How to Learn Anything: 18 Effective Learning Techniques for 21st Century Students
In the real world, nobody tells adults what to learn, how to learn, when to learn and why to learn. Unfortunately, this is hard on students who have been told exactly WHAT to learn, without really being taught HOW to learn, for the last 15+ years! Building effective learning techniques early helps students become better at learning to learn. Here’s how parents can help.
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Why do Students Need Effective Learning Techniques?
In the real world, unlike school, nobody tells you what to learn, how to learn, when to learn and why to learn. Everyone is expected to take charge of their own learning journey, of bringing their knowledge to the level where they can do exceptional work.
Unfortunately, this expectation of autonomous learning is hard on students who have been told exactly what to do for the last 14 -18 years.
Helping children, tweens and teens to take ownership of their learning means helping them recognize the various learning techniques, and consciously pick some of them to meet their learning goals.
The sooner they can master these learning techniques, the better learners they will be. This is important in a world where things change fast: employers will want people who can learn new skills effectively, efficiently and fearlessly.
For example, a brilliant young girl completed her Masters in Marketing from an Ivy League business school. However, a few months into the job, she was asked to move from traditional marketing - branding duties to a social media manager's role. She had to learn all about digital marketing, and keep pace with each new platform and new channels as they became popular among their customers.
Just as she mastered Facebook advertising, TikTok emerged. Now, her company was asking her to launch a podcast! Already her colleagues were using AI to create most of the blog and advertising content. And who knew what the Meta-verse and Web 3 would bring!
Fortunately, our friend, an ultra-effective learner from the get-go, was quickly able to pick and leverage a few learning techniques she thought would help in the context of her learning goals.
How do you think your child would cope with learning at this pace?
How Can Parents Help Children Learn These ‘How to Learn” Techniques?
In most cases, teachers do not have the bandwidth to go beyond teaching and evaluation. However, without focusing on the learning process, all the teachers can evaluate is the child’s memory power or theoretical knowledge. In a bid to make most efficient use of classroom hours, teachers cannot focus on each child’s unique learning process. They are forced to reduce it down to the lowest common denominator.
Parents, on the other hand, have no such constraints. We can work with our children to help them build their own learning strategy. One that works inside the classroom and outside it. During school years and after school too.
In the 21st century, building effective learning abilities from an early age is the best investment children can make in themselves. And it is up to us parents to help them do it.
Finding an optimal set of learning techniques while also developing ‘learning to learn’ skills will not only support and engage students in their unique learning journey, but also help them be better lifelong learners, no matter what goal they are chasing.
Parents can help children experiment with various techniques to see which ones resonate with your child’s learning style. Observe through the school year and also in daily home life to see if using these techniques are helping them be better learners.
(+ scroll to the end for my bonus secret learning technique no school will tell you about!)
When we study something in class, we can fool ourselves into believing we have understood it. But, have we really understood the concept well enough that we can recall it, apply it, and connect it to our existing knowledge, or have we just memorized something?
That is the difference between effective learning and studying.
Here is my curated set of learning techniques. I’ve dug deep into the expert-sphere to get these for you, but at the end, I’ve added my favorite, bonus, secret learning technique that you probably won’t find in most learning conversations. I guarantee you, it's a time honored secret that the world's greatest explorers and inventors swear by…but first, the 17 proven learning techniques, in no particular order.
PS: For this list, I’ve curated the best techniques I have found across many different sources. Where possible, I will attribute original ideas to the creator. If I’ve missed any, please help me improve attribution on this article.
1. Focus and Diffuse Mode Learning Technique
Barbara Oakley, who runs the hugely successful learning how to learn MOOC talks extensively about the focus and diffuse mode of thinking with this super-effective pinball analogy. In short, when we are in focused mode, we are concentrating within a narrow scope, on a specific problem, and making connections to understand that specific problem in depth.
However, when we are in diffuse mode, our brain is relaxed, and it’s thinning in a more wide-ranging manner, making new connections as it goes. Diffuse mode takes time but it’s where our most innovative ideas, and likely our ‘eureka’ moments come from.
How to use the focus and diffuse mode learning technique
The real magic of focus and diffuse mode thinking as a learning technique occurs when we use the two modes in tandem. Think of focus mode as being useful to grasp the basics of the concept, and then the diffuse mode as the time you are passively processing the concept in your mind, making connections, associations, and visualizations to internalize the understanding and transfer the knowledge into the long-term memory.
This often happens when we are trying to solve nagging problems - we organize our thoughts about the problem in focus mode, and then go and do something else, letting our brain go into diffuse mode, doing other things. Suddenly, perhaps when we least expect it, the solution comes to us. Boom!
2. Elaborative Interrogation
Elaborative interrogation can be summed up in a deceptively simple three-letter word: ‘why’?
As you go through a concept, keep asking the question why and answering it to get clarity on each aspect of the concept. Of course this means going beyond the superficial and actually trying to and wanting to understand every nuance of the concept.
While it's time consuming, it is an effective technique to build deep understanding of a concept. It also builds the critical reasoning skill, which is an important learning skill. It demands that the learner question everything, and try to come up with an explanation for all the ‘facts’ by using and connecting their prior knowledge and information to the new problem at hand. Learners can use the 6 types of questions to structure the questioning till they get the hang of it.
It may not be the most scientifically accurate explanation - it may even be a wildly creative (and imaginary one) as often happens in our home, but that is okay. The idea is to understand that there is a reason for everything, and try and probe deeper into the causes of things, versus just learning a concept superficially. It’s particularly useful in science-based subjects, as often asking WHY for a grammatical rule in English can be an exercise in futility!
How to use the elaborative interrogation learning technique
Let me explain with an example. If a student is learning about the concept of photosynthesis using the elaborative interrogation technique, she will stop at each statement and think about why that is happening. Starting with why does a plant need food, to why does the leaf make the food and not the stem, to why sunlight is important to the process, and what would happen if the soil where the plant is growing was toxic or bereft of nutritional minerals. As I said, it is time consuming, but so very effective in truly understanding natural phenomena.
I have found being present during such sessions is useful as my kids love to have wide ranging discussions at some time, and it turns into a diffuse thinking session where often they connect the discussion with seemingly unrelated experiences and find some insight for themselves. However, avoid providing the answers for the why - even if their explanations are not totally accurate, do not correct - instead continue the discussion to help them arrive at their own conclusions.
3. Teaching to Learn Technique
One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. There are several variations to this technique and you can pick one that works best for you. In our home, every Friday is Kids Teach day, when the children take the lessons and ‘explain’ whatever new stuff they have learnt to their father or myself, in math and science.
Another way is ‘self-explanation’ - connecting new and existing information together to help build understanding. The popular Feynman technique requires the explainer (the student) to explain something in the simplest possible terms - as if explaining to a 5th grader.
This is pretty straightforward but I find it helps to avoid correcting the child when they are in ‘teacher mode’. Instead, act like a student and ask questions to help them realize for themselves why their assumption or understanding may be wrong. This technique also works well in group study sessions where different ids volunteer to teach different concepts or topics to the group.
4. Pomodoro Technique or Chunking Technique
Pomodoro or chunking is a concentration and focus building technique that also helps to deal with procrastination, which is a common response when faced with the idea of studying subjects we do not like or enjoy.
The inventor of the Pomodoro technique, named it after the tomato (pomodoro in Italian) shaped timer he used to measure the now famous 25-minute chunks of time. He describes it as a way of working with time instead of struggling against it.
The process involves breaking your day into 25-minute sessions. (Reportedly, Elon Musk breaks his day into 5-minute sessions. Some tasks may take 1 session and some tasks may take 4 sessions, i.e 20 minutes, and so on).
How to use the Pomodoro technique or chunking to learn:
Identify your learning task
Make an estimate of how many ‘pomodoros’, or 25-minute chunks it may take
Clear your space of any disruptions - phone, TV, people etc. - you have to give the task your 100% concentration for 25 minutes- I’m talking complete and total immersion
At the end of 25 minutes, take a short break for a small reward - coffee, candy, stare out the window - whatever you fancy.
Come back and finish your next pomodoro.
At the end of 4 pomodoros, take a longer break and bigger reward.
It works because 25 minutes is do-able even for the most unpleasant tasks. And once you realize just how efficient an interruption-free 25 minutes can be, the technique becomes almost addictive.
5. Practice Techniques
Practice is essential to learning, and is my go-to learning strategy in general. Practice has to do with spacing out your study in various patterns that help with retrieval and recall.
We tend to associate the term practice with non-academic pursuits - practicing a sport or an instrument, for instance. However, academic related work is simply seen as study. By doing so, we miss out the many benefits of regular practice and its contribution to effective learning and great learning outcomes.
All practice techniques have their place and benefits in our arsenal of learning techniques, so read my detailed post on practice techniques to find what works best for your child, especially in terms of spacing out study, review and assessment for any subject or course.
6. Exams and Tests
I am not a fan of the high-pressure tests that pass as fair (and final) evaluations of a students ability in schools today. However, that is not to say that testing as a concept is not helpful. It can be a super effective learning technique especially when done regularly, with lower stakes, and self-defined goals and metrics of success.
By seeing tests and exams as something final, to be done only when learning of a concept or subject is complete, is a wasted opportunity because testing can be a powerful way to aid recall and understanding of smaller chunks of information during the learning process.
Lower-stakes daily, weekly and monthly practice tests have been proven to improve student performance in several seminal studies. Call them ‘reviews’ or check-ins’ if that helps make it less intimidating.
Some people (like my elder son) love the idea of competition and I’ve seen him do his best just because I somehow gamified the task or put in some competitive element- such as “lets see if you can do this in 10 minutes’ versus when I've left it open for him to complete at any pace. It’s important to observe what kind of testing motivates your child as a learner.
My younger son, for example, enjoys small verbal quizzes at a time completely unconnected to learning time - say when we go for a walk or are feeding the dogs, and enjoys recalling small details of what we may have studied a few days ago.
How to use exams and tests as an effective learning technique
Tests, in whatever format, are great ways to practice and strengthen recall. For example, peer-to-peer quizzes help kids ask each other questions; the W’s let a child go deep into a concept by repeatedly asking Why or What or What if, and self-testing helps us recall things without much pressure. When used regularly, in non-threatening ways, can help kids get more comfortable with the idea of higher-stake tests or exams like at school or work, as they get used to the practice of retrieving specific information and articulating it as they would in a test.
7. Switching the Learning Context
Some learners do get fatigued by routine and may find it useful to mix up learning techniques, learning spaces, and even learning times. Such switching up has been found to be helpful to aid recall for some learners, just because the change in scenario may help stimulate new senses.
Practicing this technique also helps learners become less anxious when sudden changes in circumstances occur, helping them study or learn with ease even in case of disruptions. This is a must for effective learning to occur. For example, the COVID pandemic forced all kids to start learning at home, and just like their parents who were forced to start working at home, the new distractions and self-discipline needed to concentrate despite changed circumstances proved too overwhelming for some.
How to switch-up for more effective learning
If your learner is used to working in a completely quiet environment, sometimes let them work with music or the TV in the background. If they are used to learning alone, sometimes try group studies. If they are typically more comfortable writing notes, sometimes make them speak or even sing out what they are learning.
The value of doing in learning, or learning by doing, cannot be overstated of course. Being able to apply what one has learnt instead of just theorizing, is made possible by a project-led learning approach. This technique means learning each concept or topic by physically doing a project to understand and demonstrate it.
Not only does project based learning techniques help develop deeper understanding of concepts, it also helps build better 21st century learning skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity/innovation. And as a final bonus, it helps children understand that knowledge is not meant to be only spoon fed, but experienced.
For younger children and early learners, this can take the form of activity-based learning and experiential learning, which could be indoor or outdoor activities with various props such as blocks, swings or craft material to learn specific concepts as they do/play, via exploration, experimentation and experiencing.
How to use the project-based learning technique effectively
At home, there is no shortage of project-based learning opportunities that we can provide children, in diverse contexts. Science in the kitchen and art in the garden, mathematics while buying groceries and geography while planning your next holiday - the home provides great opportunities for parents to deploy PBL applying curriculum concepts in real-life situations. If you use a chore as a project, there is an added advantage of also picking up some life skills on the way!
Just ensure that each project has a clear start, end and deliverable, outcome or goal, which should be decided in collaboration with the child. Let the child figure out the methodology, execution and resources for themselves, asking for help as needed.
For example, in our house I often ask the boys to special ‘missions’ or projects that are designed to help them practice their science concepts.
While studying force and work, I asked them to use any 10 unbreakable objects in the kitchen to build a ‘domino’ that would be able to topple a glass of water placed in front of the last (tenth) domino. The only condition? They could use only one item to apply the force, once, in the entire chain of events.
9. Role-play Based Learning
Once again, the home environment abounds with opportunities to let our children learn via role play. Far more than a school environment could offer. Giving children the opportunity to assume different roles in a given situation lets them not only experience something from a different perspective, but also imagine many more possibilities than would otherwise be possible. It definitely aids diffuse mode thinking as well.
For example, I ask my younger son, who loves tractors, to pretend he is our tractor-drive Angrez Singh. (Yes, that is really his name). Then, we have a long conversation about what all tasks he has to complete, the challenges he may face, what he could do to handle them better and so on. I am often surprised at how detailed and well-thought through my little one’s responses are. Even more interesting is when I put them in roles in a project, where one has to be the resource-collector, and the other the designer, and so on.
How to use role-play for effective learning
Role play and project based learning may or may not be directly related to text-book concepts, but they are a great way to weave in elements of those concepts - trust me, you cannot imagine how they connections get made when they actually do study the concept formally - it’s like watching the penny drop in their heads.
It's advisable to let them mix up the roles and also choose roles that they are typically not very comfortable with. For example, every time we play Monopoly, I am given the task of the banker, simply because I am the least comfortable with numbers!
10. Interdisciplinary Learning Technique
What is not connected in life? Learning in silos has long been my bugbear with the formal schooling system although I understand it cannot be helped when there are 10 subjects, 50 kids, and only 5 hours of study period in a day. However, as parents, there is no reason why we cannot help our children develop a more connected understanding of the world by using the interdisciplinary learning technique. The idea is to help them understand that no subject or field of study exists in a silo. As polymaths well know, everything is connected - you just have to find the connections and leverage them to find innovative new answers, solutions and perspectives!
How to use interdisciplinary learning for better results
I call this the Everything About Some Thing (EAST) Technique.
Pick a word. Say ‘leaf’. Now, ask your kids to talk about the art of the leaf (shades of green, smooth or serrated leaves, patterns of veins etc.), math of the leaf (shape, size, number, weight, arranging in ascending and descending order by any of these attributes, comparison, contrast etc.), science of leaves (chemistry: photosynthesis; biology: lifecycle of a leaf; physics: how they move, what force is needed to move them, etc.); geography/ environmental science of leaves (in which seasons do leaves change color, shed, grow afresh, which plants remain evergreen and why, why are some plants found where we live and not others, why do birds and insects prefer certain leaves and not others etc.) and history & culture of leaves (how do people use leaves, what is the cultural significance of certain leaves, why do we see leaves hung outside some houses etc.).
Often called the lowest form of learning, memorization has always got a bad rap, even as it's the last resort, fail-safe technique for students to ‘pass exams’. If your child’s learning goal is only, and only to pass an exam, this can work in the short term, though I do not recommend it as passing a test should never be the goal of learning.
What is worrying is when memorization becomes the only dominant learning technique for most school going children which is scary because memorization is often inversely proportional to understanding, comprehension, and application. That said, we as a family have found it to have a place in our arsenal of learning techniques in certain situations, as long as it doesn't turn into a marathon study session.
Using memorization as an effective learning technique
Use memorization as a part of a larger set of learning techniques. Some bits and pieces of the concept can be memorized just because they are what they are, and the best way to use them is to commit them to memory. For example, mathematical formulae, verb conjugations for our German and French lessons, metric unit conversions - all need to be committed to memory for faster access when needed to solve larger problems.
Even then, we find it most effective to use memorization with some form of association or acronyms (Recently, my son was learning the 7 characteristics of living things, and used the MRS GREN acronym to memorize movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition.) With weeks of practicing that, we not no longer need the acronym but I cannot say it didn’t help.
12. Association, Metaphors, Visualization
These are our favorite learning techniques, and hands down the most effective technique with my learners at this stage of their learning (pre-tween). Building word associations with keyword mnemonics to remember stuff is especially useful with learning languages.
For example, as we work through German, we use the technique of visualizing a bow (female), mustache (male) or hat (neutral) on words to remember their gender (which can be a complicated thing as things we typically think of as female can be male in German). Also, when certain words have long e sounds, my son actually writes the E with elongated arms so that he understands from his notes the sound should be a long E (versus writing ‘this has a long E sound’).
Visualization also helps when we learn complicated concepts such as photosynthesis - physically looking at a plant and asking my elder one to talk about what’s happening right now as we speak helps him visualize the many things going on, and helps write it down later. Similarly, metaphors and similes are a great technique as well.
For example, recently working through animal classifications with my little one, we used the ‘as strong as an ox’ simile to remember that domestic animals like cows, ox, camels, donkeys etc. help us do the heavy lifting on many tasks.
Using association, metaphors and visualizations for effective learning
This is tricky because honestly only the learner will know what something means, so if he or she forgets, it's likely no one else can help with it. May help to write down some of the visual ideas so that one can connect later in case the connection is forgotten.
Secondly, not everyone will find this way of working easy or comfortable. But we have found it to be especially useful with very abstract concepts because visualizing something with a drawing or metaphor requires us to have long discussions about it and that always leads to a higher level of understanding of the concept first.
Mind maps also make us visually organize and group information and ideas around a central theme. They are particularly useful as a technique to critically examine a topic, as the structure of a mind map is similar to how the human brain stores and retrieves information.
When we do mind maps, not only do I see my children zooming out to the big picture, but also I can clearly observe which aspects and elements of that concept are of most interest to them just by the depth of detail they get into for those branches of the mind map. It helps them build connections and associations as well.
13. Outline and Summarization Technique
This technique is a strong recall technique, but involves a degree of self-explanation. The learner needs to explain the essence of the concept learnt by paraphrasing the most important ideas in the chapter or concept. Not only does it force the learner to pick out the most important aspects of the concept due to the brevity it needs, it also helps articulate concepts clearly in the act of outlining and summarizing.
Using the outlining and summarization learning technique
If using it purely as a recall technique, it may not be the best learning strategy to aid comprehension. However, mindful summarization can be powerful in recalling key aspects and connecting them together to summarize the essence of the concept.
After each learning session, take a short break, and then work on an outline and summary of the topic. Do not do anything mentally distracting during the break, like checking your phone or watching TV. Instead, if possible, take a 10 minute power nap.
14. Outside-In technique/ SQ3R and PQ3R learning technique
This is a learning technique that helps with building an understanding of the topic at a big picture level as well as the finer details, in order. You may have heard of approaches such as SQ3R and PQ3R which are essentially the same thing with a few variations in the steps. The idea is to complete the entire learning process with a particular topic with a series of deliberate steps.
Using the SQ3R and PQ3R learning technique
The variations of this technique typically has 5 steps:
Skim, Survey or Preview: start by skimming the chapter and making a note of the headings, subheadings, and any call-outs or highlighted bits to get a big picture of what’s in store
Question or Assess: once you have the skeleton of the topic in your mind, assess what you already know, check if you can connect it to anything you already know about this subject, and list questions that are knowledge gaps for you about the subject
Read: read the chapter to fill the knowledge gaps your identified in Step 2
Summarize: after each section or heading, summarize what you understood and identify or write any major points . Check also if all your questions were answered - if not, find the answers and plug all knowledge gaps in the topic.
Review: with a quiz or a test to evaluate your understanding and re-read any parts that you were unable to answer or summarize effectively
Writing things down is a proven way to remember them or at least aid recall during a study session. Taking notes in your own unique way is always useful - mine are colorful, messy and understandable only by me!
But without them, I feel lost- as if I’ve lost the essence of whatever I learnt in a particular session. For those who like to make a science of anything, there are specific techniques within note taking too - the Cornell method, for example, needs the student to divide the sheet of paper into columns, putting notes on one side and key words and questions to answer later on the other.
Learners may choose to color code or highlight notes to call out certain points as well, although in general studies show that highlighting is not a very effective study technique to improve your learning outcomes.
How to use note taking to improve learning?
Note taking is not about writing down each word the teacher says but rather listing actively and writing key points in your own words. It is advisable to review the notes on the same day they were created, and again periodically as you go back to that topic, so that they are more familiar.
If you simply take notes, and put them into cold storage till it's time to cram for the exam, you may find that your shorthand and highlights make no sense after 3 weeks of not seeing them! So combine notes with practice for best results.
Don’t worry about grammar and syntax while taking notes and develop your own style of shorthand, and do actively connect to points in other note-taking sessions.
And finally, make a conscious choice about taking notes on a laptop versus on paper, because each has its own limitations. Recording lectures and playing them back is not the same thing as note taking.
I even take notes from video lectures for courses I do on Coursera or Udemy, because I find it aids recall tremendously whenever I choose to do the next session.
As a learning technique, I’ve found micro-learning to be useful in spacing out study or the learning task by using relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. The bite sized approach is especially useful for complex concepts and tasks, and basically helps build chains of information that link together as you get deeper into it.
The micro learning technique is super popular with all the e-learning portals out there, which break down large concepts into small micro-modules which you can study at your own pace, and at the end of each module, there is a small review to aid recall and test comprehension.
How micro learning helps learners
While very common with e-learning, if you want to try microlearning as a technique for spacing out your study of complex concepts, it is pretty straightforward to do so by listing the various modules, and setting up time for each.
The technique does give the learner flexibility, however, to aid recall, be sure to either summarize or quiz yourself at the end of each short session and at the start of the next one to make sure you have been able to retain the information.
It works well in our era of short attention spans, but I doubt it will be effective for everything your child has to study over the long term.
17. Hard-Start Learning Technique
In their book about learning how to learn, Barbara Oakley & Terrence Sejnowski call this approach the ‘eat your frogs first’ technique. Essentially finish the hardest, toughest, least pleasant part of the work first.
That way, not only can you get it out of the way, but you will have longer to process and connect that information with the easier stuff you can come to later. The same idea, they suggest, can also apply to tests and exams, where you tackle the toughest questions first, later breezing through the stuff you know for sure.
It’s one approach though I’ve seen others prefer the opposite- get the easy stuff over with quickly so you have enough time left for the tough stuff. It really just needs some experimentation!
And now….for my bonus secret to learning..the best technique for really making solid progress, tested by the world's greatest inventors, discoverers and explorers…it is…..
Make mistakes. Allow your children to make mistakes, and celebrate them soundly. Do not let them grow up believing they always have to be right, or that they always need to pass, succeed or win. Fear of failure can be crippling later in life, as many of us have found out, isn’t it?
In his book Failure: Why Science is so Successful, Stuart Firestein argues very compellingly that mistakes are the primary key to learning. Having made several mistakes and still finding that I am making progress towards my life goals, I can’t help but agree!
Using failure to learn better:
Embracing failure sounds counterintuitive, even though all the self-help books talk about it. I’ve explored failure in great detail, from our context of parents helping our child become more effective learners, in this blog on helping children learn effectively from failure and mistakes to figure out how you and your child can use this game-changing technique to transform your learning outcomes. Combine failure with reflection for game-changing learning and performance results!
Wrapping Up: Help Your Child Find the Learning to Learn Techniques that Work For Them!
As parents, our job is to help our children test various techniques and see what combination works for them, while also keeping in mind that this can change and evolve as our children and their context will change and evolve.
Knowing your ideal combination of learning techniques is the secret to learning well. These techniques I list below are based on a broad body of knowledge and work on how the brain learns, understands and remembers things.
Of course, keep in mind that both you and your children are constantly evolving, so be open to experimenting with different techniques and finding what works best in the present context.
Learning techniques that worked in the past may not be as effective any more, and previously discarded techniques and methods may bear great results now. Either way, the learning process is a non-linear, iterative one, so give it space to evolve and sharpen.
This is why it's all the more important that the student develops awareness and ownership of their own learning process and preferences.
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