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Ask an Expert: Boosting the middle school mind

Metro State University professor Aaron Richmond offers parents some tips to help their middle schoolers enhance their ability to learning during a challenging period of their educational journeys.

As our fledgling adolescents enter the daunting, exciting and potentially emotional journey of middle school, what I dub the Wonderful World of Oz, we can help reduce some of the anxiety around academic learning and performance by teaching memory strategies to our children (aka munchkins).

Educational and psychological research is rife with studies that stress the importance of teaching students how to learn and create learning strategies. However, as often happens researchers (myself included) are poor at communicating these important findings to you, the parent.

First, realize there are no ruby slippers, however, as both a parent and researcher, I am here to guide you in helping your munchkins navigate the exhilarating and at the same time frightening World of Oz.

Understanding the lingo and learning strategies

Although, at first glance, writing to you about elaborative strategies may seem to be an unearthly topic, research suggests that elaborative strategies can be extremely effective in learning all sorts of class material varying from science concepts learning to social studies material.

Simply, an elaborative strategy occurs when your munchkin uses specific parts of something to be learned and expands or elaborates this information by relating it to information they already know.

For instance, in elaborative interrogation strategy, your munchkin may want to know why a snowshoe hare turns white in winter. You could ask them to think of other animals that turn a color and why. They may respond by saying chameleons change color so a predator does not eat them. You could then point out that the hare does that for the same reason. Guess what, they just realized they were not in Kansas anymore and they elaborated.

What does Toto the dog and pears have in common? Answer: The keyword mnemonic. This strategy is specifically useful for the munchkin who is visually predisposed and geared for learning vocabulary. It involves taking an unknown word and visually pairing it with an acoustically similar word.

For example, to learn that the Spanish word for dog is perro, you could ask your munchkin to tell you what perro sounds like. She may reply that it sounds like pear. Then you instruct her to imagine a dog eating a pear and when she reads the word perro she should first think of what that word sounds like which should then cue the memory of the correct definition.

Self-explanation is a strategy that cognitive neuroscientist have found to improve reading comprehension. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, have you ever read a book that loses your attention (aka, many middle school science books) and quickly realized that you’ve read two pages and have no idea what you just read? Well, you just engaged in the initial steps of self-explanation.

Take it one step further with your munchkin and have them stop every other paragraph and explain what they just read. Additionally, have them relate it to other parts of the book in a more cohesive/elaborative manner. They will then elaborate and make connections among seemingly different parts of the text and improve comprehension.

How do I remember lions, and tigers and bears? Answer: Acrostics. Acrostics have long been used and are effective in learning lists and ordered information. This elaborative strategy involves using the first letter for each item in a list used to tell a story. The most famous of all are Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (i.e., order of operations in math) or Never Eat Soggy Wheaties (north, east, south, west) or My Very Educated Mother Just Served us Nine Pizzas! (i.e., planets, although Pluto is hotly debated:).

These are just a few of many elaborative strategies that have been found to be effective in learning middle school classroom content. Remember, don’t be afraid to travel to far away places…like Oz for these strategies will help guide your way.

Tips to help your middle schoolers get it

Great, now that you know various elaborative strategies, how the H, E, Double Hockey Sticks to you teach your munchkin these strategies?

  • You must realize that you have to approach the problem from a wise and tempered path (aka scarecrow) rather from a know-it-all windbag path (aka the great wizard).
  • Give your munchkins a lot of practice (you may need to practice yourself).
  • Encourage your munchkins to explore and experiment with each of the strategies by using them in multiple contexts and formats (e.g., biology, math, literacy, social studies).
  • Have your munchkins self-assess the effectiveness of these strategies so that they can take ownership of them and adapt and increase their own metacognition.
  • Finally, avoid the poppies but have them sleep on it. There is some great neuroscience research that suggests our mind keeps rehearsing and elaborating as we sleep and if your munchkin is using an effective strategy prior to bedtime, then all the better.

Whether you personify the Lion, Dorothy, the Tinman, Glinda The Good Witch, or even Toto, in the end you are there to help your munchkin get through the intense, magical, and the sometimes stressful World of Oz. By taking the time to teach them a few of the elaborative strategies may make that journey a little less daunting and magical as it should be.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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