Automaticity and Your Child's Learning Style

Automaticity is the concept of being so familiar with something that it feels like you don’t have to think about it in order to do it or use it.  For example….  Have you ever been driving in the car and felt that you didn’t even need to think about the directions to get to your destination?  That’s automaticity.  In our children’s learning lives, there are four concepts for which automaticity is a must: phonics, or the sounds of letters; and then certain math functions — specifically, addition, subtraction, and multiplication.  

In the 1980s and 1990s, we had the “Reading Wars” - a long dispute about the best way to teach children to read.  On one side were proponents of traditional methods, including phonics.  With phonics, children learn phonemes - the letter sounds - to the point that they are so ingrained in the child’s mind that the association between letter and sound becomes automatic.  The idea is that children will be able to focus on sounding out new words if they already know the letter sounds.

On the other side of the Reading Wars were supporters of the “Whole Language” movement. Whole Language emphasized “lexical reading,” or recognizing entire words and phrases, rather than using phonics to sound component parts of words.  Like phonics, though, there was a level of automaticity to Whole Language - children still had to memorize pieces to understand a whole.  

In math, automaticity has to do with having the math facts memorized and the answers automatically available when a math problem is given.  Memorizing these math facts allows them to be stored in long-term memory, thus leaving room for the child’s working memory to focus on the process of solving a math problem.  

Just like with reading, a split in opinion formed about whether memorization is the “best” learning method.  In the 1960s and 1970s, this split was most clearly seen with the rise (and quick fall) of “New Math,” then in the 1980s with the “Reform Mathematics.”  More lately, we’ve seen it in the Common Core.  These movements emphasize understanding math functions in a holistic sense, rather than by memorization of procedure and algorithms.

These splits of opinion have never truly resolved.  No one has yet found the best way for all children to learn.

The truth is: There is no “best” way for “all” children.  Each child learns differently.  Some children need to explore language and math in a more creative way.  Others are much more comfortable with practice and repetition.  Both approaches require careful guidance so that the child can develop his or her own insights in a way that is natural, comfortable, and supportive of the child.  

At Karin Diskin we spend time watching your child work with posed problems - whether it’s solving a math problem, reading a passage of literature, or building a tower with Legos.  We observe how your child approaches the issue at hand.  We offer some guidance, but - most importantly - we listen to how your child describes his or her own approach.  By doing this, we are able to hear what your child emphasizes for their own learning process.  We can then build a program that is in harmony with your child’s process, rather than forcing your child into a “one size fits all” approach.  This allows your child to flourish and to feel proud of their efforts.  

No matter which way your child learns best, we want to identify, build, and repeat a successful learning process.  The more we can do that, the more naturally your child will learn - so that their success will be automatic.


Tutoring and Test Preparation: Making A Rainbow

Tests are a part of every child's school life.  When I was a child in elementary school (so many years ago!), we took tests A LOT:  There were the usual Friday spelling tests and math quizzes, of course.  Then there were "Weekly Reader" tests in all our subject areas, plus Scholastic Reading Lab tests to progress to the next reading level.  I was very competitive with the spelling and math tests because they were public.  The Scholastic Reading Lab tests were my favorite because we were able to use a special color pencil to fill in a graph with the results.  By the mid-year point my graph looked like it had the potential to be a magnificent rainbow.

Each successive test’s results simply reinforced the picture of potential in my head.  Not everyone has the good fortune to have the opportunity to make their test results into rainbows, but we should.

We're coming up to towards the end of the school year.  This is the season of tests, and it should be a time to think of potential.  This shouldn’t be “stress” time for any of our children. Testing is an organized way to find out what a child knows and how well the child can navigate a test maker’s intention.  Some children are nonchalant about testing events, almost uncaring. Others take on the attitudes of the adults surrounding them during the testing season.  Often these adults are nervous about the test results because the adults attach their own personal accomplishment to the child’s testing outcomes.  

At Karin Diskin, we teach strategies specially tailored to each child.  For the child who appears nonchalant, we help them to learn techniques to use their energy wisely to accomplish their best at the moment of the test.  For the child who gets stressed out just thinking about testing, we teach testing strategies to lessen that anxiety.  For both types of children, the strategies are ones that they can pull out and use throughout their academic career.  

We are all confronted with many tests throughout our academic and work careers - life itself can be one big test sometimes.  Using positive strategies for these events helps to boost confidence and self-assurance, makes for better results, and helps your child to address all the "tests" in their life head on, without fear.  

Here’s an easy tip that I share with all of my students for reading tests:

Scan the questions BEFORE reading the passage or excerpt.  This helps give you the flavor of the test maker’s intent..  It also allows you to work through the passage with confidence because you won’t feel surprised by the questions at the end of the “read.”  

I always tell my students “use what you already know.”  Scanning the questions first helps you to “already know” what the test maker wants from you.  When it comes time to answer the questions, read the question again to make sure that you’ve read it completely.   Then you can be in charge of yourself rather than the test taking charge of you.

Here at Karin Diskin, we have many more strategies for successful test taking.  Call us here in Los Angeles at 310-909-4387 and schedule in-home or online tutoring sessions for test preparation and test-taking strategies.

Stumped? Your Child, Visual Memory, and Navigating New Concepts

Visual memory is an important element in learning how to read, spell, understand, use numerals, and even to develop social skills.  It helps your child to remember and interpret schoolmates’ facial expressions and gestures so that your child can learn to give the correct response.  It also helps your child to remember what a shape looks like or the formula that the teacher just wrote on the board.  See, e.g., “New study reveals visual working memory may provide clues to autism’s social struggles,” Science Daily, 2/10/16.  

Basically, visual memory is the camera inside your child’s head.  And, like a camera, when it is working well, it will produce crystal clear pictures and help your child process foundational skills in school.        

We use visual memory all the time, in all sorts of situations.  For example, back in the early 1990s, my daughter and I moved to North Carolina.  This was before GPS and cell phones.  The move went without a hitch – even our remarkably fussy mutt, Pepper, managed to survive the cross-country trip without too much trouble – but when it came to buying groceries, we were…well, lost!  I asked a neighbor how to get to the local grocery store, which was called Harris Teeter (yes, that is really the name).  I expected him to give me directions with street names and highways and so on.  

That didn’t happen.

“Well,” he drawled, “y’all go yonder down this road and bear left at the tree stump that’s all slanted at the top, and then you keep going till y’all get to the house with the blue garage door, and then y’all make a sharp right.  Y’all will get there in a piece, don’ mind the traffic.  The store’s on the right.”  

“Oooookay-dokey,” I thought, a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell one tree stump from another.  In Los Angeles, I’d always relied on the Thomas Guide to get me around town.  I understood the pages and how to locate streets and highway entrances and exits with the map’s colored grids.          

But here, in North Carolina, the directions to the grocery store depended entirely on my neighbor’s visual memory - and, eventually, on mine.               

I thanked him, and my daughter and I set out on our first adventure in North Carolina.  We had that particular adventure a few times – okay, several – before our brains were able to spot the right tree stump without a lot of effort.  Finally, though, I taught myself to navigate my new surroundings with my own visual cues – things that would be in mind’s eye to help me get from one place to another.  (The blue garage door proved elusive – we never did find it.)  
Visual memory is processed differently and more sharply by the brain than certain other senses – for example, auditory.  We’ll address listening skills in another blog post soon.  However, stimulating and utilizing visual memory is of the utmost importance for students’ success.  There’s an old Chinese proverb that says it best:  “I hear and I forget; I see, and I remember.”  Visual memory helps your child navigate through new places and concepts.  Just like me and that old tree stump.

Here are some suggestions and sites for practicing with your child to improve visual memory:

Use a deck of cards and play Concentration or Go Fish.

Play the Memory game.

Put fun items found in the home on a tray, ask your child to look at the items on the tray, cover the tray, ask your child to recite what was on the tray.
Ask your child to draw a map of his/her bedroom from memory

Here’s an excellent short presentation about using simple objects to improve visual memory:

And here’s a marvelous site with a variety of skill enhancement activities, including visual memory:

Coming Soon!

Karin Diskin is pleased to launch its new website!  We have lots of good stuff headed your way, including a blog, shop, and links for parents and students.  Our blog, The Sundial, will be updated frequently with articles geared to help parents identify and address their children's educational needs, as well as commentary on education-oriented news from around the country, and reviews of new children's literature and the latest educational gadgets, gizmos, and learning aids.  We welcome questions from our readers - write in with a question and it may be the subject of our next blog post!