Wednesday, 13 April 2011


A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveller who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveller saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveller left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

"I've been thinking," he said, "I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone."  
“The Wise Woman’s Stone”    
Unknown Author

Yesterday somebody did something very generous and very kind for me and LM, which greatly touched me. This person, whom I have only met online, went out of their way to help me without having been asked and without expecting anything in return.
It is acts like this, pure, selfless acts of kindness, that make me reflect on how lucky I have been so far and how life has always brought me together with people like this person. I wish with all my heart that only beautiful things happen in their lives and that their kindness and generosity return to them tenfold.
If you are reading this post, I., you will know it is about you...

Friday, 8 April 2011

Update on LM's English Reading

First of all, my hello to Marta. Thanks for reading my blog!
Secondly, let me share my exciting news: I think LM is finally getting the hang of reading phonics! Hooray!
I have to say, I was a bit worried about this aspect earlier. She started her reading journey about a year ago or so with Your Baby Can Read, which was kindly donated to us and which was an absolute and immediate hit with her. As the title suggests, this DVD series is generally intended for younger users, so I did not follow the suggested schedule with then 3.5-year-old LM, but simply let her pick any volume she wanted to see.
I was pretty laid back about this venture and did not test her for the first month or two, as, to be quite honest, I did not expect to get quick results. I then made a few cards with some words from the show hoping that seeing them in this format might assist her learning. To my astonishment, she could read all of these words without any problem! I remember laughing at myself for having laminated those cards to prevent “wear and tear”. Silly me!
I also printed a few of Fry noun cards, which can be downloaded from this very helpful site. She grasped those quite quickly too. She also enjoyed Usborne First Hundrend Words in English.
It was at this stage that I started thinking about shifting my focus away from the whole-word approach and start introducing phonics. Learning letters and their sounds was easy and painless. I can’t even remember teaching these specifically as LM somehow “sponged” them in. I am attributing the success to LeapForg’s “Letter Factory” as well as Preschool Prep Company’s “Meet the Letters” DVDs.
Blending sounds together, however, proved to be a problem and we experienced a major stumble when I attempted to introduce the first CVC words from Larry Sanger’s Fleschcards. LM would sound out each letter perfectly well, but then would blend them into some completely different word. I persevered for a week at the end of which LM simply memorised the first set and could read the words, but still only as whole words.
Arguably, some kids “figure out” the phonics once they have seen a good number of whole words, but I was not quite convinced that it was the way for LM to go. Not exactly reaching my goal at that stage with Fleschcards, I decided to put them aside for the time being. In the meantime, I thought I could work to LM’s strengths and teach her some sight-words.
Well, how do you teach sight-words to a speech-delayed child who does not even use them correctly when talking? I saw little point in showing LM cards with words which had no meaning to her and which could not be easily illustrated. What helped was reading books with simple senteces where these words appeared alongside the words she could already read and which had meaning to her.
She was initially very reluctant to look at the sentences in the printed books and would completely lose interest if I started running my finger under the lines. So I prepared a few PPT books for her with herself as a main star. She was very curious to see the picture following the text so she eagerly read every word on the preceding slide. She also demanded to read them again and again, so there was the necessary element of repetition allowing some of the sight-words to “sink”.
We have now moved to Ladybird “Read It Yourself” series, and going through Level 1 books, which I do recommend. Each book of this level starts by introducing keywords, so when the child starts reading the story s/he can easily recognise these words. Many sentences are partially repeated, which helps to gradually build up reading confidence.
A couple of weeks ago we also ran the trial version of BrillKids Little Reader, and this looked a great programme which would probably work very well with LM. She loved the animated presentations and still keeps asking for more although our trial period is now over. Sadly, this software is not free and at this moment I cannot afford buying it, so I had to turn down the full-version upgrade offer.
This, however, brought me back to Fleschcards. I found out that a member of BrillKids forum has put these cards into the PPT format and kindly made these freely available. Big thanks to annisis!
I started with the first three lists and I can see that LM is now successfully blending sounds! She sounds out every letter, then blends the last two sounds and then blends both of them with the beginning sound. I know these are still very early "phonics days" but I think she is now at an entirely different level. I also think I now have a better understanding of why LM had difficulties blending sounds initially, but I think I should write up my thoughts in a separate post.
My plan for now is to continue with Fleschcards and to try out some other first reader books. LM has also started to enjoy which is absolutely great. I don’t want to lose the momentum but I know with my daughter I need to tread very carefully to make sure reading becomes her favourite activity and not a chore. I you have any tips or recommendations, please feel free to share them in the comments. I will greatly appreciate your input!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Soft Mozart: Dénouement

As a way to conclude my excessively long saga about choosing a piano programme for LM, let me announce that we have received Soft Mozart software and have used it for a week now!
LM has practiced two more pieces this week (“Hot Cross Buns” and “French Song”). After three weeks of playing nothing but “Ode to Joy”, which is a bit more advanced than the rest of the introductory pieces, these were given a cordial welcome and did not present much challenge. LM could play the songs with both hands the first time she saw them on the first presentation with quite a good score.
LM is also doing well with the exercises suggested in the curriculum. I have to admit I was very sceptical initially about the benefits of Hanon stretching exercises and the like to a four-year-old, but I do see how these seem to be helping her with playing the pieces. Her coordination is improving and so is the strength of her fingers. Quite surprisingly, she also happens to love playing the exercises although she was a bit rebellious when I first suggested them.
I plan to keep our music routine to short daily sessions five days a week, at least for now, since these seem to be working for us. I would like to devote more time to solfeggio, ear training and, perhaps, start looking for ways to introduce some theory concepts too.
I am very likely to be updating this topic!

Monday, 28 February 2011

Soft Mozart or Piano Wizard: My Decision

Yesterday I finally made up my mind and placed an order for Soft Mozart (Home Version).
Although my initial intention was to test both programmes and pick the one best suited for LM, I decided not to try out PW and simply went for SM.
The reasons for this decision are numerous. First of all, LM seems to have made a very good progress with a demo version of SM, which, no doubt, would not be possible with traditional lessons in LM’s case. She can now play a passable “rendition” (well, for a four-year-old!) of “Ode to Joy” on the third presentation (both hands and no assistance from me) and, now that she is getting comfortable navigating the game herself, she has been insisting on playing it on the sixth presentation, which shows the piece in an equivalent of conventional notation. This has been going quite well too and although at this stage she is probably relying on her memory, she does appear to refer to the screen and follows the notes with her gaze. Since this method seems to be working, I feel discouraged to try an alternative. Even if PW is a superior method, trying it now would probably cause confusion since LM has got a good hang of SM’s approach.
Secondly, there are many things I came to liking about SM, which I could not find in PW, at least not in the available videos, and which I would be very likely to miss in PW if I tried it. Please correct me if I am wrong and have misinterpreted the videos, as I have never actually tried PW. For instance, even at the most basic level SM prominently shows the lines of the great stave coloured in such way that it leaves no room for confusion as to which part should be played by which hand. In PW these lines are quite feeble and I can see how that might be somewhat confusing to LM.
In SM each piece can be presented in six ways of gradually increasing difficulty. In PW the levels are four, and I feel that the transition from level 3 to level 4 could be too steep for LM. Although this might go easily with pieces she would have practiced and partially memorised, I think overall it would take her longer to come to the stage where she could sight-read unknown pieces at that presentation or even from sheets, which is the ultimate goal of both approaches. Also, as I have mentioned before, having same colours representing different notes and different colours representing same notes, would not help the transition, neither would it make it easy for her to differentiate between notes lying on the lines and those in the spaces between the lines of the staves when learning to read sheet music.
SM lets you stop and think before playing each note and would not move until you get it right, while in PW notes keep scrolling up and if you did not hit the correct one at the correct time, you have missed it. As much as I agree with Chris that a “note played out of time is not a correct note”, in my very modest layman opinion, if I wanted to learn to read music notation, I would want to be able to be more in control of the flow, at least initially, and to stop and see how each key relates to the staves, just as I would want to stop and think when reading a text-book. I do, however, realise that with SM, I would need to do some additional work to help LM understand rhythm and note duration.
SM places a lot of emphasis on learning solfeggio and, as someone with a few years of attending an ex-Soviet music school (although all happily buried in the past!), I relate deeply to it. I did not notice any such emphasis in PW.
Last, but not least, SM has a cheaper basic version with an option of upgrading it to the deluxe version in the future which is so much “friendlier” to our family pocket.
I have come across a few negative points mentioned regarding SM but none of these were major stumbling blocks for me or LM. SM does not have a polished and sophisticated interface, but it does the trick for LM who is completely unsophisticated in terms of video games. In the long-term the novelty of a more flashy game would ultimately wear off and, at the end of the day, it is not a game I am looking for but a tool for helping LM to learn and SM delivers in this respect. LM does not see it as a toy anyway as I have so far used SM as part of very short (5 to 15 minutes) but focused and strongly reinforced sessions. I do, however, let her navigate the game herself and make choices regarding which hand to play and on what presentation, so she does feel in control of her learning. She is also very motivated about these sessions as she always gets a small prize at the end. I feel this way I can ensure the method works for her in the long-term too.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that this decision has been made purely on the grounds of what programme I think is likely to be a better fit for LM. This does not mean that what, in my opinion, would or would not work for her, would equally apply to another child. None of the above comments were intended as criticism of PW which I have never used. Neither am I affiliated in any way with SM and I paid the full price for the product.
I do believe that both programmes are quite break-throughs and it is great that I was in  a position of choosing between the two.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Soft Mozart Demo Trial: Our Progress So Far

Having decided on “trying before buying”, I downloaded demo versions of “Gentle Piano” and “Guess the Key” games. This went quite smoothly and I had no trouble with the MIDI connection either.
Since the software creator and owner, gave her permission to copy the image of the key stickers from her website to try out the demo, I did so, but rather than using these as guides behind the keys, I coloured them in and turned them into stickers to make it easier for LM to get the idea. This is what the keyboard looks like now (after quite a bit of effort!):
I also downloaded a one-year Soft Mozart curriculum, solfeggio flashcards, as well as the first part of the solfeggio song freely available on their website.
LM has been playing these two games for about a couple of weeks now. I have so far kept our “piano playing” sessions to 5-15 minutes every day, excluding week-ends. During the first week, we started off by listening to the solfeggio song and sequencing the flashcards with solfeggio pictograms. The visual sequence “sank in” easily, and after we sang the song a couple of times, I started hiding one of the flashcards and asking LM to tell me which one was missing. The curriculum suggests prompting the child to count to the missing card, which, I guess, would be appropriate for an auditory learner, but since LM is a visual learner, she did not need to repeat the sequence and would name the missing card almost immediately.
We then played “Guess the Key” game. Being a demo version, it only has two levels covering notes do (C) to mi (E). LM quite liked “helping the elf collect fruit”, but she wanted to “feed the spider too” and would sometimes wait for him to come out and take the fruit. What I like about this game is that it automatically adjusts to your speed, so if you keep missing the notes, it slows down, lets you think without overwhelming you and repeats the same level. If you are progressing well, the game may even “decide” to skip a level. LM is doing well with it, although we still need to do a bit of work on flats and sharps. I have also started covering the screen, as this video suggests, to let her guess the key by ear, as I think it is not only a good pitch-training exercise, but, in LM's case, is a great “listening” exercise, as part of her speech and language development programme.
Before proceeding to Gentle Piano, I first prompted LM to play a five-finger exercise suggested by the curriculum, which involved playing five notes from do (middle C) up and down with the right hand, and then repeating the same exercise but from the small octave with the left hand. Somehow, having done this exercise, LM decided that these keys could only be played by these specific fingers so when we got to “Ode to Joy” in “Gentle Piano” and I prompted her to play the right hand, she would only press the matching symbols on the stickers with this precise fingering. Although the fingering was not wrong, it meant that her focus was more on choosing the correct finger than on playing the tune.
The game gives you two different scores: the one on the left side is for the number of notes you have played correctly and the one on the right side shows how close you have been to the perfect timing. While the bigger the score on the left is, the better you have performed, when it comes to the score on the right, you should strive to bring it as close to 0 as possible. This area of the game, in my very modest opinion, could be improved for young learners. While the left-hand score for hitting the correct notes is represented by flowers, and the more flowers you have got the better you have done, there is no visual representation of the score on the right reflecting your timing. Being a perfectionist, LM would get a perfect or near perfect score in terms of correct notes hit, but her timing, at least initially, was quite far from the ideal and this was not represented in a visual way to have any meaning to her. I have found it difficult to explain to her that while it is great to get so many flowers, we also need to make the number on the right smaller. So this has been of little motivational value to her.
I have, however, been using my usual “token economy” and strong backup reinforcers to incentivise LM and to ensure this activity is perceived by her as highly rewarding. She earns a token every time she plays the piece or does an exercise, and after she completes the token board, she gets a small prize.
We have so far progressed from playing separate hands on the first presentation, to playing both hands on the fourth presentation (with red and blue circles moving horizontally, no pictograms), and I have to say that her transitioning from one presentation to another has been pretty smooth and did not significantly affect her scores, which are now fairly good (that is the score on the right is not higher than the score on the left). I don’t think she is playing by heart yet as her eyes are always on the screen, so it will be interesting to see how she progresses over the two remaining levels. When she plays the piece with both hands though, she sometimes either forgets to change the cord or releases it too soon, so I still need to occasionally prompt her with her left hand to make her learning as “errorless” as possible. According to the creator, “Ode to Joy” is more difficult for little hands in terms of coordination than the other pieces of the elementary level, such as “Hot Cross Buns”, “French Song” and “Jingle Bells”. So, ideally, we should have learned to play those before “Ode to Joy”. But LM seems to be steadily getting there and she is very close to being able to play both hands completely independently.
Overall, I have been quite pleased with LM’s progress so far, which, bearing in mind her motor delay and coordination difficulties, has been pretty good. As a by-product, I have noticed her pencil grip has considerably improved over the past couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Discharged from ENT!

Just wanted to share some good news: LM has been discharged from the ENT (Ear/Nose/Throat) clinic! Her hearing was checked for the third time yesterday and the test showed normal hearing in her left ear and slightly below the norm in her right one (which should not be too much of a concern), and no otitis media! Two years ago she was tested several times over the period of four months and all of the tests showed mild to moderate hearing loss due to persistent otitis media, which was not at all helpful with her speech and language delay. After a particularly nasty ear infection accompanied by an ear drum rapture, she had an operation and had grommets inserted in both ears to help her hearing. The grommets have now fallen out and we needed to undertake more tests to see if another set would be necessary.
The current test results mean we have escaped the second operation as she seems to have won over the wicked moster of “glue ear”. Although it is only one hurdle cleared, I do hope, with all my heart, she will get there!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Activities to Encourage Using Two-Word Phrases

First of all, my welcome to Christine and thank you for your interest! I feel flattered that you found my ramblings worth reading, and if you want to share your thoughts or ideas, please feel free to leave your comments!
Continuing from a previous post, I will now list a few more activities LM was recommended in the past by her speech and language therapist. She was then at a two-word level in her language understanding, but still used mostly single-word utterances. These were intended to help her start using two-word phrases more often.
Basic Rules
It is important to speak in short phrases so that your child can copy you. The basic rule is still to repeat what the child says and add an extra word, e.g. “dog” – “dog eating”.
Repeat the same phrases over and over again in everyday situations, e.g. “hello daddy”, “bye John”, “cat gone”, etc. When carrying out routine tasks, such as laying the table or tidying up, use opportunities to say who the objects belong to, such as “daddy’s spoon”, “mummy’s book”.
Look at pictures in books and talk about what is happening instead of reading the books, e.g. “baby sleeping”.
Shopping Game
Set up a shop and place a few items or pictures of food or toys on the table. Ask your child to buy you two things, e.g. “apple and cheese”. Then take your turn to “go shopping” and encourage your child to tell you which two things to buy. You can use this activity to practice using some essential vocabulary, such as food, toys, clothes etc.
Get a picture of a boy and a girl, or a teddy and a dolly, or a man and a lady. You can use your own drawing or try it with any colouring books your child has. Encourage your child to tell you which parts of the pictures to colour, e.g. “the girl’s arm”, “dolly’s dress”, etc.
Teddy and Dolly
Put a teddy and a dolly (or any alternative pair of toys, perhaps, your child’s favourites) and a selection of objects (e.g. cup, plate, spoon, fork, etc) in front of the child. Ask your child to give one of the objects to either dolly or teddy, e.g. “give the plate to dolly”, “give the spoon to teddy”, etc. Encourage your child to tell you what to do next, e.g. “fork dolly”.
You can use this activity to practice some useful action words, such as sleep, jump, eat, kick, wash, run, sit, drink, etc. Ask the child to make “dolly run” or “teddy jump”, etc. The child can then tell you what to play with next, e.g. “dolly sit”.
After you finish playing, encourage your child to tell you where to put the toys, e.g. “teddy box”, “dolly bed”, etc.
This activity can be extended in many ways and made more difficult as your child progresses.
If your child knows basic shapes, colours and “big”/”little” adjectives, you can practice these by playing lotto. Create little boards with 4 alternating pictures, for instance, red circle/blue circle, yellow triangle/green triangle, big dog/little dog, green apple/blue apple, etc. Also cut out separate pictures with the same images. Give a board to your child and keep one for yourself, then take turns picking a picture from the pile and encourage your child to say what they have and what they need to complete their board.

Hope some other mums may find these activities useful for their children,

LM's Mum