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A Grade-By-Grade Guide to Education

  • "No, Mom! You're doing it the wrong way!" That's what Stephanie Elliot, a Scottsdale, AZ, mother of three, heard when she tried to help her kids with their math homework. Elliot knew she'd have trouble -- she just didn't expect it to start so early. "Even memorizing the multiplication tables is different," she sighs.

    It turns out that a lot of what we remember from grade school might be obsolete now. "In general, everything's been bumped down," says Chip Wood, M.S.W., director of curriculum and instruction at the Gill-Montague Regional School District in Turners Falls, MA, and the author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. "Kids are being asked to do more difficult math and reading work than they used to. So what you remember learning in first grade is now taught in kindergarten, second-grade subjects are now taught in first grade, and so on." While each state's curriculum will vary a bit, here's a general overview of what's being taught in public school in each grade.

  • Kindergarten

    What you can expect: Gone are the days of free play, games, and songs. Most states now have full-day kindergarten with fairly academic programs that emphasize reading in groups, solving simple math problems (like addition and counting by tens), and developing writing skills. 

    -You'll find a lot of seat work and pencil-and-paper tasks as kids learn to master their letters, numbers, and writing short words like "to." (Reversing letters and numbers while writing is totally normal now.)

    -Your child will be expected to sound out simple words (especially rhyming words) and learn to identify different parts of a book, such as the writer, the artist and illustrations, the title, and the story. 

    Don't be surprised if... Your child has a hard time sitting still to do all that work. It's expected, and a savvy teacher knows to let these kids move around a lot. For more on fidgeting and focus, learn when to test your child for ADHD.

  • First Grade

    What you can expect: Teachers cover a lot of ground. In language arts, the students learn about different genres -- poetry, fiction, and nonfiction -- and how they are alike and different; they learn to read more fluently and move on to chapter books. They learn how to write and punctuate sentences. In math, first-graders are mastering addition and subtraction, how to tell time and count money, and the concepts of "greater than," "equal to," and "less than."

    -Expect homework and worksheets to start in earnest this year. 

    -Teachers start to group students according to abilities, so there will be more emphasis on teaching reading and math to smaller bunches of first-graders.

    Don't be surprised if... It's hard for your child to complete worksheets. "At this age, kids love doing their schoolwork, but they don't always like to finish it," says Wood.

  • Second Grade

    What you can expect: This year kids will learn to read as well silently as they do aloud, and relate plots in books to real life. They'll keep reading logs, write simple stories, compare and classify shapes, practice solving math problems mentally (no more using objects for counting), and organize and display data in charts. In some schools, second-graders may start to learn cursive writing.

    -Second-graders like a quieter, slower-paced classroom and really enjoy solo work. They also like to finish their work, but they don't always have the time they need to do so. What can help is breaking homework down into bite-size tasks -- for instance, spend 10 or 15 minutes on math, then move on to a 20-minute reading session, says Wood.

    -A second-grader will be able to write a bit more neatly and starts to spell more words correctly (or at least less inventively) than he did in first grade, but his handwriting tends to be tiny -- and his drawings may be microscopic.

    Don't be surprised if... Your second-grader is very rigid about what boys and girls can do and which gender he can play with, says Gwendolyn Mettetal, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and education at Indiana University in South Bend. Seven-year-olds like to classify people and things based on what they observe -- and they notice physical differences, including race.  

  • Third Grade

    What you can expect: Standardized tests begin this year, which means lots of spelling and math -- and more teaching to the test. Students will learn their multiplication tables, start division and fractions, and practice their writing, which must contain complete sentences and adjectives. Brief oral reports may be expected and cursive writing will be taught if it hasn't been yet. 

    -It's hard for kids to memorize facts at this age, says Wood, so help your third-grader practice her times tables and spelling by using flash cards at home. The computer is another option, but third-graders learn best with another person -- a friend or their mom or dad. 

    -Don't be surprised if... Your third-grader becomes a little conformist, says Mettetal. She'll start comparing herself to other kids and want to fit in, so give in occasionally on the cool outfit or accessory du jour. In third grade, the child who stands out too much will get left out socially -- and there's nothing wrong with avoiding that.

  • Fourth Grade

    What you can expect: The big switch this year: Instead of being taught how to read, students now read to learn. From word problems to social studies lessons, kids need to be good (and fast) readers in order to keep up. Also on the agenda: more long-term projects, tackling long division, learning to add and subtract fractions, keeping a reading journal (instead of just a reading log), writing essays and stories, using rulers and thermometers to measure, and conducting experiments with gases, liquids, and solids.

    -Fourth grade is difficult -- there's more work, and it's more abstract. But the kids are still concrete thinkers, so long division with large numbers and concepts like the universe can be hard to understand. 

    -In fourth grade, teachers ramp up the writing because most standardized exams require a composition test. Help your fourth-grader practice his skills by playing word games like Scrabble and Pictionary with him, getting a computer program that helps him write stories, and showing him the way you use writing at work and at home, says Wood.  

    Don't be surprised if... Your child's grades take a dip, says Wood. Fourth grade is tough both academically and socially. There are cliques and mean kids to contend with, and that can take up much of your child's energy.

  • Fifth Grade

    What you can expect: In fifth grade, doing an assignment once is no longer enough -- students are now expected to review, revise, and improve. In math, your child will probably be identifying different types of triangles; working with fractions, decimals, and simple percentages; and learning about prime numbers. Science will be about simple machines and different sources of energy and motion. She'll also be reading longer, more complex books in different genres (biographies as well as fiction) and writing short research papers.

    -Workbooks morph into hardcover textbooks (so expect a heavier backpack).

    -In social studies, kids will learn about economics (the laws of supply and demand) and systems of government (including documents like the Constitution). 

    Don't be surprised if... Your kid likes spending time with you -- she'll do her homework nearby and enjoy being read to. That will probably change next year.

  • Sixth Grade

    What you can expect: Changing bodies, changing schools. For most kids, middle school begins this year. That means different teachers for every subject, switching classrooms, and keeping track of schedules and assignments. School is a pressure cooker now, and your child is probably aware of his place in the pecking order.

    -In language arts, teachers expect kids to analyze themes, plot development, point of view, and writing styles. They'll also learn to write persuasive essays. 

    -In math, she'll start prealgebra, calculate the area of two- and three-dimensional shapes, and learn statistical probability. 

    Don't be surprised if... Your moody sixth-grader pushes back when you ask about homework. You'll likely need to check his planner and keep in touch with his teacher to monitor his work. These kids want their independence, but they also need you as a safety net.