The Six Minutes It Takes To Read This Will Improve The Way Your Child Learns How To Learn.
How parents can support their children with their learning at home.
As a high school teacher of almost two decades tenure, I can declare confidently that I understand how to teach children how to learn. As a parent of an 11 and 14 year old I can also declare that helping my children to learn how to learn at home is more challenging.
Pandemic-induced home learning shone a light on how difficult this can be, but even now with many children learning full time in school buildings, helping your children study for a test or even just go through what they have learned that day can be a battle.
In this first article in a series, I am going to offer some practical tips and strategies along with downloadable resources that parents can use to support their children at home and help them understand how to learn.
To be clear: this is not going to identify how to rote learn anything. Rote learning is not learning mastery.
Memorisation is short term at best and serves a one-shot test situation. This is not learning. Helping someone learn how to learn will stand them in good stead for their futures. This is because those who are motivated and can learn will be distinguishable from their peers as those that survive in a world in flux.
Learning inherently involves failure, but by supporting children in understanding the importance of a growth mindset, parents can help their children to develop resiliency and self-regulation. Learning is not a one dimensional pursuit whose goal is to ace a test. It is as much about mindset and character. This is perhaps even more significant.
How can I help my child learn how to learn?
I am going to keep this ultra practical and not make this a research-piece. I write about evidence-informed teaching and learning strategies in my other articles, so you can find such content there.
Let’s say your child needs to read a passage of text. There may be complex and new terminology, character names, steps to follow or perhaps an argument to identify. The first step the child needs to engage in is reading for understanding. In short, they need to make sense of what is in front of them.
With your child, read aloud the text. You can read more about the benefits of reading aloud in my article here. This can be done by you with them following if they are not confident or reluctant readers. In this case, they should have a copy of the text in front of them which they will follow.
Read through the whole text in one go.
I am going to reference the text below which is adapted from BBC Bitesize:
Next, you can ask your child to highlight or underline any words (names, places etc) and phrases that are unfamiliar to them. If this proves to be a significant amount of highlighting or underlining, and the child feels shame, you can offer support by telling them that some of these are new to you too and it is great that you are going to find out about them together. Children can only learn when they feel as though they are in a psychologically safe space.
This first step can feel like a risk to them as they can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, so kindness is key here…and be kind to yourself too because you may find, as I do, that the more I support my children with their school work, the more I realise where the gaps are in my knowledge of some subjects.
If you find that there are few unfamiliar words and phrases, you can skip to Step Three.
Now the challenges of the text are out in the open, processing can begin. This needs to be piecemeal to avoid overwhelm.
There are 6 fragments of text to explore. Each one should be tackled individually. If the text your child is processing is not broken down, you should help them break down the text into manageable chunks. Just bracket off three to four sentences at a time.
Let’s take the first fragment:
You may need to look up some points you and your child are unfamiliar with. A map would work well in this first instance — visualising this location will help to understand its importance to the French and the battle itself.
In doing this you are showing them that there is no shame in not knowing something immediately (or not remembering it if it has already been covered in class) and there are simple ways to look up unfamiliar content.
Knowing how and having the confidence to locate information is central to self-regulation and metacognitive skills; both essential for learning how to learn.
In the second instance, the notion of ‘psychological loss’ can be explored by asking what might be a symbolic loss in your community or for their school. This personalises the idea being conveyed in the text and helps the child make meaning of something that at first glance is quite abstract for them.
This breaking down of the content can be continued in the same way throughout the text, until the text is processed. This is learning how to learn.
Now that the text has been processed for meaning, it needs to be summarised as a whole. What you have done so far is zoom in and now you are zooming out. This is a great way to process information and learn how to learn.
Now you can ask, ‘What do you think the text is about? Your child may offer descriptive points which you can then question to see if there are any misunderstandings.
Here is a possible exchange:
Parent: What do you think the text is about?
Child: It’s about a Battle.
Parent: Why did it happen?
Child: Because France wanted to protect Verdun because it was important to them so Britain helped them.
Parent: How did the British army help France and protect Verdun?
Child: They used lots of explosives and bombs and walked across No Man’s Land.
Parent: How do you think that felt?
Child: Really frightening.
Parent: The British were in for a surprise though, can you explain what happened?
Child: They thought they had destroyed the German trenches but when they walked across, they realised they hadn’t and the German soldiers were still alive and opened fire killing thousands of British soldiers.
Parent: So, if you had to tell a much younger person what the Battle of the Somme was about, what would you say?
Child: I would say it was a battle that was a disaster. So many British soldiers died trying to defend Verdun because it was important for the French and they did not want to lose it to the Germans. The British used lots of bombs to try to destroy the German trenches. They hoped they had killed all of the German soldiers but they didn’t and once the British soldiers had gone over the top into No Man’s Land, the Germans opened fire, killing tens of thousands of British soldiers.
At this point, the text has been processed and the child may have to answer some comprehension questions to demonstrate to the teacher their understanding of the text. Perhaps there is a poster task, comic strip or other task that is required.
It doesn’t matter what they have to do next, because without guiding your child through the three foundational steps, learning is going to be surface level at best and incomplete at worst.
What I find happens when these initial steps are missed out of the learning process is the child may attempt some comprehension questions by just trying to match words in the question to the text and simply copying out what they believe is the ‘right’ answer.
Follow me for the next instalment in this series where I offer step by step strategies to help you support your child learn how to learn at home.