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: