I’ve often said that homeschooling is more than just teaching children academics at home. It’s a lifestyle that embraces not just how I educate my children, but how I parent them as well. Homeschooling impacts every part of our life, from our sleep routines and mealtimes to when we take vacations. However, the academics are still a big part of homeschooling for us. And there’s a lot that I do to plan our homeschool. Specifically, I choose materials and activities based on how well they teach my children how to learn, and develop those learning skills.
I’ve got numerous posts on the various methods and homeschooling styles out there. I’ve also got tons of info on planning your homeschooling. And I’ve even created a homeschool planner that will give you everything you need. But I want to take a step back here, though, and talk about how my homeschooling is shaped.
What to teach in your homeschool
Homeschooling – the academic part, anyways – has two parts to it: the skills and the content. Academic skills are the tools for learning. For example, reading is an academic skill. Problem solving, drawing conclusions, spelling words correctly, recognizing patterns, and speaking well are all academic skills. The tools of academics allow you to learn content.
Academic content is what you learn. The facts of history, science, math, literature and all the other areas of study are the building blocks of academics that the tools of academics are used on. You need content to develop skills, but generally speaking, there’s really no set order in which this content must be learned.
Let’s start with the skills of academics.
Learning skills or academic skills depend on developmental milestones, and have typical ages where they can be taught. Skills build on each other, and there is a set order you have to learn skills. For example, you can’t really teach a child to read, without first teaching them their sounds and letter recognition.
So academic skills are like a staircase. Children need to start at the bottom and work their way up. Like climbing a staircase, some people can go faster than others. But it doesn’t really matter how fast you go up the stairs, just that your students keep moving forward.
There are 5 basic types of learning skills.
All the individual skills of learning fall into one of these categories: gathering content, understanding content, using content, creating content, and sharing content.
Gathering content skills
Gathering content skills include things like being able to read text, or to listen well. It’s counting and recognizing patterns, sizes, shapes and colors. And it’s the fundamental skill that all the others build on, which is why these skills are the ones worked on during the earliest years of childhood.
Understanding content skills
Understanding content skills include things like being able to remember facts, make comparisons, to narrate or retell stories, to comprehend reading material and recognize rhymes, rhythms and themes. These skills are where most people stop with academics, because most assume that learning means learning the facts.
Using content skills
But education is more than just regurgitation of facts. It means being able to do something with those facts.
So the next skill set is about using the content gathered and understood. One of the key skills here is using content to gather and understand more content. A child might understand that 1+1=2, but can they use that fact to learn a new fact, like 10+10=100? Using content to infer, deduct, and make conclusions are important skills, and often neglected in favor of just learning more facts. And that’s because teaching more facts is easier than teaching how to use those facts to learn more facts.
But you have to learn how to use content in order to create it. Innovation doesn’t happen without those learning skills. A child needs to learn how to draw shapes, understand how those shapes can work together to build pictures, then be able to use those shapes to recreate pictures, before they can create new pictures. For many of us, this happens naturally and seamlessly, with some content areas, such as art. But with others, where the connections and steps aren’t as obvious, it can be harder.
Creating content skills
And the hardest set of academic skills is what you do with the content you’ve gathered, understood, used and created: share it. Writing well, speaking coherently, presenting and reporting are some of the hardest skills to learn, and even harder to master. However, if your student has built up the skills that go behind them, it’s a lot easer.
For example, a child that reads well, understands what they’re reading, can retell those stories simply, and can create their own stories, will have few issues writing or sharing their stories. And those stories will be entertaining and thoughtful.
All the learning skills rely on a developmental skill foundation.
Children can’t read until they are physically and developmentally ready, usually somewhere between the ages of 7-11, when their vision tracking and convergence has stabilized, and their brain is ready for more advanced pattern recognition and language skills.
Children can’t handwrite until their fine motor skills are developmentally ready. They need hand strength, grip, dexterity, and the manipulative skills to hold the pencil before they can easily form letters.
The developmental skills and milestones are key to the academic skills. Most learning challenges are related to skills, and often because the developmental foundation is delayed or missing.
So if your child is struggling with an academic skill, before you panic, first take a step back and consider their development. For children up to age 6, you can use something like the Nippising District Developmental Screenings. For older children, a child development guide for the age you want can be found from most children’s hospitals and many national health care organizations, such as this one from my province of Ontario, Canada.
Good skills lead to easier content learning.
Academic content can be explored at any age/stage, with any skill level. A kindergartener can explore physics, and a high schooler can learn about bugs. You can revisit content repeatedly and learn more as skills grow and develop.
There’s no universal standard of what content must be learned. While governments around the world have their guidelines and standards of what citizens in their jurisdictions need to know to be functional members of society, as the parent, you get to choose. You can follow your local government guidelines, you can use one of the many guidelines available online (like mine) or you can create your own.
Where most homeschoolers struggle is with skill-building.
First, check your expectations.
If you’re wondering why your 5 year old isn’t reading yet, your expectation is a bit high. The developmental milestone for reading is between ages 7-11 (based on research), and while some kids read earlier (like some kids walk before 10 mo), it’s not typical.
2nd, check the developmental foundation.
If your child is struggling with handwriting, they may not have well-developed fine motor skills or strength yet. If you work on the fine motor skills and strength rather than fussing over penmanship, you might find that their handwriting naturally improves as their fine motor skills improve — without anxiety.
3rd, check the content that you’re using to teach the skill.
Make sure it’s accessible AND interesting to the student. Just because it’s “grade appropriate” doesn’t mean that it’s something your child is interested in. Not every 1st grader is fascinated by dinosaurs, and not every 8th grader likes post-apocalyptic fiction. My 11 yr old loves dogs, and my 5 yr old is fascinated by computers.
4th, don’t dismiss materials because they aren’t “grade appropriate”.
Comic books and graphic novels are still appropriate reading material for all ages. There’s nothing that says your preteen can’t use counters in their math. And maybe your middle schooler would still enjoy crafting with cotton balls and salt painting. Homeschooling is supposed to be fun, so let them play!
Planning out your homeschool doesn’t have to be hugely involved.
If you’re aware of the difference between skills and content learning, you’ll be able to prioritize and still have fun. You don’t need to teach everything under the sun — which is a good thing, because that’s impossible. Remember that if your children master the skills of academics, they can learn the content almost anytime. It’s especially easier now, since we all have these pocket libraries, in the form of instant access to the internet on smart phones and tablets.
So focus on the skills, cover just enough content to form the background of why our society works the way it does, and let them have fun. They’ll take it from there.