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Archive for July, 2010

Tutoring and Dyslexia

Friday, July 30th, 2010

We often get enquiries from parents of children with mild to moderate dyslexia. They often want to know whether we can help, and whether or not tutoring is effective for individuals with the kinds of difficulties with literacy associated with dyslexia.

The short answer is yes – we can almost always help. However, we do come across a few common questions:

Should I hire a subject tutor, or a specialist dyslexia tutor?
At 121 we specialise in tutors for English, Maths, Science and many other subjects, offering help to students at Primary through to A-level and beyond. In our experience, dyslexic students with difficulties in particular subject areas do very well with standard subject tutors.

If your child has substantial problems with dyslexia, the chances are that he or she already gets additional help in school. An external dyslexia tutor may not be able to add much to that, and probably won’t be able to give the subject-specific guidance that older children, in particular, need.

Will my dyslexic child struggle with a tutor?
Most children with dyslexia can work with a tutor just as effectively as other children. Nearly all of our tutors have experience of dealing with dyslexic students in classroom situations. In fact, students with problems like dyslexia may derive particular benefit from working with a tutor, as it allows topic areas to be covered in a way that suits the individual student’s learning style.

It is worth remembering that “dyslexia” is something of a catch-all term that is used to describe a relatively wide range of specific problems, all broadly associated with processing written information, and which may have an impact on your child’s reading or writing abilities, or both. It is not a question of intelligence – in fact, some children with dyslexia-type problems are very bright indeed. Very many children have some of the difficulties associated with dyslexia, and most have mild or relatively mild problems that can be overcome with help and effort.

Very severe dyslexia requires in-depth specialist attention. However, the majority of students with dyslexia-type problems can benefit from tuition in much the same way as other students.

What does the tutor need to know?

Before starting tuition, it would be useful to know a little about the specific problems your child has experienced in the past, especially with reference to the subject being tutored. This might include problems with the spelling of particular scientific terms or difficulty making sense of long Maths problems. Usually, however, your child will be best placed to explain to his or her tutor the nature of the difficulties faced, and the steps that have been taken in school to address them.

I think my child might be dyslexic – can you help?
If you think your child might have a problem with reading comprehension or fluency – which, very broadly, are the most common difficulties that the general term “dyslexia” is used to describe – it is important that you talk to his or her school in the first instance so that a proper assessment can be carried out. If your child is well into secondary school, it is likely that any severe problems would have been spotted before now, and that he or she has evolved coping strategies to deal with minor difficulties. However, if in doubt, it’s always best to raise your concerns with your child’s teachers in the first instance.

Will my child get extra time in exams?
If you child has a dyslexia-type problem or other learning disability, there’s a very good chance he or she will get extra time in examinations – it is worth checking with your child’s teacher and/or examination officer that the exam boards have been made informed. Some children with specific learning difficulties are also allowed to type answers on a laptop or have an amenuenis (someone to write the answers for them).

For most children with dyslexia, extra time can make a substantial difference. In our experience, many don’t even use the extra time – just knowing that it’s available helps them stop worrying that their dyslexia is going to have an adverse effect on their results.

However, extra time and other concessions are only available to students whose dyslexia has been formally identified – another reason why, if you’re in doubt, you should talk to your child’s teachers.

My child has a different condition – can s/he still work with a tutor?
Special educational needs aren’t limited to dyslexia. In our experience, children with other learning difficulties – such as behaviours on the autistic spectrum, or hyperactivity and attention disorders – can also do well with one-to-one tuition. Many such children actually thrive with an individual tutor in a way that they find difficult in a classroom situation.

Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different. If you’re thinking about taking on a tutor to work with your child, but you’re not sure where to start or what exactly is needed, feel free to get in touch for a no-obligation chat. 121 Home Tutors can help with students with independent and grammar school entrance tests, GCSEs, A Levels and more and we have qualified private tutors in Manchester, Stockport, Wilmslow & Cheshire areas.

Summer holiday catch-up for primary students

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Last month we looked at ways to make sure older children don’t lose ground over the long summer holiday break.

But what about the primary age group? If anything, the problem of forgetting knowledge and skills is even greater for kids in Years 1 to 6. They are less mature – six weeks’ holiday is practically a lifetime when you’re eight – and, unless they are soon to take entrance tests (discussed in our last post), they don’t have major targets to aim for in the way that GCSE and A-Level students do.

So what can you do to keep him or her sharp and productive over the school holiday without pushing too hard? Here are some tips:

  • If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that we’re great believers in the importance of keeping up with reading. Having a book on the go throughout the summer maintains and improves comprehension skills, as well as firing the imagination and developing general knowledge. And let’s face it – if your child gets into reading it’s a great way of keeping him or her occupied during the long summer days!
  • Puzzles and games are great for developing maths and reasoning skills. Even something as old-fashioned as Monopoly will help keep your child sharp, and if you’re going on holiday books of puzzles are a great way to while away long car journeys. Try to steer your child towards more challenging puzzles and games. Older children, in particular, will do better with puzzles like Sudoko, maths problems and verbal reasoning than with simple word searches and ‘spot the difference’. If you don’t have many good educational games at home, check out the Science Museum’s online store or the brilliant collection of educational toys and games at Brightminds.co.uk
  • On the subject of museums, why not plan a few visits? Many run great events for kids over the school summer holidays; if you’re heading to London the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are surprisingly kid-friendly and a paradise for the curious. Further north, Eureka in West Yorkshire is specifically designed to get kids into science.
  • Even if you’re not planning a family visit, all three of those museums have great online areas. Eureka, for example, has a selection of free kids’ games. The NHM has a full Kids’ Area, containing live camera feeds of ants’ nests and more. The Science Museum’s Online Stuff includes a section of games that are great for older kids. In particular, if you have a child in the 10-12 age group, the Museum’s Thingdom online game, which teaches kids about genes and evolution, is brilliant. Overall, the Museum’s collection of free educational games for kids is one of the best available anywhere – you can find the full listing here.
  • There are other great websites that can help maintain your child’s skills. Sites like The KidsKnowIt network and Learninggamesforkids.com offer an array of resources and free online learning games that can help your child stay sharp and occupied – while having fun! Some sites are a bit American in style, but once you work out that the year numbering in the US K-12 system is pretty much the same as in the British Y1-13 system, it’s easy to find material suitable for your kids. They might also like the BBC’s DynaMo and Digger and the Gang pages – the latter is divided up into activies by age range.
  • Is your child showing the beginnings of talent for practical and technical subjects? You might think about getting hold of some Meccano or LEGO for them (if they don’t already have it). Meccano products are available in four age ranges (2+, 5+, 7+ and 8+), offering great opportunities for kids to explore their practical skills and develop their reasoning ability – find out more on the Meccano website. LEGO also offers some great stuff: if you have very bright children in the 10+ age range who are showing a real flair for technical subjects, you could nurture their talents with some of the amazing products in the LEGO MindStorms series. If your kids are are slightly younger (or you want to spend slightly less!) then many of the products in LEGO’s TECHNIC range are also ideal.
  • How about hiring a tutor for some summer tuition? Nothing beats personal help, and here at 121 Home Tutors we do quite a bit of work helping younger children in the Greater Manchester, Stockport and Macclesfield,  Wilmslow, Cheshire areas. We can offer fun, one-to-one, tailored summer tuition to meet your child’s needs and ensure that he or she doesn’t fall behind over the long summer break from school.

If you’d like to talk about any aspect of what we do, or discuss summer tuition options for your primary age children, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!

Dealing with university re-sits this summer

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

So you/your child worked incredibly hard at GCSE and then A level, to achieve the grades to get into University only to struggle to get through the course?  (As a parent you may not actually realise your child is struggling – I know I did at least once during my undergraduate degree and certainly didn’t admit it! There are no end of term reports so be prepared to probe deeper.) Going to University is a huge learning curve for students – as undergraduates they must learn to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for themselves and also their learning. They must learn to organise their time effectively – which may mean time managing a part time job with studies. University is not regimented like school/college and it is all too easy to become distracted by University life itself and as a result, studies often suffer. Even the most academic and brightest students can struggle – a child used to being top of his/her class at school is not necessarily going to be top of the class at Uni and students can struggle for many reasons; course content may be tough to understand and or they have struggled with time management and/or organisation.

Unlike at school/college where poor end of year results translate to unfavourable reports, at University, failure to make the required standard means failing the year. Students must pass the year to graduate to the next.  Failing a year can have a devastating effect on students and can knock their confidence and/or  cause panic/stress or it can be a necessary wake up call if not enough study was done first time round! However, failing a year is not usually as final as it sounds and most courses offer opportunities to re-sit failed modules / courses.  Re-sits are usually in August or September. Course tutors and other University staff are there to help students – but again students must take responsibility for themselves and ask for help and for students that have a re-sit exam this summer we have a few tips…

  • First, don’t panic – panicking doesn’t lead to constructive study.   
  • Be honest about the problem – why did you fail the original exam/module? Was it lack of understanding, lack of knowledge and/or not enough commitment to study? Was it a personal/medical problem?
    • Lack of understanding: course tutors are often more than happy to explain things – we’d advise asking a course tutor, or maybe a postgraduate student, if they are willing to help and if you can book an appointment with them. It is best to book an appointment as, contrary to popular belief, academics are very busy and have plenty work to do outside of formal teaching time!
    • Lack of knowledge: if this was because not enough time was spent studying, take this as a useful wake up call! Timetable in more study time and get more organised! Again, if organising your time is a problem there are University support staff available – student counseling services, student unions and careers offices may be sources of help on this.
    • A personal/medical problem: don’t worry you are not alone. Many students find it difficult to cope with university life and study and for numerous reasons. Hopefully you have already discussed this with University staff and have been given some dispensation and/or a plan to move forward but if not, again Student Counseling services, Student Unions, Careers Service can point you in the direction as can course tutors. Get help
  • Get organised and get down to work! One of the transferable skills acquired at Uni is being organised, self motivated and able to work independently. If you need help with revision you may find our posts on revision tips and making the most of study leave helpful; though the posts address GCSE and A level students, the tips are applicable to students of all ages.
  • Ask for help if you need it and it’s advisable to be upfront with friends and family who will no doubt provide much needed support.

As a parent, there are several ways you can help:

  • Understand that your ‘child’ is a young adult learning to juggle life, work, play and study and this is not easy.
  • Remember your young adult ‘child’ is no longer bound by school rules and there are no teachers to report back on their progress so make them feel comfortable and encourage them to be upfront about their studies – many students will not want to admit they can’t cope. If they are struggling try to probe why and see if/how you can help.
  • Be supportive – even if you think they should be working harder or doing things differently!
  • Consider hiring a tutor.   

If you live in the Greater Manchester or East Cheshire area and you’d like to find out more about how tutoring can help with degree re-sit exams, dissertations and theses – don’t hesitate to get in touch with 121 Home Tutors. We’ll be very happy to advise you, and, if you wish, put you in touch with tutors relevant to the student’s needs.

11 plus/ grammar school entrance tests – gear up for September!

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

If your child has just completed Year 5 and you’re hoping for a place at a state grammar school you’ll know that this year’s summer holiday is critical. The 11+/entrance test season starts in the first week of September. (Independent school entrance tests tend to take place after Christmas – we’ll cover them in a post later in the year.)

To take our own region as an example of how Eleven Plus (11+) / entrance exam timings tend to work, Altrincham Grammar School for Girls and Altrincham Grammar School for Boys usually kick-off a test season that continues through to mid October/November. At 121 Home Tutors we have many students that enrol for last minute, summer holiday tuition and ‘cramming’. We advise that those planning to sit the early September/October entrance exams (for example the Trafford Grammar schools tests) work to a regular timetable of study. Even half an hour per day can make a crucial difference.

Young minds can very easily forget things they have learned, and with a summer holiday that varies from five to ten weeks, keeping numeracy, literacy and reasoning skills fine-tuned is essential. Competition for the state grammar schools in the Trafford area is very intense, especially in the current economic climate. Pass marks over 80% have become the norm.

So what can you and your child expect of ‘your’ entrance tests, and what can you do to prepare? Well, if your son or daughter is gearing up to sit an Eleven Plus (11+) or similar entrance exam, you have probably already found out from your prospective school or schools roughly what the contents of the test will be. Local entrance tests always have Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non-verbal Reasoning components, and some also add an English component:

  • Maths –This is usually based on core skills learned during KS2 but at the demanding end of the spectrum. Children should be aiming towards a level 5 standard.
  • Verbal reasoning – typically, these are logic problems, involving both number and word type puzzles. A rapid ability to ‘frame’ the problem (i.e., understand and conceptualise it) is very important. For children not in Trafford primary schools verbal (and no-verbal) reasoning will be new to them as its not likely to be covered in school.
  • Non-verbal reasoning – logic problems based on shapes, sequences or patterns. They often take the form of ‘odd one out’ or ‘what comes next’ questions.
  • English – Some schools use comprehension-type tests, others test fluency and accuracy of writing by requiring candidates to write a short essay or story. Spelling, vocabulary and punctuation, use of language and handwriting are some key skills the schools are looking for.

Preparatory work with your child
As a parent, it is possible to help your child prepare for each type of test. In our experience, getting your kids to do some preparation in the holidays doesn’t need to be that difficult – especially because if they are planning to sit the tests they are probably the bright, engaged types who will enjoy a mental challenge. Bright kids especially enjoy verbal reasoning tests. The Bond assessment papers are an excellent resource and offer good short tests – we usually advise aiming to cover a paper a day in each of the required topics.

What else can you do to prepare? There are various bits and pieces of useful advice – the school you are applying for might even give you a few pointers. Here are some broad ideas to start you off:

  • Vocabulary can make a big difference. This isn’t just a question of succeeding in English tests; good wordpower will help your child make sense of verbal reasoning questions quickly, ensuring an accurate understanding of the problem and saving valuable time in the test. Encourage reading over the summer, along with use of the dictionary to find out unfamiliar words.
  • Even if there isn’t a specific English test, spelling and punctuation matter. If your child is a borderline case, the school may look at the quality of his or her writing in written answers to verbal reasoning questions. Look at your child’s previous work, make lists of ‘problem’ words and encourage him or her to learn them. Revise punctuation, especially apostrophes to indicate possession and plurality.
  • Strong (and accurate!) mental arithmetic skills are important. Again, quick, reliable arithmetic can make all the difference in reasoning tests.
  • Past and sample papers are often available – we’ve already mentioned Bond products. Get hold of as many different ones as you can and work on them over the summer. Don’t pressurise your child too hard (you don’t want to teach them to hate logic tests…) but it can be a good idea to get your child to sit down and work through a paper a day, or at least a few a week. They generally take 45-50 minutes each. Closer to the test it is a good idea to practice doing past/sample papers to time to get your child used to the time constraints.
  • Going on holiday? As well as past papers and your child’s choice of reading, pack some books of puzzles, word games and logic problems. There are loads available in the shops, suitable for all ages. Even simple crosswords and Sudokos can make a big difference and help your child develop fast, accurate logical thinking skills.

If you’re in the Greater Manchester or Cheshire area and you’d like some extra help, get in touch with 121 Home Tutors. Our tutors are very experienced at supporting children in the run up to the Eleven Plus (11+) and entrance tests, and will help you give your child the best possible help and support at this stressful and exciting time!

You might also be in interested in this post from last year on the 11+ test.

School reports – how to really find out how your child is doing

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Does this look familiar?

In English lessons this term 8ENGJH have worked on punctuation skills and the interpretation of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet. A series of challenging learning objectives was set for a combination of written and oral assessment within the KS3 learning framework for English.

Jimmy has demonstrated a good understanding of the topics covered, achieving Level 3 in each of the three Attainment Targets. He is generally on task, and, while he could contribute more in class plenary sessions, his attitude has generally been positive and appropriate.

If you have kids in school, you’ve probably noticed that many teachers’ reports are lifeless, opaque, and often don’t actually tell you anything useful.

Behaviour isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. Kids don’t learn stuff – they meet Attainment Targets. Teenage boys aren’t lazy – they are ‘regularly off-task’.

Modern teachers are very, very careful about what they write in reports. In fact, they are encouraged to use an obscure, jargon-laden style that uses a lot of words without saying too much. To make things worse, wordprocessing applications and tight deadlines encourage the use of cutting and pasting – to the point where many teachers just have three basic reports (good, bad and average) and tweak them slightly to suit each student. Probably half a dozen of Jimmy’s classmates received a report identical to his.

From your point of view as parent, this sort of report is either of limited use (it doesn’t tell you much) or actively dangerous (it disguises a real problem). But what can you do about it? In this post we’re going to look at how most schools’ report writing systems have got into this state, and how, as a parent, you can find out how your child is really progressing.

How has this happened?
The modern decline in the art of meaningful report writing is, paradoxically, the result of the increase in parent and pupil power. Thirty years ago, when teachers were authority figures who were unlikely to have their professional judgment questioned by parents (and likely to escape any sort of penalty if it was), they could more or less say what they liked. Of course, in many ways the ‘good old days’ were actually quite bad old days, but teachers could at least speak their minds.

Today, they work in an environment where kids know their rights and parents know them even better. Many parents are inclined to blame schools and teachers for their kids’ failings, and happy to complain about, sue or generally cause trouble for teachers if they don’t deliver the results they want.

Teachers know this, schools know it, teacher trainers know it and the Government knows it. Over the past decade or teachers have been under pressure to make reports less direct and meaningful, lest they be used as evidence in meetings, hearings or court cases. This doesn’t just happen at the level of the pupil: you only have to try reading an Ofsted school report to notice that the infection of back-covering blandness has spread higher than the staffroom.

But this isn’t the only problem. Teachers are more loaded with admin that at any point in the past, and have little time to make a good job of writing reports. As a result, many write ‘cut and paste’ reports, and are even encouraged to do so by senior managers. Like the example above, these typically consist of a paragraph outlining the work covered during the term, followed by a generic paragraph about the student’s behaviour and achievement. They tend not to tell you much.

What can you do about it?
Read your child’s reports but – unless they are from a very traditional independent school – take them with a grain of salt. If it is obvious all is well and your child is happy and on course, you probably don’t need to find out more. But if you’re worried that something is amiss, you have a number of options. Here are some tips:

  • However you approach your kids’ teachers, be friendly and supportive. You’re much more likely to get the information you want if you stress to teachers that you’re not out to have a go at them. You should be aware that teachers meet many parents who automatically blame them for every problem. Prove you’re not one of those and you’ll get much straighter opinions.
  • In general you’re more likely to get straight talk from old stagers in their forties and fifties than from younger staff.
  • Parents’ evenings are slightly more useful than reports, because you can ask direct questions. Teachers will still be on their guard, but most genuinely want your kids to do well and will try to be straightforward within the boundaries of what they feel they can say. If a teacher hedges, evades or seems to be using very diplomatic language, dig deeper. Often, a pupil’s problems in a subject are more than simply his fault or the teacher’s fault – they are a mixture of the two, and the teacher may be aware of that, so tread carefully.
  • You might think that phonecalls are a better, less formal way of chatting to your kids’ teachers, but you wouldn’t necessarily be right. Nearly all schools insist that teachers write a reasonably detailed record of each parental phone conversation and store it centrally. As such, teachers will still be on their guard over the phone, as well as annoyed that they are going to have to waste ten minutes writing a report on what’s been said. That shouldn’t stop you calling if you feel it’s important, but teachers really dislike ‘phone pests’.
  • Ask for a meeting. If you have a serious problem, this can be an option – but often, like phonecalls and parents’ evenings, meetings generate more heat than light. If teachers feel a meeting is going to be hostile, they can ask their line managers to come in and help them. Again, everything has to be recorded and written up – taking up more teacher time that could be spent doing useful work with your kids.
  • Collar them. Teachers really, really hate this, but it can work – especially if you’re known as a reasonable, friendly parent (if you’re not reasonable and friendly the whole staffroom will know within 24 hours and your chances of finding out anything from anyone will be much reduced). Pull them aside at the end of the school day or at a school event and have the briefest of chats. If it looks serious, the teacher will probably request a call or meeting (see above), but you might learn something useful on the spot. Never ask teachers to talk about your child if you run into them in Tesco or the pub – say hello and be friendly by all means, but start talking shop and your photo will be on the staffroom dartboard for weeks.

121 Home Tutors is a Manchester-based tutoring agency, covering most major subjects and all ages from primary to GCSE, A-Level and beyond. If you’d like to hire a tutor for your child, or you’d just like some advice on teaching in general, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.