By Patrick McNamara
How can parents and homework compete with Fortnight and Minecraft? The simple answer is that they can’t. However, parents can use their children’s own interests to motivate tweens and teens to learn more and, in the process, teach their children skills that will transfer to their classroom learning and, ultimately, lead to higher standardized test scores.
Carnegie Mellon University brain researchers Marcel Just and Timothy Keller have said that after just six weeks of intensive reading, students who had been poor readers were not only able to improve their skills, but grew new white-matter connections in their brains. This means that the brain can actually change its connections through learning and adaptation, and the study shows that white-matter improvements had more to do with how many hours students “trained” or practiced reading than how “good they were.” In essence, the more students read, the more enjoyable reading becomes and the more those skills are used in real-life situations.
The first step for you, as a parent, is to identify what gets your child excited and to learn about it yourself. Ongoing communication with your children is more effective if it can be delivered on common ground, rather than from “on high.” Read the “hot” tween books, watch the movies for them, and listen to the movie soundtrack together. Discuss how the book and movie differ. Did the plot change? Did the movie introduce new characters? Did your teen prefer the book or the movie? In short, learn about the books and trends that dominate your teenager’s world. Then, look for creative ways to add an educational component to your child’s favorite activities.
For example, if your teenager can’t get enough of a show that involves foreign countries or outer space, leverage that interest to learn about geography, international culture or the science of manned space exploration. Ask her to identify locations from the books on a map – do they exist or are they fictional? Or, encourage him to find a virtual “pen pal” in Italy to compare his life and everyday activities. Or buy a telescope and track when and where they’ll find a satellite that just launched from Florida.
Science is just as easy to incorporate into everyday activities. Ask your tween to calculate the distance between Forks, Washington, and Rome, Italy. Compare the speed of a downhill motorbike ride versus an uphill ride. Research other methods of transportation and the scientific explanation of balance and speed.
Yes, even Linkin Park and Muse have lessons to teach. Your child’s favorite bands can be avenues for self-expression. By memorizing lyrics or even writing their own, students can learn the importance of the written and spoken word. They can research the artists’ backgrounds and find out the process to make a CD.
Parents can combine these enjoyable activities with the basics of motivating a student – goal-setting, rewards, and reinforcement. Plan out activities and classroom assignments with your child. Determine together the steps of the process and when the assignment will be finished. Provide the tools to complete the task. For larger projects, consider offering mini-rewards throughout the process to keep your tween motivated to see it through. We all like a nominal bonus for achieving an interim goal at work! Rewards can be as simple as a pat on the back or the ability to stay out an hour later on the weekend. When the project is complete, review it together, and congratulate him or her on a job well done. Share your child’s success with other family members – nothing makes your teen feel better than to “overhear” you singing his or her praises.
The more your teen reads, the more he or she will know. All of the skills learned through these activities will translate into the classroom by reinforcing geography, analytical comprehension, reading and research skills. By joining in your tween’s fun, you’ll also demonstrate that learning takes place everywhere and that it is enjoyable.
For additional tips on instilling the joy of reading and making learning a fun family endeavor, visit the “Sylvan Source” area of www.SylvanLearning.com.
Patrick McNamara is the owner and executive director at Sylvan Learning of Albany and Clifton Park. For more information, visit SylvanLearning.com.