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by Joyce Herzog

It took me ten years to become a good teacher. You don’t have ten years, so here is a crash course for you, with some valuable lessons that I learned.

It is essential that you speak to your learners as though they are people, not just children. The difference is a matter of tone, body language, and word choice. They must know that you recognize them as persons separate from yourself―persons with opinions, skills, and preferences.

They need to know who the ultimate boss is, but there are many times when it is appropriate to ask their opinions and preferences. When there is no choice, make that clear in a non-threatening way. Whenever possible, offer an option within their ability to choose:
We’re getting dressed. Would you like to wear the blue outfit or the red?
It’s time for breakfast. Would you like toast or cereal?
Don’t ever offer a choice if there is none. “Would you like to go to bed now?” or “Get dressed now, okay?” are only appropriate if they are allowed to say, “No!”

Verbal Skills

Verbal language is the foundation of all learning and must be taught while children are young. Teach them to notice and verbalize similarities and differences. Teach them to categorize things in different ways.

  • The easiest level of categories is by physical characteristics (shape, color, and size).
  • The next level is according to function (their use), and relationships (what they go with).
  • Abstract categories are more advanced (animal, vegetable, mineral), as are sub-categories (fruit and vegetables, or farm and zoo).
  • Provide many experiences with good picture books. Point to objects. First you name them; then have the children repeat the name; finally, have the children name them themselves. Count objects, find and identify partially hidden objects, and notice and verbalize characteristics of the objects. Ask the children to make choices like, “Which one would you like to play on?”
  • Ask them to describe details they can see. Later, ask them to describe details they can’t see. You will need to begin this by asking appropriate questions. If they answer with one-word answers, restate their answer into a sentence.
  • Encourage recalling and retelling stories and events.
  • Take the time to listen! As your children mature, assist with getting things in sequence, stating information in complete sentences, transitioning smoothly from one idea to the next, and using descriptive and interesting words.

Comprehension Skills

When checking for comprehension, ask children open-ended questions rather than simple recall questions.

  • “Tell me what you remember about the story. How do you know the boy was sad?” encourages more thinking than, “What color was the ball? What was the girl’s name?”
  • Ask them to define words with words. “Tell me what a fork is. How do you use it? What does it look like? Where do you find forks? What could you use if you can’t find your fork? What goes with a fork? Where do you buy forks?”
  • Encourage the verbalization of thinking and the development of steps and plans, such as explaining how to make a salad: I need to make salad this afternoon. I need to check and see what supplies I have on hand first. Then I need to go to the store to buy mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes. When I get them home, I will rinse the vegetables before I cut them and mix them together to make the salad.
  • Speak about cause and effect. Use words like “because, since, although, and nevertheless.” Ask “how and why” questions as often as “what, when, and where.”

Thinking Skills

When a child asks a question, determine what he already knows. It is easiest to just begin talking, but more efficient to listen to discover what information (or mis-information) he brings to the topic. Then take him a step or two further. It is often best to answer a question with a question. What do you think? How could you figure that out? Do you need help with that? Wait at least three seconds after asking a question before going on with an explanation. Give children time to struggle without help or condemnation. They need time to formulate their answer.

Give them an opportunity to clarify their thinking:

  • I didn’t understand. Can you explain it another way?
  • What do you mean by that?
  • How did you do that?
  • Could you give me a couple of examples?
  • I think I understand your words, but how does that relate to what we were saying?

Obedience Skills

Set goals that are well within reach, and reward children amply for meeting them. Don’t take the easy way out. If you give an order, see that it is carried out. Don’t demand when options are acceptable. When there is disobedience, respond immediately. Don’t look the other way unless you want them to learn to ignore you next time.

Thinking like a teacher really comes down to knowing where you want to go and choosing which way to get there, who to take on the journey, and how long to allow.

This information was first published in The Link, September 2010 and reprinted with permission in the the Virginia Home Educator, Spring 2011. Joyce Herzog’s books “Luke’s Life List” and “Luke’s School List” name academic and life skills from the cradle through adolescence. Visit her website, AbilityBasedLearning.com (Formerly, JoyceHerzog.com)

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