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Teachers say parents shouldn’t worry about spelling or formal writing when teaching their young kids at home. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader

For parents of young children who are still trudging along with homeschooling, the early years pose some of the most flummoxing challenges: Many children are trying to learn to read basic words and write simple sentences, yet they aren’t old enough to work independently. Social media is full of stories of parents-turned-teachers who are over it, sharing stories of hours spent trying to get their kids to write a few sentences or follow a packed daily assignment schedule.

For those who are still trying to forge ahead, I spoke to three educators for advice:

Writing

“I wouldn’t focus on formal writing instruction,” said Christa Newcum, a second grade teacher at Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho. “It’s hard to teach and will no doubt create unnecessary stress for families and children.” If parents do want to teach writing, Newcum suggests they keep it informal. Ask children to write in a journal, write letters to pen pals or let kids do “free writing” with no rules.

“I wouldn’t focus on formal writing instruction. It’s hard to teach and will no doubt create unnecessary stress for families and children.”

Christa Newcum, second grade teacher at Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho.

Sarah Adkins, a kindergarten teacher in the Nooksack Valley School District in Washington state, said parents should be careful not to push for perfection—particularly when it comes to spelling. “We shouldn’t be expecting [kids] at the end of kindergarten to be writing full sentences correctly,” she said. Adkins said she has been reaching out to parents to remind them to let spelling go, especially when she sees assignments where children are suddenly spelling tough words like “practice” or “squeeze” correctly, which suggests to her that parents are intervening. Instead, Adkins says if kids can write words with a beginning sound, “maybe one middle sound” and an ending sound, she’s happy. Most important? “They should be able to read their own writing.”

  • Tip: Sometimes half the struggle for kids is coming up with an idea for writing. For those struggling to get started, Adkins suggests parents take a picture of their child doing an activity and then asking their child to write about that. “Coming up with the idea is not the most important part right now. The most important part is that they are writing.”

Reading

One of the best things parents can do with their kids at home is read together, ideally for 30 minutes a day. It’s about “reading with them, reading to them, letting them read to you,” said Tracey Fritch, a current middle school teacher and former literacy coach and reading specialist who has worked with students across grade levels at the Rose Tree Media School District in Pennsylvania. Even if your child is not yet reading, they can pick up important skills like how to hold a book, the names of various parts of the books, and various text features like where the words are on a page. “Every kid has different [reading] skills and I can work with different skills,” said Adkins. “The kids who are the hardest to work with, as a teacher, are the kids who don’t properly know how to hold a book.” Christa Newcum said that for older students, practicing sight words is another easy assignment for parents. It doesn’t have to be a kill and drill approach, either. Parents can use sidewalk chalk or play dough to help kids write and practice their sight words.

  • Tip: It’s ok, and even good, to read the same book repeatedly, Adkins said. Focus on a different aspect of that book, ask your child to retell the book and point out different features of the book and story each time.

Math

In Kindergarten, Adkins says students will ideally learn how to count to 120, since “the hardest thing for a 5-year-old is to get past that 100 mark.” If parents work on counting with their children, it’s important to make sure they understand the last number they counted represents the entire group. “That’s tricky, because you’ll say ‘how many were there?’ and they’ll count all over again,” Adkins said. “That means they don’t quite have that ending number.” Another important skill, she said, is being able to identify numerals and match numerals with quantities, like knowing the number 8 and being able to match that with eight items. For older students, second grade teacher Newcum says one of the most important skills and the easiest one to practice at home is math fluency. That involves helping kids master simple math facts so they are ultimately able to complete basic math problems accurately and quickly. Newcum recommends parents look for activities where students can practice these facts, which could include anything from online games to using cards and rolling dice to practice addition and subtraction.  

Tip: Let kids play, especially with toys and activities that involve math and engineering skills, like Legos.

Other skills

Teachers know many parents don’t have the time or expertise to teach much right now. But parents can keep enforcing social emotional and behavioral skills that will help children transition back to a classroom well, like following directions and being able to stick to a routine. “If the child doesn’t have a sense of routine and doesn’t know how to follow directions the first time, they’re going to have a harder time learning,” Adkins said. “If we have to re-teach all of those skills at the beginning of the year, it’s going to take us longer to get into academics.”

Most essential is that students look at school in a positive light, says Tracey Fritch. “Really the most important thing in all of this is that they feel safe and have social connections with their teachers and classmates,” Fritch said. If parents are struggling, Fritch suggested they speak to their child’s teachers and stay realistic about what they are able to accomplish with their children.

Above all, the teachers stressed that they and their colleagues are prepared for what’s going to inevitably happen next year when— and if—students return to class in person without having had much instruction this spring. “We can remediate most skills,” Adkins said. “Most kids are going to come in and they’re not going to be exactly where every single first grader, or every single kindergartener is supposed to be. Teachers know that and are prepared for that.”

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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