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I'm looking for strategies to improve my child's learning skills.

I want my child to be a life-long learner -- to pick up new things easily, and to learn even when not being given formal instruction (for example, by picking up a book on something that interests him and learning to do it).

What skills are involved with learning, how can they be improved, and how can I observe and evaluate that improvement?

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6 Answers

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+50

As Erin's answer mentioned, there are different types of learners, with different strengths. It was focused on the book-based learning - I will try to give a broader perspective. Hope you will find some useful bits in it :-)

There are different types of intelligence, according to Howard Gardner. And traditional schools only focus on visual and verbal intelligence: a kid needs to be good at reading/writing, and verbally presenting knowledge, in order to perform well in such a school. Kids who are behind on these areas can get a lot of negative experiences in school, which - even if they have special abilities in other areas, or huge potential which develops slowly - may make them disillusioned and disinterested in learning in general.

So I think the most important things are:

  • be a good role model - if you are an avid reader, learner and questioner, your child most likely will become one as well
  • observe, recognize and appreciate your child's talent - every child has talent in some area(s), it is up to us to acknowledge and encourage it
  • help to develop a balanced skill set - it is also important to develop the weak areas, to avoid one-sidedness. Most likely your child has one or more favourite subjects / skills / approaches to learning, but you should also ensure that (s)he isn't totally lost in some other area
  • provide ample resources - given the previous points, if you surround the child with good books, games, toys and any other means to explore, learn and experiment, (s)he will naturally use them (although not necessarily the way they were intended to use - so relax your expectations and look for toys which are meant to be used creatively, not only by some fixed predefined rules)
  • make sure (s)he is in an environment where her natural curiosity and enthusiasm to learn and understand the world is not stifled - children are natural learners and researchers, constantly formulating and then validating their own views and theories about how the world is working (on the level appropriate to their age, of course). Unless you start shoving unsolicited answers on them and requiring them to learn and regurgitate these ready-made answers. Which is exactly what many schools do, effectively making most of the pupils hate maths / physics / ..., and feeling themselves more or less incompetent in these areas, by the time they graduate.
  • emphasize the fun, not the learning - children naturally learn incredible amounts of stuff without ever noticing that they are actually learning: they are (at least for a narrow-minded adult) "just playing". In fact that's the best and most effective way of learning. So make it fun and keep it fun, as much as you can, as long as you can.

One caveat: these steps (and the view behind them) may lead to a direction other than what we originally envisioned for our child. It may turn out that (s)he is not so much interested in books, but e.g. music, painting or sports. As per the 3rd point above, it is fine to prod him/her to develop a balanced skill set, but IMHO we should not force our own view about "desirable" skills to our child. Note also that even if (s)he may hate reading at a certain age and spend all the day playing the guitar, at a later stage (s)he will probably realise the importance of the theory, history etc. behind the sound, at which point she most likely will pick up related books out of her own free will.

It is important to note that being a lifelong learner should be the means, not the end in itself. I think that keeping up the child's internal enthusiasm and joy in learning is the most important thing, because that - and only that - allows him/her to perform miracles. As opposed to drilling the child to become a diligent book reader and good school performer, at the price of killing his/her internal motivation and making her always conform to external opinions - in short, an unhappy person.

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I think your list is great (show a good role model etc.), but have to add that the theory of multiple intelligences has no support from brain research: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… It's just a hypothesis. –  Vesa Linja-aho Jan 19 '12 at 10:15
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@Vesa, that's a fair point - the Wikipedia article I linked to also discusses similar criticism. I agree that we don't need to take Gardner's thoughts as scientifically proven. However, I feel that it is still useful, at least as a metaphor, which helps us to avoid trying to squeeze different types of people into one single category. –  Péter Török Jan 19 '12 at 10:40
    
@VesaLinja-aho as I said in the comment below, simply going into a classroom will show multiple intelligences. –  morah hochman Jan 19 '12 at 13:37
    
+1 role model role model role model! –  morah hochman Jan 19 '12 at 13:37
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There are three styles of learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Most people use all three to varying degrees, but have one that is stronger. Depending on your child's strengths, they many not be as skilled at picking up a book and learning a topic. This does not mean they are not intelligent, or capable of learning. The majority of people are social learners and need instruction from others. This does not mean everyone cannot be life-long learners, it just means most of us need to seek out classes or others to accomplish that learning.

With that being said, it sounds like you value visual learning more than others. If this is not your child's natural strength, you can work extensively on reading. Many measures used in formal education actually focus on visual learning as nearly all tests are read and answer format. Most educators agree that the greatest indicator of success as a student is the ability to read well and this seems to be in line with the type of learning you are interested in promoting.

To promote reading, read with your child every day. From birth children should be read to on a daily basis. As your child begins to develop, they will begin to know the stories or recognize words - encourage them to say any words they recognize. As they become beginning readers, read with them having them read a page and you read a page. Be gentle in your corrections of missed words. Further, there is no such thing as being too old to be read to. Being read to helps children further develop their reading skills. If your goal is to have your child be a visual learner, improving reading is the best route to that.

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I have to add that according to present research, it seems that those learning styles are a myth: thepsychfiles.com/2009/03/… washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/09/… –  Vesa Linja-aho Jan 19 '12 at 9:43
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@VesaLinja-aho as a teacher I completely disagree, learning styles are easily identified in a classroom and should be used to teach each child best. –  morah hochman Jan 19 '12 at 13:36
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My advice is: do whatever you cat to get your child read. Take him/her to museums, science fairs etc. Show that learning new things is fun.

And last: every time (s)he asks you something, give him/her an answer. For example, when your child asks why the sky is blue, do not tell that "it just is blue" but google for the answer. It answer can be short and simplified, as long as it is true.

The more your child learns, the more (s)he can learn more. That's how brain works.

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Here are some thoughts based on my own childhood and experience with my 3 kids.

Build Associations

Make the process of learning fun, that means special time spent teaching one on one during the day when kids are awake. I believe associating learning with one on one time like this builds positive associations with learning. Tell them about subjects that interest you. If they can see your enthusiasm that will help them.

Answer questions

Some kids use questions as a means of getting your attention. This is good, use it, encourage it, and try to encourage them to think about the answers for themselves.

Encourage them to think of themselves as bright

If you can make learning really special and fun, they'll have a good base to carry on from. If they're ahead of the game, school will be easy and they'll learn to think of themselves as bright. This will naturally affect the way they talk and act. People enjoy doing things that they think they're good at.

Look for talents

Not everyone is a future university professor, and there are plenty more ways to be intelligent. Read Ken Robinson for more on this. Look for what your child enjoys, painting, dancing, looking at flowers, and encourage that. Talk about it and see what they think.

Tiredness

Don't try to push through tiredness. If your child is not learning or can't concentrate, leave off for the day and do something else instead. Don't show them that learning is frustrating and difficult. Build happy associations.

Remove roadblocks

My son was often resistant to going to school. I had a long quiet talk with him and it turned out he was having trouble socialising, so wasn't enjoying it. I gave him some pointers and we talked with his teacher, and now he's fine and happy. If there's something in their way, be it socialising or shortsightedness, be alert for it and lift it out of their way.

Encourage Reading

Little by little, day by day. Get them a nightlight or a torch so they can read sneakily under the covers, even if they're just looking for Wally (Waldo). Leave good books around the place. Read to them to show how fun it is.

Fit in with school

If your child is covering a topic at school, talk about it, ask about it, and even do some fun experiments. Diet Coke and Mentos teach the properties of matter. Shadows on the wall from a big torch teach about light and shadow.

Make exercise sheets, and reward with attention

Make sheets where the child has to fill in the answers, or find the missing number. Make it special, give them lots of praise when they get it right.

Ask questions and reward answers with praise

  • "What's that cup made out of?"
  • "Which is biggest, the sun or the moon?"
  • "What is wind?"
  • "What is a shadow?"

Reward with lots of praise.

Use YouTube, Google earth, etc

Show them videos of the sizes of planets and stars, the way cells work, anything sparky and fun. Show them where Australia is. Let them ask questions. Download educational iPhone apps. There are plenty of good ones.

Dream up special rewards

Currently my son gets pegs on his washing line when he does good reading. Each peg has a word attached and he gets to choose and write the word. Be creative. rewards lose their power over time.

Pay attention to what works, and do that

Not every child is the same, and children change all the time, so pay attention to what works and do that. Follow their interests, give them a good base, and share your enthusiasm.

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All the answers have some good elements but I would like to add some thoughts as well.

First of all, don't stress it; your child will learn (at his/her own pace, not yours.

In terms of teaching how to learn the best way is through modeling. Model both the way you learn best and other modes of learning. When you are using other modes of learning demonstrate when it gets frustrating and what you do about it (persevere and keep trying to learn)

I wouldn't recommend making home like school (giving worksheets, etc.). That is the way they learn in school, they can learn different things at home.

Practice things like reading with you child but DON'T teach them how; that is not your job.

Talk with the teacher about what you can do to encourage your child.

Encourage brain development instead of academics at home (games, crafts, exploring). Answer questions and ask questions.

Overall, have fun with your child...you would be surprised how much you are naturally allowing him/her to learn from you when you spend quality, non stress time with your child.

As a teacher I can also say that kids do know how to learn and love learning naturally, it is when they are pushed beyond their abilities or are having other issues that this goes away.

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Learning to Learn

On one hand I am thinking that in order to learn to learn you must also learn to make good decisions, learn to defer short term rewards for long term ones, and so many other things. On the other hand I am thinking that children are built to learn. They soak in everything in their environment and incorporate it into their ever evolving theory of the world. I am bit dubious about teaching someone how to pick up things easily.

Making Good Decisions

Making good decisions will help a child prioritize learning and requires the following skills. Teach them by example, by simulation, and by identifying and encouraging the steps while your child makes them naturally.

  • Being able to identify the range of choices. Expert level; being able to see past the options provided.
  • Predicting the likely outcomes for each of the choices considered. Expert level; remember making no choice has an outcome as well.
  • Understand your values as explicitly as possible. Expert level; know immediately what you would do in a variety of situations where your values are in conflict.
  • Apply your values to the outcomes you've identified.
  • Make you choice based on the outcome most in line with your values.

Defer Short Term Rewards

Helping children to be future oriented and defer immediate pleasure is important to learning. Often in learning no tangible benefit presents itself in the present. We have to believe that there is a payoff in the future worth the effort. Some ideas on future orientation:

  • Talk about the future, make long term plans with your child.
  • Set short, medium, and long term goals.
  • Invent games that require patience to win.
  • Be optimistic about the future.

Children: Built to Learn

Engage children in imaginative free play around subjects they are interested in. Give them as many opportunities for diverse experiences in complex environments. Trust them. Challenge them. Play with them but let them lead. Respond to their interests. Don't worry too much about the subject that interests your children; focus on the learning that will occur around pursuing the interest. Some initial ideas:

  • Go to the library and learn how to find and borrow books on the subject
  • Make drawings or get coloring books on the subject.
  • Build/make things related; costumes, forts, diorama
  • Put on a drama, play, puppet show, etc.

Picking Things Up

Picking things up without putting in the work is uncommon. We are more likely to pick things up easily in our areas of interest precisely because we have amassed a foundation of knowledge around the subject and the new things have a place to fit into our ideas. We have already put in the work (it just didn't feel like work). Don't put too much emphasis on picking things up easily.

Some critical learning skills: Learning to read makes learning everything else easier. Learning to write well helps us organize our ideas and communicate them to others. Writing is learning. Learning to speak and perform in front of others give us access to learn in a new environment. Learning to play music can teach us discipline and that rewards come from practice. Learning numbers and math allow us to analyze the world and solve problems. Learning to draw and photograph teaches us to see and look for meaning in the mundane things around us. Learning to scramble on rocks and hills teaches us to take risks that are worth it.

These are simply a few examples from my priorities.

Some references that may be valuable:

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Lots of good ideas / views, however many of them are very age-dependent. Or to be more precise, depends on the child's (or adult's :-) current level of cognitive / logical / etc. development. E.g. young kids (roughly < 7) can't enlist choices in a specific decision point, and can't envision the possible future effects of a given choice, as that requires a level of abstract thinking which they simply don't have yet. –  Péter Török Jan 20 '12 at 13:52
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