Five quick ways to help your child with English home learning

In the last lockdown, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that students were not getting enough work sent home, and teenagers were either not doing anything, or struggling to continue their studies on their own. This time around, the issues seem to be to do with overload and overwhelm. Schools are terrified of being accused of not sending home enough work (thanks Gavin) so they are instead sending out unrealistic amounts. This is putting huge pressure on both children and parents, especially those who are working. These five tips are not designed to add to the workload, but to give you some simple ways you can encourage and support your child if he/she is struggling, without burning yourself out in the process. 

  1. Get them to the dictionary! Encourage him/her to be resilient, and use resources around them to aid their learning. If your child is not understanding what they are reading, do they need to be a bit more proactive, and look up words? Of course, if they are doing this and still not understanding, then it could be that the reading level is not quite right. In normal circumstances, I would recommend discussing this with your child’s teacher, but if this is not possible at present, then encourage your child to get what they can from the text, answer the questions they can, and then leave it. 
  2. Use the power of the internet. There is a lot of rubbish online, but there are also a lot of good resources that may help your child make sense of the work they have been set. This is particularly the case with some of the established GCSE texts such as Macbeth or An Inspector Calls. There is a lot of material out there that can help, especially if your child is struggling to follow the story, or needs some historical context explaining. For example, if he/she is struggling with Shakespeare, there are websites such as No Fear Shakespeare, which provide modern day translations of many Shakespeare plays. 
  3. Make use of self-assessment tools. Whilst it may be tricky to get your child’s work marked at this time, there are things they can do to help them assess their own progress. If your child is in the examination years, looking at mark schemes can be a good way to focus him/her, reminding them of the skills they need to be developing in order to make progress. Many schools also provide level ladders to encourage peer and self-assessment, so ensure that your child is making use of these wherever he/she can. These measures are of course only a short-term replacement for teacher feedback and assessment, but they will give your child some way of knowing whether or not he/she is making progress.
  4. Use film to help where you can. Film is an underrated teaching tool in English and could help if your child has hit a brick wall with his/her studies.If they are finding the text too overwhelming and cannot access any of the work, go to the film. They will get an overview of the story and the characters, and whilst it will not necessarily unlock the text for them immediately, it is definitely a start. If he/she is studying the play, then have a look and see if there are any versions of the play available online to watch. With theatres in crisis, places like the National Theatre have been streaming plays to help stay afloat, so you could see if there is anything on offer. Plus, it may buy you an hour or two where you know they are engaged in work but they do not need your help! 
  5. Ask questions. Do not struggle in silence. Get your child to ask their friends for help, or perhaps create a Whatsapp study group. This is great for their mental wellbeing as well, as it will help them not to feel so alone. If you know any other parents with students in similar age groups, make a Whatsapp group between you. Use online study forums, or post in groups, such as my secondary parents’ group, Flying High. 

For further tips and support, including weekly lives, make sure you join my Facebook group, Flying High – Helping Your Child Flourish at Secondary School Level. 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/496757410999463

Five Features of a Dystopian Text

As we head into the New Year, it means the start of another new topic for my Writer’s Club. This term, we move onto the fascinatingly frightful world of dystopia. But what is dystopia all about? One of the reasons I find it fascinating is that whilst it may be set in the future, in reality it has far more to say about our present society. Here are five key features to look out for!

Totalitarian government 

This is a core feature of any dystopian text. There will be a ruling authority that has often seized power by questionable means, who seek to control and dominate every aspect of the lives of its citizens. In The Hunger Games, all the citizens of the districts are ruled by the Capitol, who control them through the terrifying Hunger Games, a constant reminder that they are only alive because of the “mercy” of those in power. The districts live in poverty and starvation, whilst citizens of the Capitol live in excess and luxury. Or in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the ruling authorities in Gilead have imposed an archaic and barbaric set of laws, designed to return women to their “natural” role as mothers and housekeepers, in order to combat the steep decline in the population growth rate. Again, the Commanders and their wives live in wealth, whilst others are stripped of all liberties and rights. 

The individual versus the collective

Developing the role of the totalitarian government, there is also a core battle between the individual and the collective that goes deeper than just telling people what to do. For example, in 1984, citizens are not merely controlled by rules, but instead through a process of psychological manipulation, overseen by the Thought Police. Children are indoctrinated and led to believe they have a duty to report their parents for Thought Crime. In Oceania, even your mind does not belong to you. Similarly, in Divergent, the state seeks to obliterate any individuals who do not fit securely into the different categories of the faction system, labelling them divergent and therefore dangerous. 

The dangers of science 

This is a key theme that is explored in dystopian fiction, offering up a warning about what could happen if scientific knowledge got into the wrong hands. For example, in Never Let Me Go, the cloning process has been perfected to the point where children are created to be organ donors. However, these clones have their own consciousness, and therefore the use of the harvesting of their organs is essentially a state-sponsored murder. In Brave New World, scientists have been able to create humans with differing levels of intelligence, meaning that their life’s work is predetermined before they are even born.

The hero 

The main character in a dystopian novel is usually able to recognise what the state is doing, and the novel tracks their attempts to challenge and undermine the government. For example, in 1984, we follow Winston’s journey, as he thinks he is associating with like-minded individuals who want to bring down the government. By the end of the novel however, the state has taken control of him mentally, and rather than triumphing, he ends the novel by reaffirming his love for Big Brother, the figurehead of the government. Interestingly, in more recent dystopian novels, there has been more of a trend of female protagonists, such as Katniss Everdeen, Triss Prior or Offred/June(as she is known in the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale). It is very important that we relate to the main character, as they need to embody humanity in a society that has either forgotten or been robbed of it. For example, our connection with Katniss relies upon the fact that we know she is willing to risk death in order to protect her sister. This act of love creates a sense of empathy for the reader. 

Entropy 

Being set in the future, you would expect society to have taken major strides forward, and yet in many a dystopian society, things have gone backward and society seems to have regressed. For example, in Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, the characters are moving through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where America now lies in ruins. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, with the exception of the Capitol, the districts are broken down and citizens live in poverty. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead has deliberately turned its back on modern advances in order to restore proper values to society. In 1984, Oceania is purposely kept run down, in order to keep its citizens in a permanent state of wartime, as this makes them more willing to accept demands without question. 
Sounding interesting? In The Writer’s Club, we will be spending more time diving into this genre, before having a go at creating our own dystopian stories. The club meets on Sundays at 11 am and there is currently a very limited number of spaces remaining. To find out more, get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com.

Setting New Year’s Resolutions or How to Plan in Chaos

This is the time of year where we normally look at the year ahead, and focus on what we want to achieve. This year, the way ahead is still unclear, despite the hope that the new vaccine brings. Secondary school students have coped remarkably well with all of this uncertainty, taking it in their stride and often showing an impressive maturity in adapting. However, we all need goals to help us feel as if we are working towards something, Here are a few tips to help your child plan ahead for 2021. 

Break down bigger goals 

Goals can motivate us, but they can also overwhelm us if they are too big. If your child is aiming for a particular grade in a subject, they need to break it down and think about what they can actually do on a weekly and monthly basis in order to achieve. They need to think about what is reasonably within their control, and what is realistic within the time that they have available. Furthermore, they do need to ensure that the goal is feasible. For example, if they are currently targeted to achieve a Grade Four in English, then aiming to reach a Grade Nine by the end of the year is most likely to be too much of a jump. They need to take smaller steps, first focusing on how to reach a Grade Five or Six, and then depending on how quickly they make this progress, potentially looking at the higher grades. 

Get Organised 

Students need to have a look at how they are actually using their time, and whether or not they are truly being as productive as they can be. This does not mean working all the time, it means having a structure to the day that enables students to get their work done, whilst also incorporating time to relax before the next school day. When students get home from school, they need to have a clear structure for this time. This should be flexible enough to incorporate both extra curricular activities and rest, but also allow time to get key pieces of homework done. If students are doing subjects that require coursework, then they should also make sure they are planning to do a certain amount on this each week until the deadline, not leaving until the last minute. Of course, given the frequent lockdowns and isolations at the moment, this planning will need to be altered, but the day should always have a shape to it, otherwise students can easily end up doing nothing. 

Find Your Intrinsic Motivation 

In these unsettled times, relying on extrinsic motivation (external rewards) can be an uncertain method. Promised holidays and treats may not be able to take place, and these ultimately tend to be a short-lived method of motivation anyway. Now is a great time to get your child to think about what really motivates them, and what they would like to achieve in their life. They do not need to have everything planned out, but asking some questions now about where they think their path is leading them, can help them to see how school and education will play a part in this. Education is a tool for them to achieve their goals and find happiness and fulfilment, not a punishment that is being inflicted on them. The journey may sometimes involve having to put up with elements we are not so fond of, for example subjects we do not enjoy, but if we understand where we want to end up and why it will make us happy, then we will able to keep going, even when times are hard. 

Get a Vision 

A popular activity at this time of year is to produce a vision board, although it can be done at any time. This is a really fun activity that can help you feel inspired about the year ahead. All you need is some cardboard, and a collection of magazine images or photos printed from the internet. The idea is to make a collage that represents the things you would like to have in your life in the upcoming year. Our brains respond to visual stimuli, and the more our subconscious is exposed to these visions, the more likely it is to make this happen for us. Again, your child may not have specific goals in terms of their career, but it is still helpful to have discussions around the future, and remind them that they can control the path their life takes, but they need to start taking the initiative now. 

2020 was a year that threw countless challenges at all of us, and no one is really sure how 2021 will work out, but it is important to remind our children to focus on what they can control, and surrender what they cannot. Here’s to a more positive year ahead for us all! 
P.S If you would like to help your child build their confidence in English in 2021, then get in touch today at jo@brightskytutoring.com to find out how Bright Sky Tutoring can help!

Taking Off in Turbulence – 2020 in Review

2020. When I first started this year, I knew it was going to be a special one. And special it most certainly has been, for a plethora of reasons, some obvious, some not so. At the beginning of this year, I was struggling with a failing business, zero income and a Christmas stocking’s worth of debt. Nonetheless, I started the year with a sense of optimism, and a sense that there was change in the air. 

Fast forward to March, and the premonition certainly came true. Covid-19 proved to be the nail in the coffin for my phonics franchise, and I found myself in need of a new focus and direction. After having left full time teaching, following the birth of my second child, I knew I could not go back to the classroom. But I knew that I needed to teach. I had carried out one-to-one tutoring work before, but I did not believe that I could make a full-time income from it. I had seen others do it, but I felt I did not know where to even start. 

However, necessity is the mother of invention, and my goodness, 2019 has provided that necessity. I decided to focus on building up my own business, and going it alone with the tutoring. It was slow to begin with, as all businesses tend to be, but gradually, the students and the parents started to come. I built a website, and then took on the challenge of setting up and running my own Facebook group. In summertime, I made the scary decision to invest in a business coach. This was a huge financial investment for me, and I had to overcome a huge amount of resistance on this one. With this, came a lot of mindset work and an important journey of self-development. 

As we went into September, my numbers continued to grow. I ran free masterclasses and workshops, and started to build up a mailing list to share my knowledge, skills and experience with more people. Furthermore, I took a key step by launching my first small group class for GCSE English, which I am delighted to say is now fully booked. This was followed by the launch of my KS3 Writer’s Club – a fun and creative class where students can develop their writing skills. 

Finishing off the year, I now have a brand and a customer base on which I can build. Next year will see me concentrate on my new online masterclass programme – a very exciting development that will revolutionize my business. Plus, I have more workshops and challenges planned in order to share my work with an even wider audience. This year has certainly not been an easy one by any stretch, but it has been transformative. I am so energised.by the opportunities 2021 is set to bring. 


If you would like to help your child flourish in English in 2021, then get in touch today at jo@brightskytutoring.com. I offer one to one and small group lessons in English for KS2, KS3, KS4 and KS5. Plus, I have a group for secondary parents, Flying High-Helping Your Child Flourish. Click here to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/496757410999463

Supporting Readers with Autism

Autism (or ASD) is a disorder that can present with a variety of symptoms, and this means that there is no single strategy or technique to help turn them into effective readers and learners. Autistic children are all individuals, and any approach needs to bear this in mind. If you are looking to support a child with Autism, then a flexible approach is key, and you may find you need to adapt your strategy as you go. However, this post contains a few suggestions and recommendations you may wish to implement with your child.


Repetition and structure
Children with Autism thrive on repetition and structure. What they do not like so much are open-ended tasks, and non structured times can feel overwhelming and even threatening. So have a set time for reading, that they know about in advance. Ensure the environment is free of other distractions (although you may find they do respond better with predictable distractions such as music).
Do not worry about rereading the same texts, this is a way to reassure them and create familiarity. You can start with a text they are comfortable and familiar with, and then introduce a new text in a structured and incremental way. Make links to what they already know and also use visual elements first, such as looking at the pictures and the cover, before moving on to the written words.


Go with interests
Children with Autism may well have specific and quite intense interests, so do not be afraid to use these when selecting texts to read together. Choose texts on topics that will engage them and help them to focus. Do not worry if their interests seem to limit them to one genre, or perhaps are better suited to non-fiction, in an ideal world we would like children to read a full range, but it is far more important to help them enjoy and access reading.
Children with ASD may also do better with certain formats of texts. For example, they may respond better to sound, and therefore it may be better to try audio books first. Alternatively, if they are very visual, then graphic novels may help to engage them. Children with Autism may also prefer to use technology, since it tends to be more independent and involve less social interaction. Try letting them read on a computer, tablet or possibly an e-reader if this makes them more comfortable.


Stick with literal comprehension to begin with
Unlike students with dyslexia, students with ASD may well be very skilled at decoding language using phonics, but they struggle with comprehension work. When discussing books with your child, you may need to begin with literal questioning, such as who, what, when and where. Children with ASD will struggle with more inferential based questioning, so you need to build up to these types of questions more gradually.
Teach your child how to become an active reader, by modelling your own thought process about a text step by step. This may help them to access figurative language. For example, take this quotation from A Christmas Carol – “I wear the chain I forged in life”. A student with ASD would find this concept of Marley’s chain quite difficult to access.

  • Start by talking about the word “forged” – perhaps even using a visual image of a blacksmith, so they understand that it means something that is made.
  • Explain that this means Marley made the chain himself, in his own life.
  • Help the child to understand that this chain is not like a normal chain, with sections of metal linked together, but is instead made up of all the bad things that Marley did in his life.
  • It is not a chain that can be held or seen by people who are alive, only by those who are dead. After you die, you can see the chain and Marley’ punishment is that he needs to carry it around forever.

Another tip is to get your child to reread pieces of text more actively, for example by highlighting key words/phrases, perhaps words that are linked to a particular theme. Autistic readers tend to read too fast, as they have high level decoding skills, so this is a way to get them to slow down and focus more on individual words. It will help them to stop getting carried away, and focus on understanding the text as they go.


Break questions and tasks down – avoid overwhelm
If you are helping your child complete specific reading tasks, then focus on breaking them down. You may be lucky enough to access resources that are specifically designed for children with ASD, but if not, then you may need to find ways to make them accessible. Children with ASD may well get easily overwhelmed by large amounts of text on a page, and this will quickly cause them to lose interest if not guided through it.
Tasks need to be broken down into a series of steps, and each worksheet should ideally not have more than one or two activities. If you need to, it may help to cover up the other tasks on the sheet, so your child is not distracted by other questions they do not need to answer. I also find that when analysing a passage of text, some children do better looking at one quotation at a time of the page, rather than being overwhelmed by the rest of the passage.

This blog post is obviously just a brief exploration of a complex disorder, and as I said at the beginning, these children are all individuals who need a customised approach, not a one-size fits all strategy. However, I hope that these ideas perhaps give you a starting point for working with your own child.


As an experienced classroom teacher and tutor, I have worked with many children with ASD, and helped them achieve their potential in English. If you would like to find out more about how Bright Sky Tutoring can support your child, get in touch at jo@brightskytutoring.com.