What Skills? What Content?

This is a follow-up on my last post The Most Helpful Thing I’ve Learned About Education. (Only a year ago!) It is some thoughts on what skills and what content should be covered when, during the grade school years. As a natural planner, having a bird’s-eye view on the journey is very helpful for peace of mind.

Math Skills, Grades 1-6

It really isn’t much. Are you ready?

+  –  x   ÷

Most of elementary math is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Four skills over seven years. That’s not too bad. There are other practical skills often included in math curriculum such as telling time, money recognition, measurement, and calendar reading. But my kids picked these up by themselves just in daily life. Hang up a calendar, buy a clock (with Roman numerals?), pay them in coins, and don’t stress.

Math Skills, Grades 7-8

Percentage, Fractions, Pre-algebra concepts.

Which shouldn’t be too hard if the four operations (+ – x ÷) are solid. Many curricula try to attack algebra in 8th or before, but I much prefer it in 9th when kids are past puberty. What’s the hurry. Most of real life math is what you learn in middle school so I like to get it down well. (Edited to add: grade school math will also include some basic geometry, but even this is mainly usage of the four operations.)

Reading Skills

Learning to read (phonics), somewhere between pre-K and 2nd. Then daily practice, both silent and aloud. Easy peasy. I highly recommend using a phonics program that leaves writing OUT. This is a separate skill, and for most children (esp boys), comes after learning to read. Divide and conquer.

Writing Skills, Grades K-2 (girls) and 2-3 (boys)

Handwriting or penmanship. That’s all. This is a separate skill from composition and is highly dependent on developmental readiness. This is why I have separate ranges for boys and girls. Be observant of your own particular child. If your writing program is trying to get your tearful child to write a story or a letter while he’s still learning letter formation, just burn it. Remember, divide and conquer.

Writing Skills, Grades 3-8

Mechanics (Capitalization, punctuation, spelling, formatting.) In other words, all those “rules.”

Composition. This is putting thoughts into words. You can work on this orally before grade 3, but for written composition, it will work much better after handwriting is automatic. Composition itself needs to be broken down. Your child will not be able to write a story (or letter, or essay) until he has first mastered the paragraph. He will not be able to write a paragraph until he can compose a sentence.

Grammar. We dabble in this throughout grade school but don’t get serious with analyzing and parsing until grades 7-8. This is largely an editing skill used in the upper grades so don’t burn yourself out on it when kiddos are in elementary grades.

Typing. No need to do this before middle school. Handwriting is more important for younger grades.


To sum it up, by the end of 8th grade your child should be able to:

  • Add, subtract, multiply, divide, and work with fractions, percentages, and decimals.
  • Read well enough to comprehend a simple piece of classic literature such as Tom Sawyer.
  • Write legibly with reasonable speed.
  • Type with reasonable speed.
  • Identify the parts of speech in a basic sentence.
  • Write a coherent paragraph. Ideally, string coherent paragraphs into a letter, story, or essay. (Some kiddos may need to continue polishing this skill in 9th grade.)

Other non-academic skills that are needed for high school: attention, ability to follow instructions, organization of time and materials, basic computer skills.

Content for grades K-8

  • History: the basics of American history and Government, the basics of world history, the basics of geography, national and world
  • Science: exposure to the knowledge of plant and animal life; earth, weather, and space science, the basics of physical science, and basics of human health and anatomy.
  • Literature: read at least 4-6 classic or well-loved books for each grade.

So do these sound like reasonable goals? Do they seem more doable than slogging through mountains of curriculum? Next time you go school shopping, take this list with you and let it help you select what you truly need. Use it when you look over your students’ lessons and cross out what isn’t helpful. This is what it means to make your curriculum your servant instead of master.



Learn Math Fast, Developmental Mathematics (Saad), The Reading Lesson (Levin), Happy Handwriting & Cheerful Cursive (Letz Farmer), The Paragraph Book series, The Sentence Family, Daily Grammar Practice, Notgrass histories, What in the World histories, Let’s Read and Find Out, Magic Schoolbus, Master Books science, McHenry science, Honey for a Child’s/Teen’s Heart for booklists. (Many free booklists available online.) I highly recommend that grade-school learning be as screen-free as possible.

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