Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Learning Soroban - Japanese Abacus

A while ago I posted about making a homemade soroban for my kids out of a Melissa & Doug abacus. The bead size of a traditional abacus was just too small to be truly effective for my son, age 3. My daughter did alright with a small abacus, but in general bigger is still better with my kids while they are young. It makes the learning more "obvious."

I thought the adapted Melissa and Doug abacus would be sufficient but the design didn't turn out as well I planned, I unknowingly cut the rods too short. Whenever my overzealous son manipulated the beads, he used too much force and the beads would bounce back instead of effectively staying in place against the answer bar. Darn it. 

We started out by using my iphone to teach the kids to count to 100 on the soroban using the Talking Abacus app. They have it for the ipad as well. It worked out beautifully because the kids were able to learn without me standing over their shoulder and I could easily hear how they were doing nearby.

They already knew how to count to 100 from memory, so the app provided immediate feedback. It announces each number when they set the beads. My daughter self initiated some skip counting practice on it, as well. After they learned to count to 100, we then began the Abacus Adventure app (ipad only) which parents on the BrillKids early learning forum had highly recommended.

It was an immediate hit! The kids loved the idea of saving the princess level by level and were motivated to play it. I can actually hear my son on the couch playing Abacus Adventure as I type this, although we do it together most often. :) Overall, I am really pleased with it and it's finally allowed use to make some progress in this subject. It's a little buggy and does freeze up from time to time when the kids get "scroll happy" going up and down too quickly, but they know not to do that now for the most part. If it happens, we have to reboot the machine and it works fine again. 

There are a couple of hurdles we needed to get over for my kids to be successful with this. One of them is the Mental Math visualization levels. They are starting to learn soroban relatively young and while they are picking it up nicely, they are still working on their visualization skills. They are not yet  able to solve all of the problems in their head, which makes the mental math levels a challenge. Not being able to advance through these levels would which greatly dampen their interest until their visualization skills caught up with them. I feared with that kind of stall, they would lose momentum and motivation with it. So to get around that, we utilize the pause button to solve the problem on a physical abacus (with more time and Mom's help if needed), then resume play and enter the answer. We fit in their visualization practice at other times.

However, as I mentioned our homemade abacus wasn't working out too well, and my daughter's cheapie ebay $5 special was too small for my son to enjoy. It's okay, but it fell apart the very first day, no joke! LOL We had to pick up every  single bead and reassemble it with packing tape. At the time when I bought it, I wasn't sure how this was going to go so I didn't want to put out a lot of cash. I liked how the longer rods gave her more room to work, but the edges of the beads are not smooth and it's just very lightweight. It's closer to junk that quality merchandise but it will get the job done for an absolute novice.

So, I went back to the drawing board and took apart our 100 bead abacus, rigged it up with a ziptie, and used that until my brand spankin' new super duper fantastically beautiful teacher soroban arrived from Japan! ::swoon!::

 If I hadn't ordered the new one, I would have chopped the base in half so it layed flat, removed some of the rods (which can be done by wiggling then in a circular motion, and bought a piece of wood to attach for the answer bar. But, I was ready to invest the money and be done with it, and I am very glad I did. And man this thing is BEAUTIFUL! The craftsmanship is just spectacular, I was just in awe after I really sat down to inspect it. At $163, it was much more than I wanted to spend, but it is very high quality. The kids LOVE IT! And I do too. :) Already it's got some minor dings in it here and there from being knocked in the fireplace, etc, but I would rather it be loved and used by my kids then pristine in the closet. I added some adhesive felt circles to the bottom and back to protect it as much as possible. I love that I can stand it up and show both kids at once, but the kids need to lay it down so they don't knock it over. I don't think this is going to help them develop speed by any means, but it is absolutely better for my kids to manipulate at this stage. My daughter could have gotten by without it, but my son is just taking off and I think even passing her now in enthusiasm and skill at the moment. My only regret is not buying it sooner!

It took about 7-10 days to arrive from Tomoe Soroban in Japan and the customer service is excellent. They responded to my question over email quickly. When the kids are ready for an abacus with more rods, I will not hesitate to order from them again. I believe this was the company recommended by SorobanTom, as well.

The second challenge I had to figure out was the issue of the knowing number bonds of 5 & 10 by heart to advance through the levels of Abacus Adventure. A dear BK friend was kind enough to give me some spare cuisinaire math rods she had a while ago, so I dedicated a few of them for use with the abacus. I am so grateful to her for giving them to me because my kids really enjoy them! And I probably wouldn't have had a reason to get them otherwise. I used my label maker and scotch tape to attach them together, and now we keep our big and little "friend sticks" in a ziploc to use during abacus time for quick reference. They are mostly for Owen because Lily has been exposed to the concept of number bonds through more Singapore Math then him, but soon enough he won't need them at all. I think of them as abacus training wheels. :)


Alternatively to creating number bond sticks, you would just use a 100 bead abacus to figure out the "friends" each time. Since mine was rigged up and in use, this was an easy fix. You could also make some homemade out of popsicle sticks or just use unifix cubes. However, I know my kids and those interlocking cubes can be a distraction because they're just so fun to take apart! :)

We have been dabbling in the Nurture Minds workbook but it's a bit slow and my kids are so techy, they seem to prefer the ipad. I am still kicking around getting some instructional  videos to help reinforce concepts, we'll see. Math Genie offers addition and subtraction now, but will release multiplication and division in the next 3-6 months. They were very nice on the phone and said if you get stuck, just email them for coaching/questions as you go. They recommend one lesson a day. We still use Math Secret off and on (and I do intend for the kids to work through the curriculum one day independently, even if it's review at that point) but for the moment our current approach is working well. 

Anyway, that's been our abacus experience thus far. The kids have made such great progress in a short amount of time and the above tools have really helped ME understand this subject and teach them better. Remember, you don't have to be able to calculate 14 digit numbers in your head to teach this....just stay one step ahead. :) 

Happy Teaching! 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Soft Mozart Piano Learning Software

Soft Mozart is a piano learning software program that the kids and I began using last year. Through the use of a Midi cable, you can connect a digital piano or keyboard to your computer and the Soft Mozart program serves as "interactive sheet music."  The notes are registered on screen as they are played by matching up the  corresponding keyboard stickers. There are a variety of other learning games in the program as well.

I have extensively researched all of the piano learning software programs on the market and came to the conclusion that Soft Mozart is the right midi interactive program for my young preschoolers. First and foremost, Soft Mozart uses a "pause and wait" method of note progression which is ideal for small children just beginning to learn. All other midi interactive programs require that the child keep up with the program as the notes are played on tempo. Instead of forcing the child to keep up, Soft Mozart takes the opposite approach and slows down to the pace of the child. This reduces frustration and gives the child as long as they need to be successful in hitting the right keys with the proper note length. The song does not progress until all of the notes are played correctly.

I experienced that even adults can benefit from this feature. A friend of mine who also happens to be a degreed piano teacher and was giving me a few pointers, watched me practice a piece using traditional sheet music. Apparently, I attempted to use the metronome too soon. As a result, I made the same mistake several times in a row without even realizing my own error. She expressed concern that each time I played the song incorrectly, it created a rut in my brain that will grow more and more difficult to undo later. Repetition is how habits, including bad habits, are created. It is better to practice the song slowly and perfectly in the initial stages, rather than on tempo incorrectly. Soft Mozart forces you to play to 100% mastery first. I find the program to be particularly helpful when kids are learning to play with both hands simultaneously as it does not allow them to advance until the right and left hand are working together. My son has recently begun to play Hot Cross Buns and Jingle Bells with two hands, although it requires much effort as he is still learning.

 Soft Mozart also allows students several options to view the staff. The introductory level displays a widened, non-traditional vertical staff with picture cues to be matched to stickers on the piano keys. This is a child friendly introduction to reading notes on the staff. I appreciate that the grand staff is always displayed in it's entirety from the very beginning of the program, giving the user a better orientation of what is happening on the screen and how it relates to the keys. As a student progresses, the staff can then be flipped horizontally, the picture cues can be removed at any time, letter names can be used, and eventually the notes can be displayed as traditional sheet music.

In our house, like many BrillKids parents we had already begun using BrillKids' Little Musician software before we purchased Soft Mozart. Little Musician is a not specifically a piano learning software and does not have midi connectivity, simply because that is not what it was designed for. So comparing the two is like apples and oranges. Little Musician provides a generalized umbrella-like introduction to music, whereas Soft Mozart is specifically created for learning how to play the piano. I mention this so readers are aware that they are not in direct competition and you do not have to choose one or the other. Hellene Hiner, creator of Soft Mozart, shared that Soft Mozart does not conflict with any approach and it can be used concurrently with other programs. For my children, I created a floor staff and modified piano stickers to visually incorporate both learning programs.

I did turn the Soft Mozart staff horizontally very early on (rather than vertically) so that both methods presented the material the same way. However, I am a parent that believes in "layering the learning" solely for the fact that I know this is how my children learn best. For this reason, I frequently use multiple programs and techniques at the same time in all subject areas, although you certainly do not have to. I mention this so that similarly minded parents can know that Soft Mozart is versatile in that respect.

 At the recommendation of an esteemed friend, I ended up enrolling my daughter in local Yamaha classes last June to try them out. We soon discovered that Soft Mozart was not in conflict with the Yamaha method, either. I found that after enrolling in lessons, we actually used Soft Mozart *more* frequently than before. Getting into a daily practice routine is vital and I strongly encourage parents to participate in the Soft Mozart forum if you have difficulty in this area. Regularly reporting to a teacher and/or support group either online or in person will keep you accountable and motivated. For us, local instruction provided this outlet but we would not have been able to progress as quickly without some kind of outside support, either online or in person. The Soft Mozart community members are a wealth of information and Hellene Hiner regularly guides students via forum posts and Skype conferences. I urge you not to let "life get in the way" of your family's musical progress and to take advantage of some kind of support.  For this, the Soft Mozart online community is available 24/7 offered at no additional cost to help you on your journey.

(Note: I was not aware of the Soft Mozart videos that demonstrate correct finger placement until after Lily already learned Joy to the World so there is some "crossing over" in this video. However, that is no fault of hers, but rather mine because I did not teach her correctly to begin with. ;))

Lastly, the interface of Soft Mozart is intentionally designed to be very simple so it can be operated by young children without mouse control. At first glance, it does not look very modern but that does not impact the efficacy of the program. I suspect that with the upcoming "Ipad Generation" of tots, kids are more technologically savvy than ever and mouse control is probably not as much of an issue as it once was, but even so the software does not rule out any child that hasn't yet developed their mouse skills. Everything can be operated with the keyboard alone. I do suggest in future updates that the labeling of levels within the program can be simplified somehow. As a beginner myself, I would benefit from all of the songs being laid out in a more linear fashion, right down to a sequential order *within* each level of difficulty built-in. Do not be mistaken, there are assignments included in the manual, but it would be nice if all of the information was self-contained in the software. 

Early on I made it a "rule" that I would learn to play every song before teaching it to my children. So I am pregressing slightly faster than a 4 year old ;) but progressing none the less as a first time piano learner. Overall, Soft Mozart has been beneficial to my family's musical development and I encourage you to see if it will be a good fit for your family, as well. Free trial available here: http://www.softmozart.com/teaching/how-to-get-started/try-it-for-yourself.html

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching Place Value the DIY Montessori Way

Recently I came across a video from a fellow YouTube Mom who demonstrated the Montessori way of teaching place value through layered cards. So I got inspired and stayed up a little bit late to make a set of my own. I happened to have a few stacks of blank "Word Strips" from the Dollar Tree laying around. They have traditional lines on one side and they are blank on the other. I chose to use the blank side because I figured it would be less distracting. You can cut your own cards from cardstock or posterboard, but I found it to be much easier to just have to cut the length.

Initially I thought about nice they would be if I printed them in color on the computer, used my paper cutter (which is packed away at the moment), laminated them, etc... and then I realized that a DONE project is better than a PERFECT project! So I whipped it out in just an hour or two and while it's not perfect, it's still effective and that's what matters.

I color coded mine in  Do Re Mi colors since my kids are already familiar with the sequence and I figured it would help them remember the order better. The cards weren't long enough for some of the bigger numbers, so I wrote on them first and then used packing tape to tape them together. They are relatively sturdy.

I included a small chart to set next to it to simplify reading the columns. My kids knew some of these already, but not up to a million. We have a spiral flip chart where all of the numbers are already connected, but this way of layering them is just more child friendly IMO. They can see everything at once and grab whatever they need, versus only being able to see one number at a time on the chart.

I measured out two inch lines to create a guide, which I laid next to each card as I wrote on it. It's important that each column is covered up properly when layering the cards so the numbers needed to be sorta-kinda straight and evenly spaced. :)

Here's a link to the original video from YouTube Super Mom EarlyLearningAtHome who inspired me to make these cards. She is sooooo crafty, I'm sure you'll enjoy browsing her channel as much as I do!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hooked on Phonics & Hooked on Spelling Review

As long as people learn to read, the "reading wars" will continue! You may be wondering if you should you teach your child through the whole words or phonics method. For me, the answer is pretty clear- use both!

We started our kids on sight reading when they were still learning to talk. Sight word, or whole word reading is typically easier to begin with a small baby than introducing phonics right off the bat. It's like showing them a whole building versus handing them a single brick, which better enables them to see the big picture. After they get a grip that text is a symbolic representation of spoken words, THEN show them the bricks (phonics) and how to build soon after. Some kids can learn to read from sight words alone, but I believe phonics should not be ignored.You can easily teach both at the same time.

My favorite reading product overall,  Little Reader, combines the whole word method with pattern phonics. However, it is intended for young children and I would say it leans more in the direction of whole words overall. It is simply AMAZING for whole word vocabulary building in particular, no doubt, and kids are exposed to 3,000 words with corresponding pictures, actual videos, and animations over the course of a year. That vocabulary exposure alone is worth doing the program and most kids end up with a much larger spoken vocabulary and clearer speech as a result.

But for phonics instruction, my favorite program is Hooked on Phonics.

If you are a parent that wants a clear cut "cookbook" approach to teaching your child phonics, this is it. The program is broken up into 3 steps: Lesson, Practice, Read. It's a no-brainer and you truly don't need to know a THING about teaching a child to read to use this program, just follow the steps in the book. I took advantage of their monthly payment plan and never looked back. To see my daughter finish a SECOND GRADE curriculum at 2 years old and love every second of it makes this program worth it's weight in gold to me!

Here's an example of a kindergarten level DVD lesson:

Hooked on Phonics is great to use with young children because it teaches through example rather than explanation. My two year old would never have understood "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" if I tried to explain it to her. You child may very well be ready for the DVD's before the workbooks, and that is fine! And you can use the phonics readers as well and just shelve the workbooks for a while. I didn't need to "explain" phonics to Lily...with a combination of videos, workbooks, and activity sheets that we used as coloring pages (I wrote in the words ahead of time and we talked about the page while we colored it), just teaching her the words worked beautifully for us! No long explanations needed, just clear demonstration.

I will never forget when Lily was about 24 months old and she toddled over the drawer where I kept the program. She opened the drawer, which was no small feat for her, and then brought it to me on the couch where I was chatting with a guest and said "do phonics, Mama?"  I told her we could play Hooked on Phonics after our company left but she would have to wait. Her little lip puffed out and began to quiver, her eyes welled with tears, and a fire engine wail soon followed. My friend and I were so entertained by this scene...my 2 year old was having a temper because I told her she couldn't do phonics!!

Lily at 24 months old doing her Hooked on Phonics Workbook:

The full pre-K to second grade "Learn to Read" kit:

  • 8 DVDs
  • 36 original storybooks
  • 8 workbooks
  • Flashcards
  • Motivation stickers
  • Interactive online tools
  • The Quick Start Guide Book and video
  • Bonus Fun Pack
  • FREE Shipping and processing
  • Money Back Guarantee
The Hooked on Phonics program greatly improved my daughter's reading stamina, it naturally discouraged word guessing (something most kids go through), gave her lots of confidence, and allowed me to scan for holes in her decoding skills. As it turns out, there were hardly any! But, the program was invaluable to us. In the beginning, we only did a single *page* at a time but by the time she finished the series, she was speeding through 2 entire lessons in a sitting. It was a investment that was very well worth my time and money, she just grew leaps and bounds.

An example of a first grade Hooked on Phonics DVD lesson:

My son watched the Hooked on Phonics DVD's from a very young age on account and I never needed to do the workbooks with him as a result of being exposed to the lessons so young. he already knew how to read all of the words in them so there was no need! The DVD portion was actually the main reason I bought the program because at the time Lily was too little for workbook based phonics instruction. We typically watched one DVD lesson directly in the morning (about 5 minutes long) during breakfast and then I might turn on the lessons on in the background while they played using the "repeat all" feature on my DVD player (the chapters do not auto advance). Owen decoded the word "crime" at about 17 months old while watching a Hooked on Phonics DVD before the word was even announced on screen, and that was a word I KNEW I never personally taught him!

Since finishing the Learn to Read program, we are now using Hooked on Spelling and Hooked on Phonics Master Reader. I am happy with all of them! Here's a Hooked on Spelling video demo and some footage of my son using the software.


Here are the Hooked on Spelling materials:

We adjusted Master Reader program somewhat to better fit my kids, for example, skipping the chapter books because they are simply too long at the moment. But they are very capable of doing the Master Reader software and my daughter also does the double sided reading cards.

Hooked on Phonics Master Reader materials:

I think so highly of this company and when the kids finish their current programs, I plan to go hunt down an out of print "classic" version of Hooked On Phonics Reading Power SRA on ebay. I saw it once at a thrift shop and have kicked myself ever since for not buying it! The Reading Power program focuses on reading comprehension and will be the next logical step for them to continue to develop their skills.

All in all, I definitely recommend checking Hooked on Phonics trial. It's been an amazing part of my children's literacy journey and I hope it helps your children, too!

  236x60 Get 50% Off Coupon

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Learning about Bones in the Human Body

A while ago I came across a printout of the bones in the human body. You can find the file pinned to my Pinterest on the Human Body board here. It prints on 6 pages and you simply tape it all together. I have been meaning to do the activity with my kids since Halloween but life got in the way.  Well, in the last month we began watching some Amamaniacs learning songs on Youtube that I remembered by from childhood. The kids LOVE them! They are fun and we are starting to learn the words although they are sung very quickly. One of their songs is about learning the bones in the human body. Although not all of the names match up exactly (they say finger bones vs. phalanges, etc) many of them do and it's [i]greatly[/i] boosted their interest in learning the names of the bones! (FYI- The word evolution is mentioned once in the song for those that are sensitive to secular influences.)

I printed out the skeleton on cardstock and then added a colored dot on every place that needed labeling to act as as a visual cue. I then created labels using my label maker for simplicity, but of course you can just write them directly on the print out, on blank labels, or your could get creative and even make your own magnet labels for repeated use.

The kids matched up the labels using an answer key and generally had a great time! I have been reinforcing the bone names with Owen especially whenever we pass through the kitchen and it usually ends in tickling, giggles, and lots of hugs. :) "Where is Owen's frontal bone? Where is Mommy's patella?" and so on.  The only downside is that the refrigerator is a dangerous place to hang paper in regards to spills and things, but I don't intend for it to last forever so I didn't bother laminating it. Overall, it's been a super project and we are having fun solidifying their knowledge of the bones. Give it a try with your kids!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Free Infant Stimulation Flashcards

Did you know that stimulating your baby's VISION is a great way to stimulate her BRAIN?

Newborn babies are born with retinas that are not fully developed. Your retina helps you differentiate color in the world around you, but a baby's immature retina can only detect high contrasts between black and white, or light and dark objects. Those sweet baby pinks and blues you picked out to decorate the nursery? Your little one just sees them as one great big pastel blur!

So what can you do? You can provide your baby with lots of black and white images to enjoy, such as these: FREE PRINTABLE FLASHCARDS

From there, simply click the yellow BrillBaby tab as shown here:

And then scroll down to the bottom of the page.

If you prefer, durable glossy versions of the infant stimulation cards are available in the forum shop for $15.

Babies crave input to stimulate their brain development and the brain builds itself by forming connections. Of all the five senses, vision takes the longest to develop but it also has the highest impact on the brain. The more visual stimulation your child receives...the more her neural network will expand and connect. A well connected brains results in a smart baby! With continual stimulation, your baby's retina, optical nerve, and visual parts of the brain will blossom from the use of high contrast images.

 Happy Teaching!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

DIY "Right Start" Abacus & Soroban

Lately we have been practicing more skip counting with the kids using Little Math and reinforcing the lessons with our abacus. We also use some youtube videos, as well. There are a few learning playlists available on my channel, including skip counting, at www.youtube.com/teachingmytoddlers. While you can count with any manipulatives or household items, what I like about the abacus was that there is no mess to clean up afterwards. However, the abacus just didn't seem to be as effective as it could be. I decided a long time ago I should paint it, but I finally buckled down and took a few hours out of my morning to actually do it. I used one of the kids' paintbrushes and it's definitely a mediocre, amateur paint job. I suppose I could have just replaced the beads with colored beads from a craft store, but I used what I had on hand didn't cost me a cent out of pocket.

It started out looking like this-

I originally started to paint it with the beads on, I was feeling lazy and didn't want to go through the hassle of trying to take the thing apart. However, right away I could tell that it was going to be a pain and was better off taking it apart. Turns out, it only required a screwdriver and about a minute to easily disassemble it. Plus, this allowed me to separate the beads to paint the lighter colored beads yellow and the darker colored beads blue. I slid them on bamboo barbeque skewers to dry and spray with a clear coat. I could have used any color paint I suppose, but I chose RS colors in case I decided to use their iphone/ipad app or official workbooks in the future things would match.

Using the supplies you have around the house will save you money if that's important to you, but using spray paint versus a brush will speed up the process a lot and save the frustration of multiple coats to cover the red, for example. I happened to find some spray primer in the shed AFTER the fact and it would have really helped to get the paint to stick easier, I wish I had found it sooner.

The results of this paint job were profound and instantaneous! I highly recommend dismantling a rainbow abacus you may have at home to paint or slide on new beads. It really helps my kids learn to think in 5's and 10's and it also helps ME teach more effectively when sliding the beads around for skip counting. It is sooooo much easier to count on this thing now! The kids' interest in math has risen dramatically from just a few coats of paint. It was time well spent and I only regret not doing it sooner. It's perfect to let my daughter use to help her solve equations in her early learning math workbooks. It's so sturdy that I have no qualms about letting the kids play with it until their hearts content and today Lily was happily "teaching Daddy."  Here is the finished product:

So, go be inspired and take apart your abacus that is just collecting dust and slap some paint on it! You'll be glad you did.  


Just the other day I decided to do this again, this time modifying a M & D into a Japanese soroban. It's not ideal, but they are traditionally just a bit too small for my son's hands right now as he is still building up his fine motor skills more and more everyday (he's almost 3).  I had to enlist my husband's help as a handyman but of course I did all the painting. They were infinately easier to paint with spraypaint! And although it's difficult to tell in the picture, they look soooo much prettier compared to first one where I used a paint brush. Here's the finished product-

(I have no idea why this is posting sideways)I painted the beads to match the www.MathSecret.com bead colors. You can download their e-book and practice on the webbased program for 10 minutes daily at no cost. Simply create an account and then add multiple students in it so each child's progress is tracked separately for the timed tests on each level. However, do NOT get their "free, you only pay shipping, too good to be true" abacus. It's JUNK. Check it out!