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Sylvan Learning Center Alternatives

What do you do if your child is really struggling at school? A lot of parents end up turning to Sylvan Learning Center…if they can afford it. I knew one family who went to Sylvan for a year and it cost between $2,000-$3,000. Did they think it was worth it? Yes, but the financial cost was a real hardship for that family. As an educator I take issue with Sylvan in that they hire credentialed teachers but then only pay them about $15 an hour. However, the families themselves are paying Sylvan between $45-$50 an hour. That data alone begs for other, cheaper alternatives.

As a former K-4 teacher, here is what I would suggest as a cheaper alternative to Sylvan Learning Center:

  • Work with your school district to determine if your child has a learning disability
  • Assess and continually track your child’s learning needs and progress
  • Use quality, scripted tools to deliver one-on-one instruction in the home

Step 1: Working with your School District

If you live in a well-functioning and accountable school district

If you feel like your child is really struggling in school, the first thing to do is to talk to your child’s teacher immediately. She can probably offer a lot of insight, and give your ideas to try at home. If you think your child might be struggling with a potential learning disability, you and your child’s teacher can make a referral for assessment and evaluation to the special education department in the school district. This can sometimes take a couple of months, so in the meantime continue working with your child at home.

If you live in a school district facing corruption and/or poverty issues

Definitely talk to your child’s teacher and get ideas for what to do. The teacher probably really wants to help your child, but her hands might be tied in terms of getting the special education assessment services your child needs. This happened to me as a teacher when I taught in a low performing school district. I finally ended up having parents write letters requesting special education assessment, and then having them hand deliver those letters to the school district office. If you need to go this route, make sure to have your letter time and date-stamped by the secretary, and then have her make a copy of that letter for you. At one of the districts I once worked in, I also had to send a copy to the lawyers who were suing our school district for failure to administer special education services!

I would not recommend requesting assessment in writing if you live in a normal, functioning school district because it might make you as the parent appear overly aggressive and not willing to go through the proper channels. But requesting assessment in writing is a legitimate, valid thing to do, and is sometimes necessary. More information regarding assessment, special education, and IEPs can be found here.

Step 2: Continual and Ongoing Assessment

One of the things that Sylvan Learning Centers does really well is telling you exactly what grade level your child is at in language arts and math. But you can figure this out for yourself at home, if you have the right tools! Some of the ways to do this cost a little bit of money, but some of them are absolutely free.

Reading Assessments: Guided Reading Level, San Diego Quick Reading Assessment,

Math Assessments: Saxon, Singapore, Horizons

Step 3: Deliver Quality, One-on-One Instruction at Home

First of all, you need to choose a neutral parent or adult to be the Afterschooling instructor. If you are lucky enough to be in a two-parent household, choose the parent who does not have a history of homework battles with your child. For example, if it’s been the mom who has been struggling with the eight year old to learn multiplication, then have the dad take this on, at least for a little while. I’m not blaming the mom, but if there is already some “tense” history here, then choose the neutral parent. If at all possible, give your child a fresh perspective.

Second of all, buy a kitchen timer. Make sure your child knows that your Afterschooling time is going to be fun, effective, and limited. Use your own judgment, but think about creating an hour long schedule that is broken into 15 minute chunks. Set the timer so that your child can see that progress is being made. Afterwards, eat ice cream or bring out the DS as a reward for cooperation.

Thirdly, invest in the right materials. For a child who needs remedial intervention you want to choose instructional materials that incorporate visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning as much as possible. Hopefully the school district will be assessing your child soon to determine if they have visual or auditory learning disabilities, but in the meantime make sure you are using teaching techniques that encompass all possible learning styles. You also want to choose programs that are scripted, or (although I find this term insulting) “teacher proof”. Here is what I would suggest:


I would recommend All About Spelling, Levels 1 and 2 to start with. Full Disclaimer: I am an AAS affiliate, but only because as a teacher I really believe in the quality of the program. It is systematic, sequential, hands-on, fun, fast, and will help you diagnosis where the exact gaps in your child’s phonics and spelling knowledge lie. Here’s my full review with pictures: http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com/where-to-start/all-about-spelling-level-1/ AAS will give you a scripted program to teach reading and spelling at the same time. It can be used with nuero-typcial children, as well as kids with dyslexia.

You could also try Guided Reading using post-it notes, for about ten minutes each Afterschooling session. Be sure you choose the right level of book for your child to read. That’s why you need to be continually assessing and monitoring their Guided Reading level.


Some kids have horrible writing blocks and can’t put anything on the paper. Other children write page after page, but their writing is riddled with convention errors. Here’s is a continuum of suggestions for how to help kids write at home:

For kids who won’t write anything at all

Kids who want to write, but get stuck with spelling

Encouraging writing in general


Working on Conventions (no link yet, sorry!)


I think that the best, scripted, hands-on math program you could buy to help you teach your child math is Right Start. Full Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Activities of Learning/Right Start Math whatsoever! Right Start is a bit of an investment, but you can use all of the manipulative materials that come with it to help your child with their regular math homework through the years. Start with the free online placement test to determine which kit to buy. Make sure you buy the teacher’s guide, because this will tell you exactly what to do. For more information on math education in general, please see my post here: http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com/math/

Final Thoughts

You can do it! You can deliver remedial intervention for your child, and get your son and daughter back on track. Start by working with your school district to make sure the possibility of learning disabilities are assessed and addressed. But don’t wait around for bureaucracy to take its course, start working with your child at home right away! Afterschooling three–five hours a week can really make a difference, especially if you have the right tools.

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“Which way does the b go?”

When I was a K-4 teacher one of the most common questions I heard from parents concerned letter reversals. Are they normal? When should you worry that your child might possibly have a learning disability?

The answer I was trained to give was: “Don’t be concerned about letter reversals until winter of third grade.”

So, up until December of third grade, letter reversals are probably developmentally normal. After that, you should seek help. (More ideas one what to do if you suspect something is wrong with your child’s learning here.)

In the meantime, if your child is mixing up some of the most common letters: b, and d, here’s a quick tip.

Teach your child to spell “b –e –d” and make the thumbs up sign with both hands. That will show them which ways the b and d go.

This is a trick that kids (usually) love. I hope it works for you!

Pizza Wanted Part 2

“Pizza wanted reward $100 and eat it”

Bruce has been at it again with his dinner hour protests!  I was happy to see this sign however, because you will notice the Zs are going the right direction this time.  (Last week’s example.)

Just in the past couple of weeks I have been having Bruce actively correct his number reverals, so I think he is becoming more aware of reversals in general.  It’s really a judgement call about when to have a child start actively correcting letter reversals, which as I’ve posted before are completely normal until around Christmas of third grade.  I’ve decided to have Bruce start correcting his numbers however, because he’s embarking on 3rd grade math content, and I don’t want his handwriting to confuse his computation.

When Something is Wrong

What do you do as a parent if you suspect there is something wrong with your child’s learning? If your son is three-years-old and not speaking? If it is the end of Kindergarten and your daughter still doesn’t know her letters? If it is the end of second grade, and your child is still struggling to sound out simple words?

Many parents do not know about the myriad of laws that govern seeking out, assessing, and administering services to children who need special help. Luckily, there are lots of websites and parent organizations that can help you out. Here’s one of my favorites: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

In simplest terms, if a child would potentially qualify for special education services before the age of three, then your pediatrician would refer you to the county in which you lived. County services could include everything from speech therapy, to an early intervention preschool. Once a child turns three, then the school district takes over from the county.

Younger than Three = Go through the county.  Three or older = Go through your school district.

At three years of age, a child who needs special education services would qualify for an Individual Education Plan with his or her school district.  An IEP is a legal governing document specifying accommodations and learning goals for the course of one year. An IEP is decided upon at a meeting with parents, teachers, school district personnel, and in some cases, the student. (For more information on the IEP process, please see here.)  Even if your child is homeschooled or goes to private school, they could still qualify for an IEP if they met the criteria for special education.

If your child is already in grade school when you notice something amiss, your first course of action would be to discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher. Next you might have a conference with the classroom teacher, the school principal, or perhaps a counselor.

These meetings might lead to a recommendation for formal assessment to be administered, which would require your written consent. There is a way to bypass this entire process by writing a letter to the Special Education office in your district requesting immediate assessment. However these learning assessments are costly, time consuming, and can be stressful for children, so it is always best to go through your classroom teacher first.

In addition to pursuing help through the school system, you would also want to bring your concerns to your child’s pediatrician, in case there were services your health insurance could provide.   There are also private agencies that can help your child such as the Shiloh School of Language Development in Edmonds, or Lindamood Bell Learning Center in Seattle.

Phew!  Just writing about all of that stresses me out a bit, even though I’m just talking about hypothetical situations.  Parenting a child with learning disabilities can be a rough road.  But it is important to remember that there is help available.  So take a deep breath, square your shoulders, start a file folder to document everything, and plan for success!

Letter and Number Reversals

Letter and number reversals, what is normal?  That’s a common question teachers hear from parents.  Here’s  a picture of Bruce’s math from yesterday morning.  As you can see, he’s not quite finished with it.  I’ll go back and make him fix the last problem, which should be 130 instead of 103, but the other number reversals don’t really bother me. 

My experience has been that letter and number reversals are developmentally normal until the end of second grade.  Entering third graders might even have some reversals the first few months of school, and come out of a third/fourth grade classroom two years later just fine.

But if it’s January of your child’s third grade year (age wise, not ability level) and they are still reversing, that could potentially be a red-flag for a learning disability.  That’s when to start worrying and get your child assessed as soon as possible. 

(As a side note for those of you interested in math, Bruce solved these problems on a white board with them rewritten horizontally.  His current strategy involves “busting open the hundred” to take away tens, his terminology for “ungrouping”.)