Between them, my two daughters have logged a total of 11 years in elementary school—and I've spent what feels like 100 years helping them with their homework. Sure, it starts off easy: trace a few letters, call Grandpa to find out about the old days. But before you know it, you've got a sixth-grader asking you to help her make a…vector graph? What the huh?
Your assignment through it all: To be the most supportive, resourceful parent you possibly can. That doesn't mean simply taking over and doing your child's homework for her—tempting as it may be at times—or leaving her to sink or swim (remember: she'll choose your nursing home someday). It means giving her all the tools she needs and knowing how best to help her over the inevitable humps, even if you don't have every solution right at your fingertips. Luckily, we've done our homework, too, and come up with the ultimate grade-by-grade survival guide! Read on for brilliant tips, tricks, and insider info from some of the country's most sought-after tutors, plus insights from the real-life teachers who hand out the assignments.
Kindergarten: H Is for Homework!
Don't be surprised if what happens in kindergarten doesn't stay in kindergarten. “We have a lot of activities going home. We're trying to show the children that what they're doing in class applies to life,” explains Erin Reid, a kindergarten teacher at Horizon Community Learning Center, in Phoenix. Your child will need your help to finish his work, which will typically consist of a worksheet that's more like a game, and reading aloud. Set up a homework station with paper, scissors, glue, colored pencils, and washable markers. Using them will help improve his hand-eye coordination, and you'll keep the mess contained to a single area.
Barbara Walters Wannabe
You'll probably have to do all the reading—but pose questions to get your kid to read between the lines. “‘What do you think will happen?’ or ‘Does Joey seem happy or scared?’” Reid recommends. Have him look closely at the illustrations and preceding sentences for clues.
Find tie-ins to what the class is studying. During a unit on birds, for example, take a walk to your nearest park, and try to spot cool ones.
At playtime, choose activities that informally reinforce things your child is doing in the classroom. Play a board game like Scrabble Jr. or Chutes and Ladders. “They teach kids how to take turns and can help them learn simple reading and math,” Reid explains. If you're making a grocery list, ask your child to “write” one, too. “It doesn't matter if he can spell words or not—just have him pretend,” Reid says. “It's more about getting practice holding a pencil.”
- A typical night's homework: 0-15 minutes
- Big-picture goal: Establishing good study habits
First Grade: Spelling It Out
This is when many teachers start assigning subject-specific homework (though it's often only one subject per night). Others, like Liz Rampy of Forest Acres Elementary School, in Easley, SC, hand out the entire week's worth of work on Monday, leaving the pacing up to you. An average night's effort might be to read together for 15 minutes, then finish a math or spelling sheet. For the former, your child might have to circle a certain number of objects in a group for counting practice, or solve simple word problems, or, later in the year, try double-digit subtraction. As for spelling, you'll typically tackle ten short words each week. To your kid, this may seem like a ton of work: “She's making the jump from the play-based curriculum of kindergarten,” Rampy notes.
Offer praise when she finishes her work.
Figure out when your kid is most focused (right off the bus, or after a snack or playtime?) and have her tackle her toughest subject first.
Use real objects to help her work through math problems: Set up five mini—chocolate bars and eat three—hey, we all have to sacrifice for our children's education! Spelling practice doesn't have to be a dull drill, either. “Let your child write out the words with shaving cream on the shower wall,” says Rampy.
- A typical night's homework: 0-30 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Reinforcing good work habits and teaching time management and organization
Second Grade: Step It Up
Get set for multi-night projects that require some research. “Spelling lists may include multi-syllable words and involve pluralization or contraction. Math problems will use double-digit numbers, and addition or subtraction problems may require ‘carrying over,’” says Chris Tobias, who leads school-skills seminars for students, parents, teachers, and educators and is the author of 101 Secrets to Passing Any Test.
“Bring home some work of your own, or sit and take care of a house project while your child works nearby,” Tobias says.
A Helping Hand (but not a hand-holder)
Let your child do her homework by herself, but check it once she's done. “If you find an error, go back through the problem together,” Tobias says.
Show her how to use reliable websites to ferret out facts for projects. If you don't know yourself, ask your child's teacher or librarian for pointers.
- A typical night's homework: 15-30 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Encouraging independent reading; conveying the basics of research
Third Grade: What a Load!
Ready? Here it comes: an amount of homework that really deserves to be called a “workload.” Math's going to involve multiplication and division. Spelling words will be multisyllabic (“refrigerator”) or involve variations on a root word (“refrigerate,” “refrigerated”). Books are bigger now, and your kid will have to answer questions about characters and plots.
Give your child strategies to sharpen his focus, says Tobias. When he's reading, to keep him from skimming, “have him place an index card just below the line he's reading, pushing it down as he goes. That way, he'll focus on one line at a time.” He'll read faster, too, since his gaze won't wander.
This is when many kids are expected to memorize times tables. One great way to drill your kid, says Tobias, is by building a “memory pyramid”: “Have him recite ‘two times two is four,’ for example, out loud. Then have him close his eyes and repeat it. Then ask him to open his eyes and say ‘two times two is four, and three times two is six' out loud.’ Keep going, adding to the list.’” The reasoning? “It burns into your memory through repetition. Closing your eyes reinforces the information further.”
Review lessons regularly—ideally, twice a week. “If you don't reinforce them within 48 hours, your brain dumps the information,” says Tobias. “Say to your child, ‘Hey, remember those spelling words we learned on Monday? Let's go over them again now that it's Wednesday, since you have that test coming up at the end of the week.’”
- A typical night's homework: 30-45 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Teaching kids to infer things from what they read; emphasizing accuracy and attention to detail
Fourth Grade: Think Big
If “A” was for Apple in first grade, “A” is for Algebra—or at least the start of it—now. “There's less emphasis on rote memorization and more on understanding the underlying concepts of mathematics, like what a fraction is and how one fraction can equal another, such as one-half and four-eighths,” says Joan Rooney, a former teacher and vice president of Tutor.com. So you'll be seeing math questions coming home like “12 ? x = 3,” along with ones involving decimals and fractions, too. Formal spelling lists may be phased out at this point, but kids will still learn lots of new words in the course of studying subjects like social studies, history, science, and foreign languages. Reading expands to include textbook pages, and your child may be asked to write book reports. Expect homework to broaden in scope to include a mix of two to three subjects per night—or even more.
Back off, and give your kid some space as he tackles his assignments—as much as you both can stand. He needs to begin doing most of his work independently. Will he be thrilled that you're no longer leaping to his assistance at every minor glitch? No. Should you budge? Depends: “Do you want to be doing his homework for him when he's in grad school?” asks Tobias. Didn't think so!
Lord of the Files
Provide some behind-the-scenes support, starting with getting him organized. “He may be overwhelmed by the amount of paper he's getting, from social-studies handouts to Spanish word-finds. Put a system in place to make sense of it all,” advises Rooney. Hang a dry-erase calendar on a wall (or the fridge), and plot out each assignment's due date, then talk about setting blocks of time within his baked-in homework hour to tackle multi-night (or multi-week) projects. Now's a good time to invest in subject binders, too. They'll help keep the semester's worth of science handouts from scattering all around your house.
When your child gets frustrated about how best to approach an essay or work through a problem, Tobias suggests asking him, “What would your teacher say if you told her about this problem? How do you think she'd tell you to do it?” It may jog his memory, and it will get him into the routine of trying to deliver the kinds of answers she wants. If he's truly stumped, there's no harm in your stepping in to see if you can help him over a hump. He can also call or e-mail a friend to try to get a few pointers. And it's not the end of the world to return to school without an answer.
- A typical night's homework: About 40 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Developing time-management skills and an ability to switch gears; encouraging problem-solving
Fifth Grade: Testing…Testing
This is the year when standardized testing kicks in big-time, and so do the demands on kids. “We're trying to be competitive with countries like China. Fifth-graders are learning things most of us didn't learn till a year or two later,” says Candace Hall, a sixth-grade teacher and intervention specialist for fifth-through eighth-graders at Fleetwood Area School District, in Fleetwood, PA. Math-wise, steel yourself for geometry and complex fractions; your child will also have to show his work, not just hand in the answer. Reading alone will take 15 to 20 minutes per evening, and your child will often have to keep a log you'll need to sign, provide written answers to general questions, and make book reports. Social-studies and science projects will pop up regularly, too—some to be done with a team of kids, others over a length of time that can run from a couple of weeks to a month (for example, writing a report on the geography and history of the Silk Road).
Keep tabs on how well your child understands what he's reading—without hovering. Try casually saying “That book looks good. What's it about?”
If your kid's stuck on a problem, give hints rather than the answer. For example, say “Well, what would happen if you reduced the fraction first?” and let him take it from there. Or have him ping a friend—collaborative effort is a good thing at this age anyway.
Many fifth-graders have homework related to current and world events, “but a lot of families don't read newspapers anymore,” says Rooney. Bookmark several good websites, and help your child learn to navigate them.
- A typical night's homework: About 50 minutes to 1 hour
- Big-picture goals: Building test-pre, math and reading comprehension skills; teaching teamwork
Sixth Grade: Imagine That!
Your sixth-grader will be asked to write persuasive and informative essays, do multipart math problems, analyze historical documents, and more. Phew! The good news is, she'll likely also get to exercise her creativity, says Mariola Doran, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade history and English at Randolph-Macon Academy Middle School, in Front Royal, VA. Expect to see her writing a play, or a fictional letter to a book character.
Make a binder for each long-term assignment and have your child mark days on the calendar to work on them.
Brainstorm ways she can speak up when she doesn't understand something: Can she approach her teacher after class or e-mail her?
Let her bounce ideas off you. “Say ‘Oh, you have an essay due on Friday. Why don't you read me what you've got so far?’” advises Tobias.
- A typical night's homework: 60-90 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Increasing attention span; fostering creativity; building math confidence and competence
Seventh Grade: Raising the Bar
If sixth grade was middle-school lite, seventh is the caffeinated version. English homework will entail essays where kids are asked to compare and contrast characters. Kids who take a foreign language will have assignments like word lists and basic sentence construction. Math means more and harder algebra problems, along with graphs and probability equations. And students will often focus on a single science or history topic for weeks at a time.
Teach great note-taking. Tobias likes the School Skills Active Memory Method: Tell your child to make a fat and a thin column on each page. In the fat one, he should write down everything he can as his teacher talks. In the narrow column, as time allows, write down a test question the teacher might ask based on that information. It'll embed the info in his memory and provide an easy way for a parent or pal to help test him later. He should also leave spaces between one topic and the next to draw helpful pictures.
Sit down briefly each night, just to go over things. At dinner, ask “What homework did you have? What did you learn?”
If you're able, plan some family field trips to reinforce what your child's learning in science or history. A visit to a Civil War battlefield or nature center may help facts hit home in a way no book ever could.
- A typical night's homework: 75-90 minutes
- Big-picture goals: Applying lessons to everyday experiences; improving analytical skills; establishing good notetaking habits