Friday 1 June 2012

What is Cellulose?

Ok, so I cheated a bit with the title here, as none of my children have directly asked me what cellulose is. However, a little while ago I wrote a post called Why are Apples Crunchy? and I wasn't entirely satisfied with the answer I gave Garden Girl. A friend of mine, having read this post, came to my assistance and I was able to tell Garden Girl that apples are crunchy because they contain cellulose.

All plants and animals are made up of a bunch of cells. People are made up of millions of cells. When these cells are all bundled together they make a person, or a plant. They are a little bit like lego pieces, in that when they are fixed together they can make lots of different things. Cells are very clever because they can do lots of things, such as taking in all the good stuff we eat and turning it into energy. so we can run about. Plant cells do things like absorbing sunlight so a plant can grow and they give leaves their shape.

Cellulose, is the thing that makes cells rigid (hard). Plant cells have a wall around them and this wall has cellulose in it. The cellulose on the wall makes it hard and crunchy. The crunchier the vegetable or fruit, the more cellulose there is in the cell wall. So apples are crunchier than bananas because they contain more cellulose.

If you want to learn more about cellulose my friend found a really useful link on the website, here.

And, to find out more about cells, have a look here.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

What is the Diamond Jubilee?

Garden Girl is given a piece of 'talk homework' every week. She is basically given a topic to talk about with us and then she writes down all the interesting things she finds out to hand in at school. This week is no surprise when the topic was the Diamond Jubilee. This is what we found out...

  • The Diamond Jubilee is a celebration for our Queen, Queen Elizabeth II, because she has been Queen for 60 years.
  • 60 Years is a very long time to rule a country and that is why it is something we will celebrate. 
  • Only one other Queen ruled England for 60 years and that was Queen Victoria. Her Diamond Jubilee was over 100 years ago.
  • No English King has served as Monarch for 60 years. (Monarch is a word we use to refer to ruling Kings and Queens).
  • Queen Elizabeth II was 25 years old when she became Queen. There was a big celebration at Westminster Abbey, called a Coronation. At this celebration the Queen wore her crown for the first time.
  • All over Britain people will be having parties to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee. There will be street parties, picnics in parks and fun events and activities, all held in honour of our Queen.
  • Over 2000 beacons (small fires) will be lit across Britain and other countries with links to Britain to celebrate the Jubilee. 
  • Beacons used to be lit to communicate over long distances. People from neighbouring towns and villages could signal to each other using small fires which can be seen over long distances.
  • We no longer need to use beacons to signal to each other, so they are now used to show friendship and unity across the country. Each beacon that is lit, is a symbol of friendship between the people of Britain and beyond and a show of support for our Queen.
Garden Girl wanted to know why only two Monarchs had managed to rule for 60 years so I told her that in the past, Kings and Queens did not live as long because they did have the same medicinces or knowledge about health that we have today. In history, there were also a lot of people who wanted to be King or Queen. Sometimes they would fight a King or Queen so that they could take the crown and rule the country themselves. One King, King Edward VIII, stopped being King because he fell in love with a woman whom he wanted marry more than he wanted to be King. When a Monarch chooses not to remain King or Queen, is is called abdicating.

The next question Garden girl asked me was how a King or Queen is chosen. A new King or Queen must belong to the same family as the current King or Queen. Usually it is the eldest son of a King or Queen, so Prince Charles, is the eldest son of Queen, so he will be King after Queen Elizabeth. If, for any reason the eldest son does not become King, then the next eldest son will become King. Only if there are no sons, does a daughter become Queen. Queen Elizabeth II became Queen because she had no older or younger brothers.

If I were a Queen (I can dream!), it would be Garden Boy that would become ruler after me, even though Garden Girl is older, because boys are always chosen before girls. Garden Girl thought this was very unfair. I told her they were considering changing this rule to let the eldest child become ruler, whether they are a girl or boy, so it is possble she will be see another piece of Royal history in the making. 'I hope they do', was her response.

There is a lot of really interesting information on the Official Diamond Jubilee website, here.  It really is worth a look. I suspect we will be revisiting this website quite a few time over the coming weekend!

Enjoy your Diamond Jubilee Celebrations!

Monday 28 May 2012

How to Choose a Good Counting and Numeracy Book

There are lots of books available that help young children learn to count. The important thing when learning how to count is repetition and practice and books let children practice their counting skills without them really knowing they are doing it.

Here are some of the things you should look our for when you are choosing a good numeracy book for young children:
  • The story and illustrations should be just as engaging and enjoyable as any other picture book you enjoy with your child, otherwise neither you, nor your children, will want to return to it.
  • Choose counting books that display the numerical form of numbers clearly. It is just as important for children to learn how to recognise numbers, as it is for them to learn how to count.
  • Look for books where the items to be counted are scattered across a page in a non-uniform pattern, or are hidden amongst other objects. This will give them good practice at hard counting.
  • If your child is a reluctant counter, look for character books that will engage them. Flaps, knobbly bits, noisy buttons and holes for fingers are also a good way to get your child actively involved in the book.
  • Don't forget that early maths is about more than just numbers. Shapes and organising objects by size are an important part of the early foundation stage curriculum so look for books that introduce these topics as well.
  • Look for books that will grow with your child. Are there opportunities for your child to do simple addition or subtraction with the book or does it help children learn how numbers are applied, such as telling the time or measuring things?
Browse the shelves, read through the books with your children in the shop before your buy. Our local bookshop has an area for reading with children and any decent bookshop will be happy to see you engaging your children in the choosing process. The real test of any children's book is whether or not your child enjoys it! But if you want somewhere to start, here are some of the counting and numeracy books we have particularly enjoyed.

Ten Little Ladybirds by Melanie Gerth and Laura Huliska-Beith
Ten Friendly Frogs by Sally Hobson

These books have bumpy, raised ladybirds and frogs on the pages that my little ones love to touch and count. Because they want to touch them so much they won't let me point and count. They insist on doing it themselves. The text is also engaging, with simple rhymes. Large numbers appear on each page so the children can learn what the numbers look like, as well as counting them.They also introduce the idea of subracting one from a number, as the books count down. Our copies of these books are falling apart at the spine because they have been so well used. In fact, Garden Lass has just run away with them and is counting frogs as I type!

Counting Colours by Roger Priddy

This is my favourite counting book and is one to use when your children can confidently count to ten. Each double page is covered with a mix of objects of the same colour. The child needs to find 9 blueberries amongst all the other blue objects, or 6 purple dresses amongst all the other purple objects. It is harder than you might think, but a fantastic way of getting them to count objects, rather than just reciting numbers. All the objects are of different sizes so we also use the book to find the biggest goldfish on the page, or the smallest apple. Being able to order objects by size is one of the things your child will learn in the foundation stage so this is a really useful book to help them.

Count with Thomas, A Lift the Flap Book

Garden Boy still enjoys reading this book and will often pick it up himself to look through. This is mainly due to that fact that it is character themed and if you are struggling to get your children counting, a counting book based around their favourite TV characters is a real incentive for them. I like this one in particular because when they have counted the objects they lift the flap to reveal a clear number, which helps them learn what the numbers they have counted look like. Recognising numbers is as important as being able to count, so good number books will show children clearly what they look like.

Nursery Time with Winnie-the-Pooh, A First Lift the Flap Book

This book has been a popular choice for all three of my children and has much more in it than just counting. There are flaps about colours, recognising shadows and fun rhymes. There is a double page of flaps with things to count. When your child lifts the flap they reveal the number in its numerical and written form and as children always lift the flaps this is a great way of familiarising them with the numbers. There is also a great bit in the book which describes what Pooh oes at different times of the day and I use this with Garden Girl, who in reception is just being introduced to the way we tell time. We have dipped into this book at various stages with all three children and they all continue to use it, enabled by the fact they have not grown out of the characters.

We All Went on Safari by Laurie Krebs and Julia Cairns

This book is beautifully illustrated and is a joy to share with my children. They love counting the animals and whilst Garden Girl is now beyond books which only count up to ten, she continues to love this book, both for the story and illustrations, but also for the fact that it introduces uses the idea that in other parts of the world people use different words for numbers. She loves learning how to count in Swahili and the book does tell you how to pronounce the Swahili words which helps me!

The Ants go Marching, illustrated by Dan Crisp

Whilst we have been reading the rhyme in this book for a long time, we have only just started to use it with Garden Girl to illustrate the idea of multiplication. It is a lovely book to introduce the idea of 'repeated addition' and Garden Girl is always impressed when there are ten rows of ten ants covering a page. It is a charming book to help explain a difficult concept.

If you have any brilliant numeracy books you would like to recommend, let me know. We love discovering new books!

Saturday 26 May 2012

Why are Ladybirds Called Ladybirds?

Garden Boy frequently asks me why things are called what they are and most of the time, a name is just a name for no particular reason. However, Ladybirds were reportedly named after the Virgin Mary. Our native Ladybird is red, with seven spots, the link being that the Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing a red cloak. The seven spots of a ladybird represent the seven sorrows and seven joys of Mary. The Virgin Mary is often referred to as 'Our Lady', hence 'Ladybird'. The 'bird' part of the name, I can only assume comes from the fact that ladybirds have wings and can fly.

When I passed this on to Garden Boy I simply told him that Jesus' mother, Mary is shown, in lots of pictures and statues, wearing a red cloak, just like a Ladybird. People frequently call, Jesus' mother 'Our Lady' and so the name Lady was given to the bug because it reminded people of Jesus' mother and her red cloak. And the bird bit is there because a ladybird has wings and can fly like a bird.

I refrained from mentioning the seven sorrows and joys as I didn't want further questions about the sorrows, but had he gone on to ask about the spots I think I would have told him that seven sad things and seven really fantastic things happened to Mary and the seven spots remind people of these. 

There are lots more interesting facts about Ladybirds on the UK Ladybird Survey website here.

Thursday 24 May 2012

The Magic 'e'

In phonics, vowels are usually pronounced like this:

a as in cat
e as in bet
i as in fit
o as in hot
u as in hum

However, there are many words in which they are actually pronounced like their letter names (that is the way they are pronounced when you recite the alphabet). One of the occasions this happens is when a syllable has an 'e' on the end.

For words with one syllable, whenever there is an 'e' at the end of the word, the preceding vowel is pronounced like its letter name, rather than phonetically. For example,

a-e: gate
e-e: these
i-e: mine
o-e: cone
u-e: tune

The rule also applies where there is an 'e' at the end of a syllable within a word, such as spaceman, where the 'e' at the end of 'space' changes the preceding 'a' to its alphabet pronunciation.

In addition to changing the sound of the preceding vowel, the 'e' in these circumstances becomes silent.

I explained the rule to Garden Girl by telling her that an 'e' at the end of a word, or syllable, has magic powers. It can make a vowel earlier in a word, change sound. The vowel always changes to its alphabet sound. The 'e' then makes its own sound disappear. So, when you are reading a word with a magic 'e' on the end, you never need to sound out the 'e'. Similarly, I told Garden Boy the magic 'e' was a naughty alien.

Garden Boy has picked up on this rule much faster than Garden Girl, mainly because he loves the idea of a naughty alien changing sounds, but with a simple prompt such as 'Look at the end of the word - what do you see?' Garden Girl will usually manages to work it out. They both currently need prompting to break words down into their syllables and look at the last letter of the syllable, but I know that by prompting them to work it out themselves each time, they will eventually begin to recognise the rule.

I have also told them both that if they have sounded out a word and it doesn't sound quite right, try changing the vowel sound to its alphabet sound. It isn't always the reason the word doesn't sound right, but more often than not it is the reason, so it is always worth a try. I prompt them with the question, 'What might you try changing?' and they take it from there. This is a more general rule but one that is easier to apply and remember by a 3 and 5 year old.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Why Are Apples Crunchy?

I'm not sure I have really managed to answer this question, although I have satisfied Garden Girl with an answer of sorts. The actual question Garden Girl asked was 'Why are apples crunchy and bananas soft?' and I couldn't really find out why the two fruits have different textures. This is what I told Garden Girl...

Apples and bananas are fruits. A fruit is part of a plant or tree and is there for two reasons.

1. Whilst the seeds of a plant, or tree, are developing, a fruit protects them from animals, birds and the weather.

2.When the seed is ready to grow into a plant of its own, the fruit helps the seed disperse. That is, the fruit helps the seed find somewhere suitable to grow.

While they are growing, seeds are in danger of being eaten by animals and birds, or of being damaged by the weather. However animals (and humans) do not want to eat fruit until they are ripe. Thus a fruit does not become fully ripe, until the seed is ready. The fleshy part of the fruit, the bit we eat, grows around the seeds to stop birds and animals getting at them and to stop the seeds getting damaged. If an apple gets hit, the skin and flesh is bruised but the seeds stay safe. The soft part of a banana, similarly protects the seeds inside.

There are lots of different kinds of fruit. Some, like apples and bananas, have juicy flesh to protect the seeds. Some, like peas, have pods to protect the seeds inside. Some, like nuts have hard, dry shells to protect the seeds inside. Conkers and sweet chestnuts have a prickly fruit to protect them. 

When the seed is ready to grow into a new plant or tree, the fruit ripens. The fruit no longer needs to protect the seed. It must now find a way to spread the seed. Instead of trying to protect the seed from animals, the fruits now want to be eaten. Apples and bananas change colour to attract birds and animals.Now that they are ripe, the fruits have the flavour and texture which will make people and animals enjoy eating them.

Birds and animals cannot digest the seeds, so when they have eaten the fruit, the seeds pass through the body and come out with the poo. Animals poo in the soil where the seed can grow into a new plant. And even better than that, the animal poo acts as a fertilizer to help the seed grow, in the same way that we use manure and compost in the garden to help our vegetables grow. So apples are crunchy and bananas are soft because this is the way animals and people like to eat them.

Other seeds are scattered by the wind. Dandelions have little parachutes so they can float away and sycamore seeds have wings so they can fly away from the parent tree to a suitable growing place. When pea pods split open the seeds burst onto the ground ready to grow into a new plant. Spiky fruits will stick to the fur of animals as they pass by, dropping off sometime later, hopefully somewhere where the seed has room to grow.

So, back to the original question and I guess the answer is that apples have a crunchy, juicy flesh because this is the best protection for seeds, against the particular animals and weather to which an apple tree will be exposed. A crunchy texture is also the most appealing to people and animals who want to eat the fruit and thus help spread the seeds.  

Bananas are soft for the same reason. Banana bushes grow in different weather conditions to apple trees and are exposed to different animals, thus a soft fruit offers the best protection for seeds against these animals and conditions. When the fruit is ripe, a soft banana offers a more appealing texture to the animals and people that want to eat them.

Garden Girl seemed happy with this explantion but I am a little bit curious about what it is that makes an apple crunchy. Is it the amount of water that apples contains? Is a banana softer because it contains more starch? I really don't know and I failed to find anything useful in library books or on the internet, so if anyone knows the physical reason for why an apple is crunchy and a banana is soft, please let us know.

If you want to learn more about fruit we found these books really useful:

Flowers, Fruits and Seeds (Plants) by Angela Royston

Flowers and Seeds (World of Plants) by Carrie Branigan and Richard Dunne

However, there seemed to be quite a few books about fruit and seeds in our local library so if you can't get hold of these ones there is bound to be something useful.


Friday 27 April 2012

Counting in Tens

Garden Girl wanted to count to 100 but didn't quite have the patience to get there. She stumbled whenever she reached 29, 39, 49 etc because she didn't know what came next. She was trying numbers such as 'twenty tenty,' and 'thirty twenty tenty', so I thought I would teach her to count in tens so she would know these numbers.

I started with repetiton, repeating the numbers over and over, asking her to say them after me. Ten, Twenty, Thirty, Forty, Fifty, Sixty, Seventy, Eighty, Ninety, One Hundred. She loved how quickly we reached one hundred and soon became familiar with the numbers, although she sometimes got them in the wrong order or missed one out. Now that she was familiar with the sound of the numbers however, I started to explain comparisons with one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.

I asked her to hold her fingers up and explained the following:

When you count in tens each finger has ten tiny fairies sitting on it, so every finger is really ten fairies and not one finger.

One is the first number, Ten is the first ten, so one finger is ten fairies.
Two begins with the sound 't'. So does 'twenty', so two fingers make twenty fairies.
Three begins with the sound 'th'. So does 'thirty', so three fingers make thirty fairies.
I went on to point out how forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty and ninety all start with the same sound as four, five, six, seven, eight and nine.

All Garden Girl needs to do to count is tens is hold up a finger, say the number in ones and then find the ten that matches. She picked this up surprisingly quickly but she was familiar with all the tens before she started doing this. She knew all the words, just needed to put them in the right order. To keep it fresh in her mind we count in tens on the way to school every morning. It takes less than a minute, but by doing it every day she is starting to know the order without having to think about it.

It is also important to make sure she is aware what she is doing when she counts in tens, which is why I ask her to imagine ten tiny fairies on each finger. In this way she knows that with every finger she is adding a group of ten fairies onto the previous ten fairies. We occasionally use buttons to do the same thing, counting out ten groups of ten buttons and then counting each group in tens. Just being able to recite the numbers is not enough.

Your child needs to understand what it means to count in tens, what it looks like and that with each number you say, you are adding on ten single objects. Doing this visually, with ten groups of ten objects is the most effective way of explaining this. They will need to keep doing it to understand and remember, but only do it once each day or it will become boring. Whilst we count in tens every day, we look at groups of objects when we have a spare five minutes at a weekend. Garden Girl is more interested in reading and writing than numbers so this is enough for her, but if your child is interested in numbers, willing and you have the time, do it every day. The more they do it, the more they will understand and remember.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

c, ck or k at the End of a Word

Garden Girl enjoys writing stories and she uses her knowledge of phonics to spell words, so when it came to the 'c' sound she was using any of the options based on what she fancied using at that time. She had no system for distinguishing which type of 'c' to use, so I suggested this rule to her. The rule is to help her choose which 'c' to use at the end of a word. As with most rules, there are exceptions but if she follows these rules, most of the time she will spell a word correctly and on the few occcassions when it doesn't work she will have to learn that word on its own.

1) Always use 'k' or 'ck' at the end of a word. There are a few words that use 'c' at the end, such as 'torc' but these are so rare you can just learn the words as you come across them.

2) Use 'ck' if a single vowel comes before it eg, back, flock, click, whack

2) Use 'k' if two vowels come before it eg. cook, cloak, oak, beak, break

3) Use 'k' if a consonant comes before it eg, bark, work, folk, bank, ask

Garden Girl is still at the stage of having to be prompted with these rules, but when she asks how to spell a word with a 'c' sound at the end or has got it wrong, I ask her to think through the rules. Is it a consonant or vowel before the sound? Is it one vowel or two? The more frequently she works it out for herself the more confident she gets with the rule and eventually she will be able to work it out herself without a prompt.

Monday 23 April 2012

Why Do We Have a Chin?

Whilst I wouldn't recommend a practical demonstration of why we have a chin, Garden Girl inadvertently did just that a couple of weekends ago. She was pushing one of those big round swings at a playground and didn't move out of the way in time. The swing came at her at head height and knocked her to the floor. It was her chin that took the brunt of the clash. On the way home, after she had been reassured that no-one could see the red marks on her chin, she asked me why we have a chin. I suggested to her that she had just found that out first hand. The chin could be there to protect the more delicate parts of the face from knocks and bumps. I pointed out that if she had not had a chin it would likely have been her mouth that got hit by the swing. The mouth is very important as it lets us eat and speak so we really want to keep it intact.

When we got back I had a little look on the internet to see if this was correct and I found that there are a few suggestions for our chins...

1) To protect the face from knocks
2) To help us speak properly
3) Because it looks good

When I explained the options to Garden Girl she was inclined to go with the protection theory, probably with thoughts of her own sore chin in mind. I am inclined to believe that all of the suggestions are true. Our bodies are complicated and certainly capable of assigning more than one function to a body part.

I had never thought too much about my chin before, but was amused when I came across this article in the Irish Times, that Ernie from Sesame Street had questioned why we have one...

And if you want to watch the song 'One Fine Face' by Ernie and Elmo, you will find it here on You Tube:

Sunday 22 April 2012

Counting Out

Children learn to count, usually by hearing the numbers over and over again. They practise reciting the numbers in order and they listen to parents and teachers counting things, so they gradually learn and remember the order number. However, once a child is able to recite numbers in the correct order they need to be able to apply this to counting out objects. In the early foundation stage this is something which your child will focus on.

At a recent parent consultation Garden Boy's teacher was telling us that counting a row of objects is much easier for your child than counting a group of objects, randomly organised. It is also harder for a child to count out objects by moving the object location. For instance, a child who is asked to put 10 items into a bucket will find it harder to count the objects than a child who is asked to count 10 objects which are organised in a line on the floor.

Garden Boy can count up to well past 20, however I have noticed that when he counts items, he can find it hard to keep track of what he has already counted. He will count some things twice, or he will miss out an item. Practising as much as possible is the best way to improve counting skills. But, as with all maths, it is usually better if the child doesn't realise it is work, so here are some ideas for counting activities.

  • Ask your child to share out sweets. Instead of buying small packets, buy family size packets and when they have sweets ask them to count out a certain number. Change the number each time. If they are interested enough, ask them to count out 3 blue sweets, 5 red ones etc. Do the same with fruit. It will be harder for your child to count 10 grapes into a bowl if they have to pull them off the bunch as well as count them.
  • Be specific about quantities when they are helping you cook. For instance, get them to measure out 4 ounces of raisons with you but then tell them the recipe also needs 12 additional raisons which they can count out for you.
  • If you are packing for a holiday let your child help by counting out the correct number of socks and pants they need to take. Counting into a suitcase will make it harder for them, so when they think they have the right number, ask them to row up the pairs of socks and count them again to double check. They will find this easier and will probably be able to work out themselves if they have made a mistake. Basically, whenever there is an opportunity for them to count for a real reason they will be more willing. Garden Girl loves packing for picnics and holidays and will count things out for me because she wants to help. Garden Boy needs the humour of thinking he might have to go pantless for a day if he doesn't count them out properly. And often he will deliberately count one less so I joke about his bare bottom!
  • When you are reading with your child look at the pictures and count things in them. How many times does a particular cat appear in a book? How many flowers are there on the page? There are also some excellent counting books available. We love, 'Counting Colours'. 
  • Play 'Counting Catch'. Count every throw and then when someone drops the ball, start again and see if you can beat your score. Garden Girl loves trying to reach a higher number. We play 'Counting Football' with Garden Boy and we roll the ball, rather than throw it, with Garden Lass.
  • Play musical instruments and get your child to count how many times you bang the drum, blow the whistle etc. Get them to copy you. Make up songs using different instruments and see if they can remember when you switched instrument. Let them make up tunes for you to copy.
  • Have garden races where they first person to collect 5 stones and put them in a bucket wins, or when they are tidying up, make it a race. The first person to put 10 toys away gets a sticker. 
  • When your child is drawing pictures, ask them to put a certain number of petals on a flower, or a certain number of birds on the sky, or a certain number of spots on the alien.
There are so many opportunities for counting during play. The suggestions above are all good ways of getting your child to do 'hard' counting. The items they are counting are randomly displayed, need counting into something or require your child to be doing something else at the same time, such as throwing a ball or drawing. The more they do this kind of counting, the more skilled they will become.

Saturday 21 April 2012

The Alphabet, Vowels and Consonants

Garden Girl knew her phonic sounds before she knew her alphabet. In the early stages of learning how to read this was not a problem as most of the words she came across were purely phonetic. Children are also taught to write phonetically in the foundation stage. Spelling is not a priority, in as much as children are not expected to spell words correctly, but they are expected to use a correct phonic sound. For instance, when Garden Girl wrote the word 'time' as 'tighm' this was OK because phonetically speaking t - igh - m can be put together to make the correct sounds for the word.

Learning the alphabet however is the first stage in learning how to spell properly. There are reading and spelling rules that rely on knowledge of letter names (the alphabet names) and in particular on knowing which letters of the alphabet are vowels or consonants.

I fully admit that I struggle to tell my children they have written something correctly when in fact the spelling is wrong, even when they have written the word phonetically correct. And yet I do not want to conflict with the way the school is teaching her as this could be very confusing for her. Therefore, when she asks if she has written a word correctly I will always say, 'yes, you have used all the right phonic sounds to make the words. Thats brilliant, well done'. I will then say 'But, I can show you how to spell the word as it is written in books if you want me to?'. If she is interested I will explain to her how to spell the word correctly. For this she needs her knowledge of the alphabet, vowels and consonants.

There are many resources on the internet for learning the alphabet, vowels and consonants. Garden Girl found songs to be the best way, as repetition helped her retain the information. When she needs to know if a letter is a vowel or a consonant I will hear her quietly singing 'a e i o u' to the tune of BINGO. If she sings the letter she is trying to figure out, she knows it is a vowel, if she doesn't she knows it is a consonant. Then she can apply whatever spelling rule I have explained to her.

Once your child has started to learn to read and write, the first and most important thing you can do to help them is to teach them their alphabet, vowels and consonants. It might not seem hugely important at first, when the focus is so much on phonics, but once they become interested in spelling and are reading slightly more advanced books, this knowledge will be invaluable.

If you want resources to help your child learn the alphabet, vowels and consonants have a look at these two websites:

There are lots of resources and ideas on both of these websites. Also, type 'Alphabet Songs' and 'Vowel Songs' into google and you will find loads of songs which are a fun and extremely useful way of helping your child remember their alphabet and vowels.

Friday 13 April 2012

What is a Sonic Boom?

If you live in the South of England you likely will have heard a big loud bang yesterday afternoon which sounded much like thunder. We were dashing from the car in the pouring rain when we heard the loud crash and I made a comment to the children about there being a thunder storm. However, there was no lightening and no further thunder. It seemed a little odd, but in the dash to get dry I thought nothing more about it until Garden Dad came home and asked if we had heard the sonic boom. I explained to our Little Garden Helpers that the thunder we thought we had heard earlier was not actually thunder but a sonic boom. Inevitably, Garden Girl asked 'What is a sonic boom?' and the best I could offer by way of explanation was 'a very loud noise'.

I promised to find out for her and this evening I found a good explanation on the BBC website which talks about things like pressure and the speed of sound. It is worth a watch to get the full explanation, especially if you have older children looking for a more accurate and detailed insight, but I have put together a simpler explantion which I think will be more accessible for young children and which I hope remains more or less scientifically correct.

In very simple terms, the sonic boom yesterday was caused by an aircraft flying so fast that the air it was moving through could not move out of the way fast enough. As the aircraft hit the air it created a loud bang. Apparantly the sound of thunder is created in the same way, as lightening strikes the air at such high speeds that it essentially bangs into the air before it can move out of the way.

To find a fuller explantion take a look at the BBC website here.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Why Is It Dark In Other Countries When It Is Light Here?

What Garden Girl really asked me was, 'Why does Uncle M only get out of bed when we are already having lunch?' He currently lives in Peru and consequently there is a 5 hour time difference. In order to explain why this is, the best thing to do is get a ball and a torch, but I also used this diagram:

The earth is shaped like a ball and hangs in space. But it doesn't stay still. Although we can't feel it moving, the earth is spinning all the time. It never stops. It takes a full day (24 hours) for the earth to spin around once. I put a sticker on a ball to represent Garden Girl and showed her that as the earth spins, so does she. When the sticker is on the same side as the torch, light from the torch can reach the sticker. It is day time for the sticker when the torch light shines on it. When the ball has turned half way around, the torch light cannot reach the sticker so it is dark and night time for the sticker.

It is the same for our house. When our house is facing the sun, the sun light can reach us and it is daytime. When the earth has moved halfway around and our house is on the side facing away from the sun, the sunlight cannot reach our house. It is dark and it is night time.

Because people live all around the earth in different countries, as the earth spins around, the sun hits different countries at different times, so Uncle M wakes up 5 hours after us because that is when his house has just started to turn towards the sun.

I put a few stickers on the ball, in different locations, to show Garden Girl how one sticker might still be in the torch light, while another one is just entering the torch light, and yet another might still be in the dark. I asked her to tell me which sticker would be the next to wake up and to spot a sticker that will soon be going to bed. It was a fun activitiy that illustrated, not just that one side of the earth is light while the other side is awake, but that also showed how light arrives at different times for different countries.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Graphemes With Two Or More Letters

Once your child has become confident with single letter phonemes, they will start to learn sounds that are made up of two or more letters. At this stage I became a bit confused by all the different words I came across that were being used to describe different aspects of phonics. There were phonemes, graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs and I had no idea what the difference was, so I thought a definition of each would be useful.

A phoneme, as we have already discovered, is an individual sound. When phonemes are put together in the right order they will blend to make a word. For instance, the phonemes 'c', 'a' and 't' can be blended together to make the word cat. Phonemes can contain one, two or three letters. For instance, the sounds 'qu', 'ee' and 'n' are blended together to make the word queen, and the phonemes 'l', 'igh' and 't' are blended together to make the word light.

A grapheme is essentially a phoneme written down. That is, the letters and letter combinations that are used to spell a phoneme.

Although a grapheme refers to a phoneme with one, two or three letters, a grapheme with two letters is usually referred to as a digraph and a grapheme with three letters is usually referred to as a trigraph. Although digraphs and trigraphs are written down with more than one letter, the letters combine to make a single sound.

Below is a list of all the graphemes with more than one letter, in the order that your child is likely to learn them at school.

ck as in kick
ll as in hill
ff as in toffee
ss as in hiss

Children are often taught the above sounds with their single letter counterparts, so 'ck' is often taught at the same time as 'c' and 'k', 'll' at the same time as 'l', 'ff' at the same time as 'f'' and 'ss' at the same time as 's'. The remainder will be taught once your child is able to recognise all the single letter phonemes.

zz as in buzz
qu as in queen
ch as in chin
sh as in hush
th as in thing and that (the 'th' in 'thing' is slightly softer sounding than the 'th' in 'that' but your child will learn them both at the same time.)
ng as in song
ai as in rain
ee as in seen
igh as in light
oa as in boat 
oo as in boot and cook (this digraph can be sounded in either of these ways and your child will learn both at the same time.)
ar as in car
or as in corn
ur as in turn
ow as in cow
oi as in coin
ear as in clear
air as in fair
ure as in sure (This one threw me a little because I know that a lot of the words with this grapheme can be pronounced in different ways. The pronunciation is more like 'or'.)
er as in flower
ay as in day
ou as in shout
ie as in tie
ea as in eat
oy as in toy
ir as in bird
ue as in blue
aw as in crawl
wh as in when
ph as in phone
ew as in grew
oe as in toe
au as in caught
ey as in grey
If you are unsure how to pronounce any of these phonemes there is a brilliant tool on the Usborne Very First Reading website which lets you listen to some of these sounds. You will find it here. I really recommend listening to this so you can be confident you are helping your child learn the correct sounds.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Help Your Child Learn Single Letter Phonemes

Here are some things I am doing with Garden Boy and did with Garden Girl, to familiarise them with the single letter phonemes. Getting them to practice saying, writing and recognising the sounds when they don't even realise they are doing work is the best way of getting them to learn them.

  • Teach them to write their name. Start with the first letter. But don't get them to write it over and over again for no reason. When they write thank you cards for Christmas or birthday gifts get them to write the first letter of their name inside the card. You can finish the name off for them so they start to recognise what their name looks like written down. Ask them to write their name on any drawings or paintings they do at home, so everyone who looks at it will know who made the brilliant picture. Again, start with the first letter and then when they are confident with that, add more letters.
  • Add letters which are special to them. After learning the first letter of his name, Garden Boy learned to write 'W' and 'B' because he wanted to be able to write 'Woody' and 'Buzz'. If they draw pictures of the same things over and over again teach them the letters of those words. For example, Garden Girl drew endless pictures of butterflies and Tinkerbell, so 'B' and 'T' were two of the first letters she learned. You can probably make any letter special to your child by picking the right word for them.
  • If your children like a particular kind of food get them to add it to the shopping list themselves. Initially you will have to tell them the letters and show them how to the draw the letters, but if they copy it enough times they will soon learn. It is a great incentive to write letters and words, if by doing so you will remember to buy those ice lollies, lemon cakes, meatballs or strawberries. Again, start with the first letter and over time, move them on to writing the full word.
  • Get them to write letters and words during general play. For instance, if you are playing cafe's get them to be the waitor/waitress. They should write a T for every tea order, a C for every coffee order, a J for a juice order, a B for every biscuit order and a S for a slice of cake. You can have all the letters written nearby for them to copy if they need it and as they become proficient writers change it to the full word.
  • When you are reading books with your children get them to look for things in the pictures and then find the word in the text yourself and sound it out to them. Show them, with your finger, the sounds as you are saying them. It will help them get used to how sounds are blended together to make words.
  • Get older siblings or friends to read to younger ones if they are willing. Garden Girl loves reading to Garden Boy and Garden Lass, and Garden Boy picked up the phonic method of sounding out and blending this way. He also learned most of the single letter phonemes this way. This worked well for Garden Boy because Garden Girl is just one year ahead so was still at the stage of sounding out and blending every word, but even if the gap is bigger, this sharing of books with other children is a great way of developing an interest in and love of books.
  • Play phonic i-spy. Using the phonic sound of objects, rather than the letter name is a great way of getting them to think of things beginning with that sound.
  • When we are out for long walks and I want to keep them interested we will often play 'Spot the...' We take it in turns to spot a tree, or a red car, or a yellow flower etc but I always throw some letters and numbers in. It only really works on urban walks but with all the street signs, road signs, posters, bill boards, shop signs etc, there are plenty of opportunities around to spot letters and numbers.

Are there any games or activities you do that get your children reading or writing words and letters?

Why Are Freezers Cold?

Garden Boy asked me this when he was rummaging in the freezer for some peas. He really wanted them for dinner and was not at all convinced I would remember if he left me to it. His faith in my memory is pretty spot on, but my basic food hygiene lessons have obviously been filed away in a reasonably accessible folder of my brain as I was able to recall the following.

Lots of teeny tiny living creatures, called bacteria, make their home on food. We can't see them and they do not harm us, unless they have been on the food for too long. If bacteria are allowed to live on the food for too long they grow bigger and the food starts to turn bad. If this happens it can make us sick.

Bacteria, however, don't like the cold. In fact they dislike the cold so much that when they get cold they become really lazy and go to sleep. While they are asleep they do not grow any more and they cannot make the food turn bad.

We make freezer's really cold so that we can stop the bacteria on food growing while we store it until we want to eat it.

And, yes, I remembered the peas.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

When I was at school I was taught the names of shapes and many of them I have remembered. But when Garden Girl asked me what a 7 sided shape was called, I just couldn't remember. Learning the name of basic shapes is part of the Foundation Stage Curriculum, but it was this that led Garden Girl to ask me about other shapes, so I thought it would be useful to list them all here. However, many shapes can be given more than one label. For instance, a square is also a quadrilateral, a rectangle, a parallelogram, a polygon and rhombus! In this post therefore, I will list the very basic shapes and the most basic, or most commonly used, label for that shape. From this starting point, in later posts I will go into more detail about different types of shape.

In the Foundation Stage your child is likely to be introduced to the following shapes:

A circle, or round shape, which is drawn using only one continuous line. There are no corners. Get your child to measure across a circle with a ruler from top to bottom, and side to side. As long as their ruler crosses through the middle of the circle (mark this on with a dot for them) they should read the same number both times.

An oval, is a curved shape, also drawn using only one continuous line. Like a circle, there are no corners, but unlike a circle the distance from top to bottom and side to side will be different. Again, get you child to measure using a ruler. Even if they do not know what centimetres are, they will understand that one number is higher, or at least different, than the other. Another way of describing an oval to a young child is 'a squashed circle'.

A semi-circle, is half a circle. That is, a circle cut into two perfectly equal pieces, using a straight line through the middle. Fold a circle in half to demonstrate how the two halves are exactly the same.

A heart is another curved shape your child will be expected to recognise in the foundation stage.

A star, is a shape with lots of points. The most commonly drawn star shapes have 5 points but they can have many more than this.

A Square, has four straight sides that are exactly the same length. The top and bottom lines are drawn flat across the page (horizontally). They do not slope at all. The two sides are drawn straight up and down (vertically). They do not slope at all. If I were to draw a stick man sitting on the top, or bottom line, of a square his legs would be stretched out flat in front of him. He would not be able to slide down the line! If I were to draw a stick man standing against the sides of a square, he would be standing up straight. He would not lean backwards or forwards.

An oblong, is a shape with four straight sides, but unlike a square the sides are not all the same length. The top and bottom lines are exactly the same length, and the two sides are exactly the same length. The top and bottom lines are drawn flat across the page (horizontally). They do not slope at all. The two sides are drawn straight up and down (vertically). They also do not slope. If I were to draw a stick man sitting on the top, or bottom, line of an oblong his legs would be stretched out flat in front of him. He would not be able to slide down the line! If I were to draw a stick man standing against the sides of an oblong, he would be standing up straight. He would not lean backwards or forwards.

A rectangle, is another name given to a square or an oblong. Both square's and oblong's are rectangles because the top and bottom lines are both perfectly horizontal and the sides are both perfectly vertical. Opposite sides of a rectangle are also always the same length.

An oblong and a rectangle are virtually the same thing. However, an oblong never has all four sides the same length. Thus, a square or an oblong can also be called a rectangle, but a square cannot be called an oblong.

A diamond, is a shape with four straight sides and four corners. The sides are all the same length. The typical diamond shape, which a child in the Foundation stage will be expected to recognise, is that which is essentially a square with two of it's corners squashed together. However, in reality a square is also a diamond (also called a rhombus). A diamond will have opposite sides which are parallel. That is, opposite sides that follow exactly the same direction as each other. They also have opposite angles, or corners, which are the same size.

A triangle, has three straight sides and three corners.

A quadrilateral, is any shape with four straight sides and four corners (this includes a square, oblong and diamond).

A pentagon, is any shape with five straight sides and five corners.

A hexagon, is any shape with six straight sides and six corners.

heptagon, is any shape with seven straight sides and seven corners.

An octagon, is any shape with eight straight sides and eight corners.

A nonagon, is any shape with nine straight sides and nine corners.

A decagon, is any shape with ten straight sides and ten corners.

A hendecagon, is any shape with eleven straight sides and eleven corners.

A dodecagon, is any shape with twelve straight sides and twelve corners.

A triskaidecagon, is any shape with thirteen straight sides and thirteen corners.

And yes, they do keep going. There is even a name for a shape with one million straight sides and one million corners (a Megagon, incase you are interested). And no, a child in the Foundation Stage does not need to know all these. However, once Garden Girl knew a hexagon was called that because it had 6 sides, she was prompted to ask what shapes with other quantities of sides are called. She kept going till she reached ten, but when she asked, I didn't know 7 or 9.

If all that hasn't given you a headache and you want to know more these links are very useful
For some useful downloadable resources have a look at Instant Display
For a short and fun song about simple shapes from BBC Learning, look here.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Top Trumps

One of the things a child in the Foundation Stage at school will be expected to learn is the concept of 'higher' and 'lower'. It sounds simple, but being able to recognise whether a number is higher or lower than another is an important basic maths skill. Top Trumps is a brilliant game to play with your children so that they can practice this concept in a fun way.

The basic idea of the game is that you have a selection of cards, each with a different character on it. Each character is given points for a specific set of things, for instance, if the pack had different birds on each card, they may be given points for the beauty of their song, their strength, their size, their flying speed. The cards are shuffled and shared amongst players, who take it in turns to choose one of the scores on their top card. Other players must then look to see if the score, on their top card, and in the same category, is higher or lower. The person whose card has the highest score for the chosen category, wins the cards from that round. The game continues until someone has won all the cards.

We have a Peppa Pig Top Trumps pack because it is a character they all love. It is also a particularly good one because it has only a small number of top trump cards. But, if you have a big pack, consider taking out some of the characters, otherwise young children will find the game takes too long. Also try to make sure you have a pack that includes numbers appropriate to your child's level. There is no point using a pack where the numbers lie between 1 and 100 if your child can only count to 20.

You could even make your own, using whatever characters you think will engage your children best. The best thing about making your own pack is that you can tailor both the number range and character to the child's ability and if you get the children involved in making the pack they will be able to practice writing the numbers, as well as determining how to allocate higher or lower scores to specific things. 'Is an eagle faster or slower than a blackbird? Should an eagle be given a higher score in speed, or lower?'

When the number range of our Peppa Pig pack gets too narrow, we will be making a fairy and a dinosaur pack. The biggest problem will be choosing which pack to use each time.

Why do Birds have Beaks?

Garden Girl told me that last week, during her maths learning, she was bored. So instead of listening to her teachers tell her all about 'full and empty' she began to ponder birds. Why she picked this topic I have no idea, but one of the questions she asked me, as she skipped home from school that day, was, 'Why do birds have beaks?' and somewhere, from the bottom of my memory pit, a little light switched on and I was actually able to answer her question this time.

Birds need a tool for carrying out lots and lots of different types of activities, such as searching in the soil for worms, picking up and carrying twigs for their nests, ripping apart food, or scooping up fish. The beak is that tool. Beaks are very strong and each type of bird has a different shaped beak, depending what it needs to do with it.

When we arrived home we had a look at some bird pictures in books and on the internet. I chose birds with very distinctive beaks to show her:

Woodpecker, with its short, pointed and sharp beak for hammering holes is wood
Puffin, with a large, bowl-like beak in which they can store fish while they hunt for more
Eagles, with sharp, hooked beaks for tearing apart animals

We compared these to the beaks of birds we see in our garden, such as the robin, blue tit and magpie, which all have quite short beaks for fruit foraging, worm digging or insect catching.

Birds also have beaks, rather than mouths, because human and animal jaws, (the bones in the mouth area) are very heavy. Birds need to be very light so they can fly. I asked Garden Girl to feel her jaw bones, as she moved her mouth and to rest her chin on her hand, to get an idea how heavy the bones are. Beaks, although they are very strong, are also very light; perfect for flying.

There is a short and useful film on the BBC Nature website which explains some of the ways birds are adapted to be lightweight, which you will find here.

Other websites with information about bird beaks include:

BBC Nature

Friday 2 March 2012

Mixing up 'b' and 'd'

Both Garden Girl and Garden Boy sometimes mix up 'b' and 'd', which I have been told, is a common problem. For Garden Boy, it is a mix up he occassionally makes and usually he will ask, 'Is that a 'b' or a 'd'? He recognises it is something he sometimes gets wrong and he knows to think about it. He often gets it right without asking and so, for the moment I am leaving him to sort it out himself. If he is lucky, the more he reads, the more he will recognise the difference and it won't become a problem.

For Garden Girl it was a bigger problem. She was always unsure and she began to get frustrated. Her reading enjoyment was being threatened, so I used this trick to help her.

I wrote down the word 'bed' and sounded it out to her. I told her that, when the word 'bed' is written down, it is the bed my stick man likes to sleep on. He likes to sleep on the bed with his head on the curve of the 'b', the first letter, which makes his pillow. I drew a stick man on the word 'bed' to show her.

I then showed her what would happen to my stick man if his bed was written the wrong way around by writing 'deb' and drawing a squashed man inside. I explained that the straight lines of the 'b' and 'd' should make the headboard and foot of the bed.

Whenever Garden Girl came to a 'b' or a 'd' and got it wrong, or if she asked which letter it was, I told her to remember the stick man's bed. To start with, she needed me to draw it for her, but after a while she was able to visualise the word in her head and she started to sound out the word 'bed' to herself whenever she came across a 'b' and a 'd'. She was obviously seeing the stick man, in her mind, lying on the word and from this, she was able to work out if it was a 'b' or 'd' by deciding if the letter looked like the first letter or the last letter of 'bed'.

As time went on Garden Girl started to recognize the correct letter without needing to use this trick, but I will still, occassionally, hear her muttering the word 'bed' to herself when she is trying to work out a word. It has really helped her and it put an immediate stop to her frustration because she had a way to work it out for herself, rather than always needing to be told.

Why do Parrots have Colourful Wings?

When Garden Girl asked me why parrots have colourful feathers I thought I knew the answer. However, I wanted to be sure I was giving her the right information, so I decided to double check on the internet. I thought this would be a quick bit of research but there is surprisingly very little about this on the internet. We also looked in a couple of books we have about birds but again, this specific question wasn't really covered. In the end we decided to ask an expert and we e-mailed ZSL to see if they could help. They were fantastic and replied about ten minutes later!

And the answer is that we don't really know!

There are two theories or ideas:

1. The colourful feathers are used to attract a mate. That is, a boy parrot trying to make a girl parrot like him enough to be his very, very best friend so they can have baby parrots together. Or, a girl parrot trying to make a boy parrot like her enough to be her very, very best friend so they can have baby parrots together.

2. The colourful feathers help parrots camouflage themselves. That is, hide themselves amongst colourful flowers and foliage so that any predators (other animals that might want to eat them) will think they are a flower.

Because animals cannot speak and tell us all about themselves we can't always learn everything we want to about them. Experts on parrots will have thought of these ideas by observing parrots in the wild, as well as by looking at what other birds and animals do. But these ideas have not yet been proven to be true. Which idea do you prefer? Could it be both?

While we were reading about parrots in one of Garden Girl's books (Feathers, Flippers and Feet, by Deborah Lock) we did discover a very interesting bit of information about how the colour in parrot feathers is created.

There is a chemical (a substance or special thing) in parrot feathers which reflects light to make the wings colourful. Light is reflected by bouncing back from the wings to be seen as colours.

If you want to learn more about parrots, have a look at these websites:

Sunday 26 February 2012

Throwing Numbers

Each week Garden Girl is sent home from school with a maths game and I have to admit that we don't always do them. This is because the quality varies week by week and sometimes we would just rather play one of our own board games, especially when the game is pretty much a roll the die and count the number of squares to move along type. This week however, we were given a maths game which had the whole family joining in and all three children calling for more time to play it when an end was called, so it seems a good one to pass on.

We did make changes though. The aim of the game was to throw paper aeroplanes at targets which were labelled with numbers between 1 and 5. When a target was hit, the pilot had to write down the number associated with the target, add it to any previous hits gained and do a victory lap if they were the first to add their score up to 10.

The aeroplanes, however, consistenly failed to hit their targets with various models acting like boomerangs, nose diving or simply flying too far past the target. Whilst we had lots of fun making and throwing the paper aeroplanes, they simply were not going to hit the targets frequently enough so we switched to using a soft ball. We also only had three targets, simply as a result of space available, but on a nice day the game could be played in the garden with more targets. The school suggested newspaper laid flat as a target, however we used boxes because it is what we had to hand.

Both Garden Girl and Garden Boy wrote down their scores and added them up until Garden Boy won, when he had 7 points and managed to hit the number 3 target. The game enabled them to practise writing their numbers and for Garden Boy it was the first time he used the + and = signs to write a sum. They added up their scores between each turn, using their fingers to check they had got it right. But it didn't feel too much like hard work for them because within a minute they were back to throwing balls and cheering each other on!

Friday 24 February 2012

Single Letter Phonemes

A Phoneme is an individual sound. When phonemes are put together in the right order they will blend to make a word. For instance, the phonemes 'c', 'a' and 't' can be blended together to make the word cat.

When children use Phonics to learn reading and writing they will first learn the phonic sound that is associated with a letter, or particular group of letters. At a later stage they will learn the letter names, or alphabet. Thus, they will learn that 'a' is pronounced like 'a' in cat and not 'a' in late.

Single letter phonemes are the easiest for children to learn and recognise and are the first ones they will learn. The following is a list of all the single letter phonemes, with an accompanying word representing the phonic sound the letter represents. I have listed them in the order your child is likely to learn them, rather than the order they appear in the alphabet.

s as in sock
a as in cat
t as in pit
p as in pot
i as in ink
n as in pan
m as in man
d as in dog
g as in goat
o as in pot
c as in cat
k as in kitten 
e as in egg
u as in umbrella
r as in rabbit
h as in hat
b as in bag
f as in fan
l as in long
j as in jump
v as in van
w as in wig
x as in six
y as in yell
z as in zip

Most of these phonemes sound exactly as you would expect them to but the one I hadn't fully grasped until Garden Girl said the sound, was 'x' which sounds exactly as it does in the word 'six'. If I had to write the pronunciation of this sound down I would suggest it was something like 'cs'.