Boost Your Phone’s Data Connection or Signal Strength

By Tracey Dowdy

If you have you ever been in an area where your device shows plenty of signal strength, but you can’t get pages to load, messages won’t send, photos don’t download, you know how frustrating it can be. There are any number of reasons your phone seems “stuck” – sometimes it’s the carrier, sometimes it’s the phone itself.

Of course, everyone’s go-to hack is to turn on Airplane mode for a few seconds, then turn it back off, but times when that’s not enough, there are other options.

To quote our favorite IT guy Roy, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” Remember, your phone is a handheld computer, so restarting it works for all the same reasons restarting your laptop can resolve issues. You can get similar results by taking the SIM card out and putting it back in place while the phone is turned on. Use the tool that came with the phone, or if that’s nowhere handy, use an unfolded paper clip. Heads up, iPhone XS, XS Max, XR or Pixel 3 users, your SIM card is embedded in the hardware, so this isn’t an option for you.

If you’re still having trouble, either Apple or Android’s support pages may be your next stop. Both allow you to type in the issue you’re having and will direct you to a list of possible solutions, or prompt you to engage with a support team member either through Live Chat or phone call.

Apple’s support page for iPhone does highlight two features that may save you the trouble of waiting for Live Chat or a phone call. Carriers regularly update their settings, and it’s essential that you keep up with them, just as it is with updates to your phone’s software as it optimizes your connectivity. To see if you’re due for an update, open Settings > General > About on your phone. If there’s an update to be installed, you’ll be prompted to download it.

As something of a last resort, you can refresh your network settings.  I say as a last resort because refreshing also means you’ll have to reset all your saved Wi-Fi passwords, VPN connections and any custom APN settings for users on carriers that require additional setup. If you have those passwords saved and are okay with the other set-up steps, go to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings. Once you confirm your selection, the phone will restart. Don’t forget to reconnect your phone to your home and work Wi-Fi networks.

Finally, as a last last resort, you can contact your wireless carrier. Sometimes signal issues can be traced to a cell tower being down in your area, the fiber optic cable may have been damaged in a storm or by construction crews, or perhaps there’s not adequate coverage in your area. If this is the case, you may need a network extender that will boost the signal and act as a mini cellphone tower.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Technology Hacks for Struggling Readers

By Tracey Dowdy

We’ve all heard the slogan, “Readers are leaders,” and it’s true – reading and reading comprehension are the keys to academic and personal success. The problem is, not everyone comes to the table with the same set of tools. Whether it’s because of learning or accessibility challenges, a lack of support at home, or a preference for numbers over letters, reading doesn’t come easily to everyone. Some students will compensate by working harder to make up the gap, but for those who struggle with comprehension, it’s not that simple. Some will become the class clown or act out in ways that get them removed from the classroom to distract from their struggle. This only adds to the learning gap, preventing them from reaching their potential and creating more problems that taken to the extreme, can lead to delinquency. In fact, According to the literacy fast facts from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), 2/3 of students who cannot read by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 60% of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

Those are sobering statistics. The good news is that with all the advances in technology over the past several years, there are more resources available than ever before, and the future doesn’t have to be so grim.

Start by talking to your child’s teacher to see what tools and extra help is available during the school day. If reading is a source of frustration for your child, knowing there’s hours of homework waiting for him or her at home means you’re already in trouble. That negative attitude and sense of defeat before you’ve even started makes learning twice as challenging.

Jamie Martin, a consultant in assistive technologies who specializes in dyslexia, suggests getting your child a tablet. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but used the right way, it’s invaluable to a student trying to improve their reading comprehension and letter recognition. Using the microphone for dictation opens doors to creativity and expression. Think how difficult it would be to get your thoughts and words on paper if you struggle with dyslexia or are a beginning reader.  Both Android and Apple devices have predictive text, so as the child begins to type out a word, options will appear in the bar above the keyboard, allowing them to progress without having to stop and ask how to spell words over and over.

One of the biggest hurdles for struggling readers is learning their phonemes: the sound that a letter or collection of letters represents. English is notorious for its exceptions to the rule, making it an even greater challenge. There are no shortcuts, and no matter the skill level, the key is repetition. Apps like Endless Alphabet and Starfall ABCs are great for reinforcement and repetition.

As the student continues to develop reading and language arts skills, sites like Grammarly and Co:Writer are useful. Think of them as equipping your student with their own personal editor. Grammarly will proof your work, note errors in spelling, subject/verb agreement, punctuation, and other common grammar errors. You can even have it check for plagiarism, so as students learn to paraphrase or quote another source, they can check their work before turning it in to be graded. Co:Writer is a word prediction program that also includes a ton of topic specific dictionaries. So, if your student is writing about ancient Mesopotamia, it will recognize and assist with spelling words like “Hammurabi” and “Gilgamesh” and not flag them as misspellings.

Apps like Inspiration can help students who have difficulty structuring their thoughts to create an outline. Using visual thinking and visual learning, students can mind-map their thoughts the same way others use the paper outlines you may have used as a student. DragonDictate or Naturally Speaking and Rewordify are useful tools for older students.  DragonDictate will “learn” your child’s speaking voice, and while it it’s important to correct errors in transcription, over time it becomes very accurate. Rewordify does exactly what you expect – it rewords complicated sentences into less complex terms. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than having to use every time they encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase. SMMRY will summarize text to help students save time, particularly helpful for those who take forever to complete assigned readings for subjects like history or geography. You can even use it to summarize PDF or text documents by uploading the file, or summarize web content by pasting the URL.

Remember, all of these resources are to be used in conjunction with a larger, more comprehensive program. Talk to the principal, teachers, classroom aides, and other support staff to ensure your child has every tool available. Remember, readers really are leaders.


Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


Prevent Data Mining in Android Apps

By Tracey Dowdy

 At a time when sites like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others are facing scrutiny for their data breaches as well as data mining, it comes as no surprise that over 1,000 Android apps have been doing more than a little harvesting of their own. Not only are they violating your privacy, they’re doing it behind your back, and without your consent.

Research has found that some apps – with no permissions enabled – actually piggyback off other apps you’ve given permission, even pulling data from your Wi-Fi connection. If you’ve ever seen ads in one app or your browser for an item you searched for in a completely different app, that’s data mining at work.  The good news is that Android Q is nearing release, and Google has promised it has security patches coming to correct the issue.

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to limit the amount of spying those apps can do.

Use common sense when giving apps permission to access data. Think about it – if it’s necessary for the app to have access to your location in order for it to function – e.g. Google Maps – then allow permission. On the other hand, do the developers over at Candy Crush need to know your location? Should they have access to your contacts or camera? Be especially mindful if an app asks for access to your microphone – last year it was discovered that the official La Liga league app used the microphone and GPS of user’s smartphones to surreptitiously identify venues broadcasting matches. But you can easily prevent this by denying an app permission to access unnecessary data in the first place.

Another simple way to limit access is to enable or disable app permissions one by one. When you install an app, disable permissions, then go back and turn on specific permissions individually.

  • Go to Settings
  • Select Apps or Application Manager
  • Choose the app that you want to change by selecting
  • Choose which permissions to turn on and off, for example, your microphone or camera.

You can also allow Google Play Protect, built into Android, to scan for potentially dangerous or invasive apps.

  • Go to Settings
  • Choose Security
  • Select Google Play Protect. A list will populate with all apps that have been scanned with any suspicious apps flagged as potentially dangerous.

Another smart option is to turn off Location Services, a prime target for trackers.

Go to Settings 

  • Tap Location
  • Select Google Location Settings
  • Toggle off for Location Reporting and Location History
  • You can also delete your location history
  • If you need your location enabled for a specific app, you can manually toggle it on then toggle off again when you’re done.

One final way to protect your privacy is by disabling location services in your photos.

  • Go to the Photos app.
  • Tap the menu and choose
  • Select Remove geo location.

Another way is to open the photo, tap the three stacked dots, select Info and choose No location. You can also go into a submenu below the map and click Remove Location.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


Best YouTube Channels for Kids

By Tracey Dowdy

 Not that long ago, we heard disturbing news stories about violent or disturbing content being planted or hidden in children’s YouTube videos. Keep in mind, these videos weren’t necessarily meant for YouTube Kids – they had been uploaded to the main YouTube platform but somehow slipped through filters designed to keep this kind of inappropriate content away from minors. YouTube has worked hard to police content directed to children more closely, but with about 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it’s no small feat.

Of course, one should never assume anything online is entirely safe, but the following channels have a good reputation among parents and children for monitoring content and offer quality entertainment while educating your child at the same time.

ChuChu TV Nursery Rhymes & Kids Songs combines upbeat nursery and educational songs with colorful graphics and animation. Characters will have your kids singing along while they learn nursery rhymes, colors, shapes, numbers, and values like kindness, compassion, respect, and generosity.

Little Baby Bum is another delightful nursery rhyme channel, and content is available in English as well as Spanish, German, Portuguese, Russian, French, and Japanese. 3D animation brings nursery rhymes to life with new content added every Wednesday.  For older kids, check out LBB Junior, or follow Kii and Yii in their nursery-rhyme-singing space adventures.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has its own YouTube channel “dedicated to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world through our unparalleled research, collections, exhibitions, and education outreach programs.” The content ranges from World War II to sharks and covers everything in-between.

Arguably the most respected educator and creator of innovative children’s content, Sesame Street brings all your favorite characters to it’s YouTube Channel. Fun, games, songs, stories – they’ve got it all, with new content posted every week.

SimpleKidsCrafts has consistently been recognized as one of Youtube’s Top Educational Kids Crafts Channels for several years. Using simple and inexpensive craft supplies like foam, beads, yarn, and glitter, kids learn how to make fun accessories for dolls, Barbies, My Little Pony, American Girl, as well as simple furniture for their dollhouses. Most crafts take five minutes or less, some as little as a minute!

Finally, KidTimeStoryTime’s StoryTeller reads fresh and familiar children’s books aloud with “love, humor, and puppets.” Kids can follow along as StoryTeller reads funny, helpful, inspiring, educational, and often magical stories. Studies show that reading aloud makes children smarter, stronger, and reinforces positive values, so not only are your kids being entertained, it’s a parenting win for you! With titles as varied as “Snow White in New York – a Fractured Fairy Tale,” “The Pout Pout Fish,” “The Road Not Taken – a Poem By Robert Frost,” and “A Lady Has the Floor (Belva Lockwood Speaks for Women’s Rights),” no matter the age or interest, StoryTeller has a book for you.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


Family Safety Tips for July 4th

By Tracey Dowdy

 The fourth of July is the most quintessential of American holidays. It’s also the most dangerous. According to the American Safety Council, there were approximately 540 fatalities and nearly 58,000 serious injuries reported on Independence Day 2017. Alcohol was a contributing factor in many of these accidents, as were fireworks. Of the 5,200 injuries from fireworks each year, over 30% happen to children—primarily from sparklers, novelty devices, and aerial devices.

But, following a few simple rules, this can be your safest and most fun Fourth yet!

First, remember that no matter what your Uncle Dave says, there are no safe fireworks for kids. What other day of the year do you put fire in your child’s hands? Sparklers can reach up to 3,000℉, 15 times the boiling point of water, hot enough to cause severe burns and ignite flammable clothing. Instead, purchase glow sticks or other glow-in-the-dark accessories that are safer and don’t come with a high risk of injury.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends skipping the fireworks at home and instead, find a professional display in your area. However, since there are cultural traditions tied to the celebration, if you do purchase fireworks, make sure they’re for personal, not professional use. Fireworks for personal use will be in colorful packaging – fireworks designed for commercial – read professional – use will be in generic packaging possibly even wrapped in plain brown paper, and most importantly, lack the safety labeling meant for consumers. Establish a “no-fly zone” far from the ignition point and make sure your kids are well outside the circle.

Adults, keep yourself safe. Model the behavior you want your children to follow.

  • Light fireworks one at a time, away from your body, then move away quickly.
  • If a firework doesn’t light, don’t try again, douse it in a bucket of water.
  • NEVER throw fireworks or point them toward another person.
  • Use only the firing mechanism or fuse that came with the fireworks.
  • Once spent, soak all used fireworks in a bucket of water.

If you attend a fireworks display, stay within the designated area, don’t ignore barriers and caution tape for the sake of a better view. Particularly important for young children or those with sensitivity to sound, give them a heads up about what they can expect and will experience. Knowing they’re in a safe zone can eliminate some of the anxiety that comes from the sonic boom.

However, if they do become anxious or begin to panic, have a Plan B, whether that means watching a favorite video with headphones on a tablet or phone, or simply knowing the shortest route back to your car.

One of the best things about the 4th of July holiday is the opportunity for making memories – following these tips can ensure they’re good ones.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.