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A Guide to Every Grade

Jon Whittle


Once upon a time, kindergarten was all about teaching social readiness, learning how to line up, sit quietly in a circle, and put things back. In recent decades, "readiness skills" in language, reading, writing, and math have been emphasized. Experts generally agree, however, that much of the "learning" that happens in kindergarten should be nonacademic. Make-believe and fantasy are a big part of the kindergartner's approach to the world. Enjoy it.

What to Expect

1. Lots of activity. Kindergartners are doers, not sitters. While children will learn, increasingly, how to sit still and listen, the emphasis in the classroom will be on hands-on reality and action, action, action, both indoors and out.

2. Imagination! Children in kindergarten are, in some ways, at the imaginative peak of their lives. Kindergarten should make the most of this special time. That is what the paints and dress-up clothes and blocks and Play-Doh are for.

3. Learning letters. The most common formal instruction in kindergarten is the teaching of the alphabet and its associated sounds. Teachers will teach this to an incredibly diverse crew: Some children will already know how to read, while others will struggle with the letters all year and may still not know them well.

4. Families and holidays. Social studies do not usually exist, per se, in kindergarten. But the rudiments begin as the teacher encourages a discussion of families. Holidays are useful, too. They're fun, they teach about customs and other people, and offer many arts-and-crafts-related tie-ins.

5. Ongoing social and physical maturity. As the year moves along, your kindergartner should demonstrate an increased understanding of rules and cooperation, a longer attention span, and better coordination.

6. Print curiosity. Another feature that may emerge toward the end of the year, if not before, is a marked curiosity about printed words your child sees  -- on signs, boxes of food, stray household objects, even clothing labels.

Watch Out for:



  • Toilet accidents. While not uncommon, some of these are avoidable if you help your child learn how to make his needs known to the teacher. Some are quite shy about this.


  • Not getting along? A persistent inability to share or a lack of playmates may indicate a problem that deserves attention.

    First Grade

    Elementary school begins in first grade. But in spirit, children begin first grade as kindergartners. Much happens over the course of the year to transform little children into young boys and girls. First-graders do not seem as wild as kindergartners  -- after all, they are more developed physically, neurologically, and psychologically. They are gaining more control over their bodies, both at the fine motor level (first-grade art often shows a big representational leap over kindergarten art) and at the large muscle level (first grade is when children often begin to show interest in specific sports). Your child has a better sense of self than she did a year ago, and less of a need to live in the here and now. And she is ready and willing to use her mind. This is what first grade is all about. It is a fun and fulfilling year.

    What to Expect

    1. A big emphasis on reading. Children range from reading fluently as preschoolers to still being unsure of their letters when they leave kindergarten.

    2. Numbers, numbers, and more numbers. There is lots of math in first grade  -- and it all seems like fun: sorting and classifying, reading and writing numerals, seeking patterns, working with tallying and statistics, exploring shapes and measurement.

    3. A little bit of homework. These days, most first-grade teachers tend to give a few minutes of homework once or twice a week to reinforce some classroom lessons.

    4. Writing, but not spelling. First-graders are given many chances to write. But what is on a child's mind at this age can outstrip his physical ability to hold the pencil and form the letters. Acceptance of "inventive" spelling is another part of helping children embrace the writing process.

    5. Increased emotional and physical independence. Children quickly learn to walk into the classroom themselves, then progress into other areas of self-management, such as hanging up coats (as the weather cools), returning library books, and handing in homework.

    6. Concentration. Kindergartners learn to listen in a circle; first-graders sit at their desks and listen to what is going on without getting distracted or requiring attention. This ability to concentrate develops over the course of the year, and sets the stage for second-grade academics.

    Watch Out for:



    • Slow readers. Do your best not to pressure your child into reading if he does not seem eager, and try not to force him to show you what he has been learning. How quickly a child learns to read has nothing to do with overall brightness or long-term reading ability.


    • Too much television. Research has shown that limiting television to 10 hours or less a week may assist a child in his reading; more TV-watching has been shown to slow reading achievement.


    • Pent-up feelings. First-graders are still emotional beings, likely to cry, yell, hit, or even throw tantrums when upset. This is a good age to begin urging your child to talk about feelings, and to guide her in beginning to find her own solutions to problems.


      Second Grade

      In second grade, a child becomes a student. By now, children should have a strong grip on all the rudimentary skills of learning, from reading and writing to arithmetic. With evident pride in what they know, second-graders are among the most eager learners to be found. They tend to be attached to the literal and concrete, and begin to pay attention to the world around them and expect to have some input and control. But they are still marvelously open to new experiences, and they have an appetite for stories, poetry, music, and other arts-oriented activities.

      What to Expect

      1. Reading. The emphasis this year moves from reading as "decoding" (being able to convert letters into sounds; combining the sounds into words) to reading for understanding. (Second-graders, however, still love being read to, so teachers should provide regular story time.)

      2. Real homework. Though not generally time-consuming, second-grade homework usually becomes regular, perhaps 15 to 20 minutes a night. It is a good grade to begin a homework routine: Decide on the time and place homework gets done and see that your child stays with it as much as her schedule permits.

      3. Uh-oh: Spelling! In most schools, second grade marks the beginning of the spelling curriculum. There may be textbooks, photocopied lists, tests, or some combination of these, all in the interest of introducing children to the idea that spelling does matter after all.

      4. Math as a subject. If not before, this is the year that math becomes a formal subject of instruction (best taught in the morning when children are more alert). Math moves beyond counting into more complex addition and subtraction, simple fractions, measurement, and problem solving.

      5. Journalizing. Second grade is a big journal year. Children write about everything that happens to them, and in the process create one of the most adorable and enduring documents of their school careers.

      6. Outside experiences. While your child may already have a history of extracurricular activities, in second grade she may, suddenly, begin to express her own ideas about what she would like to be doing outside of school.

      Watch Out for:



      • Excessive self-criticism. A second-grader will notice how his friends and peers do things and compare his own abilities. He may need help putting self-criticism in perspective and not judging himself too harshly.


      • Lack of concentration. Children who still have trouble sitting still and listening will begin to have trouble achieving at a high level.


      • Slow readers, redux. As the year passes the halfway point, if your child is still struggling with reading, it may be time to confer with the teacher.


        Third Grade

        School gets more serious in third grade. And so do the children. They begin to become aware of themselves in a wider context than children in a family. Third-graders can now draw on their own mental resources (memories, problem-solving skills, personal experience) when learning something new. In third grade, school becomes not just a place of learning, but also a place of socializing; children look forward to seeing their friends there day after day after day.

        What to Expect

        1. "Big kid" responsibilities. Children will be expected to pack and unpack their own backpacks, write down their own homework assignments, and hand in their work. Third-grade homework moves into the 20- to 30-minute range.

        2. Textbooks. Many schools shift much of the curriculum into textbooks in third grade, often for spelling and social studies, although this varies a lot by school system.

        3. Group work and projects. Third grade is project heaven, with hands-on science experiments, literary dioramas, and social studies construction projects providing varied and colorful activity  -- and a lot of fun  -- throughout the year.

        4. Writing gets sophisticated. Children curb their self-expression and become more self-conscious in their writing, as they are taught more explicitly about crafting prose and poetry. And, adding style to substance, cursive is typically introduced during the third-grade year.

        5. Fruitful multiplication. Multiplication "facts," as they are usually called these days, fly hot and heavy around the third-grade classroom. The goal is to have all single-digit multiplication down cold by the end of the year.

        6. Instrumental music. If your school has a music program, your child may learn the recorder in third grade. If there is no music program in the school, this is a good age to pursue lessons on the outside.

        Watch Out for:



        • School blahs. This can be a make-or-break year regarding your child's attitude toward school. Try to foster a positive attitude about learning.


        • Grade pressure. Grades are a guide to what your child has learned and what she still needs to learn, no more; not a reason to pressure your child.


        • Gender rivalry. In third grade, boys and girls dissociate, flagrantly. Same-sex clusters rule the day. This is not anything to worry about  -- just funny.

          Fourth Grade

          In fourth grade, for perhaps the first time, school can get tough. Gone is the gentle focus of younger-grade teachers on basic skills and social development. Now, there are hard subjects to grapple with, more schoolwork and homework to organize, and real tests to study for  -- as the saying goes, in fourth grade, children stop learning to read and start reading to learn. What is more, fourth-graders must navigate an increasingly complex social environment, with new sensitivity to who the "smart" ones or "popular" ones are. Fourth-graders are not as ready to distance themselves from their parents as children another year or two down the road. For some it is the last innocent year.

          What to Expect

          1. Homework gets serious. If your child does not have a homework routine in place, he might find himself overwhelmed as fourth grade  -- with its 40 minutes or more of homework  -- gets under way. And now there are plenty of real tests to study for. Be sure your child's organizational skills are up to the task without being too bossy yourself.

          2. Three-ring binders. The next sign of a maturing student, after the textbooks in third grade, are the three-ring binders (complete with dividers) of the fourth-grader.

          3. State history. Expect to find out more than you yourself ever knew about the state you live in.

          4. Shapes of things. While fourth-grade math is largely an extension of third-grade math (more multiplication, more division, more fractions), there is also more geometry, which often fascinates children this age.

          5. Researching skills. One of the ways fourth-graders utilize their reading skills is by learning how to apply reading to gather information and to understand other subjects  -- especially history, geography, and science.

          6. Physical differences. Fourth grade is marked by potentially large physical differences in children. While some still look young, others look nearly ready for middle school.

          Watch Out for:



          • Math hesitancy. If your fourth-grader considers math "hard," talk to the teacher. Fourth-grade math should not be beyond most children's abilities.


          • Sensitive feelings. In cliques and rivalries brews much opportunity for hurt feelings. Friendships can also bring tension and conflict. On top of this, fourth-graders are more sensitive than younger children to what other people think of them.


          • The end of reading at home. Just because your child is old enough to read on his own does not mean you should stop reading to him out loud. Most children still love this time with their parents.

            Fifth Grade

            In many schools, the fifth-graders are the oldest, and they love it. While they still tend to have a natural love of learning, they are also moving toward preadolescence. Some are more willing than ever before to test their limits, question authority, and be distracted by nonacademic activities. That said, many fifth-graders are still happy children, keen on acquiring knowledge and learning facts. This is a year, too, in which technical proficiency in special areas, such as music, may blossom. While fifth grade is a lot like fourth grade in the academic ground it covers, fifth-graders are expected to act with an ever-increasing amount of independence and responsibility.

            What to Expect

            1. Long-term research projects and reports. In fifth grade, reports get longer, require independent research, and delve into more complex materials. If there is a computer at home, you may suddenly see your child doing more than playing on it. The Web may become a useful resource.

            2. Current events. Regardless of the appropriateness of the news for children, fifth-graders are captivated by the world around them, and will often have assignments oriented toward reading the newspaper.

            3. Public speaking. Dynamic fifth-grade classes encourage a lot of public speaking opportunities  -- from writing and delivering actual speeches, to a variety of chances for oral presentations. Attend to how your child handles this.

            4. Math gets hard. Maybe not for your child, but for you. Parents often find that fifth-grade math takes them beyond what they comfortably remember. As in fourth grade, it's crucial for you to stay in touch with your child's mathematical progress, or lack of progress.

            5. Sex in the classroom? The time has come, in fifth grade in most schools, for presentations on health and sexuality. Bodies will be changing soon  -- it's natural, and so, too, should be learning about it.

            6. Fifth-grade events. Especially as the spring arrives, fifth grade may end up seeming to be, most of all, about itself: A celebration of the upcoming graduation and the end of the elementary-school career, through a series of special events, often including a major field trip.

            Watch Out for:



            • "Forgotten" homework. Fifth grade is a big year for nightly calls about homework. If your child is making, rather than receiving, these calls, explore the reasons  -- there could be organizational problems.


            • Overscheduling. Inherently busy and social, your fifth-grader may end up with little time to do her homework and get a good night's sleep.


            • Peer pressure. Fifth-graders can become very sensitive to having the "right" clothes, hairstyles, and musical tastes. Be aware of this, but be sure, too, not to approach conversations with your child judgmentally. Keeping the lines of communication open will be one of your greatest challenges.

              Sixth Grade

              In the old days  -- -say, when you were in grade school  -- -sixth grade was part of elementary school. Nowadays, that's less common. Sixth is often the first grade in middle school; there are even some schools that are entirely sixth grade. But wherever sixth grade happens, the children are the same age, going through that same preteen confusion-laced excitement. Sixth-graders have been trained to think for themselves and they're more than prepared to do that now, with much vigor. They like to complain a lot, too, so brace yourself. And if you haven't yet done this too well, take a crash course in learning how to let go: Sixth-graders demand a lot of independence, even as they are not always emotionally ready for it.

              What to Expect

              1. Transition-related challenges. For many, sixth grade is the first year of middle school, and with it comes a new type of school day: multiple teachers, changing classes, larger building, decreased parental input, and new grading procedures and testing logistics.

              2. Fifth grade, redux. When all is said and done, sixth grade is not all that much different from fifth when it comes to content, with perhaps an added focus on "thematic units" of study. Teachers use the year to identify weaknesses and shore up skills students will need as they proceed into the upper grades of middle school.

              3. Longer-term reading assignments. Time budgeting skills begun in fifth grade become important when pacing out week-long, or even month-long, assignments.

              4. "Grown-up" work. Sixth-graders like the trappings of adult-style work, including detailed research, constructing bibliographies, and complex mathematical reasoning. They will get all of this and more, in all their classes.

              5. Math struggles to stay relevant. Sixth-graders are very capable of dealing with elaborate computations, understanding patterns and probability, and solving logic problems  -- but they still have trouble (as many of us do!) fully understanding math as a stand-alone subject. Math works best integrated with science, social studies, and language arts. Not all schools manage to do this.

              6. Ancient worlds. They're still studying ancient civilizations in sixth grade, much as you might remember. But in addition to the usual suspects, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, schools today often head, multiculturally, toward India and China as well.

              7. Computerization. While not all elementary schools are equally wired, and the benefits of the computer continue to be debated at the grade-school level, there is no doubt that computers become a key part of the middle-school environment.

              Watch Out for:



              • Homework nightmares. Some schools are better than others at instituting a global sense of homework. Many students face an onslaught of unprecedented proportions thanks to having multiple teachers. Word has it that the homework situation smooths out by seventh grade.


              • Communication breakdown. Because of what sixth-graders are going through emotionally, they may become far less interested in discussing things with their parents. Don't stop trying, however. Children still want and need parental guidance. Use new approaches. Just when your child may begin to act as if he deserves less respect is exactly when you need to treat him with more.


              • Social flux and uncertainty. Peer pressure kicks in big time, along with cliques and other difficult new social realities, including dating.


              • Symptoms of stress. When sixth grade is the first year of middle school, some children are at risk for serious stress. Keep an eye on your child and make sure her needs (good nutrition, a decent night's sleep, physical exercise) are being met.