parents who have pooled their resources in order to teach things they wouldn’t be able to teach on their own. This can include everything from group activities like team sports (you can find a link here if you want info about whether your state allows homeschooled kids to play scholastic sports) to specialized subjects like music, and it can run the gamut in terms of formality—many co-ops are made up of five or six families, but one very prolific co-op in my hometown had its own building and offered parent-taught classes to 50 or 60 families. The co-op model is so flexible, and offers so much in terms of customization, that it can accommodate just about any social model you like, and it offers more than enough opportunities for your kids to make friends and be social.

As with any kind of social organization, it has its pitfalls, but in our post we try to walk you through how you can compensate for those and make sure that the co-op that you choose to join (or organize!) is right for your family. If you can figure that out, you should be well on your way to a fulfilling homeschool experience.

And yet. The advantage of a conventional school model is not just that it offers opportunities for your kids to make friends, but also that it teaches them how to be good friends. Theoretically, being around lots of other kids means that they’ll learn social skills and have a chance to practice them. Homeschooling, even in a large co-op, doesn’t seem like it would offer quite the same level of training on that front.

For every story of a “weird” homeschooled kid there has to be at least one story of tormentors in conventional school. Click to Tweet

Better Friendships Through Philosophy

Allaying Fears About Friendships in HomeschoolingLuckily for you, we also have posts about how to teach your kids to make good friends and maintain strong friendships. Briefly, we think there are tools that you can give your kids in the process of homeschooling that allow them to nurture friendships. One of those is the study of philosophy, which your kids won’t get in conventional school until high school or college, if they get it at all. If your kids have been taught how to think clearly and rationally about what kind of friends they want, and they’ve had a chance to put that clarity and rationality into practice in a co-op setting, you really have nothing to worry about. We’ve written about this subject as well.

After all, conventional school does not have a monopoly on friendship. For every story of a “weird” homeschooled kid there has to be at least one story of cliques, outcasts and tormentors in conventional school. Our advice to you, if you’re an undecided parent waffling about homeschooling, is to read our material about co-ops and maintaining friendships and make your decisions based on those. Homeschooling can be an incredibly enriching and enlightening experience for a child, and that’s not limited to academics—kids are more than capable of forming lifelong friendships in a homeschool setting. As with everything else in homeschooling, it takes a little extra work and customization, but the rewards are worth it.

And remember this: homeschooling is easier now than it’s ever been before. With resources like Khan Academy, the Open Yale program and other open-access programs from large universities, and Ron Paul’s homeschooling curriculum, high-quality education is available, in many cases, for less than the cost of gas to and from PTO meetings. So if you or your spouse are waffling on whether or not to homeschool your kids, ask yourself a few questions: will my kids really get a better education ins conventional school than they will at home? Will they really be better off socially? Will they really have more friends? I suspect that if you think about those questions in detail, you’ll realize the answers aren’t as clear-cut as they seem at first.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Dyslexia: How Phonics Helps Overcome Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia: How Phonics Helps Overcome Learning Disabilities

Strategies and advice for educators with dyslexic students

dyslexiaEven if they’re very mild, learning disabilities can be a serious challenge for an educator. Whether you’re in charge of a class or just in charge of a single child, it can be extremely difficult to get students through their learning disabilities without all sorts of things going wrong: damaged self-esteem, excessive dependence on the teacher, rote memorization instead of true learning. Rigorous pedagogical approaches are important if you want to avoid those traps, but a rigorous pedagogical approach does not come up with itself.

Dyslexia is particularly thorny, for reasons we’ll get into further down the page.

Dyslexia in real life

If you think your child might have dyslexia, let us direct you to the Mayo Clinic’s page on the subject. Obviously, you won’t be able to diagnose the condition yourself, but if you do find yourself noticing some of the symptoms in an early reader—particularly if your reader has trouble writing unfamiliar words or sounding them out, or telling the differences between similar words—you should consider taking them into have a dyslexia test. The University of Michigan has a good guide about what to expect at a test like this; for our purposes, the main thing to remember is that if it ends in a dyslexia diagnosis, you’re going to

Dyslexia can be one of the most difficult learning disabilities to deal with—not only because it involves differences at such a basic level of brain function, but also because children with dyslexia need so much personalized help from their teachers. Dyslexia is determined hereditarily, which means that teaching interventions are never going to cure it, strictly speaking. With those interventions in place, though, educators can mitigate its effects, and the earlier they can do that, the better. As with any other learning disability, kids can still become strong readers if they learn to cope with it early. As the University of Michigan’s dyslexia page makes clear, “early, intensive, and systematic intervention can help a student keep up”.

The problem is that in a lot of cases classroom teachers, burdened with increasing class sizes and dwindling dyslexia resources, simply don’t have the time to offer early, intensive, and systematic intervention. Homeschooling can be an excellent alternative: personal attention is the name of the game, and parents have a level of familiarity with their kids that makes it much easier for them to figure out how to help effectively. Still, homeschooling comes with its own set of problems. It can be a struggle for homeschooling parents, who usually have even fewer resources than classroom teachers, to figure out what exactly they should be doing to mitigate dyslexia. It’s easy to feel abandoned and discouraged if you don’t have an edifice of colleagues and specialists to help you out.

…in dyslexia as in so many other conditions, there’s no substitute for the fundamentals captured by good, thorough phonics instruction. Click to Tweet

So what should you do?

A good rule of thumb in situations like this is to keep phonics instruction in mind. Obviously, at YesPhonics we think that all kids need a strong grounding in phonics in order to build reading skills, but for dyslexic kids it’s especially important. Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not just a condition in which the words “swim around on the page”. There are quite a few different types of dyslexia; an online resource called Dyslexia Reading Well has a good compendium of them if you’d like more background.

Generally speaking, if you’re an early reading educator or a homeschooling parent, you’re much more likely to encounter visual dyslexia (the classic “swimming words” form) or auditory dyslexia (which we’ll discuss in the next paragraph) than you are to encounter forms like deep dyslexia or surface dyslexia, which are usually the results of brain injuries in older people, and have to do with losing the ability to associate semantics with words. The main thing to remember is that visual dyslexia is only one of the two main subtypes you’ll see in children.

dyslexia Auditory dyslexia affects the ability to recall the sounds that make up words in the first place. This is sometimes called “auditory dyslexia”, and it’s more common than laymen probably expect. If you’ve had a dyslexic student who spelled non-phonetically—writing “tebt” for “test”, for example—you’ve probably seen some symptoms of auditory dyslexia.

To combat this type of dyslexia, it’s important to spend extra time going over sounds. Child who spell non-phonetically need very careful instruction in the formation of English sounds if they are going to maintain faith in themselves as readers, and phonics instruction is a good way of doing that. So read with your child, and when you hit snarls at the stage of actually sounding out the words, stop, figure out what words are throwing you off, and go over those words using a phonetic approach. Be patient. Take your time. But keep working on phonics until you’re satisfied that your child understands why, specifically, the “s” phoneme is different from the “b”. If you can get these phonics processes down, your child should be well on their way to more productive reading in the future.

Remember that phonics instruction is not a magic bullet, though. This article from the California-based Davis Dyslexia Association, a group that offers a specialized approach to dyslexia education, notes that about 15% of dyslexic children suffer from visual dyslexia, which, importantly, doesn’t involve any difficulty with phonetic decoding. If your students have tested positive for that type of dyslexia, you’ll need to try techniques outside phonics in order for their reading to improve. The article goes on to note that two-thirds of dyslexic students suffer from multiple types of dyslexia in combination, so it’s always a good idea to vary the techniques you use—as in anything else, over-reliance on one strategy is a mistake. In a few places, the University of Michigan page notes that integrated teaching works better than simply doubling down on phonics. In the Davis article you can find techniques ranging from clay modeling of words to training that helps kids identify the sensations associated with perceptual errors, so that it’s easier to tell when words or sounds are getting jumbled. All these techniques are intended to help dyslexic readers develop what Davis educators call “compensatory” brain pathways—since dyslexics often have decreased activity in the left-brain centers that are usually responsible for processing verbal information, the David technique helps them “compensate” by using their right brain instead.

That’s the kind of approach that a student with the visual subtype of dyslexia might benefit from. However, it’s worth noting that Davis still recommends integrating phonics instruction into your teaching, and we still believe that phonics should form the core of a dyslexia education program. Techniques that are even further afield than Davis might very well benefit other learning styles—you might have a student who works very deductively, for example, and a whole-language approach to reading could have good results in a case like that. But in dyslexia as in so many other conditions, there’s no substitute for the fundamentals captured by good, thorough phonics instruction.

To get started with that kind of phonics instruction, watch this video introducing our Mnemonic Phonic Technique. The Mnemonic Phonic Technique is particularly well-suited for students with auditory dyslexia because it improves their phonetic decoding skills and fosters the independence they’ll need to enjoy reading on their own, so it’s a great place to start a dyslexia education program.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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Dealing with Defiant Teenagers

Dealing with defiant teenagers

Using active listening and philosophy to solve chronic opposition.

Whether you’re a homeschooling parent or a teacher in a conventional school, you’ve probably dealt with a lack of enthusiasm from time to time. Nobody always wants to do their work, and that goes for kids as well. Especially if they’re teenagers—teenage intractability is just a feature of the teaching landscape, and there’s not a lot you can do to prevent it.

But what if it’s a chronic problem? What do you do with a teenager who just never wants to work? What if your teenager is oppositional and angry not just sometimes but all the time? At that point, the problem has transcended the normal, manageable frame of teenagerdom and taken on a life of its own. For a solution to this problem, read on.

The Importance of Active Listening

Teenagers can become defiant for all sorts of reasons. Obviously, a classic is that they’re chafing at parental involvement in their lives—teens are trying to assert their independence and form an identity for themselves that’s not defined by their parents. On the other hand, a post on Hip Homeschool Moms reports the opposite problem—a teenage son who didn’t feel like his mother was involved enough in his life. And just as often, teenage defiance has nothing to do with family at all—it’s a reflection of something going on in a group of friends, or it has to do with politics or religion.

Because there’s no panacea for teenage defiance, it’s important for parents and educators to cultivate skills that will help them react to a wide variety of causes. The skill we’d like to focus on is Active Listening, a technique that gets applied in disciplines ranging from education to counseling to the law.

Active Listening, simply put, means listening with the intent to understand. That might seem intuitive, but it’s not actually an easy thing to do—as this lesson from Bridgeway Learning Center makes clear, we do not typically listen to understand so much as we listen to respond. And that’s not a trivial distinction when teenagers are involved, because whatever is going on, teenagers want to be heard and understood. If you’re just listening to respond—that is, to argue—you’re just going to deepen the divisions between yourself and your teenager. And that’s true regardless of where their defiance is coming from.

So how do you listen actively? The Bridgeway article does a great job summarizing it, so you should read it if you’re looking for more context. We’ve also talked about something similar ourselves, in our post comparing spanking to positive parenting. Basically, though, active listening is about listening for main points and comprehending the totality of what your teenager is trying to tell you. If you can do that, and respond to it, then you’ll be much better off trying to fix whatever your teenager is trying to tell you about, and one step closer to clearing up chronic defiance.

If you’re just listening to respond—that is, to argue—you’re just going to deepen the divisions between yourself and your teenager. Click to Tweet

Focusing on Philosophy

On a more abstract level, though, active listening is just a stopgap. Teenagers are going to be better at communicating, and better at dealing with emotional turmoil in general, if they have some personal resources of their own. A good way to develop those resources is to study philosophy with your kids, which we’ve suggested before in our post on forming good friendships.

In that post, we wrote, “Try to clear away the haze of social anxiety from your child’s mind and talk to them in clear, reasonable terms.” Not an easy thing to do with a teenager, certainly, but it’s easier if you’ve taught them to look at things in the clear, well-reasoned way that philosophy calls for. Teaching your kids how to work through emotional and personal problems intellectually will pay off immensely when they’re teenagers, especially if you get started early in their education. Even if you don’t, though, and even if you don’t start work on philosophy until your kids are already teenagers and already running into issues with defiance, teaching philosophy is still a good idea, because it will help temper their opposition and give them an intellectual anchor. Above all, remember that as confusing as teenagerdom is for you, it’s probably more confusing for your teenager, and empathy is as important in active listening as it is in philosophy.

For a good compendium of online philosophy materials, look into P4C, a rich collection of tools for philosophy teachers and parents.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to learn the 72 sounds of English.

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10 Phonics Games for Kids to Build Reading Skills

learning styles

10 Phonics Games for Kids to Build Reading Skills

A Creative Approach to Word Retention and Reading Comprehension

Let’s face it: following a workbook can get dull, and not every child learns best by copying letters and sounds. At YesPhonics, we know that learning is multisensory, and that every child learns differently. Last month we wrote about how play is crucial to healthy child development; today we’re following up with some specific things you can do to reincorporate play into your teaching.

Below, we’ve listed and described 10 different reading and phonics games for kids. You can throw these games together in an hour or less, and play them again and again.

We encourage you to use these ideas to come up with games of your own. After all, you know your child best. Tomake phonics fun, find a way to incorporate phonics into the games your kids already love to play.

To make phonics fun, find a way to incorporate phonics into the games your kids already love to play. Click to Tweet

Scoop and Spell

Great for: The Thinker


Letters of the Alphabet (fridge magnets, Scrabble tiles, etc.)

A bag

A scoop (A small bowl, an old snack container, etc. Two small hands will even do the trick.)

Set Up:

All you have to do is mix the letters in the bag and let your child take a scoop!

To Play:

Let your child scoop out letters. See how many words he can make. Have him copy them onto a sheet of paper to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Associationkeep score. To keep the game interesting, encourage him try to beat his last record.

This game is great because it practices spelling and penmanship. It also helps kids enjoy the creativity involved in using language, even if it’s just arranging and rearranging letters—if they come up with “dog” and “god” in the same scoop, they’ll be proud of themselves for finding the connection between those words and they’ll start to feel comfortable making further connections on their own.

Sidewalk Spelling Hop

Great for: The Athletic Learner


Sidewalk Chalk

Pavement (Your driveway is perfect, but a sidewalk is too small)

Set Up:

Make a square of six boxes across and five down. Write out the letters of the alphabet. In the remaining four empty squares, put a star, a question mark, the words “Capital Letter” and an apostrophe.

The Rules:

Always start and end on the star.

Try to get to the next letter without stepping on any of the others. Running around is an option.

Jump on the question mark if you get stuck.

Proper nouns and names have to start on the “Capital Letter” before moving on to the first letter.

If you misspell a word, you have to start over.

To Play:

Increase Test Scores: GuaranteedCall out words your child can spell, especially those off his spelling list, and have him hop on the appropriate letters. Competition always makes things interesting, so try challenging friends and siblings to see who can spell more words.

This is a great way to connect muscle memory to words, which builds memory. As we’ll talk about below, the more your child can associate movements with specific phonemes the easier it’ll be for them to recall them. This game is a great first step toward that kind of retention.

Spelling Connect Four

Great for: The Thinker


Connect Four Game

Masking Tape

Permanent Marker

Set Up:

Put masking tape on each of the Connect Four pieces and write out the letters of the alphabet. Make sure to include extra vowels, and some of the more common letters: T, N, S, H, R, D, L.

To Play:

learning stylesThis is almost like scrabble. Have your child drop a word, then you drop in a word of your own. Letters can be added to make words longer like “fad” to “fade” to “faded”. You can play where any letter is fair game, or make things more challenging by playing where you can only use the letters of your color.

This is a good way to teach your child some fairly advanced reading skills, like morphology: if your child figures out that “fade” and “faded” are forms of the same word but “fad” is not, they’ll be well on the way to a more general understand of conjugation and declension, prefixes and suffixes, etymologies, and other important skills for advanced readers.

Spelling Bakery

Great for: The Imaginative Learner


Letters of the alphabet (fridge magnets, Scrabble tiles, etc)

Play Kitchen

Play Money

Spelling Menu (See Below)

Set Up:

Make the menu! Every good bakery needs a menu, so sit down with your child and see what words you could order off the list. Themed foods are fun (cake, apple, pie, etc.) but it’s most important to keep the menu at your child’s spelling level. Put the letters in a bowl or toy mixer and mix them up.

To Play:

You are a guest at your child’s bakery. Sit down and order an item. To serve it, your child should spell the word correctly on a toy plate. If they get it right, thank them and pay for your meal. If not, say playfully “Hey that’s not what I ordered!” and help them figure it out. Make sure to keep up an appetite!

This is a good game for intermediate readers because it allows you to tailor the difficulty to your child’s reading level as you play. You can start with simple words like “pie”, build up to compounds like “cupcake”, and end up with with unconventional phoneme combinations, like “flan”. Because of this, it also works well as a way to diagnose what your child still needs to work on in their reading without making a fuss about a test or an assessment.

Phonics Hopscotch

Great for: The Athletic Learner


Sidewalk Chalk


Set Up:

Set up a normal hopscotch path (1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1)

Instead of numbers, put in the phonemes your child is learning. Use the sets of 2 to include the two-lettered phonemes (th, ch, etc.)

To Play:

Play hopscotch with your child like normal, but instead of shouting out the numbers, shout out the phonetic (ah, aa, aw, as in “Have a ball”) sounds of each letter before progressing to the next one.

To mix it up and make it harder, have your child toss a rock onto one of the squares and hop around it. Have them pick it up without losing their balance.

This kind of fast-paced activity is great for active learners, but it’s also a good tool to build memory in learners of all stripes. If your child has muscle memory to associate with the memory of a phoneme, they’re going to have a much easier time recalling that phoneme in the future.

Phonics Scavenger Hunt

Great for: The Athletic Learner, The Imaginative Learner




Index cards or flash cards with a consonant blend on it (See Set Up)

Set Up:

Write a consonant blend on each flash card: cl, cr, dr, fl, gr, pl, sc, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, br, and bl.

To Play:

The game starts when your child draws his card. He then has five minutes to find as many objects around the house that start with that phoneme as he can. He can work to try to beat his personal record, or he can compete with a friend.

This is a great game for early readers who are still learning the phonemes, but it can have a surprisingly long tail for more advanced readers. Think of it as a memory improvement tool, similar to Phonics Hopscotch: having muscle memory or spatial memory of a phoneme is going to make it easier for your child to recall that phoneme no matter their reading level.

Rhyming Match

Great for: The Thinker


A bag

About 10 pairs of common household rhyming objects

A table

Set Up:

Find about 10 pairs of rhyming objects (20 objects total). You should be able to find most of these objects around the house, and especially in your child’s playroom. Try pairs like sock/rock, man/can, house/mouse.

Once you have your collection, put one half of the rhyme on the table and the other half in the bag.

To Play:

Sit down with your child and go over all the objects on the table. Make sure you both agree on the name. For example, “man” shouldn’t be “person” or “doll”. Next, have your child pull an object out of the bag and find the matching rhyme. On your turn, pretend to have difficulty finding the rhyme and have your child help you.

Try being silly by using made up words to perk your child’s interest. You can also have a competition by seeing who can come up with the most rhyming pairs in a minute.

Like the above two games, this can have a great effect on phoneme retention. Teaching your child to find rhyming pairs will improve their ability to recall the common phoneme of the rhyming pair and probably . It’ll also teach them to have fun with the language, which will be a huge boon for future teaching. For a more advanced reader, think about finding rhyming pairs that have different numbers of syllables: socks/toybox,

Shopping for Phonics

Great for: The Imaginative Learner


A play grocery store

The Letters of the Alphabet (written on a note card or stock paper is great)

Set Up:

This game requires very little set up. Just be ready to play grocery shopping with your child.


You and junior are going grocery shopping! You were in a hurry, so you only wrote down the first letter of the item you need. “Oh no junior! This is all I have for a grocery list! I have the letter B! What sound does that make? That’s right! What do we need that starts with a letter B? A butterfly! That’s right! Can we find a butterfly?” This game should be entirely imaginative where he helps you find objects that start with the right letter as he practices his sounds.

This is a great exercise for small groups—kids will rush to find words starting with the letter they’re given, and the competition to come up with them will push aside any thought that this is “boring”. (Although you don’t want it to get too frenzied.) Keep it in mind if you’re teaching in a homeschooling group (which we’ve written about before) or a classroom setting.

Phonetics Go-Fish

Great for: The Imaginative Learner, The Thinker


Two matching sets of phonics flash cards [Link to Phonics Flash Cards]

Set Up:

Shuffle and deal out 7 flash cards to each player.


Play this game just like the classic go-fish, but have the children say the phonemes as they play. It’s a simple phonics game for kids to practice saying and memorizing the phonemes. You can also use the flashcards to play Match instead.

When you have to “go fish”, think about pulling out the wrong phoneme a few times and having your child correct you. This will help them try on independence as a reader and give them practice at finding and solving mistakes.

Pen Pals

Great for: The Thinker, The Imaginative Learner






Set Up:

Have the supplies and time to help your child write a letter


Writing letters is a great way to encourage your child to practice his writing. The letter doesn’t have to be long, and it can go to any friend or family member, but grandparents are always a great pick!

This is a good game for advanced readers and an excellent way to introduce them to language in its more complex forms. Having to think in terms of sentences instead of words is an important hurdle to cross for any emerging reader, and if your kids can do it creatively, that will be a good sign in their journey towards a healthy, fulfilling relationship with language.

It’s not always easy to get your child to sit down for a workbook, but games are often a more effective way of teaching anyway! The idea is to associate the sounds with a memory to make recall easier. The more your child ingrains these sounds and spellings, the easier it will be to read and spell effectively. Most importantly (in danger of sounding cliché) have fun! Learning is a marathon, not a sprint, so every practice counts.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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The Importance of Play Time for Children

The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play Time for Children

Background and Strategies for Parents and Teachers

The Importance of PlayKids can fall behind in reading for a lot of reasons. Some of these reasons are more or less biological—dyslexia, for example—but others have to do with the environment that they find themselves in. When kids get are taught poorly in the early stages of their reading education, for example, it can cause problems that persist for months or even years. We’ve written about a few things that can cause this kind of problem, including spanking your children or relying on daycare to do your parenting. In some cases, though, a child will fall behind simply because they’re not getting one of a few crucial things in their environment. One of those things is play.

It sounds strange, but unstructured play time is crucial to child development, in in areas that seem as disparate as reading. For context, unstructured play time means time spent without direct adult supervision, inventing games and improvising. This is a characteristic part of childhood, but researchers didn’t learn that it had any kind of utility until the late 20th century—which, not coincidentally, is when it started to vanish from children’s lives. We’ll get into that, and its impact on reading, and try to offer solutions for parents and educators.

Why it’s Important to Make Up the Rules

When kids make up games, they’re not just daydreaming or avoiding work: cooperative, unstructured play has real educational utility. It allows kids to take on roles they wouldn’t normally take on, learn about each other outside of the classroom, and figure ways out of challenging situations on their own. This, in turn, builds important skills like leadership, conflict resolution, and empathy. It helps develop social cohesion and a strong sense of self without adults needing to get involved. We’ve found the ultimate in-depth guide, courtesy of our friend Jenny over at Mom Loves Best, which we highly recommend.

Unfortunately, schools have increasingly lost unstructured play time. In 1989, 96% percent of schools had at least 1 The Importance of Play recess period; by 1999, the number had fallen to only 70%, even in kindergartens. What you might think of as “structured” play time—physical education classes, game-like class activities and so forth—don’t provide a proper substitute for true unstructured play because they don’t offer children the opportunities to create rules for themselves, so they don’t address the cognitive deficit created by the loss of unstructured play time.

Understandably, the effects of this are very negative. A 2007 article in the journal Pediatrics found that “highly-scheduled” children—that is, children who are shuttled between activities, with little free time for unstructured play—sometimes react with stress, anxiety, and eventually depression, which is on the rise through the teenage years and especially in college. Losing the ability to create their own rules in childhood leads children to feel alienated, lonely, and adrift, without a clear idea of their identity.

Even setting aside the fact that stressed, lonely children are less likely to become good readers, the loss of unstructured play time has some unique effects on reading. A 2009 article from the American Psychological Association argues that the kind of imaginary play children engage in on the playground actually lays the groundwork for symbolic thinking, which is crucial for an developing reading. Substituting a block for a toy teacup and continuing the game is practice for substituting the letter “A” for the sound “Ahh”, and if children fail to make that symbolic link, it can severely slow their progress in learning to read.

When kids make up games, they’re not just daydreaming or avoiding work: cooperative, unstructured play has real educational utility. Click to Tweet

Strategies to Re-Center Play

If you homeschool your kids, make sure that you’re leaving space in your daily schedule for play. Not just downtime, either, but real play, especially if your child is very young. If you have a co-op to spend time with, so much the better (we’ve talked about the benefits of co-ops before), but even if you don’t, make sure you’re playing with your child. And make sure that, when you do, you let them make the rules.

The Importance of Play If you’re an educator in a conventional school, you should press for more free time whenever you can. Schools that focus on mathematics and reading at the expense of play are doing their students a disservice, as we’ve noted above, and the more you can make the administration understand that the better. And even if you can’t get through to them, you can always incorporate more student-directed play into your lessons.

Finally, if you’re a parent sending your children to conventional school, considering giving your children more free time. It’s a noble desire to give your kids the best possible future, but “enrichment” can be too much of a good thing. Much of the research that I looked through to write this article focused on the problem of “hurrying”—constantly rushing children from one scheduled event to another. This, like everything else up above, can cut down on the amount of time children are able to make up the rules for themselves, and do serious cognitive damage in the long run.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.

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