Author - Nina Cordoba

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My interests are varied and I'm likely to write anything from funny to poignant to informational, so my blogs are organized by topic. Just choose your favorite topic on the left. I'd love to hear from you in the comments section or go to Contact and email me privately if you like. Thanks for coming by!

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9/1/2020 9:52:46 PM


For years, I owned a tutoring service for school-aged kids, primarily focused on reading. Initially, I recruited my parents, who were retiring school teachers to do the tutoring while I took the parent phone calls, administered assessment tests, wrote the advertising and marketing materials and collected the tuition.

Soon, I was pitching in with the tutoring and found out, to my surprise, that I had a knack for it. After the first couple of years, my mother wanted to go back to teaching—she missed the classroom dynamic. Meanwhile, my 3-year-old daughter was giving me a harder and harder time about staying at the office with me. I decided not to renew my lease and just finish tutoring the remaining students at my house. However, the moms had other ideas. They kept referring new students, and I became a one-woman show.

 Nearly every mother of a struggling reader came to me with the same story. The teacher had told her that her child had a reading comprehension problem.

 I would then administer some tests, including a 5-minute phonics test. At first, I did what some other tutoring centers do: I gave new students achievement tests in several subjects, which was a long process, especially for the younger students. (I soon realized most of the testing was unnecessary. Until a child’s reading is up to par, she can’t possibly be a stellar all-around student.)

 What I found out was that kids where I lived generally did not have problems with comprehension...if they could read the words. The big problem was that they were not being taught phonics (the rules of sounding out) in any meaningful way. 

After looking into it further, I found out they were using the Whole Language philosophy put forward by psychologist and educator Lev Vygotsky. If you want to know more about it, a google search of “whole language approach” will get you the origin, philosophy and controversy. Just know that, despite the lack of any scientific data, Whole Language became the norm in a number of countries.

 My neighbor, who was a young teacher while I was tutoring, once told me, “They’re starting to say we should go back to teaching phonics to students, but, when I went to college, everything was about Whole Language. I don’t know how to teach phonics. I’m not even totally sure what they are.”

 Note: I have not been tutoring for the last 10 years and I thought universities would have switched to teaching more tried and true (phonics) approaches by now. However, I just read an article from 2018 that claimed it’s still not happening, so I don’t know what teachers are learning at this point.

 Here are the problems our school district was having around reading. Yours is likely to have at least one of these problems, if not all three:

-Many teachers didn’t understand the importance of phonics, through no fault of their own.

-Since teachers were trained in Whole Language without phonics, they had no idea how to assess the specific problem within reading their students were having. 

-Teachers rarely have an ample amount of one-on-one time with students. They have to spend a lot of their time just keeping order. If they sit down and try to figure out why your child is struggling, the rest of the class will dissolve into mayhem because “Woohoo, the teacher is distracted!” When was the last time you tried to do anything in an organized way with 10-25 elementary school children? (For one birthday, all 14 of the girls my daughter invited to a sleepover actually showed up. Within 10 minutes, I was searching the house frantically for something that might act as a tranquilizer--for me, not the kids.)

 I think many school districts have tried to add phonics back into schools, but they may be doing it in a haphazard way that many children find murky and confusing.

Our Solution: 

Before we opened the learning center, my mother (who taught kids of all ages in her 34-year career) ordered the top 3 rated phonics programs for us to try out. One of them beat the others, hands down, for ease of use for teacher, ease of use for student, and fast results.

 This system is called Explode the Code. (I have no financial interest in this company.)  But, wait! Don’t go off and buy the workbooks before reading the rest of this post!


Helpful Hint:

After you use the phonics assessment, you can order the appropriate Explode the Code books at a number of different sites on the internet. However, you need to be careful because, sometimes, what’s being sold is a teacher’s book, not the student workbooks. (I had a teacher’s version, but never used it because the rules are clearly written at the tops of the pages.) Also, do not buy Beyond the Code yet. Those are comprehension books. The prices of Explode the Code books vary, so you may want to compare the price plus shipping before buying.


Some places to buy Explode the Code workbooks:

I'm writing this during Covid-19 in the United States and situations vary from state to state. If stores are open where you live and you want to go in person, search: "teacher supply stores in my area," and "homeschool supply in my area" then call them and ask if they carry Explode the Code.

You can typically find them on, and (The workbooks are not religious in any way. Because they work, homeschool parents recommend them to each other and there are many Christian homeschoolers.) Sometimes they are bundled (Books 1-4, for instance). You can also find the workbooks on Ebay at times, but, again, look very closely to make sure you’re getting what you’re looking for and not a teacher’s book or Beyond the Code (comprehension) workbook when you’re looking for phonics.

 So, if your child doesn’t know the consonant sounds yet (b says “buh,” c says “kuh”), start with Explode the Code Books A, B, and C, then move on to Explode the Code Book 1. (I started my daughter on Book A before she was 3, but I had also been doing a lot of unofficial teaching since she was born. Some children might not be ready until they are 4 or 5 and that's normal.)

 Typically, the students I worked with already knew their consonant sounds, so I mostly used Explode the Code Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The half books: 1 ½, 2 ½, etc., are for extra practice if the student hasn’t mastered the concept of the previous book yet. Most students didn’t need the half books, but if there’s a learning disability or your child’s brain is strongly focused in some other direction, he may need the extra practice.

 After we started using Explode the Code, I was amazed at how quickly students’ reading and overall grades improved. I said to my dad, “I can’t believe how easy it is with these books! Why aren’t they being used in all the schools?”

 His reply, “Schools would never pay this much for single-use workbooks.” This is one of those penny-wise, pound foolish moments. I was paying $7-$8 for each book at the time. School districts surely could have gotten better deals. Even if they’d just used Books 1-4 on every reading student in the district, school performance would have increased dramatically.

 Note: I do not recommend most of the phonics assessment tests I found online because they use real words, like “dog” and “cat.” Most kids who’ve been in school but haven’t been taught phonics have memorized a lot of words. You need the assessment to find out whether your child reads phonetically, not whether he has memorized words. This is why it’s better to use lists of mostly fake words that mimic the sounds found in real words.

 Another note: I specifically recommend Explode the Code because it teaches each new phonics rule in isolation. The child can understand what’s happening and master each rule quickly, then move on to the next. Not all phonics programs are as methodical as Explode the Code and, while some children can get by with tons of memorization or can figure out the patterns on their own, many need the methodical approach. This has nothing to do with how intelligent the student is. It’s just a matter of how her particular brain works.

 If you’re still in doubt where to start after administering the phonics assessment, it’s better to err on the side of caution and start with a lower book. (Use the speech below to make sure your child doesn’t get insulted by a book that seems too easy.)

 So, let’s say you have the appropriate Explode the Code book and are ready to start. Unless the child is too young to have learned 3- and 4-letter words already, here’s a speech you can give:

“This workbook will probably have lots of words in it you’ve already memorized. But we’re using it for something else. Now, we're learning the rules and paying attention to the sounds the letters make.”

 Then when you start, read the first rule to your child and ask the child to say each word aloud, emphasizing the sounds of each letter. Example: Child reads “dog.” You say, “But think about the letter sounds: Duh-ah-guh. See how the letters work as a team to make the word ‘dog’?”

 This program is so user friendly, I could tutor 3 students at a time. However, when a new student started, I always sat with him and had him sound each word out to me at first (Example: “Duh-ah-guh: dog”). When he seemed to get the idea of what we were doing, I would say, “Okay, do the next page and then tell me you’re finished so we can check it.” Since phonetic reading is about sounds, I always encouraged students to murmur the sounds to themselves as they were sounding out to reinforce what they were learning. I recommend that you follow this process as much as you can.

 Once the student gets more confident and is marking most words and pictures correctly, you may be able to let them do more pages between checks. The workbooks are not made to be challenging. They are made to teach letter sounds.

This was especially helpful with downtrodden older kids who’d been struggling in school for several years. They came in clearly dreading even more “school” on top of the miserable school day they’d already had. But most of them started feeling better about themselves and the tutoring quickly because they were set up for success instead of failure.

 Important Note: I never graded pages with a red pen because I didn’t want to trigger kids who were getting bad grades and red ink all over their homework. I used a pencil. The two grade options on any page in the phonics workbooks were a “100!” or a smiley face for trying.

When I went over incorrect answers, I never made a big deal out of being wrong. (In fact, I never used the word “wrong.”) I would say, “Oh, we need to fix this one.” Then I’d say something to keep them from feeling bad, like, “Oh, I see what happened here: ‘snack’ and ‘snake’ look almost the same, but not quite. Which one is which? Try sounding them out again.” Then, the student would sound out the words (or I’d help a little by reminding her of the rule), and we’d laugh about how tricky the words were trying to be. (Don’t worry if you don’t know phonics rules. You can learn them as you read the rules aloud.)

 Another Note: Please do not ever, ever, ever, under any circumstances draw a sad face on your child’s paper! Parents sometimes brought me their child’s graded homework to illustrate the problem at school. The first time I saw a frowny face on one of the papers, I almost cried. Nearly all children want to please and impress their teacher and parents, even if they act like they don’t. It can be discouraging and even heartbreaking to receive a frowny face from an adult they look up to.

 Yet Another Note: My mother strongly believed learning should be as fun and engaging as she could make it. She thought kids learned better if they weren’t bored and miserable. I found this to be true with my reading students, my daughter and my adult English as a Second Language students. The more lighthearted and fun you make learning, the easier life will be for you and your child.


Why can’t my kid just keep reading by memorization?

 When children read by memorization (which is what happens with the Whole Language approach), some start struggling immediately and there’s already a clear issue in 1st grade. Many can pull it off for a while successfully, but as they are bombarded with more (and bigger) words, a problem can start to emerge, often around 3rd grade. As they read, they will see a new word, but since they don’t really know how each letter affects the sound of the word, they take a quick mental snapshot of the word and match it with the closest word they know.

 Imagine you are a 2nd grader working on a handout your teacher gave you. It’s about plants, but you don’t know that. Since you were never taught phonics, the individual letters in a word don’t mean that much to you. You start to read the paragraphs and every time you see the word plant, you call it “play” because you’re a little kid, so of course you memorized the word “play.”

 All the way through the story, you make that word substitution. At the end, there are questions you’re suppose to answer. None of them make sense. In fact, the story didn’t make a lot of sense either.

 Now imagine that you did that, not with just one word, but a half dozen. How would you ever answer the comprehension questions correctly?

 That’s why teachers end up thinking the problem is comprehension when it is actually a phonics issue. They are grading comprehension worksheets and the grades are bad. The natural assumption, if the teacher doesn’t have a strong phonics background, is that the student has a comprehension problem.

 Note: After teaching the first few kids to read, I decided not to have any students work on comprehension with me until they had finished Books 1-3. Otherwise, you are setting the child up for failure because he doesn’t have the key to the code that enables him to read the words correctly.

 What about the words that don’t follow any rules?

 Ah, yes. If only we all spoke Spanish, a language that knows how to make spelling rules and follow them.

 English was once a Germanic language, then the Normans came in with their fancy Latin-based words, etc. I’m not a linguistics expert, but our language often feels like kind of a hodgepodge.

 When the student starts working on comprehension, he will run into words that he can’t sound out according to the rules. I always referred to them as “weird words” with my students.

 Me: “This is a weird word. Weird words don’t follow the rules, so we have to memorize them.”

 Even though this doesn’t sound ideal, it works. Kids can memorize a lot of words, but most can’t memorize every word they need to use in the English language. And memorization doesn’t help students figure out new words they encounter when reading the way phonics does.



Once the student is at least halfway through Book 3, you can start adding in some comprehension. You can get the Beyond the Code workbooks, by the same people as Explode the Code or a myriad of other workbooks. Comprehension work generally involves one or more paragraphs of reading. Afterward, the student answers questions about the passage she just read.

 When I was homeschooling my daughter, I would go to the kind of places my mother dragged me to as a kid—the teacher stores. They already have everything organized into subject matter and grade level. I would then glance through the ones at the appropriate grade level to see which might appeal most to my daughter. She was always super visual. (She didn’t get it from me. I’m super auditory.) She’s a great appreciator of art, loves color, and is a girly girl, so I kept that in mind when picking her workbooks.

 However, as I write this, we are in the middle of a pandemic, so you may prefer to do your shopping online. You can totally get your child in on the process. In fact, the more your child is included in the process, the more likely he or she is to cooperate.

Most kids don’t have any big comprehension issues once they learn phonics. However, the comprehension practice can help them pay more attention to what they’re reading, which will help them in their other classes, too. It also lets you keep track of where your child is grade level-wise because comprehension books are typically marked by grade level.

 You can even get more specific. For instance, if you notice your child seems to have trouble following the directions at the top of workbook pages or elsewhere, you can type “3rd grade Following Directions workbook” or “Following Instructions workbook grade 4” into your search bar and voila! You will see a number of workbook options. Always double check the grade level so you don’t end up with an 8th grade book for your 2nd grader.


Helpful hint:

When you are looking for any type of workbooks for your child, you’ll find them at a wide variety of prices. More expensive is not necessarily better. The price is probably more affected by how many pages the book has and, even more importantly, whether it is reproducible or not. (If it’s reproducible, a teacher is allowed to make unlimited copies once she buys the workbook. Those workbooks often cost notably more than a workbook meant to be used by one student and discarded.)

I would argue that the workbook your child finds most interesting is the one to get. I would always start with comprehension materials that are below the expected grade level of the child, then work up. To save money, if my 3rd grader was finishing Explode the Code book 3 in phonics, I would get a cheaper 1st grade comprehension workbook with less pages to make sure he can show mastery (80%-100% at least 3 times in a row before you move up to another grade level. You do not need to choose the most expensive workbook. You should be able to get a comprehension workbook for the cost of 1-3 fancy coffees.

Fun videos to reinforce phonics

Silent e words (to go with Explode the Code Book 3)


Note: Although I normally work as a fiction writer nowadays, I am writing these educational blog posts as quickly as I can during August and early September 2020 to help parents during the pandemic. If you are visiting this site during this time, check back in a few days for more educational posts.

Other education blog posts published or currently in the works:

-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It

-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child

-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment

-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way (This post)

-Where Can I Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary Student?

-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments

-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success

Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba

posted by Nina 0 Comments

9/1/2020 9:17:35 PM

READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child

Before you read the following post, I feel a disclaimer is in order.

 I give examples from my own life that may sound as if I was a super confident parent who went around thinking I was doing a great job all the time.

 Let me clarify: The things I’m discussing in these educational posts—creating a kid who wants to learn, teaching reading, and how I used my psychological hypotheses to get good academic results—are the only things I was confident about as a mom.

 All the moment-by-moment decisions drove me crazy. “Should I let her have the piece of candy? Has she been eating too much candy? Will I give her an eating disorder if I’m too strict with the candy?” (Yeah, I’m an overthinker, just like the heroines in my fiction novels.) And when my daughter was young, she was extremely strong-willed and was so hard for me to deal with, I couldn’t get the behavioral results I wanted regardless of how many books or articles I read. I just had to wait for her to grow out of some things. Now, nobody believes me because she’s so easy to get along with. Even Mr. Nina, her stepdad, says I must be talking about some other kid because HIS stepdaughter is super chill.

 So, when I sound like a know-it-all, just be aware that my knowledge and confidence were mostly limited to education.

 Making the Most of What Your Kid’s Got:

 Let’s be real, first off. Looking at any child or adult and telling them they can be anything they want to be is a lie. We all have limitations. I’m 5’3” and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have been a pro basketball player no matter how hard I tried. I also couldn’t have been a model (too short for starters), an astronaut (motion sickness), or a tightrope walker (very questionable balance).

 As a parent, it’s not your job to create a Nobel Prize winner or a billionaire mogul. It’s your job to try to set your child up so that she isn’t blocked from what she wants to be by preventable factors. Ideally, the skills and confidence she learns now will set her up for the widest range of possibilities that she’s genetically capable of. And, honestly, even if you just have a positive attitude about learning and only do a passable job as a homeschool teacher for a year, it’s not going to keep your little Einstein from reaching his potential.

 Attitude and Modeling:

 For a parent concerned about her child’s future success, attitude and modeling are, like, 75% of the battle. (Yes, I made that statistic up, but, based on the many families I’ve known and watched--Too creepy?—over decades, I believe it.)

 This is where brainwashing comes in.

 The word “brainwashing” typically has negative connotations, but, the truth is, we are all being brainwashed every day. From the time we are born, we depend on the people around us to clue us in about the world, and we don’t just go by what they tell us directly. Children watch, learn and mimic.

 Story Time:

My mother believed very much in nurture over nature. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was actively trying to brainwash me throughout my childhood. She was the first person to go to college in her family, and was determined that I would go too. She never said, “If you go to college.” She always said, “When you go to college.”

That one worked. In my mind, college automatically came after high school, in the same way high school automatically came after junior high.

 She was also very successful in not making me self-conscious about the thing on my left cheek she always referred to as a “beauty mark.” It wasn’t until college, when someone made reference to the “mole” on my face, that I thought, “Oh, my God! I have a mole on my face!” But my self-image was already set by then, so I didn’t go around upset about the mole—I mean “beauty mark.”

 My mom’s brainwashing wasn’t 100% effective, unfortunately. She also went around saying to people in front of me, “Yeah, she’s easygoing like her father.” I’m sure my mother could see I wasn’t easygoing, but she was hoping if she said it to me enough, she could manifest it. What happened was that I believed I was easygoing for years, while being nervous and stressed out all the time. (I seem to have inherited some bad body chemistry that runs in the family.)

 But, none of us can expect to be a perfect parent or a perfect homeschool teacher. You can only give it your best effort.


Consider what you want for your child:

 To be eager to learn? Not to give up easily on important things?

 If you want your child to be eager to learn, you’ll need to model that behavior yourself. If you’ve been complaining about learning or about what your child is learning, stop now.

 Kids are much more likely to follow your lead than do what you tell them they should do. You’ll need to adopt an attitude of wanting to learn and point it out to them. If you don’t feel you want to learn new things, start pretending and fake it ‘til you make it (or at least until your child is grown).

 Example: Child walks by while you’re on the computer and you say excitedly, “Guess what I’m learning?” or “I’m learning something really cool!” or "I just learned a new word!" It doesn’t matter how objectively the thing you’re learning is or isn’t cool. Your young child will start to get the idea that learning stuff is cool.

 What if you have a child old enough to call you on your bullshit?

Kid: “You want me to like learning, but you don’t. Remember how they changed things at work and you were mad because you had to learn to use a new computer program?”


Grimace. Everyone hates to be called out for being a hypocrite, but coming from your child, there’s that extra layer of ick because you realize you’ve set a bad example.  (We’ve all done it.)


This is when you need to look your child in the eyes and say something along the lines of: “I was wrong. It’s, sort of, human nature to resist change, especially as we get older, but if it weren’t for learning and change, you’d be carving your homework into rocks instead of just writing it down on paper.” I think a lot of parents believe admitting they were wrong will undermine their authority, but, in my experience, admitting you’re wrong adds an extra layer of trust with your child. Make no mistake, they will realize you’re only human sooner or later. If you act like you’re never wrong, your kid may lose trust in your judgement. It also means they can get things wrong without shame, which means they can try without fear.


Side note about honesty: I was always hyper aware that my little girl was going to grow up. For me, the most concerning period of time are the teenage years when kids often decide their parents are full of crap. There’s no guarantee because “Every mind is a different world,” as my grandma said. But I wanted to lay the groundwork of honesty and clarity, so when I told my teenager a particular thing was dangerous, I had a good chance of being believed.

 From the time my daughter could understand me, I was as honest as possible and explained the reasons for the decisions I made that affected her. “You can’t go over there because I said so,” doesn’t teach a child anything.

 A better explanation would be, “They’re probably nice people, but they just moved in, and I haven’t met the parents yet. My most important job is to keep you safe.” This sends the message that safety is important, and it’s good to consider your safety before you run off with random people.

 It worked on her, by the way. She was the least troublesome teenager ever. I treated my stepson the same way—I met him when he was around eight, then he moved in with us full time just before high school. He actually thanked me several times for explaining situations fully to him. He just graduated from college and still thanks me sometimes for my detailed explanations.


Story Time

One of the early signs for me that my daughter was paying attention to what I was doing was when she was between about 1 1/2 and 2 years old. I found her in my master bathroom, sitting with her back against the bathtub. She was holding one of my thick historical fiction paperbacks open, staring into it. She even moved her eyes back and forth across the pages and eventually turned the page.

 She couldn’t possibly have been reading it, but she kept up her mimicry while I brushed my hair and teeth without saying a word. I mentally high-fived myself after I left the room because I knew that I had already imprinted the idea that reading was an enjoyable way to pass time. As I've said many times, in my experience, kids who like to read, even if it’s just for pleasure, are more likely to grow up to be self-learners and have more choices in life. And they don’t have to be afraid of whether they can learn new things on the job.


Emphasize the Value of Trying:

 Most parents know they need to applaud their child’s accomplishments. But there’s something equally as important, if not more so.

 Regularly compliment your child for trying. Example: “Wow, you’ve been working so hard on that! I’m proud of how hard you try!” I even flat out explained the philosophy to my daughter when she was in middle school. “Even if you try really hard to do a certain thing,” I said. “sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you fail. However, if you consistently work hard and try your best, you’ll be rewarded eventually. (She’s now a software developer and being rewarded well for all those years of effort.)

 Don’t you enjoy it when a boss or co-worker acknowledges your hard work? It always made me want to work harder and do better.


Bribery or Incentivization?

 People--including psychologists--have differing opinions about bribing your child to do things.

But isn’t that how the world works? Your incentive for getting a job and doing good work is a paycheck and maybe a bonus or a promotion. Unless you’re actually doing something illegal, the difference between bribery and incentivization is just semantics.

 Whatever you want to call it, in order to use this tool to its best results, you need to consider what currency (that you can afford) will get your child’s attention. Bribery is not something you want to use for every single task, but, when your child is working on something he needs to do but doesn’t want to do, try to catch him well before he is at the point of no return (when he decides he just can’t stand it another minute).


Story Time:

My daughter loved the idea of getting a prize, any prize. After we stopped homeschooling and she was in public school, she was given a “special” spelling test, which she passed with flying colors only to learn—to her horror—that her score qualified her to stand up in front of the whole school for a spelling bee.

 She was very shy and did not crave the limelight. However, her dad—who I was married to before Mr. Nina—once told me he had such stage fright that he would tell his teachers he didn’t finish assignments he actually did complete because he couldn’t make himself stand up and talk in front of people.

 I was concerned my daughter would pass up jobs she wanted in the future out of fear that public speaking was involved. So, I bribed her. I said, “Sisi, I know this is really hard for you, but I think it will be good for you if you can be brave and try. What if you got a prize?”

 She perked up immediately. “What prize?”

 I knew her currencies. “If you stand up and spell one word at the spelling bee, I’ll take you to Connie’s Frozen Custard. You don’t even have to spell it right. You just have to be brave enough to try.”

 Her attitude about the bee changed immediately. “What if I spell two words?” she asked.

 Knowing that she valued shared experiences over more stuff for herself, I said, “Okay, if you get the first one right and get up and spell one more word, we’ll take one of your friends with us to Connie’s, even if you don’t get the second one right.”

 I almost died of anxiety on the day of the spelling bee. I’d put her hair up in two very long blonde pigtails. As soon as she followed the other kids onto the stage and turned to see the audience, her face grew pink, then red. Her eyes were watery.  She looked like she was about to burst out crying at any moment. I knew the likelihood of her spelling any words into the microphone was dropping by the second.

 In the end, she managed to get up there and spell one word correctly and a second word incorrectly, securing her prize. Nowadays, she gives presentations all the time as part of her job and volunteer work.


 I just want to mention word choices that do and don’t go along with a positive learning attitude. I suggest you to think about the words you’re using and the way you’re using them, in general. Here are a couple of examples:


As much as possible, try to throw the word “hard” out of your vocabulary when you’re talking about schoolwork or your own work. With the kids I tutored and my own kids, I used the word “challenging.” If they said something was “hard,” I would ask them to use the word “challenging.” When they asked what the difference was, I said, “If you are working at a job and you tell your boss it’s ‘hard’, it sounds like you aren’t able to do your job. If you say it’s ‘challenging’, it sounds like it’s making you work harder than usual, but you can still do it. I know you can do this, so its ‘challenging’.”

 However, if you go around complaining about everything being “hard,” you can’t blame your kid for doing the same.

 Have to

I can’t count how many times I heard this word from other kids when I was in school. “Do we have to do the second page?” “Do I have to write the questions?” “Do I have to read a whole chapter?”

 My parents were teachers, plus I was always a raw nerve of empathy. Over the years, every time I heard a question like that while in class, I cringed and looked at my teacher.  I could see on my teachers' faces how annoyed they were, and I didn’t understand why my classmates kept using the words “have to” when they obviously had a negative effect on our teacher. (This was before I realized not all kids could tell what their teachers were feeling.)

 Bottom line: No teacher or boss ever wants to hear the words “Do I have to…?” Better choices:

Do you want me to…?

Should I…?

Is it okay to…?

 I guess the thing “hard” and “have to” have in common is that they often appear in whiny sentences and nobody likes a whiner.


Your Tone

My other suggestion is that you pay attention to your tone of voice, especially when you are helping your child with schoolwork. It’s easy to get frustrated with our own kids, but if you want yours to feel positive about learning, you need be aware not just of what you are saying but how you’re saying it.

 You know how annoying it is when a significant other talks down to you? Hearing the man-splaining voice doesn’t motivate me to want to cooperate with Mr. Nina, just sayin’.

 If your tone is impatient or condescending or mean—STOP IT! Give yourselves a break. Stop for the day. Whatever it takes so that your child doesn’t dread doing schoolwork and grow up to hate learning.


Other education blog posts published or currently in the works as of 9/2/2020:

-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It

-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child (This post)

-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment

-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way

-Where Can I Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary School Student?

-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments

-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success

Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba

posted by Nina 0 Comments

9/1/2020 8:47:56 PM

READ THIS FIRST: Educating Your Child at Home:

 As I write this, Covid-19 is causing many parents to think harder about their children’s education. Many are having to take (hands on) responsibility for their children’s education for the first time.

 However, the truth is, parents are always ultimately responsible for their child’s education, whether they’ve realized it or not.

 Think about it. Who, at your child’s school, has blocks of time to spend one-on-one with each student to figure out what unlocks her excitement for learning? Or to understand why he is verbally articulate in conversation, yet struggling when he reads aloud? Or to assess why her grades are suddenly dropping?

 The answer may be “nobody.” Or, if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability, he may get more one-on-one attention. But here’s the thing about the teachers who work with these diagnosed students, individually or in smaller groups: Some of them are awesome and can change a child’s life for the better. But, as with any job, there are teachers who are poor performers, teachers who are mediocre, and teachers who are stellar. For your child, which kind of teacher she gets in any given year is luck of the draw. (I am not anti-teacher. My mother was a phenomenal teacher, but she was also the first to admit that there are some people in the profession who shouldn’t be there. And she would also say that the number of kids in a typical class makes it extremely difficult—or impossible—to make sure some students aren’t falling through one crack or another.)

 And, no matter how caring the teacher is, no one cares about your child like you do.

 Before I talk about my teaching and learning philosophies, I want to tell you two true stories. The first illustrates the importance of really paying attention to the education your child is getting. The second is to get across the fact that you can’t always take the busy, overwhelmed teacher’s word for what the root of the problem is because she may not have the time to figure it out.

 Story Time:

 For 8 years, I owned a learning center where I helped school-age kids who were struggling in school. I specialized in reading.

 When Justin’s mom brought her 2nd grader to me for testing, she didn’t know what to do. He was falling behind on his grades, especially compared to 1st grade. His teacher seemed annoyed and fed up with him. When I asked for details, the annoyance seemed to revolve around the fact that he often didn’t sit all the way down in his seat and stay there while he was working. The teacher was absolutely convinced Justin had ADHD and needed to be medicated.

 Justin’s mom didn’t like the idea of putting him on medication and brought him to see me in search of another way to raise his grades and another opinion on whether he should see a doctor about this.

 When I gave Justin the phonics assessment, it showed that, like most kids that were brought to me, then, he hadn’t been taught phonics. That explained the grade drop. Many kids can read by memorization for a while, but, as they are introduced to more and more words, they can become overwhelmed if they don’t have a key to unlock the (phonics) code.

 Justin’s mom signed him up for tutoring, and I started working with him. After a few sessions, she asked what I thought about the possibility of him having ADHD. This is what I told her, “I’m not qualified to make a medical diagnosis, but I can tell you how he acts here. He comes in and does whatever I ask of him. He can do page after page of the workbook without drifting off or losing focus. He is progressing through the workbook very quickly, understands the phonics rules easily, and he gets 100% on most pages. Then she asked if he was sitting in his chair and behaving.

 “I don’t make him sit down completely in his chair,” I told her. “I noticed it seems easier for him to focus on his work if I let him change positions. Sometimes he is sitting, sometimes he’s sort of half-standing with one knee on the chair while he does his work.”

 “So, do you think he’s ADHD?” she asked again.

 “Bottom line,” I told her. “Lots of little boys I’ve tutored have excess energy or they get hungry and restless. Justin is clearly intelligent and capable and I don’t see anything wrong that would keep him from learning. At this rate, he’ll probably be above grade level with his reading within three to four months. He seems fine.”

 Justin did, indeed, complete the phonics quickly and was able to successfully complete reading comprehension material  above grade level within a few months. His grades went up. His mom reported that his next teacher allowed him to sit how he needed to and seemed happy with him.

 Tiffany was a 7th grader. Her parents were paying for her to go to an expensive private school. She’d been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) which seemed to be a good diagnosis, from what I saw. Her mother had her come to me for several hours a day, four days a week (for reading, grammar, and math) during the summer to see if there was anything more I could do for her.

 A few days after Tiffany started with me, her mom happened to mention that the special teacher Tiffany went to at school because she had ADD had said she was doing 2nd grade level work. (That is not a typo.)

 I was horrified. “2nd grade work?” I asked. “Are you sure that’s what she said?” She was sure.

 At this point, I have to admit, I got very frustrated. I had to take a moment to calm myself and find my words. “I want to be very clear about this,” I said. “I have had Tiffany working on 5th and 6th grade level materials. She can often get 100% on them, but sometimes she’ll suddenly get a 60%. I’ve been sitting with her to see what happens. The low grades seem to result when she loses focus and her attention starts drifting. She can seem like she’s forgotten how to do the thing she’s been doing successfully. However, if I switch up what she’s working on and come back to the previous items later, she typically remembers how to do it and can make 80%-100% on it. That’s considered mastery, which means I’m planning to have her working at grade level before the summer is over. The part that scares me is this: If a teacher is telling you Tiffany is working at a 2nd grade level, that probably means all she’s giving her is 2nd grade level work. That makes it very easy on the teacher because she can just shove the very easy work in front of Tiffany and not have to put any effort into her, but Tiffany is not being challenged. How many more years are they going to keep her doing 2nd grade work?”

 From what I’ve seen, a lot of kids seem to either grow out of learning disabilities to some extent or figure out tricks that help them work around their issues. (I know several dyslexic writers. My favorite editor has dyslexia. She has to print manuscripts out and read them on paper because of it, but she’s a darn good editor.)

 What kids are less likely to grow out of is the fact that their best learning years were wasted, working way below their grade levels for the convenience of a lazy teacher. And when I found out what Tiffany’s mother was paying that private school, I felt kind of sick at my stomach. (I learned while tutoring that private school is not necessarily better than public. Some are great. Some aren’t.)

 My point is, regardless of pandemics or any ideas you have that the school’s educators know more than you do, you need to stay on top of your child’s learning. Even the best teachers get exhausted by the demands by 20-30 kids, the administrators, and parents. And they certainly can’t know your child as well as you do.



 Note: If your school district has managed to assemble an online system you and your child are happy with during the pandemic, there is no need to rock the boat, and there is still some information in this post for you.

My daughter and stepson are young adults, but if I had elementary-age children right now, I would unenroll them from regular school and do one of two things: Homeschool them myself or use an established online school like K12 or Connections Academy. Here’s a list of online schools if your local district's plan isn't working for you and you don’t want to homeschool them yourself: (I have not used online school, but know many who have for various reasons.)

My thoughts on what I would do in this situation are based on my assumption that most school districts haven’t had enough time to work the kinks out of such a drastic change in methods. This is the kind of monumental change institutions would spend years planning for, but they’ve only had weeks or a few months, at best. 

You’ll need to look up the laws in your state if you decide to unenroll your child from school and take responsibility for teaching her at home. Here is a site to get you started:

 If you can’t or don’t want to be your child’s only teacher, you can still improve his reading skills on your own. (See my Reading blog post.)

 The cool thing about real homeschooling (as opposed to normal school) is that an individual child needs less hours of organized school per day because he will be working on his level, at his own pace. (This can make it easier for you if you are trying to work from home and/or have a child that doesn’t want to sit and do the schoolwork she is assigned to do at home.) At school, the teacher has to account for the fact that she has a classroom full of kids that are officially in one grade, but, in reality, are all functioning at different levels on each subject

 I’ve done homeschooling, and it seems much easier to me than trying to keep up with a quickly cobbled together online system educators were forced to come up with practically overnight. Most teachers are not used to teaching online. Educators, like the rest of us, are at all different levels when it comes to their abilities to use technology effectively. And, without the teacher there, in person, it’s much harder to keep a kid working on tedious tasks for an entire school day. The parent-child relationship is much different than the teacher-child relationship. Don’t blame yourself if you have trouble getting them to behave and work all day.

 Regardless of Your Method: Adjusting Your Thinking and Attitude About Teaching Your Child at Home (a.k.a. CHILL!)

 School is a lie!

 Okay, maybe that’s just a tiny bit dramatic and inflammatory. But what I want you to realize is that, to some extent, school curriculum is arbitrary. Someone had to decide at what grade level the various topics within each subject would be put into the curriculum.

 In reality, it doesn’t matter if you learn that bats fly with sonar or how photosynthesis works in third grade or eighth grade. The timing and content of school curricula are not the same in every country or even every state in the U.S. Some things we know are done poorly, such as teaching foreign language to high schoolers instead of to elementary school students when language sticks to their little brains so much better. 

Regardless, my point is: There’s no need to be overly stressed about whether your child is learning exactly the same information she would have learned in a particular year in school.

 Now deep breathe and take that in for a moment. The fact that your child is at home when he would normally be at school does not mean he is getting irreparably behind in life. I personally know a number of people who started school without knowing English and caught up, then surpassed, many of the other students. I also tutored lots of kids who started out reading multiple grade levels behind, and most were reading above grade level within 5 months because I used the best phonics system and worked with them 1 to 3 students at a time.

 If you think homeschooling on your own might be a better fit right now than trying to navigate the slew of emails from teachers or the hodgepodge of websites they’re having to use to run online school, you don’t need to have your child sit at the kitchen table and work for 6 or 7 hours per day. And you certainly don’t need to stress about how you will teach every possible subject.

 What should the priorities be?

 Reading and math.

 Reading is at the top of my list because nearly everything your child will do in school and nearly every job in her future will require reading. As I mentioned above, for years, I tutored kids who were behind in reading. Typically, as soon as we got the reading level up where it was supposed to be, all the other grades went up, including math (because they were finally able to read the word problems correctly). A child who is a confident reader can easily become a self-learner, especially with tools like the internet that are available today.

 Did you know software developers (aka computer programmers), even at the highest levels, use Google to figure out how to do their jobs? There is so much technology out there and so much more being created all the time that no one can be a “computer expert.” Programmers are constantly needing to read and figure out the best technology and methods to use for whatever project they’ve been assigned. They get paid well, not because they have giant brains that hold every computer language and every possible tool and every possible combination of methods for writing a program. They get paid well because they are self-learners.

 Once a person becomes a self-learner, all kinds of things are possible. My twenty-something daughter and stepson have been using the extra time the pandemic has given them to learn new things. I was aware my daughter was learning a couple of languages on the Duolingo app. But a few days ago, I found her with her phone propped on the kitchen table. She appeared to be holding an entire conversation on her phone in American Sign Language. As it turns out, there’s a website for that.

 Our son just finished college and is applying online for jobs. Meanwhile, he has used the internet to learn how to compose some weird niche music on his computer (without an instrument) and people who sing that weird niche music have started offering him money to compose music for their lyrics. He also reads up on all kinds of things from science to cooking, which means he can hold conversations on a myriad of topics, which will be handy in his business career. Our daughter’s friends have started commenting on how interesting and cool he is. Lately, we’ve been referring to him as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

 Why is math the other big priority?

 Because, even in elementary school, math classes are constantly building on what you learned in previous math classes. For example, you can’t be expected to sit down and start multiplying fractions if you never learned what multiplication is or what fractions are.

 Also, because math works the problem-solving part of your brain, it can help a person do a lot of different kinds of jobs better in the future, even if the job doesn’t require you to sit and do math all day.

 If you are planning to do full-fledged homeschool this year, you get to choose what you use and how you use it. Common Core is being used in a lot of schools now to try to address the fact that the U.S. is way behind most other developed countries in math. When I started hearing the term, I felt like many people: “Why in the world do they need to change math?” But, after looking into it, I realized I’d been using common core methods for years, whenever I needed to do math quickly in my head, even though it wasn’t taught back when I was in school.

 Here’s a quick video that explains it well:

 You can choose whether you want a more traditional workbook or a Common Core workbook. If there’s a chance that your child is behind in math, I would start with a workbook at a lower grade level, then move on to the next grade level after he shows mastery of the first. (Mastery is when the student is consistently scoring 80%-100%.)



Setting a child up for failure by getting materials that are too advanced. If your child does a few pages and bombs, take the workbook away and say you don’t think it’s very good and you need to find another one. Then start at a lower grade level. 

 Loss of confidence is a huge problem. When I was tutoring reading, most 1st and 2nd graders hadn’t lost all their confidence yet. They believed the tutoring would help them. However, somewhere between 3rd and 6th grade, many students who’ve been getting bad grades for years start losing hope. Then they start mentally turning away from school, and learning in general, because it has brought them nothing but failure and humiliation.

 Story Time:

I’ll never forget Sarah, a 6th grader. My phone rang one day and her mother said, “I’m calling you because my daughter is in the car with me crying. She just got her report card and she’s failing classes. She doesn’t cause problems in school. She’s a good kid who wants to do well. On top of everything else, her teacher told her, in front of the whole class, that she can’t read.”

 When Sarah came to see me the first time, I gave her the phonics test, which she flunked, like most other students that came to me. I looked into her huge—heartbreakingly sad—blue eyes and explained what we were going to do to fix her reading and that this wasn’t her fault. She just hadn’t been taught phonics. She nodded politely, but I could tell she didn’t believe me. She seemed downtrodden and hopeless at 12.

 Six weeks later, Sarah got another report card and the F’s had gone up to C’s. She was a believer then. She would come in, get her phonics workbook and comprehension book and start working before her mother was finished saying goodbye to me.  Six weeks after that, she walked into tutoring confidently and told me she had all B’s on her report card and she planned to have some A’s next time. She finished the phonics and was working on eight grade level comprehension within a few weeks and I congratulated her and told her she was done. Her mom called me a few weeks later to tell me Sarah’s report card was nothing but A’s.

 Note: Don’t freak out if your child is working below grade level. As you saw in the previous story, kids working at their own pace can move up multiple grade levels in one year. I had my daughter tested in the spring of her 1st grade year because she decided she would—finally—be emotionally ready to leave me and go to regular school for 2nd grade. So, March of her 1st grade year, she tested at 4th grade level in overall reading, 7th grade level for vocabulary. (This is because I don’t believe in dumbing down vocab for kids. They learn whatever words they hear you using.) Her math skills tested as if she were in the latter half of 2nd grade.

 Another Note: While we were still homeschooling, we joined a homeschooler group that went on field trips together. Most of the kids were much more articulate and knowledgeable than their “regular school” counterparts. In my experience, children usually progress faster when they get individualized help and are in groups of 1-5. (If you’re wondering why I put my daughter in school if homeschooling was so successful, it’s because I had 2 long-term illnesses that were being incorrectly diagnosed, and I was exhausted from entertaining my curious child 24/7 for 7 years.)

At the request of some of my fiction readers who are parents trying to educate their children during the pandemic, I am writing these education blog posts in August and September of 2020 as fast as I can. Check back for more posts in a few days.

Other education blog posts published or currently in the works:

-READ THIS FIRST: Educating at Home: Deciding What to Do and How to Do It

-READ THIS SECOND: Getting the Most from Your Child

-Reading: Quick Phonics Assessment

-Reading: Teaching Reading the Right Way

-Where to Find Learning Materials for My Preschool or Elementary School Student?

-Creating Real-life "Opportunity Learning" Moments

-Preparing Your Infant and Toddler for Success

Copyright 2020 Nina Cordoba

posted by Nina 0 Comments

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