Focus Less On Assignments And More On 'Essential Skills'

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As the end of the school year approaches and the long summer months loom ahead, I am often struck by two questions: Has my son learned everything he was supposed to learn in third grade? And how the hell am I supposed to keep him from falling even further behind without setting up an ongoing academic schedule during what is supposed to be his fun summer vacation?

Some of the assignments he’s getting seem valuable, and some seem like busy work. I suppose preschool and elementary assignments have always been a mix of both, but now in particular, it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. That’s why Katharine Hill, a learning specialist and parent educator, told the New York Times that parents can ask teachers about the essential skills kids should be learning. 

Preschool- and elementary-aged students need a lot of parental support to complete their distance-learning obligations. But in many families right now, that kind of oversight is impossible. One way to figure out which assignments are most essential is to ask your teacher about what skills your child should master by the end of the school year, Hill said. And then try to embed those skills into your child’s natural activities.

Due to the way this school year has progressed, there may be a decent chance that they will not have mastered the key skills by the time summer break rolls around. But if you figure out what those skills are now, you can make them the focus during the rest of this remote learning situation. And then, as spring morphs into summer, you can find ways to incorporate the reinforcing of those skills into fun, everyday activities.

One of the skills I’ve noticed a heavy focus on in my son’s class, for example, is the ability to write two consecutive five-sentence paragraphs on ... whatever. On a story they read or a food they like or a place they want to go someday. The topic itself is almost irrelevant; it’s the practicing of the paragraph-writing that is the point.

So over the summer, I could suggest to my son that we keep a journal of all our pandemic adventures. Or I could encourage him to start writing letters to a buddy who is moving away. Or we could bust out the footpath chalk, drive to his grandparents’ house and write messages to them on their driveway. There are lots of ways to make writing less of an “assignment” and more of a fun thing we’re doing to connect with people we love.

If addition and subtraction is a skill they need to practice, get them in the kitchen, choose a recipe and cut it in half or double it. There’s no better maths practice than converting ingredient amounts.

You can practice telling time by deciding how long you’ll work on a puzzle together and keeping an eye on the clock. Practice reading by going over board game instructions together, by reading through your curbside pickup menu options, or simply by turning on the TV captions.

Talk to your child’s teacher now about which top skills they should focus on and then look for easy, low-pressure ways to incorporate the practicing of those skills as we transition from the end of the school year into summer.


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