Thursday, February 10, 2011

An iPad in the classroom: My quest for the perfect app(s)

I think the iPad is a great addition to any classroom. But of course, it's not the hardware that matters, but the apps that help the hardware meet our needs as teachers and allow us to come up with new ways of engaging our students.

I recently got an iPad to use in a Teacher Training course I teach on Saturdays. The introduction of new elements in the classroom is always necessarily characterized by a learning curve. In this case, I've spent two weeks testing various options to come up with the best possible set-up for my class.

I will write about the apps and how they compare in the days to come. The conclusion that I came to after my first few days of trying to find apps that would do what my laptop does is that maybe it's time to think of doing things differently. For years, I have prepared content for my lessons based on Powerpoint slides and PDF files. This worked perfectly well and I felt comfortable with what made it work: a latpop, a projector, a laser pointer.

But in trying to make my old materials fit my new iPad, I've come to the realization that maybe I'm approaching this the wrong way. The addition of the iPad, with all its capabilities, should be reason enough for me to rethink how I prepare my materials, how I present and how I involve my students for a more interactive environment.

So far, the apps I have explored with varying degrees of success include:

iAnnotate PDF
Air Sketch
Air Display
Exhibit A
Whiteboard HD
PDF Expert

I have enjoyed the reviews and descriptions other educators have posted of these and other apps, and I will be posting my own experience hoping to help others who may be considering using an iPad in the classroom.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How parents can help their kids reinforce Spelling

Let me start with a disclaimer: I'm writing this thinking of parents of children who are native Spanish speakers and attend bilingual school (English/Spanish) where one of their classes is Spelling.

When it comes to helping their kids learn, practice or study their Spelling words, the parents' own ability to speak English is not as key as their understanding of how the child should learn/practice/study.

An eager parent can do more harm than good and confuse the child by using study methods that differ greatly from the way the student has been learning in school, such as using excessive translation when translation is discouraged in the classroom or organizing words alphabetically when words are organized contextually in the book.

Teachers who understand this will usually help parents by giving them tips to help their kids when preparing for a weekly Spelling quiz or even for a Spelling Bee.

For non-bilingual parents, it is essential that teachers share resources to help the parent understand the Spelling words the child needs to practice. A quick visit to will help the parent look up the meaning of the word in the English-Spanish dictionary and hear the pronunciation of the word, in most cases in both American and British English variations. Teachers can therefore suggest this tool to parents.

The following simple steps can be suggested to parents as a study sequence for young children:

1. Ask the child to look at the word (in their book, notebook or a flashcard) and say it aloud. Haptic learners might benefit from using their finger to "underline" or trace the word.

2. Cover the word and ask the child to spell it. Now, this is tricky for non-bilingual parents. How will they know if the child is spelling the word correctly? One option is asking the child not to spell outloud, but rather to write down the word. In that case the parent can simply compare the written word to the one in the book or flashcard. But if the child is practicing for a Spelling Bee, then she will need to spell outloud. Teachers can recommend that parents use an online alphabet such as the one in to check that the child is using the right spelling and actually saying letter names correctly.

3. If the child spells the word correctly with confidence, the parent places a mark next to the word in the book or separates the flashcard into a separate pile, the "known" pile.

4. If the child spells the word correctly with some hesitation and self-correction, the parent places the word into a "needs practice" pile.

5. If the child spells the word incorrectly, the parent places the word into an "unknown" pile, but first guides the child to spell the word correctly by gently pointing out the error. Parent should ask the child, instead of telling her: "What is this letter called?" (pointing to the letter). "Can you spell the word again?" "What comes after 'm'?"

6. Subsequent rounds focus on words in the "needs practice" and "unknown" piles, moving words to the "known" pile when the child demonstrates sufficient confidence when correctly spelling the word.

7. To reinforce meaning, parents can ask the child to use the word in a sentence. If the parent is not bilingual, they can simply say something like: "That sounded very good, what does it mean?".

As teachers we should encourage parents to use a lot of praise when helping their kids with their schoolwork. A child who feels encouraged, relaxed and accepted will do better than one who feels anxious about making mistakes.

If there are any specific techniques or steps the teacher uses in class, those should be explained to parents so they can be used at home too. After all, both parents and teachers are interested in helping kids succeed.

I need to read, I like to read, I want to read faster

I do a lot of reading. I'm a translator, so every day I read translation materials that need editing or proofreading. I'm a conference interpreter, so whenever I have an interpreting job, I need to read background and reference materials prior to the actual meeting or lecture. I also teach a five-hour English teacher training class on Saturdays, so during the week I read books, online articles and teacher boards to research and enrich the topic I will be presenting on Saturday. Plus, I like to read for my own enjoyment, so I try to find time to read books that I like: mostly thrillers, self-help and chick-lit books (my guilty pleasure). If I had to ballpark it, I would say I read anywhere between 5000 and 15000 words on any given day.

So I wanted to find a way to read more efficiently and therefore I started looking at options. I've heard about speed reading classes, but I don't have a lot of time to attend a class, plus I'm impatient, I want to learn right now. I know, probably not the best approach, but once I get an idea into my head, the sooner I can do it, the better.

I started out by doing a web search, and I found a great article that pointed out the basics, such as using a pointer, such as your finger to guide and pace your reading, stopping subvocalization and reading text several words at a time. The article also talked about average reading speeds (around 250 words per minute) and encouraged the reader to test themselves. Since I read so much, I felt pretty confident my reading was at least twice the average, I thought to myself: "I read at least 500 words per minute, easily".

So to pat myself on the back, I did a search for an online reading speed test, confident that I would be in the 500 wpm range. Took the test and got... 215 words per minute! My mind immediately started looking for excuses: I was overconcentrating because there was going to be a reading comprehension test at the end, English is not my first language. Lame excuses, comprehension has to be part of the equation, otherwise a faster reading speed is useless, and I read in English probably 90% of the time.

After recovering from the initial shock, I decided it was time to do something about it. So I started looking for a book to read, preferrably something short and instantly available. My bruised ego didn't want to have to wait for a book to be delivered, or even a trip to the bookstore. I found what I thought would be a good candidate in Amazon's Kindle store and downloaded the book to my iPad. I read the book(let) and learned/reinforced the following:

- Use a pointer such as your finger (printed text) or mouse pointer (computer text) to pace your reading. Your pointer should set the pace, rather than follow the pace set by your eyes.

- Stop vocalizing, don't say the words you're reading, either aloud or in your head, this is supposed to slow you down considerably. This is my biggest challenge, I found. I don't read aloud, but I subvocalize, hear my inner voice saying the words I'm reading.

- Be flexible and vary your speed based on the goal you're planning to achieve. Speed reading is not for complex technical stuff.

- Be an active reader to enhance comprehension, keep asking yourself "what does this mean? what is the author saying here?" as you read.

- Don't read one word at a time, instead read several words at once. Easier said than done for me at this stage, I need to improve this. I don't read at individual word level, but I could take in bigger chunks of text at a time.

Armed with this knowledge, I headed to YouTube to look for some videos. I watched several, but my absolute favorite was an excellent 5-part series by that is very well taught by Paul Nowak. In the first part you test your speed and I'm sad to report I didn't fare much better than in my initial test: 240 words per minute. But I'm happy to report that after doing the exercises in these videos my speed (with good comprehension) went up to 400 words per minute in about 1 hour. That's not too bad, I think. It means you should be able to read a two-column one-page article in about 2-3 minutes.

I'm doing this for personal reasons, but as a teacher trainer, I keep thinking of the difference sharing these techniques with our students could make in their reading skills. I hope to learn enough to be able to help others improve their reading speed and comprehension.

Do you have any other tips to share? I'd love to hear about them.