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Looking for tips & practical insights into issues central to learning? Read through these practical & thought-provoking articles. They are aimed at students, parents, and educators, and address issues that concern all students.

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Study Skills

These articles all relate to study skills.

Making the Most of Your Memory

by Dahlia Miller
April 2004

“Education is not received, it is achieved.”
Author Unknown

Your mind is the most spectacular organ in your body! It is capable of incredible feats transcending time and space. It can link the taste of candy to October 31st, the sound of an ice cream truck to memories of summers long past, and a picture of a chariot to stories of the ancient Greeks. Actually, you don’t even need to have a candy in your mouth to taste it and be reminded of Halloween, the idea just needs to be suggested to you and your mouth will begin to salivate.

Your brain observes and stores huge quantities of information everyday. If you learn how, you can access that information in the future and use it to your benefit.

When students consider learning techniques to develop their memories, they often think only in terms of cramming for tests – taking in information, holding it in memory only until the test date, then dumping what they’ve memorized on the test paper and walking out, leaving the information behind. It’s true that memory techniques can help someone cramming for a test, but that is selling the brain short.

Memory techniques can help to create clear pathways in the brain for storing and retrieving information – all information. Imagine being able to recall nearly all of the information from a specific course during the final exam and ten years later. If you are planning to be a doctor, it’s easy to see how it would be beneficial to be able to remember what you learned in school a few years down the road!

Developing your memory and learning memory techniques (mnemonics) will increase your learning efficiency – you’ll remember more, so you’ll need to study less.

Your brain, as magical as it is, is a physical organ that operates in set ways. Information is observed, categorized and stored in predictable patterns. The more you know about the brain, the more you’ll be able to use its filing system to your advantage. This article is too short to be able to go into any discussion of the brain and its methods of storing information in working, short and long-term memory banks. If you’re interested in learning more (and the topic is fascinating), have a look at some of the websites listed in the side bar, or talk to a biology teacher (biology and psychology teachers love talking about the brain).

Memory Basics

  • If you want to recall information more than 5 minutes down the road, it needs to enter your long term memory.
  • The brain can only effectively remember what it pays attention to.
  • If you’re not paying attention, you’re not going to remember. This is similar to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing doesn’t take energy, listening requires the active focus of the
    listener. Conclusion: memory requires active focus – you need to pay attention to what you want to remember.
  • The more you engage your brain in the process of remembering, the more easily you’ll recall information. Engaging the brain means using your imagination - creating pictures and sounds, or maybe
    making images to go with the information you want to remember. Engaging the brain can also mean making associations between new and old information the more you link new information to what you already know, the more easily you’ll be able to recall the new information.


Mnemonics are simple and very effective techniques for memory, but they are not natural (in fact they can feel very unnatural at first). If you’ll use them often, in class, when you read, when you listen, when you speak or recall information, mnemonics can help you to become a virtual walking library of information.

Journey Technique
This is my favourite mnemonic. It’s quite versatile - it can be used to remember lists, sets of information that go together, logical sequences, and other types of information, as well, the same journey can be used again and again with new sets of information.

To begin, imagine a route that you are very familiar with: from your house to your school; from your front door to your bedroom; from your house to your friend’s house; etc. Close your eyes and walk yourself through the route noting what you see along the way.

Walk yourself through the route again, attaching the information you want to remember along the way. Keep in mind that the more absurd the mental picture you create is, the more easily you’ll be able to recall it.

Now let’s try an example. Imagine that for your socials class you want to remember typical pests that attack wheat. Your journey leads you from your front door to your bedroom. As you stand about to open your front door, you notice that the door is covered in thousands of aphids (they’ve got soft, roundish bodies with several legs and two tubes coming out of their bellies – yuck). Somehow you muster the courage to open the door and walk into your home. Inside you smell an awful stink and look to your right to see a beautiful 6-foot stink bug smiling at you. You shake your head and walk toward the kitchen. Sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal is a cereal leaf beetle. You keep walking toward your room and notice under your feet are gigantic slugs sliming their way down the hall with you toward your door.

What a gross journey! Actually, the grosser the better – it’s easier to remember that way. All you need to do is walk yourself through this journey several times per day and you will definitely remember that aphids, stink bugs, cereal leaf beetles and slugs are all pests that attack wheat.

Linking Technique
This technique is quite simple to remember and apply. As you hear or read information (lists, historical events, new vocabulary, etc.) create a movie in your mind that links the pieces together.
To remember the list: dog, shoe, orange, plant, scissors, you could create this movie:

Picture a teeny, tiny dog (remember absurd sizing is easy to remember) sitting in a gigantic shoe. Suddenly an orange falls from the sky and lands on the toe of the shoe. A seed from the orange sprouts and a plant grows up from the toe of the shoe. A cute little boy comes along with a huge pair of scissors and cuts a leaf from the plant.

Play the movie over and over in your mind and you’ll be able to recall ridiculously long lists of information easily.

“Never confuse what is habitual with what is natural.”

Organization and Time Management

by Dahlia Miller
February 2004

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you use that counts.”

There are two great secrets to study skills. One: No one is born knowing them. Two: If you don’t use them, they won’t work for you.

You don’t have to be brilliant or work like a dog to be more effective in studying. Being an effective studier simply means learning some very basic principles and then putting them into practice. These principles are simple and applying them is easy.

There are many advantages to developing good study habits:

  • You’ll study more effectively
  • Your grades will improve
  • You’ll reduce feelings of anxiety related to academic work
  • You’ll be more likely to reach your academic goals
  • You’ll be able to take on bigger projects without feeling overwhelmed
  • You’ll have more free time

Below are suggestions for organizing yourself and your time. Put into practice, these suggestions can help you to waste less time and be more effective and successful in your studies and your life.


Being organized and staying organized is one of the simplest of study skills. So simple, that many people overlook how important it is to cultivate this skill. If you can set up and maintain an organized workspace and materials, you can increase your study efficiency incredibly.

As a comparison, imagine a kitchen without organization. The food, pots, pans and cutlery are randomly thrown into cupboards and drawers. Any time you want to cook or eat something, you need to put time and energy into finding all of the materials first. Over time this will waste a lot of your time and probably lead to feelings of frustration!

You can see how it would be possible to save yourself a lot of time and energy simply by taking the time to organize specific locations for the food, pots, pans and cutlery and maintaining that organization.

The same principle holds true for organizing your workspace and materials. Taking the time to organize, and maintaining that organization will save you time and energy.

Organize Your Workspace
Choose a study area in your home away from the distractions of radio, TV, family members, food and sleep (your bed is for sleeping and your brain knows that) – a desk with a comfortable chair and adequate (preferably natural) lighting is best.

Keep your study area stocked with paper, pens, calculator, reference books and any other materials you use.

Organize Your School Work
As in the kitchen analogy, you need to know where your pots and pans are.

Keep all of your notes and assignments for one subject in one area so you can find your homework and review for tests more easily. The easiest way to do this is to keep a separate duotang, binder, or section in a binder for each subject.

Put the name, date and title on all your work so that you know in what order things go in your binder.

Have all of your supplies and materials together before you start working.

Stay Organized
As you put your notes and assignments into your binders, keep them in order by date. Use dividers to separate your notes into sub-topics, if it’s appropriate.

If you’d like to be ahead of the game, have a sheet of paper at the front of your binder and use it as a table of contents. As you put new information into your binder, record new topics on this list. When it comes time to review for tests, you’ll have a summary of the topics covered. (For more information on how to get organized for tests, see the November 2003 issue of The Smart Connection.)

Remember, the extra energy you are putting into maintaining organization will save you time when you need to locate information for assignments and projects or for test review.

“Failure and success are not accidents but the strictest of justice.”
Alexander Smith (1830–1867)

Time Management

There is no way around it, if you are a student, you need to spend time studying, reviewing, writing assignments and preparing for tests. Managing your time can help you to stay on track and to get work done.

Setting a plan for when to study, can give you perspective. You can see when you’ve got free time, and in your free time you can relax knowing that you are taking care of the tasks that you need to accomplish. No stress!

Managing your time involves:

  • Deciding when to work and when to play
  • Deciding how to spend your work time

In order to begin setting a plan for time management, you need to know what your priorities are. If you fill out an agenda, planner or homework book regularly you’ll know what is due tomorrow or next week, and what projects or tests are upcoming.

It is also helpful to consider your goals. If you want to get an ‘A’ in Chemistry but you’d be satisfied with a ‘C+’ in Business Education, then you might need to focus more of your time on Chemistry.

Some Simple Time Management Tips:

  • Set a specific time each day to work.
  • Each week review upcoming tests and assignments.
  • Before each study session, visualize your goals.
  • Prioritize your homework – depending on due dates, start with the most difficult homework.
  • Work for short periods of time (30 to 60 minutes depending on you and the topic) and take short breaks. Brains remember beginnings and endings best, so incorporating more beginnings and endings into your study time will help you to remember more.
  • Take time for play!

Now that you’ve learned some ways to increase your study efficiency, keep in mind the second great secret to study skills: if you don’t use them, they won’t work for you.

Reading for Comprehension and Note-Taking

by Dahlia Miller
March 2004

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
Sir Richard Steele

Reading for Comprehension

The key to reading for academic purposes is to take the information you find in a book or an article and to make it your own – the more you can make what you are learning your own (by writing or repeating it in your own words), the easier it’ll be for you to recall it. This means that you need to be actively engaged with what you are reading – taking the information in and adding it to what you already know.

If you want to read most efficiently, you won’t be spending all of your time just reading. There are things to be done before you read, as you read, and after you read. Now let’s turn to tips and strategies to increase your reading comprehension.

Before You Even Look at the Reading

  • Gather your materials in a comfortable, uncluttered workspace. Turn off any TV’s, radios and cell phones. Let your family know that you are concentrating.
  • Relax. Give yourself a pat on the back for being such a hard-working student. Remind yourself that you are capable of focussing to achieve your goals.
  • Review your reading assignment, instructions, or lecture notes (this is like reading the question before starting to answer it on an exam – know what you’re looking for and it will by much easier to find).
  • Confirm your purpose. Consider your answer to these questions: Why are you reading this article or book? What answers are you looking for? What do you hope to learn?

Looking at the Reading for the First Time

The idea here is to create a context for what you are about to learn. Brains link new ideas to old ones. You can give your brain a head start by thinking in general terms about the topic of the reading before you begin, then it’ll be easier for you to understand and remember what you read.

  • Skim the text. Notice: the title; the author’s name; the date the text was written; the table of contents if there is one; and the chapter or section headings. Notice any bold or italicized words or sentences. Consider the author’s purpose in writing the text and who the intended audience is.
  • Stop. Consider what you already know about the topic. Take a guess at what you’ll learn from the reading. Making predictions in this way will actually help to increase your reading speed. If you want to be really keen, before you go any further you’ll write an outline of the reading including the section headings and fill in what you already know about each topic.


  • Turn the headings in the text into questions and then look for the answers.
  • Put a mark in the margin when you find an answer (or underline one or two word answers). Try not to underline whole sentences.
  • Mark or underline the answers to the Big 6 (i.e. who, what, where, when, why, and how).
  • Periodically check in with yourself to see if you are thinking about what you are reading. If you are distracted, take a break, re-focus, and begin again.
  • Stop reading. Look at the headings again and recite (from memory! without looking!) the answers you’ve just underlined or marked.
  • If you’ve had trouble remembering the information, go back and re-read.
  • Look for the main ideas in each section. Notice the supporting ideas and details (keep in mind that it’s usually the main ideas that are tested, not the supporting details).
  • Create mental pictures as you read.


Notes from Readings

“I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand, and enter in a little book short hints of what you find…for this will be the best method of imprinting such particulars in your memory, where they will be ready, on some future occasion…”
Benjamin Franklin

I have to agree with old Ben Franklin on this one, reading and note-taking really do go hand in hand.

If you’re able to write directly on your text, make notes in the margins - this is an excellent way to synthesize what you’re reading. One excellent tip is to write questions in the margins opposite where you find the answers. In this way you’ll be able to review by reading your questions, answering them from memory, and then confirming the answer.

When you are taking notes on a separate piece of paper, what you want to do is to create an outline for the content of the reading. Be sure to title the outline and date it. Then start by writing the headings from the text, next, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, write the main idea the author is putting forward for each heading. In point form include brief notes on the supporting details and facts.
Again, as with reading for comprehension, the idea is to make the material your own. The more you think about, rewrite, reword, and consider what you’ve read, the better you’ll be able to remember what you’ve read.

Notes from Lectures

Lectures tell you what your teacher thinks is most important – this information is worth noting down. As with notes from readings, when you are taking notes during a lecture, what you want to do is create an outline for what is being discussed. You’ve got two goals in a lecture: one is to understand what is being said, and the other is to take notes of key points IN YOUR OWN WORDS so that you can easily review.

  • Begin with a title, the date, the class name, and the teacher’s name.
  • As main topics and ideas are stated, note them down. Use key words and point form to record details and examples.
  • It can help to create your own set of symbols and abbreviations to draw attention to important facts, dates, etc.
  • During the lecture, try to relate the new information you are hearing to what you’ve read or heard before. Remember that creating links in your brain makes it easier to recall information in the future.

Setting Mid and Long-Term Goals

by Dahlia Miller
September 2004

“Unless you change direction, you are likely to end up where you are headed.”
Chinese Proverb

I watched a ladybug as she walked across my deck the other day. She stood on a leaf, stretching her wings looking like she was about to fly away.

Then she began to walk. From my vantage point high above her, I could see that she was headed toward the north edge of the deck less than a meter from the leaf. I wondered where she was going. I guessed she was trying to reach the north edge of the deck. “Perhaps she couldn’t stretch her wings wide enough on the leaf to be able to take off from the deck,” I mused, “Perhaps she wants to take a running leap from the deck and head for the trees.”

Then she turned. And she turned again. It seemed that there were tiny obstacles in her path. She seemed to be making slower and slower progress: she was turning so often that she was hardly moving toward the north edge of the deck at all.

“This is a prime example of undirected goal-setting,” I judged, shaking my head. “Here is this little ladybug getting so caught up in the small obstacles that she is losing sight of her larger goal.” I had to laugh at myself then. How did I know what the ladybug’s goals were?

From my objective perspective, I could easily see the patterns in the ladybug’s behaviour. From a distance, it’s always easier to see patterns in behaviour. But objectivity is not enough. It’s necessary to know the goals of the one doing the action to see if the behaviour is matched to the goals.

Similarly, if we can step back from our own behaviour and view it objectively, it can be much easier to recognize patterns. That way we can have both objective and subjective viewpoints. When we consider ourselves as a laboratory to experiment with, we can try out new patterns and let go of old ones (without judgment).

Before setting goals, consider what is important to you. This will help you to understand your personal, subjective perspective.

To find out what really is important to you, ask yourself “why”: Why are you studying? Why are you attending school? Why do you want to learn? Why are you doing what you are doing? Why do you want to achieve? Why do you want to reach that goal? Why is it important to you to do your best?

If your goal matches with what is important to you (your beliefs and values), then it will be much easier for you to stay on track daily.

Goal Setting Tips

Step 1: Choose a Goal
Since you want to be able to reach this goal, make it something that you believe you can do. For example, if you are capable of getting a “B+” on all your exams, then that is a reachable goal. Also, make your goal something you can measure, that way you’ll be able to celebrate when you achieve it! For example, your goal could be to get 87% on your next math exam. If your goal is a long-term one, break it into shorter, one-year goals. Write a list of your goals for the up-coming year.

Step 2: Make a Vow to Reach Your Goal
Goals can be difficult to reach. You will not be able to reach all of your goals. If you decide to strive for a goal, then make a vow to do your best to achieve it. With commitment to your goal, you will stay more focused when obstacles present themselves. Also, if you don’t achieve your goal, you will feel no regrets because you’ll be confident that you made your best effort.

Step 3: Consider Where You Are Now in Relation to Your Goals
Think of yourself like an archer. Once you have chosen a target (i.e. goal), the next step is to assess your current position. How close are you to your target? What direction do you need to aim to reach your target? How much energy do you need to exert to hit your target? The answers to all of these questions begin with knowing your current position.

Assess your current grades, study habits, confidence and motivation. This is your current position.

Step 4: Make a Plan for How to Achieve Your Goals
What do you need to do between now and one year from now to achieve your one-year goals?

To answer this question, it can be really helpful to plan backwards from the future. For example, if you want an “A” in your chemistry class, you’ll need to schedule in time to study for your exams. You’ll also need to schedule time to keep up with your class work, homework and assignments. If you know the due dates for any assignments or the dates for exams, schedule those in now. As well, schedule in time to prepare for assignments and exams.

Step 5: Reflect on Your Actions
If your goals are important to you, stay committed to them. Do the tasks each day and each week that will bring you closer to your goals. Where you are walking is where you are headed. Be aware of what you are doing: is it moving you closer to your goals or further away? If you need to correct any study patterns, take control and do so.

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Will Rogers

Study Technique: Layering

by Ruth McGhee
November 2004

“Memory feeds imagination.”
Amy Tan (1952- )

There’s a great scene in the original Shrek movie which occurs just after Shrek and Donkey depart on their mission to rescue Princess Fiona. As with all good journeys, this one is replete with conflict and tension as the hero and his sidekick get to know each other - a firey chasm, a rescue and a dragon still looming before them. The exchange goes like this:

SHREK: For your information, there's a lot more to ogres than people think.
DONKEY: Example?
SHREK: Example? Okay, um, ogres are like onions.
DONKEY: They stink?
SHREK: Yes. No!
DONKEY: They make you cry?
DONKEY: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting' little white hairs.
SHREK: No! Layers! Onions have layers! Ogres have layers! Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
DONKEY: Oh, you both have layers. Oh. You know, not everybody likes onions. Cake! Everybody loves cakes! Cakes have layers.

Shrek is trying to communicate the layers of his depth and complexity through his use of the onion simile. Well, good study habits are like ogres, onions and cakes: they have layers, too. But cultivating good study habits takes time, and sometimes the hard work stinks - like onions - and maybe the thought of it makes you cry. It takes work. In the end there is the prize that inevitably comes from hard work: the cake - made of layers, of course.

The idea of layers is helpful to explain a method of studying which essentially builds knowledge and understanding. Each time you take in a specific body of information constitutes a layer; the layers build on one another, and with each layer comes a deeper level of understanding.

For any given concept - be it literary, scientific, mathematical, or in any subject - a goal of five or six layers is optimum. There is ample research on how the brain retains information to support the idea that successive layering of information increases likelihood of retention.

Most students give, at best, two layers to a concept: one when it is introduced in class, and the second during a study session a week (or less!) before an exam.

By adding more layers in between, students have much greater success recalling the concepts at crucial test time. The greater reward, of course, is the learning that takes place and the good study habits that are developed. So, here’s a suggestion of what those layers might look like.

Students might think that the first ‘layer’ is laid down in class, when a new concept or idea is introduced. However, it would be better if there were already a foundational layer in place; reading the assigned chapter in the text book, or the section dealing with the new concepts to be covered, should be your first layer. Pre-reading gives you a base on which to build.

While it may be challenging reading - some of the ideas might be completely over your head - you are putting the relevant terms, images and ideas into your head, ready to be elaborated upon in class by your teacher.

Logically, then, the second layer is established when the concept is introduced in class. If this had been the first time that you heard the information, you would have little or no prior knowledge from which to measure your understanding. However, with the information you have read beforehand floating around in your head, you will already have questions about what is what. When the teacher raises the idea in class, you can begin to put the pieces together.

Reading through your class notes at the end of the day constitutes the third layer. This needn’t be any complicated analysis of ideas or terms; rather, it should be a straightforward ‘once over’ to see what you get and what you don’t get. Put question marks or a star beside those things you don’t understand, so when you are next in class you can ask to have them clarified or re-explained.

At week’s end, for the fourth layer, gather together your class notes to establish an ‘overview’ of the topics covered. Read through your week’s notes, and begin the process of highlighting, underlining and noting the important information included in your lessons. This kind of overview will help you to develop a bigger picture of what is being covered in the subject: you will begin to see the themes or broader topics that have been addressed in class.

Once you have completed the overview of the fourth layer, it is helpful to move right into the fifth layer: make a condensed version of your notes - either on index cards or a separate sheet of paper, emphasizing key terms, definitions, ideas, dates, and events, formulae, etc. Highlighting or color coding can help: key terms in one color, definitions in another, examples in a third color, important events or dates in yet another, and so on. Read through the index cards or study notes as soon as you make them, to help secure this fifth layer in place.

If these layers constitute a layer cake, then the sixth layer is definitely the icing. By the time you get to preparing for exams, you have already exposed yourself to the information five times! In the weeks running up to the exam, you can go over your index cards or study sheets regularly to fix those ideas in your head. You will want to find ways to organize your study notes/cards into ‘chapters’ or ‘themes’ as they were introduced in class; exams often follow these themes in some way or another.

For some subjects, there is just no getting around straight memorization of facts, terms and definitions; for others, you need to be able to understand concepts in order to apply them to new situations. If you only give yourself one or two chances to secure a body of information in your mind, you can hardly expect to really learn it or be able to apply it.

The more times you return to an idea, the higher the likelihood of retention - even after the exam! Imagine that! The prize - the tasty layer cake you have made - is not passing the exam, it is the learning that has taken place.

“The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.”
William James (1842 - 1910)

Top 35 Study Habits

by Dahlia Miller
February 2005

“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.”
Thomas H. Huxley (1825 - 1895)

Okay everybody; it’s the beginning of February. In Canada, that means that you are half way through your school year - a good time to review and adjust your approach to studying.
You’ve had several months to test study strategies, what results have you had? Are you satisfied with your grades, how much time you spend studying, and how in control of your studies you feel? Observe your study patterns and the results for the last term. Do you need to make adjustments?

What Are Your Current Study Habits?

Put a check beside the habits that you observe in yourself 80% of the time.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

I eat breakfast and lunch everyday.
I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
I drink plenty of water everyday.

Being a Good Student

I attend all classes.
I am prepared for class (with pens, papers, calculator, etc.).
I pay attention in class. 
I take notes in class.
If I am absent I copy someone else’s notes.
I organize my binders and notes.
I review my notes regularly.
I do my homework everyday.
I study for upcoming tests and assignments.

Taking Control, Being Prepared

I know when my final exams are.
I know the topics of my tests and final exams.
I know what my current grades are.
I know what projects or topics are coming up next in my classes.
I am aware of memory techniques and use them to memorize facts.
I am aware of resources to help me with studying (like practice provincial exams on-line).
I believe I am capable of reaching my academic goals.
I have set academic goals for myself.

Creating the Right Environment

I have a set time each day that I study.
I study for mid-length periods and take short breaks.
I have a study area set up that is quiet.  
I use my study area. 
My study area has all the supplies that I need for studying (pens, paper, calculator, dictionary, ruler, etc.).
My study area has natural light.
I have an alternate study area that I use sometimes (library, classroom).

Keeping It Interesting

I use different methods for studying: drawing, writing, reading, talking.
I have a study partner - someone that I can teach materials to.
I use different resources when studying: books, computer, talking to people, personal observation.
I use a variety of study resources: notes, index cards, diagrams, tape recordings, etc.

Staying Real

I exercise or play a sport regularly.
I enjoy time with my friends.
I am involved in an extra-curricular activity or group besides a sport.
I meditate 5 minutes each day.


0 - 11 points
You’re holding yourself back. This is like running a race backwards in slippers - you’re probably not going to win. Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed the effect your study habits are having on your grades and overall school experience. No matter your take on school and studying, you can save time and energy, and learn more, by improving your study habits. How much control do you want over your school experience? Give yourself credit for what you are doing so far. What next step can you take to gain more control over your study habits?

12 - 23 points
You are on your way. You have some habits that are serving you well, but others are slowing you down. Congratulate yourself for all you are currently doing. Now, decide what you want to get from this school experience. Are you going to take control or be controlled? In terms of study habits, what is the single most important thing that you can do to improve now?

24 - 35 points
You are really on top of your game! You know what you need to do and are doing it (most of the time). Give yourself a pat on the back. Now, what can you do to improve? Being the best means continually reflecting on your actions and revising your strategies to suit your circumstances. Stay in control by continuing to maximize your study time and energy.
You are the only one who can decide what your school experience will be. You’ve figured out by now, certainly, that the facts and formulas you study in school are really only a small part of what you are there to discover.

It is important to consider what you will learn from school. But more importantly, this is an opportunity for you to discover what works for you:

  • What will you learn about yourself while you are in school?
  • What are you capable of?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What don’t you like to do?
  • How do you learn best?
  • What types of people do you work best with?
  • What subjects interest you?
  • Do you like to perform under pressure?
  • What types of support do you like to have?
  • How can you bring your creativity into your work?
  • What makes learning interesting for you?

These are the same questions that people continue to try to answer after school is finished. School is a great place to experiment. Make the most of your current situation. Find what works for you now and you’ll be well prepared to tackle whatever the future holds for you.

Best of luck!

Hint: Have a look at the habits you didn’t check above. Which ones would you like to start first?

“We are responsible for what we are; and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in the future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.”
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Secret Study Skills - The Laws of Cause & Effect, and Attraction

by Dahlia Miller
June 2009

“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
Ralph Waldo Emersen

Have you noticed how you never get a peach from an apple tree? This may seem pretty obvious, but a lot of people don’t really recognize just what this means. They plant apple seeds and then complain when they don’t get peaches. Not only that, but they then go on to look at the apples with disgust and complain about how ticked off they are about having apples (not peaches). While they’re busy complaining, the apples ripen, fall to the ground and end up sprouting more apple trees. This is how someone ends up getting a whole orchard of apples when what they really wanted was peaches.

This example demonstrates two often misunderstood universal laws that impact all of us (students included): the law of cause and effect, and the law of attraction. Understanding these laws, we can use them to our benefit.

The law of cause and effect basically states that the result you reap comes from the seed you sow. Results are the fruit of past actions. Your current situation is a result of your past actions. To get different results, simply use your ability to plant the seed of what you want. If you want peaches, plant a peach tree. Don’t stand around complaining about all the apples in your life.

If you stay up late at night (cause), you’re very likely to be tired in the morning (effect). If you study consistently (cause), you’ll likely get good grades (effect). Do you see where we’re going here?

Work backward from the future effect you’d like, so you can plant the causes in the present. This requires paying close attention to what is happening now: what you are currently doing, what your current attitude is, and what resources and circumstances are available to you now.

Understanding the basic principle of cause and effect, students can take real control over their school careers. For example, if you want a good relationship with your teachers, you can take the time to talk respectfully with them (before, during and after class). If you want to do well on your exams, you can study regularly and get help when you need it. If you want to have your homework over and done with, you can sit down and work on it.

If you aren’t willing to take the actions that will lead to future success, you have no right to complain about the results that you get.

Because students are constantly being asked to stretch and grow beyond their current ability and understanding, they need to develop certain seeds that will serve them well over time. These are ‘seeds of habit’ and ‘seeds of approach’. Some ‘seeds of habit’ that will serve students well are diligence; consistent study; having routines for homework; asking for help; and handing work in on time. Some ‘seeds of approach’ that will serve students well throughout their school careers are: being open to learning more; being hopeful about future learning and possibilities; being encouraging to self and others; accepting constructive criticism with confidence; and being pleasant and respectful to teachers, classmates and parents.

Can you imagine what kinds of results these seeds will bring? Of course the future is unpredictable, but consistent persistence with planting the seeds of scholastic success is certain to bring it about. [Scholastic success is personal and individual, by the way.]

The law of attraction states that ‘like is attracted to like’, or, ‘you get what you focus on’, or, more accurately, ‘you get what you vibrate’.

Scientists have shown us how everything, including humans, has an energy vibration. Our actions, our words, our emotions and our thoughts all give off vibrations. And these echo back to us in the forms of circumstances, words, opportunities and ideas.

Imagine standing at the edge of a cliff and shouting “hello”. A moment later your “hello” comes back to you. This is the law of attraction in action: you get back what you send out. Shout, “I write good essays” and guess what echo you’ll hear. Shout, “I suck at math,” and guess what is going to come right back at you. There’s no reason to be upset about the echo. After all, you’re the one who started it, right?

The law of attraction is what allows people who assume success to have success, and people who assume failure to have failure. We all get more of what we already have. Essentially this means that if we focus our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions on appreciating how good our current situation is, we’ll be sending out vibrations that say, “I am happy, successful and satisfied.” With these vibrations, you can guess what kinds of circumstances and opportunities will start to echo back to you.

Knowing this puts you in a position of control. Simply choose your thoughts, emotional reactions, words and actions carefully. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. See the success that is around you right now (apples aren’t really all that bad after all).

Students can put this law to good use in a few simple ways:

  • Notice and talk about your current successes. Stop having problems and start solving them. Look at what you do well. You may not write excellent essays, but perhaps you have lots of ideas for topics, and that is a good start. Look around at all the resources that are there to help support you and make good use of them.
  • Visualize your success and then take practical steps to bring it about. Emotions and thoughts send out vibrations, so just imagining a bright future for ourselves will help it to come. Hold an image consciously and firmly in your mind of how you would like your life to be. Then work hard and intelligently to make your dream come true. Imagine getting a good grade on your next test. Imagine knowing the answers when the teacher asks. Imagine yourself confidently raising your hand to ask or answer questions in class. Imagine handing your homework in on time.
  • Dream big but don’t chase after your dreams. Chasing our future causes us to not notice how wonderful things are right now. Focus on what you like about how things are now in the present. The future happens in its own good time.
  • Set mini-goals. It’s possible to use this law for everything we do, not just the far away future. Picture yourself sitting down to get your homework done with a sense of confidence and capability. Imagine answering every question easily. Imagine your parents praising you for getting down to work quickly.

What vibrations you send out are what will come back to you. Use this law well and you’ll be amazed at the results.

“The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”
Frank Lloyd Wright

Secret Study Skills – The Power of Positive Thinking

by Dahlia Miller
April 2009

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! …With sound self-confidence you can succeed.”
Norman Vincent Peale (1898 – 1993)

Why do students need to understand and use the skill of positive thinking? It’s because they set themselves up against challenge everyday. Students are constantly pushing beyond their current capabilities to learn more and take on more skills and knowledge. This requires a lot of courage and determination. Without enthusiasm, faith in abilities and optimism, most people would experience fear, discouragement or a sense of futility in the face of this kind of challenge.
A lack of positive thinking shows itself in students who ‘forget’ homework consistently, who neglect to hand homework in, who are not comfortable asking for help, or who ‘blank out’ in exams.

Learning and applying some core positive thinking strategies can have a huge impact on a student’s life in the classroom and beyond. In this article we’ll discuss two approaches to positive thinking.

Strategy #1: From the Outside In

Psychology people are always coming up with interesting experiments. In one of these experiments, psychologists asked people to read 100 comics. Then they asked people to rate how funny they thought the comics were. The people were split into three groups – one simply read and rated the comics, the second and third did the same but with a slight twist. The second group was asked to read the comics while holding a pen horizontally between their lips (so they couldn’t smile). The third group was asked to read the comics while holding a pen horizontally between their teeth (so they were forced to smile).

Here’s the interesting part: the people who were forced not to smile rated the comics as ‘less funny’ than the control group (the group without any pens in their mouths). The people who were forced to smile rated the comics as ‘funnier’ than the control group did.

What can we extrapolate from this experiment? Well, perhaps the main point related to our topic is that it’s possible to influence our emotions from our actions. How we respond to a situation (ex. by smiling or not smiling) changes how we feel about it. And if our feelings are positive, we’re more likely to take positive, confident action. If our feelings are negative, we’re more likely to feel defeated and to not take action, interpreting the situation as too uncomfortable or, worse, out of our control.

We tend to think that we are experiencing a situation directly, but this experiment shows that we experience situations through a filter of emotion and interpretation. (Otherwise everyone would have thought the comics were equally funny.) Have you ever noticed how two people may respond to the same situation differently? What filters do you use when you meet situations? Are you seeing things in a positive, optimistic light or are you pulling an Eeyore?

Could it be so easy that all we need to do is act in a positive way in order to transform how we see, feel and interpret situations (as in ‘fake it ‘til you make it’)? Apparently so. If you want to be happy – smile; if you want to be unhappy – don’t smile. So, if you want to be a competent student, then study, bring your work home and hand it in; if you want to be incompetent, then don’t study, don’t bring your work home, and don’t hand your homework in.

Strategy #2: From the Inside Out

While it is possible to influence how we feel by our actions, there is a more effective method. Here is an pattern I’d like you to consider: Beliefs create thoughts ... thoughts create emotions ... emotions create actions ... actions create consequences

What this equation tells us is that the consequences we experience (like high or low grades) are created mostly by our beliefs. Who is in control of what you believe? of what you think? of how you feel? of your actions? Of course it’s you. Your interpretation of a situation is completely within your control. So it follows, then, that if you are in control of your beliefs and thoughts, then you can also control your consequences.

What we believe about ourselves and the world determines our thoughts. For example, if you believe that you are good at math, then you will likely think that math assignments are do-able. If you think math assignments are do-able, you will likely feel confident and capable. Feeling this way, you will likely perform well on any given assignment, get it done and hand it in. If you do all of that, you’ll likely get a pretty good score.

If, on the other hand, you believe that you are terrible at math, then you will likely think that all math assignments are hard (even before you look at the one being handed to you). If you think that math assignments are too hard for you then you’ll likely feel defeated and distressed. Feeling this way, you will likely be in a state of high adrenaline. In this state of nervousness, it’s quite difficult to think clearly (since when our heart is beating too rapidly, our higher thinking is shut off in order to save our bodies from any impending life-threatening danger). If you’re not thinking well, you’ll likely not get a good score.

Change your thoughts and you change your world. If you think you can overcome an obstacle, chances are that you can.

Here’s another example:

Situation: You receive a low grade on an essay.

Negative thoughts: “I really stink.” (resulting emotion: sadness) “I’ve never been good at writing.” (hopelessness) “That teacher is such an unfair marker.” (anger) Where can you go with this experience if you are feeling sad, hopeless or angry? These types of thoughts and feelings will likely lead to complaining, avoidance and acting out in anger (against the teacher or some innocent bystander).

Positive thoughts: “I’m going to practice more to improve my essay writing.” (resulting emotion: determination) “Now that I see my mistakes, I know what I need to work on.” (hopefulness) “I’m good at learning new skills. This is a challenge for me to master.” (confidence) These thoughts and feelings are likely to lead to positive actions such as focused study, more proofreading on future essay assignments, or asking for assistance.

Positive thinking is taking control over how you choose to think about a situation. With control, you can influence the outcome. Choosing a more positive perspective, you can gain more power and confidence – and people respond to this. When we expect success, we become hopeful and confident. This comes across in our body language and the way we express ourselves in writing and in our speaking. If you behave confidently and accept challenges with positive determination, not only will teachers and parents begin to see you as capable, but you will see yourself as able to accomplish tasks that previously had felt out of reach. Your marks will improve, almost guaranteed.

You can choose your attitude. If you hear yourself thinking negative thoughts, you can simply choose to ‘cancel’ those thoughts out and rethink them in a more positive light. Encouraging yourself, you are more likely to enjoy the learning.

Parents and teachers can help by asking students how they are feeling about their schoolwork, listening for positive or negative beliefs. Unless a student is asking for correction or it is a teaching situation, students will gain the most benefit by being recognized for what they are doing well. If you hear a student speaking negatively about his or her efforts, you could ask that student to reframe what they are describing in a positive light, and then discuss actions that can be taken to bring a positive resolution to the situation.

Positive thinking is not just putting a positive spin on things without taking creative action. If there is a situation that needs remedying (like homework not being handed in), believe in your ability to come up with some creative solutions on your own or with someone else.

Positive thinking is you deciding to take control over how situations impact you. There is no set script for how you ought to react to any situation – you can make it up yourself – you can change your script part way through. You are the writer, director and actor of your story.

“We become what we think about.”
Earl Nightingale (1921-1989)

Secret Study Skills – The Power of Present Moment Awareness

by Dahlia Miller
March 2009

“The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

How many times have you been sitting in class as the teacher was talking, and suddenly realized that you haven’t been listening? Although you’ve been sitting there, eyes and ears open the whole time, you don’t have a clue why the teacher is talking about the Middle Ages when the last you heard she was talking about the Pythagorean Theorem. Chances are you were caught up in thought – focused on something that had happened to you in the past or might (or ought to) happen in the future. Who was listening through your ears while you were busy?

Or, have you ever sat down to write a quiz or exam and suddenly felt your mind go blank? The exam in front of you brings up memories of past exams or visions of your doomed future, and you end up lost in thought or fear, not putting your best effort into the exam. Who is sitting in the exam holding your pencil while you are off in fantasy?

Teachers take attendance at the start of class to see who is present and who is absent. They’re just counting bodies, though; they’re not counting minds and awareness. How many times have you been present in class, but had your mind wander off? This is not real presence. And if it’s not presence, it’s absence.

As you know, the students who are absent from class miss the class. Guess what? The students whose minds are not present in the class also miss the class.
What are you missing when you are not present?
If you are not present, (if you’re not paying attention right here and now), where are you? Chances are that you’re caught up in thinking about the past or the future.

What’s that saying? “The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift.”

How is the present “a gift”? We have the gift of life right now. Right now is the only time that we actually are alive. Think about it. When you remember what you did yesterday, are you actually living yesterday’s events? Obviously not. When you are thinking about something that might happen next week, or even in one hour, are you actually living those events? Again, obviously not. To live your future fantasy (assuming things go exactly as planned in your mind), you’re still going to have to wait for time to catch up to your future so that it is ‘now’ before you can live it. (But if you haven’t practiced paying attention to your life right now, how can you expect to get the most out of your imagined future? You’ll probably be ‘absent’ for that too, if absence is your habit.)

Right now is when we live our lives. Right now is when we can make choices about what we are doing and what happens in our lives. Even if things seem really boring and familiar, ‘now’ is still the only time that we can actually be present in our lives and make any needed changes. Otherwise it’s like there is a robot living our lives, using our eyes, using our ears, sitting in class, taking our exams for us, but not really living.

Most people want to make the most of their time – living, experiencing, getting excited about ideas, building things, making changes and contributions in our world, loving others. Most people wouldn’t choose to miss out on their lives.
That said, most people get caught up in the endless thoughts that cycle through their minds – thinking this is who they really are. They get so caught up in their thoughts that they forget to pay attention to what is actually happening right in front of them.

What can happen in your life if you really live it right now?

Imagine if Da Vinci had gotten distracted by thinking about his strange family history instead of putting his creativity and talent to painting the Mona Lisa. Or if Einstein had listened to his teachers and thought about what a poor math student he was instead of developing his theories of space and time. Or if Edison had gotten caught up in what a failure he was for getting the light bulb wrong so many hundreds of times before actually inventing one that worked. Present moment awareness frees up boundless creative energy.

What can you create in your life? What impact do you want to have on the world?

When we just narrow our awareness to the present moment, our future looks after itself. If we want to have good grades, this begins with paying attention to our class work or homework.

By the way, paying attention to the present moment doesn’t mean that we don’t make any plans. It means that we keep our minds focused on one thing at a time rather than thinking thoughts about the 180 things that need to get done. If the one thing that we need to do is make plans, then what we focus on is making plans. Then, when that is finished, we look around to see what is happening around us and get involved with it.

It takes only a split second, to come back to ‘now’; here are some suggestions for increasing present moment awareness:

  • In class or while you’re doing homework, if you find that you have drifted off into thought, give yourself a pat on the back (in your mind) for recognizing it. Bring your attention back to what is happening right at the moment.
  • During exams, if you get caught up in fear, take a deep breath and look around you. What is actually happening? Look at the next test question and do your best to bring your best effort to completing it. (If it’s too challenging, make any notes you can and move on to the next question.) Do this as many times as necessary to get you through the test.
  • Be at least as interested in what is going on inside you as outside. Self-awareness is presence.
  • Use your powers of observation. What can you see, hear, feel, smell right now?
  • Feel yourself sitting or standing from the inside out. Can you feel the insides of your
    hands, your legs, your chest?
  • Breathe deeply and let your belly expand with your inhalation. Feel the sensation of
    the air moving past your nostrils as you inhale and exhale.
  • Close your eyes and listen to what is around you right now. How many different sounds
    can you hear? What can you smell?
  • Put some things together on a table. Activate your hands, close your eyes, and
    pick the items up one at a time. Consider what each item feels like: its texture, its weight, its shape, and its contours.
  • Practise being the ‘knowing’ (aware of your physical and emotional self and your
    surroundings). What physical sensations can you feel right now? Is there tension in
    your body somewhere?
  • What emotional sensations can you feel right now? Emotion is the body’s demon-
    stration of your state of mind. Can you break your emotions down into what they
    feel like in your body rather than thinking about the (past or future) events that are
    likely sparking your emotional reaction? Just pay attention to what is actually
    happening right now.

“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Getting Down to Work: Procrastination and Homework

by Dahlia Miller
March 2008

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (American Writer)

What we do doesn’t always make sense. Procrastinating is one of those behaviours that is really quite irrational. Despite not receiving any obvious personal benefit from procrastinating, people often engage in this type of behaviour over and over again. In fact, 95% of people procrastinate at least sometimes.

Students, especially, are prone to procrastination. It’s almost like they are testing to see if this work-strategy is actually effective. And, in most cases, it isn’t. So, the trick is to learn to recognize what procrastination looks like, and either train new habits or learn to use procrastination to advantage.

Are You a Procrastinator?
(Check as many as apply)

Do you ever:

Take many, many breaks in the middle of doing a task you don’t like.
Get up to fix a snack every time you sit down to work.
Have undone tasks piling up.
Sit down to work but find yourself daydreaming or distracted.
Wonder why you should bother doing a specific task (and come up with reasons not to do it).
Have a small or big task that you’ve been “meaning to do” for the longest time but never seem to get to it.
Carry books or texts in your pack (or have them sitting on your desk) but never actually read them.
Ignore projects until very close to their deadline.
Hand work in late.
Have to have everything “just right” before starting work.
Have trouble deciding what to do first – so you don’t do anything.
Write and re-write first sentences or paragraphs looking for the “perfect” words or the “perfect” start.
Cram for exams.
Rush out the door, nearly late for every appointment.
Feel sensitive when people ask if you’ve done your work.
Give up if something feels too difficult.
Put off work to the point of feeling uncomfortable about it.
Hope that your work will go away if you ignore it.
Feel guilty about being late with work or not getting it done at all.
Feel a nagging upset because you have been putting something off.
Fantasize about the terrible things that will happen if you don’t do this one thing.

Procrastination is a painful game to play, and it often ends up with the procrastinator not living up to his or her potential and feeling at least somewhat stressed. The procrastination equation is a complex one involving:

  • the amount of desire to complete the task (or motivation)
  • the expectation of success or failure (or confidence in one’s skills)
  • the value of completion (or reward)
  • the immediacy of task (or deadline)
  • the personal sensitivity to delay (anxiousness, perfectionism, or lethargy)

While almost everyone recognizes the down-side of procrastination, it’s not always easy to let go of the behaviour. Kids especially, may not know why they are procrastinating or how to make a change.

Tips for Procrastinating Students

  • Have a “work first” policy so that chores or homework are always done before TV or computer time.
  • Set a workspace away from distractions with a full set of supplies.
  • Get help when you need it.
  • Schedule free time. Students often take frequent breaks or avoid work altogether fearing that they won’t get any time off to play. This usually backfires as the time is often fused with an underlying sense of guilt or nervousness.
  • Make a list of tasks to complete. Prioritize the list so the most important ones are addressed early on.
  • Develop a system to tackle big or daunting jobs. Not knowing where to start can make a challenge seem un-do-able. If there is a known system for dealing with larger tasks, the fear of the unknown is reduced.
  • Break large tasks into more manageable steps and plot them on a calendar or timeline.
  • Reward completion of a task every step of the way. It’s easier to get work done knowing it will be recognized. A high-five, extra computer time, and a pat on the back are worthy rewards.
  • If 1 hour feels like too long to work, then set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and really focus during that time. Commit to working without interruption during that set period of time.
  • If a full chapter feels like too much to read, set a goal to read one page at a time (or one sentence or paragraph for younger students).
  • Do the hardest task first (or second). Get the most dreaded items up and off the slate first and everything will seem easier after that.
  • Imagine how great it will feel to be done with the task. Use your mind to focus on the relief, gratification and self-satisfaction of having completed the task rather than on the dread of not getting it done.
  • Make boring jobs more enjoyable by being creative – stand and walk or dance while memorizing, listen to music while doing mundane tasks, work with a friend.
  • Tell a friend about your task and your goal. Email or call to say how long you are going to work and then check in with them to see if you did the work. Making yourself accountable to a supportive, uninvolved person is a great motivator.
  • Set a routine for yourself – but start slowly with expecting yourself to conform to it. After you’ve gotten used to getting down to work at the same time every day, eventually it will become, well, routine and you’ll follow through on what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
  • If you find yourself procrastinating – do useful tasks that you might not get to normally during that time (clean your work area, plan ahead, do errands, help someone else, answer your mail, go for a walk, exercise).
  • If it’s on your to-do list more than 3 times, face up to it – it’s either not important enough for you to do or you’re not going to do it. Start the task or forget about it (obviously some tasks can’t really be forgotten, so get started).
  • Be okay with just being human. Don’t strive for perfection – there will always be small mistakes.
  • Congratulate yourself for working.

“I’m late … because I can’t decide which side of the bed to get out of.”
Anne Walsh (Irish Writer)

Mid-Term Study Skills Check-List

by Dahlia Miller
November 2007

The term is halfway finished. This is a great time to check in with your study habits. Tick the box that best matches how well you are doing. Total your score at the end of the quiz.

1 = needs improvement
2 = minimally meets my expectations
3 = fully meets my expectations
4 = exceeds my expectations

1     2     3     4

If I am uncertain about something being taught, I ask my teacher for clarification.

I have spoken directly with my teacher(s) about my progress and am clear about his/her suggestions for how I can improve.

My binders are organized with dividers that fit my needs, and I use them effectively.

My binders do not have any loose papers.

My notes or handouts each have a date on the top of the page and are organized by topic and date in my binders.

My notes or handouts each have a title on the top of the page so that I can easily tell the topic.

I have a system that is working well for me for transporting homework to and from school (i.e. my homework arrives at school in good condition, not looking crumpled or ripped).

I have been completing my homework on time.

I have been handing my homework in on time.

I review my notes every night for 5 minutes or more.

If I am in grade 9 or higher, I have begun reviewing for any final exams that I have at the end of this term (even just for 5-10 minutes per day).

My homework space is clear of distractions (visual or auditory).

I use my homework space to do my homework.

I take full responsibility for getting to my work – if I expect my parents to remind me to get started, I have made an agreement with them about what I need.

I use my imagination in my studying to keep things as creative and engaging as possible for myself.

If I find one type of assignment difficult, I try to look for ways to complete it that work for me (for example: typing instead of writing, multi-media instead of essay-format).

If I find myself distracted while studying, I gently bring my attention back to my work.

I am aware of my weak points in studying and am willing to make changes in my behaviour to improve.

I eat healthy snacks and meals, and keep myself hydrated.

My schedule includes time to play and relax as well as to get my work done and have a healthy sleep schedule.

I am aware that I am living my life everyday: when I am in classes, when I am doing homework, when I am playing sports or hanging out with my friends – I’m not just “going through the motions”.

If I feel nervous about my school performance, I take a deep breath, look around and remind myself that everything is okay right now.

Total Score ______ Total Score Divided by 22 (or 21 if you’re in grades 1-8)______

Are you meeting your own expectations for your studying? In what areas would you like to see yourself improve?

A story:
Everyday, a student opened his lunch to find a peanut butter and jam sandwich. He complained bitterly everyday at lunch, “Oh no. Not another peanut butter and jam sandwich! I hate peanut butter and jam. I’m so sick of having this for lunch everyday.”

His friends at first were sympathetic to his complaints, but eventually they started to get tired of hearing the same comments at lunch everyday. Finally, after several months, one of his friends said, “You obviously don’t like peanut butter and jam. Why don’t you ask your mom not to give you peanut butter and jam sandwiches?”

“My mom?” The student replied, “My mom doesn’t make my lunch for me. I make my own lunches.”

This is a funny little story. It reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions. We’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences, whether we like them or not. If we want different results, we’re the ones who will have to do things differently.

Even if your parents or teachers would like you to change your study habits, it is your self-image and choices that matter and will make the difference.

“All wish to possess knowledge, but few, comparatively speaking, are willing to pay the price.”
Juvenal (1st & 2nd century Roman poet)

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Kinesthetic Learners

by Dahlia Miller
December 2006

When taking new information in, we all have different strengths. Some people like to see new information (Visual Learners), some like to hear it (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around to learn (Kinesthetic Learners).

You know those people who jiggle their feet non-stop during an exam; who really seem to be in their element in PE, or art, cooking class, or science labs where learning is demonstrated through doing; who like to move around while talking on the telephone? Those people are likely kinesthetic learners.

Some Clues Revealing Kinesthetic Learners

Do you like to be active?
Do you prefer to do something to understand?
Do you like to run your fingers or hands over materials?
Do you take notes?
Do you often jiggle your pen or play with something you are holding?
Do you move your hands alot - like when you are explaining how to do something or you are giving directions?
Do you feel distracted if you’ve been listening, reading or watching for an extended time?
Do you continually shift things around?
Is it difficult for you to concentrate if you have to sit still for a long time?
When solving problems, do you like to write or draw diagrams?
Do you learn best when you can try something yourself?
Is it helpful for you to do many practice problems to really understand a concept for math or science?

About Kinesthetic Learners

Active, hands-on learning is important to the kinesthetic learner. These learners typically need to touch or do something in order to process new information. Even if new information is understood through seeing or hearing, kinesthetic learners prefer to have something to do – an exercise, a worksheet…before it’ll sink in, be really understood, and stick.

Some kinesthetic learners find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time. Their brains are stimulated by physical movement or touch, so being sedentary can set up a situation where the brain stops absorbing information due to lack of physical stimulation. For this reason, kinesthetic students can find the classroom setting challenging. If they are expected to sit, read, watch or listen for long periods of time they can easily find their thoughts and attention drifting.

Those students doodling, tapping their pens or wiggling their feet are most often kinesthetic students. This behaviour (while potentially distracting to other students or to the teacher) can actually help the student to stay focussed.

At the earlier grades, kinesthetic learners can be easier to accommodate in the classroom. Teachers often incorporate “manipulatives” (things like blocks, “power of ten” pieces, or money to teach and practise concepts in math, for example). But as curricula becomes more text and concept-based, as in the higher grades, it is often beyond the scope of the classroom for the teacher to incorporate physical exercises in teaching.

Some subjects can be challenging for kinesthetic learners. Essay writing can pose difficulties because students can feel bogged down in so many words and ideas with nothing (physically) concrete to work with.

Math above the grade four level can also be difficult for kinesthetic students to relate to. If the concepts and formulas are demonstrated as they operate in the real world, this potential problem can be avoided (for example, finding the volume of a cup using a real cup and water as well as the appropriate mathematical equations). Again, if the student is expected merely to work with concepts and formulas as they are presented orally or on paper, this may be quite difficult for the kinesthetic learner.

Reading long excerpts from texts may tire a kinesthetic mind. So many words just sitting there on the page may overwhelm the kinesthetic brain.

Kinesthetic students need to take responsibility for asking that information be presented in a manner that they can relate to. Asking, for example: “Can you show me how this works?” “What should I do here?” “What steps do I need to take to complete this problem?”

“The mind has exactly the same power as the hands: not merely to grasp the world, but to change it.”
Colin Wilson

Study Tips for Kinesthetic Learners

  • Study for short (but intense) periods - 50 minutes at max.
  • Sit on a ball rather than a chair when studying at home (this keeps the body constantly in action).
  • Underline or highlight as you read - or at least follow along with your finger.
  • Cover the page below where you are reading if you are reading dense text.
  • Make up actions to memorize new information - perform skits with study partners to remember poetry, history facts, plays, etc.
  • For math or science, do many practice problems to be sure you understand.
  • Try walking or bouncing a basketball, etc. while reciting information.
  • Write brainstormed ideas for essays on individual cards so that you can move them around to decide where to put them in the essay.
  • Create an outline of a chapter as you are reading it - maybe in cartoon form.
  • Write ideas on a gigantic piece of paper or white board with many colours to keep yourself very physical while brainstorming or reviewing notes.
  • Check if it’s possible for assignments to be completed in project form (for example a PowerPoint presentation of an essay rather than a written essay).
  • For spelling practice, try acting out the letters with your body, or drawing them with a chopstick (or your finger) in a pan of rice.
  • Keep a stress ball in your pocket to squeeze during class to help you maintain focus.

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Auditory Learners

by Dahlia Miller
November 2006

Like a fingerprint, your learning style is unique to you. No two people learn in exactly the same way. When taking new information in, we all have different strengths. Some people like to see new information (Visual Learners), some like to hear it (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around to learn (Kinesthetic Learners).

Most people tend to be stronger in one or two learning styles (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic).

If you know your learning style, you can tap into your natural potential. You can adjust your study style to maximize your time and efforts. If you know how you learn best, you can also communicate more effectively with teachers - you can ask them to present information to you in ways that suit you best.

Some Clues Revealing Auditory Learners

Is it easier to understand or remember information if you hear it or talk about it?
Do you like to have someone explain or describe how to do something?
When concentrating, are you very distracted by background noise? OR Do you prefer to have background noise when concentrating?
Do you like to listen to people or talk when waiting in line-ups?
When solving problems, do you like to talk yourself through the steps?
When solving problems, can you “replay” your instructors’ directions in your mind?
Is it helpful for you to ask a lot of questions when you’re learning new information?

About Auditory Learners

Auditory learners need to hear or talk about new information in order to process it. They tend to learn best when there is discussion about what is being learned.

As a group, strong auditory learners are somewhat difficult to describe. Individual auditory learners often have strong preferences for or against certain teaching styles or learning situations (as we'll see below). So, it's important for learners to know what works best for them, and for teachers to take into account the variety of possible preferences of their auditory learners (obviously in a classroom, with a mix of learners, this can be a great challenge).

Some auditory learners learn best by listening and some by talking, but most auditory learners combine these two styles and have strengths and weaknesses in each.

"Auditory Listeners" prefer to take new information in through listening. When someone is explaining a new topic, "auditory listeners" focus on what is being said and can sometimes remember directions or descriptions in great detail. These learners may like to hear stories or learn background context about what they are studying (or they may find this type of "off-topic" information distracting). It can be challenging for "auditory listeners" to be distracted when listening intently. For example, some auditory learners find it difficult to listen and take notes simultaneously, or to listen and refer to a visual at the same time. Background noise may promote focus for "auditory listeners", or break focus.

"Auditory Talkers" need to discuss what they are learning. They may like to ask a lot of questions to solidify what is being learned. It can often help them to "teach" newly learned information to someone else. In discussing their understanding of something new, "auditory talkers" form links between known information and new information. This oral processing (i.e. learning through speaking) helps them to recognize their level of understanding of the topic. Speaking also obviously gives "auditory talkers" an opportunity to hear and learn through listening as well.

"Men, in teaching others, learn themselves.”

When presenting information to an auditory learner, describe and explain the concepts thoroughly. Be sure to allow as many opportunities as possible for the person to ask you questions and discuss their understanding of your position. Ask questions of the student so that they have an opportunity to recognize their thought patterns aloud - this will help them to prepare to take new information in.

Using handouts, refer to them only to back up what you are discussing. If possible, explain all situations orally first, giving the auditory learner a chance to discuss topics, before you ask them to interpret visual information.

Study Tips for Auditory Learners

  • Ask questions in class. Ask for the topic to be explained, or for the teacher to tell you how to do the work - don’t just say you don’t understand.
  • Look at your study environment - is it too noisy, or would you like quiet music in the background? Definitely turn off the TV.
  • Talk to someone about what you are learning.
  • Ask yourself questions about what you are studying and look for the answers.
  • Repeat information or directions aloud to yourself (under your breath in class).
  • Make up songs or rhymes to memorize new information.
  • Read aloud when studying.
  • Read directions or instructions aloud - for all subjects. Then talk yourself through the steps to complete the assignment or problems.
  • To review, recite information you have learned.
  • When writing essays, try saying what you’d like to write, then write it down (or ask someone to scribe for you).
  • Check if it’s possible for assignments to be completed in audio form (for example an audio recording of an essay rather than a written essay).
  • Work with a study partner. Have them ask you questions about what you are learning.
  • Teach someone what you have learned.

“Drawing is speaking to the eye; talking is painting to the ear.”
Joseph Joubert

Tapping Potential with Learning Styles: Visual Learners

by Dahlia Miller
October 2006

We all learn differently. When you are learning something new, how do you like to have the information presented to you? Do you learn best when you watch someone, listen to someone, or try the new thing yourself?

Everyone has a different learning style. More specifically, each person has a preferred means of receiving information. Some people like to see things (Visual Learners), some like to hear things (Auditory Learners), and some like to touch or move things around (Kinesthetic Learners). Actually, most people are a combination of these three with one or more of the styles being dominant.

If you know your learning style, you can tap into your natural potential. You can adjust your study style to maximize your time and efforts. If you know how you learn best, you can also communicate more effectively with teachers - you can ask them to present information to you in ways that suit you best.

Teachers and parents can benefit from knowing their own learning style since most of us tend to present information in the style we are most comfortable learning. Our students and children, however, do not necessarily learn in the same style as we do. Having a greater awareness of our own learning style and how we typically present information can help us to become better teachers.

Most people tend to be stronger in one or two learning styles (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic). This doesn’t mean that if you are a strong visual learner you can’t learn by listening. But it does mean that your brain is more easily stimulated by seeing things, and that it’ll be easier for you to remember things you’ve seen than heard.

Some people don’t have one or two strong learning styles, instead they are balanced between all three styles. For this type of learner (and really for all learners), the more you use all the senses in learning, the better. For example, if you read silently, you are stimulating your visual sense. However if you read aloud while running your finger along under the words, you’re speaking, hearing, seeing and moving all at once. This means that you are learning in four ways at once - much more effective than just reading silently, don’t you think?

Some Clues Revealing Visual Learners

Is it easier to understand or remember information if you see it?
Can you picture things in your mind’s eye?
Do you like to have someone show you how to do something?
Do you like to look around or read when waiting in line ups?
Are you disturbed by a messy study environment?
Do you like to refer to written materials?
Do you like to look around the room and gaze at pictures, or other visual stimuli?

About Visual Learners

Visual learners prefer to see information in order to understand and learn. Some Visual learners learn best with pictures, and some with words. “Visual print” learners are especially attracted to words and written descriptions. their reading comprehension tends to be good and they usually prefer to read instructions rather than just listen.

“Visual picture” learners are typically attracted to how things look in relation to each other (shapes, colours). These learners are usually good at understanding graphs or diagrams. Both of these visual learners will be much more likely to retain information if they see it.

When presenting information to a visual learner, be sure to have something written or drawn (like a graph) to back up what you are saying. If you don’t have handouts or other visuals, write key words on the board or a piece of paper, if you can, and draw the person’s attention to your notes.

Study Tips for Visual Learners

  • Take notes in class and review them.
  • Use colours or symbols - anything to make the notes more interesting to look at.
  • Underline or highlight text as you read.
  • Draw diagrams to explain relationships between new and old information.
  • When studying for exams, write out what you know about the topic, then condense these notes to help you memorize.
  • Write out questions that you are working on.
  • Practice reading, writing or drawing at home.
  • Have a written schedule with clearly marked study times, project due dates and exam dates.
  • When beginning a large project, define what each of the steps is. Write these steps out, or draw them on a line showing the progress from start to finish.
  • Write a script for any oral exams or presentations.
  • Make diagrams or visual representations of projects that you need to build. If you are planning a 3-D model for chemistry, you may feel more grounded if you begin with an attempt to draw the model or if you write out words for what you are attempting to represent with the model.
  • When working with an essay brainstorm, colour code the ideas.
  • It can give a new perspective to essay or paragraph writing for the visual student to cut his essay into pieces (i.e. introduction, body 1, body 2, body 3, conclusion, etc.) and arrange the ideas on a table, perhaps even to colour-code them. This can aid the visual learner in conceptualizing the essay as a larger whole rather than focussing on the details of the words and sentences.
  • If you don’t absorb much of what the teacher is saying when there are no visual prompts provided, sit close to the teacher to watch her face as she speaks, and take your own notes as the teacher speaks.
  • Make flashcards for studying (use different colour cards)

“Furious activity is no substitute for understanding.”
H. H. Williams

Making Up for Lost Time in School

by Dahlia Miller
November 2005

“You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”
Benjamin Franklin

From time to time we all experience disruptions in our regular schedule. For students, missing school can cause a great deal of tension as they scramble to catch up. Luckily these disruptions are typically temporary and can be made up for with focus and support. This article explores the realities of making up for lost time in school and strategies for doing so.

We’ve all taken time off school for one reason or another. Sometimes the break is an educational one, sometimes it isn’t. Some typical reasons for students to miss school include: illness; travel; family event; involvement in extra-curricular activities, like sports or theatre; or exchange program.

Some typical responses to returning to the classroom include:

  • Feelings of confusion and embarrassment, watching as everyone else understands or uses new information;
  • Feelings of being frantic or nervous about marks;;
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed – that too much time will be wasted in playing catch up.;

Have you heard this story?
Once a young man went to a martial arts master to ask if he could be his apprentice. When they met, the young man said that he would study full-time and was willing to work hard. Then he asked how long it would take for him to become a master. “If you are willing to study full-time and work hard,” the master said, “it will take you five years.”

The young man was surprised. “But my parents need my support at home. I can’t be absent for so long. If I study very sincerely, with great effort and focus, how long will it take me to become a master?”

“If you study very sincerely, with great effort and focus, it will take you ten years,” replied the master.

The young man was very shocked. “I will study day and night,” he said, “How long will it take me to become a master if I study day and night?”

The master responded, “In that case, it will take you twenty years.”

The point of the story? If we put an extraordinary amount of pressure on ourselves with great expectations, we’ll be less likely to succeed. It’s best to relax into the moment, accept the present situation as it is, and focus.

The Focus For Students

1. Know What’s Expected
Are you expected to make up missed assignments? Some teachers won’t allow assignments to be made up. In this case, a focus on new assignments would be most productive. Some courses, like math, are cumulative – meaning that the new content is based on an understanding of old content – for these courses you’ll be lost if you don’t understand what was missed. In this case, you’ll need to work quickly to bring yourself up to speed with the rest of the class.

2. Scheduling & Time Management
Increase the amount of time you study for a limited time. If you don’t already use a calendar or day-timer to keep track of study time, now is a good time to start. Begin by marking in due dates for upcoming assignments, tests, and assignments you hope to make up. What will you give up in your schedule to make room for extra study time? What time of day are you most alert? Schedule extra study time then. Choose your study times and make the most of them – get rid of distractions.

3. Make Use of Teachers Find out when your teachers are available to meet with you. Ask about missed content and how much material they expect you to make up. Will they let you rewrite tests or reports that were missed? Do they have any extra practice worksheets for you? When asking for extra help, be specific about what you don’t understand (this will help your teacher to answer more of your questions).

4.Make Use of Classmates
Choose a student whose note-taking skills you trust and ask to borrow his/her notes (copy them by hand). Ask this student or others to discuss the content that you missed (this would benefit them as well in understanding the topic more thoroughly). Form a study group if a number of students have been away.

5. Make Use of Parents
If you are away unexpectedly, ask a parent to pick up study packages for you. Teach your parents materials that you are learning (they don’t need to understand what you are talking about, just listen while you practice explaining the topic).

6. Make Use of Tutors
Tutors can help you by teaching missed content and by keeping you on track with new materials and assignments.

7. Study Space
Study without distraction. Put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Find an alternative location, like a library, to study, if necessary.

8. Study Health
Treat yourself like an athlete on an intensive training program – focus on schoolwork as though you have a coach standing beside you. Study for 50-minute periods, take short breaks (especially for active exercise), eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water, and laugh often.

9. Study Techniques
Some techniques can be particularly helpful in making up lost time…Mapping – create diagrams to represent relationships between topics you’ve studied and those you’ve missed; Summaries – create or find summaries of the topics that you’ve missed (you may not have time to review all of the details, a surface understanding of the topics may be enough); Flashcards – make use of spare moments to study missed material (while waiting for a bus or in lines); Mnemonics – stories, songs, rhymes, and acronyms can help you to quickly remember information.

10. Course Syllabus
Review your course outline, if you were given one – it can help you to recognize what topics you missed, what they’re worth, and how they fit into the general context of the course.

11. Goal Setting
Set clear, achievable goals to help you to stay on track. How many missed assignments can you, or do you hope to, make up? What types of grades would you like to maintain in new course work as you catch up on missed work? Is there a grade that you would like to achieve by the end of the term? Remember that goals need to be realistic.

12. Positive Self-Talk
Whatever your goals, you’ll be more likely to achieve them if you have positive belief in your-self. Recognize the extra effort that you are putting in and reward yourself for it.

The Focus For Parents

  • Gather your student’s work from his teachers if he is sick.
  • Support a more intense study schedule – provide snacks, decrease chores, offer healthy foods, be sure that the student has a quiet study space.
  • Help your student to get organized and stay focussed on the big picture.
  • Discuss your student’s expectations and goals. Be sure to praise and reward efforts appropriately and often.
  • Provide study materials (e.g. big poster paper) to encourage your student to create maps and context for missing materials.
  • Provide opportunities for your student to explain topics to you. This gives them an opportunity to teach and reinforce their own learning.
  • Suggest getting help from others – classmates, teachers, or tutors.
  • Help your student to keep a broad perspective on missed school time – sometimes time off can be educational or beneficial to the development of the individual. Hopefully time off can at least help the student to recognize the benefits of education and being in school.

“Never regard study as a duty but as an enviable opportunity to learn.”
Albert Einstein

Being a Great Student

These articles all relate to taking personal responsibility for creative learning.

Accepting Responsibility for Your Learning

by Dahlia Miller
October 2010

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964)

Who is responsible for your future? Who is responsible for your success? You are! While there are definitely supporting players, you are the leading actor and the director of your life. You can choose to learn, to grow, to be a leader or not. It’s really up to you.

Caveat: Taking responsibility is a wide topic. Here we’ll focus on accepting responsibility for our own learning.

Just What Is ‘Responsibility’?

One way to think about responsibility is seeing it as our ability to respond to things (i.e. response-ability). This is our ability to express our free will through action. It’s how we interact with the world around us – something happens and we respond. If we want to change how things are, we can be pro-active rather than re-active. This requires taking a look at each situation as it arises and deciding our most appropriate response to it. This is how we became ‘response-able’. Meaning, we choose our responses; we aren’t just tossed about by the waves of circumstance.

We’re all different people, so how you respond to a situation may very well be different from how I respond to it. We all have different emotional responses and different thoughts, and we will all likely have a slightly different take on the best way to deal with or respond to a situation. Even how capable we think we are of responding will be different. But we can still all enable ourselves to respond. We can all be response-able.

To be response-able, we take action in some way after consideration; we don’t just sit back all the time to see how things play out. We become more response-able through practice, success, modeling, and experimentation with different responses to our actions. To experiment, we try a response and see what happens. Based on the reactions to our actions, we can do the same thing again in future or try something different.

But that’s not all there is to it. Responsibility is not just about our ability to come up with creative and appropriate responses to situations. It’s also about consistent follow-through. It’s about giving people a reason to trust that you will do what you say you will because you have a track record for doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

Other people’s versions of you are made up of the sum total of how you act, talk and generally behave around them (filtered through their own concepts of course).

It helps if we feel that others are open and receptive to our responses. But really, despite others’ willingness, or unwillingness, to accept our actions, we still need to be pro-active rather than re-active (as long as we are considering the safety, health and feelings of others). Our circumstances will change eventually if we practise having different responses.

Really, who else can assume responsibility for you? Whose responsibility is your education? Your future? Your success? Your choices in life? We need to accept the authority for our own choices. Our education, our success, our future – these are all things that we need to create for ourselves.

This type of approach requires us to be active participants in our lives – not passive recipients. It’s not enough to criticize the TV for its poor quality programming; we need to turn it off.

Sure we have all at some point in our life looked to ‘shift the blame’ or point a finger at others. But how far does this really fly? We can cry, blame, complain, or make excuses, but ultimately these responses make success harder to achieve. And they don’t really make the current situation feel or actually be any better, do they?

If we believe that we have free will, we’ll recognize that we have choices. Everything is a series of choices. It’s up to us whether we engage or not. So even if someone is not being so supportive or even seems to be blocking your progress, you are still responsible for how you respond. Knowing you need to eat it, what kind of cake will you make with the ingredients in front of you?

Being responsible doesn’t mean you can never make mistakes, or that you’re bad if you do. It does mean accepting the consequences of your actions without shifting blame. And when we do make mistakes, we can look for another way to do things next time. (Not just set up a victim-mentality for the rest of our days.)
What Are We Responsible for?

Stepen Covey divides the people in the world into three categories:


Group 3, the people you can impact, is the people around you in the world. They see your choices and may decide to model some of their behaviours after yours or not. Group 2 is your family and friends. You can make direct suggestions to them and they can choose to follow your advice or not. Group 1 is comprised of the one and only person you can change: you.

Lots of people talk about change, but they often are talking about how others ought to change. Few people talk about changing themselves, and even fewer people actually follow through on changing. Yet this is the only way – no one else can make you believe something or change your attitudes – only you can. So, no one else is responsible for your beliefs, attitudes, emotional responses or actions – only you are.

Being responsibility for our learning, means taking responsibility for our:

  • homework (bringing it home, doing it, handing it in, meeting deadlines)
  • academic choices (studying for tests, reviewing, paying attention in class, having all the supplies we need)
  • support sought (asking questions, selecting a supportive peer group, getting extra assistance)
  • attitude (believing in ourselves, being willing to learn)
  • interactions with others (adjusting our tone of voice and body language)
  • confidence (celebrating successes, rewarding effort, recognizing or ability and growth)
  • growth (being willing to take on new and exciting challenges, learning from mistakes)

Why Be Responsible?

Amazing things can happen when we step into the driver’s seat in our lives:

  • we gain wisdom through experience
  • we gain confidence
  • we feel more comfortable with our future
  • we become leaders
  • we give others space to grow when we do what we say we’ll do

Taking responsibility makes a lot possible in our lives.

How Can We Take Responsibility for Our Learning?

A wise man created a simple formula for taking responsibility for our learning:
1. If we don’t understand, ask.
2. If we don’t know, learn.
3. If we make a mistake, correct it.

Is it really that simple? Well, it can be.

If we want to take responsibility for our learning, we really need to step forward and ‘take it’. If we’re young, we can watch and learn from others, then try things for ourselves. The same goes for when we’re older, but maybe we can come up with some new ideas on our own.

It’s sometimes scary and not easy to be responsible. We all fear the unknown, and we’d all sometimes like to just step back and let others do everything for us. But if we allow fear or immaturity to rule our choices, then how will we grow? Our challenges are opportunities for us to be successful in the face of challenge.

Try new approaches – experiment with life.

Here’s an approach to experiment with: don’t offer excuses, ever, unless an explanation is requested. Instead just say sorry and say what you’ll do now or next time to avoid the same problem.

Finally, a few simple steps to creating success:

  • engage
  • trust yourself
  • do the work
  • celebrate

“Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creature of man.”

Being Successful in the Middle School Classroom

September 2003

This month’s issue of The Smart Connection is an interview with Jane Spies a Smart Tutor Referrals tutor and teacher with 6 years experience in middle school classrooms.

STR: Can you define “success” in the middle school classroom?

Jane: Well, what I immediately think of when I think of success in the middle school classroom is when students are prepared for class; they’re organized; they’re on time; they attend school regularly; they do their best, and they have a positive attitude. Also surrounding themselves with supportive and positive friends will help lead to success.

STR: How can students prepare themselves for class in fall?

Jane: Be rested. Have supplies ready. Read over the summer to work on vocabulary. Review basic math facts.
Ask questions at the school if you have any concerns. If you’re new, go and check the school out before it starts.
Set goals for the year – think back about last year and look at what you want to improve. If you struggled in Language Arts last year, then set the goal of working to improve that.

STR: After classes have started, how can students get organized?

Jane: The first thing is to make sure all of your supplies and materials are together before you start working. Put everything in a binder. If you have a Social Studies binder, put all of your Social Studies work in it.

Put the name and the date and the title on all your work so that you know in what order things go in your binder.

Keep all of your notes and assignments for one subject in one area so you can find your homework and review for tests more easily.

Also fill out your agenda, planner or homework book regularly so that you know what to do for the next day or the next week. This will help you to use time wisely.

STR: Is it a good idea for students to have a separate binder for each subject?

Jane: That really depends on your teacher. Some teachers will want things in duo-tangs, some teachers will want things in binders. But if you use a binder, if you have more than one subject in there, use a divider – label things.

STR: What tips can you offer for doing homework?

Jane: Set a specific time of day each day to do homework – maybe after a snack or a break. Some kids come home and they do homework right away after school. That works for some people, but I know for myself, I like to have a break first.

Ask questions and seek help if you don’t understand. Teachers are often available if your parents can’t help you – ask your teacher.

If you’re away, make sure you get missed homework, notes or whatever you’re missing.

Prioritize homework – do the most difficult first. Make sure homework gets done on time. If something’s not due until Friday, and you’ve got something else due tomorrow, work on tomorrow’s homework first.

STR: How can middle school students study for tests most effectively?

Jane: : Study without distractions - somewhere where you won’t be interrupted or in a quiet place where you can’t hear the TV. Some kids work better with a little bit of noise, but most kids need silence and no distractions.

Find out what is on the test. Teachers will usually tell you, but if you’re not sure, go ask. Find out what kind of test it is too – because if it’s a written answer test, you’ll probably have to do a lot more memorizing than for a true-false or multiple choice test.

Write down your key terms. Read over your notes. Practice. Memorize.

STR: What can parents do to support their kids to success?

Jane: Be informed about what’s going on in school. Ask your kids about their homework. Ask them to show you their homework or their projects each night. Students at this level will usually have homework every night.

If necessary, help monitor homework that is to be done. Check the planner.

Talk to teachers about any concerns. Go into the classroom and check it out. Get the kids to show you their desk. This is the best way to stay informed.

If a child is sick or away, pick up homework for them after talking to the teacher. (Make sure that you give the teacher enough time to pull some work together for your child.) Talk to the teacher if you know the student is going to be away – be proactive so that your child will know what is going on so they won’t get bombarded with work when they get back to school.

Encourage them to keep a positive attitude when things get rough.

Find out where your kid is at. Don’t wait until the report card comes. Ask your child, sit down and talk with them. Ask them how it’s going in school. Other things may come up too when you listen, like bullying. So it’s important to take the time to sit down with your kid to find out what’s going on in school.

STR: What is the single most important thing that a student can do to be successful in the middle school classroom?

Jane: Have a positive attitude. You can problem-solve the rest of it.

Engaging Creativity in Learning and in Life

by Dahlia Miller
September 2008

“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.”
Gilda Radner, Comedienne (1946-1989)

Our minds enjoy repetition – we’re so stuck on repetition, that we’ll repeat habits, even if they’re uncomfortable. We’ll stay inside our ‘comfort zone’ even in new situations. We’ll repeatedly approach new challenges and problems with the same mind-set or concept, even if our approach isn’t providing the desired response.

Lulled into complacency and a sense of familiarity, we start to truly believe that what we think about the universe is the full extent of reality. But how could it be? How could it be that we already have a complete understanding of all phenomena, all events, all things, all ideas? How could our perspective be complete if it didn’t include the unknown? Stepping out into the great unknown, with a sense of fun, we can explore the world around us and step into our potential.

Using our imaginations as we learn, we tap the highest levels of our intelligence. ‘Playing at it’ rather than ‘working at it,’ learning becomes its own reward.

Have you ever seen the faces of people who have lived to be over 100 years old? They typically seem so totally engaged in living their lives. Like babies, they appear to be excited and stimulated by everything around them. They nearly always have huge smiles on their faces. They look nice to be around.

Boredom, on the other hand, can sink in from not seeing the potential in each new moment, because of familiarity, or because of fear (of stepping outside our comfort zone, usually). Actually, fear is something that we make up. It’s our choice whether to fully engage or not.

As a child, I used to wonder what it would be like to work as a writer for Walt Disney or for The Muppet Show, Monty Python or SCTV. I envisioned the ridiculous and hilarious time the people behind the scenes would be having coming up with new material for each new show. I imagined them bent over from laughing so hard holding a pen in one hand and a handkerchief in the other wiping tears from their eyes. How much fun would that be: working with a group of writers, each spurring and inspiring the other to new heights of humour! What a great job. “But gee,” I would wonder, “How did they learn to be so creative, spontaneous and fun?”

From the Muppet show:
Heckler #1: Was that joke good or what?
Heckler #2: Oh, did you like it?
Heckler #1: I was asleep. That’s why I was asking if that joke was good or what.

Couldn’t we be ridiculous more often? Couldn’t we inspire each other with questions and answers that require us to think in new ways or from new perspectives? Couldn’t we use the gift of our imagination to amuse ourselves and others more – or to express ourselves more deeply? What kind of impact might this have on our ability to think creatively? (I’m talking mostly about using humour here, but certainly the same points apply to the creative expression of beauty, design, and passion in art, dance, speaking, engineering, cooking, sculpture, wood work, mechanics, music, sewing, etc. – basically any way that humans creatively express themselves and communicate.)

What might happen if we took the same familiar essay topic “What did you do for your summer vacation?” and turned it around… “What would you have done this summer if you had been a fly?” “What would you have done over the summer if you had known you would have to write this essay?” Or for the brave, “What did you do on your summer vacation when you thought no one was looking?”

Sure students need to learn to think within the lines, to answer logical questions logically and prepare for structured essays and exams. High school students are competing on an international playing field for university entrance. But what are the universities really looking for? What are employers (and society) really looking for from young people? It’s not just the ability to memorize and respond to questions in a test setting (although of course this is a useful skill that is applicable in a number of real life settings like responding quickly in a disaster situation, for example). In addition to good test writers, universities, employers and society are looking for well-rounded people: people who can think spontaneously and creatively to respond to situations as they arise. How can we help young people to learn to think spontaneously and creatively? We can start by asking them questions that help to spark their imaginations.

There is so much external stimulation in kids’ environments these days. But have you noticed how bored and uninterested many young people and young adults seem? With so much coming at them, I believe one reason they’re bored is because they hardly need to generate any stimulation for themselves.

Have you heard of the psychology experiments done in the 1950’s around sensory deprivation? People were paid to stay in a sensory deprivation chamber for several days. The chamber was sound-proof, scentless and padded. People wore thick suits with stiff arms and heavy gloves and socks (so they wouldn’t feel much). They wore earmuffs and translucent goggles that let in light but prevented them from seeing any shapes or patterns. Then they were asked to lie down on a cot in the chamber (leaving only to eat and use the bathroom). The participants began to hallucinate after just a few hours of near-complete sensory deprivation. With nothing to see, hear, smell, taste or touch, their 6th sense, their minds, started creating things to stimulate them.

What does this tell us? Well, it’s sort of the opposite of the situation for the majority of young people today. Most people these days are so over-stimulated by their environment (mostly through media and technology), that perhaps, their minds are not finding occasion or reason to imagine. Through lack of use of their imaginations, they are becoming bored.

Our global reality continues to change at an accelerating rate. Change is certain.What we can prepare our students (and ourselves) for is to be creative and spontaneous: to respond appropriately and with the full extent of ability to each new situation. This can’t be done with simple rote memorization or the same old attitude/approach to learning/teaching.

Spontaneity can’t be copied, but it can be taught and learned. Here are a few points to get you started thinking about creative ways to engage with learning:

  • Socrates never answered questions; he only asked them – forcing his students to stretch their minds and imaginations to find their own answers.
  • Teaching very structured formats (for writing or painting, for example) can allow creativity to flow, as in the case of poetry or ‘knock knock’ jokes.
  • Thinking of things from a different point of view, shifting perspective, can inspire new ways of approaching situations. Try imagining yourself as a cloud looking down on a problem, or as an insect looking up at it, or as yourself 25 years older looking back at it…what new thoughts spring to mind?
  • Moving or observing everything in slow motion is a fun yet surprisingly challenging way to see things differently.
  • Work with what’s happening, like an ‘improv’ comedian. Step into the moment: look around you where you are, take each situation in unquestioningly and see what there is to work with.
  • Notice the box you are standing in and step out of it – to the left, to the right or straight up.

“The future is uncertain…but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.”
Ilya Prigogine, Russian Nobel Laureate chemist (1917-2003)

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Scott Adams, Cartoonist (1957 -

Gratitude and Learning

February 2010

This first newsletter for 2010 focuses on gratitude and its impact on learning. The article is an interview with Sarala Godine and Delaney Tosh, Victoria-based creators of the gratOodle, a simple counter to help track feelings of gratitude as they come up through the day.

STR: What is gratitude?

According to Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, gratitude is “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.”

Sarala: To use an old cliché, gratitude is a way of seeing your glass as half full instead of half empty. And you can train yourself to do that. Some people have a natural tendency to see the glass as half empty. Seeing emptiness, you’ll have a cloud over your thinking.

Delaney: Gratitude is a way of savouring your life and enjoying what’s there. It’s a strategy for happiness, a great way to move out of worry and concern. You’re not able to carry a sense of gratitude and carry thoughts of worry at the same time.

Studies that compare those who reflect on gratitude to those who don’t have proven these benefits to gratitude:

  • fewer physical symptoms,
  • feeling better about their lives as a whole,
  • more optimistic about upcoming events,
  • more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based),
  • higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy,
  • more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another,
  • greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality,
  • more positive attitudes toward school and their families.

STR: How can gratitude affect one’s ability to learn and to be open to new ideas?

D: When we’re focused on worry and concern, thoughts go to the challenge and difficulty and what’s not working. If you can find something to be grateful for, you’ve opened your thoughts in a new way. You can then learn something new about the situation. You become less cluttered in your thinking and enhance your ability to see opportunities, learn new things and try out new strategies.

S: It’s like if a car gets stuck in the snow and keeps spinning its wheels, it’ll go nowhere. If we are stuck in a rut and don’t change our attitude, we will see things from one perspective only. When we’re excited about life and feel grateful it can allow us to see things in a whole new light. This helps us to become more creative.

D: I use gratitude in my coaching with business and corporate clients. I notice people tend to stay stuck in a problem when they keep looking at it from the ‘problem’ angle and seeing it as a problem with a negative impact. Through the coaching process, I get them to look at what they might be learning in the experience, what they might be grateful for or what the benefits might be in the ‘negative’ situation. (Essentially this is asking people to look for what they are grateful for even in a negative situation. And it’s always ‘the learning’.) Once they start to explore the learning and what’s there for them, they are then able to go back and see other options for how they can be or other actions they can take to move toward a solution. It works like a charm every time.

D: Coming from a perspective of looking for what you’re grateful for in every situation, you’re able to formulate other ideas for what to do.

S: And feel a whole lot better in doing it since your load feels lighter.

D: A friend recently did a study of the brain that I participated in. He hooked people up to measure EEG activity (recording overall
activity of the millions of neurons in the brain). This study was interesting. They measured our brains as we were playing a game where we had to find objects. What I noticed is that each person had a strategy and used it every time no matter what. Then the experimenters changed the way the game worked. Everyone tried their old strategy first and of course it didn’t work. We all tend to be habitual; wanting to do things the same old way until something knocks us out of the pattern.

Taking it back to gratitude, I think that if we can look at situations in a new light, and find what it is that we are happy about, or at least grateful for, in any situation, we can take ourselves out of that patterned way of thinking and, therefore, be open to learning.

Dr. Alice Isen at Cornell University discovered that, “Happy people [are] better able to engage their imaginations, less constrained by assumptions. They [are] more flexible in their thinking, perceiving unusual but sensible ways of categorizing material and relationships between categories that at first glance seem…unrelated.”

D: There’s actually different activity in the brain when you feel grateful and happier, more enthusiastic, alert, engaged in life.

When we’re unhappy or stressed, our higher level brain functioning shuts down and our body engages in fight or flight responses. Our frontal and pre-frontal cortexes are all about strategizing, but when you are stressed, the flow of energy is shifted to the limbic system which regulates your flight or fight responses. Being in this mode doesn’t serve you well when you’re sitting down to strategize or when you’re in a stressful situation like a test.

When we notice what we’re grateful for, we stop ourselves from getting stressed. We’re better able to strategize and to pay attention to what is happening and what people are saying.

STR: How is gratitude important to students, parents and educators?

S: Having discussions with kids about gratitude, helps children learn not to take things for granted. It helps them to cultivate deeper values and notice things they had not paid attention to in the past.
D: Imagine classrooms of students acknowledging themselves. They’d be more likely to perform random acts of kindness. We have the capacity to create a classroom of more engaged, more helpful kids through teaching gratitude.

S: Students and parents can start to focus on what they’re good at; celebrating and giving permission to build self esteem.

D: Several years ago, a Port Moody principal, who is now known for her ‘Bullybeware’ program, developed a code of conduct for her school. One of the strategies was to provide regular and timely recognition for positive behaviours and contributions to the school’s culture. It seemed to me that essentially, everyone was engaging in expressing gratitude for what they wanted more of in their school’s culture. The purpose was to support everyone in developing better self-esteem and respect for others. The net effect was a school that captured a lot of attention for their success with reducing the incidents of bullying in their school.

S: I used to run workshops in schools on the
topic of bullying. Low self esteem is definitely one of the factors in bullying. If we can help kids to recognize their positive qualities, their strengths, what they can be grateful for about themselves and others, their self esteem will improve. This way you focus on strengths.

D: At exam time – how do you cope with that situation? What strategy are you using? Being grateful for all the studying you’ve done, you’ll be less likely to go to a stressed space.

STR: How can one cultivate gratitude?

  • Notice what you’re grateful for
  • Express gratitude to the people around you
  • Notice others’ contributions to our lives
  • Itemize things you’re grateful for
  • Look for how your glass is half full
  • Look for what can be learned in situations
  • Discuss it: at the dinner table, with friends, in the classroom
  • Keep a ‘Best Possible Self’ diary
  • Journal
  • Use a gratOodle

S: Gratitude is an action; it’s like exercise. If you just think about being fit, you won’t get fit. If you want to be grateful and bring happiness into your life you have to train yourself to notice all the things you have to be grateful for in a day. The more you notice the more you find and the better you feel.


by Dahlia Miller
April 2007

“Flogging will continue until morale improves.”
Anonymous Joke

Where does motivation come from? It’s a spark of energy and excitement that isn’t easy to describe. Besides, what motivates one person might not spark any interest at all in another. Of course we are all different – but not that different. We all want to feel confident, interested, recognized for our abilities and engaged in useful work.

For students, motivation is especially important. A student’s work takes many years to complete. Full-time study often requires students to study a subject they don’t have a natural liking for. In order to learn, students must constantly push themselves outside of their comfort zone. These, and many other factors (including personal and parents’ expectations) can test a student’s persistence, interest-level, drive to achieve and self-esteem.

Motivation can come from inside or outside a person. Motivation through fear (for example, fear of a parent’s reaction, fear of a low grade, fear of rejection from friends, fear of failure) is an example of external motivation. This type of motivation doesn’t last. Fear can motivate, but the motivation to act disappears if the source of fear is removed. One cannot spark a person’s desire with force. Internal motivation, on the other hand, comes from within and is generally considered to be more durable and self-enhancing.

Students who are motivated, are interested in what they are doing. They keep working even if they encounter difficulties. They obviously enjoy their work. There are lots of different pieces to the motivation puzzle. It’s easier to be motivated if one has a healthy lifestyle – eating well, exercising often, and taking time to be with friends.

High self-esteem also contributes to motivation – if you think you can do it, you are more likely to want to try. Having reasonable expectations of one’s performance, and positive support at home contribute to a student’s motivation level. Personal interest in the course also helps, as does the enthusiasm of the instructor, and the instructors’ interest in the students. Courses that cover material relevant to the student at an appropriate level of difficulty (with appropriate examples) are more likely to inspire motivation. As well, variety in learning activities and active involvement of students with the material make it easier to get geared up to achieve.

Some Reasons Students Become Unmotivated:

  • They aren’t sure of the next step.
  • They are unclear about what they are being asked to do.
  • The goal is not their own.
  • They think they won’t be able to achieve the goal.
  • They think they won’t receive enough of a reward.
  • They are trying to escape an authoritarian parent or teacher.

Sparking Motivation

True motivation comes from within, yet it is possible to spark a student’s internal fire of motivation. There is a process to motivating others, though. It takes time and patience. It also takes skill to help a person to grow.

The first step to motivating a student is to talk with him or her. Sit down, ask what is important to him/her, and then use your listening muscles to hear what is being said.

Questions you’ll want to find the answers to in discussing motivation include:

  • How does your student feel about the topic and studying?
  • What is important to your student?
  • What does your student think s/he is capable of accomplishing (i.e. any false ceilings)?
  • What is your student expecting to happen with the topic and his/her learning?
  • What does your student think are the sources of his/her lack of motivation?
  • Again, what is important to your student?

The more you understand your student, the better you’ll be able to appeal to his/her true interests and values.

Tips to Creating an Environment that Sparks Internal Motivation

  • Gather information about the student’s interests, energy and confidence– talk with parents, teachers, but most importantly with the student.
  • Discuss your student’s current level, ability and motivation.
  • Discuss your student’s concrete goals. What does s/he want to have learned, by when, and how will s/he know if the goal has been achieved?
  • Consider the best approach for your student. Talk with your student about your ideas. Lay your plan out on a timeline; starting from the present, show the steps you’ll take together to reach his/her goals. Having concrete goals and clear steps can help to alleviate vague fears.
  • Express your belief in the process and in your student’s ability to succeed. Knowing that someone else believes in you can be a powerful motivator.
  • Be sure that your student sees the benefits of changing his/her habits, if necessary. (Remember it has to be a benefit from the student’s point of view.)
  • Brainstorm rewards for accomplishments. (A bit of conditioning comes in handy when you are working with someone to facilitate a change in habits!) Match your rewards to your student…do they want time off, a treat, a pat on the back, to play a game, money, tickets to a concert, recognition…

Tips For Creating Motivating Tutorials, Classes & Homework Time

  • Use positive feedback and encouragement often. Be specific and brief when discussing mistakes.
  • Tutorials ought to be a safe environment to make mistakes. Be sure to give work that is appropriate to the student’s level and then encourage experimentation.
  • Help your student feel valued as a learner and an important part in the learning community. When possible allow your student to choose what will be studied.
  • Build on your student’s strengths. You might, for example, use your student’s strength in math to build self-esteem and willingness to challenge in reading.
  • Break each task into smaller tasks – completing small steps can foster a sense of accomplishment.
  • Celebrate the small and big steps along the way. People love to be loved. If we’re getting a lot of positive reinforcement for doing something, we’re much more likely to want to keep doing it.
  • Hold high but realistic expectations. Emphasize mastery and understanding rather than grades.
  • Help to set up schedules or prioritized lists to keep your student stay on track.
  • Be enthusiastic about the topic and about learning.
  • Make it fun.
  • Be interested and interesting. Offer interesting exercises and topics for discussion; give your undivided attention. Take the time to mentor and model a healthy relationship to learning – be curious and look for answers.
  • Give clear directions or clarify what is being asked. When people know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to try to meet expectations.
  • Offer helpful support along the way – help find solutions (rather than simply presenting the solutions). If you notice your student having difficulty with something, offer assistance in working through the problem.
  • Show the relevance of the topic to the world beyond the textbook. It can be especially great if the work can be related to one of the student’s values or interests.
  • Help your student find personal meaning and value in the material – help your student see success as a valuable aspect of his/her personality.

“Help people become more motivated by guiding them to the source of their own power.”
Paul G. Thomas

Teacher’s Pet: Wanna Be One?

by Dahlia Miller
December 2004

“One pound of learning requires ten pounds of common sense to apply it.”
Persian Proverb

Some people might call it “sucking up” but we prefer to refer to it as “modeling positive student behaviour”. Being a teacher’s pet pays off.

The fact is teachers are human. They like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. Teachers like to see a spark in their students’ eyes. They eat that up. Of course, teachers want to be objective; they look for the best in all their students. But the bottom line is, they are human. They respond better to what they like.

What does this mean for you? It means that, if you know what your teachers like, you can give it to them and they’ll like that. They’ll smile more favourably on you and on the work that you submit to them. You’ll be paving the way to better grades*.

You don’t have to suck up to “model positive student behaviours”. We’ve interviewed over a hundred tutors on what qualities or behaviours they like best in students.

Below is a list of attitudes and actions that teachers go ga-ga for. Use them and watch as your relationship with your teacher becomes easier.

Teachers Love Students Who (Are):


  • Want to learn
  • Have a goal of becoming more educated
  • Looking for help or instruction
  • Studying by choice


  • Study hard
  • Try their best to learn


  • Hand in completed work regularly
  • Come to class on time


  • Come to class with all materials
  • Ready to work


  • Ask questions
  • Think about what they’re learning
  • Consider different angles to look at new information from.
  • Consider: Why is this topic being taught?; What might come next?; What’s the bigger picture?; Investigate more on the topic

Work With (not against)

  • Have a friendly attitude
  • Adaptable to change
  • Willing to try new things
  • Participate in class
  • Get to work when work is given
  • Create positive rapport with teacher
  • Respect classmates and teacher
  • Honest
  • Suggest approaches that work for them. Ask questions to get the answer in the best way (for example, ask the teacher to draw an example, tell a story, explain the basic rules, etc.)


  • Set goals and check back on them
  • Have notes, assignments, quizzes and other course materials organized in binders
  • Have time in schedule for study and review

Take Care of Themselves

  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Eat good food
  • Drink lots of water
  • Have fun
  • Get involved with friends, sports, interest groups, music, community


  • Take notes in class
  • Do homework
  • Study for exams
  • Not distracting others in class
  • Review notes
  • Keep up with class readings
  • If miss a class, get notes from a classmate who takes good notes

This is a long list. Luckily, most of the things on it are just plain good for you and many of them take little effort. The choice is yours.

“Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”
Chinese Proverb

*We offer no guarantees on this outlandish claim.

The Sometimes Hilarious Art of Self-Celebration

by Dahlia Miller
June 2004

“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”
Katherine Hepburn

Have you ever scored a touchdown in football? Did you do that little dance in the end-zone…you know the one…raise your arm and slam the football down (be it leather or be it nerf), point your toes together, wiggle your knees in and out, wiggle your butt, point those fingers to the sky and boogie down!

What is that about?

Celebration! Self-Celebration!

Doesn’t that dance feel great? It almost doesn’t matter if you battled the length of the field in the championship game or caught the ball on a fluke in a friendly game of touch football when the other guy tripped on his shoelaces. Whatever the circumstances, boogying in the end-zone feels good. And it makes you want more, doesn’t it?

Celebrating our accomplishments can help us to become better people and better students. When we focus on how we are succeeding, we begin to attract more successes into our lives. Celebrating is fun and can bring a sense of lightness to even the most serious of projects.

A friend of mine, a writer whom I consider very successful, has made a fool of herself more than once practicing the art of self-celebration. She has related to me the story of losing herself in some writing she was doing at her busy local library. Forgetting her surroundings, upon finishing the editing of a particularly difficult article, she suddenly jumped up and shouted “Yes!” at the top of her lungs – one of those long-drawn out cries of victory. The quiet-seeking library patrons were not impressed, nor were the librarians. (My friend has not yet been evicted from a library, but she has been warned on more than one occasion.)

Another time, in a very posh restaurant, my friend sprang from her chair to give her companion a spirited high-five. Juice splashed; someone screamed; my friend laughed even louder. The opinions of others don’t seem to faze this friend of mine. Her good opinion of herself seems to matter most to her. Feeling good about following through on her goals is a prime motivator for her. She builds success upon success and has fun doing it too.

Celebration feeds motivation. With high motivation, we have the energy to live our lives well. We also enjoy ourselves more. People who are highly motivated usually do and achieve more. Rewarding ourselves will have a cumulative effect, we will feel more motivated, and we will have the energy to build more positive habits.

Other Effects of Celebration

  • Build on successes – feel a sense of achievement everyday
  • Build self-confidence
  • Have more fun
  • Acknowledge what you’ve done
  • Be happier
  • Charge your batteries – looking for success puts a positive slant on the day
  • Motivate others

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes

When to Celebrate

One trick about this business of using positive reinforcements to build positive behaviours: the reward needs to happen quite soon after the behaviour. If the body receives a reward soon after performing a behaviour, it will associate the behaviour with the reward. (Yes we really are that simple to program.)

For students, many times the built-in rewards for studying (getting good grades, graduating, going on to a successful higher education and career) are very far off into the future. To use celebration as a way to improve your studies, you’ll need to bring those rewards closer.

One way to bring far-off rewards closer is to build upon small rewards in reaching for a big one. For example, if you want to go out to a movie tomorrow night, but have to study for two tests, you could put two quarters into a jar for each 30 minutes that you focus. After each study period, put your quarters into that jar. You can watch the number of quarters in the movie fund jar grow as you study and feel good about your accomplishments at the same time.

Some Specific Times to Celebrate

  • Everytime you do what you set out to do – small and large steps alike (remember immediacy is the key)
  • When you make a plan
  • When you take action on a plan
  • When you stick to a plan
  • When you do something nice - for yourself or someone else
  • Everytime you try something in a new way
  • When you catch yourself being judgemental - of yourself or someone else
  • Everytime you do your household chores – who says you can’t throw the dish towel on the counter and boogie every night?
  • Anytime you want to celebrate!

How to Celebrate

Make a list of rewards to suit you. Here are some ideas for rewards and ways to celebrate your efforts and accomplishments:

  • Give a high five – surprise your parents/ kids
  • Pat yourself on the shoulder – this really works!
  • Say, “way to go,” “hooray,” or another phrase that feels good
  • Put a quarter in a jar every time you study for 1 hour and save up for something you want
  • Take some free time
  • Read a book
  • Listen to music
  • Do art
  • Sing
  • Do the moon dance, the chicken walk or some other equally ridiculous dance
  • Jump for joy
  • Slam that towel down and boogie!
  • Give or buy yourself a present or treat
  • Relax
  • Exercise
  • Play a sport

Remember the key is to celebrate small tasks right away with small rewards as you move to complete a large task. So, get out there and act silly. There is no other life to live except the one you are living now.

Exam Preparation Skills

These articles all relate to preparing for exams.

Addressing Exam Anxieties

by Dahlia Miller
May 2005

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Exam anxiety is a very real phenomenon for many, many students. And it’s no wonder - a great deal of emphasis is placed on exams, these days. At the same time our society seems to feel uncomfortable with expressing anxiety, so little is done in schools to address students’ anxious feelings.

Below are some typical exam-anxiety behaviours. If you notice yourself, your child, your student, or your friend displaying any of these behaviours, you can help them by taking the time to listen to their fears. Just knowing that someone cares, or that there are other students out there who share the same anxiety about exams, can bring some relief. The second half of this article lists tips for moving beyond exam anxiety. Please pass them on.

Signs of Exam Anxiety

Feeling fearful
Concern about the outcome of exams
Shallow breathing
Tension in the shoulders
Tension in the stomach
Inability to focus
Lack of interest in studying
Overzealous, compulsive studying
Distracted – under-productive studying
Avoiding studying
General uneasiness
Certainty that won’t achieve desired grade on test
Fear about “freezing” at exam
No emotions about exam at all
Shaking hands
Perpetual negative outlook
Focus on history of “bad test” experiences
Thinking everyone else is more prepared
Worrying about not living up to expectations
Worrying about not completing the exam
Worrying about being confused by exam questions
Worrying about studying the wrong material
Forgetting to study
Forgetting time, date of test
Not sleeping well
Not eating well – healthy amounts of healthy foods
Not exercising or playing
Lethargic- lack of interest even in hanging out with friends
Not laughing
Restless mind – can’t settle down to study or relax
Over-reacting emotionally - quick to anger or tears
General negative attitude
Unwillingness to sit down and study
Biting nails – or other nervous habits
Not asking for help or expressing anxious feelings – pretending nothing is wrong
Over-attention to unnecessary details – re-organizing books, polishing shoes
Feelings of overwhelm
Feelings of anger or powerlessness

What Can We Do To Alleviate Exam Anxiety?

  • Recognize anxious thoughts and behaviours as they arise.
  • Talk with someone about your feelings.
  • Gain some perspective – how important is this grade in the scope of your life?
  • Consider this an opportunity to grow – you won’t feel as anxious next time if you transform some of your worry now.
  • Practise relaxation techniques – deep breathing – try just watching your belly as you take ten breaths.
  • Meditate - listen to meditation tapes.
  • Relax your muscles; your shoulders; especially your facial muscles.
  • Eat at least four or five fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar.
  • Listen to your words – don’t criticize your study/exam-writing abilities.
  • Acknowledge all that you are doing to prepare – give yourself credit.
  • Read some of our articles on exam prep and study skills for tips on how to prepare.
  • Go for a walk in nature – by the water or in the trees.
  • Exercise – release some of that physical tension.
  • Take some time to play.
  • Exercise your courage.
  • Set some reasonable, achievable goals for yourself – including study goals.
  • Reward yourself when you follow through.
  • Have faith in your future – what are the opportunities in this experience?
  • Set time to study.
  • When you study, do something quick and easy first, then do the hardest thing second.
  • Remember that whatever happens, everything will be alright.
  • Hug someone.
  • View the exam as a challenge to be mastered.
  • Define /identify the rewards you will gain by mastering the challenge of the exam.
  • Encourage an optimistic attitude in yourself – program positive messages.
  • Believe in your ability.
  • Recognize your power – exams are a reality but you are not helpless.
  • Get to work – doing the work will alleviate some of your stress.
  • Partner with someone – share your goals (for studying and exams) and your feelings.

Anxious feelings don’t go away if they are ignored. They need to be brought out in the light of day and recognized. Accepting nervousness and acknowledging it helps to calm the feelings. We can soothe anxieties with positive action. Speaking and acting with confidence and calm will remind us that we are capable of doing what needs to be done.

Now give yourself a pat on the back and go study!

“If you are afraid because you have no self-confidence and feel that nothing you do will ever succeed, stop a while to think it over. Try to see why you imagine you are a loser before you have even started. You won’t find any really valid reason. The problem stems from your way of thinking, not from a real ineptitude.”
H.H. The Dalai Lama

How to Get Your Best Score on Every Test

Dahlia Miller
November 2003

“Success is a journey, not a destination.”

Taking a test is like running a race. Someone else is there grading your performance, while you work to show your best effort. The runners who do well in races are the ones who practise. Likewise, the people who do well on tests are the ones who put in the hours practising what they’ve been learning.

If you want to do your best on every test, you can’t wait until a day or two before the test to begin to study. You’ve got to put in the hours each night to keep yourself up to speed with your classes. Good test performance is dependent on good study habits.

Study Habits that are Essential to Good Test Performance:

  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Reading for comprehension
  • Note-taking
  • Memory development
  • Ability to express newly learned information in your own words
  • Ability to cope with test stress

Tips for How to Spend Your Time Leading up to a Test

Before You Even Look at the Material
Ask your teacher what information/ knowledge they are testing…this can give many clues into what will actually be on the test. You may be surprised at the information your teachers are willing to share about upcoming tests if they see you preparing ahead of time.

For every test, be sure that you know all of the details. When is the test? How long will the test be? What is the format for the test (will it be multiple choice, essay, short answer, true/false)? How much is the test worth?

Set a goal for yourself for the test. Picture yourself getting your marks, looking at your test, and seeing the score you wanted. Keep your goal in mind and know that you can achieve it.

Set a schedule for your time leading up to the test. Include time for continued study of your other subjects/homework, time for eating, sleeping, exercise, and fun. It is important to maintain a healthy routine. Exhausting yourself in the last few days before a test with too much study or worry will only drain your energy.

Looking at the Material
Gather all the information pertinent to your test – textbooks, notes, hand outs, past tests (if relevant), feedback from past assignments or tests (feedback is great for helping to fine-tune your approach).

Create a “table of contents” for all of the information that is going to be covered in the test. Use as many pages as you need to make a list of all the key points that will be covered. Note any specific areas of concern – either that you know you are weak on or that the teacher suggested may be central to the test. This should take you about 30 to 60 minutes.

Flesh out your table of contents with details. This should take 2-3 hours depending on how comprehensive the test is. What you are doing is creating a “summary sheet” of all of the information that is potentially going to appear on the test.

Review. Check items off of your summary sheet as you review them. Spend more time on points that are more difficult for you, but pay attention not to get bogged down in one section. The idea is to make it all the way through all of the topics before the test. If you work for 30-50 minutes with 10 minute breaks, you’ll help to boost your memory retention since our brains find beginnings and endings easiest to remember.

Practice. To beat test stress, you need to get comfortable with producing information under pressure. Practise in a timed setting. Knowing how long your test will be and how many questions will be on it, you can try to reproduce the actual timing of the test.

Practise output (especially written output). Make up questions and answer them, fill in practice worksheets, talk with someone about what you know, make flash cards, write stories or poems about the information, mind map, write practice essays or paragraphs.

Tips to Remember at the Test:

  • Your test is your performance. Maintain a positive, self-confident attitude. Focus on yourself; remember your goals; ignore what everyone else is doing.
  • Review the entire test when it is first handed out.
  • Budget your time. How long is the test? How many questions are there? Which ones are worth the most? Which ones are the easiest? Take a minute after your first read through of the test to orient yourself, make a quick plan, note the time, and begin.
  • Begin with the easiest questions first. This will boost your confidence and get you some easy marks at the same time.
  • Be sure to read all questions and directions carefully! Read them twice. Read them five times if you need to! You must understand what is being asked before you can give the best answer!
  • While you’re writing the test, focus your attention on answering the questions well.
  • Even if you finish early, stay to the end of the test. Kick back and relax. Feeling relaxed in a test setting can help reduce stress in future tests. And, if you’re lucky, an answer that had earlier escaped you might bubble up.
  • One last quick trick that used to help me to get through those grueling batteries of university tests: plan something to do after the test. Life goes on, and a plan for fun can help to take the pressure off.

Challenges, Examinations and Tests

by Dahlia Miller
Dec 2008

In this article, we’ll explore some perspectives on the challenges and tests that students face. Perhaps these points may help us to accept all our challenges and tests with greater willingness and understanding.

There’s a story about a young man and a rock. Perhaps it comes from Greek or Hindu mythology, but actually I’m not sure. It goes like this:

A god spoke to a young man and told him that he must push a boulder up the side of a particular mountain. The young man went to the mountain and found the boulder. He put his shoulder against the boulder but found that he couldn’t budge it. He pushed with all his might, but still couldn’t cause any change in the boulder’s position. Looking up the side of the mountain, the young man complained aloud saying that it was an impossible task. The god heard him and replied that he hadn’t said whether the task was possible or not, simply that it was the young man’s duty to put his full effort to pushing this boulder up the side of the mountain. The god then agreed to allow the young man to use a tool to help him in his efforts.

So, the young man found a lever and slowly moved the boulder some distance up the mountain. When he wanted to rest, he propped another rock below the boulder to prevent it from slipping back down the mountainside. It went on like this for many days, with the young man making only a few meters of progress up the mountain. Again he complained aloud.

The god again told him that although the task was a difficult one, it was required. So, the young man continued in his efforts.

After a month or so, the young man cried out at the futility of the task. The god spoke to the young man one more time: “I know that this task is nearly an impossible one. I knew, before you started, that you probably wouldn’t be able to push the boulder to the top of the mountain. But look at yourself now. Look at your body. After more than a month of effort, you are stronger than you ever were. This was the real goal of the task: to increase your determination, strength, patience, endurance and effort.”

From this story we can recognize some of the benefits of coming up against challenges and tests. Whether or not we “succeed” in accomplishing the stated goal, simply working through a challenge with determination brings its own rewards.

While we all encounter difficulties in our lives, students live lives full of challenges and tests. Students are constantly pushed to move beyond their current abilities not only in the many subjects they study, but in their time management, organization and oral and written communication as well. Some students feel the challenge of stretching their understanding on a daily basis, others only go through periods of difficulty or disruption in their study, but the fact is that all students, even the brightest, are tested. (Are there any schools without exams?)

Luckily, a student’s life is also filled with support. Parents, teachers, schools and agencies provide a background of support in the forms of encouragement, food, housing, transportation, supplies, opportunities, instruction and the benefit of their experience.

Basically, the many types of challenges and tests students face can be boiled down into four categories:

1. External Examinations – These are challenges that come to us from the outside, like tests and quizzes given by teachers.

We need tests to help recognize our level. From the teacher’s perspective, tests are there to help students. For example, a science test can help us to recognize how much we’ve understood the material, how well we’ve studied and how well we perform under test conditions. Even students who fail are helped by tests since they can then realize their shortcomings.

We only really realize our ability, habits and shortcomings after tests. There’s no point saying we’re good or that we understand. Tests help us to prove our level of understanding. When we’re stuck, or we score poorly on these types of external examinations, we need to realize if there’s something for us to learn and improve, or if there is something for us to overcome in ourselves.

We need to learn to be our own masters: stable and unaffected by the outside environment. This means accepting tests with willingness and an open mind.

2. Self Examinations – These are tests created by our own selves.

For students, self-examinations often arise when we are challenged on a personal level by something at school. It could be that a topic or type of assignment is especially difficult or it may be something interpersonal like a challenge with a teacher or fellow student. Although these may look like external examinations, they actually aren’t. Yes, the environment has an obvious impact, but it is the individual’s reaction that determines the exam. What I mean is that not everyone reacts in the same way to the same situation. For example, when students are given the same assignment or lecture, some will find it easy while others may find it to be extremely challenging. Therefore, it’s not the situation creating the test; the test is coming from within each individual.

Our responses to these self-examinations determine how they go. For example, if a student has trouble with a topic or a teacher, she may respond by not doing her homework. In this way, she is creating a test for herself. One result will obviously be lower marks. Over time, other results may be: falling behind; feeling overwhelmed in class; feeling nervous about falling behind; feeling frustrated when trying to keep up; feeling guilty and embarrassed in front of self, parents and classmates; and wanting to avoid these uncomfortable feelings. How we move through self-examinations depends on our self-understanding and what support is available.
When facing difficulties of this type, we need to reflect upon ourselves to see what we could be doing differently and how we may be getting in our own way. Most important is to learn from our experience and gain wisdom.

3. Examinations of “Going Against” – This is when it seems that everything is difficult or that nothing is going our way for a few hours, a day, a term or a year. In this case, things may not be easy and we need to set a firm determination to continue. Eventually, situations change. This type of examination helps to build our patience and our self-confidence. Watching ourselves continue to work hard, even under difficult conditions, is inspiring and will be a good memory for us in the future when we again encounter difficulties.

If we continually learn from obstacles, and gradually grow up, we’ll eventually elevate ourselves. There is no shortcut. We need to move step-by-step with effort and courage.

4. Examinations of “Smooth” – This may seem like a strange type of examination, but when school seems easy and homework is a breeze, it helps us to recognize our resolve and diligence. Sometimes students experience a time of relative ease at school. Often, when students go for long periods without feeling really challenged, they miss out on developing some of the skills that other students (who have to really work for it) get to learn - particularly study skills. Coasting along, it’s easy to get complacent and not work at developing new skills in time management, memory techniques, exam preparation or other course-related topics. Eventually, though, all students hit a point in their careers where they find the coursework difficult. At that point, if they haven’t learned how to study, they can find themselves falling behind quite quickly and lose confidence in themselves. This type of “smooth” examination helps us to see our level of commitment, responsibility and diligence in encouraging ourselves to grow.

As we have seen, there are many types of examinations and challenges that students face. Although they are in part created by the outside situation, most of the challenges come from our own selves and our reactions to what is happening around us. Any type of challenge can help us to see ourselves more clearly. In fact, without encountering difficulties, we’ll stay at the same level. Whether we are able to overcome our own habits, reactions and current skill level depends on our efforts.

We all need to be willing to accept the tests that come to us. They help to build our patience, endurance, strength, skill, and acceptance. Our level of achievement isn’t based on our estimation or others’ judgments, but on our actions. When we’re going to move to a new level, we’ll be tested. So, these tests are part of our growth process. Facing all examinations with a good attitude makes our lives more enjoyable.

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
Vernon Sanders Law, baseball pitcher

Beating Exam Stress

by Dahlia Miller
December 2005

This article was originally published in the June 2004 edition of Island Parent Magazine.

“I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
Woody Allen

Have you ever had one of those final exam dreams? The type where you arrive late to school only to discover that today is your final exam, you have ten minutes to write an exam that you haven’t studied for, and you are standing in the exam room, in front of everyone, in only your underwear?

It’s easy to feel exposed in an exam because really, the entire purpose of an exam is to expose your ability. You are being judged on how well you produce information, and you are being timed. There is no doubt that exams, and prepping for exams, can cause anxiety.

The best cure for exam anxiety is preparation. Good exam performance is dependent on good study habits; generally, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be on exam day. Below you’ll find tips for how to prepare and study for exams, what to do at the exam, and how parents can support their kids who are studying for final exams.

Preparing and Studying for Exams

  • Have a study place that is free of distractions.
  • For every exam, be sure that you know all of the details. When is the exam? How long will the exam be? What is the format for the exam (will it be multiple choice, essay, short answer, true/false)?
  • How much of your final mark is the exam worth?
  • Set a schedule for your time leading up to exams. It is important to maintain a healthy routine. Plan how much time to study daily for each exam.
  • Gather all pertinent textbooks, notes, handouts, past exams (if relevant), study aids, and feedback from past assignments or exams.
  • Determine what the major concepts are. What do you need to know? Ask your teacher what information is being examined.
  • Complete all necessary course readings.
  • Create a “table of contents” for all of the information that is going to be covered. Note any areas of concern. Flesh out your table of contents with details to create a “summary sheet” of all of the information that is potentially going to appear on the exam. Check items off of your summary sheet as you review them. Spend more time on points that are more difficult for you.
  • Write, talk or sing about what you know. You need to get comfortable expressing your understanding of the topic. Make up questions and answer them; fill in practice worksheets; talk with people about what you know; make colour-coded flash cards; write notes, stories or poems about the information; mind map; write practice essays or paragraphs.
  • Time yourself, or have someone time you, as you answer questions. The more comfortable you are being timed, the easier it will be for you to work under pressure at the actual exam.
  • Team up with others (even your parents). Practise teaching, quizzing, and building practice questions for each other.
  • Once you know the location of the exam, it’s very helpful to go there and study.

What to Do at the Exam

  • Be sure to get to the exam on time without rushing. Eat well, and drink enough water on exam day. Bring all of the supplies you’ll need for the exam. If you have a favourite pen you write with, use that pen during the exam - but always bring a spare.
  • Your exam is your performance. Maintain a positive, self-confident attitude. Focus on yourself; remember your goals; ignore what everyone else is doing.
  • Before or during the exam, do shoulder rolls, or tighten your hands into fists and then release them slowly, breathing deeply.
  • When the exam is first handed out, quickly review the entire thing. Budget your time. How long is the exam? How many questions are there? Which ones are worth the most?
  • Begin with the easiest questions first. This will boost your confidence and get you some easy marks at the same time.
  • Be sure to read all directions carefully and thoroughly! Read them twice. Read them five times if you need to!
  • While you’re writing the exam, focus your attention on answering the questions well.

How Parents Can Help Their Kids Prep for Final Exams

  • If your child is not confident with her ability with an exam topic, get her the help she needs: help her yourself; hire a tutor; check at school for a peer tutoring program; or direct her to other resources – like the internet, the library, books or videos.
  • Talk about your experiences with exams and with this exam topic. How did you feel entering your finals? What strategies worked for you in coping with exam stress?
  • Help your kids to maintain a healthy study schedule. Study sessions that are too long or that are too unvaried will actually lower memory retention. A healthy study schedule includes time for exercise, plenty of sleep, and free time. It also includes eating well and drinking plenty of water.
  • Be a cheerleader for your kids. Let them know that you believe in their ability to prepare for and pass their exams.

“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
Arthur Ashe

Parents Supporting Students

These articles all relate to how parents can support students.

10 Things Students (& Parents) Can Do to Start the School Year Off Right

by Dahlia Miller
September 200

School Supplies

  • Buy supplies you like and that will inspire you to be creative with your studying.

Building Good Relationships with Your Teachers

  • Introduce yourself to your teacher or just place a big red apple on your teacher’s desk with a smile.
  • Work with your teacher: have a positive attitude; participate in class; get down to work when it is given; ask if you have a question.
  • Help to make learning easier in your class: attend all your classes; be prepared (with pens, paper, calculator, etc.); pay attention; don’t distract others; take notes; do your homework.


  • If you’ll take 5-15 minutes to set goals for the up-coming year, you’ll improve your focus 5-15%.
  • Think back about last year and look at what you want to improve.
  • Consider what is important to you – why are you studying?
  • Effective Goals Are:
    • Specific (what exactly do you want?)
    • Achievable (don’t psyche yourself out before you even start)
    • Short-term (long term goals are good, but short-term goals build success and are easier to reach).

Study Space

  • Study without distractions – somewhere where you won’t be interrupted or in a quiet place where you can’t hear the TV. Some people work better with a little bit of noise, but most need silence and no distractions.
  • Remember the bed is for sleeping, not studying.


  • Set a specific time of day each day to do homework – decide to do the work and get it done – then the rest of the day is homework-free.
  • Prioritize homework – by due date and level of difficulty. In general, work on tomorrow’s homework first, and do the most difficult first.
  • Break bigger projects or exam study into smaller, more manageable steps.


  • Put a name, date and title on all your work so that you know the order to put things into your binder.
  • Create a system that you will use to carry homework and completed work to and from school.
  • Unclutter your space, unclutter your mind – don’t use up your energy having to dig for what you want every time – keep your backpack, locker, and desk free from garbage and recycling.
  • Keep all of your notes and assignments for one subject in one area: in a separate duotang, binder, or section in a binder. Use dividers to separate your notes into sub-topics, if it’s appropriate.
  • Super keen high school students: put a “Table of Contents” at the start of your binders to track topics for exams.


  • You don’t have to be the biggest, the best or the brightest to have self-confidence. You just have to believe that you are capable of doing your best.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back every time you sit down to start working.
  • With a strong belief in your ability to do your best, you can open yourself to new ideas.
  • Make encouraging notes or posters for yourself and put them up in your workspace and locker.
  • Look for your successes – celebrate small tasks right away with small rewards (a high five, a pat on the back, a chicken dance). Be a cheerleader for yourself!

Time Management

  • Time management = Energy management. Pay attention to what you are doing – if you are distracted, take a break or re-focus.
  • If you don’t have a calendar or day-planner, get one. Mark in up-coming assignments so you know how to organize your time. Post a calendar by your study space and keep it up to date so your parents can see that you are in control.
  • Review your assignments regularly to be sure you know your homework priorities.
  • Set a plan for when to study – what time of day do you study best?
  • Spend 10 minutes reviewing your class notes daily and you’ll be in a much, much better position come test time. Brains like constant review.
  • Work for short periods of time (30-60 minutes depending on you and the topic) and take short breaks. Brains remember beginnings and endings best, so incorporating more beginnings and endings into your study time will help you to remember more.
  • Keep a schedule that allows harmony between work and play time. Our mind is a tool, like a saw, if our mind is constantly in use, it grows dull.


  • Take responsibility when you need help by asking for it.
  • Exercise, eat good food, drink lots of water.
  • Get involved with friends, sports, interest groups, music, community.


  • If you are bored studying…change what you are doing. How can you make it more fun?
  • Study according to your learning style: draw pictures or make up stories in your mind if you’re a visual learner; make up rhymes or teach someone if you’re an auditory learner; stand up and move or squeeze a stress ball while studying if you’re kinesthetic.


  • Be flexible and encourage independence.
  • Ask your children questions about the upcoming year (and just listen as they talk): What are their goals? Do they have any concerns about school? What are they enjoying studying these days?
  • Let your child have some freedom around deciding the logistics of where, when and how they do their homework.
  • To help your child get organized at school, find the answers to these questions (by asking your child): How many subjects per day does your child study? How are handouts/assignments expected to be sorted? Where does your child store his/her materials between classes (i.e. in a desk or locker)? Is there a system used by the school or individual teachers to track homework and assignments? What is it?
  • Encourage your child to keep a positive attitude. Notice when your child is putting effort in and comment on it. Cheer your kids on – if you are fighting over homework, step back.
  • Be informed about what’s going on in school. Ask your kids about their homework. At the grade 4 level and above, students will usually have homework every night. Ask your child how they would like you to support them in getting their work done.
  • Stop yourself from interfering and trying to help – even if you see that your child is doing something wrong; unless you’re asked, stay out of it.
  • When your child asks for help try to have them bring you up to speed – give them the opportunity to teach you.
  • Praise and reward efforts appropriately and often. Avoid criticizing and nagging.
  • Remember that education isn’t a contest or a race; it’s a process that each child experiences differently.

“There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience.”
Archibald McLeish (American poet)

Building Self-Esteem in Youth

June 2005

This month’s issue takes a look at the topic of building self esteem in youth. Pam Turner, an authority on youth self-esteem, spoke with Dahlia Miller of Smart Tutor Referrals (STR). Pam is the owner of Elevation Empowerment Training, providing workshops and one-on-one mentoring to help girls actively create the life they want.

“Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.”
Maxwell Maltz, American author

STR: Can you explain what self-esteem is?

Pam: No one is really able to nail down a solid definition of self-esteem. There is controversy over what it is. From the research I’ve done, I’ve found that there are two types of self-esteem. There’s Global Self-Esteem. This is an assessment of how you feel about yourself. Do you feel good about yourself? Are you happy with the way that you are? Then there is Earned Self-Esteem. This comes from accomplishments and doing well in things. Earned self-esteem builds on itself: the more successes you have, the more earned self-esteem you have, the better you feel about your chances of future successes, the more willing you are to take smart risks and try new things.

STR: In your opinion, is one type of self- esteem more beneficial than the other?

Pam: I think earned self-esteem is the one that is longer lasting and has a bigger impact. We often think if we just tell our kids that they’re good and that they’re doing a good job, that this will give them high self-esteem. But that’s not the way it is. Kids can tell if the praise is earned. If we just tell kids that they’re doing a good job, we take away that incentive for them to do well. In schools, if we just tell all the kids that they’re doing a good job. Where’s the incentive to work hard?

STR: So you’re not really trying to earn someone’s approval. Then what exactly are you trying to earn with earned self- esteem?

Pam: You’re right. It’s not someone else’s approval we’re trying to earn. We earn self-esteem through our own feelings of accomplishment. The sense that: I can do things; I can accomplish things that I set out to do; I have some control over what happens to me and how I deal with things; I can take on challenges. It’s those kind of internals rather than externals that define earned self-esteem.

STR: What sorts of traits are associated with high self-esteem? What does high self-esteem look like?

Pam: There are lots of traits associated with high self-esteem. People with a strong sense of self worth, self confidence, and high self-esteem are typically able to:

  • deal with things as they come up
  • cope with new situations
  • take on challenges
  • have a greater sense of self control
  • be more responsible
  • work well in groups
  • tolerate frustrations
  • overcome setbacks
  • They are mentally strong because they’ve had successes and know they can handle things.
  • Their schoolwork tends to do better. Actually, there is disagreement about which comes first – does high self-esteem come first so students do better in schoolwork? Or is it that students have been successful in their schoolwork, so that helps to build high self-esteem?

STR: Why do you think building self- esteem is so important, especially for teens?
Pam: Self-esteem tends to plummet for teens once they reach puberty and leave the safety of elementary school. They’re really trying to figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. So, everything that we can do to help them through that time, by giving them opportunities to discover what their gifts are and what their skills and talents are, will help them to develop healthy self-esteem.

Teens are also going through a period where they’re very susceptible to what people think. As a teenager, you sort of feel that all eyes are on you all the time – that everyone is watching and analyzing everything that you do. Which isn’t really true, but as teens that’s what we tend to feel. Kids with high self-esteem, are less likely to be influenced by the group; they’re better able to make their own decisions. If they’re with a group of peers, they’re better able to decide what’s right for them and make better choices.

Low self-esteem has been related to suicide and suicide attempts, depression, teen pregnancy, and also victimization by others (obviously if you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re willing to take a lot from other people). It’s also associated with eating disorders and low economic outcomes in young adulthood.

STR: What are some key ways that parents, mentors and educators can help to build self esteem in boys and girls?

Pam: The more opportunities we can give teens to learn new skills and progress toward goals, the more their self-esteem will grow. Giving them opportunities to become involved in things and develop skills is a key. It could be learning a new sport, an art, a new academic subject, or life skill; the challenge is keeping them engaged and finding things that they can continue to be involved in.

  • Community involvement, getting out there and serving others, can help kids to recognize how they can make a difference in the world.
  • Give them a chance to make their own decisions, from family decisions to decisions about their own lives. We need to give lots of opportunities to develop those skills.
  • Help them to develop a sense of purpose, to figure out where they fit into the world. Kids that feel that they have purpose to their lives, tend to do much better. Assisting them in figuring out why they are here, what their unique gift to the world is and how can they use that will help them immensely.
  • Praise definitely has its place, but it needs to be specific. If a student comes home with a high score on a math test, for instance, we could recognize how much work they put into studying for the test rather than saying, “You’re so smart,” we could say, “That was a great improvement,” or, “You worked really hard to understand that topic.”
  • We can help kids to build connections to adults, mentors, other than parents, so they can learn new ways of looking at life.
  • It’s also important that teens realize that they can build assets in their own lives, even if their family or their school isn’t giving them what they need.

“Think highly of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate.”
Author Unknown

Building a Sense of Self-Sufficiency in Youth

May 2008

This month’s newsletter is an interview with Peter Harris, owner of Pacifica Paddle Sports in Victoria, BC. Peter has over 20 years’ experience mentoring youth in kayak and canoe learning and adventures.

STR: First, thank you for speaking with me, Peter. We’ve talked before about this concept of building a sense of self-sufficiency in youth. Can you describe for our readers, from your perspective: what is self-sufficiency?

Peter: It’s feeling like you can take care of yourself. Being able to go into a strange place or situation and organize it into the familiar, or figure out how to approach it, so you can deal with it as you’ve trained yourself to do.

Have you ever heard kids say, “What do I do now?” They’re looking for someone to tell them the next step. They’re expressing dependency. They’re also not engaging with where they are.

Now, think of the word ‘engaged’. When you’re out there, you want to be there, and you’ve engaged your senses – sight, touch, listening, smell, taste, thinking, it’s all there. When someone is in that state, they won’t be bored (in fact ‘bored’ won’t even be in their vocabulary.)

STR: What does self-sufficiency, or lack of self-sufficiency, look like?

Peter: When you’re two years old – you can’t reach the doorknob. You have to depend on someone else for everything. This is complete lack of self-sufficiency.
Think of being 12 and going camping with everything you need on your back, putting up a tarp and pulling out some food and making dinner. The difference between doing that and having your mother cook dinner for you is monumental because you’re involved with generating your own self-satisfaction. Self-sufficiency isn’t just about camping. Learning to cook or getting involved in cooking can also develop that same sense of self-sufficiency.

When you allow kids to learn by doing, this is ‘experiential education’. You can see it when a kid has his hands in the flour making a pie as you’re making one, by the time he’s done it a few times, the motivation to learn and improve is there because he sees the difference between your pie and his, and he has felt the enjoyment of making his own food.

What goes along with self-sufficiency is feeling confident and comfortable.

Think of the difference between being afraid and being curious, being in a state of heightened awareness as opposed to being fearful. The difference is really between risk and perceived risk. There is a difference between what it is like to be with someone who says, “Don’t touch that,” compared to, “Here’s how we do it.”

STR: What are some of the benefits of self-sufficiency?

Peter: Developing a method of dealing with things that can be applied to everything you come across from there on in. Have you ever watched a dog when it’s about to lie down? It will circle three times. So do float plane pilots about to land their planes in an unfamiliar place. What they’re doing is sizing up the landing place.

Someone once said, “Success is 9/10 preparation.” When a person is confident in his or her skills, he is comfortable taking the time to prepare rather than just rushing into a new situation or task.

Self-sufficiency means you’ve started thinking about what you’re doing – you’re not just floating along – you’re living your life.

When you think of the issues that face a kid, they are many. To boil it down, self-sufficiency is problem solving. It is that sense that, “I can solve my own problems.”

When a young person is out in the woods and he’s learned that to make a camp you look for a flat spot and then make shelter or put up a tent – he knows how to deal with his basic needs for food, shelter and bedding. That same competency can be applied to everything: with a school assignment he knows that there is a process to deal with it and to begin by first covering the basics.

STR: How can parents help to foster self-sufficiency in their kids?


  • Model a sense of curiosity and excitement about new experiences. Be genuinely enthusiastic when you suggest, “Let’s go try this.” Try to get them on board rather than trying to bribe them.
  • Overcome the addiction of staying within the familiar. To move kids from non-engagement to self-sufficiency takes significant planning and guidance. The task is to assist the child in developing their own skill sets so they’re more equipped to deal with the broader world.
  • Set a plan to go outdoors – once kids are outdoors, they usually enjoy it.
  • Look at what’s dominating the kid’s life. Invite the kid to participate in things they haven’t done before. It’s important that they not see it as a punishment or deprival. If it took 10 years to create a problem (of not feeling motivated or engaged, for example), it’ll take more than a few days to correct the course.
  • If computer games are dominating the child’s life, present the child with the point that their time is being stolen. This point is most easily taught in contrast – when they feel the enjoyment of exploration of the real world, computer games tend to pale in comparison. Perhaps a parent has the same issue – look honestly to see how TV or computer time fit into the parents’ life-style.
  • Consider applying some game-style problem solving to something outside and active. Most computer games require quick reactions, accuracy and strategy. Advanced forms of hide and seek or capture the flag, for example, can satisfy those same gaming interests using strategy and tactics in the woods or another outdoor environment (woods are ideal because of the natural cover they offer).
  • When you start with a 3 year old, they know how to play. When you start with a 10 year old, they need to learn how. You can put a 3 year old and a 10 year old together so they each have a role model. Get kids out there with other youth so they can learn from their peers. Team-building games and working with a group allow kids to work with each other to accomplish tasks that can only be accomplished as a group. For example, one fun group exercise is to lay a 4x6 piece of carpet on the ground and have as many people as possible standing on it. The task is to turn the carpet over without anyone stepping off it.
  • Allow unstructured play and discovery where the kid is directing it. The difference between playing in a playground and a vacant lot is worth considering. A vacant lot is infinitely diverse compared to a playground. For me, that’s what discovery is all about. Take a kid somewhere where there are natural dynamics going on and he’ll be engaged (like a stream, a rocky beach, etc.). Let the child explore the natural world.
  • Engagement starts by showing respect for and putting a sense of importance on what his interests are. You could ask questions like, “What would you like to do now?” or “Where would you like to go?” Create situations where the kid is the leader. If you are out together you could point out an attraction and ask, “Do you want to check that out?” When the child says, “Can we stop here?” or “Can we do this?” there needs to be a confidence developed where he can expect a positive answer (at least a good percentage of the time) where he’s not completely engaged with someone else’s agenda.
  • Enroll in a recreation program – both parent and kid. When you’re both in it, each of you is experiencing the other in that situation. It’s new, so you’re both learning and you’re both having a new experience together.
  • The bottom line is investing one’s time in developing a broad background of understanding and experiences for your kids. The net effect is making more of the world familiar and building that sense of confidence, capability and self-sufficiency.

Communicating about Homework - Suggestions for Parents

by Dahlia Miller
October 2009

Very few people really enjoy homework. It can be a source of challenge for both students and parents, to put it mildly.

This article explores some ideas about communicating around homework as well as offering some tips for approaching homework. This is a huge topic, though, and we will only be able to skim the surface. There are plenty of good resources available for more information – some are listed in the side bar.

Remember that as children learn and grow, they understand much more than they are capable of doing at first. The same holds true with homework, study skills and communication. A healthy dose of patience will go a long way in helping a parent to stand by while their child makes study skills “mistakes”.

Make observations about behavior (without guessing at the child’s motives), get in touch with your own needs (for respect, acceptance, safety, trust, peace, love, etc.) and make requests based on those needs.

Identify or acknowledge your child’s feelings as they come up. This gives students a chance to express their emotions and move through them to find solutions. Although it may seem fairly passive, just describing is much more effective than denying, criticizing, offering advice, explaining away or ignoring feelings.

Describe rather than praise or blame. Description doesn’t get involved with whether something is “good” or “bad” it just points out what has and/or hasn’t been done. For example, saying, “Your binder is organized and your backpack is ready to go for tomorrow,” shows your child that you see and recognize his efforts. He can draw his own conclusions about how organized a person he is. Similarly, “You’ve done five math questions and have six more to go,” could be easier on the ears than, “You’ve still got six more questions to do.”

Make requests. How do you feel when someone demands something of you? Almost all people resist demands. A request, however, is a different story. You might try, “Would you be willing to…?”

For contentious issues, describe the situation as you see it and listen to your child’s feelings. Then describe your feelings and request a shared brainstorm to come up with some possible solutions. For example, “The teacher called to say that you haven’t handed any homework in for the last week. I guess it’s hard to get into homework after a long day of school.” Listen first, and then describe your needs: “My concern is that you’ll start to fall behind.” Brainstorm, writing down all ideas without discrimination to start (so your child sees that you take her suggestions seriously). Together evaluate which proposals could work and how you’ll put at least one into action.

Model the behavior you’d like to see:

  • When your child is speaking, listen.
  • Don’t be bossy, sullen or whiny.
  • Stretch yourself and learn more. Let your kids see you struggle and persevere in learning a new skill or topic.
  • Be curious – about your kids, about the world, about your kids’ understanding of the world.
  • Demonstrate self-confidence – be polite yet firm.
  • Ask your child to check your spelling and math.
  • Be responsible with your schedule, your eating habits, and your work/family life balance.

Set up a good study environment – a quiet place with proper lighting and enough supplies.

Set a consistent routine, allowing some flexibility, but change the routine sometimes.

Set a time limit for TV and computer. (Some experts suggest a limit of 2 nights per week for TV.)

Set a time limit for homework. 30-60 minutes per night is adequate for students up to grade 9 or 10; 60-90 minutes for grades 10-12.

Reward study time rather than grades. Homework requires effort and discipline. Habits of self-discipline are created over time. This is one of the main reasons why homework is assigned in the first place.

Discuss what kind of support your child would like for homework. Do they want you to remind them that it’s homework time or to check in to be sure that their backpack is packed in the morning? Do they want a reminder of homework that needs to be handed in? Do they want you to help break bigger projects into more manageable steps? If your child responds to checklists for backpacks or homework tracking, create some.

Check your child’s agenda daily or at least every second day. If it seems important to you, they’ll begin to see it as important to them too. Check that they have completed their homework. Or, have your teen show you their completed work daily.

If there is no homework, ask your child to teach you something that he learned in class that day.

Help prioritizing if your child seems stumped about where to start with homework or is avoiding getting started. Help them to evaluate where to start: What is due first? How long will each assignment take? What is hardest? What could be broken down into steps? Sometimes starting with the hardest thing first is nice as it gets it over with; sometimes starting with something easy is good as it builds confidence and momentum.

Suggest interesting alternatives for study: tape recorder, video, power point, experiments… Show an interest in the subject matter and in their studies in general.

Ask yourself, “What kind of teacher am I? How can I do better?” Listen to your tone of voice when you are talking about homework – are you patronizing or lecturing?

Show love and respect, acknowledging efforts even if they don’t “measure up”.

Notice your child’s reactions to your help. If your child is interested in having your assistance, provide some if necessary, but if your child seems to react negatively, step back.

Stop while it’s still fun if you’re working together (for spelling, reading, multiplication tables, etc.). If it’s not fun, go to the library and find some books about learning games – there are books in the parent-educator section of the library.

Know your child’s learning style – it may be different from your own. Keep this in mind if you are teaching your child or asking your child to teach you something she has learned.

Ask questions like, “Is there another way to do it?” “What else can you think of?” “This may be one way to do it.” Be patient – wait for answers.

Have trust and confidence in your child’s ability to learn independently. Don’t hover as they work.

Ask simple, direct questions to open up a dialogue about school. “Tell me one good thing and one bad thing about school today.” can bring a much more detailed answer than the very general, “How was your day?”

Observe how you describe your child’s abilities. Let them hear you say good things about them.

Write an encouraging note for your child and put it in his lunch, on the fridge or in chalk on the sidewalk.

Facing the Changes and Challenges of Making the Move to Middle School

by Ruth McGhee, in conversation with Chris Harvey, Principal of Arbutus Middle School in Victoria, BC
March 2005

“Change is not merely necessary to life, it is life.”
Alvin Toffler, author

Teaching is my ‘other’ job, because without doubt the most important job I do is parenting. And this year, I am acutely aware from personal experience of the challenges that come with making educational choices for our son who will start school this fall. I am not sure if these decisions are easier - or harder - because I am a teacher: I have strong opinions about what kind of educational environment I want for him. What I do appreciate, though, is that I have a choice to make, and that even within the public system here, we are not simply limited to the assigned school in our neighbourhood. Of course, the educational choices we make for - and eventually with - our children are ongoing. The next big one looming on the horizon for us will be which middle school my son will attend. Many of our closest friends are in the midst of making the middle school decision for their children, and I have been privvy to several dynamic discussions on the topic. The questions and concerns they raise I hear over and over again: “Is my son socially ready to move to a bigger school?” “My daughter is very sensitive, and I don’t think she will be able to manage having several different teachers.” “ Will the workload be significantly more challenging?”

Any questions about middle school and I turn without hesitation to Chris Harvey, Principal of Arbutus Middle School and energetic advocate for the middle school concept. It is hard to walk away from a visit with Harvey and not be impressed by the welcoming atmosphere he has created at Arbutus. He has an obviously great rapport with the students and is an inspiration to faculty and staff alike. I recently spoke with Harvey on the topic of making the middle school decision, and asked him what he perceives are the most significant changes and challenges that students and families face in the transition; he also gave me ever-important advice for parents - advice that goes beyond simply “Which middle school should I send my child to?” and reaches to the realm of just plain good parenting.


Kids themselves tell us, notes Harvey, that the most significant changes they face are: the increased choice of courses they can take, and the fact that they will have several different teachers. As for making educational choices, exploratories provide students with the opportunity to try their hand at music, drama, the arts, woodworking, Home Ec, and computing sciences, to name a few. Gradually allowing students a modicum of control over their own education is an essential element in helping them to mature and develop as independent learners. As for the increase in the number of teachers a student may have, Harvey says this change takes place gradually: all teachers plan and meet together to discuss common planning and kids’ issues. Kids still need to feel that they are being cared for, and it is no coincidence that many middle school teachers are former elementary school teachers: “they have the Mamma Bear/Papa Bear attitude,” Harvey remarks.


One of the major challenges students will face is building new friendships. Children will likely have been with the same group of students in a smaller elementary school setting for, in most cases, five or six years. Now they are dealing with kids from other schools. And if, in the course of making the middle school transition, parents choose to send their child cross-boundary, or to a private school, then their child may be completely surrounded by new faces. “Kids and their parents want them to be surrounded by familiar faces, so you have to put some thought into that,” remarks Harvey. Careful attention is paid to classroom composition in order to make this part of the transition as smooth as possible.

“Another major challenge students face is organisation,” observes Harvey. With more choices for courses, and more than one teacher, comes the increasing demand for personal and time management. Most students these days are introduced to using an agenda in elementary school; these are essential to success in middle school. Teachers provide crucial support for students as they learn to manage their time and commitments, making sense of what lies ahead.

Advice to Parents

Harvey has some key advice for parents who are searching for the right middle school for their child. He starts off with suggesting some key questions that parents should ask of any prospective middle school principal:

  • “What sets you apart as a great school?”
  • “What are your school’s goals for improvement and what are you doing to get there?”
  • “How do teaching teams plan and work together?”
  • “What is your attitude toward parents?”
  • “Do you have a partnership with parents and how do you ‘walk the walk’?”

Once you ask these questions, there is then the task of discerning which are the good or right answers for you. It will depend on what you are looking for, of course, but Harvey’s general advice is “to look for a school that wants to get better, and is actively doing that, backed up by good data and research. You want to look for people who are in love with what they do, who like kids, and are broadening kids in various ways.”

If you are reading this article, you are likely already interested and involved in your child’s education. You will nod in agreement at Chris Harvey’s most important advice for parents: “Stay involved! Stay connected! We talk about the home-school-student triangle, and parents must be part of that triangle and not just passively let their child’s education happen. Parents should be constantly in touch with their kids, and when necessary, the school. While there is no direct correlation between parental involvement and academic achievement, there is ample indirect evidence that proves it positively affects a student’s attitude toward school, and impacts decisions about further education. “Do whatever you can,” continues Harvey, “join PAC committees, drive to sports events, volunteer in any capacity - let your kids know you are part of the school; stay connected and don’t let go.” Harvey is clearly an advocate of parental involvement and its key role in students’ success. His enthusiasm and vision for middle school education is contagious, and I am encouraged to know that there are people like Chris Harvey in our schools. “There are lots of us out there,” he encourages me, and I am happy to know our middle school kids are in such good hands.

Helping Elementary Students with Homework

by Maureen Bouey
July 2003

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
W. B. Yeats

This issue is the first of two issues focussed more towards parents than students. We’ll look at how you can best support your child in becoming a successful student during his/her school experiences. In particular, we’ll discuss how to help your kids with their homework.

The elementary years are when your child can learn to love to learn. By creating a positive and encouraging learning environment at home, you are providing the optimum environment for school success. Let us consider the following suggestions:

Let your child have some freedom around deciding the logistics of where, when and how they do their homework. Even if you have provided a lovely desk, chair and reading lamp in their bedroom, and they seem to prefer lying on their stomachs in the kitchen or living room, don’t worry. As we have learned in doing our Learning Styles Assessments, kids all work in very individual ways, and have distinct preferences for such things as temperature, body position, environment, and so on. So if your child happily starts their own homework without any prompting, DON’T fuss about how, when and where YOU think they should be doing it. As much as is possible, you want to encourage independence, and have them understand that homework is their responsibility, not yours. This is critical for future success.

Leave them be. When they are working on something, stop yourself from interfering and trying to help – even if you see that they’re doing something wrong; unless you are asked, stay out of it. At the most, you could gently, and very generally, ask if they’d like any help. This helps them develop independence and, importantly, an ability to focus on their own. If a pattern of difficulty begins to emerge for your child (for example consistently low scores on spelling tests for example), you will want to step in to suggest they seek help (either from you, another text or from another knowledgeable person).

Avoid lecturing to them. When they do ask for help, try to make it look as though you’re learning from them, rather than the other way around. You could even play dumb a little; pretend you’ve forgotten how to do it. Allow them to ‘refresh’ your memory. This is a good way to approach helping your kids because teaching someone how to do something is one of the best ways for kids, or anyone, to learn something new. Of course, this doesn’t always work; sometimes you will need to provide more direct help, and a little bit of this is fine, just as long as it doesn’t become a nightly habit. (This becomes a different issue for homeschooling parents who will need to do some more formal teaching with their kids.)

Be as patient and adaptable as your life circumstances allow. (I know that this is easier for some than others.) Be as supportive as you can in providing them with all the materials they need. Be aware that this sometimes means being flexible and spontaneous when it’s inconvenient: “Oh! - I need to make a collage for my social studies class. Tomorrow!” Of course you would have preferred more notice, and it’s fine to say so (without sarcasm). But, you might just let go of being ‘right’ about their not having planned this very well and pop out to get the supplies anyway, if you can. This shows them that they are important, and their projects are important. My experience is that this improves with time. (Time management is an important skill which should be incorporated in as many ways as possible - on an ongoing basis.)

Avoid criticizing; instead look for ways to encourage and support your kids. It’s okay to stretch the truth a bit when you praise your child’s work – what you say should be true – but be generous. Sometimes you have to look harder than others – but there’s always something positive you can say about whatever assignment or project they’re working on. “Wow – beautiful drawing/great handwriting/that’s an interesting idea/ that’s the perfect word”, etc. In other words, focus on whatever positives you can find. Soon, there will be more and more of them.

Encourage independent reading – in whatever way seems to most interest them. In some ways, this is probably even more important than their homework. Allow them to use a computer for fun, communication and research, but put a limit on it. Likewise with TV, it is now well-documented that kids who watch hours and hours of TV (especially unsupervised) wind up having short attention spans – even as adults. When they get to the higher levels of school, in particular, a love of independent reading will really pay off.

It’s also a good idea to encourage independent writing. It doesn’t really matter what they write, it could be letters, stories, poems, even grocery or ‘to do’ lists – anything is good, because it’s the process of writing which helps to develop fluency. They could write and ‘produce’ little books of their own (computers have made this easy!), songs, or newspapers. Perhaps you could see about getting them published in a children’s magazine.

Avoid putting a lot of pressure on kids about grades, especially if they’re clearly doing their best. In the worst case scenarios, this has even been known to lead to cheating. Perfection should not be the goal.

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”
Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903)

Helping Middle and High School Students with Homework

by Maureen Bouey
August 2003

This age period is considered by many to be the most challenging time (and not just in school either!). Well, it is challenging. It’s challenging for the parent, it’s challenging for the teacher and…it’s challenging for the student.

If you are a parent, take a moment right now and think back, to your own high school years. For many of us, it was a pretty darned bumpy road! It’s helpful to keep that in mind when dealing with your own adolescents (compassion is a key element here).

“Patience is the companion of wisdom.”
Saint Augustine (354 AD - 430 AD)

Reading and Writing

Keep them reading and writing on their own. If you have a son who is writing fantasy stories because he loves to do it for heaven’s sake, don’t discourage him. Basically this just means acceptance on your part; you don’t have to praise, offer helpful criticism, or even provide compliments (unless you really do love what they’ve produced). The important thing, as it has been all along, is to let your sons and daughters retain ownership of their own productions and accomplishments. Your role is to be friendly and responsive, but to keep some distance.

Learning Styles

  • Remember that learning styles continue to play a major role in how your kids learn. For example, a kinesthetic teenager whose clothes are too tight, or whose shoes don’t fit properly may not be able to study. And remember, kinesthetic kids often need to squirm, jiggle or move their bodies somehow.
  • It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t focussed; frequently it’s HOW they focus. An auditory learner can be very disturbed by sounds around her - or the opposite may be the case – she may need to have music, the TV in the background, or other background “noise”. The visual student can become very distracted by a messy room, by too much “viewable” stimulation or – by not enough stimulation.
  • Becoming aware of what your son or daughter focuses on naturally, can provide you with a clue to what their inherent learning style is. This is key because, as Faith and Cecil Clark say, “Distractions to one child are fuel for concentration to another”(1). It really helps to take your own child’s particular style into consideration. They often know themselves what works for them – and what doesn’t. Do your best to help them work with their learning style – they couldn’t change this, even if they wanted to.
  • Model a balanced work schedule. Studying or working on something for hours on end with no pause is an unhealthy formula for both physical and mental health. When you are working on something, be aware of your own rhythms and take regular “restorative” breaks. Encourage your kids to do the same. Peter Russell says that interrupting yourself “can lead to higher recall of the material…” (2) Fresh air, shooting a few hoops, a walk, listening to music, or eating a healthy snack are all things which can provide a beneficial respite. Incidentally, I would definitely discourage TV, computers or video games being used for a homework break. These are not restorative.

Changing Worlds

  • Although you may be challenged, it is important to acknowledge your child’s changing world, aspects of which you might not like or understand. This is the stage of life where many kids begin to differentiate themselves from their families and to seek recognition and acceptance from their peers. Their music, style of dressing, speech, etc., are all important aspects of their “culture”. While you don’t have to allow anything that goes against your own moral or ethical value system, just understanding and acknowledging his attempts to find his way will pay off in spades.

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”
Rabbinical Saying

  • Let your child have more freedom than in elementary school around deciding the logistics of where, when and how they do their homework. Remember, the goal here is to work towards encouraging your child’s ownership of the study process. This can only come about with his being allowed to make some of his own decisions.
  • Let your child know that you are supportive, but that their work is their responsibiliy. Do not harangue them about assignments and homework. Do your best to remain calm no matter the situation with your child’s homework. If they come to you for help, you will want to offer your best suggestions and support of course. As your child ages the subject matter of their homework may be difficult even for you. In this situation, you can use your resources to direct your child toward help (from a text or another knowledgeable person perhaps).
  • Continue to avoid putting pressure on them about grades, especially at the middle and junior high school levels. This is harder for most parents than at the elementary school level. But, if they are doing their best, enjoying themselves, and have an overall good attitude towards school, then pressuring them about grades will probably just be counterproductive.

(1) Authors of Hassle Free Homework
(2) The Brain Book

How You Can Communicate in Conflict

by Nichola Watson and Dahlia Miller
December 2003

Nichola Watson has worked in Toronto and Ottawa coordinating activities and programs meant to help alleviate youth conflict.

“[We] must evolve, for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Martin Luther King (1929-1968)

Have you ever disagreed with one of your teachers or parents? Has someone that you know ever said something or acted in a way that made you feel uncomfortable? Pretty silly questions! No one escapes conflict. It is a part of every person’s life.
Better questions to ask might be: What did you do? Were you satisfied with how the two of you worked through the conflict?

Since we all experience conflict, it seems like a good idea to learn some respectful ways to communicate during periods of conflict. Imagine how peaceful the world might be if everyone understood some fundamental steps to working through conflict effectively. Let’s use youth conflict as our focus as we consider how to approach conflict.

Some Conflicts Youth Are Facing Today Derive From:

  • Inappropriate language, whether it is verbal (swearing, name calling, discrimination) or non-verbal (body
  • Peer pressure;
  • Boyfriend/girlfriend relationships;
  • Misunderstanding of information;
  • Differences (cultural, gender, socio-economic, opinion, understanding);
  • Negative attitudes, dislike;
  • Irresponsible behaviours (bullying, unprotected sex, abuse of any kind, being neglected, etc.);
  • Going against institutional regulations;
  • Non-cohesiveness with authority figures;
  • Lack of attention from teachers, parents, and peers.

Conflict can be good. It opens up space for change. Let us all remember that conflict is a part of our everyday lives. It is our positive responses to conflict that continue to mold us into responsible citizens.

However, conflict that is ignored or dealt with inappropriately can be damaging to all those involved. Some view conflict as a competition that warrants a winner and a loser. But, when one person’s needs are not met, there is no true resolution.

Strategies for Conflict Resolution:

  • evaluate yourself first;
  • be respectful of others feelings;
  • communicate honestly and openly;
  • maintain some level of emotional control;
  • be prepared to compromise – the focus should be on everyone interests.

When you are communicating, it is important to remember that humans want to be understood and loved. We all want to communicate and share our experiences. We all must work together to solve our problems and conflicts.

I have learned that when one is faced with a conflict one first must evaluate oneself. It is each person’s responsibility to analyze the problem objectively. This is potentially quite difficult. This approach begins with objectively examining the level of threat one is feeling toward ones beliefs and values. With an objective approach we are able to begin restoring our sense of equilibrium and well-being.
As difficult as this is, we all need to practice stepping back from the conflict to really listen to what we are feeling and thinking. Once we understand what our needs and feelings are, it is much easier to communicate those without over-reacting, and to hear others’ needs and feelings.

It is important that all parties involved actively listen to each other. To listen actively, listen to the words and feelings that you hear from the other person. Can you hear the need behind the words? You are listening for what the person is communicating to you (verbally and non-verbally) about their feelings of dis-equilibrium (i.e. they feel out of balance).

Once you have a sense of what the other person is saying, tell her your version of what she just told you. Repeat your understanding of her message. This way you can confirm that you understand the other person. People need to feel heard. Just by listening and feeding back your understanding of someone’s words, you will help that person to relax and be more open to compromise.

When you understand where the other person is coming from, you’ll be better able to understand his behaviour and suggest a solution that appeals to him.

Express what your experience is, what your needs are, and what solution would work for you. If you can give this information calmly, it will help the other person to understand your needs. More than calmly, especially in conflict situations, we need to remember to communicate as gently and lovingly as possible. Even if you are expressing that you would like not to be spoken to in a certain way again, you can say this lovingly with words like, “When you say things like that, I feel hurt. It is important to me that we act respectfully toward each other. Please don’t speak to me this way again.”

Next you’ll need to work together to find a solution. Once the parties understand each other’s needs, it is much easier to reach an effective compromise. Begin by working together to find out exactly what the problem is.  Try to find all sources of the problem.

Thus, one must listen, negotiate, and communicate. With that in mind, we can all model proactive approaches, which will minimize conflicts.

“You must reflect on your emotions, transform them, and then be willing to listen to the other person. Then you must take Right Action to eliminate the causes.”
Thich Nhat Hahn

Listening to Music While Studying

by Maureen Bouey
June 2003

Probably most people would agree that music has some kind of an effect on all of us. Recently, some middle school students in the United States became interested in looking at how three different kinds of music (in this case, classical, alternative and country) can affect memory. They set up a study where fifty people memorized two lists of 20 words each – with one minute to memorize each list. After the minute, the list was taken away and participants had another minute to recall and write down as many words as they could remember out of the original twenty.

Three groups were used in the study, and each one listened to a different form of music (alternative, classical, and country). When memorizing the first of two lists, there was no music; during the memorizing of the second list, music was played.

Results for the participants who listened to classical music were the most positive, actually showing an increase in memory. Those who listened to the country and alternative music had lower scores when the music was being played, due to being distracted, while those listening to alternative music had the lowest scores of all. While not an official research study, it does nonetheless demonstrate an important link between learning and music.

So, what do the experts say? Let’s take a brief look at some general information about studies of the links between learning and music.

Many studies have shown that linguistic rhymes, dances, movement, and play in the early years are very important in bringing together the emotions, mind, and body of a child. There is also plenty of research to show that playing music to a child early in life helps to build the neural pathways that allow language, memory, and spatial development to take place.

Music has also been shown to change results in intelligence measurement. Over the years there have been many studies and numerous methods used to measure intelligence. Relevant to our topic, some of these studies have shown that high-frequency, clearly organized music has the ability to naturally stimulate and refresh the brain in a matter of just minutes. This kind of music seems to improve focus and concentration, and can therefore benefit concentration and studying.

Perhaps you’ve heard of “Super-Learning”? Dr. Georgi Lozanov, the Bulgarian professor who pioneered the research into Super-Learning, suggested slow Baroque music for optimal learning (music by Bach, Handel, Correli, Telemann). He said that Baroque’s precise and complex structure engages our brains to an optimal level. There have even been studies proving that this type of music can actually cause your IQ to go up by as much 9 IQ points! (Please do not mistake this as an endorsement of IQ tests.)

Numerous other benefits have also been linked to listening to Baroque music. Just a few examples are:

  • Increased learning speed
  • Reduced number of errors
  • Improved creativity and clarity
  • Faster physical healing
  • Integrated brain for more efficient learning

So we know there are definitely some beneficial links between learning and music – at least some types of music. And while Baroque is not the only kind of music that falls into this beneficial category, it is true that some types of music can definitely be unhelpful: distracting and interfering with the learning processes.

If your preferences run to more popular types of music, here are a few suggestions about how can you best prevent music from interfering with your studies:

  • Play something that is on the mellow side. If the music makes you want to play the drums on your binder, it’s going to be too distracting.
  • Turn down the volume. You are looking for background music, not something you need to shout to be heard over.
  • Pick your music before you start to study, then leave it alone. The time you waste picking out new music and changing CD’s could be put to better use studying.
  • If you’re studying in the same room as somebody else, be considerate and wear headphones.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to memorize things if you are listening to a song with lyrics. Try to find something that is strictly instrumental.
  • If you do have to memorize a list of some kind, some people find it helps to make up a song using the items on the list. Again, listen to an instrumental piece of music, and put your lyrics to it.
  • Put on some music that is familiar to you so you won’t want to listen so intently. Save your new CD for another time.
  • Try not to become so dependent on studying to music that you can’t study without it. Every once in a while, study in a quiet place.
  • Only study to the radio if you can be sure that you won’t be listening to a lot of talking, commercials, or news, and if you know what kind of music you’ll be listening to.
  • If you find the music to be distracting at any time, turn it off. Some people can get so defensive about studying to music that they will keep it on even if it gets to be a hindrance.

(These tips were excerpted, with permission from:

Optimizing Summer Learning

by Dahlia Miller
June 2008

We all know that it’s important to rest and rejuvenate in the summer. Since learning happens 12 months of the year, our children benefit from seeing that it is given a priority during the summer months. Learning isn’t just done in school; it’s part of life. Let’s explore a few ways to make summer learning fun and look at a few reasons why it’s so important to do so.

Some students find that they can get a better handle on subjects and move ahead with them in the summer when they aren’t as busy. Studies show that regular review of notes can help the brain to develop stronger links to previously learned information. As the brain is challenged, it stretches to form new connections. Basically that means that with summer review, in September your child can start running from a jog rather than a dead stop. So he’ll be better able to take in new information rather than focusing on remembering and trying to understand what was learned in the previous school year – he won’t be playing ‘catch-up’ in the fall.

Summer (and other breaks from school) can be the perfect time to bolster your child’s sense of confidence in learning. There is a greater degree of flexibility since you aren’t strapped to a school schedule. Because there isn’t the pressure of assignments to keep up with, learning can be done for interest’s sake and a greater degree of competency with newly learned skills can be fostered. Summer is a time when interests can be explored (and linked to academics at the same time).

Building your children’s sense of confidence in learning isn’t only the school’s responsibility, and it can be easy if they are given some direction and allowed to explore the world around them. Imagine, for example, discussing and researching the length and height of waves you’re likely to encounter before going kayaking with your family. This is math and physics and family fun all rolled into one. Perhaps you would find an interesting website with information about waves and wave dynamics that your child might return to out of interest on another day.

Learning needs to feel natural and fun, not like a burden. Young people naturally want to learn about life and the world around them. If you can build enjoyment of learning without pressure, then your kids will likely be willing to devote more time to it. They’ll feel that it’s enjoyable and that they are successful. If you show them that their efforts are recognized and supported, then they’ll feel good about it.

Keep in mind that the last thing you want to do is stack feelings of guilt onto learning. You don’t need to give yourself or your kids a hard time if you aren’t putting an hour into completing math workbooks everyday like the family next door, for example, or if you aren’t getting out to “educational” family fieldtrips at least once per week in the summer. If you let your children feel that they aren’t doing enough, they may feel a sense of futility linked to education and learning in general. If your schedule is too packed to focus on academics in the summer, you can always hire a professional tutor to come in several times per month. In fact, there are many ways learning can be introduced into your daily life without much extra effort on your part.

Here are a few suggestions of ways that you can offer your children opportunities for growth and development in the summer:

  • Notice your child’s responsiveness; when does s/he learn best? Focus “academic” discussions during that time of the day.
  • Get into games – there is an abundance of stimulating games that your child may enjoy (especially if the whole family happens to be into them): crosswords, Sudoku, chess, memory games, role-plays and charades, and board games with a learning component.
  • Improvisation can be lots of fun. Brainstorm settings, characters and situations together and then act them out (for example grandma in a playground with Sponge-Bob buying an ice cream cone together). You’ll most likely find yourselves laughing together while exploring and practicing a variety of social skills.
  • Ask your kids to cook (recipes involve math especially when they need to be doubled or halved). Shopping for ingredients gives extra practice in estimation of costs, price comparison (i.e. algebra) and money management as well.
  • Suggest that your kids build things (bird feeders, go carts, etc.) – this is especially great if they work from plans or create their own plans. Planning, measuring, being creative, and the hands-on of actual building are great confidence builders as well as offering experience and practice in hand-eye co-ordination.
  • Read a series of books with your kids. You could role-play, or at least discuss, what you think the ending may be. Also, discussions about the characters, their conflicts and the writer’s intent build skills for literature analysis.
  • Attend readings. Local authors and out-of-town authors often present their work in book store or library readings. This is a wonderful way to look into a written work from the author’s perspective.
  • Libraries offer free summer reading clubs and rewards for kids who read a certain number of books over the summer.
  • Buy or borrow magazines, books, books on tape and videos that might interest your child. Books on experiments and crafts that can be done at home are great fun. Recent videos about science and nature are very entertaining and educational.
  • Get creative with what you have at home – the bathroom scale, scrapbook supplies, a magnifying glass, food colouring – encourage your kids to come up with activities with 3 or 4 randomly selected items.
  • Watch trends together – weather charts, stock markets, plant growth, animal tracks in your backyard, etc.
  • Plan family activities and field trips where you are all learning. Perhaps you could try a new sport together or attend a free outdoor presentation offered by a park naturalist in the neighbourhood.

There are several good books on thinking games and suggestions for parents on encouraging a love of reading, math, science and nature at the local library.

“The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn.”
John Lubbock, 1900’s British Statesman

Qualities of a Good Teacher

by Dahlia Miller
October 2005

“Knowledge - like the sky - is never private property. . . Teaching is the art of sharing.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Anyone can be a teacher, right? There isn’t much to teaching, right? As long as a person understands a topic, that person is qualified to teach it, isn’t that true? What is there to teaching anyway besides explaining how to do something?

Well, a lot.

There’s much more to teaching than demonstrating a process. A teacher, tutor, peer tutor, parent, in fact, anyone in a teaching role, has a tremendous impact on a student. How the student is addressed and supported leaves lasting effects on his/her self-esteem and skill set.

I’ve listened to hundreds of students’ stories about their experiences of being taught. I’ve heard many positive stories, and unfortunately have heard horror stories as well. Students who are told that they are stupid, or that they don’t deserve to be in the level that they are in, students who are told that they aren’t trying, or can’t do it, or that they must have a learning disability don’t take these comments lightly. They notice when their teacher is frustrated or doesn’t want to take time for them. Students carry these negative experiences with them, and change their behaviours (often in negative ways) accordingly.

On the other hand, it’s wonderful to witness the inspiration sparked in a student when a teacher makes an effort to be a positive teaching model. A teacher can inspire a student to go further than she thought possible, to see herself as capable, to cultivate an interest in learning.

Having interviewed hundreds of tutors, and been an academic director, I’ve come to recognize many of the qualities that good teachers demonstrate consistently. In our December 2004 issue, we looked at the qualities of a good student, now let’s have a look at the qualities of a good teacher. So what are these qualities?

We can break effective teaching behaviours into four broad categories. As you read through these lists, consider teachers that you’ve known who have exhibited these qualities. What feelings did they inspire in you as a student? Also, please consider how you can incorporate these qualities when you are in a teaching role.

Qualities of a Good Teacher

1. Communication

How well we communicate affects how well we are heard. Much of the communication in teaching is listening. Listening with our full attention, we begin to discover what a student needs. Then, if we ask open-ended questions at appropriate times, the student can explore the topic, and any issues, with the teacher’s guidance.

Behaviours that define the quality of communication are:

  • Effective listening
  • Clear communication
  • Knowing when to jump in
  • Building confidence
  • Asking questions

2. Approach

A skilled teacher is capable of changing her approach to meet the needs of her students. An engaging teacher is one who is interested in the topic and in developing her students’ interest in it. She monitors her students closely for their responses, presenting concepts and topics in a style that is both informative and stimulating.
A student who loves stories would rather discuss a concept than build a model of it. A student who enjoys movement would rather form letters with his body than read phonics books. We’re all different. Different approaches spark our different interests.

A good teacher monitors her approach by:

  • Checking comprehension
  • Gearing approach to interests
  • Teaching to the student’s level
  • Using learning styles
  • Watching responses

3. Mentoring

The teacher’s role as a mentor carries a responsibility to model respectful communication and support. Students look to teachers for clues as to how to behave and respond to others.
A teacher can benefit by honestly considering how she leads students. The more a teacher knows herself, the better she’ll be able to move beyond her limits.
When you are in a teaching role, what types of responses do you give to students when they are right? What types of responses do you give to students when they are wrong?

Other behaviours that support a teacher’s role as mentor are:

  • Maintaining professional distance
  • Helping set goals
  • Being kind
  • Being patient
  • Supporting

4. Professionalism

A teacher who models professionalism accepts his responsibility to be current with his information and open to learning. He appreciates the student-teacher relationship and stays within the boundaries of his role.

A professional teacher is one who is:

  • Knowledgeable
  • Friendly
  • Open to sharing with other teachers
  • Prepared
  • Focussed on the student

Through reflecting on your gifts and skills as a teacher you’ll gain better perspective. With practice and perspective, you can learn to step back from any teaching situation to see what direction or approach will most benefit your student(s). Through practice we can all learn to use our strengths as teachers. This will allow us to lead our students most effectively.

Happy teaching!

“Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers and teachers.”
Author unknown

Supporting Good Study Skills in Your Child

by Dahlia Miller
June 2006

"You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was."
Abraham Lincoln

Helping your children to develop effective study skills is a challenging feat. What’s that saying? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says something similar.

He asks us to consider the topic of control. Whose behaviour is ouside our control? Whose behaviour can we influence? Whose behaviour is inside our control? The people we can’t control are all those outside our circle of influence – basically anyone who isn’t a friend or family. The place it gets a bit sticky is determining whose behaviour we can control and whose behaviour we can only influence. Having been the mother of a two year old throwing a temper tantrum on the grocery store floor, I bear witness to the fact that I cannot control even my own children’s behaviour. The truth is, the only person whose behaviour we can control is ourselves.

With that in mind, it can be easier to approach our children to guide them in improving their study skills. Essentially, we need to remember that all we can do is offer suggestions; we cannot control how they use our advice, however sage it may be.
Students have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders. Are you aware of what your child is expected to do on a daily basis at school? The first step in supporting your child in effective study skills is getting an accurate understanding of what is expected of him.

Answer these questions (on your own, or with your child’s help if you don’t know the answer):

  • How many subjects per day does your child study?
  • How are handouts/assignments expected to be stored (ex. in duotangs or binders), or is there no expectation?
  • Where does your child store his/her materials between classes (i.e. in a desk or locker)?
  • How many times per day is your child expected to return to this storage place to retrieve materials? How much time is given for this?
  • Is there a system used by the school or individual teachers to track homework and assignments? What is it?

How effective are your child’s current study habits? You could ask her to take the self-assessment in our article “Top 35 Study Habits”. This can help you/her to determine what her weak points are in studying. If possible, discuss these weak points with your child. Keep in mind that effective studying requires balance.

Studying three hours per day may look like effective studying, but it isn’t if the student isn’t studying the right material or if she isn’t taking time to make friends, play sports or relax.


Students are essentially required to carry a portable office with them and to pack and unpack it several times per day – hundreds of times in a term. Could you do this and maintain a sense of organization?

Here are some quick tips for keeping bags/backpacks in order:

  • Pull out anything that doesn’t need to be there (out-dated notices, old lunches, etc.).
  • Determine if anything doesn’t need to be carried on a regular basis (ex. texts).
  • Stack books in bag according to size.
  • Put accessories into smaller compartments – let your child assign a place for everything.
  • Keep water bottles in separate compartments.

Keeping on top of assignments, tests and projects is another major aspect of staying organized as a student. One way to help in this regard is to ensure that your child has all the stationary she needs. Some useful supplies include:

  • White board with built-in calendar
  • A variety of coloured markers (for white board and paper)
  • Large, sturdy dividers with pouches (to be used as in/out boxes)
  • or Plastic pockets for binders (to be used as an in/out box)
  • Calendar or day-timer that she likes (the school may provide one)

Also, it’s a good idea to check every month or so to be sure that your child is fully stocked for school supplies both at school and at home.

Time Management

Many children (and adults) do not have an accurate sense of time. They don’t truly know how much they can or can’t do in five minutes, in an hour or in a day. This lack of awareness can lead to all kinds of issues with time management: from not accurately judging how long it will take to complete a task (like an essay, for example) to not recognizing how much time has been put toward homework versus computer games in an afternoon.

This problem sometimes stems from not having enough experience with analog clocks (clocks with hands that move around). Parents can also sometimes confuse their child’s sense of time. How many times have you said you’ll leave in five minutes only to take another twenty to get out the door? Over time, this leads to confusion about just exactly how long five minutes is.

It usually leads to a feeling of defeat and lack of purpose if the student feels that she is putting a lot of time into studying but with little return. Some students are surprised to realize that while they’ve been sitting at their desks for two hours, they’ve really only focused on work for about 30 minutes. Encourage your child to study in 45-50 minute periods and take short breaks. The brain and memory function most effectively when used in short spurts (ever noticed how you tend to remember beginnings and endings but often lose the middle parts of what you’re focusing on?). If your child seems challenged with time management you might ask her to track her work for a week. Ask her to make a mark every 15 minutes on a page tracking focus or lack of focus.
Students often aren’t sure how to break large tasks into more manageable chunks. They end up sitting at their desks feeling overwhelmed, uncertain how to start.

Parents can help students stay on track by asking about their goals. I’m referring to small goals here. If they have an essay due next Friday, have they set goals for when they’ll have the brainstorming, outline, and rough draft completed?

There are many aspects to study skills – too many to cover in one short article. Patience and understanding are virtues that parents can display when working with their children in supporting study skills. For more information, you could refer to some of our other articles on study skills.

“Our insistence on hearing the answer we expect keeps us from asking the question we should.”

Supporting Teens in School

by Dahlia Miller
May 2009

This article was originally published in Parenting Teens Magazine in October 2005

“As we are called to our faults, we become them. As we are seen for our virtues, we live them.”
Frances O’Brian

Schoolwork doesn’t need to be a struggle between parents and teens. After all, you both have common goals. That doesn’t mean that answers will always come easily. In fact, many parents experience growing pains at this time.

Supporting a teen in learning can be a complicated dance – one step forward, one step sideways, one step backward, and another step forward. Like any dance, enjoyment comes when we relax into the movement and know who is leading; when one partner steps forward, the other steps back. Believe it or not, like it or not, your teen is the one leading when it comes to the dance of schoolwork.

The point of schooling is for our teens to discover the disciplines of learning and of taking responsibility. The goal is to work towards encouraging your child’s ownership of the study process. This can only come about with his being allowed to make many of his own decisions. How can you support this development? What follows are suggestions to inspire your creativity in supporting your teen in school.

Study Habits

There are many facets to good study habits including organization of time, space and materials. Your role is to ensure that your teen knows what good study skills are and to set up the supportive structure providing space, time and supplies. Accept that he’ll make errors in the learning process with time management, organization, and setting priorities. Academic success demands effort – this awareness can take time to develop.

Help to set up a regular study space – a desk and comfortable chair with adequate light and all necessary supplies. Consider providing a small monthly budget for school supplies and stationery. It’s easier to get excited about school when you’ve got new binders, and access to poster board, stencils, report covers and other stationery.

Encourage a set time for study – with a “no phone calls or texting” agreement during this time. (Let your teen choose the time.) Regular breaks are good, but TV or computer are not restorative and so should be discouraged until after studying is done.

Have a calendar posted specifically to track tests, projects and reports. Help your teen to walk backward from due dates to recognize when to begin reviewing or working on a project.

What motivates your teen? What does he want (clothes, car, cell phone, etc.)? This can be the fodder for an incentive program.

Communicating about Schoolwork

Engage in thoughtful conversation with your teen. Show interest and allow differences of opinion. Demonstrate effective listening. Express your belief in his learning process and in his ability to succeed. Knowing that someone is interested and believes in you is a powerful motivator.

Point out positive attitudes and study behaviours that you notice in your teen. Offer specific compliments and avoid dumping – criticizing and nagging do not set a good example. Find something to praise – recognition is huge to the receiver.

Your teen needs to know that you notice his efforts.

If you notice ineffective study habits, point them out. Remember, though, there is no need to repeat advice. Allow your teen to take on responsibility and experience successes and failures – there is no need to lecture – he’ll learn from his own mistakes.

Seize the moment if your teen wants to talk about school. Ask a question or two and listen well. How does he feel about learning? How does he feel about his ability? What is his favourite subject? What are his goals for this year and beyond? Who is his favourite teacher and why? (This teacher can become an invaluable ally if you develop a relationship with her.) Share a horror story or two about yourself as a teen at school. How did you feel? What was hard for you? What did you do to overcome your challenges?

When your teen presents a problem with school or schoolwork, let him know that you believe he is capable of finding solutions. Let your child know that you are supportive, but that his work is his responsibility. You can help to build decision-making skills by turning questions back to him: “What do you think?” “What are your options?” “What approach are you going to take with this?” If necessary, help him to break the problem into small, manageable steps.


Assume there is homework every night. If there is nothing due the next day, study time can be spent reviewing or preparing for an upcoming project or test.

Read your teen’s homework every now and then. It’ll give you a sense of his ability and level. Avoid expressing shock and indignation at sloppy work – home ought to be a safe environment to make mistakes. Ask if this is a good example of what he is capable of; if he seems to be lacking in some skill, offer to help or to find help.

Encourage your teen to teach you something he is learning – you don’t need to understand or comment. This is a great study technique and will give him practice in expressing his understanding of a topic.

As your teen ages, the subject matter of his homework may be difficult even for you. In this situation, you can use your resources to direct your child toward help.

Don’t put a spotlight on your teen’s academic performance. If you are expecting change in a habit, give it time. Don’t harangue him about assignments and homework. Keep in mind what your teen responds to – does he like attention, or not? Do your best to remain calm no matter the situation with your teen’s homework. Keep in mind that you are looking to help your teen develop into a capable adult – this takes time.

Approaching Learning

Be enthusiastic about learning. Model a creative approach to work and learning.

Beware of setting unrealistic goals for your teen. This is a sure-fire way to let the air out of his balloon. Your teen is looking for more independence. If he is making a positive effort, is enjoying himself, and has an overall good attitude toward school, then pressuring him about grades will probably just be counterproductive. He needs to develop his own goals and meet them.

Help your teen to understand his educational and career choices. Visit campuses and go to university and college open houses. Look at course requirements and prerequisites together. Talk to people in the career field he is interested in. Talk about options – how much does he need to earn to buy those things and have the lifestyle he wants? – this can be quite an eye-opener.

Offer lots of opportunities to try new activities. Encourage well roundedness. Acknowledge what is important to your teen. Notice when something ignites him and encourage it. Has he taken on some project of his own accord? (One parent described to me how her son wanted to buy a puppy. Suddenly he was doing research and making sales calls.)

Do you have realistic expectations for your teen’s school performance? Some kids find school and learning easy, others don’t. What is your teen’s real capability? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Remember that small successes build self-esteem. Getting outside help or transferring to a less difficult course may do more to develop his confidence than struggling in a difficult course and getting poor grades.

“I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”
Harry S. Truman

The Value of Play

by Maureen Bouey
May 2004

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”
Plato (427 BC - 347 BC)

Education isn’t a contest or a race; it’s a process, and one that each human child experiences differently.

As parents, we love our children and want the best for them, but these days there is an unmistakable ambiance of competitiveness around the lives of children.

In California, there is now even a prenatal university; pregnant women are taught how to stimulate the baby while in the womb to produce a brighter child!

We fill our kids’ days, weeks and months – sometimes to overflowing – with both in and out-of-school activities, as we try to give them every possible advantage. Many parents spend much of their day in their cars, ferrying children to and from school, lessons and sports. It’s all done from, and for, love, of course.

Just for a moment, let’s stop, take a deep breath, and remember:

1) With respect to learning, formally structured learning environments are not the only way to learn, and
2) Plain good old-fashioned fun – for its own sake – is an important factor in every child’s (and every adult’s) well-being.

First, it is often said that “play is children’s work”. Imaginative play and experiential hands-on (kinesthetic) learning is important to children’s learning processes. Play also helps children of all ages to be more creative, and self-sufficient.

Just some of the benefits of playtime are: creativity, thinking and language skills, small and large muscle building, conflict resolution opportunities and many other important physical, cognitive and social skills.

Well-known medical expert and media personality, Dr. Alan Greene1 notes, “We know that active play improves school performance, concentration, mood and behaviour.” Play is simply fundamental to healthy minds and bodies. And, life lessons learned while having fun with siblings and friends often wind up having the deepest impact, and being the most memorable.

“If A is success in life, then A equals X plus Y plus Z. Work is X; Y is play; and Z is keeping your mouth shut.”
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

The second point is that fun is an important factor in our overall well-being. It is essential for us to keep schedules that allow harmony between work and play time. We all need to rejuvenate and refresh ourselves with play – regularly. “Play” can be any spontaneous activity that is unstructured.

A spontaneous activity is different from enrolling a child in Little League or signing her up for violin lessons (however worthwhile these are). Spontaneous play occurs when we do an activity freely, without being directed. When children organize their own ball game, puppet show or an afternoon of imagining, they are meeting their own needs for spontaneous play.

More and more experts agree that this kind of spontaneous play is key for children’s physical health, as well as for their emotional well-being. Famous Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, in his celebrated book on educating children3, “You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy? Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long? Never in his life will he be so busy again.”

The United Nations even included the right to play in the 1989 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

“If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things.”3 They really do not need, or particularly benefit from, the vast quantities being showered on them. Dr. Greene suggests providing your child with a few simple, versatile toys: blocks, Lego, wooden spoons and bowls, etc., to allow the imagination room to play.

I remember when my sister and her two pre-school aged boys came to visit one summer; my sister and I got some large fridge and stove cardboard boxes from an appliance store and brought them home. The boxes became forts, houses, schools – the kids liked them so much, in fact, they wound up laying them on their sides and “camping” in them with sleeping bags at night. Each had his/her own “bunker” and decorated and painted it according to individual taste. It was free, it was fun, it was creative, and it was memorable!

If your children complain of being bored, too many scheduled activities could be the culprit. In an Internet published document on this subject, the Illinois Early Learning Project Research Centre4, notes: “If a child says, ‘I’m bored,’ she may need more unstructured time for play.”

Children need down time and time to be alone – some more than others. They need time when their imaginations and creativity can take hold and they can be utterly absorbed in whatever they are doing. These are the times when children experience the full benefits of play. Avoid lots of television watching; you may or may not want to completely restrict your child’s TV viewing, but remember, TV watching does not fall into the category of “creative” spontaneous play.

Children learn by observing what you do, not doing what you say. All of us need to play to balance ourselves. Katherine Gibson, in “Unclutter Your Life”, talks about “cluttered kids”5.

“… kids are over-organized…Instead of tunneling their way to China in the backyard, these tiny tykes are conducting interactive, multimedia explorations of simulated archeology {using the computer}digs – all without dirtying their Baby Gaps...”

Children and adults alike, we all benefit from a balance of work and play in our lives. If we want our children to lead harmonious lives, we need to do two things: role model both working and playing, and give our kids space to just “be” who they are. After all, as many Buddhists say, we are human beings, not human doings.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
Carl Jung (1875 - 1961)

1 Chief Medical Officer of A.D.A.M., Founder & CEO of, and Pediatric Expert for On the Clinical Faculty at Stanford University School of Medicine, President of Health Internet Ethics, helped URAC develop its standards for eHealth accreditation.
2 Emile, 1762
3 Norman Douglas
4 Part of the Illinois State Board of Education.
5 Katherine Gibson, Unclutter Your Life. (Victoria: Beyond Words Publishing) p. 100

Learning Difficulties

These articles all relate to learning difficulties.

Dyslexia: Learning Difference Not Disability

This is an interview with Karey Hope and Howie DeGraaf of Dyslexia Victoria Online.
September 2012

Some Characteristics of Dyslexics

Karey: There is a tendency for dyslexics to be very intelligent. We look at dyslexia as a learning difference – a right-brained processing style. Depending on the research you’re looking at, 10-25% of the population has some level of dyslexia.

While some dyslexics struggle with reading, spelling and writing, for some dyslexics, their challenge shows up in math and processing, or in an inability to understand instructions as they are given.
Most dyslexics think using many images – their mouth tripping over itself trying to keep up. They know what they want to say but can’t find the words. They can see the ideas in their minds but can’t express the ideas well in written or spoken form. They’re thinking so many things at once that other people have a hard time following and understanding what they’re trying to say.

We can often recognize a dyslexic student through their writing: they may start a thought at the beginning, and then finish the thought later in the middle of the paper. That’s because they are trying to say everything that’s in their mind all at once and it just comes out.

As well, dyslexic students are generally extremely spatial and this begins to impact them in terms of understanding instructions. They tend to sense all around themselves at once. So, if a teacher asks them to point to the back of the chair, they need to get very specific: the student will ask if it’s the front or back of the chair back that they should point to.

They have a need for complete instruction. For example if a boss puts a package on the desk and asks them to mail it, they won’t do it if they don’t understand the full instructions (or are afraid to ask). They don’t know whether to send it UPS or Canada Post; take it to the post office or get someone to pick it up; send it to arrive tomorrow or next week, etc.

So, these students are the ones asking a million questions (even if the questions were already answered the week before). They are very literal and need to know if each situation is the same or different. They never assume and always want to double-check.

Howie: They’ll start asking questions after instructions are given. Many times what they’re asking for is the information to be presented in a different way.

Interestingly, when writing out steps and equations, they don’t trust that step one leads to step ten. They don’t want to hear step one but to hear the whole concept first.

Dyslexics also tend to go off on tangents and go off-track a lot. They know they’re smart, but they are very impacted by their learning difference. Sadly, they’re often told they’re not working hard enough or that they’re lazy, but this isn’t really the case.

How Dyslexic and Right-Brained Students Think

Karey: It’s not that dyslexics can’t understand abstracts; dyslexic individuals are actually excellent at understanding abstract ideas. Some of the most famous inventors and scientists in history have been dyslexic.

Dyslexics have difficulty understanding the abstract ideas of decoding words, sentences, phonics and numbers the way they are usually taught in the regular classroom. So we need to understand that this issue with abstracts is part of right-brained processing. Roughly 40% of people process with the right-brain. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily dyslexic but they can have issues with abstracts as well.

Non-dyslexics think primarily in words while dyslexics process information primarily in images. This is one of the reasons dyslexics tend to go off on tangents: they just have so many images and ideas that come to mind when working on a problem or working out a process. NASA did a study and found that non-dyslexics can process or think about 252 words per minute, whereas dyslexics can process about 10,000 images per minute.

This is also one of the strengths of the dyslexic: they make great problem solvers because they naturally can think outside-the-box. In fact, about 50% of CEO’s of the top Fortune 500 companies in England are dyslexic. There are similar statistics for companies in North America as well.

The ability to read and write is not genetically encoded. We have been taught how to use many abstract concepts in order to read and write and do mathematic calculations. It is because these abstracts are difficult to understand for the right-brained or dyslexic that they are at a distinct disadvantage in regular schools as compared to the left-brained or non-dyslexic.

Left-brained people, looking at words and numbers, use the left brain to process them, accessing the language part of the brain which has systems for decoding. Right-brained people don’t use their left brain to look at words and numbers; they may be using the part of the brain that processes faces. This works with symbols efficiently, but these symbols need to be directly connected with something real.

For example, pre-historic man looking at a dinosaur footprint (a symbol), recognized it as representing something real (food or something to fear). Right-brained people are trying to use this same logic to relate to words. The sounds of the letters C-A-T, however, don’t have any real-world meaning unless connected to the image or experience of an actual cat. These sounds, or phonemes, don’t have any correlation with something that is real. So, it’s possible for kids to read phonetically but with no understanding of what is being read.

When we go with an approach that uses whole-word recognition, students’ ability to recognize words goes up. In this approach, we are using ‘concretes’ and an image that links to what it’s meant to be representing.

Howie: Dyslexics are experiential in their learning. If you can’t ground them in something they can experience or sense, then they will most likely not understand the abstract on paper.

Techniques for Working with Dyslexics

Howie: Dyslexics process information in a different way: it’s a learning difference. Once that is understood, then information can be presented in a way that works. It can be accommodated easily – not necessarily with totally new lesson plans, just different techniques for presenting the same information.

If material is being presented in terms that the dyslexic can’t understand, they have a hard time doing the work. It may seem like they’re day-dreaming; often they are afraid to ask. We need to change their learning environment to suit their learning styles as much as possible – to stack the deck so that learning will be easier for them.

Karey: Time, measurement, and spelling are all things that need to be explained in a way that make sense to them. Then they open up and have a tendency to run with it because they’re very intelligent. Dyslexics are most often very inquisitive; once they learn a topic they tend to want to learn more.

Howie: There is a way to teach to dyslexics that involves “whole word” recognition. This is how we teach spelling and reading, and it increases comprehension. Most dyslexics have great, nearly photographic memories.

Karey: Teachers often introduce a topic sequentially, step -by-step, rather than with an overview. Dyslexic students, then, get lost – not sure what was being taught without the whole picture to compare it to. Dyslexics need to understand the bigger picture.

Mind maps, clustering, and bubbles are so effective for these students for many subjects. Make it into a picture first then break it into steps. What they need to be able to do is to start with the key ideas then break it down into the components, and then write from that. If they don’t do this, they can’t write well.

When dyslexic students have difficulty writing essays, for example, it’s because they do not know how to take big the picture perspective (the forest) then describe the smaller details (the trees). So that’s where they have to be lead: to see the forest before the trees. Students need to be taught how to put their thoughts down on paper and then organize them.

Howie: One teen we worked with didn’t understand geometry. I took a piece of paper and folded it into a triangle. A triangle drawn on a flat sheet made absolutely no sense to her. Once she saw that a triangle was a real thing she could experience and interact with, then everything else fell into place, like the formulas and working out the angles. It’s not that she couldn’t understand the steps in solving the equations, but she had to know what a triangle meant: what it looked and felt like.

Draw everything or do it physically, if you can. Help the student to understand it as a real thing, then they can understand it on paper. They need a reason to do it.

They need to see the end result. They need to see a complete example first then go back and learn the steps. Let them see the movie then read the book. Let them read the last chapter first. Show the end result first then go through the steps – they have to see the big picture. Let students see a book review before asking them to write one. Show examples of formatting; don’t just tell them about formatting. Show them a completed science project, a completed book report, a completed essay, etc.

Karey: When checking spelling, grammar and writing, make comments on how to improve specifically. Demonstrate and correct the changes that need to be made. Don’t just mark on a concept or give a grade, let students rewrite after explanations. They quickly improve with practice and a little extra guidance.

Paying Attention to Homework: Suggestions for Parents of Students with Attention Difficulties

by Dahlia Miller
May 2007

“The wildest colts make the best horses.”
Themistocles 514-449 BC

Doing homework isn’t an easy task for any student. For students with “attention difficulties” it can be much more challenging.

These students may have difficulty sitting down to do homework. They may feel overwhelmed by how much work there is, and so do nothing. They may get frustrated, not understanding what is expected or why an assignment is important. They may be distracted and so spend hours “doing” homework but with little result.

Parents can help their child who has attention difficulties feel more comfortable doing homework, and experience more successes, by working creatively with their child’s strengths. Below are some tips for parents – the list is by no means exhaustive and definitely needs to be tailored to each student’s needs.

Study Space

  • Reduce extraneous or distracting information from study environment.
  • Check in to see if there are any “hidden” attention distracters in study areas – feel/size/look of pencil or paper, uncomfortable chair, etc.
  • Post a calendar to mark in upcoming assignments and projects (as well as completion dates for rough work).
  • Make posters about information being learned and post them around study area (ex. spelling words or information that needs to be remembered) – this can allow the student to learn passively through exposure, if it isn’t too distracting.
  • Provide computerized learning materials when possible and appropriate.
  • Provide school supplies that meet your child’s interests and talents – white boards, tape recorders, poster paper.
  • Consider setting up two study spaces so the student can move between them – this allows movement as well as self-regulation.

Working with Homework

  • Encourage list-making and setting of priorities.
  • Set specific goals for each homework sitting to provide success.
  • Help student get started on projects or assignments.
  • Pre-task preview – outline the purpose of each task clearly with clear sequence of steps, and have the child repeat instructions.
  • Highlight key information in questions.
  • Use a watch alarm to show a time limit.
  • Cover worksheets up to focus on only a few questions at a time.
  • Check in with mid-task reinforcement – focus on short intervals.
  • Avoid character assassinations when homework is difficult.
  • Offer rewards.
  • Colour code notebooks so they’re simpler to keep organized.
  • Set up a homework notebook to keep work that is “to do” and “to hand in” obvious.
  • Consider/Test how your student thinks – in words, numbers, pictures, music, physical sensations. Use strategies to tap natural cognitive aspects. Some examples:
    • Visualization or guided imagery – imagine a trip through the circulatory system or visualize the spelling of a word or a scene from history, draw pictures to illustrate math problems or visualize the steps to a math problem.
    • Biofeedback or kinaesthetic approaches – spell words with the body or jump for consonants and sit for vowels, have a reading rocking chair, act continental drift by walking around room, dance a conga line for multiplication with kicks at correct multiples, pantomime.
    • Music – read aloud with music in background and have student just relax and listen to music, develop rhymes to help memorization, write a song to help memorize information, do work to metronome or steady background beat.
    • Self talk or talk aloud to focus or organize thoughts – teach someone the material, describe the steps before doing the work, conduct interviews on tape.
    • Videos, computer sites, etc.
  • Support regular and frequent breaks – especially physically active breaks.
  • Show the student evidence of improvement.
  • Help child verbalize frustrations – take a break to regain control and brainstorm alternatives.
  • Assess if additional academic support is needed at home or school.
  • Set specific times for specific tasks – when does your child focus best? Perhaps arrange homework to be done then.
  • Teach organization and study skills.
  • Build memorizing skills with memory techniques (see the April 2004 Smart Connection for examples of mnemonics) or use study tools like flashcards.
  • Use drama and have fun when explaining information – encourage creativity and improvisation.

Working with Teachers

  • Educate yourself about the school system, philosophies, policies, supports.
  • Work directly and respectfully with teachers and counsellors – express appreciation to them for their dedication to your child’s education.
  • Provide teachers with brief materials on ADD, ADHD or other learning difficulties, as appropriate.
  • Set a homework plan with the teacher.
  • Suggest the least distractible seating in the class (at the front or the back usually).
  • Ask that assignments be modified, if needed (submitting a recording or photo journal instead of a report, for example; or shortening an assignment – teacher, parent and student agreeing on a minimum time effort to be put into the work).
  • Request your child be allowed alternatives to in-class activities (allowing student to do homework during free reading time, for example).
  • Encourage your child to ask for help at school – role-play how to advocate.
  • Involve students in decision-making with school-related issues.

Home: General Suggestions

  • As a family discuss topics being studied.
  • Set clearly structured daily routines – be predictable.
  • Tell what is coming next and what the situation will look like.
  • Offer frequent healthy snacks.
  • Let the student dictate the necessary boundaries and limits – allow him/her to assume accountability for effects of behaviour.
  • Ask child how many reminders s/he wants.
  • Pre-determine consequences – be clear and consistent.
  • Give immediate feedback.
  • Catch your child being good.
  • Brainstorm and post your child’s positive traits – hold a positive image of your child as a student.
  • Discuss what your child is feeling inside – about self, school, friends, and parents.
  • Encourage creative expression at home – clay, paints, building materials or in classes for music, dance, painting, pottery, etc.
  • Remember that free unstructured play contributes to a child’s intellectual, social and emotional welfare – allow opportunities to make good choices.
  • Offer positive role models.

Selected Bibliography

ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom. Armstrong, Thomas. 1999: ASCD, Virginia.
From Chaos to Calm. Heininger, Janet E. 2001: Berkeley Publishing, NY.
Teaching the Restless: One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed. Mercogliano, Chris. 2004: Beacon Press.
Teenagers with ADD & ADHD. Zeigler Dendy, Chris. 2000: Woodbine House.
T.O.L.D. Checklist & Strategy Guide. Allison, Barbara & Mary-Jane Hardie. 1997.

Re-Training the Brain

March 2007

This month’s article is an interview with Craig Shaw, owner of Springboard Cognitive Training in Victoria. Craig is a former teacher and counsellor. He now works with children with learning difficulties to address and correct their learning issues at the cognitive level.

STR: What is “cognitive processing,” and how is it linked to learning and learning difficulties?

Craig: Cognitive processing is how your brain works to process information and remember things, which is absolutely essential to the learning process in general. Quite often, however, the root causes of learning difficulties can be rooted even deeper than the cognitive level.

A good way to look at the basics of learning is to think of the ABC’s:
A– Attention
B – Balance
C – Co-ordination

We know that kids who have difficulty paying attention in class are not going to do well. A high percentage of kids who struggle in school have balance difficulties and problems with their inner ear, and they often have subtle and not so subtle co-ordination problems – like issues with gross and fine motor skills which can affect written output, sitting still in class as well as a broad range of underlying skills that are required to succeed in school. For kids with more pronounced learning difficulties, these skills are absolutely critical because they underlie higher cognitive difficulties.

The neuro-developmental aspects of the brain are deep down in the brain stem which is developed early on, usually in a child’s first year, and very often kids with learning difficulties will not have gone through the early stages of their development fully – they may have skipped or omitted stages in their early development – and this affects their attention, balance and co-ordination. I believe that these deeply rooted weaknesses often need to be dealt before we can expect broad academic success. If these are deeper issues that aren’t dealt with, it can be like building another floor on a house without a good foundation.

STR: What are some symptoms of neuro-developmental delays?

Craig: There is a broad range of difficulties that may occur – they are hints of lags or delays:

  • Trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty sensing where the body is in space (lack of body awareness)
  • Difficulties forming letters when writing (here, the higher part of the brain is compensating for what is automatic for most people. These kids don’t get to a place where writing is automatic, so structuring sentences and punctuation become nearly impossible to perform; they are struggling so much with performing the basics of writing.)
  • Signs of social immaturity
  • Difficulties in areas like bed-wetting
  • Difficulties learning to dress themselves
  • Slow learning to ride a bicycle
  • Slow learning to read from an analog clock
  • Letter reversals
  • Skipping lines when reading

STR: Can neuro-cognitive training address these learning issues?

Craig: Yes. There has been a revolution in research – we’ve got a much better handle on how people learn than even 10 years ago. Now, more practitioners are able to take this research and design programs that target the areas of the brain or sensory system that are holding the student back.

I often see significant improvements for kids with mild learning difficulties within 6 months by doing an intensive cognitive training program. Students with more pronounced difficulties take longer, but they can also be trained to learn more easily.

STR: What is the background of neuro-cognitive training?

Craig: The INPP, The Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology, where I did my training, was founded in 1975 in England. They’ve been working with kids all over Europe since 1975, fine-tuning and improving their program as they’ve learned more and more. They have institutions, which are training facilities, run by doctors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, educators, and neuro-psychologists. People from all over the world go to the main institute in England to receive training. In jurisdictions in Europe, INPP is considered on rank with occupational therapy (OT).

There is an interesting story behind the INPP program’s popularity in the U.K. There, they track kids every three years with standardized tests – in Northern U.K. they were using the INPP program in schools without informing the government. Kids in the lower percentiles in northern U.K. were making significant progress within three years, so the national government looked into what they were doing in the schools. Now, the Ministry of Education in the U.K. is hoping to make the INPP program available to as many schools as they can.

It’s a user-friendly way to help with a child’s neurological maturity that can have major impacts on their learning, behaviour, and general co-ordination.

STR: What kinds of improvements do you see with neuro-cognitive training?

Craig: Of course the results vary, but in general, students make significant gains in their attention, memory, self-esteem, reasoning, and general processing which lead to easier, faster learning. They usually become more proficient at reading, writing, spelling and math.

STR: What kinds of neuro-cognitive training programs do you offer?

Craig: I have a number of different programs to address students’ individual needs, including: the INPP, which is a home program, where parents work with their kids 5-10 minutes/day for about one year; LIFT – Listening Fitness, which improves auditory processing; Interactive Metronome – used by pro sports teams and in schools in the U.S. like the Julliard School for Music – it enhances the connections between movement, listening and learning; PACE – which focuses on memory, concentration, auditory and visual processing, reasoning and processing speed – PACE is the largest cognitive training program of its type in the world with over fifteen hundred trainers in North America, but only two in Victoria.

STR: Are there some things that parents can do at home to support the cognitive development of their kids?

Craig: We’ve known for a long time that there is a connection between movement and learning. One of the best things parents can do is be sure that kids are physically active – exercise is crucial to optimum brain performance.

As well, be sure to support kids with:

  • Regular sleep patterns
  • Healthy diet – especially fruits and vegetables
  • Omega oils
  • Music and dance (these are fantastic training for the brain: connecting sounds with movement, which is essentially what writing is – connecting sound, through language, and movement)
  • Exercise programs which bring an awareness of the link between mind and body like yoga, pilates, tai chi, taekwondo, and qi gong are also very good.

You’ll find more information at, or read The Well Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe.

Perspectives on Learning

These articles all relate to looking at what others have done with their education.

Cool Things You Can Do with a Math Degree

June 2010

This is the third in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month we interviewed Hugh Thompson at the Centre of the Universe in BC.

Hugh Thompson

  • Systems Research Engineer, NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics
  • Bachelors of Applied Science in Engineering

Educational Background

I have scientific parents: my dad’s a mathematician and my mom’s a bio-chemist. I think I had a slightly unusual childhood in that I just assumed that everybody went to university for ages and did lots of degrees and became professors. My brother and sister did those things, so I thought I would do that too and be a famous scientist.

I always loved building things as a kid. In that sense I probably always wanted to be an engineer, I just didn’t know what it was called back then. I built a remote controlled propeller boat when I was young. I also built a telescope as a teenager. I didn’t build things from kits, but eventually I did succumb to using plans with the telescope because I didn’t get too far with my original scheme from scratch. I loved Lego, Capsella and Lego-Technixs – that stuff was awesome. With it I built a car that had working cylinders and a working drive train so you could shift gears. That taught me a lot about engineering.

I always liked math. By the time I was in university I wasn’t always that great at it anymore since I was so busy. There were so many courses it was hard to keep on top of it.

Math is a funny thing. You can be really good at it, but you can still do really badly. It’s all just stepping stones – every step built on what has gone before. No matter how good you are at math intuitively, if you miss one of the steps, you’re done. You have to know all the smaller bits to do the next bit. I don’t think people appreciate this.

I did Engineering Physics – it’s sort of a combined major between math, physics and engineering. It’s a bit longer than most engineering degrees. It took me six years since I started in science in first year then transferred into Engineering Physics, which is a five year program.

I enjoyed university. I had some courses I really enjoyed. I was definitely too much of a slacker, though. I met people who started out doing something and then went back to school – they were more motivated. In some ways I think I wasn’t quite as motivated as I could have been.

Working History

After university, my first job was in a pulp and paper research centre. I didn’t enjoy smelly wood pulp: stirring it up and doing experiments on it. One afternoon, someone I worked with said his mom taught ESL in Korea and was looking for other teachers. So I taught ESL in Korea for a couple of years and that was very fun.

Then I worked for an ocean engineering consultant when I got back. I helped write proposals for things like underwater metal detectors and hockey puck dropping machines. It was a bit varied.

At that time I was keen on oceanography. I felt I ought to find out if I liked being on ships at sea. I knew of a Dutch head hunting company who looked for hydrographic surveyors around the world so I sent my resume off to them.

The Dutch company got back to me and the job I had was just ending, so I flew to the U.K. and took an offshore oil rig safety-training course which was really fun – with firefighting, burning buildings, jumping into life rafts and all kinds of crazy stuff.

I started working on a huge ship off of China. That was the most unbelievable on-the-job training. They were paying me a lot of money per day and I had zero skills necessary to do this job. Everyday I was supposed to be producing charts of the sea floor and where the pipeline was – all this important information. So I learned very quickly. I ended up doing that for about two years – all over the world – the Philippines, the North Sea.

Then I got a job in Richmond as a spacecraft engineer. I knew nothing about spacecraft, but it was a mechanical engineering job. Even so, they went out on a limb to hire me. They didn’t pay me much to start with, but I turned out to be quite good at it and ended up working there for 8 years.

I started out doing thermal modeling of spacecraft. I also did some mechanical and structural modeling of spacecraft. Eventually I was the “Payload Engineer” for a set of five satellites. The payload was an optical payload and I was always interested in telescopes and astronomy, so through that I learned more about optics. The telescopes were being built in Germany and I worked in Germany for two years. (This is basically the heartland of optics on the planet.) That was a very interesting place to live and work, and I learned a lot. Then I saw a job to work on this thirty-meter telescope project in Victoria. I actually happened to have experience in what they were looking for which was systems engineering.

Mostly I do things like writing requirements and figuring out how we will check that we can meet them. We have a plan for the whole observatory so we make a list of all the things it needs to be able to do, like: work so many days per year; withstand a certain size of earthquake; have certain optical abilities. Then we need to translate this into what the subsystems have to do. (What does it mean for someone building an instrument that will be mounted on the telescope.)

This is going to be the largest telescope in the world. In terms of resolution, we’ll be able to see things that are 40 kilometres across at the distance of Jupiter (or closer to home this is like seeing a loonie in Calgary from Victoria). But we also plan to look much further, and the further away we can see, the further back in time we are looking. The idea is to look back to the beginning of time, when stars were first forming. As an engineering project it is unbelievable to build a telescope that really is just a layer less than one micron-thick of silver or aluminum, supported in this perfect shape, over 30 meters, on a mountaintop, in the wind. How on earth do you do that? We’ve divided it up into 492 hexagonal segments of glass, each 1.4 meters across and 50 mm thick, which have to move and relate to each other within nanometers. When I tilt this telescope up, for example, I need to compensate for the pull of gravity on the shape of this 30 meter surface. It’s all really interesting to me.

Advice for Students

Math is totally awesome. I think it’s well worth getting a good understanding of the fundamentals of math. It’s really easy to go from higher level understanding to more applied. It’s a lot harder to go the other way. If you know how lots of math works, you can always apply that to lots of different sciences and lots of different fields. If you know how plumbing fittings work, for example, you can’t apply that to how math or other sciences work.

Co-op terms and any opportunities you have to see science in action are so motivating that you have to take them.

There’s a lot to be said for picking up a couple of marketable skills. In engineering, often this is new computer tools which are actually quite easy to learn. Companies always need people who can run these programs and you can get a decent paying job on the bottom floor doing something quite interesting.

Be a little careful not to just get these skills and stay there your whole life.

I was always too chicken to get involved with a club. I always felt I didn’t know enough to join clubs. You’ve got to just get involved and try. There are things like engineering groups that build cars that they race. You’ve got to do as many of those as you possibly can get involved with.

One of the things that helped me was setting up engineering challenges for high school students when I was in university. Tutoring also motivated me. I needed to be able to understand math at a decent level in order to be able to teach it.

Use the things that you’re learning by teaching or building things. Volunteer for professors who need help.

I always feel like, “As long as I’m learning, I’m happy.” If my job is paying me to learn new things, I’ll keep doing my job. If my job isn’t helping me to learn, I’ll just go back to school.

In general be keen, and let people know you are keen, it may not be cool, but it’s very important to teachers and employers.

”Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.”
Ralph Charell, American author

Cool Things You Can Do with a Science Degree

April 2010

This is the first in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month, we’ve talked with two scientists. Both men offer interesting perspectives on their educational backgrounds, their present work, and advice for students.

James Elphick

  • Environmental Scientist, Registered Professional Biologist
  • President, Nautilus Environmental
  • Bachelors of Science in Biology, minor in Environmental Toxicology

Educational Background

I went to high school in England. The subjects I majored in were mathematics, biology and economics. I chose these subjects because I liked them and was good at them.

I knew people who were doing economics (an uncle), and all of my family did biology-based jobs (my dad is a doctor; mom is a nurse; and my sister a physiotherapist). So, it also seemed natural to take these courses. What I chose was a bit of an unusual mix because the courses weren’t all pure sciences.

At university, I liked some classes, and not others, based on how well the professors taught, and the course content. I found some courses challenging and interesting, but others were mainly memorization. I didn’t like chemistry or lab work, but it was something I had to take, although now I like these a lot. Chemistry is the part of my degree I find that I use the most and now I find that it fascinates me. At the time it wasn’t something I particularly liked.

I did a co-op program in University which I think was excellent. I’d really recommend it. For one thing, you get help with getting jobs in summer (even if they’re maybe not as highly paid as you might hope). And I think what was really useful was getting to do different jobs for four months at a time: just getting to experience what it’s like. I worked for a semester at the Department of Fisheries, at the university, and at an environmental consultant company – then I subsequently got hired by that company. I’ve basically stayed in the field ever since.

Present Work

Nautilus is a small business with 12 employees. We have a laboratory. The focus is on evaluating environmental toxicity: measuring if there are effects caused by discharges from industry.

We work mostly for industry: mines and pulp mills, for example. We’re hired to evaluate whether or not they’re causing environmental effects. We monitor the actual receiving environment on their site, or test effluents or samples from their site, to see if they are safe.

In evaluating contaminated sites, we select samples and then conduct tests with invertebrates like amphipods or polychaetes (ex. tube worms) in the samples, and monitor their growth, survival and reproduction. We then write a report concluding whether the sediment is within acceptable safety standards or if there is an
environmental risk.

Sometimes we conduct monitoring projects, like for operating mines, where we measure the fish and invertebrate populations in the environment. We can determine causes of environmental toxicity and they can figure out how to improve it.

We are also involved in risk assessments with existing contaminated sites, which are often in marine ports. Here we do studies to investigate the risk of existing contamination. We help with decision-making on the degree of risk (how biologically significant the contaminant is) and suggest possibly removing the contaminated mud or capping it with clean sediment.

Basically we assess environmental risks and how to deal with contamination, helping to prioritize efforts and to make the world a cleaner place. Here chemistry and biology intersect.

I use a fair bit of what I learned in school and refer to my old textbooks occasionally. My university studies help me to know where to look for things and to be able to, fairly quickly, understand a process, set a methodology and analyze results.

Advice for Students

You don’t really know, until you try something, whether you’re well-suited for it. Personally, I didn’t like lab work in university, now I like it most.

Be open to learning new things. Recognize what motivates you (in anything you’re doing), what challenges you, and find a career that makes use of that.

Ultimately you want to be doing something that motivates you and that you get some positive response from so you’ll actually enjoy it and feel that you’re learning from it.

I just love getting data that leads to an understanding of the relationships between things. Seeing results and coming to an understanding, that ‘eureka’ moment, is something that I really enjoy and get a lot from. It happens enough in my work that it keeps me interested in what I’m doing.


Bodo de Lange Boom

  • Engineering Project Supervisor, Canadian Hydrographic Service
  • Masters of Science in Physics, specializing in Oceanography

Educational Background
I didn’t take a linear path, but I’ve always been interested in science. Actually, when I was in high school I never would have guessed I’d end up doing what I’m doing today.

In high school I took the ‘technical program’. In addition to academic courses, it covered things like: drafting, electricity, electronics, automotive, machine shop, sheet metal, etc. It was like trades training, but oriented toward
students going on to college or university, to give them a background in these various topics.

While in high school I became interested in astronomy, so when I went to university, I started out studying astronomy. After my first year, I got a summer job at the Nanaimo Biological Station working for a physical oceanographer. As a result I developed an interest in oceanography. I continued with astronomy, but chose my courses to give me the flexibility to switch degrees. In my fourth year, I switched to physics and completed my degree in physics.

I went directly into a masters program after my BSc. As I was finishing my master’s thesis, I took a job with the Beaufort Sea Project. I was hired to work on physical oceanography in the Beaufort Sea: doing things like measuring currents, water properties (like temperature and salinity as a function of depth) and studying ice motion.

The work I did on the Beaufort Sea Project was fairly practical, hands-on sort of work. So both the university training for the oceanography aspect but also the hands-on type of skills I learned in high school came in very useful in terms of preparing equipment for the Arctic survey work. My outdoors experience came in handy when we were working out of camps in the Arctic (whether camped on the ice or on land).

Through the projects I did then and later, I worked on all of Canada’s coasts, even quite a bit of Arctic work – so it was all quite interesting.

Present Work

Now the area I focus on is hydrographic data management. Working for the Canadian Hydrographic Service, we’re responsible for providing the navigation charts for Canada, the tide and current tables, and publications like the Sailing Directions. All kinds of vessels and boats, including submarines use the charts.

My work is related to oceanography but it’s not directly oceanography. While there’s an overlap, most of the people who are working this field have a background in geomatics (i.e. measuring the earth), geography or surveying.

Our focus is primarily on mapping the ocean. Although above-surface features are important to help mariners safely navigate (things like lights, buoys, heights of land, that sort of thing), just as important is the under-water portion: where the water is shallow, where the safe navigation channels are, what the water is doing, what the tide level is. A rock that might be perfectly safe to cross over at high tide may be exposed at low tide.

More and more the people using our data are not navigators – they might be scientists doing research, engineers doing either on-shore or off-shore construction projects. An example is for alternate electricity generation projects that use tidal or wave energy.

Our data are also being used for computer modeling: simulating tides and currents or tsunami propagation and run up. Particularly for tsunami modeling, the water depth needs to be known in quite a lot of detail.

Advice for Students

Follow your interests and passion. That certainly has worked very well for me. When I first went to university, it was suggested I go into chemistry, which did not interest me as much. I’m glad I stuck with astronomy at the start and later followed my interest in oceanography.

Also, learn as much as you can both academically and practically. That’s something that has stood me in good stead both in terms of the hands-on experience I gained in shop courses I took in high school and later in summer jobs when I got involved in computer programming. Getting wide experience is important because jobs do change, as might a person’s own interests. This gives much more flexibility in terms of what you can do.

Cool Things You Can Do with an Arts Degree

May 2010

This is the second in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month we interviewed Mark Hornell with the City of Victoria and Dr. Robert Griffin at the Royal BC Museum.

Mark Hornell

  • Assistant Director of Community Planning, City of Victoria
  • Bachelors of Geography, Masters of Regional Planning, Certificate in Urban Design

Educational Background

For me, as a kid, I thrived on National Geographic magazines and looking at atlases, creating imaginary island societies, drawing, history, architecture, and being in the outdoors. There was a lot of family discussion of wildlife and animals, habitats, and landscapes.

Quite honestly, at the end of my high school years I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I ended up working at a pulp mill and realized that wasn’t what I wanted.
I did two years of university transfer courses at a community college before transferring to university. I don’t regret taking courses at college at all. The quality of instruction and the capacity to have relationships with your teachers there was as high as anywhere I’ve seen.

I saw geography as a way to keep my options open and allow me to do something that would cover as many of the bases of my interests as possible and wouldn’t force me into specializing too much.

For the first year, my course selection was pretty well all science courses, then the 2nd year was all arts. I was doing that deliberately because I saw it as important as a geographer to have a broad scope.

I enjoyed university a lot. For me it was a hugely formative experience. It was an opening up of the world for me then.

After my Bachelors, I got a job as a planning technician. I was able to try to apply what I had learned in university. I found it useful because it helped me to figure out what my interests were and where I wanted to go from there. Then I travelled for a year after that.

The travel capped it off for me. It gave me a chance to actually go to museums and see the art I had been reading about, walk the streets of cities I’d studied in university, negotiate transit systems in London, immersing myself in what had been book learning and theoretical up to that point for me.

Geography is a bridging discipline. It kind of bridges the arts and the sciences. Geography provides an awareness that there are a variety of points of view and ways of looking at a place, and you have to synthesize all of that together to get a fuller understanding of what you’re going to do.

Present Work

I manage a staff of 7. We develop urban policy for the city of Victoria. The big one we’re working on right now is the “Official Community Plan” which is the city master plan with a 30-year time frame.

City Planners hopefully pull something together that has benefit for people. We work with engineers and collaborate with other folks to synthesize the overall policy framework for the development of the city. The new downtown plan that will be coming out in the next month, looks at the physical, social, and economic development of the city, primarily with a spatial component to it. It’s talking about how the city develops as a physical place for people to meet their needs and aspirations. It has to be socially integrated, it has to have an economic base that allows people to thrive and meet their needs, and it needs to have the physical ‘place’ component to it that can support all of that.

I spend most of my time providing mentoring and coaching advice to the staff that is actually working on those projects. I’m a member of the management team of the city, so I’m involved in the other corporate policy stuff in one way or another.

Advice for Students

Try to pursue as omnivorous an education as possible.

Figure out what it is that really engages your imagination, that gets you excited, that you’re passionate about and try to find a way to study that more and if you are able to translate that into paid employment, so much the better.

Travel as much as you can.

Develop an ability to express yourself – graphically as well as verbally. Being nimble on your feet in response to questions is a critical skill. Be able to clearly articulate what the issue is, what the options are and what some possible solutions might be.
The more you read the better writer you’ll be.

Those are probably the two most important things that students can develop through university: the capacity to confidently stand up and talk to people and to really become a good writer.

If you find yourself interested in maps, natural environment, cities, and reading about places, geography is a good choice for you because it will allow you to pursue those interests in a structured way that will result in a degree at the end.


Dr. Robert Griffin

  • Manager, Human History, Royal BC Museum
  • BA History, MA History, PhD History

Educational Background

I’ve always been a collector and accumulator. As I child, I collected anything and everything. The classes that interested me in high school were history and geography, so I started with history at university.
I loved much of my schooling, but I disliked high school intensely. I found it far too regimented. Once I got to university, things opened up for me. I liked the freedom to pick and choose what I wanted to do. I liked to be able to work independently proposing projects to my professors and, if they agreed, doing semi-independent projects and papers.

When I finished my BA, the opportunity came up and I took a summer job in the History Section at the Royal BC Museum (then the BC Provincial Museum). I worked here for two summers and became interested in museum work.

I went directly into an MA after completing my BA. While I was in the program I managed to get a job at another museum – the BC Forest Museum.

I came to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) as collections manager. At that time it was mostly on the job training; there weren’t any museum studies programs.

I’d always wanted to do a PhD, but I was already working full-time at the museum. It took longer to do than if I’d just gone to university for three years since I was working almost full-time while trying to do research and do my dissertation. In the end, it took me 9 years to complete it (partly because I like accumulating information but sitting down to write it out isn’t as much fun for me).

Present Work

I do a bit of history and a lot of administration. Basically what I’m responsible for is British Columbia’s human history collections at the RBCM (but not our natural history).

Our main focus is to preserve and maintain. We have a representative collection of what British Columbians used in their everyday lives, at work, at home or at play.

We get into some difficult decisions around what should be preserved. When we’re looking at preserving objects and data, we’re not simply looking at preserving and displaying for today’s audience. We need to consider how to preserve historical objects and data for future audiences as well.

So, for example, we’re involving the museum, in cold storage – freezing film and tapes to protect them against disintegration.

You can’t be a specialist in a museum – you need to know all kinds of things. I get to do a lot of different things: public programs, presentations, talks, research, putting together ideas behind exhibits, deciding what’s preserved for BC history (with consultation, of course). I collaborate with people and together we put our ideas together into physical form.

I do the typical work of an administrator: work plans, policies, procedures, but my first love is research and organizing collections.

Advice for Students

You have to try something to see if you like it. Go to university, and take courses and see how you feel about them.

The broader the person, the better. Develop a broad range of interests, then you can choose what you want to focus in on.

To do well, you need to study and have good work habits. You need to be willing to read and remember what you’ve read. Also, you need to learn to write – to present information to people.

It’s very beneficial to learn how to work in a team – to hold one’s own in a group – anyone can cultivate these skills if they want to.

If you have an interest in objects, history or research, you may enjoy a career in museums. To see if it interests you, volunteer at a small museum so you can get a variety of experience. Join organizations, like local history societies, and talk to people. There are publications on old homes in Victoria, see if that kind of thing interests you. Or, you could look into the Hallmark Society in Victoria for more about preserving historical and architectural landmarks. If you like working with paper, visit the BC Archives. And, the annual Historica fair is a project-based event for students that you might like to get involved in.

Basically, figure out what kinds of things you like to do. Then, give some things a try to see if you really do like them or not.

Great Thinkers: Einstein (1879 – 1955)

by Dahlia Miller
November 2010

This is the first of two articles on great thinkers. In each article, we look at some interesting details about the life of a historical thinker who changed the way we look at the world. This month’s article focuses on Albert Einstein as a young boy and teenager.

Many factors come together to form a great mind. Nature and nurture are both at play. There are definite clues to Einstein’s genius as a child, and, at the same time, we can trace how the people and circumstances in his youth helped to encourage the development of his mind.

We all know of the great thinker that Einstein became, but some circumstances of his growth and history you may not know.

The Dopey One’

Einstein was slow to develop in many ways, and was labelled ‘der Depperte’ (the dopey one), by the family maid.

He began to speak some time after two years of age. He had a mild form of echolalia: whenever he wanted to say something as a young child, he would first whisper the words softly to himself before speaking them aloud. This trait followed him into adulthood and he would often repeat phrases that he found interesting or funny two or three times to himself.

Einstein believed his slow verbal development gave him the opportunity to explore the world without mental labels. His main form of conceptualization seems to have been through mental imagery. These days, we would likely call him a ‘visual-picture’ learner: he thought in pictures and had a vivid imagination. He would put things into words only after he had fully pictured them.

This learning style leant itself to his propensity for ‘Thought Experiments’ (like imagining what it might be like to ride a bicycle alongside a beam of light, or what it might feel like to be in an elevator in outer space that was rising rapidly – this thought experiment lead him to his theories of special relativity).

Perhaps because of his slow verbal development, all through his life, Einstein saw things as through the eyes of a child, and wondered about them. He never stopped being awed by nature, gravity, motion, and light. This curiousity left him free to play with physics and math like a child.

The Outsider

Though both his parents were Jewish, Einstein’s first school was a Catholic one. He was accepted at school, but was often teased on his way home. Being part of the 2% of Jewish people living in Munich in the late 1800’s was perhaps not an easy position to be in for a young boy.

The family backyard was often noisy with the play of many cousins and other children, but although Einstein enjoyed making friends, he often played by himself. He played with puzzles and built elaborate structures, and he loved to build houses of cards (his younger sister, Maja, claimed that he was able to construct 14-story card houses).

He was persistent, tenacious and sometimes prone to temper tantrums as a boy. (Once when he was five, he threw a chair at his tutor.) In fact, his rebelliousness toward authority was a trait that influenced his interactions at school and all through his life. Leading him to claim with his hallmark wit, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.”

Influential Gifts

When he was about 4 or 5 years old and sick in bed, Einstein’s father gave him a compass. The young boy was thrilled to witness the effects of an invisible power that moved the compass needle. He later wrote and reflected on the depth of impact this gift had on him.

The same awe that young Einstein felt in witnessing the compass needle drove his work in field theories throughout his life: he sought to describe the nature of the force behind things and how objects that appear to be separate are connected and will affect each other. He had hoped to find a unified field theory to fully describe the interconnectedness of the world around us (even scribbling notes on his deathbed).

Einstein’s mom was a pianist and she arranged violin lessons for young Einstein. At first he complained at the mechanical discipline. But after hearing Mozart’s sonatas, he fell in love with music, beauty and simplicity. Soon he began playing Mozart duets with his mother.

He found that music helped him to think – all through his life, when he came to roadblocks in his work, he’d pick up the violin and play. In playing, he’d find an answer, or some new perspective would bubble up.

Around age 12, over summer, his parents bought him math texts and he enjoyed himself by solving the applied arithmetic problems, then trying to find new theories to prove the equations.

Around this time, Einstein’s uncle introduced him to algebra, describing it as a ‘merry science’. He asked Einstein to solve and prove the Pythagorean Theorem; having to solve it on his own deepened Einstein’s understanding of geometry.

He marveled at how complexities could be described with simple equations and so was encouraged to seek out simple explanations for the seeming complexities of nature.

When he was a young teen, Einstein’s family hosted a medical student for dinner once a week. This medical student brought Einstein science books including People’s Book on Natural Science in 21 volumes.

Einstein read ‘with breathless attention’ as the author demonstrated interrelations between biology and physics, and described the science experiments being done at that time in Germany. The author asked readers to use their imaginations, for example asking readers to picture speeding along on a train and how if a bullet was shot through one window and out another, it would look like the bullet had turned an angle.

This author was undoubtedly influential both in Einstein’s later use of thought experiments and his development of the theory of relativity as a young adult.

Many factors in Einstein’s childhood and youth played into creating the scientist and great thinker that he became. His natural tendencies, the people around him, and the influences they introduced into his life all lent a supportive hand in encouraging his development.

“I thank all those who have gone before me and all those who make it possible for me to do the work I do.”
Albert Einstein

Isaacson, Walter. 2007. Einstein: His Life & Universe. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

Great Thinkers: da Vinci (1452-1519)

by Dahlia Miller
December 2010

This is the second of two articles on great thinkers. In each article, we look at some interesting details about the life of a historical thinker who changed the way we look at the world. This month’s article focuses on Leonardo da Vinci

Pushing the Boundaries

Leonardo daVinci is the ultimate model of a man who stretched and flexed his brain’s capabilities for creativity and original ideas. He is best known for his paintings (the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’), but he was more than an artist. He was also an architect, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor.

Da Vinci had a relentless curiousity and impulse to investigate. He wanted to find out all there was to know; to think new thoughts and bring new things into being.
His quest for universal knowledge through observation, speculation and experimentation, lay the groundwork for future studies in many fields. In fact, he sketched the first parachute, first helicopter, first airplane, first tank, first repeating rifle, swinging bridge, paddle boat and first motor car, and he made observations that changed how we think about many, many subjects.

Da Vinci lived during the Renaissance, when people were looking again to ncient writers, philosophers, poets and artists for wisdom and inspiration. At the same time, assumptions were being

questioned and rules broken. Da Vinci was born right at the time that the printing press was invented; he was 40 years old when Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. This was a time of new thinking and a new-found respect for beauty and humanity.

Da Vinci loved challenging accepted notions and assumptions. He pushed the boundaries of what was known, opening himself to his pure observations of the natural world around him.

“The mind of a painter should be like a mirror which always takes the colour of the thing it reflects, and which is filled by as many images as there are things placed before it.”
da Vinci

Not an Ordinary Child

As a boy, Leonardo was endlessly curious about the natural world – water, animals, light. He’d dissect dead animals and systematically experiment, interchanging their parts and drawing his hideous creations. His love of the scientific method was apparent even in his play as a child.

Since he was an illegitimate child, da Vinci didn’t have a formal grammar school education. Though being illegitimate wasn’t considered shameful at the time, it impacted his access to formal education. He wasn’t taught Greek or Latin (and most books were written in Greek or Latin at the time). Perhaps being excluded from studying the past helped him to develop his openness to novel ideas. He learned by observation more than following the teachings of the past.

Da Vinci was schooled in reading, writing and math in preparation for an apprenticeship in a trade (artists were considered trades people at the time). He was then apprenticed in the workshop of the sculptor-goldsmith-painter, Verrocchio, who trained many of Florence’s young artists.

After a few years into his apprenticeship, da Vinci was assigned to paint an angel in one of Verrocchio’s artworks, the ‘Baptism of Christ’. Rather than using the customary egg tempura paint which was challenging to work with, da Vinci chose to use oil paints which were relatively unknown at the time. The results showed his brilliance in technique as well as artistic ability. After seeing da Vinci’s work on the angel, Verrocchio put down his brush, vowing never to paint again.

Seeking To Know It All

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
da Vinci

Da Vinci brought science and art together. He felt that artists should be adept at mathematics and geometry so as to accurately demonstrate perspective in their art (depth, relationships between objects). A pen and ink sketch from when he was 21 years old demonstrates his understanding of the degradation of light with distance (physics), his awareness of rock formations (geology) and his eye for detail.

He started keeping journals when he was 37 years old. Totaling about 15-20,000 pages, these notes express his questioning and exploration of life. They were unedited outpourings – a mixture of observations about the world around him: theories, drawings, observations and ideas.

He didn’t limit himself in his notebooks (not even with punctuation) and instead looked for how things may be connected in novel ways. These notebooks demonstrate a restlessness in da Vinci’s thinking. The pages are a jumble of ideas and lines of inquiry, jumping from topic to topic: anatomy, botany, optics, architecture, astronomy, military engineering, aerodynamics, music, painting, flight, costume design, robotics and more.

Being left-handed, he found an interesting solution to smudged ink in his writing. He used ‘mirror’ writing. Though da Vinci was writing in Italian which reads right to left like English, his journals were written from left to right as though written in a mirror, with all the letters backwards.

Da Vinci was relentlessly curious. He asked himself questions about the world around him and attempted to answer them – questions like, ‘How do birds fly?’ In fact, his interest and life-long study of birds led him to a fascination with aerodynomics and flight.

Another characteristic which was foundational to the exploration of da Vinci’s genius was his extreme willingness to move into the unknown with confidence.

As a young man, da Vinci applied to Ludovico Sforza in Milan wanting a position at court as an engineer. In his portfolio, da Vinci had drawn the plans for many military inventions: light portable bridges, naval vessels, tunneling machines, tanks. He claimed to be an architect and a military engineer though to date he’d produced only paintings and sculptures.

What made this man such a genius? Perhaps it was that he didn’t limit the extent of his interests and natural talents. In fact, he seemed to allow his mind to roam over any and all topics that caught his imagination.

The thing that impresses me the most about da Vinci is his relentless pursuit for universal knowledge. He felt that we ought to seek out and recognize the interconnectedness of nature and the reality around us. He investigated the world around him with a fervency and passion and became an expert in a wide range of fields.

What might happen if you gave yourself the license to explore the world and the creative reaches of your imagination in the same way that Da Vinci did?

Atalay, Bulent & Keith Wamsley. 2008. Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci. Washington: National Geographic.


These articles all relate to specific academic subjects.

Becoming Reading Ready

By Dahlia Miller
February 2006

This article was originally published in the February 2004 edition of Island Parent Magazine. Although the focus is on helping children to learn, the same tips and ideas could be applied for new second language learners.

“Helping children see all the many uses for reading and writing will give them a red carpet to the world.”
Karen Stephens

Reading readiness doesn’t develop overnight - it needs to be cultivated over years. Helping your child to become reading ready is an excellent opportunity for you to build a positive learning relationship with her. So, you don’t have to wait – you can share the joy of books, songs, language and reading with your child right from the start.

Supporting Very Young Children (and New 2nd Language Learners) in Pre-Reading

  • Talk to your baby and child often. Children who’ve grown up with a rich and varied vocabulary have a strong advantage when it comes to learning to read. So, have lots of conversations with your baby; sing nursery rhymes and bedtime songs; comment on what is happening. Vary your tone and vocabulary. As your child learns to speak, ask questions and listen for her answers.
  • Be sure that there is an abundance of variety in your child’s environment. A stimulating environment with many colours, textures, voices, spoken words, toys, books and experiences will increase your child’s natural desire to “read” what’s happening.
  • Encourage experimentation and respond with positive feedback. If your baby reaches for an object and grasps it, congratulate her on her accomplishment. Remember, confident learners enjoy learning.
  • Encourage those quiet times of concentration when your child is focused and busy.
  • Let your child see you reading for enjoyment.
  • Read to your child – include books in the daily routine. Use interesting tones and emphasize important words to help children follow the story if they are old enough. Talk about the story and the pictures in the books you are reading.
  • Give chewable, suckable, and bangable books to your baby. It is never too early for children to enjoy kicking back with a good book of their own. Also, be sure that there are a variety of books within your child’s reach.

In the beginning stages of pre-reading, you are building your child’s listening and verbal skills as well as skills of gross and fine motor coordination, observation, concentration and the ability to follow directions.

Other Activities to Develop Pre-reading Skills

  • Play “I Spy”.
  • Play a simple rhythm with a spoon and ask your child to repeat it.
  • Place 4 objects on a table; let the child look at the objects; remove one and ask her which object you took away.
  • Place several objects in a bag; ask your child to reach in without looking; have her describe the object or tell you what it is.
  • Look at pictures together and ask your child to select an object in the picture.
  • Play “Simon Says”.
  • Play catch with your baby.
  • Encourage scribbling, colouring and jigsaw puzzles.
  • When your child does any artwork, write her name on it.

Supporting Older Children/Students in Pre-Reading

  • Talk about the stories you read together. Make up stories about what happens after the book ends.
  • With sidewalk chalk or an activity book, your child can practise tracing shapes or completing mazes or dot-to-dot pictures.
  • Notice signs when you are out or labels on packages as you are shopping. This draws attention to the fact that the written word is part of everyday life.
  • Visit the library for story time and to offer your child a large selection of books.
  • As you read to your child, slide your finger along the text so she can see that she needs to attend to the print in a particular direction.
  • Sound your child’s name out as you spell it. An awareness of the sounds of the letters of the alphabet helps very much in later reading.
  • Play games of grouping and classification like placing 6 objects on a table and asking which objects belong together or which object doesn’t belong. You can build on this activity as your child matures to ask which objects have the same beginning sound.
  • You can make crafts with letters by cutting out letters in construction paper and gluing them to index cards; making a scrap book with one letter per page, pasting pictures of things that begin with that letter onto the page (begin with 4 or 5 letters that are easy to tell apart like “m,” “s,” “j,” “a,” and “k”); or you could make cards with a letter on the front and an object on the back – again begin with 4 or 5 letters that are easy to distinguish – these cards can be used to play Memory, Go Fish or another card game.
  • Later on, put letters or words in your child’s environment without pressuring the child to focus on or read the words. The idea here is to build familiarity with the shapes and look of words and the alphabet and to incorporate words into the child’s environment. For example, you might give your child some alphabet toys; make an alphabet line and put it up on the wall; put magnetic letters on your fridge; write your child’s name on any lunch containers; for your 4 or 5 year old, you might even put word cards around the house on things – “table” “counter” “stereo”.

Remember, children’s brains grow and develop through stages. Decoding visual symbols (i.e. reading) is a complex skill that your child will likely be able to tackle somewhere between ages 5 and 7. In the meantime, relax, have fun, talk with your child and enjoy her learning experience.

“It is not how fast we learn that counts. It is the learning that counts.

Making Effective Presentations

By Dahlia Miller
October 2008

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Anais Nin, Cuban-French Author (1903- 1977)

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re standing naked in front of an audience that you are expected to speak to? Most of us have had some variation of this dream (at least once in our lives). Perhaps it’s a way for our dream mind to express (and work through) that feeling of exposure often felt by new and inexperienced presenters. As with anything, learning more and practicing are probably the best ways for new presenters to improve their speaking skills and to lessen any feelings of stress or anxiety that may be linked to public speaking.

Below are tips and perspectives on public speaking that can help anyone become a better speaker regardless of experience level.

Know Your Topic

  • Narrow your topic to a main thesis and a few key points before beginning.
  • You ought to be able to express your entire main point in 2 sentences – what are you really trying to say? If you can say it succinctly, in 2 sentences or less, then you’ll be better able to lead people to understand the focus of your entire presentation.

Know Your Audience

  • What will benefit them most?
  • What would appeal?
  • What are they expecting?
  • Find a balance between what you want to say and what they need to hear. Can you fit the parameters in a creative way through stories, questions, visuals, examples or props? What is going to engage your audience the most?

Know Your Intention/Goal

  • Why are you speaking? If it’s only because you have to because your teacher said so, then consider why it matters to you to do what your teacher asks. Usually this comes down to a desire to help others understand a topic more clearly ; to express oneself well; and /or to show one’s responsibility and respect (to teacher, to a boss, at a funeral, at a wedding, etc.).

Do Your Research

  • Don’t just depend on being able to come up with ideas off the top of your head or at the last minute. The best presenters seem to speak effortlessly because they’ve put in so many hours of research and preparation beforehand. To make it sound simple, you’ve got to do the difficult work of tracking the information down and synthesizing it in a way that you think your audience will relate to.
  • Don’t include information you’re uncertain about (someone else listening may know more and ask a detailed question).
  • When you’re researching, take notes to help you organize your talk later.


  • Create an outline with a clear movement from beginning to main points to ending. Include only your strongest points so you’re not trying to support yourself with weak points in your presentation.
  • Consider the best way to organize your talk. Some topics are best broken down chronologically or in steps, some are best broken down in other ways (for example, What is the topic? Why is it important? How is it used?).
  • Flashcards are great for presentations – they’re small enough to hold in your hand without covering your face and they’re big enough to hold key points without you needing to squint to find the information if you write clearly enough.
  • Number pages or flashcards – there’s nothing worse than stepping up to find your talk out of order.
  • Include only clear key points on your notes. Don’t try to read directly from your notes – it’s usually quite boring to listen to a presenter read.
  • Have your beginning and ending laid out clearly – you want to be able to open and end with confidence.

Practise Speaking

  • In a mirror – use your lips, mouth and voice to express each word clearly (there are even such things as lip and tongue exercises).
  • Tape record yourself – listen to your intonation and how clearly you communicate – are you interesting to listen to? Do you express each sound/word clearly?
  • Use a digital camera to record a video of a practice talk – watch your body language.
  • Ask a test audience to observe a practice talk – stuffed animals or family members/friends are good because they’re almost always completely encouraging.


  • Near the beginning of your talk, thank the audience and the person who gave you the opportunity to speak (let people know if you’ll take questions during or after the talk).
  • If you’re nervous, it’s okay to say so, but only say it once at the beginning of the talk and then get on with doing your best.
  • Be imaginative in your introduction – tell a story, ask an engaging/provocative question, make a strong statement, do a quick survey asking people to raise their hands if they’ve experienced something to do with your topic – draw them into wanting to listen.

Speak Clearly

  • Breathe deeply, pushing your belly out as you breathe in (to enable you to draw air into your lungs fully).
  • Relax your cheeks, lips, tongue, throat, chest and shoulders.
  • Use your diagram, not your throat, to speak so you speak loudly enough. Don’t make your audience have to strain to hear you.

Express Your Confidence

  • Keep both feet on the ground when standing.
  • Don’t shift positions too often (this draws attention).
  • Face the audience – if you’re using visuals, angle toward the visual but still face the audience.
  • If you’re using visuals, use your inside hand to emphasize something (if you use your outside hand to point to the visual, you’ll be facing your back more toward your audience and you may lose their attention or a feeling of connection with them).
  • Smile, often.
  • Nod your head at points if you’d like the audience to agree with you.
  • For more information on understanding and “speaking” body language, see our body language article.

To Emphasize

  • Use your hands – try to use your whole hand when pointing rather than one finger.
  • Use slow movements that are not too exaggerated unless you are going for a more comic effect.
  • Change positions to emphasize a new point (re-angle your body toward the audience) – this helps to keep people’s attention.
  • Stand in front of your podium with both hands on it, or to either side of your visual, prop or podium.
  • Look down toward your chest momentarily with your mouth closed lightly – this will draw people’s attention back toward you, before starting a serious point.

Speak, Don’t Read

Be Respectful Toward Your Audience

  • Some people suggest imagining audiences naked (again back to exposure) – another way to work with your audience is to consider what they really want to get from your talk.
  • Does your audience want information, tips, inspiration, or entertainment? Focusing on their needs can help you to forget your own nervousness.

Expect Nerves

  • Even experienced orators feel butterflies before speaking – that’s part of the experience.

Stay Present/Enjoy Yourself (as best you can)

  • If you’re so caught up in your own head and focused on how you feel, you won’t be paying attention to what you’re saying…you may be boring.
  • Do your best to just be your natural self – that’s usually the most interesting.

Make Eye Contact

  • Don’t stare them down, but don’t ignore them either.
  • If someone appears bored or tired (there are a few in every crowd) don’t look at them, talk to the interested ones.

Ask for Feedback

  • Ask for pointers after practice talks.
  • Asking for feedback on your effectiveness after every talk you’ll have a better chance of improving. This can help you to find out how others see your speaking style.

Lighten Up

  • Don’t take it too seriously or personally. Yes, there is an intimacy to expressing oneself but it’s just another experience – it’s not going to be the sole determiner of your worth/grade.

Handling Questions

  • Point (using your full hand) and nod toward one person to let the audience know who you’ve selected to ask a question if several people put up their hands.
  • Focus on the person asking and really listen (take notes if the question is long so you can be sure to address all of the points).
  • Repeat your understanding of the question if it’s not just a simple one.
  • Answer as directly as possible – perhaps with a simple sentence or two, by re-elaborating a point from your talk, or by telling a story.
  • Ask if your answer answered their question.

    If you’re not sure of the answer, open it to the audience, an expert (like your teacher), or let them know you can talk afterward and find the answer for them.

“The greatest antidote to worry, whether you’re getting ready for spaceflight or facing a problem of daily life, is preparation....the more you try to envision what might happen and what your best response and options are, the more you are able to allay your fears about the future.”
John Glenn, American space pioneer

Math, Gotta Love It

February 2007

This month’s “Smart Connection” is a discussion with two Smart Tutor Referrals high school & university-level tutors: Reyna Jenkyns, a recent BMath who is currently working on her Masters in Ocean Physics, and Murray Kucherawy, a PhD in physics, with a teaching certificate, and over thirty years experience teaching math and physics at the high school and university levels. They both have a strong passion for math and physics and enjoy igniting that passion in their students.

STR: Why do so many students seem not to be interested in math and physics?

RJ: Students are always asking, "Why is this important?" How do we keep the kids interested? Unless we let them see how it’s interesting…they feel this is just another hoop to jump through; most students think that the only jobs people can get with math is as a math teacher or accountant. If teachers can get excited about math, they can excite students.

MK: The current students’ approach to math and physics is to read a problem and then begin a quest to find a formula to fit the problem, to grind out a figure that they don’t have a real appreciation for without getting any real understanding. They don’t even have to know the formula because they’re given a formula sheet and they just start scouring the sheet looking for a formula that will fit the problem rather than stopping and asking, "What do I think is going to happen in this problem?"

STR: How can we help students to recognize the relevance of math to life outside school?

RJ & MK: There isn’t enough time spent convincing students that this is a topic worth studying, that math is relevant, and this is how to use it. Teachers ought to show applications and how/why math is important. Unfortunately, teachers and parents don’t necessarily know applications themselves or have time to include them in their classes.

Some Applications for Math:

  • Talking about sine curves, we can relate them to how MP3 players work.
  • Parabolas relate to satellite dishes, shooting baskets or hitting volleyballs.
  • Fractions are useful in recipes when doubling or reducing amounts.
  • Teachers and tutors have to really watch for what interests the students and adjust their examples accordingly.
  • Historical examples are great for students interested in history. Did you know that the Egyptians couldn’t deal with fractions with a numerator other than 1? They had enormous tables to convert quantities to sums of fractions.
    The Great Pyramid of Giza is aligned within seconds of one degree of the cardinal points (i.e. north, south, east, west) – Did you know the three pyramids aren’t in a straight line? They’re offset in the same way as the three stars in Orion’s belt. At a pyramid in Mexico, the sun on a particular day illuminates a stairway in such a way that a serpent appears to descend a stone staircase. Students love hearing about that kind of stuff.

Some Job Applications for Math:

  • Interior decorator – geometry for placement of furniture
  • Architect
  • Scientist
  • Engineers of all kinds
  • Painters and Sculptors may use the Golden Ratio
  • Psychologists and sociologists use statistics
  • Marketing

STR: Many Canadian students seem to feel that math is a very difficult subject. "Math anxiety" is accepted as a reality for many students. Why do you think this is so?

RJ: This belief is largely cultural – students are taught that math is hard and geeky. They’re not taught that it’s fun.

MK: Parent’s attitudes have a great influence here. Some parents and even some teachers will often convey the message, for example, "Oh no, we’re going to talk about fractions today. This is difficult. I don’t understand it well,” rather than saying, "This is something interesting and fun and related to everyday life." Also, girls’ parents are often more concerned with their daughters’ marks in arts and languages, rather than math and sciences. Parents usually won’t put pressure on their daughters to do well in math.

RJ: Math can throw people off with its density of notation (i.e. there are lots of letters and numbers).

MK: The answer isn’t to make math simpler, it’s to raise students’ confidence and skill level with math. There are many effective ways to teach math so that students feel comfortable with it.

STR: What are some ways to address students’ seeming lack of interest in math?

RJ & MK:

  • Disguise math as a game.
  • Build their enthusiasm through applications suited to their interests.
  • Build on small successes from the basics.
  • The early years are crucial.
  • Card games and dice can help younger children develop math skills, since it helps them recognize patterns, sequences and even simple arithmetic.
  • Using real-life "manipulatives" for young students (like money) can help them to make sense of the numbers they see on the paper.
  • Let younger students use math equipment – bring math specialists into elementary schools to model passion and enthusiasm for math.
  • When the class is moving forward, students can’t necessarily keep up on their own – they may need a tutor to walk back with them to relearn since math builds on itself.
  • Math Mania – the UVic math department visits elementary schools with math-related games.
  • Students could visit university math departments’ open house demonstrations.
  • Contests can help to build excitement, there are so many out there now.
  • On-going learning for teachers – ex. Professional subject conferences where they can learn applications to enliven their lessons.
  • Bringing guest speakers into classrooms.

STR: What are some common mistakes students make in math and physics?

  • not reading the entire question.
  • not writing down all steps – trying to do everything in their head.
  • writing a solution that is illogical – ex. too many equals signs (like a run-on sentence): step one isn’t really equal to step two.
  • improper conversion of units, for example mm to m, so the answer is the Seattle Sky Needle ends up being 3m tall!
  • poor penmanship: ‘-’ signs that look like periods.
  • missing ‘+’ or ‘-’ signs.
  • memorizing rules rather than understanding.
  • not drawing diagrams and displaying information clearly.
  • over-dependency on calculators – they can become a crutch rather than a tool, destroying a student’s sense of numeracy, giving them no insight into how to do math.
  • at higher levels too much effort may be put into learning how to use the calculator.

STR: Can you offer some math study tips?

RJ & MK:

  • Do sample questions – lots of repetition can help students to prepare for new "out there" questions.
  • Prepare by first mastering simple things, then build understanding of concepts.
  • Practise; don’t just memorize formulas. Students often use past provincials and work through them, but it’s important to extrapolate and really understand the concepts.
  • Draw pictures and examine how all the information in the problem is related.
  • Create a good relationship with the teacher – keep open lines to help foster a good learning environment.
  • Take good notes. Review often.
  • Read questions aloud and discuss concepts.

STR: Why do you like math and physics so much?

RJ: I like how it’s a tool to describe the natural world. I like the logic behind it.

MK: I get a real kick out of the applications. You’re surrounded by them. For example, rainbows – when observing rainbows, you have to raise your eyes 53 degrees above the horizon? Why?

Speaking Body Language

by Dahlia Miller
February 2008

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”
Mae West (1892-1980)

Did you know that 55% of what people hear when you speak is your body language? It turns out, in communication, people take your body and tone of voice into account more than the words you are saying. According to research, 7% of communication is words, 35% is tone of voice and a whopping 55% is body language. So, how you present yourself physically and the gestures you use are very important in communication. Learning to interpret body language can help anyone to listen and communicate more effectively.

For students, hoping to express confidence or show an active interest in what is being taught, learning the language of the body can come in quite handy. Yes, body language can give away your subconscious feelings, but it can also be used consciously. This means that you can choose to use gestures and postures to convey a message. You can even reverse your own state of mind through body language. For example, if you feel unhappy, smiling naturally sends “I’m happy” signals to your brain which in turn sends out “I’m happy” endorphins to the body and improves the mood.

Try this:

Wrap your arms around yourself lightly across your chest, with your shoulders gently brought in toward your chest and your back rounded; tilt your head about 45 degrees to the right; tilt you chin moderately in toward your chest; frown lightly; look toward the floor.

How do you feel? Submissive? Uncertain? Self-protective?

Now, in that same position, say, “I can do it.” Do you feel convinced or convincing?
When you are speaking, what you really communicate is the sum total of your words, your tone of voice and your body language and gestures. If you want to appear interested, learn the body language that conveys the message, “I’m interested.” People see and respond to body language on conscious and sub-conscious levels.
Teachers give marks for participation and attention; in giving grades for presentations, teachers watch for relaxation and a sense of competency and familiarity with the topic; job-interviewers assess people on confidence; students pay closest attention to a teacher they find engaging; and parents respond best when they feel they are being heard. Let’s review some key messages that students may want to portray through body language to maximize their communication with teachers, employers parents and peers.

Positive Body Language Messages

Keep in mind that body language is most accurately read in clusters – most body language experts favour the Rule of Four, which means look for at least four signals suggesting the same thing before totally believing it.


Straight spine; slight forward lean; body turned toward the speaker; slight smile or slightly parted lips; eyes open fairly wide and focussed on the speaker; hands open or poised to write; perhaps a slight cocking of the head to suggest intense listening.


Shoulders relaxed and centered; straight spine; if standing, feet are shoulder-width apart; arms hanging gently with hands open; if sitting, feet flat on the floor with legs slightly apart, palms open or with finger-tips of both hands gently touching; light smile; chin raised, tilting head very slightly back; looking forward with relaxed eyes and mouth; breathe deeply, expanding your belly as you inhale; move slowly and with intention.

Openness to ideas; Willing to Listen

Shoulders relaxed and resting on upright spine; arms and legs uncrossed; body turned toward the speaker; hands unclenched and relaxed; hands and arms may be held in a welcoming gesture (almost like inviting a hug); slight smile; relaxed eyes; gentle nodding of head.

Thinking or Concentration

Straight spine; forward or backward lean with a finger touching the chin, eyebrow or forehead; eyes focussed on speaker, down or up to the left or right; head slightly tilted; gentle nodding of the head; lips pressed lightly together; soft “hmm” sound as breathing out.

Supportiveness and Encouragement

Straight spine; forward lean; eyes on speaker; chin raised up, head tilted slightly back; moderate smile on face, lips parted or together; moderate nodding of head; head possibly tilted slightly to one side; gentle “mm,” “yeah” or “ah” sounds as breathing out.


Upright, relaxed spine; slight forward lean; head leaning in toward speaker; slight smile; arms and legs uncrossed; both feet flat on the floor or up on toes slightly (as if ready to run toward the speaker); pencil in hand and poised to write; gentle nodding of head; regular eye contact with speaker.


One way to show interest or connection with someone is to mirror the body language of the person you are speaking with. If the person shifts positions, wait for about 30 seconds to a minute and then, subtly, change your position to mirror theirs. Don’t match a person’s posture 100% or they might feel confronted. Also, if the person is responding with nervous body language, you may want to change yours to a more confident or open pose to help set the person at ease again.

Negative Body Language Messages


Shoulders dropped in toward chest; turned away from speaker slightly; head tilted at a 45-60% angle; eyes move around the room without focusing for long on the speaker; foot or finger taps or hands in pockets with shoulders raised up toward the ears slightly; perhaps a hand comes up to cover part of the face, or fingers curl close to neck or touch hair; clear the throat or swallow repeatedly.


Body tilted away from speaker; spine slouched slightly; eyes focused up or down and away from the speaker; one shoulder dropped slightly and weight shifted to one side; head brought down to meet hand (perhaps with the head or chin resting in the hand) or one or both hands in pockets; legs crossed (especially at the knees); gentle kicking of the resting foot; arms crossed or fingers drum on thigh or desk; sigh lightly.


Body or legs turned away from the speaker; head tilted slightly, chin slightly up and away from speaker; eyebrows raised slightly; eyes scan room for other activity or watch door; fingers tap against side of face or fidget.


Body tilted away from speaker; eyebrows raised to wrinkle forehead; chin tilted toward chest; one hand scratches the top of the head, touches the nose, or rubs an eye; breath moves in or out in short bursts; head shakes moderately from side to side; eyes roll slightly or look down to the floor.


Shoulders pull back; either the body turns away from speaker or leans forward toward speaker; eyes narrow; forehead wrinkles; lips tighten; arms cross, both hands on hips, or hands held tightly behind the back; jabbing gestures made with hands or feet (pointing a finger, flicking the fingers, or kicking the floor with the toe, for example).

Spelling - It Ain’t Easy, But It Can Be Fun

December 2007

This month’s “Smart Connection” is a discussion with two Smart Tutor Referrals elementary and middle school-level tutors: Cora Oliver, a recent BEd with 2 years of teaching experience in both Canada and Japan, and Lorraine Patterson, a BEd, with over 25 years of elementary teaching experience. They both have a strong passion for teaching beginning reading and spelling and they especially enjoy making learning fun for their students.

Spelling can be a challenging topic for many students, particularly in early grades. As adults, we’ve learned to associate a written alphabet with spoken language. Actually, what we have learned to do is to decipher a visual code. Learning to spell can be fun, but it’s also not easy. Children’s brains grow and develop in stages and at different rates. While most children may be ready to read between ages 5 and 7, they may not become proficient spellers until several years later.

STR: Many students find spelling to be very challenging.   What makes spelling in English difficult?

CO: English borrows from so many languages. It often doesn’t follow rules, and when it does, those rules are often inconsistent.

LP: English is such a strange amalgamation of words from other countries. I truly marvel at students’ abilities to read, and especially spell.

CO: In grade 1, most students learn and understand phonetics (how letters sound). Students can usually sound out phonetic words (like ‘at’, ‘cat’, ‘dog’, or ‘walk’). But phonetic rules only apply to about half of the words students encounter in early years.

LP: Both phonetic and non-phonetic words need to be understood. Non-phonetic words (like ‘house’, ‘there’, ‘hour’, and ‘above’) can be difficult to spell and often can cause great confusion for the student.

STR:  What are some common mistakes students make in spelling? 

CO: When students start learning spelling rules in grades 1, 2 and 3, they often over-apply those rules and make mistakes, even with words they could previously spell.

LP: Since there are so many exceptions to spelling rules in English, students often rely on a ‘rule’ that does not help them, for example using phonetic skills to try to decode words that are non-phonetic (like ‘hoo’ for ‘who’ or ‘joos’ for ‘juice’).

LP: Letter reversals (like ‘b’ for ‘d’) are also common and can lead to spelling mistakes.

CO: How a child pronounces words can affect his/her ability to spell. If a child pronounces ‘truck’ as ‘chuck’, for example, this needs to be noted so that correct pronunciation and spelling can be worked on at the same time.

CO: Students will also often drop vowels since consonants have a stronger sound, or they might miss out silent letters.

LP: Spell-check on word processing programs can be both positive and negative. It can allow students to express themselves in writing without a strong focus on spelling, or to use new words, but it may inadvertently introduce new, incorrect words if the student doesn’t recognize a mistake. Spell-check can also create a situation where students aren’t practising spelling.

CO: Kids are typing at earlier and earlier ages now. Text-messaging definitely isn’t helping kids to read, write, spell or compose sentences.

STR: Do you have any suggestions for how to address common spelling difficulties?

LP: In early grades, if students can be allowed to use ‘inventive spelling’ this is fabulous. With ‘inventive spelling’ students go with the flow of their ideas and relate their feelings in writing without getting too concerned about correct spelling. We want to encourage enjoyment of the language, not fear of spelling mistakes.

CO: Kids can shut down if they can barely form letters, but are told their spelling is wrong. When I was young, I used to limit my story writing to words that I knew how to spell. This type of response is fear-based for students and can hamper their love of language. If students are helped to recognize their natural strengths, they can work on improving their strengths and weaknesses without stress. It’s normal for students to make mistakes with spelling; it’s best if spelling doesn’t feel like a chore.

LP: Yes, we want to make spelling fun, not link stress or anxiety to spelling. If possible, students ought to be working on spelling words at a level that they are comfortable with, and with words that are relevant to them.

CO: Practicing spelling rules by looking for clues in spelling patterns can help students develop their own relationship to spelling rules.

STR:  Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to study spelling or ways that parents can help their kids in spelling? 

CO: Making spelling a game can help to keep it fun. Repeating words or their spelling at random throughout the day (not just quizzing words over and over), or pointing out when they appear in daily life (like while shopping or driving) is great.

LP: I used to make fun of ‘stupid words’ in my class – words like ‘people’ or ‘island’. We would pronounce the sounds of the words (as ‘pee-o-pull’ or ‘is-land’) so that the kids would enjoy learning these more difficult words and so that spelling was more fun and easier to remember.

CO: I feel it’s important that parents not offer material rewards for spelling – learning should be about learning and wanting to learn – let the rewards come from an increased ability to read and write.

  • sing the words or their spellings
  • make up rhymes with the words
  • use alphabet dice
  • use plastic or rubber letters, or scrabble pieces to make words
  • find the words in signs, in the newspaper, in a book
  • look up words in a dictionary (picture dictionaries are good for young students)
  • spell words on a partner’s back
  • write words in pudding, dried rice in a pan, or in the sand
  • write words using shaving cream, playdough or blocks
  • use string to form letters on the ground and then ‘walk’ the letters
  • use your body to form letters
  • cut letters out of sandpaper so that words can be felt with fingertips
  • write on paper in crayon over a window screen or pavement so words are raised
  • use different mediums for writing – pencil crayon, felt, paint, crayon, chalk
  • write the words on chalkboards, white boards, felt boards, paper
  • trace a printed word with white glue and cover the glue with seeds or sand
  • use different colours to emphasize sounds, word endings, word beginnings or any pattern
  • draw a picture to match the meaning of the word or the shape of the word
  • create flashcards with colour to emphasize spelling patterns
  • pretend to type the word on a keyboard
  • read articles or books and look for new, unknown words
  • use new words in sentences or stories
  • repeat words and their spelling into a tape recorder
  • discuss word origins
  • create a word journal – defining the word in the student’s own words
  • give positive verbal re-enforcement for improvement or effort

“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”
Mark Twain

Studying Vocabulary

by Dahlia Miller
October 2004

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
Ingrid Bengis (Russian American author, 1915-1982)

Words are language. We communicate with words. We share knowledge with words. We learn new topics, and new languages by studying words.

Are you learning new vocabulary words now? There are many techniques to help you learn and memorize new vocabulary. Here are some:

Use the Words – Using your new vocabulary is the most important way to practise new vocabulary. If you use your new word, it will help you to remember it. If you don’t use your new word, you will probably forget it. So, use your new word as often as possible! Say the word and write the word, talk about it, listen for it.

Tell Someone About the Words – Talking about newly learned vocabulary helps to keep it in your mind. Saying the words and using them in sentences helps you to create more memories of the word.

Ask Yourself Questions About the Words – What does the word mean? What does it remind you of? Where did you learn it? What does the word sound like? When will you use this word? What letters are in this word? What is the origin of the word?

Brainstorm – Write your new vocabulary word on a page. Then write everything that reminds you of this word. Include other words, memories, phrases, drawings, synonyms, antonyms, definitions, stories - anything that reminds you of your word. Brainstorming helps your brain to make connections between the new and old information. If you are studying the word “gullible,” for example, think about where you learned it; a synonym; someone you know who was gullible; another word it sounds like; a time when you were gullible; etc. Brains are networks. When you see or hear a word, your brain searches your memory for any information connected with that word. If your brain has many connections with this word, you will remember the word quickly and easily. If there are few connections, you might not remember the word at all.

Write Definitions – Keep a vocabulary journal. Record you new word, the definition, a picture or drawing, the date, who taught you the word, synonyms, antonyms, the part of speech, etc.

Highlight Your Dictionary – As you learn new words, you can highlight your dictionary to remind yourself of the words. If you look up the same word three or four times, this will remind you to study this word again.

Prefixes/Suffixes/Roots - Studying root words, prefixes and suffixes can really help you build and expand your vocabulary. It will allow you to guess at the meanings of new words when you’re reading. For example, “supervision” is “super-” “-vis-” “-ion” or, the act of seeing/watching over.

Build Word Families – This is a great way to learn four words at once. Make a chart for yourself with five columns. Label the columns “Vocabulary,” “Noun,” “Verb,” “Adjective,” and “Adverb”. Write your new word in the first column. Include the definition of the word, a sample sentence and a sample question using the word. Then in the “Noun” column, write the noun form of the word, a sample sentence and a sample question. If the noun form has a different meaning from your original word, also write the definition. In the next columns, write the verb, adjective and adverb forms of your new word with sample sentences, questions and definitions (if necessary).

Synonyms/Antonyms – Like building word families, memorizing synonyms and antonyms for new vocabulary can help you to learn many new words at one time. Synonyms are words with similar meanings; antonyms are words with opposite meanings. Record these on a chart with definitions, sample sentences, and sample questions. You could also record these on flashcards.

Mnemonics – Mnemonics are memory tricks that help you to remember many words easily. They are easy to use and work very well. There are many interesting memory techniques. The April 2004 issue of “The Smart Connection” describes several mnemonic techniques and lists several websites with tips on using mnemonics. View it online on our website.

Flashcards – Flashcards can be a very helpful way to study new words. You can write your words on one side and the definition on the other. To make your cards more interesting, you can: use different card colours (to show different types of words, different topics, etc.); use different pen colours; draw pictures; write sample sentences; glue pictures from magazines, etc.

Record Yourself Reading the Words, Definitions and Examples – The more you say new words and hear them, the more you’ll remember them. Some people like to record themselves and listen while they sleep. Memory works most efficiently if you are paying attention, so sleep-learning may not be the most efficient method for learning new vocabulary.

Get Creative with Your New Vocabulary – Draw pictures, make collages, write songs, write poems, write stories, doodle, write the words in the sand, make up crosswords (you can build word puzzles for yourself at: Playing with your word will help you to remember it. You do not have to sing your song for anyone else, so, don’t be shy.

Use Many Senses When You Study Your Words – Use many senses and you will remember the new word more easily. For example: read the word, say the word, write the word, touch your fingers for each letter as you spell the word, walk around the room and recite the word, repeat the word as you walk.

Practise Pronunciation of the Words – You can improve your pronunciation and vocabulary at the same time. Focus on using correct pronunciation, word stress, and intonation. Watch yourself say the words in the mirror – Tape record yourself reading the words, or saying them in sentences. When you are recording or listening to the tape, pay attention to your pronunciation.

Test Yourself – You can create questions to test your skill with newly learned vocabulary. Matching style tests (matching words to definitions) are fairly easy to create.

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer (800 BC – 700 BC), The Odyssey

The Sea Creatures That Live Beside Us & The Ocean - It’s More Important Than You Think!

by Jeremy Hackett
February 2009

This month’s newsletter includes two articles on the same topic: the science of exploring the ocean. The first article is geared at younger children and the second at older students. The articles were written by Jeremy Hackett, a Smart Tutor Referrals tutor. Jeremy has a Masters of Science in Microbiology and has spent many years teaching students about the ocean.

The Sea Creatures That Live Beside Us

Did you know that you live in one of the most amazing places in the world to easily study the animals that live in the ocean? When I first arrived in Victoria fifteen years ago I was amazed about what was here in the ocean right beside Victoria!

Why is it so important to introduce young children to the the ocean and study it? Well, the first answer that comes to mind is that the ocean supplies a lot of our food, mostly fish and shellfish which are very good sources of protein. It also supplies us with a lot of other products like seaweed (used in making ice cream) and even medicines.

However, it is important to understand that there is not an endless supply of food in the ocean – we have to look after it, keep it healthy and protect it from pollution and overfishing so that others can continue to enjoy it.

We are so lucky to have the ocean right on our “doorstep”! This means that we can go right down to the ocean in Victoria and study it ourselves or ask our teachers to help us get involved with some of the wonderful programs offered to the local school districts.

So, how do you get started studying the ocean? Well, because the moon affects the tides that flow in and out everyday, it is best to go and visit the ocean on days close to a full moon.

It is on those days that you will get the lowest tides and when you will see some of the most amazing creatures that live in this amazing marine world. One great place to go is Clover Point (on the waterfront), because when the tide is low there is lots to see.

Bring a pair of boots, a large magnifying glass, a large basin, a camera (or paper and colors), a field guide, and go creature hunting. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER IS TO BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU WALK - there are animals everywhere, large ones and tiny ones; you do not want to crush them by stepping on them! Also, if you turn over a rock, put it back the way you found it very gently after you have looked underneath it. Why? Because that is the animal’s house and you do not want to wreck it.

So what will you find? Well, right down close to the ocean at the low tide mark you can find animals like sea cucumbers, decorator crabs, purple starfish, sea squirts, sponges, eels, rockfish and Dungeness crabs. Also under the kelp (seaweed) and attached to it you may find fish eggs. Decorator crabs are fun and one of my favorites because they dress themselves up in seaweed of different colors. Further up the beach from the low tide mark, at the intertidal zone, you can find barnacles, mussels (shellfish), sandhoppers, sand worms and lots, lots more. It is also lots of fun to look in the rock pools where you will see the barnacles actually feeding with their long feathery arms, the hermit crabs rushing around and the sea anemones watching the world go by! The nice thing about exploring the rock pools is that they are like little worlds in themselves that change each time the tide comes up and covers them. If you decide to put an animal in your basin of seawater, make sure the water in the basin does not get warm, and cover it with a piece of kelp to keep the animals sheltered.

The Ocean - It’s More Important Than You Think!

Do you know that nearly 70% of the world is made up of ocean? That is about 360 million square kilometres! Also, approximately 95% of the world’s oceans are unexplored. In fact we know more about outer space than we do about our world’s oceans!

Do you ever wonder about how important the ocean is to our world? It is hugely important and has an enormous influence on our lives! Probably one of the most important influences the ocean has on our world is on our climate; climate change has and will continue to be a major item in the news. The earth’s ocean and atmosphere are locked in such an intricate embrace -- as one changes so changes the other. At the interface between air and sea, there is a constant flow of information, as vast amounts of energy and chemicals (in the form of gases and aerosols) are continually being exchanged. If energy and chemicals are the languages that program the behavior of atmosphere and ocean, then regional and global scale climate variations are the outputs from this complex system. If scientists could learn to better interpret the “dialogue” between ocean and atmosphere, they could do a better job of predicting regional and global climate change.

Another area of great importance is the health of our ocean which includes both the health of the ocean itself and the animals that live in it. Let’s bring this to a local level. A good example of this that is close to Victoria is that it has recently been observed that there are fewer Orcas coming along our coast and there are fewer young Orcas surviving to adulthood. Why? No one knows for sure but there are a number of data collection programs ongoing to monitor the health of the ocean.

So what can students do to help measure the health of the ocean in our local area? One interesting, attainable and fun project for students is to do field trips to the ocean to study the marine life as a biological indicator of health, at the low tide, mid tide and high tide areas. This can be done simply and as a fun school project by doing beach transects and observing, identifying and counting marine animals. If this is done over a period of time very useful data can be collected which will contribute significantly to monitoring the health of our ocean in our local community.

This type of project not only allows students to learn more about the animals that live in our marine environment but also teaches them good data collection techniques and will provide useful data on the health of the marine life and therefore the ocean.

There are also different groups that students can join which will allow them to learn lots more about marine biology and help in marine life conservation.

School Programs: One excellent marine-related school program is Seaquaria in the schools, where a seaquarium is placed in the school in a central location. The students get to observe, learn about the marine animals in the aquarium and also look after the aquarium. This excellent program is now in at least twenty five schools in the Saanich school district

Also the Ecorowing program organized by the Sea Change Marine Conservation Society is a really great outdoor program offered to middle schools. Students spend time at Esquimalt Lagoon where they take marine samples and get to study them under the microscope in a lab. They also get to row a rowing eight shell and learn some of the history of the First Nations in the area.

Writing Essays

by Dahlia Miller
September 2005

“Writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.”
Jules Renard

Do you enjoy writing essays? Like it or not, if you’re in school above the grade four level, you are going to be asked to write at least one essay every term. So you need to know how to move through the essay writing process.

Why are teachers so crazy about having students write essays? Through your writing, your teachers can measure your ability to do research, to think logically, to organize ideas, to communicate formally in writing, to edit, and to keep on track in the writing process.

Luckily, essay writing is very structured. This means that once you’ve learned an essay-writing pattern, it’s possible to use it over and over in cookie-cutter fashion. (Of course you’ll impress your teachers more if you add some variety to your essay structure.)

This article focuses on the writing process. If you’d like more detailed information on other aspects of essay writing, you are invited to attend one of our four-hour essay writing workshops.

The Essay Writing Process

There are 8 main steps in the essay writing process. They are the same whether you’re writing a research paper or an essay in an exam, only the timeline changes.

1. Define Your Topic
Often your teacher will assign an essay topic that is broad and needs to be narrowed. Or, you’ll be asked to select a topic for yourself. To write a good essay, your topic needs to be very specific. Not “dogs”, but “why big dogs make better pets than small dogs”.

A good essay explores a narrow topic thoroughly. The trick is to find a topic that is specific enough so that you can easily stay focused, but broad enough so that you can find information to back your main idea.

It’s easiest to write on topics that interest you personally. If you’re interested, you’ll enjoy the research and writing more, and you’ll do a better job overall.

If a topic has been assigned, read it carefully for clues. What is the teacher looking for? You can brainstorm the topic to see which angle you’ve got the most interest in and information for. (Note: there are several effective styles for brainstorming – use whichever suits you best.) For instance, if the topic is “homelessness in Victoria”, to look at the topic from different angles, you might consider the people affected (the homeless, the families of teens on the streets, the government, street workers, local business owners, street shelter providers). Then consider what each group’s issues or problems are in relation to the topic. From here you can choose the perspective that interests you and has the most potential for development.

2. Research
To back your argument, you need facts. You can find facts in books, in magazines, on the Internet, through interviews, and in class notes. It is important to use several sources when you are researching your topic.

In this first stage of research, skim sources briefly. You want to get a very general understanding of the facts so that you can formulate an argument (i.e. thesis). You’ll do more thorough research at a later stage.

Obviously in an exam setting, you’ll have to rely on brainstorming and materials provided in the exam for this step.

3. Write a Thesis Statement
Your thesis is your argument. Once you’ve thought about the topic, it’s important to narrow it even further to decide what you are going to argue.

A thesis statement describes what point you are going to prove. Be specific – if your thesis is too broad you may not have space to prove it, if it’s too narrow you may not be able to prove it thoroughly. Don’t be wishy-washy – say what you think and then back it up with facts. Be clear – lack of focus in a thesis statement will lead to an unfocussed essay.

4. Create an Outline
Once you’ve written a thesis statement, go back to your research sources to find specific facts to back your argument. Most essays have one thesis statement with three main points to back it up. These points are like the main branches of a tree – they give shape and direction.

Your outline is a skeletal map to your final essay. Write your thesis statement at the top of a page and your main points equally spaced down the left hand side. Then consider each point as a mini-essay in itself. During your research, now, or after brainstorming, come up with three facts to back up each of your three main points. Fill these in on your outline.

5. Research
Once you have your outline in place, you can begin to fill in the gaps. Look more closely at your sources for specific details. Take time to understand the topic, but don’t get caught up in detailed reading. Your reading and research should flesh out your outline. If you aren’t finding facts to fill in your outline with more details, you’re not on track.

Make notes as you read. It can help to organize your notes by topic. For example if you’re writing about big versus small dogs for pets, you may have one page of notes for facts on attitude, one on cost of keeping the pet, and one on health concerns.

Be sure to keep track of bibliographic information as you research (i.e. author, title of article, title of book or journal, page number, date, publisher and place of publication, web address). It’s much easier to recycle unused bibliographic information than to relocate specific details once you’ve finished your research.

6. Write
An essay is made up of a number of pieces that should fit together logically. This is where your writing and editing skills come into play. You need to take all of your facts and arguments and weave them together into a unified piece of writing.

If your outline is detailed, it can help a great deal with the writing process. Focus on one paragraph at a time. Make a point and back it up with facts. Once you’ve written a number of paragraphs, you can add in linking words or sentences between them.

To get the words flowing, it can help to talk about a point then write what you say. On you first draft, just write, don’t edit. You may like to write very bare bones sentences and add descriptive words in after.

7. Edit
Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a bit of time to think about your topic and thesis. If you can, leave a day or two between writing and editing. When you read your draft, ask yourself if it conveys the idea you want it to. Is your writing logical? Is it predictable or interesting? Are the sentences well written? Do you prove your point without exaggeration? Do you hold to one argument? Does the order of paragraphs make sense? It can help to read your writing aloud see how it flows.

8. Proofread
Once you’ve completed a second draft, proofread for spelling and grammatical errors. Check that you’re within the assigned word limit. Be sure that you have varied the style of your sentences. It’s really helpful to have someone else read your essay over. Perhaps you can swap with a classmate or ask a parent to proofread for you.

Essay writing is challenging. It takes time to develop this skill. Reflect on the process as you write. Improving the steps that give you the most difficulty will certainly benefit your writing over time.

Health & Learning

These articles all relate to health & learning.

Brain Health, Part One: Proper Feeding & Care

by Dahlia Miller
November 2009

Remember the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, and how obsessed he was with getting a brain? Sometimes I wonder what the scarecrow was like after he was told that he had a brain – I bet he was a real health nut: reading labels and exercising, and I bet he stretched his brain a lot to expand its flexibility.

The human brain is the finest machine in the universe. No computer comes anywhere close to its precision and potential. In fact, the number of possible neuronal connections in the human brain is 10 followed by a million zeros. (In comparison, the number of known particles in the universe is 10 followed by seventy-nine zeros.) The potential we have inside us is amazing!

If we’re already in possession of the most intricate information-processor in the universe, let’s find out how to use it and care for it.

Over the next two articles, we’ll present a mini-owner’s manual for the brain.

Next month we’ll look at techniques for expanding creativity and memory. For now, we’ll start with nutrition and health. After all, you’ve got only one brain to last your entire life. Let’s look at how to keep it happy and healthy.

A Few Facts about the Brain:

  • The average adult brain weighs about 3 pounds.
  • It is 70-75% water.
  • It uses about 20-30% of the body’s energy (when the body is at rest).
  • An active, learning brain requires more energy than a physically passive one.
  • The brain looks a lot like a walnut and has several areas and parts responsible for different things (like: senses, thought, movement, learning, balance, and information processing, to name a few).
  • The brain has a very limited ability to store energy. Energy (mostly in the form of glucose) is brought to the brain by the blood.
  • The brain prefers to receive a steady supply of energy and responds poorly to fluctuations in blood-sugar.
  • A constant supply of fresh oxygen is required by the brain to function and to maintain adequate levels of concentration.

Some Well Documented Brain Drainers:
Sugar, junk foods, additives, caffeine, highly processed foods, artificial sweeteners, pop, artificial colours, alcohol (which kills brain cells), and nicotine (which constricts the capillaries thereby limiting the supply of blood/oxygen to the brain)

Breakfast is well-known to be the most important meal of the day. It replenishes brain nutrients and blood sugar levels that are lost during the night. Since the brain prefers to maintain a steady supply of energy, skipping breakfast, or eating a fatty or sugary breakfast, has some very negative impacts on metabolism, concentration, memory, and mood.

Two studies proving the importance of breakfast:

  • Elementary students improved academic performance and had fewer behavioral problems after participating in a breakfast program.
  • A doctor in Japan did some clinical research on the correlation between productivity and breakfast; he found that all the students in medical school who didn’t do well academically and all the graduates who hadn’t received licenses for medical practice did not have the habit of eating breakfast.

Essential Fatty Acids:
Neurons in the brain carry messages through an electro-chemical process. These neurons have a very high concentration of omega-3 fats. Even though the brain needs lots of water, fat, oxygen and other nutrients, it doesn’t produce any of them itself (in fact the body doesn’t either). So the health of our bodies and brains are completely dependent on what we feed them (as well as how much exercise and sleep we get, and the attitudes we focus on).

When there are enough omega-3 fats in the diet, the brain is fluid and flexible. Without enough omega-3s, or with too many omega-6 fats or too much cholesterol, the cell membranes in our brain become stiff and hard, making it hard for us to concentrate, to memorize and to even remain calm, happy, and open to new things.

Some sources of Omega-3 oils:

  • Walnuts, eggs, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, fish. Perhaps the easiest way to be sure to get enough omega-3s is to add raw flaxseed oil to your smoothies, rice or veggies.

The brain needs fuel, the higher quality the better. As you know, the brain’s only source for vitamins is the food you put into your mouth. Eating well and taking high-quality vitamin and mineral supplements is integral to good brain health. Eat a rainbow of foods (red raspberries, green broccoli, yellow bananas, blueberries, orange peaches, etc.) and you’ll have a broader base of nutrients.

Whole, organic (vegetarian) foods are the highest quality fuels we can eat. Our bodies don’t easily process pesticides, additives, steroids, antibiotics, or artificial colours and flavours. Basically, the closer the food is to its original form, the easier it will be for your body to extract the nutrients it needs.

Some food sources of vitamins:

  • Vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, eggs, brown rice, tofu, beans, molasses, parsley, dairy, fish

Since the brain is largely water, without water it doesn’t think or concentrate easily. Did you know that by the time you feel thirsty, your body is already two cups depleted of water? Keep yourself hydrated and be wary of water stealers (diuretics) like caffeine. (By the way, headaches are often caused by water depletion.)

Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain, supplying nerve cells with more oxygen and nutrients. Regular aerobic exercise also helps you sleep better and reduces stress, both of which have positive impacts on the brain’s ability to function.

One study of 100 sedentary adults found that those who walked vigorously three times per week outperformed adults who only did stretching and toning exercises by 25% in computer tests of mental
reaction times and accuracy. Just getting more blood to the brain seems to have a positive impact on the brain’s functioning.

You can enhance brain function simply by eating well and developing healthy
habits. What easier way could there be to get smarter, more creative and better able to concentrate?

“Oh God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!”
William Shakespeare

Brain Health, Part Two: Building Flexibility and Memory

by Dahlia Miller
December 2009

The brain is a machine unlike any other. The full extent of its abilities has not yet been measured. There is much that we don’t know about the human brain (like exactly where and how the brain stores and retrieves information). But, we do know some things about the brain, and what we know is pretty darned interesting.

This article is the second in our brain series. Here we’ll explore a few different aspects of brain health and offer some exercises to help boost memory and creativity.

Just like the body, our brain needs regular exercise to stay fit and healthy. Our brain has five main cognitive functions: attention, memory, language, visual and spatial acuity, and reasoning. We can improve the ease and speed of these cognitive skills by stimulating our brain as often as possible.


Plastic can be flexible or inflexible; the term neuroplasticity generally refers to the degree to which our brains can flex.

How flexible is your brain? How quickly can you answer skill-testing questions, learn new skills, draw connections between seemingly-unconnected topics, and think outside the box? This is the neuroplasticity of your brain.

We know that the brain is full of neurons and that when the brain thinks, neurons communicate in some kind of electro-chemical process. So, thinking is sort of like a text or email sent between people. To put it simply, the more different connections that are made between neurons, the more neuroplasticity your brain will have.

The brain thrives on stimulation and novelty. Our brains love new things and become bored and complacent by what they are familiar with. The brain easily falls into ruts and doesn’t expand unless it’s made to. This is habituation and it is death to creativity and memory – it actually leads to a stiffening of neuronal connections.

To exercise your brain:

  • do short worksheets of rapid calculations (fast, easy math problems or Suduko games, for example). There is more blood flow to the brain when it is working vigorously.
  • read aloud to stimulate the brain across both hemispheres
  • challenge yourself to learn new skills, languages, or musical instruments
  • write a list of 50-100 questions that you have about your life and the world around you, look at the major themes in your questions, choose one or two, then go find some answers for yourself. Really investigate.

Shuffling and re-organizing things that are already stored in our memory keeps them fresher and more alive (then we can have them at our fingertips and use them in innovative ways). Breaking down what we know and putting it together again in new ways, we counteract the tendency to become complacent about our surroundings.

  • group and re-group what you already know. For example, how many words do you know that start with “re-”, “contra-” or “de-”, or that end in “-diction” or “-ject”?
  • write facts or vocabulary on index cards then throw the index cards in the air and see how they land on the floor. Can you create new connections between ideas with this new arrangement?
  • investigate what is around you to see how things are connected (emotionally, physically, historically, economically, socially, etc.).

Attention and Working Memory

So many things are flashing before our senses in every moment. It would be impossible to pay attention to all of them, or even most of them. So, our brains select some of the sensory input to attend to. What we focus on largely depends on how we have conditioned our brains – this is like how happy people see and remember sunshine and depressed people see and remember puddles.

Anyway, the point is twofold. First, we can expand our ability to notice our environment through practice. Second, in order for something to even have a chance of making it into our long term memory, we need first to pay attention to it.

To boost attention & working memory:

  • study a list of random words for 1 minute then write down as many as you can remember
  • look through a randomly-shuffled deck of cards and remember the order of as many cards as you can in 5
  • stop and notice what you see, hear, smell, and feel
  • record your observations about the world
  • close your eyes and create a mental image of what is around you right now. Be as specific as possible about colours, shapes, textures, spatial relationships. Can you “zoom in” in your mind on something that is around you and see it in greater detail (like a leaf on a tree outside your window)?
  • Stroop tests, like the one below, challenge us to increase our attention and processing speed. Time yourself and read off the colours of the words below (not the words).



Exercise the Spine

The spinal canal carries nutrients to your brain and neuronal impulses from your brain. Keeping the spine flexible allows this information highway to flow smoothly and effectively.

To promote brain and spine health:

  • do exercises that balance both sides of the body to stimulate both brain hemispheres
  • practice raising one knee and balancing on one foot
  • do Qi Gong or Tai Chi to boost spinal flexibility and promote calm


Stress and nervousness stimulate fight- or-flight responses from the body. This inhibits higher cognitive function (and the immune system). Basically, if you are stressed out, you won’t be able to access all of your brain power. (Note: This is of particular importance to students. If you are too nervous, you won’t physically be able to do well on tests that involve higher cognitive functioning.) If stress-related hormones (i.e. cortisol) are activated very regularly, they begin to cause neuron

To relax:

  • practice controlled breathing exercises
  • meditate or do yoga
  • use biofeedback techniques to help reduce stress levels and to increase the brain’s ability to pay attention
  • Play music or sing with others. Music enhances the brain’s receptivity to learning and helps to strengthen and maintain cognitive skills.

Move It or Lose It: How Exercise Boosts Creativity and Vitality

by Dahlia Miller
March 2010

“Nothing happens until something moves.”
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

We all know being fit is good for us, right? Well it turns out that exercise is critical not only for the health of our bodies, but for the health of our minds as well. By introducing variation into the ways we think and move, we discover new ideas and solutions. This article offers tips on how we can build both vitality and creativity through exercise.

Exercise is good for our brains. According to Anat Baniel in Moving Into Life, “Even with moderate athletic activity, or regular daily exercise, new brain cells start branching out, sprouting new neurons and establishing new connections with other groups of brain cells.” (p.17)

Some Obvious Benefits of Exercise:

Aerobic exercise (with increased heart rate and breathing):

  • Improves the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to all the cells in the body (and provides fresh oxygen to the brain)
  • Strengthens heart and lungs
  • Builds bones
  • Aids digestion – helping the body to make best use of the vitamins and minerals that you are eating

Strengthening exercise:

  • Builds muscle and bone mass
  • Tones muscles

Stretching exercise:

  • Increases flexibility

Some Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Exercise:

  • Increases self esteem
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps prevent anxiety
  • Boosts the brain’s rate of neuro-genesis (the rate at which new cells in the brain are generated)
  • Enhances sleep
  • Improves balance through core stability
  • Enhances moods (through release of endorphins)
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Decreases risk of diabetes
  • Helps you to feel good about your body
  • Decreases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer later in life
  • Boosts immune system
  • Helps you to learn new skills
  • Improves speed, balance, agility and coordination
  • Builds a sense of accomplishment

While exercise has numerous proven benefits, just exercising isn’t enough. We need to move with attention if we want to experience all the possible benefits from fitness. The brain craves new information (boredom, by the way, is a sign that our brain is lacking new stimuli).

“The more habitual our everyday movements, the less we are able to satisfy the brain’s need for growth. As we introduce new patterns of movement, combined with attention, our brains begin making thousands, millions, and even billions of new connections. These changes quickly translate into thinking that is clearer, movement that is easier, pain that is reduced or eliminated, and action that is more successful.” (Baniel, p.18)

So, if we challenge our bodies to move in new ways, and pay attention as we’re
doing it, life can become more interesting and exciting. When we continue to keep active, curious, and creative, our brains continue to grow and create possibilities for us.

To get out there more, choose fitness activities that sound fun and exciting to you.

Common Fitness Activities:

  • Fitness classes (pilates, yoga, kickboxing)
  • Frisbee
  • Free play
  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Running
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming/water sports
  • Racquet sports
  • Rock climbing
  • Dancing
  • Skating
  • Outdoor sports (hiking, mountain biking, geo-caching)

Common Sense Exercise Caveats:

  • Do proper warm up stretches and cool downs to avoid injury
  • Wear proper shoes, clothing, and protective gear
  • Learn proper techniques for safety
  • Use your common sense and play safely
  • Drink lots of liquid
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet to sustain your energy level

Some Not-So-Obvious Caveats:

  • Check with your physician before beginning a new regimine of exercise, especially if you have underlying medical problems. Doctors are handy and can tell you, for example, if you need to add weight to your frame before starting a sport (like football).
  • Energy drinks often contain caffeine or ephedra, both substances which can over-stimulate the heart and leave you at risk if you then get your heart pumping through exercise.

Building Self-Motivation for Exercise:

  • Choose fun activities for exercise
  • Keep an exercise journal – set goals; set target dates for reaching these goals; check in to see if the goals have been reached and why or why not
  • Consider what sports/activities you’ve always wanted to try – what’s stopping you from trying them?
  • Track changes you notice in strength, endurance, flexibility
  • Track yourself with a pedometer
  • If you are not in good physical shape currently, start with 10 minutes and build to 20-30 minutes for each time exercising

Motivation Tips for Parents

  • Offer praise and support
  • Get kids off the TV by showing the listings and asking them to highlight the shows they want (limit TV & computer use to 1-2 hours per day); turn the TV or computer on when it’s time to use it and off when the time is up
  • Have fun activity equipment on hand: skipping ropes, balls, kites, badminton racquets, frisbees, hula hoops, roller blades, etc.
  • Suggest some sneaky exercises: raking, lawn mowing, shopping, dog walking, shoveling snow, walking to school
  • Keep an Activity Tracking Chart – star or sticker for each day engaging in an activity; set a goal; reward when the goal is reached
  • Make fitness a family affair: take a golf lesson together, go to the swimming pool, go on a group kayak outing, play touch football
  • Try new activities together: archery, fencing, juggling, curling, rock climbing
  • Model an active lifestyle
  • Remember you are trying to develop your child’s lifetime love of exercise, not to get him or her on a national team
  • Keep in mind that interest builds as skills improve and students are praised for their efforts

“Combine the body, the mind and the heart. And to keep them in parallel vigor one must exercise, study and love.”
Karl von Bonstetten (1745-1832) Swiss writer

Move Into Life. Baniel, Anat. 2009. Harmony Books: New York.

Music and Learning

September 2009

This first newsletter of the school year is an interview with Bonnie Davison of “Singing English Education” and Doug Paterson of “The Harmonious Family Choir”. Bonnie and Doug are both former teachers who now incorporate music into the teaching and group work that they do. We had a lively discussion about some benefits of music for students; links between music and learning; and ideas for teaching and connecting with students through music.

Benefits of Music (for Students)

Doug: Kids want to express themselves – they have such a wonderful time when they are singing and dancing.

Bonnie: We do a disservice to say only music teachers can do music. We don’t have to have a good voice to sing from the heart.

D: There are few activities where multi-age groups can be together. With music everyone gets to be successful and everyone gets to find their voice.

B: People ask me how to get students involved in music. I recommend situations where students can be in groups and working together – having fun. Once we get rid of being afraid to move, we can be ourselves easily. And singing is one of the quickest ways to connect with teens; studies have shown this.

D: Everyone wants to be seen and everyone wants to be heard. Touch on the dance floor builds trust and community. Everyone finishes with a smile on their face, because they’ve made contact with each other.

B: We can teach kids through movement. Music games and dancing can help students learn to touch appropriately – children are generally taught to keep their hands to themselves – they don’t learn to know their own bodies and their space and explore that. Music games teach kids to learn how to have control over their bodies and to interact.

B: It’s so important to learn to be comfortable in our own bodies. For teens – this is crucial. When kids are exploring music and movement they’re more in contact with themselves and their confidence. I feel our generation is missing out on dancing together. With music and dance we can all have fun.

D: And cooperate. Cooperation isn’t strongly emphasized in our culture. Music is the connecting thing that gets us together.

B: Music requires cooperation and collaboration – students come together and work together to reach a common goal: to create a school play, a rock band, a choir. Music helps students to connect with their peers.

D: We learn to listen when we play together: the more silence there is when a band plays, the better the music sounds.

B: Musicians are also more used to putting in work over long periods of time to learn an instrument and can transfer this diligence to other areas of their studies.

D: Music helps with relaxation. It makes you feel good.

D: And it builds confidence. There is a lot of fear and repression about using voice – when we use it we feel confident. To sing we need to really open our mouths. You wouldn’t believe how many adults weren’t heard as kids. Now, as adults they won’t project.

B: In group singing, everyone can have the opportunity to experience being a leader in a safe environment. This helps build confidence.

D: It gets you off your back foot and moves you forward.

Links between Music and Learning

B: Recent research is showing that if a student is competent with oral education, reading and writing will be much stronger. Grades K-3 teachers have recently started integrating more oral exercises in the classroom. There are many song-games that teachers can use to help students learn to read and write.

D: In singing, we focus on vowels.

B: Every word we speak has at least one vowel sound that is longer than the others.

D: And when we’re singing we use our diaphragm, this deepens how we breathe.

D: Singing connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This is integral for learning. Also, it’s integrative in that it uses all the senses. Music opens people up – heart and body.

B: Students connect with music. Music is poetry. It’s good for kids to be able to vocalize why they like a piece of music – in writing or speaking – to describe what they’re passionate about.

D: Singing brings out emotional content – this could help with creative writing.

B: Many traditional English folk songs hold the structure of the English language. If you look at the song “The Farmer in the Dell”, it represents the same structure as many common English phrases. It has 3 syllables with the stress on the middle syllable; the same as ‘eleven’, ‘how are you?’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘I want some’.

B: Cadence and triplets – da da da

B: Or, the Mexican Hat Dance has “da da da-da da da-da da da” “If you want I can give you a cookie.”

B: Some ESL students are more comfortable reading and writing English than speaking English because that is what they have been taught first. I believe in order for students to feel comfortable speaking as well as reading and writing in English, they need to internalize the feel or cadence of the English language and what better way to do that then through music!

D: Music definitely can also boost memorization. For example, international real estate rules were put to the national anthems of each country. The learning and memorization was 4-5 times greater, and fun.

B: Students can use music and rhythm or do movements to spark memory.

Teaching and Connecting with Students through Music

B: Music can boost attention and focus in the class. I use music to control the rhythm of the classroom. We don’t know what students’ experiences have been before school or at recess. I have happy music playing when they come into the class. It changes the energy of the environment. I enjoy this too. If I need a shift in the class, I’ll put on energetic music or slow music. Parents can also do this.

D: One teacher I know uses ukulele to give all classroom instructions

B: A lot of learning can be enhanced by adding movement into the mix. Teachers who challenge themselves with adding music and movement to their lessons often end up enjoying their classes more, as do their students!

B: I notice that behavioral issues tend not to come up in music classes.

D: Maybe it’s because when you’re doing music you’re being seen and heard, so those needs are fulfilled.

B: ipods can be a way to connect with students. Asking what students are listening to, or letting students share ipod music with the class to get the energy up in the class (ex. Fridays students might get to suggest music). If we expect students to listen to our music, we need to be prepared to listen to theirs.

D: I find that music helps me to build a relationship with students. When I teach through relationship, students want to learn whatever I want to teach them. Singing is mostly, for me, about community building.

B: If you’re in a happy frame of mind, you’ll be able to learn better. Music is a fast and easy way to not only connect with students but to create a fun and energetic learning environment.

Bonnie Davison is a music therapist, learning resource teacher, and founder of Singing English Education. Bonnie trains educators to use song-games to teach children how to read and write. Visit:

The Harmonious Family Choir is a non-audition singing community, welcoming all individuals and family groups. The primary goal is to build harmony both at home and at choir by developing skills in listening, cooperating, connecting, focusing, creating and blending. Founding director Doug Paterson enthusiastically invites you to enjoy a trial session. 250-385-SING (7464)

Recipes for Success: Fast, Healthy, Brainy Snacks for Students

by Dahlia Miller
October 2007

“If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Carl Sagan (1934-1996 – American Astronomer and Astrochemist)

Brain Foods

Although our brain weighs only 2% of our total body weight, when the body is at rest, the brain uses approximately 20% of the body’s energy. This is why regular, nutritious meals and snacks are so important - especially for students.

To brain has a very limited ability to store energy. So, in order to keep it functioning at its best, it needs constant glucose replacement (the primary source of energy for the brain is glucose, which comes from carbohydrate-rich foods like breads, cereals and pasta).

Healthy snacks can promote optimum brain performance. Of course, students should avoid skipping meals at all costs.

Here is a list of some foods that boost the brain’s functioning:

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Broccoli
  • Brown rice
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cheese
  • Collard greens
  • Eggs
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Lecithin (liquid or granules)
  • Legumes
  • Milk
  • Oatmeal
  • Oranges
  • Peanut/nut butter
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Wheat germ
  • Yogurt

Snack Recipes

These snacks are simple enough for students in grades 6 and above to prepare on their own. They include healthy brain- boosting foods.

Creamy Smoothie

2 cups soymilk, rice milk or milk
3 bananas (frozen or fresh)
3 tbsp. carob powder (optional)
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. liquid lecithin (this is a bee product)

Blend until smooth. (Hint: Rinse the blender right away when you’re done to make washing up easy.)

Fruity Omega Smoothie

2 cups fruit juice
1 cup water (optional)
1.5 - 2 bananas (frozen or fresh)
1/2 cup - 1 cup yogurt
1 tbsp. flaxseed oil
1 scoop “green drink” powder (optional)

Healthy Banana Split

1 medium banana
2 tbsp. jam or fruit sauce
1/4 cup fruit or berries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup yogurt
1 tbsp. chopped nuts (optional)
2 tbsp. grated coconut (optional)
Scoop yogurt into dish (a wide-bottomed soup bowl works well).
Split banana in half lengthwise and lay alongside the yogurt.
Drop dobs of jam or fruit sauce onto yogurt.
Sprinkle with berries, nuts & coconut.

Lettuce Wraps

2 lettuce leaves per wrap (leafy lettuce, like green or red, is the most flexible)
1 carrot - grated
1/4 beet - grated (optional)
1/4-1/2 cup sprouts
1/4 cup sunflower seeds - roasted
salad dressing to taste
Grate the carrot and beet.
Lay the 2 lettuce leaves, one on top of the other, on a plate.
Place the grated vegetables, sprouts, & sunflower seeds onto the lettuce.
Drizzle with salad dressing.
Roll the lettuce up like a burrito.

Blend until smooth.
Note: Green drinks are green because they are rich in chlorophyll (the green stuff in plants - essentially one of the healthiest things we can eat). Green drinks also usually contain pro-biotics (super-healthy bacteria like in yogurt).

Energy Balls

1/4 cup almonds or nuts - chopped (optional)
1/4 cup granola
1/4 cup sunflower seeds - roasted/chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup tahini, peanut butter, almond butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup honey
3 tbsp. carob powder (optional)
3 tbsp. grated coconut or roasted sesame seeds to roll the balls in (optional)
Chop nuts & sunflower seeds.
Transfer to a bowl and add the other ingredients.
Mix well with spoon or hands.
Form into balls.
Roll into coconut or sesame seeds, if preferred.
Eat or chill first to firm the balls up before eating.

Super-Quick Snacks

  • Yogurt mixed with green drink powder
  • Celery-stick stuffers
    cream cheese & raisins
    nut butter
    peanut/nut butter & raisins
    peanut/nut butter & chopped dates
    mashed banana & raisins
  • Instead of celery sticks, try endive
    spears, romaine lettuce or cucumbers that
    have been halved and scooped out.
  • Granola with yogurt, apple juice, soymilk, rice milk or milk

Other Fast Foods

  • Fresh fruit
  • Popcorn with flaxseed oil & brewer’s yeast, tamari or nutritional yeast
    Note: Brewer’s yeast and nutritional yeast are edible yeasts that contain an excellent vegetarian source of vitamin B12 - they can be found in the bulk food sections of most stores. Tamari is a sauce made from soy beans (like soy sauce) but without wheat. It has a rich, warm flavour.
  • French toast
  • Lightly boiled Edamame beans
    Note: These are soybeans still in their pods - looking like green peas or beans - they can be found in frozen food sections of asian or natural food stores.
  • Nachos
  • Miso soup-in-a-cup: Add 1 tbsp. miso to 1 cup hot water, and stir. Pour on 1 tsp. flaxseed oil.

The secret to a happy life is simple: do one thing at a time. Eat when it is time to eat. Sleep when it is time to sleep.
Zen saying

Sports Involvement Benefits School Performance

by Dahlia Miller
September 2006

“The first wealth is health.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sports bags, sweaty equipment, water bottles, early morning practices, and…homework? Does involvement in sports enhance school performance? The simple answer is yes, mostly.

You’ve heard the phrase, healthy body, healthy mind, right? Well, it’s true, in more ways than one.

Simply put, on a biological level, aerobic exercise (i.e. exercise that gets the heart pumping hard for longer than 20 minutes) pulls more oxygen into the lungs. That means that during exercise, more oxygen is drawn into the blood and pumped through the body and brain. This oxygen-rich blood sweeps “tired” blood out from the brain, allowing the mind to function more effectively. Our bodies are complex machines that are kept in best condition with regular exercise. A healthy brain processes information more efficiently and memorizes with greater ease – obvious benefits for students.

Another way that regular exercise contributes to a healthy mind is through the release of stress. Humans, as physical beings, interact with the world on a physical level. We often store stress in our muscles. Physical exercise gets those muscles moving and allows them to release tension. As humans, we also tend to store stress in our minds. Being active with sports or being on a sports team can help to take our minds off our troubles and let them go on the physical level (as mentioned above) or through connecting with others. A relaxed mind is more open to learning new information and can think more clearly.

One terrific benefit of sports involvement is self-confidence. I’ve noticed that the students I speak to who are very active or on sports teams have a sense of self-awareness that isn’t always easy to come by. They tend not to get caught up in the type of negative self-talk that can really hamper a student’s performance. (Have you ever heard that voice that tells you that you haven’t got a chance at passing the test that just got put in front of you? That negative self-talk can escalate and be quite debilitating to a student.) Students involved in sports are typically very good at setting reasonable goals, recognizing that goals are reached one step at a time, and cheering themselves on as they move toward their goals. These habits are extremely beneficial for students.

The discipline of regular sports practice often transfers quite nicely to schoolwork. Most sports players can recognize when they are focussed and when they aren’t; they know that sports practice (like homework time) has time limits; and they are capable of pushing themselves. In the arena of schoolwork this often means sports players focus on homework when it’s time to focus, don’t let homework drag on all evening, and do their best to work through challenging material.

High self-esteem is another benefit of involvement in sports. Being active and strong, belonging to a team, and having positive mentors and coaches all contribute to positive self-esteem in young people, especially young teens.

Feeling good about themselves, these young people are often more comfortable asking questions in class, seeking help when they need it, studying or working with others and being realistic about their school performance (i.e. not feeling defeated after failing to reach unreasonable goals).

According to Pam Turner, owner of Elevation Empowerment Training in Victoria, and an authority on youth self-esteem, “The more opportunities we can give teens to learn new skills and progress toward goals, the more their self-esteem will grow. Giving them opportunities to become involved in things and develop skills is a key. It could be learning a new sport, an art, a new academic subject, or life skill; the challenge is keeping them engaged and finding things that they can continue to be involved in.”

Of course we’re talking about potential behaviors. Every student is different in his or her interest in and ability for schoolwork. Generally speaking, though, involvement in sports sets students up for success in many ways physically, mentally, and emotionally. Of course, they still may struggle and need support with actual course material, but they’re quite likely to approach even this difficulty with a positive attitude.

Some Possible Negative Effects of Sports Involvement

Like everything there are (at least) two sides to the story. While involvement in sports offers students many positive benefits, it can also create several potential problems for students.

  • The major issues students on sports teams seem to encounter relate to time.
  • Being on a sports team, or being heavily active with sports, requires a time commitment.
  • In the higher grades of high school, the homework load can also be quite demanding time-wise. This can put a strain on the student if he or she is not skilled with time management. Even students who manage their time well can end up feeling overloaded if their sports team travels often or the number of practices per week is quite high. If a student’s schedule is too busy, it can be difficult to keep up with the challenges of course material and the pressures of exams.
  • Again, if there are too many practices per week, or the practices are early or late in the day, this can have a negative impact on a student. Students who are falling asleep over their homework are not working to their peak potential. This, in turn, can create pressure as the student strives (with less time) to maintain a desired grade level.
  • The pressure some students feel (from themselves and/or from their parents) to reach a certain grade level and a certain level of sports proficiency can also detract from the student’s ability to perform in the classroom and on exams. This pressure can lead to added stress and lack of focus.
  • The goal with supporting students who are involved in sports is to cultivate the positive benefits while reducing the possible negative impacts.

So, keep your eyes and ears wide open when your child talks about his or her feelings regarding the impact sports is having on schoolwork. Be ready to offer more encouragement or to lessen the number of commitments if there are complaints.

Give your child and yourself many pats on the back for your dedication to building both a healthy body and healthy mind.

Vacation, Meditation and the Value of Time Off

by Dahlia Miller
June 2007

This month’s edition takes a look at the need for time off. While vacation and time away from school can rest the physical body, quietening the mind can be a source of regeneration and energy for students even in the midst of work. Like a car battery that re-charges itself as it runs, a mind familiar with meditation techniques can constantly tap its most potent energy source – present moment awareness. Some simple meditation techniques especially suited to students are described at the end of the article.

“Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment.”
Leonardo DaVinci

Vacation and time off are important components of a student’s life. Besides freedom to rest and recuperate, vacation allows the mind time for integration and synthesis.

Just considering academic load, the sheer quantity of what students are expected to learn these days is impressive. Time away from school can give the student’s hard-working brain the option to reflect and let information sink in.

Sometimes it feels like pushing is the best way to be productive. Our world moves quickly and favours busyness. But this go, go, go attitude is not truly healthy, balanced or sustainable. If we are constantly rushing forward, moving to the next task, present-moment clarity will be elusive. We need to know how to slow down and attend to the present moment, so that decisions can be clear and appropriate.

Our mind is a tool. Like a saw, if our mind is constantly in use, it grows dull. Taking time to rest, allowing the mind to quiet, sharpens the saw. Then when our attention is turned back to the task at hand, it can be focused and more effective.

A balance needs to be struck. If students push too hard and too long, their minds lose their sharpness. With too much time off, on the other hand, students lose discipline and familiarity with newly learned material. By learning some basic meditation techniques, students can learn to be at rest even in the midst of work. How else will they be equipped to deal with the fast pace of modern life – competing for post-secondary positions with middle and high school students who study 12 and 14 hours per day in some countries?

Below is a brief description of some benefits of meditation and a few simple meditation techniques. Practised along with proper rest and self-care, meditation can provide reprieve, enhancing the efforts of students while in school and on vacation. Life is not all seriousness and work. Hopefully we can learn to approach all our tasks with a sense of playfulness and joy.

Benefits of Meditation

We have the benefit of living in a self-repairing system – we are amazing! If we care for ourselves well we can do a lot. Yet, have you ever taken time off and still not felt rested? When we calm our minds, allowing a few quiet moments of relaxation, our bodies begin to repair themselves and gather energy.

If we over-work, lose sleep or become stressed, our abilities in decision-making, problem solving, motivation, hand-eye coordination, and attention to detail are compromised. An over-active mind, an over-stressed system, does not operate well. Meditation calms the body and the spirit, slowing the breathing and the pulse-rate. After just a few minutes or even just a few mindful breaths, the body feels more relaxed and the mind becomes better able to focus.

Meditation can provide perspective, allowing fresh ideas to bubble up. Have you ever strained to remember something, only to have it come to you when you were no longer trying so hard? Freshness and clarity arrive when we loosen the reins on our mind, allowing it to relax into the present moment without effort.

As we practise meditation regularly, amazing things happen: the mind begins to chatter less, we become more able to focus our attention – this single-pointedness allowing us to blast through previous confusion like lightening.

What Meditation Isn’t

Meditation isn’t a blanked mind. It is the brain’s nature to think thoughts, it would be very, very difficult to actually blank the mind; meditation allows thoughts to come and go without following them or getting distracted by them.

Meditation isn’t time-consuming and difficult. It can be as simple as breathing or listening to the sounds around oneself. A few moments of calm awareness can bring great benefit.

Meditation doesn’t leave one cold and distant. Since meditation helps to bring attention to what is happening in the present moment, it can actually help to develop one’s ability to be natural with what is happening (it’s easier to laugh when one is paying attention to the joke).

Meditation isn’t a sign of weakness. Great thinkers and accomplished people throughout history have developed their skills through one-pointed concentration. In fact, through meditation, the power of mind can be focussed, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, bringing great clarity.

Simple Meditation Techniques

There are so many forms that meditation can take. The key point is to bring awareness to what is happening in the present moment. Here are some examples of meditations that can suit students quite nicely since they are all quick and can be done at any time – in class, during an exam, before homework, etc.

  • Following the breath, label the in-breath “one” and the out-breath “one”, then the next in-breath “two” and out-breath “two”, and so on up to “five”. If you’d like to continue, start again counting your next in-breath “one”.
  • Sit quietly, upright and relaxed with both feet on the floor. Breathe deeply for one or two breaths. Turn your attention to the bottoms of your feet. With your mind, sense the bottoms of your feet on the floor or in your shoes. With your mind, feel the backs of your legs on the chair. Feel your back against the chair; feel your head resting on your shoulders; feel your belly and chest rise with an in-breath. Repeat, if you like.
  • Sit quietly, relaxed and breathe deeply for one or two breaths. Ask yourself, “I wonder what I will think next?” Then watch for the next thought. Don’t follow the thought, simply see it rise like a bubble and float away. Then ask again, “I wonder what my next thought will be?” This practice can help you to gain more of a sense of distance from your thoughts: you are not your thoughts. The space between thoughts (whether one milli-second or ten seconds) is a well of still waters that you can tap into.
  • Sit quietly and relaxed. When you hear something, in your mind say, “hearing”. When you think something, in your mind say, “thinking”. When you feel an emotion, in your mind say, “feeling”. This labeling can help you to recognize what is happening around you and within you. It will be easier for you to discriminate between what is actually happening (for example, writing an exam) and what is going on in your mind (for example, fear or a memory of a previous bad experience with an exam).
  • Notice what is around you. Where are you? Are you standing or sitting? Feel your feet on the ground. Is there a smell in the air? Can you feel a breeze? What noises can you hear? How do your clothes feel – are they loose or tight, soft or scratchy? Are the muscles in your face relaxed or tense?

“The bigger the summer vacation the harder the fall.”

“Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you’ll win. Channel your energy. Focus.”
Carol Lewis, American Athlete

ESL - English as a Second Language

These articles all relate to learning English as a 2nd language.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #1 - Listening

by Maureen Bouey

“Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.”
Sir James Dewar, Scientist (1877-1925)

Congratulations on taking this step towards being a more fluent English speaker. Many ESL students wonder if it is possible to learn to speak English fluently, like a native speaker. The answer is: Yes!

Is it easy? No. But it is possible.

We believe that you signed up to take this course, because you are a person who is ready and willing to learn. Are we right? You will reach your goals with English if you are:

a) committed to working as hard as you can, and

b) open to new ideas and concepts.

If you faithfully practice what we suggest, you will begin to notice an improvement in your English.

Ok, are you ready?

We have a lot of ground to cover... so let’s get started!

SECRET #1: If you want to speak English fluently, you first must:


and then…


This is the first thing you do when learning a new language – and it is essential to good speaking ability.

Are you surprised? Well, it’s really true; the more you listen, the sooner you will be a fluent English speaker. Lots of listening will also lead to a better (more “natural”) accent.

Many students have said to us, “I don’t understand; how can listening help me become a better speaker?”

Well, how did you learn to speak your own first language? When you were a baby, did your parents sit down with you and begin to explain the basics of grammar in your native language? Did they try to teach you to read or write when you were still crawling around on the floor?

Of course they didn’t! They just talked to you, and to each other, and to lots of other people.

And what did you do? You listened.

Sometimes you listened passively, and sometimes you listened with conscious effort, paying attention to the sounds, rhythms and patterns of speech that were all around you, and trying to understand.

The important thing is, you were immersed in your language – in other words it was all around you. You were like a fish swimming in water.

For a couple of years, you continued to listen. Then, eventually, (probably somewhere around the age of 2) you started to speak. Everyone got very excited of course, including you - but remember - by that time, you had been listening for a very long time!

First you listened; then you spoke. “Obviously,” you say? Yes, but it’s a very important relationship. Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a quite extraordinary Japanese man who was a contemporary of Albert Einstein’s. (As it happens, they were also good friends.)

In the 1930’s, this remarkable man discovered what he called “the mother tongue” method of learning. In his book Nurtured By Love, Shinichi Suzuki explains how he came to understand how people learn language. It suddenly occurred to him one day that “all Japanese children can speak Japanese!”(1) Of course this seemed obvious to everyone, and some people looked at him oddly when he announced this. But what he really meant was that human beings have a natural ability and a “talent” to learn a complicated and difficult language – just by listening to it!

This insight showed him an important link between how we ‘receive’ information, and how we ‘produce’ it. He was a violin teacher, and he began to use this method of language learning to teach young children (3 and 4 years old!) the violin. First, he let them listen to a particular piece of music for several weeks. Then, after a while, they were able to play the piece themselves – without knowing how to read music yet.

This is the first thing you do when learning a new language – and it is essential to good speaking ability.

Are you surprised? Well, it’s really true; the more you listen, the sooner you will be a fluent English speaker. Lots of listening will also lead to a better (more “natural”) accent.

Many students have said to us, “I don’t understand; how can listening help me become a better speaker?”

Well, how did you learn to speak your own first language? When you were a baby, did your parents sit down with you and begin to explain the basics of grammar in your native language? Did they try to teach you to read or write when you were still crawling around on the floor?

Of course they didn’t! They just talked to you, and to each other, and to lots of other people.

And what did you do? You listened.

Sometimes you listened passively, and sometimes you listened with conscious effort, paying attention to the sounds, rhythms and patterns of speech that were all around you, and trying to understand.

The important thing is, you were immersed in your language – in other words it was all around you. You were like a fish swimming in water.

For a couple of years, you continued to listen. Then, eventually, (probably somewhere around the age of 2) you started to speak. Everyone got very excited of course, including you - but remember - by that time, you had been listening for a very long time!

First you listened; then you spoke. “Obviously,” you say? Yes, but it’s a very important relationship. Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a quite extraordinary Japanese man who was a contemporary of Albert Einstein’s. (As it happens, they were also good friends.)

In the 1930’s, this remarkable man discovered what he called “the mother tongue” method of learning. In his book Nurtured By Love, Shinichi Suzuki explains how he came to understand how people learn language. It suddenly occurred to him one day that “all Japanese children can speak Japanese!”(1) Of course this seemed obvious to everyone, and some people looked at him oddly when he announced this. But what he really meant was that human beings have a natural ability and a “talent” to learn a complicated and difficult language – just by listening to it!

This insight showed him an important link between how we ‘receive’ information, and how we ‘produce’ it. He was a violin teacher, and he began to use this method of language learning to teach young children (3 and 4 years old!) the violin. First, he let them listen to a particular piece of music for several weeks. Then, after a while, they were able to play the piece themselves – without knowing how to read music yet.

This method of teaching became known as “The Suzuki Method” and is now used world-wide.

It makes sense, right? First we listen, then we speak, then we read, and then we write. But we listen first; it’s the natural order.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Albert Einstein

Your speaking ability (both fluency and pronunciation) will improve if you will listen, listen, listen. Make no mistake – you can improve your English this way no matter what level of English you are at right now: whether you are an absolute beginner or at a much higher level.

“How much listening does it take to make a difference in your speaking?” That’s a very good question! The answer is, “it depends.” We are all so different; we have varied backgrounds, experiences, talents, and abilities, some people will need to do more listening and some people need to do less to achieve the same results.

The simple and true answer is this: “the more the better.” And even more importantly: “the more often, and the more consistent, the better.”

So, there we have it! That’s the first secret - being a good listener will help make you a better speaker. And the great thing about listening is you can practice it just about anywhere! If you have an ipod, you can carry your listening practice with you on the bus, train, subway, car or plane.

Of course, it’s true that those of you who are spending some time in an English-speaking country will have many more opportunities to overhear English. But wherever you are, try to expose yourself to a variety of different voices – just like when you were a baby learning your first language. The more you do this, the better! Here is a list of some suggestions for you to try. We know you’ll find more!

  • Listen to English TV stations or programs. Try closing your eyes sometimes. This will challenge your to “hear” more – especially to hear the rhythm and intonation in natural speech.
  • Watch English videos (it’s much better to not have subtitles!).
  • Listen to English radio – you can do this anywhere in the world (BBC/CBC/Voice of America, etc.).
  • Listen to songs – practice singing along!
  • Listen to recordings of books.
  • As you are walking down the street, listen for English.
  • Listen to conversations in coffee shops, on the bus, at parties…
  • When you hear a few English words, repeat them to yourself. Repeat them again and again. Can you understand what was said?”
  • The Internet. This is a great source – there are literally HUNDREDS of helpful sites for you to listen and practice. Here are just a couple to start with:

These are just some ideas – the important thing is to listen OFTEN and to listen CONSISTENTLY.
10 minutes every day is better than 1 hour per week.

“A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.”
Wilson Mizner

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

(1) Nurtured By Love. Suzuki, Shinichi. Exposition Press, New York, 1969 (p.9)

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #2 - Reading

by Maureen Bouey

Last time we looked at Secret # 1 to speaking fluent English. This was Listen, Listen, Listen! I hope you’ve already started looking for more listening opportunities – it really is SO important. This time we will explore the next important secret to speaking English. Let’s begin!


Read often

Read a LOT!!!

I know, I know! Some of you don’t like reading – even in your first language. I admit, if you like to read, you will have a bit of an “edge” (an advantage), but, even if you don’t really like reading, I promise to show you why this skill is so valuable to fluent English. And maybe, together, we can find a way for you to like it!

“What is reading but silent conversation?”
Walter Savage Landor

In this lesson I will show you:

  • how reading can help you become a more fluent English speaker, and
  • how to find reading material you can enjoy.

First though, let’s look at a couple of ‘whys’. Here are two questions for you to consider:

1. Why is reading such a valuable skill?
2. Why do you need to read to improve your English?

Let me try to answer these questions for you.

Reading and writing are linked. Reading is written information going in; writing is written information going out. Even if you don’t like writing, you’ll probably want to be able to write well in English, for tests, for business, or even for communicating by email or mail. Perhaps you’re a song writer and would like to write songs in English. If so, then read. THROUGH READING, YOU WILL IMPROVE YOUR WRITING.

What other benefits can you get from reading? Probably one of the biggest advantages is that you can broaden your vocabulary. You can learn brand new words and, at the same time, gain a deeper understanding of words you have heard or seen before. You see, what you are doing is learning/reviewing words “in context”. And this is so important!

When you learn a new word “in isolation”, you don’t get a clear understanding of how to use that word. And yet, learning words in isolation is the way most students learn new vocabulary! For example, here is the word “shout” and here is its definition: “to speak very loudly - either because someone is a long way off, or because you are angry.” So, you’ve learned the definition of the word “shout” but can you use it?

Another way of learning the meaning of a new vocabulary word (the way ALL native speakers of their own languages learn) is to understand new words from context. For instance: if you read a story and there is the sentence, “He shouted so loudly, it hurt her ears;” and then you read another story with a sentence that says, “Don’t shout so loud – you’ll wake the baby!”… well, you’re going to begin to have a pretty good idea of what “shout” means, aren’t you? You can understand and learn the meaning of new words from the context (from what’s around the words). This is the most natural, and very best way to learn new vocabulary. So, READING IS A GREAT WAY TO BUILD VOCABULARY.

Which brings me to this important point: DO NOT use your dictionary when you are reading (at least not at first). Use it later if you still don’t understand the word from the context. You see, if you stop to use your dictionary, it breaks the natural rhythm of your reading.

A third reason why you should read is because IT INCREASES YOUR EXPOSURE TO ENGLISH IN GENERAL. In other words, you will understand more about Western culture through reading, and if you do, you will understand the language more, including idioms, etc.

“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”
Mason Cooley

Here are some great tips on HOW TO READ:

  • Read WITHOUT a dictionary.
  • When reading, practice either guessing at the meanings of unknown words or ignoring them. Don’t worry about every little detail. Keep reading even if it seems a little bit hard (but not too hard). Try to get the overall meaning.
  • Read quickly. By maintaining a natural rhythm and flow, you will learn to “infer”, or guess meanings.
  • Read aloud – to children, to friends, or just to yourself. (This will improve your pronunciation as well.
  • If a book is just too boring - or too hard - stop reading and find another book.
  • Read without stress – get a cup of tea or coffee and relax.
  • Read frequently – ten or fifteen minutes every day is better than an hour once a week.

Here are some tips on WHAT TO READ:

  • Well, the short answer is: read anything and everything!
  • Choose something based on your ability – for instance, if you are at a pre- intermediate level, don’t try reading a long, difficult novel.
  • Read for information.
  • Read for pleasure – science fiction, mysteries, romances, etc.
  • Read about topics that interest you.
  • Read books, magazines, newspapers, journals, the Internet, letters, emails, texts, bus schedules, travel brochures, textbooks, novels, cookbooks, you name it!

And here’s a great way To Practise both your Listening and Reading Skills:

Read books that have audios (tapes or CDs) with them. With audio books, you’re practicing both of your receptive skills (listening and reading) at once. You can do this anywhere, and it’s very, very helpful.

It’s a fact: the more you read, the sooner you will begin to easily recognize more and more words. When this starts to happen, the speed of your reading will increase. Best of all, you will grow increasingly more comfortable with English. There have been several scientific studies done that show when students read a lot they become more confident, and thus improve their overall English.

Why not keep a reading log (a record of what you’ve read)? It will surprise and encourage you when you look back on it.

These are just some ideas – the important thing if you want to improve your reading, vocabulary and general English: you must read OFTEN and read CONSISTENTLY. 10 minutes every day is better than 1 hour a week.

Here is a common English expression: “There’s no time like the present.” Perhaps you have a similar one in your own language. It simply means: there is no better time to begin something than the present moment. In other words, right now!

So, we’ll see you next time with Secret # 3! Until then, Keep Listening and Reading! And if you’re ready to begin, there’s no time like the present!

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #3 - Grammar

by Maureen Bouey

Well, so far we’ve looked at the importance of listening and reading – the two ‘receptive’ skills. Have you been practicing these? If you have, congratulations! You have taken important steps towards fluent English.

Come with us while we explore the next important secret to speaking English. Secret #3 is actually more about something you should NOT do. What is it? Read on!


What? How can you possibly forget about grammar!? Forgetting about grammar is very important for becoming fluent in English.

Well, of course you need some grammar. SOME.

But I’m willing to bet my last dollar that you’ve already got enough – and probably you have a lot of it. I’m even willing to bet that you could more than likely beat almost ANY native English speaker in a grammar contest. I really mean that because, you see, most native English speakers don’t understand grammar very well at all.

You all know someone (maybe it’s you), who can get a very high score on a grammar test, but can’t speak or understand any English. Does that really seem like a successful model of language learning? It would be like completely understanding the theory of music, the structure of music, and what all the notes and little marks mean, but…almost never actually playing music (or singing). It wouldn’t make much sense, would it?

“To learn it, do it!”
Roger Schank

You see, having perfect English grammar does NOT mean you can speak English fluently. In fact, the two are not really related at all. If having excellent grammar meant speaking English fluently, many Asian students would already be able to do it. Why Asian students particularly? Because, as an ESL teacher, I have seen hundreds of Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and other Asian students come to Canada with quite a high level of grammar. Sometimes they have written the TOEIC or even the TOEFL and gotten a very high score.

But…they often have trouble having a real conversation. That’s because, if you actually want to speak English, and understand English, only practicing grammar is not going to make a difference. Not really.

Let’s think for a minute: What is grammar? What is any kind of grammar – in any language? Well, it’s structure, isn’t it? It’s all the basics. In the case of English grammar this means knowing what the seven parts of speech (articles, prepositions, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions) are, and knowing how to put them together.

So for instance, you learn that you always need (at least) two things to form every sentence – a noun and a verb. For example: “Dogs run.” You might want to add more information - about the dogs, perhaps, so you can add an adjective. “Young dogs run.” And, you might want to add more information about ”how” they run, so you could add an adverb. “Young dogs run quickly.” Certainly understanding these basics are important to your ability to “move around” and “build” in English.

However, past a certain point, you need to let go of your attempts to be more and more ”perfect” at putting the pieces together, and just USE the language.

You may think your English is not very good yet, but if you can understand some English – and if you can get people to understand you, then isn’t that the whole point?

And, although you really DO need to know the basics of structure - or grammar - learning more and more and more detail is not going to improve your fluency. The ONLY thing which will improve your fluency is…practice using the tools. And that is…speaking, listening, reading and writing. These are the skills of a language – and the whole purpose to learning it.

“But I make a lot of mistakes!” ”My pronunciation is not good,” many students say. Well, of course you make mistakes! First of all, everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – makes mistakes. This means ALL native speakers, including English teachers. Making mistakes is a normal part of being human and speaking a language. Second, you make mistakes because you’re learning something.

Making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Learning and making mistakes go together - automatically. Just like in an old song called “Love and Marriage”. “Love and marriage; Love and marriage; Go together like a horse and carriage.” “A horse and carriage?” Well I said it was an old song. Anyway, making mistakes is a huge and important part of learning. In fact…if you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t learning.

Just for a moment, imagine something, will you? Great! Imagine that you are taking care of a one-year-old baby. It might be your own baby; it might be a niece or a nephew, or a friend’s baby. It doesn’t matter. In any case, you’re looking after this one-year-old baby. The baby can’t walk yet – it can only crawl. As you are sitting in a chair, the baby crawls over to you and, using a small, nearby table, pulls himself up to a standing position. The baby smiles at you and you smile back. He is very encouraged by your smile and wants to come over to you. So, he lets go of the table, and takes a step. You smile and hold your hands out in encouragement, so he laughs and takes another step. You clap your hands and laugh with happiness. The baby takes one more step and then…falls down!

Ok, here’s my point: is the baby’s fall a mistake? Or is it normal? In this situation, how do you respond to the baby? Do you feel disappointed that he failed? Do you scold him? Do you say “Oh no, you can’t do it!”? Or, do you feel excited because the baby tried and succeeded (he walked two steps!).

Of course, this is a bit of a trick question. I know you are a kind, caring person and you would be supportive and encouraging of the baby - because the fact is, he succeeded, didn’t he? He is in a process of learning a new skill and he will fall down many times. Of course. Just as you will make many mistakes –that’s how you know you’re learning. That’s how you know you’re PROGRESSING.

So, remember, grammar is a tool. It is a tool to fit the pieces of a language together. The whole point to learning any language is to use the language - not to master the tools of structure.

Remember, we are not saying you don’t need to study grammar at all. It has its place. What we are saying is, put it aside sometimes. Just listen. Read. And speak. Good luck!

Until next time,
"Just do it!”

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #4 - Speaking

by Maureen Bouey

How have you been doing? Are you listening to some English every day? Are you reading (at least some) English every day? Almost every day? If not, remember, even as little as ten minutes a day - especially if it’s regular and consistent - will really help you on your road to fluency. So even if you’re very busy, if you’re serious about improving your English, you should make just a few minutes available to do these valuable activities.

All right then. On to the next topic: Secret #4 to speaking fluent English!

SECRET #4: SPEAK (ENGLISH, of course)

My dear student, you simply must speak!

And I mean speak often. You should be speaking English at every opportunity, and you should be taking every advantage that comes your way to practice speaking English.

You should speak even when you are uncomfortable, and you should speak when you aren’t quite sure you will be understood by other people. And,

You must speak EVEN if you feel shy - and I know many of you do. Is this you - are you shy? Do you sometimes avoid speaking because you feel shy? Well, listen carefully and I’ll tell you what I always tell my students: “Shyness is expensive.” What do I mean by that? Just this: the cost of shyness = the loss of an opportunity to speak. And, when it comes to language fluency, opportunities for speaking practice are pure gold. This is true in any language of course, not just English. When it comes to learning a language, practice is what builds fluency.

Did you get that? I’ll repeat it because it’s so important.

PRACTICE is what builds fluency.

It is absolutely extraordinary how seldom many, many ESL/EFL students actually DO speak. And not speaking is a vicious cycle. They don’t speak because they can’t, and they can’t speak because they don’t. It doesn’t make sense, does it?

Well, it’s a simple fact, you CANNOT become fluent any other way. Think about it. Speaking practice is how you became fluent in your first language. Practice is how EVERYONE becomes fluent – whether it is their first, second, third, or tenth language. It is the ONLY way.

To return to shyness again for a moment, if you ARE shy, I know that this aspect of language learning is harder for you (perhaps much harder). And I’ll be honest with you: those of you who are naturally outgoing and sociable definitely DO have an easier time of it in this area.

But don’t worry, it’s not time to throw in the towel (this is an idiom that means ‘give up’). If you are shy, you’ll just have to work a little harder. You’ll have to push past your feelings of discomfort and force yourself to participate verbally in situations. You CAN do it.

“You don’t understand me,” you might think.

But I do. Believe me: I can sympathize with shy students. I know how difficult it is because for many, many years, I was shy too. I do understand; I am speaking from personal experience. I know very well what the reluctance to speak feels like – AND, I know the price you can pay - because I paid it.

I won’t bore you with my story, but I lost many social and learning opportunities due to my shyness, and it wasted a lot of time. That’s all I’ll say on this at the moment. This is a whole topic of its own, but let me just say this, you CAN overcome it. I did. And it doesn’t mean completely changing your personality.

I think this fourth secret to speaking fluent English is, in some ways, the most obvious. Maybe it doesn’t really seem like a ‘secret’. Yet, so many students do not speak. Instead, even in a conversation class, they look down and focus their attention on their notebooks or dictionaries. Instead of asking a teacher for information, for example, they will look in their (bilingual) dictionary. Sometimes they’ll ask a friend or a classmate – but often, the question is not even asked in English.

“A different language is a different vision of life.”
Federico Fellini, Italian Film Director

This quote from the famous Italian director is so true. Language is a part of culture, and so to make a real connection with a language, it is important to participate in the culture as much as possible. HOW you can do this depends on whether you are currently in an English speaking country or in your own country.

If you are in your own country, you clearly won’t have as many English speaking opportunities as you will if you are in a country where English is spoken as an official language. But you will have some speaking opportunities. The obvious one, of course, is that you can join a language school.

If you do join a language school, it is much better for you if you can be taught by native English speakers.

Also, try to make sure the school has a good conversation program, and that they don’t just teach grammar and how to study for tests. You could even ask the staff if they use the “Communicative” style of teaching (1) there. But remember, once you’re in the language school, it’s up to you. Nobody can FORCE you to speak; you have to do that for yourself.

What else can you do? Well, that largely depends on where you are. Aside from language schools, try to participate in as many activities as possible that give you speaking opportunities. Try to think about where there are native speakers, and look for opportunities to speak there. Where do they eat? Where do they drink their coffee or beer? Where do they relax? Be creative.

If, however, you are in an English speaking country, you have a much larger number of options. (And I highly recommend you take advantage of them while you are there!) Again, you may want to join a language school. Or, you may want to attend a regular school if you are at a high enough level. There are so many possibilities and ideas. Here are just a few; you probably have more:

  • Go to a gym (the YMCA or YWCA is always a good choice)
  • Take a class - any class: art; cooking; photography; music; (whatever interests you!)
  • Join a conversation club.
  • Volunteer (they will be VERY happy to see you!)
  • Go to church or temple.
  • Live with a homestay family (NOT with students from your own country).
  • Travel
  • Go Shopping and ask the sales clerks a lot of questions.
  • Basically, go where the English speakers go.

“Language is a steed which carries you into a far country.”
Arab proverb

Please believe me, there is no shortcut. So, remember, watch for opportunities, actually look for opportunities. Make your own opportunities. Ask questions. Don’t worry, just speak.

*Note: It’s a fact in our world that things are a little different for males and females. Unfortunately, if you are a girl, or a woman, you have to be more cautious and can’t speak to just anyone - anytime.

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #5 - Writing

by Dahlia Miller

Let’s quickly review the first 4 Secrets:

Secret #1: Listen, listen, listen and then listen some more!
Secret #2: Read. Read often. Read a lot!
Secret #3: Forget about grammar!
Secret #4: Speak.

These secrets are simple and they are true. You can use them everyday to improve your English. We know you can do it!


It’s true! The more you write, the more fluent you will become.

There are two main styles of writing in English: fiction and non-fiction. Fiction writing has few rules; non-fiction writing has many rules. Both types of writing can help you to improve your English fluency.

In this article, let’s look at how writing everyday can help you to improve your English fluency. Then we’ll look at writing fiction and non-fiction.

But first, let me ask you a question: “Do you like writing?”

Do you enjoy writing in your first language? If you say no, then writing in English may not be easy for you. Relax, don’t push yourself too hard. Writing everyday, for just 10 minutes will make a big difference in your writing and in your speaking!

Besides, if you don’t like one type of writing, it is always possible that you may like another type. The only way to know what you like is to try all styles of writing.

How Can Writing Everyday Help You to Improve Your English Fluency?

1. If you write everyday, you will begin to understand English and English-speakers better.

In Day 2 of this article series we said:

“A reason why you should READ is because it increases your exposure to English in general. In other words, you will understand more about Western culture through reading, and if you do, you will understand the language more, including idioms, etc.”

Well, the same thing is true for writing. If you learn how to write well in English, you’ll understand more about Western culture. You’ll be able to experience the culture from the inside! You’ll be communicating in English, so you’ll be learning about how English speakers look at the world. You’ll also be learning about how English speakers understand the world through their writing and reading!

That makes sense, doesn’t it? If you practice writing in many different English styles, you’ll be practicing writing like native English speakers. The more that you practice writing like a fluent English speaker, the more fluent you’ll become!

2. If you write everyday, you will become very familiar with English.

Professional writers write everyday. If you are going to write well, you will need to write regularly. Just like listening, speaking, and reading, you need to practice, practice, practice your writing EVERYDAY!

“If you would one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day.”

Even 10 minutes a day will improve your writing. Writing everyday will give you a chance to practice new vocabulary and grammar structures. If you write everyday, you will become more familiar with using English.

Okay, now let’s look at fiction writing now and how you can use it to become more fluent in English.

Okay, on to the topic of FICTION WRITING.

Fiction writing is very personal. Fiction writing (poetry, songs, comic strips, short stories, novels, etc.) has only a few rules about style and formatting. It can be serious or it can be fun. It can be formal or informal. We all have our own way of expressing ourselves. This is true in writing as well: we all have our own way of expressing ourselves through writing.

It’s even possible to create your own style and formatting with poetry, songs, comic strips, short stories, and novels. Because you can make up your own rules, fiction writing can be fun and easy.

One of the reasons you are studying English is so that you can use it. Right? Sometimes students feel nervous about writing in English. Either they don’t like to write or they are nervous about making mistakes.

If You Feel Nervous About Writing because you don’t like making mistakes, here is a kind of fiction writing that can help you: Journaling (writing only for yourself). Even if you don’t feel nervous about writing, Journaling is a great way to improve your fluency.

This is how to Journal:

  • Find a place where you feel comfortable to write.
  • Choose a topic (for example, what you did yesterday, sports, music, travel, etc.).
  • Write without stopping for as long as you feel comfortable.
  • Try to write as many words, phrases, and sentences as you can.
  • Do not think about mistakes or worry about whether your grammar is correct.
  • When you are finished, you may choose to read your journaling or you may choose to simply recycle it.

With journaling, you are practicing expressing yourself without an audience. There is no one to tell you if what you are writing is correct or incorrect. No one is listening; no one will read this writing. It’s okay to make mistakes in journaling. It’s a safe space to practice.

“Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.”
Natalie Goldberg

If you write without nervousness, you will probably enjoy writing more. You will also increase your writing (and speaking) speed and fluency with Journaling.

Now, on to the topic of NON-FICTION WRITING

Non-fiction writing is very different from fiction writing. It can help you in different ways to become fluent in English. Did you know that in non-fiction how you write is almost as important as what you write?

How you write is almost as important as what you write!

It’s VERY important for you to practice non-fiction writing with correct formatting. If you practice writing non-fiction with correct formatting you will have greater success in communicating.

Here’s an example:

Imagine that you want to get a job with an English company. To get a job, you need to give or mail the company a resume. Do you know what a resume in English looks like? If you send a resume that doesn’t look like most English resumes, the company might not even read it! You won’t get the job because your resume is not written in the correct format and style.

Formatting means:
The rules about where words are placed on the page. For example, formatting for resumes is different from formatting for letters.

Formatting includes:

Rules about what paragraphs should look like.
Rules about where to place the date, your name, a greeting, the contents, and your contact information, etc.

The best way to learn proper formatting is to read, but if you want to study English formatting, you can. There are many style books and websites with information about formatting. This website has lots of useful information about writing in English:


Non-fiction writing for university or business (letters, faxes, essays, resumes, articles, etc.) is usually quite formal. For university and business writing, it is important to use the correct tone as well as the correct grammar, punctuation and formatting.

Don’t be discouraged. Learning how to write in English is not that difficult. It just takes practice.

Here Is How To Write Good Non-Fiction:

  • Figure out who you will be reading your writing (your audience).
  • Decide on the style of writing that you will use.
  • Read other examples of the style of writing you have chosen.
  • Think of what you would like to say.
  • Write down your ideas in sentences.
  • Put your sentences together on the page in the correct format.
  • Re-read your writing. Check to see if there are any mistakes.
  • Look at your writing. Did you use the correct format? Does it look like the other examples that you read?
  • Be proud of yourself!

Here Are Some Things You Can Do To Become More Fluent In English Through Writing:

  • Write EVERYDAY (for 10 minutes or more)!
  • Practice ALL styles of writing. The first time you write a paragraph or an essay, it might not be very good, but the 40th time you write a paragraph or an essay, it probably will be good. Practice your writing!
  • Try journaling.
  • Find a pen pal.
  • Write emails or text-messages. (Email is another form of writing that does not have many rules. So go ahead: relax about following the rules and have fun communicating by email.)
  • Read ALL styles of writing.

Remember that most writing is meant to be read. It is communication. If you want to communicate well, it’s a good idea to know who you are writing to.

Dahlia Miller is the owner of Smart Tutor Referrals in Victoria, BC, Canada. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Maureen Bouey.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #6 - Build Vocabulary

by Maureen Bouey


Secret # 6 is about analyzing language – the English language.

Have you ever played with blocks or legoTM? These games have lots of little pieces – different sizes and colours of plastic or wood – and you can put them together in different ways to make different things. Then you take them apart and put them back together in another way to make something different. It’s fun!

Well in some ways, the English language is a lot like that. You have a whole bunch of bits and pieces and you can put them together in different ways to make different words. Instead of analyzing how to work with things, we analyze how to work with words.

This week’s lesson is about how one aspect of English can help you to build a larger vocabulary (and NOT by trying to memorize a ton of words). We will briefly talk about the mechanics and origins of the English language, and then look at how analyzing English words – by taking them apart and putting them back together again – can help you to increase your vocabulary.

Are you interested in having a larger vocabulary? I hope so because it is a valuable and important goal which will help you on your path to becoming a fluent speaker of English.

Some people say that there are more words in the English language than in any other language in the world. It’s impossible to know exactly how many words there are, but there have been estimates of around three million – or more.


Ah, but don’t worry! Of these, only about 200,000 are in general use today. And while an educated English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000, he/she only uses about 2,000 in a week’s conversation. Certainly it is possible to get by with a lot fewer than 2,000 words per week.

Anyway, back to our topic: the mechanics of English or AFFIXATION. I’ll explain. Mechanics, in language terms, means the adding and subtracting of words or groups of letters to ‘roots’, or base words. Root words are the origins or beginnings of the words. I’ll give you an example.

Let’s look at the word ‘television’. There are actually two parts to this word: ‘tele’ and ‘vision’. The first part, ‘tele’ means distant; the second part, ‘vision’ means sight, or the power of seeing. Put together, the new word means: seeing from a distance.

Now, imagine you are reading an English magazine and you come upon the word ‘telephone’. Imagine this is a new word for you – you don’t know what it means. Do you immediately turn to your dictionary and look it up? NO! You don’t need to. You already know what the word television means and so you can work out what ‘telephone’ means. Since you already know that ‘tele’ means distant, if you also knew that ‘phon’ meant sound, then you would know that ‘telephone’ means sound from a distance.

This is an example of affixation. ‘Affixation’ is adding a letter, or a group of letters, to a word to change its meaning.

In the last example, the four letters, ‘tele’, do not make a word. Rather, ‘tele’ is a prefix. A prefix is a group of letters which goes in front of a word (just like ‘pre’, itself is a prefix).

A suffix is a group of letters which goes at the end of a word (like ‘ly’ added to adjectives to form an adverb, or ‘-s’ added on to countable nouns to make plurals). For example, we can change the word ‘quick’ to ‘quickly’ by affixing the suffix ‘-ly’ to the root ‘quick’.

Studying root words is a huge topic all on its own. You probably already know that English is a language with varied roots (actually quite a hodgepodge ( ). In order to help you understand root words, here is just a very brief HISTORICAL OVERVIEW of how the English language came together.

The English language is a combination of a number of other languages. English originated in northern Europe as battling groups moved in and conquered each other. English is basically a Germanic language. There are also many ‘borrowed’ words from the Danish and Norse Viking languages that came originally from the Romans. The French language entered in 1066 when the Normans conquered Britain. (Greek also had an influence, which came later.)

Throughout its history, many new words have been, and continue to be, created. Shakespeare alone is said to have invented over 1600 new words. Then, as the British began colonizing after the 16th century, more and more borrowed words from other languages came into the English language. Just some of the languages which have contributed to English are: Latin, Greek, French, German,Arabic, Hindi (from India), Italian, Malay, Dutch, Farsi (from Iran and Afganistan), Nahuatl (the Aztec language), Sanskrit (from ancient India), Portuguese, Spanish, Tupi (from South America) and Ewe (from Africa). Wow! No wonder it’s confusing.

So, to sum up, why study root words and affixation? Studying root words, prefixes and suffixes can really help you build and expand your vocabulary. It will allow you to guess at the meanings of words when you’re reading, thus preventing you from always going for your dictionary. This is just a small taste of this large subject.

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

(1) A hodgepodge is a mix or variety of something.

7 Secrets to Fluent English - Secret #7 - Believe in Yourself

by Maureen Bouey

Well, here we are at Secret #7 - the final in this series of lessons on how to speak English fluently. This last secret is extremely important – possibly the most important of all. Without this, you could easily become quite discouraged and feel that you just aren’t progressing. You might even be tempted to give up. Well, we certainly don’t want that to happen so…


In this final article, we’ll talk about believing in yourself (and some obstacles to believing in yourself) and then we’ll discuss why Learning Styles are important.

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”.
Henry Ford

This quote from Henry Ford is one of my favourites. I like it because he is so right. You must believe in yourself. You have to believe that you CAN do it (anything!); that if you really do the work, practice and persevere; you WILL achieve your goal.

You need this belief in yourself because as you move along the path toward your goal, there will be both good and bad moments. In some of these bad moments, you will experience doubt, anxiety and frustration. Sometimes you will feel as though you are not improving – that you are just staying the same.

And then sometimes, other people will voice THEIR doubts about you. This doesn’t feel very good, and sometimes this can come from people who are very close to you – perhaps even the people who love you the most (like friends, classmates, parents and other family members).

Now, usually these people don’t mean to be unkind; they may be worried for you – for your future – or, they may just not be aware of how difficult it is to learn to speak a new language. If these “doubters” are your parents, they may feel a sense of anxiety; after all, parents usually want their children to be successful, and sometimes they want it so much, they become frustrated and worried.

So even though people don’t intend to be unkind or unsupportive, sometimes they ARE a little bit anyway. And, whether they intend it or not, we can feel their frustration and anxiety – and it just doesn’t help much, does it? In fact, all it really does is to make US feel anxious and frustrated too. Sometimes (if it’s our parents, or someone else we really care about) we even start to feel responsible for trying to make them feel better, or happier. Then, this makes us a) anxious (a bad mindset for learning anything) and; b) feel a bit responsible for their happiness and peace of mind. This is NOT healthy, and it is not really possible!)

If you are one of the lucky ones who are surrounded by people who support you 100% of the time, that’s fantastic! It really is, and I hope you know how lucky you are. However, it doesn’t describe everyone. If it the people around you are not always supportive of you, that’s ok. You can still be the one who believes in and supports him/herself.

Another critical thing for us to do is to be kind and forgiving with OURSELVES – as kind and forgiving as we would be to a small child we loved and were taking care of. Do you remember before when we talked about when you were first learning to talk or walk? How did you learn? That’s right; you learned slowly and gradually but, you got it. Eventually, you got it – in your own way and in your own time.

This is SUCH an important point. You learn in your own way – in your own time. We are all unique and we all learn things in our own specific and unique ways.

Each person has his or her own learning style. Some of us need to ‘see’ information in order to understand it; some of us need to ‘hear’ information and some of us need to ‘do’ it before we can really understand. Which one are you? Well, let’s ‘see’.

Think for a moment about when you are learning something new (anything – it can be a new language, a new computer game or some new other new subject). What is the best way for you to learn? Does the information make the most sense to you if: a) the teacher writes the information on the board?; b) the teacher just lectures, and verbally explains the information? or, c) you actually DO it yourself? Probably you learn - at least somewhat - by using a combination of these methods. But chances are, you’ll have a preference for one of them. One of them probably makes it easier for you to learn new information.

Now, if you said that you prefer to ‘see’ information, then you are a VISUAL learner; seeing information helps you understand. However, if you said that you prefer to ‘hear’ information, then you are an auditory learner – your main way of learning is to ‘hear’ it. And, if you said that you need to ‘do’ or experience something in order to understand it, then you are a kinesthetic learner.

When we look at learning in this way, we are looking at what your “learning style” is. Knowing what your learning style is (and working with it) is SO important. Once you understand what your learning style is, you can learn any new information in the way that best suits YOU. For example, if you are primarily a visual learner, then you will know you need to ‘see’ the information somehow. If you are an auditory learner, you recognize that you need to ‘hear’ information. And if you are a kinesthetic learner, you will know that you need to actually ‘experience’ something before you can understand it.

So, you know that it takes time and practice to learn a new language. You know that each person learns in an individual and unique way. You must be patient with yourself, and remember: while there is no shortcut to fluency, you CAN get there. You did it once; you already speak your own language fluently. Sure it’s easier to learn a new language when you’re a baby – but it’s also completely possible to do it now too!

Believe in yourself and you can do anything!

“Man is what he believes.”
Anton Chekhov (Russian playwright)

We hope that you have found this e-course helpful. Please practice the suggestions that we have made. If you do, your English will improve steadily. Remember, each day you must choose to study.

Good luck!

Maureen Bouey is an ESL teacher who travels the world teaching. She is the co-author of Smart English Grammar – Real English Listening – Intermediate with Dahlia Miller.

Studying Vocabulary

by Dahlia Miller
October 2004

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
Ingrid Bengis (Russian American author, 1915-1982)

Words are language. We communicate with words. We share knowledge with words. We learn new topics, and new languages by studying words.
Are you learning new vocabulary words now? There are many techniques to help you learn and memorize new vocabulary. Here are some:

Use the Words – Using your new vocabulary is the most important way to practise new vocabulary. If you use your new word, it will help you to remember it. If you don’t use your new word, you will probably forget it. So, use your new word as often as possible! Say the word and write the word, talk about it, listen for it.

Tell Someone About the Words – Talking about newly learned vocabulary helps to keep it in your mind. Saying the words and using them in sentences helps you to create more memories of the word.

Ask Yourself Questions About the Words – What does the word mean? What does it remind you of? Where did you learn it? What does the word sound like? When will you use this word? What letters are in this word? What is the origin of the word?

Brainstorm – Write your new vocabulary word on a page. Then write everything that reminds you of this word. Include other words, memories, phrases, drawings, synonyms, antonyms, definitions, stories - anything that reminds you of your word. Brainstorming helps your brain to make connections between the new and old information. If you are studying the word “gullible,” for example, think about where you learned it; a synonym; someone you know who was gullible; another word it sounds like; a time when you were gullible; etc. Brains are networks. When you see or hear a word, your brain searches your memory for any information connected with that word. If your brain has many connections with this word, you will remember the word quickly and easily. If there are few connections, you might not remember the word at all.

Write Definitions – Keep a vocabulary journal. Record you new word, the definition, a picture or drawing, the date, who taught you the word, synonyms, antonyms, the part of speech, etc.

Highlight Your Dictionary – As you learn new words, you can highlight your dictionary to remind yourself of the words. If you look up the same word three or four times, this will remind you to study this word again.

Prefixes/Suffixes/Roots - Studying root words, prefixes and suffixes can really help you build and expand your vocabulary. It will allow you to guess at the meanings of new words when you’re reading. For example, “supervision” is “super-” “-vis-” “-ion” or, the act of seeing/watching over.

Build Word Families – This is a great way to learn four words at once. Make a chart for yourself with five columns. Label the columns “Vocabulary,” “Noun,” “Verb,” “Adjective,” and “Adverb”. Write your new word in the first column. Include the definition of the word, a sample sentence and a sample question using the word. Then in the “Noun” column, write the noun form of the word, a sample sentence and a sample question. If the noun form has a different meaning from your original word, also write the definition. In the next columns, write the verb, adjective and adverb forms of your new word with sample sentences, questions and definitions (if necessary).

Synonyms/Antonyms – Like building word families, memorizing synonyms and antonyms for new vocabulary can help you to learn many new words at one time. Synonyms are words with similar meanings; antonyms are words with opposite meanings. Record these on a chart with definitions, sample sentences, and sample questions. You could also record these on flashcards.

Mnemonics – Mnemonics are memory tricks that help you to remember many words easily. They are easy to use and work very well. There are many interesting memory techniques. The April 2004 issue of “The Smart Connection” describes several mnemonic techniques and lists several websites with tips on using mnemonics. View it online on our website.

Flashcards – Flashcards can be a very helpful way to study new words. You can write your words on one side and the definition on the other. To make your cards more interesting, you can: use different card colours (to show different types of words, different topics, etc.); use different pen colours; draw pictures; write sample sentences; glue pictures from magazines, etc.

Record Yourself Reading the Words, Definitions and Examples – The more you say new words and hear them, the more you’ll remember them. Some people like to record themselves and listen while they sleep. Memory works most efficiently if you are paying attention, so sleep-learning may not be the most efficient method for learning new vocabulary.

Get Creative with Your New Vocabulary – Draw pictures, make collages, write songs, write poems, write stories, doodle, write the words in the sand, make up crosswords (you can build word puzzles for yourself at: Playing with your word will help you to remember it. You do not have to sing your song for anyone else, so, don’t be shy.

Use Many Senses When You Study Your Words – Use many senses and you will remember the new word more easily. For example: read the word, say the word, write the word, touch your fingers for each letter as you spell the word, walk around the room and recite the word, repeat the word as you walk.

Practise Pronunciation of the Words – You can improve your pronunciation and vocabulary at the same time. Focus on using correct pronunciation, word stress, and intonation. Watch yourself say the words in the mirror – Tape record yourself reading the words, or saying them in sentences. When you are recording or listening to the tape, pay attention to your pronunciation.

Test Yourself – You can create questions to test your skill with newly learned vocabulary. Matching style tests (matching words to definitions) are fairly easy to create.

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
Homer (800 BC – 700 BC), The Odyssey