Homeschooling Elementary School
Homeschooling elementary school is a perfect educational setting for developing a personal philosophy based on the intellectual life you want for your children. I encourage you, as your child’s primary educator, to take the time to reflect on what you hope for your child’s “intellectual life.”
The Wonder Years
Over the years, I taught and tutored students in grades 1st through college. There are high points in teaching every grade, but it is the elementary students I miss the most. It is just so fulfilling and fun to work with this age group as they discover the world around them! Their innate curiosity and eagerness to learn make teaching them an adventure filled with AHA moments and new discoveries. Their unique perspective on the world, unburdened by preconceived notions or biases, leads to observations and insights that will keep you thinking and, in live, online classes, on your toes!
As every homeschooler of this age cohort knows, however, it’s not all fun and games. It is easy to worry as you work to understand how your children learn. We worry if we are adequately meeting their needs where they are strong, and we worry if we are providing the right kind of scaffolding where they struggle. This is complicated if your child is neurodiverse. Compounding this is that at the same time they are learning to read and write, they are also learning how to handle their big emotions and frustrations when things don’t go exactly as planned. And yet, this is the age I miss the most. They are genuinely adorable, and it is special to be there when someone learns something for the first time.
Your Educational Philosophy
One thing that is challenging about teaching these early grades is that it is often your first foray into teaching. I encourage you to really give some thought to your educational philosophy. This passage resonates with me as a reason to do some big-picture thinking about what you want for your children’s learning. I think this is especially important when working with young learners, as they are exposed to more formal learning for the first time.
Vygotsky (1978), writing about the importance of the sociocultural context of learning and providing models, stated, “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” This is one of our favorite quotes because it provides a powerful metaphor for what it means to educate. With what kind of intellectual life are we surrounding our students? Is it hardy, inspiring, and complex? How are we fostering the growth of their intellectual life? What are our students learning about learning in our classrooms? How are we engaging them in the processes of thinking, learning, problem solving, designing, debating, and citizenship? How can we move beyond merely imparting knowledge and passing along tips for how to achieve high marks on external exams so that we are preparing students, not for tests, but for life? ~ The Power of Making Thinking Visible, Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church, p. 24
The book is targeted at traditional school educators; however, there is an educational philosophy in this passage that is useful in any educational setting. Homeschooling is a perfect educational setting for developing a personal philosophy based on the intellectual life you want for your children. I encourage you, as your child’s primary educator, to take the time to reflect on what you hope for your child’s “intellectual life.”
- Ritchhart and Church used the adjectives hardy, inspiring, and complex. What adjectives do you want to use to describe your child’s intellectual life?
- How will you cultivate your philosophy and shape your child’s learning to reflect your chosen adjectives? This is no small task. I recommend you take the time and thought needed for this. Make it personal. It is great to get input from other sources, but as the person crafting your children’s intellectual life, you want it to be true to you and what you hope for your children.
- What are your children learning about learning? How are you mentoring your children to become skilled learners?
- How are you creating a culture of thinking? A culture of thinking refers to an environment where curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge are encouraged and valued. In such a culture, we encourage children to ask questions and engage in deep thinking.
- How are you mentoring (apprenticing) your children in the process of thinking, learning, problem solving, designing, debating, and citizenship? You might align these with certain disciplines, or you might choose to teach these as their own subject and then weave them into other subjects.
- How is your child’s learning preparing them for life? When I went through this exercise, I focused on the importance of being a “well-learned” adult. This is personal, of course. But I used well-learned instead of well-educated because I feel well-educated does not put as much focus on the process of learning and the skills needed to be a strong lifelong learner.
When answering these questions, it is important to take neuroscience and neuropsychology into account.
What Brain Science Tells Us
A young child’s inquisitiveness and desire to learn are understandable when you consider the anatomy and physiology of the human brain. According to Ronald McKay, PhD, of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, what makes the brain so powerful is that it is sort of hard-wired and sort of not hardwired. The brain is hard-wired to learn in the sense that the basic architecture is there, ready to be used for learning. The brain is not hardwired in the sense that it is flexible, making it profoundly adaptable in the context of learning, which occurs based on what it is exposed to.
That makes the early years of education important, as the quality and content of that education are engaged in shaping the brain’s architecture. As children learn, synapses form. According to Roberto Malinow, MD, PhD, synapses are the sites of communication between nerve cells. It is through nerve cells that the brain communicates. This communication mediates our actions, thoughts, and learning. Synapses are relevant when discussing learning because when you learn something, it’s because synapses have been modified. The communication between nerve cells holding learning in the form of memories has been modified, and it will stay modified unless synaptic pruning occurs.
Research shows that the brains of elementary-aged children are highly adaptable and capable of forming new neural connections. This underscores the importance of early education in shaping cognitive abilities. During these early years of education, children’s brains undergo significant growth and change, laying the foundation for their future learning abilities and creating sites where knowledge is accumulated and built upon. This is a time when children are rapidly acquiring new knowledge and skills, and their thinking is becoming more complex. Synapses are forming, and the architecture of the brain is shaping itself to hold learning. Based on changing anatomy and the effect this has on physiology, it is not surprising that studies show that when intentional instruction is structured, scaffolded, and targeted for the learner, learning outcomes are greatly enhanced throughout a person’s life (How People Learn, p. 103–104).
- Synapse – The site of communication between nerve cells
- Synaptic Pruning – a natural process as a part of brain maturation where the brain removes synapses that do not communicate with others.
- Myelination – sheaths are laid down to protect synapses that are not pruned.
Before You Can Lose It, You Have to Have It
In the context of middle school learners, researchers adhere to the “use it or lose it” principle. Meaning, starting in early adolescence, synapses and connections that are used survive and flourish, and those that are not used are pruned. This has significant implications for the importance of learning in the elementary grades and how learning in the early years has long-lasting effects on future learning. In the “Use it or lose it model,” learning must be present to be used.
I find the analogy of a messy room helpful for understanding this. Starting in the late elementary grades, the brain begins a process called synaptic pruning, where synapses and connections that are unused are pruned. The synapses and connections that are well-used are not pruned. They are strengthened in a process called myelination. It is as if the brain is a childhood bedroom that is getting its first major cleaning. Toys and games that are not used are thrown away. Those that are well used are kept and strengthened.
If your child doesn’t play with Legos anymore, the Legos are gone. If they do still play with Legos, the Legos are kept and made better than new. But what if your child was never exposed to toys that teach design and engineering skills, like Legos? The implication is that as the architecture of the brain restructures around the skills and information that are well-used, design and engineering skills are not a part of this because they are not present.
Play and Unstructured Learning Are Important
In the homeschool community, especially in the early elementary years, it is common to see people advocate for a focus on play and unstructured learning. Both are certainly important as essential aspects of a child’s development. They can be educational and intellectually stimulating, creating synapses and connections. Play provides opportunities for social, emotional, and cognitive growth. It also often involves solving problems, which is valuable for developing critical thinking skills. Unstructured learning fosters a child’s creative thinking. Because unstructured learning is self-directed, it can create a high level of interest in the act of learning. The issue is that play and unstructured learning are chaotic when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Without some planning and structure, it is easy for there to be holes in a person’s education.
Structured learning is an education system with defined paths for learning, objectives, and a formal hierarchy. A basic way of thinking of this is, “In order to learn C, first you need to learn A, and then B.”
Play is important, and so is structured learning. The science explaining how people learn does not support an either/or position like the one that is pervasive in the homeschool community. If you provide your child with formal academics in kindergarten through fourth grade, you are not ruining their childhood or making them hate learning.
What you are doing is supporting the development of their brain as a learner. You are aiding them in acquiring knowledge and information that will form a solid foundation for their knowledge base. Structured learning intentionally ensures that students are exposed to fundamental concepts and skills in a logical sequence. This foundation is essential for more advanced learning in later years. You are also making a value statement about your feelings and relationship with the acquisition of knowledge.
Cognitive Learning Theory as a Part of Your Educational Philosophy
Cognitive learning theory promotes the idea that students, especially those in the elementary grades, learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process. People learn by doing, by exploring, and by making mistakes. When you work with students, it quickly becomes evident that learning best happens when the heads and the hands are engaged.
Guiding Literalists to Learn Abstract Concepts
Children ages 6 to 10 are literalists who interpret language and concepts in concrete ways. That is not to say they are not capable of abstract learning. However, there is a range, with some elementary-aged children being extreme literalists who require thoughtful and intensive support to engage in abstract learning.
Abstract learning is the ability to understand and use concepts that are not concrete. For example, the concept of “number” is abstract, as is the concept of “letter” and the sounds associated with them because they are not something that can be seen or touched. Other abstract concepts include things like “love,” “justice,” and “freedom.”
Their developing brain is the reason for this. The prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in higher-order thinking skills, plays a key role in abstract learning. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until early adulthood, but it does begin to develop in early childhood. Your child’s ability to think abstractly correlates with the development of their prefrontal cortex. Children learn abstract concepts by building on their concrete experiences. If this is an area where your child needs more work, use concrete examples and hands-on activities to help children understand abstract concepts.
Ways to Scaffold for Abstract Learning
- My #1 recommendation is to use curriculum that does this work for you.
- Language arts: Use concrete examples to help children understand the relationship between letters and sounds. For example, you could show children a picture of a cat and point out the individual letters in the word “cat.” You could then make the sounds of the letters and have the child blend the sounds together to form the word “cat.”
- Language arts: Explain that there are some words that do not follow the typical phonics rules. These words are called irregular words. You can provide a list of irregular words to memorize, or you can teach strategies for decoding irregular words.
- Language arts: To teach the concept of similes, read stories and poems that use similes and have children identify the similes.
- Language arts: Use metaphors and analogies, and discuss what they mean when you do, to help children relate abstract concepts to their own experiences.
- Math: A child might learn the concept of “number” using manipulatives for counting.
- Math: To teach the concept of addition, use concrete objects, such as blocks or beads, to help children visualize and understand the process of addition.
- Math: To teach the concept of fractions, use fraction circles or other manipulatives to help children understand the different parts of a whole.
- Science: Make and use diagrams or models that help children visualize what they are studying.
- Science: Include experiments that do a good job of highlighting concepts from what they are studying.
- Social studies and history: Work on hands-on projects that do a good job of highlighting concepts from what they are studying.
- Social studies and history: Have big discussions about abstract concepts like justice and equality.
Homeschooling Elementary School: Academic Disciplines
There is solid evidence that genetics is a factor in the ease with which a person learns to read. As an aside, I come from a family of early readers. My paternal grandfather, my father, my son, and I all just started reading at the age of three. Family lore has it that we taught ourselves to read at three. The genetics of reading are even more interesting than that when you think in terms of evolutionary biology and the human brain. For most of human history, reading would not have been an important skill. It was not until the mid- to late 1800s that literacy became more common. Understanding and producing spoken language is how our ancestors communicated. It would have been important. From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it is not surprising that humans acquire sophisticated spoken-language skills with ease. Decoding written language and connecting that with speech, on the other hand… it is a testament to the profound abilities of the human brain that we can read.
Learning to Read and Reading to Learn
The acquisition of reading skills is a complex cognitive process that involves multiple brain regions and is associated with structural changes in the brain. If you do not provide structured learning for any other discipline, I urge you to do it for reading. If the goal of reading is to understand what is being read, reading can be considered THE foundational skill almost every other subject relies on. Research that spans decades indicates “a strong scientific consensus around the importance of phonics instruction in the initial stages of learning to read.”
The first step in learning to read is to understand and produce spoken words. Language is incredibly complex. It is important that young children have an intuitive understanding of it before being asked to decode alphabetic symbols.
Learning to Read
Reading involves decoding written symbols (letters) and associating them with the sounds of spoken language. Children typically begin with basic phonics, learning letter-sound correspondences and blending sounds like s + h is sh and c + h is ch to form words. As they progress, children develop sight-word recognition and reading fluency. Next, they work on reading comprehension, which focuses on understanding simple and short texts.
The acquisition of these skills is associated with extensive changes in regions of the brain. Processing phonological information activates one area of the left hemisphere. Recognizing and reading common words (sight words) involves a different area. Along with changes and activation of the brain’s architecture, continued work on reading results in the brain strengthening synapses that connect different parts of the brain. This enhances the efficiency of communication between regions of the brain involved in reading.
Reading to Learn
The transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” is a critical milestone for a young learner. It signifies the shift from acquiring basic reading skills to using reading as a tool for acquiring and applying knowledge across various disciplines. They develop reading fluency and automatic word recognition. This means they can read with greater speed and comprehension. In the upper elementary grades, students encounter more complex information in their reading in disciplines such as science, history, and literature. Understanding this, curriculum developers write materials that are more advanced compared to those written for early elementary grades.
The transition comes with accompanying changes in the brain. The brain is more adept at recognizing words, understanding text, and making connections to prior knowledge. As children read to learn, their brain connections used for reading become more specialized, and the processing of written language becomes more automatic.
Follow this link to read an excellent article about reading acquisition.
It is important to note that reading instruction should not stop once children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Too often, we stop providing reading instruction for this grade cohort. Children need continued support focused on reading skills and comprehension all the way through the elementary grades.
There are the same benefits for brain development when learning the writing process as with any other subject. Like reading, writing is a complicated process. You have to get your ideas and thoughts from your brain, down your arms, and onto the page. When I transitioned from writing on paper to using a computer, it took me months until my writing was of the same quality. Now, I am trying to use dictation software occasionally; let’s just say my skill level is not there yet. My point in sharing this is to highlight how challenging it is to bring all the skills together for writing.
Personally, I find some writing programs to be cavalier, missing much of the basic, explicit, early instruction found in the curricula of other disciplines. I think writing programs for elementary students should teach both the mechanics and the craft of writing. I feel cognitive science supports a step-by-step approach, starting with words and quickly moving on to sentences, and so on. My point is not to review writing programs; it is to alert you that young learners might need more support and scaffolding than is in the writing program you are using. If that is the case, give it to them. For example, if your child is not ready to write, you can help them use language as a means of telling stories by taking dictation for them as they work on the art of oral storytelling.
Numeracy (Number Literacy)
Do you love numbers? I did, right until homeschooling my youngest. As much as I loved it, he loved to hate it. It is less than infinity, but the number of times we fought about math is countless.
As with reading, numeracy (mathematical skills and understanding) is an important skill set that starts with decoding numbers. Learning builds from there in a systematic and logical progression. In addition to the basics, students become better able to identify patterns, think abstractly, and visualize and understand spatial relationships. As they work on retrieving facts and information and strategize about problem solving, their metacognitive skills improve. Problem solving is also important for teaching the skill of organizing your thinking in a linear fashion. The brain undergoes changes while learning.
A Multi-Subject Approach: Science, History, Art, Etc.
In elementary grades, structured learning focuses on developing essential academic skills, such as reading, writing, and math. This is important. Brain research supports early literacy initiatives. They show that the brain is particularly receptive to language during the early years of elementary school. The areas of the brain responsible for language and communication continue to develop in 6- to 10-year-olds. This development is associated with improvements in vocabulary, grammar, and the ability to understand and express complex ideas.
Math is also emphasized in elementary school because it plays a central role in cognitive development. Mathematics provides a foundational framework for understanding and solving problems. It is an important part of developing critical thinking, logical reasoning, and abstract thinking.
Too often, however, subjects like science, history, and art are either not taught or incorporated into ELA. There is plenty of research into the problems with this in science. Given the information about the brain and how learning happens, it is no surprise that, based on national test results from 2019, “Fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors and a little more than a third of 4th and 8th graders performed proficiently in science.” Edweek.org. It is fair to assume that all subjects that have been eliminated as the focus has shifted to math, reading, writing, and test-taking have seen a similar decline in literacy that is comparable to the declines observed in science.
As homeschooling parents, we can change these numbers for our children. Which is why I strongly recommend you use a multi-subject approach when working with your children. The subjects you choose to have your children learn create synapses that are strengthened over the years as your children consistently learn in these subject areas. In this way, your children will “have it and use it.”
For this age and grade cohort, a seminar approach is not optimal. I recommend an extended study that focuses on one subject or discipline. This can be quarter-, semester-, year-, or several weeks long. This is important because young children are building the initial foundation for knowledge. They are making connections and building on what they are learning.
Skilled at Learning
In addition to academic subjects, it is important to teach emerging students learning skills. In researching for this article, I came across numerous educators advocating for intentional instruction of metacognition and executive functioning skills in elementary school. To understand why, think about what happens for young children around the skillset of learning. We have expectations about and assessments for reading, writing, and math without teaching the skills of learning. We just sort of throw kids into school and expect them to have a skillset around learning without explicitly teaching these skills in a careful sequence of logical steps to master them.
An Example of Weaving Learning Skills into Learning
Intentionally teaching learning skills is important. I worry, though, that in the stress and business of everything else, figuring out how to add learning skills to the list of things to be worked on will seem overwhelming for parents. To help, I am sharing an example from work I did with my grandson, who is in second grade.
My grandson was working on math homework. The solution was straightforward for him to calculate. That wasn’t what he needed help with. As a part of each problem, he was asked to “Show How You Know,” by writing down the multiple steps needed to calculate the answer and drawing a diagram supporting it. He understood how to draw the diagram, but he wasn’t sure what the multistep process was.
Two other adults had looked at this and decided he should ask Grandma Blair for help. The issue was that there were no explicit instructions for adults or kids about the specific learning skills that would make this exercise meaningful, which is why I was asked to work with him. The other adults just wanted to help him through the steps. However, since he didn’t understand, that amounted to telling him what went where. They thought I could improve on that.
The exercise was a good one. I could see connections from this sort of problem to solving problems in science in the future. To help show what I did, I organized it into bulleted points.
There were four problems.
- I started by looking over the assignment and then telling my grandson that I felt sure he had the skills to write the steps down. I also acknowledged that it was tricky to think that way without practice, which he was going to get from doing this assignment. I was mentoring him to approach this assignment with a growth mindset.
- Then I showed my grandson how you use sample problems to solve current ones. The sample problem was on a previous page. We folded back the page so that for the first problem, he could reference the sample as he worked through the steps. (Actually, I started by telling him it was not “dumb” to write down the steps when you already know the answer, 😉.) When I folded back the page, his eyes got big as if I had done something major, and he said, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Using examples of work done correctly is a skill that should be taught.
- Next, I had him read the instructions on the sample and the problem he was working on to make sure they were asking for the same process. Whenever I work with young people, one of the first things I ask them to do is read the instructions. This is a skill many people go to college without having.
- Then, I had him write what he was given, including the units (cm) that were used in the sample. As I did this, I told him to always start by writing what you are given and to always include units, especially in the answer. This is an organizational skill that is important for later science classes.
- Before putting pencil to paper, I talked to him about what he was being asked to calculate and the process he used. This helped him work on his metacognitive skills.
- Now, he was ready to write the steps. He was able to do this on his own at this point. This was the first of four problems. When answering the second problem, he used the first as an example. Throughout the process, I had him tell me each step as he wrote it down. This was a multimodal approach where I added an auditory component to a reading and writing exercise.
- He was able to complete the final two problems without using an example. To help with his metacognitive skills, I told him the goal was that he could write down all the steps without using an example by or before the last problem.
- He was really proud of himself, as was I. After completing the problem, he was quick to show his work to other adults. Like me, they praised his effort and work. Genuine feedback is an important part of creating a culture of thinking where children understand that the academic work they do and the effort they put into it are noticed and valued.
If adding learning skills seems overwhelming, I hope this example helps. My guess is that you have been working on learning skills without even realizing it. It took me about 15 minutes to work with my grandson. During that time, he set and met a learning goal by writing the steps for two problems without a sample. He self-regulated his thinking when he changed his attitude from “This is dumb” to engaging in the work as he became aware of what the purpose of the lesson was. He worked on problem-solving that was process-oriented. He retrieved the retained information when working on problems 3 and 4. He worked on organizational skills. By working on these skills with explanations of their purpose, he built connections in his brain that will make him a more skilled learner.
Developmentally Appropriate Learning
I want to emphasize the huge range of learning abilities in this age cohort. If any of the advice in this talk does not seem developmentally appropriate for your children, please just ignore it. Children learn at different rates. This makes it important to provide children with developmentally appropriate learning that makes sense for their age, stage of development, and individual needs.
Fine and gross motor skills go through rapid development during the early childhood years. Most of us take this for granted, but if you have a child who is struggling with fine motor skills, you are aware of the big effect this has on academics. If you are concerned about your child’s fine or gross motor skill development, talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist. They can assess your child’s skills and provide you with specific recommendations for activities and interventions to help your child.
No article on homeschooling in elementary school would be complete without discussing neurodiversity. It is often during grades K through 4 that parents with neurodivergent children notice their children are not accessing and processing information the way their neurotypical peers do. The issue when writing about neurodiversity is that it is an umbrella term including people with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, dysgraphia, giftedness, Down’s syndrome, and other diagnoses. If you suspect your child is neurodiverse, I recommend finding resources that give help and information targeted at the condition you think your child might have.
It is also important to get a medical diagnosis. However, that can take years and be prohibitively expensive. For that reason, many experts recommend you “Act as if…” That means that you work with your children as if you have a medical diagnosis that confirms your child has the suspected condition.
To help you identify if your child has neurodiversity, we put together a series of articles listing the signs to look for. You can access them through this link. (Coming soon.)