Category Archives: Education

Tips to Build Background Knowledge

e2The question then becomes, how do we build children’s background knowledge? Core reading materials often encourage us to activate, support, build on, and tie to children’s existing knowledge base. But what do we do when there is no existing knowledge base? Or when there is little to build on? If you asked us, for example, to read an elementary physics text building on our previous knowledge base of physics, you would likely see blank stares, akin to a deer in headlights.

This issue becomes even more complicated in the age of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The CCSS place a premium on the amount of background knowledge we provide to children prior to reading a text. It’s not that the standards negate background knowledge or its contribution to comprehension; rather, the authors of the publishers’ guidance to the CCSS emphasize close reading, developing knowledge through text, regarding the deliberate and careful analysis of text as the gateway for developing independent readers (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers,2010).

Although at times, this clash of perspectives might seem like a catch-22, the problem is solvable. Teachers can effectively build children’s background knowledge early on (Neuman & Wright, 2013). However, at the same time, we must recognize that knowledge is not just accumulating facts; rather, children need to develop knowledge networks, comprised of clusters of concepts that are coherent, generative, and supportive of future learning in a domain. Here’s how we do it:

– Begin by teaching words in categories. For example, you can try something as simple as this: “I’m going to say the following words:strawberries, bananas, papayas, pineapples. They all are a type of… (fruit).” Categories of objects begin to develop concepts, and the use of generic nouns (fruit) has been shown to be highly related to language and vocabulary development.
– Use contrasts and comparisons. For example, you can give children puzzlers like, “Is an artichoke a type of fruit? Why is it or is it not a kind of fruit?” Puzzlers help children think outside the immediate context and consider the reasoning behind these contrasts and comparisons, which can further their understanding of categories and concepts.
– Use analogies. An analogy is another type of comparison, but this time the comparison is made between two things that are usually thought to be different from each other. Analogies help children build knowledge because they compare something new to something we already know. For example, try something like, “bird is to feather as dog is to… (fur).” Children can use similes (comparisons using the words like or as) or metaphors (comparisons without using like or as) to build new knowledge.
– Encourage topic-focused wide reading. Reading builds knowledge, but wide reading has typically been interpreted as reading about a lot of different topics, demonstrating breadth rather than depth in reading. Try this variation: Encourage children to identify an interest and read as many books as they can on one topic. What you find is that children will develop a deeper knowledge and expertise on a topic. These interests will drive children to read more.
– Embrace multimedia. We often think that direct experiences are the most compelling ways to build knowledge. As many teachers can attest, there is nothing more thrilling than watching children engage in learning through direct experiences or seeing their delight and excitement on field trips and other activities. Although it is certainly not a replacement for real-life experiences, multimedia can often provide a wealth of information that we could only wish to experience firsthand. Further, it can introduce children to important words and concepts in a highly motivating way and build a shared knowledge base among all of your students.


The importance of background knowledge is especially salient in the age of Common Core. To meet the demands of these new standards, children will be expected to develop knowledge through text, both narrative and informational, within specified difficulty ranges at each grade level. Informational text, in particular, is likely to have a greater density of conceptual language and academic terms than typical storybooks or narrative texts. Consequently, these texts will place increasing demands on children’s prior knowledge, further attenuating other risk factors.

Without greater efforts to enhance background knowledge, differences in children’s knowledge base may further exacerbate the differences in children’s vocabulary and comprehension. The imperative to foster children’s background knowledge as a means for providing a firm foundation for learning, therefore, is greater than ever.

Tips to Choose Read Aloud Books for Babies to Third Graders

e1How do you choose books to read aloud with your child? There are many things to think about: how interesting the topic or characters might be for your child; an intriguing setting, time period, or plot; the liveliness or beauty of the language; or how engaging the illustrations are. Some books are more appropriate based on social and emotional development at each stage of a young child’s life. Find guidance here in choosing great read alouds.

It’s never too early to start reading to young children. Babies and toddlers are listeners, building their vocabulary before they can even talk.

What to look for in choosing books for babies and toddlers:
Brightly colored pictures of simple objects.
Simple texts, rhyming, and repetition.
Books that introduce colors, shapes, counting, and letters.
Lift-the-flap and sturdy pop-up books to encourage exploration.
Board books and cloth books — perfect for young hands to manipulate.
See some of our favorite read alouds for babies and toddlers

Read alouds for preschoolers

Preschoolers are aquiring language skills quickly. They enjoy the sound of language — even nonsensical words — and a good laugh; after all, they’re developing a sense of humor!

What to look for in choosing books for preschoolers:

Bright, big illustrations.
Simple stories with basic plots.
Books that help answer a preschooler’s “why?” questions about their world.
Rhyming text, including the classics like Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss.
Classic stories with universal themes such as friendship and generosity.
Activity books that encourage exploration, observation, and play.
Bedtime stories to calm preschoolers after their busy days!
See some of our favorite read alouds for preschoolers >

Read alouds for kindergarteners

Kindergarteners — they’re growing up, and so is their taste in books. They’re developing empathy and relationships with other children.

What to look for in choosing books for kindergarteners:
Titles that explore kid interests, expand horizons, and offer exposure to different kinds of writing.
Stories that let them see how characters in different situations behave toward others.
Engaging informational texts with lots of colorful photographs or illustrations that help kindergartners build knowledge about the world.
Cumulative tales full of built-in anticipation, like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.
Longer stories or chapter books with thematically rich issues that lead to discussion and reflection.
See some of our favorite read alouds for kindergarteners >

Read alouds for first graders

First grade is when many children begin to read independently. But reading aloud with first graders remains not only a pleasurable but an important activity.

What to look for in choosing books for first graders:
Rich language — words and phrases that deliver complex meaning and imagery.
Stories with more complex plots that spark a desire to predict and learn what happens next.
Books that relate to the experiences of a first grader and feature characters similar in age.
Narrative nonfiction that’s full of fascinating facts yet reads like a story.
Silly stories and poems that have fun with words and sounds.
See some of our favorite read alouds for first graders >

Read alouds for second graders

Second graders are expanding their interests and putting ideas together in new ways. Books — timeworn or new, fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose — shared aloud allow both adult and child to explore the world together.

What to look for in choosing books for second graders:
Old favorites — second graders may want to read the same book many times, even though you may have thought they’d outgrown it.
Characters dealing with the same fears, interests, and concerns that they experience.
Nonfiction genres that introduce second graders to biography, history, and real stories of nature and science.
Picture books that lead you to chapter books, such as Diary of a Spider and Charlotte’s Web.
Chapter books to read aloud that are rich in detail and above independent reading level.
See some of our favorite read alouds for second graders >

Read alouds for third graders

Empathy, experience, vocabulary, and a love of language continue to grow long after third graders can read by themselves.

What to look for in choosing books for third graders:
Books that tackle tough topics and lead to discussion that helps kids cope with daily challenges.
Characters they can relate to and learn from.
Stories that keep your read aloud lively and interactive and lead to lots of conversation.
Picture books that build knowledge and support connections to the complexities of the world around them.

Things You Should Know Before Making Colleges Take

It’s no secret that impressive grades, glowing recommendations, and above-average test scores are essential components of a successful college application. But increasingly, these basics don’t seem to be enough. With the college admissions process becoming more and more competitive, some students are using an arsenal of unique tactics to get themselves noticed. College applicants have been known to tuck cartoons, poems, videos, and even boxes of baked goods into the packages they send out to schools. One high school senior got her into her top choice of school last year—Connecticut’s Trinity College—by waxing lyrical about her love of milk. Yes, milk.

The bad news is that a ploy that seems witty to a teenager will likely seem trite to an experienced admissions officer. Sending in a shoe to help a student get “one foot in the door” is old hat. So is attaching a balloon to an essay to make it “rise to the top of the pile.” And according to Scott Ham, the former Admissions Dean of Northwestern University, if your child is thinking about turning her essay into jigsaw puzzle pieces that a reviewer has to put together—well, she’s not the only one. Ham, one of ten former admissions officers who writes freely about his experiences in a book titled “The New Rules of College Admissions,” also remembers several essays that arrived written in backwards letters, accompanied by a mirror. None of these students, explains Ham, got in.

While gimmicks can occasionally be charming, it’s more common for them to backfire. Here are three more effective steps you and your child can take to make colleges sit up and take notice.

Employ Sincerity, Not Stunts Peter Van Buskirk is the founder of the website “The Admissions Game” and the former dean of admissions at Franklin Marshall college. He’s made it his mission to help kids and their parents navigate the sometimes baffling college application process. One of Van Buskirk’s key words for students is authenticity. The best essays he encountered as an admissions officer, he says, were those that made him feel he could “connect to the student.” In other words, having a strong voice that shines through in a personal statement matters as much as polished prose or an impressive vocabulary. While parents can offer advice, Van Buskirk cautions that the writing “must be owned by the student,” and that an application “can go awry when a parent goes overboard.”

Feel free to help brainstorm unique or unusual experiences and accomplishments—then step out of the way. Let your teenager figure out the best way to demonstrate his or her personality in writing.

Passion Counts “Colleges don’t want 500 kids who look the same, act the same, and think the same,” says Van Buskirk. They’re looking for freshmen who will enrich their communities in diverse ways. That’s why “if a student has a talent, they need to reveal that talent.” A violinist who spends 20 hours a week practicing should include a CD of her performances. A budding artist should send along a carefully edited slide collection showcasing his work. Even if your child doesn’t intend to choose a major that’s specific to their talent, Van Buskirk says these pieces of evidence are still relevant to colleges. They demonstrate the kind of passion admissions officers want to see in their incoming class.

One thing Van Buskirk does caution against sending in is a resume. Many admissions officers, he says, “regard the resume as redundant and will dismiss it.” Instead, they want to see how students use the space on the application form itself to showcase their accomplishments.

Show Them You’re Serious Don’t forget that the application process is risky for schools, too. To fill the spots in their freshman class, every college needs to focus on applicants who will accept its offers of admission. As a result, says Van Buskirk, “demonstrated interest is a factor.” His advice for students is to make as many documented contacts with colleges as possible. If an admissions representative visits your child’s school, for instance, remind him or her to fill out an information card. That simple step will open up a file at the college with your child’s name on it. A student can also indicate interest by sending a short email to the college representative who recruits at their school, asking a specific question about the university’s offerings or its application process. Most importantly, says Van Buskirk, students “absolutely need to visit campuses,” go to the admissions office, and—again—fill out an information card that shows they were there. While students are visiting, Van Buskirk also encourages them to ask for an interview. “Nobody’s ever died from an interview,” he says—and requesting one is another way for an applicant to impress upon a school that they’re serious about attending.

Know More The Math Classes Teen Needs for College Success

With record numbers of high school students applying for fewer spaces at top universities, presenting a strong transcript is more important than ever. By choosing the right classes, students build a case for their academic ability. But which classes are these? It can be a confusing issue, especially when it comes to math, because of the multiple levels and courses offered today. So which math classes are essential for getting into a good college?

There’s no doubt about the preliminary math classes that college-bound students need to take. Both public schools such as the University of California Berkeley and private schools such as Notre Dame list the following courses as requirements for eligibility:

– Algebra
– Geometry
– Algebra II

But how much more math do students really need? One thing is for sure: top colleges are looking for students who take math all the way through their senior year. Beyond that, requirements get hazy, and college admissions websites can be vague. For instance, Princeton University’s website states that applicants should have “four years of mathematics (including calculus for students interested in engineering.)” While this is clear for future engineers, it leaves everyone else wondering if they need calculus, too.

To find out more about what colleges are looking for, we spoke to Tom Abeyta, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Oberlin College. Oberlin is a highly selective liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio. The college aims for a well-rounded class by drawing on a holistic review process of each applicant, but the high school transcript is still the piece in which they invest the most time. Abeyta says that academics are ‘huge’. The admissions office looks closely at the degree of rigor in a schedule. Most of the students who are admitted have completed four years of math in high school, through a minimum of Pre-Calculus. The majority completed Calculus.

Based on these facts, a student who plans to apply to a selective college should try to include the following classes in her schedule:

AP Calculus (AB or BC)
Math teacher and SAT expert Gregg Whitnah explains why it’s important to aim for calculus: “Students keep the admissions door open when they take as much math as possible.” The best way to fit these classes in is to start Algebra in the 8th grade. Alternatively, some high schools allow concurrent enrollment of Geometry and Algebra or Geometry and Algebra II. In addition, there’s always summer school and community college.

What if your child plans to continue in math or engineering?
Students who are interested in engineering or science often finish Calculus during their junior year. In that case, they should enroll in a senior-year course like AP Statistics, AP Computer Science, or Multi-Variable Calculus. According to Whitnah, “It’s important to paint a picture of yourself, separate yourself.” And if you love math and science, it’s vital to demonstrate that through the classes you choose.

What if your child isn’t math-oriented?
Will not taking Calculus sabotage a student’s chances to get into college? This is where the picture gets murkier. It’s true that the more academic a student appears to be, the better chance he has of getting into a college. But what if math is difficult for a child, and he thrives on English and History?

Oberlin’s Abeyta gives parents this advice: “It’s best for students to take challenging courses that they prefer to take. No selective college likes to see a ‘C’ on a transcript.” So if you suspect that your child will really struggle with Calculus, it might be better to find a different path. In that case, where is there to go after Algebra II?

Pre-Calculus or its Alternative
If an honors level of Pre-Calculus is offered, students can be assured that the regular level is still a strong course. And some schools offer a Pre-Calculus equivalent, called Trigonometry or Analytic Geometry. As long as it meets the A-G requirements for the UC system, it’s a good class to take.

Statistics is a form of math that appeals to people who like writing and explaining. AP Statistics is considered to be a strong math course by most colleges. An outstanding grade in AP Statistics would look better on a transcript than a weak grade in AP Calculus.

It’s important to have some AP courses on your transcript if your high school offers them. Therefore, students should balance a less-rigorous math class with liberal arts courses like AP History, AP English, AP Spanish, or AP Psychology.
All colleges are looking for a high school transcript that presents a student who took advantage of the best courses offered at his school. Therefore, a child should take as many academic classes as he can handle with aplomb. But it’s also important to remember that undue amounts of stress are destructive, and that there will always be a good-fit college for a student as long as he meets the basic eligibility requirements by taking Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II.

The Best Tips to Get Into College

Getting into college is as competitive as ever, and will most likely be one of the most challenging tasks your teen has faced thus far. There is research to be done, applications to fill out, recommendations to get, plus the stress of waiting for acceptance letters. Here are some tactics and tips your teen can use to make all this work go a little farther towards getting into college.

Be aware that not all of these guidelines will be right for your child, and all of them together would be overkill. When you sit down with your child to come up with a plan of action for getting into college, try on some of these ideas and see which ones stick.

– Plan your four year high school curriculum as a freshman. The courses your teen takes are the most important components of her record. They also affect how her SAT and ACT scores are viewed. If a student’s courses are less impressive than her scores, colleges read that as a sign that a student isn’t willing to challenge herself. The process of beefing out your transcript begins in the seventh or eighth grade, when middle school track students into tiered math groups. Encourage your child to stay in the highest math track she can handle. Even more important than how that looks on the transcript, the fast track will help your child on the SATs and ACTs, and also give her better access to courses in the sciences.
– It’s better to take Advanced Placement courses and get B’s than get A’s in standard courses. This may sound counterintuitive, but the fact is students learn more in honors courses, and that’s the first thing a college admissions officer looks at. They don’t care much about weighted G.P.A.’s. They look at the courses themselves and make their own determination on how well you did.
– Know what academic subjects interest you the most The colleges, as well as your teen’s teachers, care most about his level of genuine academic interest. Your teen doesn’t have to like everything; find at least one subject that turns him on. That said, the subjects most valued by the colleges are: English, History, Philosophy, Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and foreign languages. These are the courses they look for on your transcript. They want those good writing courses, a good follow through in Math, and a strong finish in either the sciences or foreign languages. Above all, be as interested as possible.
– If you are a student with learning issues, take the extended timed SAT’s or ACT’s. Those scores are valued on a par with regular test scores. If you have good grades and un-timed scores, you will be in good shape. Then it will depend on how advanced your classes are in each subject to determine how competitive you can be. For the colleges that have special programs for students with learning disadvantages, you usually have to get into the college through the regular admissions process.
– Don’t grade grub. Show the teacher that you are genuinely interest in learning about, or improving your skills in, a subject, and not just about getting high marks. Ask the teacher what you can read on your own. Don’t make every one-on-one conversation with your teacher about grades.
– Plan ahead for your classes. Your teen should be ready to add to every class discussion. Encourage him to think not so much what he can get out of a class, but about how much he can contribute.
– Get solid teacher recommendations. College admissions people need to satisfy their professors by putting people in their classrooms they are going to like to teach. That’s one reason teacher recommendations are so important. If the colleges ask for two letters, but your child has more, that’s fine. Admissions officers value teacher letters more than any others, and will usually read them all.