How To Boost Early Literacy

Monday, 27 April 2015

Junior kindergarten is wonderful and all but in my experience, schools nowadays are expecting some home instruction particularly when it comes to reading. Today, I'm going to share some of the things we have been doing at a home to boost early literacy. While I'm a lawyer and I have tons of lawyer friends (and husband), I also have many teacher friends and family members... so you better believe I'm constantly asking them for advice and tips. Now I'm no "tiger mom" tirelessly drilling my children with lessons and tests. I just do what I can to help them get a bit more one-on-one (or one-on-two) help in learning the fundamentals of reading. Pinterest is also incredibly helpful with at-home reading activities.




Mia and Alexa started junior kindergarten with good letter recognition -- they could recognize and sound out almost every letter. They could write their names and were interested in trying to write letters and draw lines and such. Since then, these are some of the things we have been doing at home to boost their early literacy skills.

* Read to them

Any person or book I have consulted has reiterated the best way to help kids learn to read is to read to them a lot. This is a given, and we do our best to read to them.

* Talk about the stories you read

To get the girls engaged in reading, we ask a lot of questions about the stories. We stop and talk about what the girls may think will happen next or why a character acted in a certain way. These kinds of conversations help with reading comprehension.

* Leave books out in the open

We leave the storybooks out in their bedroom and playroom. Many times I will catch them flipping through the books and narrating their own version of the story. This encourages familiarity with books. Sometimes I catch them using books under their feet to "skate" across the floors or building princess forts with them, and that's okay too.

* Pick out the words they know

In addition to story books, we also have some early reader type books where we help pick out words that they know. I run my finger under the words as we read and they can help read the words they recognize. There are about 15-30 sight words that they know at this point (see more below).

Teacher friends have also passed along some of the levelled readers used in the schools. These are really simple books made up mostly of sight words (see more below), accompanied by helpful images and that are repetitive. Things like "we like school / we like reading / we like art".They help build confidence in early reading.

* Sight word games

I am teaching sight words in several different ways. Home made flash cards were very helpful. Right now, I have a sight word matching game which I made (as seen in the above photo). By making it fun, they don't feel the pressure to learn so much. I also have posted the sight words in the kitchen (as seen in the above photo). We often refer to the words. The girls have journals, and I will ask them to write various words. I will also post them around the house and make a finding game. The more the activity seems like a game, the more enthusiastic they are. Just this week, I started a words of the week game. I'm picking some of the sight words which they have a more difficult time remembering then posting them and trying to get them to use this words in our everyday conversation and find them in the books which we read.

* Rhyming games

I try to turn everything into a rhyming game. If we are blowdrying their hair, then I ask them to name words which rhyme with "hair". If we are in the kitchen, I will ask them to find something in the room that rhymes with "coaster" (trying to get them to come up with "toaster"). There are an endless amount of ways to create rhyming games. And these games help them understand how words work plus they help with focus and concentration.

Another variation is to ask them to replace one sound with another. Take away the "k" sound from "cat" then add the "b" sound, "r" sound, etc.

* Online reading programs

We also have an online subscription to a reading program to help them learn at their own pace. Again, they look at this like a fun activity and don't feel pressured to learn. The only downside to the online stuff is they learn how to "beat" the program and pass levels based on repetition and I sometimes feel they haven't actually learned the letters or words. In any event, it provides them with repeated exposure to age-appropriate reading skills and I get feedback reports on their progress as their progress is measured and recorded.

***

While Mia and Alexa are not reading just yet, I think they are well on their way. And with a teacher strike looming in Ontario, who knows how much more of this type of thing I will be doing at home in the coming weeks (please no strike, please no strike, please no strike)!

Do you have any tips for how you get your kids to read? What resources do you use? I'm not a teacher, these are just some things that I've tried in our house and they seem to be effective.

Best Ever Pancake Mix

Thursday, 23 April 2015

We don't usually keep pancake mix in the house. My go to pancake recipe is still this. I've tried other variations like this or just bananas and eggs mixed into batter. I rarely use store bought pancake mix.

On our latest trip to Trader Joe's, I couldn't resist this mix for toasted coconut pancakes. It sounded too yummy to me -- I'm a major coconut lover.



It did not disappoint. The pancakes came out absolutely delicious. If you like coconut, then you have to try this pancake mix. There's a nuttiness to the mix and actually pieces of yummy toasted coconut mixed throughout. It's easily the best ever pancake mix I've ever eaten. And my little ones enjoyed these pancakes just as much as me. They have been very sick for the past week, and it was so easy to break this out and make dinner for breakfast one night. 

As you can see, we also purchased Trader Joe's maple syrup. There is no shortage of pure maple syrup where we live and usually we buy local or at least something Canadian. We got the TJ version on a whim just because we were buying the pancake mix and happened to be out of our usual maple syrup at home. The TJ pure maple syrup is on par with our Canadian ones.





We tend to cross the border to get groceries at Trader Joe's (and also Wegmans for the non-TJ staples like Chobani yogurt) every 3-4 months. It's a quick trip from our house and we are usually home before lunch unless we stop to do something else while out that way. It's probably a good thing this mix isn't easily accessible for me because I would be eating it way too often otherwise! 

Picky Eaters: Don't Lose Hope

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

This post is a "shout out" to all the moms of picky eating toddlers -- there is hope. Picky eating was something we have struggled with for the past two years or so. At some point in their toddler-life, my girls decided to stop eating just about everything except pizza, burgers, grilled cheese, pasta and chicken nuggets. I prepared a great many healthy meals only to see them get rejected and thrown on to the floor. I resorted to hiding veggies in smoothies and muffins. Sometimes I even bribed my cheeky little darlings to eat. It was frustrating. Recently, I posted about how I noticed a shift and my girls were more willing to try new things. I'm happy to say this trend has continued, and Mia and Alexa have suddenly grown not only willing to try new things but they're actually liking many new and different foods -- they even request new foods. There has been renewed interest in vegetables like mushrooms, bell peppers and broccoli. They are choosing healthier options at restaurants like grilled chicken over chicken nuggets. They have even tried more adventurous things like sushi, lobster and shrimp. I don't know what changed and I don't want to take any credit for the change... I'm just happy to see the change.

There's a great all-you-can-eat sushi place near us, and we have been there with the girls twice recently. It's a great way to encourage them to try even more different foods. We love sushi, so it's a real treat to be able to go to a sushi restaurant as a family and have it be a positive experience rather than a total disaster.

How cute are these kid sized chopsticks?

Picky eating is one of those topics that can elicit a great deal of debate since parents have a lot of strong opinions on the subject. I was both embarrassed and frustrated to have picky eaters. Did I do something wrong to create picky eaters? Or was it just a phase? Our family doctor told us to give it time. I don't really know what changed except that they got older and more open to trying new things. If we did anything right in our house, we just kept offering a variety of different foods and didn't put too much pressure on my girls to eat. They still have their picky moments and are as messy as ever though!
As a mom and lawyer, I'm sharing a friendly, unsponsored PSA today about an important new law in Ontario. As of April 15th, it is mandatory that homes in Ontario have a carbon monoxide detector installed outside sleeping areas. This new law applies to high-risk homes that have at least one fuel-burning appliance (such as a gas furnace or gas water heater) or an attached garage. Click here for more information about the law.


We have two carbon monoxide detectors in our home --
one outside the bedrooms and one near the door to the garage

While the law requires a carbon monoxide detector only outside sleeping areas, experts recommend that you have one on every floor of the home. Anyone found to not be in compliance with the carbon monoxide detector law is subject to fines. More importantly, having carbon monoxide detectors in your home can help to keep you and your family safe.

Brows and Pop

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

I wanted to do a little update on two topics: brows and pop. If you are a long, longtime reader, you may remember a little post I did about brows when I first started this blog (it's so long ago I was still blond). Click here for a refresher. I enlisted the help of my beautiful and talented cousin Vanessa to teach me to fill in my brows. I still follow the techniques which Vanessa explained in the video but I have changed my products over time. I've had a few people ask about my brows lately, hence the update today.

I start with a NYX eyebrow pencil from Ulta. It's really inexpensive especially considering how seamless it is to use and apply. After I filled in with the pencil, I use the powder from the Benefit brow zings set from Shoppers. Last, I set my brows with NYX tinted brow mascara also from Ulta. Together, these products help me to keep my brows -- using the latest terminology-- "on fleek". I find it hard to find a balance between filling in my brows and not wanting them to look painted on. Another tutorial which I found helpful was this one from Carly from the last season of the Bachelor. If you remember Carly, her brows were hideous. Like, really really bad. With the help of a makeup artist, she has great brows. I love his tip to use a bit of concealer to define under the brow, it really works!! 





My second update has to do with my recent Coke Zero detox. Click here for a refresher. I went three weeks with absolutely no Coke or Coke Zero. And while it was great to achieve this little goal, I hated every minute of it. After the three weeks, I decided to try to reintegrate pop into my life by letting myself have it only when I'm not at home (meaning I would never buy it for the house). The problem with this approach is I turned into that kid who is not allowed sweets at home so she binges on candy and cupcakes when she goes to parties. For example, Lauren and I took the kids to see the movie Home and I drank two large cups of vanilla flavoured Coke Zero from a pop dispenser. Clearly, my detox has not resulted in me no longer wanting the stuff. I started to question why I bothered to give it up at all. Like I said in my original post, I have like no other vices. I don't drink, smoke or drink coffee (if anything my coffee intake increased as my Coke intake decreased). Then I saw two different things online which said -- despite popular belief -- there is no scientific evidence that drinking diet pop on a daily basis is bad for you. First, there was the Science Babe. I don't know how familiar you are with the media war between the Food Babe and the Science Babe... let's just say Science Babe knows a lot about science and she drinks Diet Coke daily, and also she said in a recent reddit Q&A that there's no harm in drinking diet pop or something to that effect (sorry, I can't find the link anymore). Second, fellow twin mom and dietician Amber Massey recently posted the following on her blog (after attending a food and nutrition conference): 

  • Artificial sweeteners have been rigorously studied and tested for safety (and is probably the most common question I get asked about..) These studies have corroborated the safety of these products, and to suffer ill health effects you would need to consume quite a bit more than you are likely to. How much was what we were all asking - even me and the several pregnant women sitting in the vicinity: A 150-pound woman would have to consume 20 diet sodas per day, every day for the rest of her life.. OR consume 100 Equal packets. 


Where does that leave me then? I want to drink Coke Zero and maybe it's not so bad. Should I just let myself off the hook and drink it then? The only reason I can think to not go back to drinking one or two Coke Zeros per day at home is my daughters. Right now they have no interest in pop. The day may come and it will be really hard to steer them away from drinking pop when I'm guzzling half a case a day. I don't know what to do... excuse me while I run to the store to get a bottle of Coke Zero to drink while I ponder it. 

Born Together, Friends Forever

Monday, 13 April 2015

Recently I posted about styling outfits for Mia and Alexa for a mini photo session -- I styled their outfits around these precious tees from Hip Little Tribe. The photos turned out perfectly! I can never get enough photos of my sweet girls (no, seriously... I'm obsessed).


Hipster photos

People always ask me about these tees... whether my girls are wearing them out and about (they even wore them at Disney) or online on my various social media accounts. They truly capture the essence of the amazing bond between twins.


Hip Little Tribe on Instagram

Check out Hip Little Tribe's Instagram account here. They recently posted about my girls and are offering a 15% off code for current pre-orders. I haven't been compensated for promoting this great shop. I just love to share about unique, quality products made by these moms with a great style, strong social conscience and also with twins!

Making Our Way Through JK

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

With my girls back at school today after the four day long Easter weekend, I have been reflecting on full day kindergarten and I made this collage of photos from the first day of each month of their first year of school... there are only two more of these to go. How can there be less than three months left in their first year of school?


Despite all of my worries about their young age (only three years, eight months old when they started) and the new full day kindergarten regime, junior kindergarten has been mostly a positive experience (so far). Mostly I still worry about the amount of independence and self-care which is expected of them but I have been impressed by the way my girls approach new things and ideas.

Because so much of the full day kindergarten curriculum is child led, the children learn to pursue and explore ideas at their own pace. They are naturally curious beings and full day kindergarten teaches them to delve into new interests without hesitation. I'm constantly fielding questions like "how do you build a swimming pool?", "what makes it windy?", "does this float?" and "where is New York?".

They were asking about volcanoes recently and it became something of an obsession. Somehow we started talking about Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I thought they might be frightened about the eruption killing an entire civilization but they weren't. They just wanted to know more and more. They even made pictures of the lava erupting from the volcano and covering the people. To me, it seemed to be such a morbid thing for four year olds to be interested in but I didn't want to discourage their interest in it. I tried to answer their questions as best as I could without making them afraid. We talked about how we don't live near any volcanoes, and also how back then there wasn't the news or tv or computers to warn people about the explosion. It's pretty amazing how their little minds work. I wonder what they will grow up to study and to do... right now Mia wants to be a rockstar and live in New York with Taylor Swift while Alexa wants to be a superhero!

People have been already asking about next year and whether we will keep them in the same class. We haven't given this a great deal of thought just yet. At this point, my guess is we will leave them in the same class for another year and revisit the issue for grade 1. I can say that having them in the same classroom is easier on me. It's just more convenient. That said, I know it will be important to separate them at some point. I volunteer in their classroom and see they operate independent of one another while at school. And the teachers say the same. If that were not the case, I may be in more of a rush to separate them. This is just one of those twin-specific parenting issues and most parents don't have to deal with it. We try to be mindful and speak to other parents who have been on a similar journey, and in the end we make the decisions we feel are best for M&A.

DIY Unicorns

Monday, 30 March 2015

Yesterday, it became urgent that Mia dress up like a unicorn. She was sweet -- and also insistent -- that I help her become a unicorn. I grabbed some fairy wings from our dress-up chest and then went about figuring out how to make a unicorn horn. I rolled some paper into a cone and taped it up. I tried to use string to make it into a headband but the cone was too heavy. Enter my hubby and his very useful engineering degree. He slid the cone onto a headband and, voila, it was sturdy enough to be a proper unicorn horn. Mia was thrilled, and Alexa then needed the cone and wings to be a unicorn too. That's how twins roll. They had so much fun dancing around the house in their makeshift unicorn costumes. It's the best when the simplest things make them so happy. 


My unicorns dancing to Kelly Clarkson's Heartbeat Song

DIY Unicorns



This past week they each had their own little achievements.

Mia came home with a note from the teacher about how she created her own menus at school which displayed great creativity and writing skills. She sounded out and wrote all the words herself. It was the most impressive thing for a little 4 year old to make. 

On a trip to the community centre pool, Alexa started to swim all by herself without Puddle Jumpers. She told me to let go because she could do it, and do it she did. I couldn't believe my eyes to see her actually swimming around all on her own with such determination.

I'm so proud of both of them and continue to be amazed by how they each have their own unique abilities and interests. 



Reflections On Twin Parenting

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Before I had twins, I only had one friend with twins. Since having my twins, I have amassed a large group of twin mom friends in real life and online. And recently, I heard from two different friends -- each of whom already with an older son -- now expecting twins as well. Twins are taking over!!! It got me thinking of what I should say to someone expecting twins now that I have made it nearly five years from when I was first pregnant with my twins. I have never been anything other than happy and grateful for having had twins. There were/are challenges yes, but it has been a beautiful, special experience. While I can't speak to having twins after having an older child, here are my reflections on twin parenting.

(This post is especially for you J -- having twins is amazing and I promise you will love it!)


#1 It's different

Having two babies is not the same as having one. Life with twins will be easier if you just accept and embrace that fact. And don't make comparison to other moms and babies, even your own prior experience with your first child. If you're anything like me, you will probably have to slow down during your twin pregnancy. Other mothers run marathons while pregnant. Well, not me or most twin moms. I could barely move near the end (click here for an amazing gallery of twin bumps - I'm in the 37 weekers). However you feel while pregnant or after your babies are born, it is okay. Don't get too caught up in how singleton moms are doing/feeling (or how it was with your first baby). Embrace twin pregnancy and parenting, and find other moms of twins when you have those twin specific questions like "how do I feed two babies" and "should my twins be in the same or different classrooms".

#2 It's not easy to get around

I barely left the house for the first 4 months. And after that I only left the house when I had Matt or my mom to help (for, like, the first 18 months). My girls were born in winter, so there really weren't many places to go. That said, it was just hard to get out with the demanding feeding schedule not to mention all of the baby gear involved in having two babies (click here to see how I used to travel). I remember being envious of other new mothers who were at brunch or yoga with newborns. I just could not do those things. But in time, I started to get out more and life started to get back to normal. Getting out with twins will attract a lot of attention but that's a whole other story.

#3 Get help

Accept as much help as is offered to you, and if you find yourself needing more help then don't feel bad about it. I had so much help from Matt, my mom and the rest of our family members. If I ever needed a break, they made sure that I got one. There were difficult days, surely but I never felt overwhelmed or isolated.

The one person who was also very helpful to me was a lactation consultant. She was very supportive and never made me feel badly about my lack of milk supply. She did everything she could to support me in giving my girls as much breast milk as possible. She set up a very functional schedule, which I still credit with establishing excellent sleeping patterns for my girls. Find people like this -- whether they are family members, night nurses, nannies, etc -- and keep them around as much as needed.

#4 Set boundaries

For your own sanity, it is okay to set boundaries. If it's too stressful to go out, don't feel pressured by other people to do so. I got all kinds of weird/rude/unnecessary comments about when I did or did not go out or why I kept my babies on a strict schedule and on and on. The truth was those boundaries were there for my own sanity (and were also in the best interests of my babies). I got through that initial crazy newborn phase because I was very committed to a schedule. No matter how much I would have wanted to feed on demand, my babies ate on a strict schedule. The same with sleep. The schedule worked for me and my babies, so I paid no attention to what other people had to say about it. It was sometimes hard to say no when there were outside pressures or even things that I wanted to do but didn't feel ready for or capable of. In the end, I trusted my own instincts and only did things that we could handle.

#5 Do what works for you

The theme recurring in all of my reflections is that twins are different and you should do what works for YOU. What worked for your friends may not work for your twins. What worked for your first baby may not work for your twins. Even what worked for other twins may not work for your twins. All babies are different and twin babies only magnify that fact. For me, being very scheduled made my job as a twin mom more manageable. I firmly subscribed to the 1 up, 2 up and 1 eats, 2 eat philosophy of twin parenting and I kept a diary of everything. My girls were sleeping 12 hours a night by 6 months old and were generally easygoing babies. That's what worked for us. It may not work for you. My advice is to find what works for you, and be unapologetic about it. It's not easy to be easygoing when you have two babies (plus an older child)!

***

I hope those reflections are helpful to anyone out there expecting twins. They're not really the most practical pieces of advice. I could give you those too; however, back to point #5 -- different things work for different families. I'm trying to convey that the twin experience is unique and should be celebrated rather than treated as a problem to solve. The fact is I terribly miss having two infants and would give anything to go back to those days of changing diapers. Not to say I don't love this stage. I do and as a matter of fact, I think 4 might just be the best age ever. They are sweet, smart and self-sufficient. And while all the logistics of having twins are much easier now, the more challenging issues are arising at this age. They are starting to pay more attention to each other and competition/comparison is arising. I think we are at a stage where we have to be very mindful of treating them like two unique individuals and making sure the rest of the world does the same thing.

My girls love each other fiercely! I couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than the bond they share. I can only hope that the bond will last into adulthood. It's a privilege to be their mommy and I wear the twin mom badge proudly.


We've come along way, baby babies


***

Here are some other posts related to twin parenting:

If you're a regular reader, then you may remember when I shared my mom's pasta sauce recipe - click here to revisit it. I'm lucky because my mom regularly makes her amazing sauce for us which means I don't really ever have to make it myself. Sometimes she even gives us more than we can use, which is how this meal came to be since it would be a shame to waste any of her sauce.

We got this particular batch of sauce on a Saturday, I made pasta and meatballs with it on Sunday and by Tuesday I wanted to use the remaining sauce to make something other than pasta. And so I made chicken parmesan with the sauce but without any breading.



This is what I did… I took four chicken breasts and used a knife to butterfly them. I seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper. Then I filled the centres with freshly grated mozzarella cheese, chopped basil and chopped garlic as well as a generous spoonful of the sauce. I wrapped each breast in aluminum foil and them placed them in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Then I checked them added some more cheese on top and let them cook another 20 minutes. I topped it off with more of my mom's (reheated) pasta sauce, paired it with salad and that was our simple yet delicious dinner.

My girls also ate this except I did not include any garlic or basil in their chicken. I also chopped the chicken breast into manageable pieces before serving it since sometimes they won't eat something if they perceive it to be too big. In total they each had about 8 bite sized pieces on their plate with some extra sauce for dipping. It was a winning family dinner! 

If you ever have extra tomato sauce on hand, I highly recommend this for a quick-ish weeknight dinner. And if you don't have an amazing mom to make your sauce, Palma Pasta is a great place to pick up great tasting tomato sauce. It's pretty much the only place I will buy sauce and other pre-made pasta dishes. They have locations all over the GTA. I like to pick-up a fresh lasagna from there every now and again myself.

Speaking of my mom, it's her birthday this weekend! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM! I got to thinking when my mom was my age (I'm 36), I was 16 years old. My parents were so young when they got married and had kids. This pic is from my high school graduation when I was 17 and my mom was 38. Look how young and hot she was!!! By the time my girls are graduating from high school, I will be 50 gah!

My high school grad ceremony in 1996

Me at 16 years old - the year my mom was my age now