Sunday, July 21, 2013

Teaching Your Tot to Read

A few parents have asked how my 4-year-old learned how to read (she can now read at Grade 2 level). Happily, I didn't have go through Kumon, reading schools, tutors, or any of those uber-expensive reading kits (complete with books, worksheets, and DVDs!). Here are the steps we took; given her progress, I suppose it works:

(1) Always read to your tot. From the moment she could sit up, we started with Fisher Price board books. The stories were short, educational, colorful, and easy to handle. You have to get your child interested in books so that he/she will be willing to learn how to read. Kids love to emulate, so it's better if you're a reader yourself. It doesn't have to be books; if you're not an avid reader of pocketbooks, then why not read magazines instead?

(2) Teach ABC's and abc's. Naturally, to be able to read, your child will have to know all the letters and the distinguish upper from lowercase. Start with the capital letters. There are a lot of baby books that teach letters, but I found that simple flash cards were more effective. Books and cards with too much going on (or with familiar characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sesame Street, etc.) proved to be too distracting.

(3) Teach the sounds. Once your tot can recognize the letters by heart, it's time for him/her to know the sound associated with each letter. LeapFrog Fridge Phonics helped a lot, as did the ever-dependable flash cards.

(4) Put the sounds together to form words. A magnetic drawing board or erasable board helps a lot at this stage. Start with a simple word like "CAT". Break it into the sounds "Cuh" "Ah" "Tuh". Then erase and replace the first letter with say, "M". Break it into sounds, emphasizing that the first letter now corresponds to a different sound "Mmm" to say "MAT". Repeat for BAT, PAT, SAT, and so on. Be sure to use words that your tot is already familiar with! Use a different word base everyday. For example, the next day you can use "CAKE" and replace with "TAKE" or "MAKE". Once your child has the hang of it, start changing the last letters instead of the first letters, such as ""MAN" to "MAD", "MAT", "MAP", etc.

JOYTOY'S Spelling Fun Set includes 3-piece and 4-piece puzzles that helped my toddler learn to build words (and build puzzles to boot!). 

(5) Familiarize your tot with sight words (i.e., most common words used in English language). The first learning-to-read books I noted in a previous post are a good place to start.

(6) Ready to read REAL books? Disney Reading Adventures Pre-Level 1 boxed sets contain books that are engaging, short, and easy to learn. Just the thing to boost the confidence of your early reader! Dr. Seuss books are also highly recommended, though my daughter never went through these because the cat scared her. I have a friend who says her child learned to read through the Dr. Seuss iPad app.

(7) Keep on reading. Move on to Level 1 and Level 2 Ready-to-Read books. There are dozens of titles and variations available at the bookstore, featuring many of the most popular cartoon characters of today.

I asked my daughter what was most effective in teaching her how to read. She said that apart from Mommy's lessons, the "subtitles" on her cartoons helped a lot also. Something to think about. Good luck! :-)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Disney Literature Classics - only P145!

I dropped by National Bookstore before picking up my tot from school and discovered a really interesting find under "Popular Characters." TWO whole shelves filled with Disney Literature Classics. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and friends take on literary classics such as Tom Sawyer, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Around the World in 80 Days, Shakespeare and so much more!

These hardbound, full-color tomes are actually comic books; another plus for me as they were immediately engaging to my 4-year-old daughter and sparked an interest in classic tales and fantastical settings. While the stories are actually parodies of the original, each book comes with a detailed introduction on the differences to help guide readers (and parents!). If you appreciate a dose of good, old-fashioned Mickey Mouse humor, then this collection won't disappoint. I do advise parents to check the stories before giving to really young kids though. At this point, I've decided to shelve the tale of Othello until my daughter is older. Some of the comics also sport words such as "stupid" and "idiot", which may not be age-appropriate.

The best part for me? Each book cost only P145 (~$3.50). Truly a bargain considering the content and quality; most hardbound, full-color children's books (featuring popular Disney characters no less) would run from P600 to P999 (at least ~$15!).

Sadly, when I went back to pick up more, there was a measly pile left in one shelf. I picked up about 5 in all and will surely scrounge other branches for more!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Become a VA: Where to Get Quality Images Without Burning a Hole in Your Pocket (or Your Client's)

You'll need images. Not just good ones, but GREAT ones. PowerPoint presentations, blog posts, articles, web content, ads, you name it - it will most likely need an outstanding picture to accompany it. But where can you get quality images that you can use commercially for free (or at least without charging your client an exorbitant amount?).

(While we're on the topic, isn't it a tad annoying - or amazing, depending how you look at it - that the oft expensive iStockPhoto almost always has the just the kind of image you were looking for with your search words?)

When looking for FREE images for download, I often turn to two sites:

(1) - you can download high quality photos and images for free, just be sure to check the guidelines on attributing the photographer or contributor. While its collection is not as extensive as iStockPhoto, you will still most likely find an image to suit your needs.

(2) - do an advanced search by typing in your search terms and then scrolling down to the bottom of the page to tick all the boxes under Creative Commons. This will give you some truly creative photos that can be used commercially or that you can 'modify, adapt, or build upon.' Most will just require you to attribute the photographer when you download and use an image.

If these sites don't have what you're looking for, check out this list of 15 Best Places for Designers to Get Free Stock Photos Online for other possible resources.

If you still can't find the right kind of image that you need, try The content on BigStockPhoto is not free to download, but is cheaper than other sites and often has the same type of photo (sometimes the exact same image!) that you would find on iStockPhoto.

Still can't find what you're looking for? Try to search on for inspiration and then go back to the above sites with more specific search terms. For example, if you were searching for a picture of a "will and last testament," but couldn't find an affordable image of a sample will, you can search on Google Images and note that some alternatives:

- picture of a family with grandparents and grandkids
- image of a lawyer discussing with his clients

Instead of searching for "will" and/or "last testament," you can start a new search using keywords such as:

- family
- grandparents
- lawyer

I hope this article helps you find the perfect images you're looking for, sans the extra cost. :-) Til my next post!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Become a VA: Do you know (Magic) Jack?

One of my very first tasks as a virtual assistant (VA) was to find a rental car service. I did my research online; looked for well-known businesses with affordable (or at least competitive) rates. I also searched for feedback and ratings to create my shortlist, and removed from my list any company for which a legitimate complaint was logged (or blogged). I sent email inquiries to my top 3 choices.

Only 1 replied. My client had several questions and given the time difference, turnaround time for replies between the client, myself, and the rental car service was around 24 hours. We were drawing too close for comfort to the deadline and it was one of my more nerve-wracking experiences. It was a slow, painful exchange of numerous emails before a reservation was made. Don't get me started on how the even slower process of getting confirmation from the service. Thankfully, all went well, but my client (understandably) asked me what could have been done to improve the whole process.

A way to make international calls so I could contact the service and get immediate results was the obvious answer. My client set me up with Skype credit and future transactions were a lot faster after that. Eventually, though, a local distributor offered a Magic Jack Plus kit to my family. Magic Plus enables you to make long-distance calls to US and Canada for FREE. Of course, you have to pay the initial set-up costs and a yearly maintenance fee, but the convenience and savings more than made up for it.

Magic Jack Plus connects an actual phone to either your router or computer and can make/receive calls via your Internet connection. It's far more convenient than using your computer and headset to make calls and has better reception. Best of all, you get your own US phone number so your contacts can call you back. We bought this to stay in touch with relatives in the US, but it became one of my favorite and most-used tools during my time as a VA.

There are local distributors that sell Magic Jack Plus, though at a higher price. If you can manage it, it's better to order directly from the US-based supplier and to renew via their website.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Phidal My Busy Books: Toys and Playsets in One!

A long time ago, I posted about a Dora book that had a book, play mat, and 12 figurines. It was a great buy, considering that my daughter got a near complete set of the main Dora characters at less than P1000. Not bad, given that buying each individual action figure in leading toy stores would cost anywhere between P500 to P1500 per character. Also, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find characters such as Abuela and Senor Tucan anywhere else.

Last weekend, we visited the newest Fully Booked branch in Alabang and to my delight, there were new editions of Phidal My Busy Books covering the following popular series:

My Little Pony (including the adorable Cutie Mark Crusaders)
Strawberry Shortcake (complete with Cherry Jam and the Berrykins!)
Minnie Mouse Bowtoons
Disney Princess

...and so much more!

Also available in PowerBooks and National Bookstore. :-)

Become a VA: Get Hired!

So you've got the skills and you've set up your workspace. You're all set for your new career as a virtual assistant (VA). But how does one get hired as a VA?

The best way to start is to set up your profile in a website that caters to freelancers looking for legitimate work-at-home jobs. oDesk ( is one such site and one that I recommend due to its ease of use, simple requirements, and the fact that it doesn't charge you a fee when you apply for jobs or take skills tests.

Once you've signed up for the site, completed your profile, and taken the oDesk readiness exam, you are ready to start applying for the numerous jobs available. VA jobs fall under the Administrative Support category. After your first application, you may start to realize that there are literally hundreds of freelancers all over the world vying for the same post. Do not be disheartened; you will need a lot of courage, gumption, and patience to start a work-at-home career all on your own, without a manager or Human Resources to guide you. Landing your first job is just one of the many trials that you will be sure to face as a VA.

While there's no foolproof method to getting hired, here are some tips that are sure to increase your chances:

(1) Complete your oDesk profile, following the site's instructions. Look at the profiles of other freelancers applying for VA jobs to get an idea of the skills and attributes you should highlight.

(2) Build up your portfolio. If you have no samples from previous work experience, consider creating your own blog or website. Having your own website will showcase your skills in technology, web design and maintenance, and writing, among others.

(3) Take the oDesk exams. The most common skills that clients look for in a VA are English, communication skills, and Microsoft Office. Having high scores in these areas and publishing your scores in your portfolio will be sure to catch the eye of most employers.

(4) Take on simple fixed-price jobs at a low rate to start with. Employers often look at feedback and ratings when preparing a shortlist of applicants for their VA job posts.

(5) Be wary of scams. oDesk is a legitimate site, but some of the employers using the site may not be. My very first typing job was a scam that got pulled down by the admin and I never got paid. Employers have feedback and ratings too! Be sure to check on that before applying.

More VA tips to come on my next post! Good luck! :-)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Become a VA: Set Up Your Work Area

Want to be a virtual assistant (VA)? Why not? It's a legitimate profession that earns well and that you can do in the comfort of your own home. Perfect for an aspiring work-at-home-mom!

How do you start? First of all, you need to get an idea of what a virtual assistant is and the type of work you'd be dealing it. As its name implies, you would be assisting your client, typically by handling back-office administrative tasks remotely (i.e., you do not need to be physically present in their office, all you need is a computer and a reliable internet connection and you can work from anywhere in the world!). The tasks of a VA vary, but usually involves one or more (or all) of the following:

  • research
  • writing
  • processing documents (converting from one format to another)
  • entering data into spreadsheets
  • assisting with emails and phone calls
  • travel planning
  • setting appointments
  • creating presentations
  • social media (update of Facebook, Wordpress, etc.)
  • finding suppliers and placing orders
  • and basically anything under the sun!

The key to being a good VA is to be ready for anything. Be flexible and reliable and always have the client's end goal in mind. You certainly don't need to know everything, you just have to be open to learning new things. And never, ever be afraid to ask questions when things aren't clear. 

Still interested and raring to go? You're halfway there. Your next step is to set up your work area. If you're working at home, you'll need to have a workspace where you can focus on your tasks. A place where the hubby and kids know that you're in the "zone" and are not to be disturbed. A desk that can hold your desktop or laptop, papers, and other work materials would work quite nicely, along with an ergonomic chair where you can toil comfortably (without breaking your back!).

Here are your essentials:
  • a computer that can handle multi-tasking (you needn't have a souped up monster that gamers use, but one that wouldn't crash when you have Adobe Photoshop, Google, Skype, and an array of Microsoft Applications running at the same time would be ideal) while maintaining a reasonable speed.
  • a RELIABLE DSL internet connection; at least 1mbps
  • headset 
  • email account (even a free gmail account would do)
  • Skype (most clients still communicate via Skype)
  • Microsoft Office (at least Word, PowerPoint, and Excel)
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader
  • Dropbox account (for storing and easy sharing of large files)
Here are some nice-to-have's:
  • scanner/printer
  • Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, or similar
  • ABBYY or some other software that aids in converting from one file format to another
  • Microsoft Outlook (some clients require this)
  • smartphone
  • plug-in USB internet (in case your reliable DSL connection fails you)
All set? Next up is landing that coveted VA job. More on that on my next post. Til then!