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.