child learning to writechild learning to readchild learning mathchild learning science

Homeschool Teacher

a practical guide to inspiring academic excellence


Decrease text size Increase text size

What and When to Teach

Curriculum design is the hot topic in education. Every generation has a slightly different approach, every wave of education graduates has a mission and publishes its set of doctrines in books and articles. As a homeschooling parent without an education degree, how are you supposed to sift through that and find a way to teach your own school?

Jump ahead for

First Year of School

2nd Year of School - Age 11

Age 11 and up

Are your children already in full-time school?

Jump ahead to Afterschooling

To match other English-speaking countries to the US and Canadian grade levels used below, please see International Equivalents

A first grade classroom teacher has to occupy twenty to thirty young children in their first taste of all-day school. First grade teachers can cover a lot of materials, they can use early readers to coach late readers, and they are almost universally amazing people -- I can't imagine facing thirty six-year-olds every day.

As a parent, however, doing one-on-one coaching with your child, there is only one thing you need to teach in the first year of school: reading.

If you live in a town, your local school district may require your children to start formal schooling at a certain age. This age varies widely around the world -- six in most of the US, four or five in the UK, seven or eight in Finland.[1] When is the best time? It's going to depend on your children and your circumstances. Helen was ready to start to learn to read a few months before she turned five; Anna wasn't. She started at six.

Caroline Sharp, in a paper arguing against the practice of British children starting formal school at age four or five, concludes, "The best available evidence suggests that teaching more formal skills early (in school) gives children an initial academic advantage, but that this advantage is not sustained in the longer term." She further cautions, "there are some suggestions that an early introduction to a formal curriculum may increase anxiety and have a negative impact on children's self esteem and motivation to learn."[2]

In September 2015, the UK government acknowledged that some students are not ready to begin at four, and is allowing summer-born children the option of delaying a year.[3] This will help students whose families have the luxury of pre-school or staying at home; many children in families where all the adults work will continue to have to begin at four.

In each of their first years of schooling, Helen and Anna only studied reading, later handwriting, and played with math manipulatives (the teacherspeak word for objects used to help learn math such as beans, poker chips or color-coded rods). I considered the reading and writing only year "kindergarten." I started some more math with Helen about halfway through, and since we were living in the UK for a large part of that school year, I had to be inspected by the local school administrator, who was satisfied that we met the Year One requirements.

In most government-mandated curricula, one needs to do more in these early years, but three subjects were enough, and limiting our studies meant we could work harder on reading and writing. I am convinced that early reading is crucial to enjoying reading. If a child is nine years old and can only read the Junie B. Jones series, he won't enjoy reading, and chances are, he never will. Nine-year-olds who can read Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are going to be swept up in reading and the problem you'll have is getting them to do anything else. Reading is the most important skill you can teach early on, because a love of reading will take care of most of the rest of their educations. And a love of reading will turn into a talent at reading.

In a 2002 Scientific American article, "How Should Reading Be Taught?" the authors note that

[C]hildren's facility with reading in the first grade usually provides a good indication of what their 11th-grade reading proficiency will turn out to be. Why? Because reading requires practice, and those who excel end up practicing the most. Hence, the gap between more and less able readers in the first few grades generally grows over the years.[4]

I'm not sure I buy the causality suggested here -- that they excel, and therefore practice -- I suspect rather that it's more that they practice and therefore excel. But I am sure that early competence and praise will make a child more likely to read for pleasure, and that reading well early means that a child can read the kind of books he likes listening to, not just simplistic tales (even though children's literature has progressed far beyond Dick and Jane).

By "early reading" I mean stressing reading in the first year or two of school, but I don't mean pushing your three- to six-year-olds to read before they are ready. It may be faster and easier to wait six months, as I certainly found with Anna. Different children are ready at different times, and as Dorothy Cohen pointed out back in 1972, "Nothing is really gained by an early start, and much can be lost of the experiences that support early reading."[5] The new US Common Core guidelines suggest that a student be on the way to reading at the end of kindergarten, and reading by the end of first grade, and reading independently at grade level by the end of second grade.[6]

British standards have children begin all day school a year earlier, and their expectations are roughly a year ahead of American students in reading levels. My suggestion is if your child doesn't read by a second grade level by age eight, and you've been consistently sharing books, reading aloud, and giving explicit instructions in phonics, it is worth seeking a second opinion, in case there are learning disabilities that are interfering with learning to read. Age four to eight seems to be the usual range of reaching the ability to read short chapter books with numerous words on each page. I can't think of another child's milestone that has such a wide range.

Early elementary school (before age nine) is fairly fluid. Different students will reach milestones at different times. Helen and Anna are a case in point -- I started teaching Helen to read just before she turned five, and she was a chapter book reader by six. However, in part because we started school in South America on a southern hemisphere schedule, she's officially a grade behind where she would be if she'd gone to school in the US, which I think is a boon for an August baby, and has made it possible for her to be "on grade level" in math. Anna wasn't reading chapter books until she was eight and a bit, but she has now caught up to roughly where Helen was at the same age (and she's actually caught up to Helen in math and they now do the same work).

This is the schedule we have followed. It may not meet the state or local requirements in your area; if you are reporting in to a school district, you may need to add more subject areas, but if you aren't, here are nine years of school, pared to the essentials.

Are your children already in full-time school?

Jump ahead to Afterschooling

International Readers

To match other English-speaking countries to the US and Canadian grade levels used below, please see International Equivalents

Elementary School Subjects, by age

(typical hours per month in parentheses)

Kindergarten (age 5-6)

Teach: reading (10 hrs), writing (1-5 hrs), writing skills (1-5 hrs)

Unschool if you can/teach if you must: exercise (30 hrs)

Optional: nature studies, art, music

Elementary School

Only include the elementary school items in the "school day" if they are not occurring independently. You may find that simply encouraging reading, art, or exercise is enough, and they will happen without your interference. Spelling isn't necessary for some children; it's critical for others. Teach your children, not a syllabus!

US/Canada Grade 1-2 (age 6-8):

Teach: writing (15 hrs), writing skills (7 hrs), math (15 hrs)

Unschool if you can/teach if you must: reading (20 hrs), exercise (30 hrs)

Optional: Science, nature studies, history, 2nd language, art, music

US/Canada Grade 3-4 (age 8-10):

Teach: writing (30 hrs), writing skills (10-15 hrs), math (20 hrs), history (20 hrs)

Unschool if you can/teach if you must: reading (20-30 hrs), science (20 hrs), exercise (30 hrs)

Skills Work: handwriting, keyboarding (at about age 9), spelling, math facts

Optional: art, music, second language.

Middle School Subjects, by age

(typical hours per month in parentheses)

Middle School

USA Grade 5-8 (age 10-13):

Teach/Assign: writing (20-50 hrs), math (30-40 hrs), history (30 hrs), science (30 hrs), second language (20 hrs)

Unschool if you can/teach if you must: reading (20-50 hrs), physical exercise (30 hrs), life skills, current events

Optional: music, art

Skills Work: library & research skills

As Necessary: spelling, handwriting, keyboarding, math facts, vocabulary

Suggested Hours per Month

(italicized items can be unschooled/bracketed items are optional)



Grades 1-2

Grades 3-4

Grades 5-8


10 hrs

20 hrs

20-30 hrs

20-50 hrs


1-5 hrs

15 hrs

30 hrs

20-50 hrs

Writing Skills

1-5 hrs

7 hrs

10-15 hrs

As necessary


[1-10 hrs]

15 hrs

20 hrs

30-40 hrs


[1-10 hrs]

[10-15 hrs]

20 hrs

30 hrs


[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

20 hrs

30 hrs

2nd Lang

[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

20 hrs


30 hrs

30 hrs

30 hrs

30 hrs


[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

[1-20 hrs]


[1-10 hrs]

[1-10 hrs]

[1-20 hrs]

[1-30 hrs]


This schedule counts both teaching time and independent work (homework), and in comparison with standard schools, saves a great deal of time in the younger grades, but is quite equivalent in the later grades. It would be fewer hours, but this schedule includes the added hours of a second language study, which is seldom taught in American middle schools.

Sample Daily Time Commitment


Typical School (M-F): 3 hrs + travel

Homeschool (M-F): < 1 hr

Homeschool (7 days): < 1 hr

Grades 1-2

Typical School(M-F): 6 hrs + travel

Homeschool M-F: 4 hrs

Homeschool 7 Days: 3.3 hrs

Grades 3-4

Typical School (M-F): 6 hrs + 1 hr homework + travel

Homeschool M-F: 6-7 hrs

Homeschool 7 Days: 5-6 hrs

Grades 5-8

Typical School (M-F): 6 hrs + 2 hrs homework + travel

Homeschool M-F: 8-9 hrs

Homeschool 7 Days: 7 hrs

Sample Daily Time Commitment

Typical School (M-F)

Homeschool (M-F)

Homeschool (7 days)


3 hrs + travel

< 1 hr

< 1 hr

Grades 1-2

6 hrs + travel

4 hrs

3.3 hrs

Grades 3-4

6 hrs + 1 hr homework + travel

6-7 hrs

5-6 hrs

Grades 5-8

6 hrs + 2 hrs homework + travel

8-9 hrs

7 hrs


Of course, in order to achieve these time savings with homeschooling, the students have to be on task with the work, and that is not always the case. In the early years, we struggled to complete schoolwork in the three hours it should have taken: the school work took that much time, but the time devoted to sharpening pencils, sitting down, and passing notes (concealed in the inside of a ball point pen, it turns out) was almost certainly higher than in school with a sharp-eyed elementary school teacher. I will talk about this further in Part III, Managing the Classroom.

One Year Minimalist School

Jump ahead to Afterschooling

Jump ahead to Academic Goals

I have homeschooled our children through every year, so my focus is on the long term, but if I were taking a single year to make a trip or a short-term life style change, I would strongly consider cutting down school to the bare minimum of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I'd require an hour a day of reading free-choice books, and roughly 20 hours per month each of writing and math (spread out through the year, or in a more conventional school-year format as suits your situation). I would try to cover a bit of history and science by including plenty of non-fiction in the books available for the free-choice reading. Local languages and skills such as keyboarding could be easily worked in as well.

Even with the continuity introduced by the Common Core in many states, different school districts have different goals and standards for different grades, and we expect children to move back and forth between schools without too much academic trouble. If your child studies a different path of history or science for a year or two, or even skips it altogether, it is not going to affect transitioning back into school. Keep up in math, exceed school requirements for reading and writing, and you will have done well by your children.

This is a simple amount of school to have while traveling: it requires a digital book reader loaded with as many books as you can possibly afford (don't forget the thousands of free books from Project Gutenberg), a stack of writing note-books (you can buy them as you go), and the math book. If electrical access isn't a problem, a tablet with a separate keyboard can be both the book and the word processor for reading and writing, although I don't find reading backlit tablets as pleasurable as reading the non-backlit readers (and the tablets require far more frequent re-charging.) Using a tablet with PDF-based math program such as Math Mammoth, would even save the weight of a math book.

It's also a simple amount of school to have while staying at home. In her article, "One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling," Laura Brodie describes staying home with her daughter for fifth grade, where she tried to hit the fifth grade essentials for her school district, follow her daughter's interests in the Maya and dinosaurs, and most of all, do a lot of writing, a subject crowded out in many public schools overly concerned about test-prep.[7] Math is the one subject that short-term homeschoolers need to stay on top of if they want to put their children back into the same year in the same school district. (Parents willing to put their children back a grade after a year off have more freedom here, and I think a year of reading while exploring the world would benefit many children, but the social pressure of returning to the same school district will make this approach unappealing for most families.)

Many private schools (and a few large public schools) offer flexible math scheduling, where both semesters of each math course are offered each semester. This is usually done to benefit placement -- a ninth grader might arrive ready to begin algebra, to begin second semester algebra, or skip it all together and begin geometry. However, this comprehensive scheduling can benefit families who want to take a semester off, because the student wouldn't have to keep up in math, but rather could slot back into the sequence where he left off. Nearly every traveling, homeschooling parent we've talked with wants to make sure they are back in town for high school, but in fact, this can be one of the easier times to short-term homeschool. Many high school schedules require four classes a term to graduate in four years, and a strong student could pick up a fifth class without too much difficulty, in order to skip a semester and still graduate on time. (However, be warned, it is generally not the easiest time socially.)


Jump ahead to Academic Goals

Many children who are enrolled in full-time school could benefit enormously by some extra help or the opportunity to stretch themselves intellectually. Certainly much of my education was made up of afterschooling, and I know parents who have helped their children with mental math, pushed them farther in mathematics, enrolled them in local schools in foreign countries, but kept up with mathematics, reading, and writing in their home language, and so on.

Afterschooling can be a short daily math drill, or it can be a full or half day of school on Saturdays and Sundays. The subject area chapters which follow can stand alone, so afterschoolers can focus on the area they are most concerned with.

When considering afterschooling programs, the two most valuable subjects are mental maths in the early years and free-choice reading in all years. Children in school often do not have sufficient time for either. If those areas seem satisfactory, then choose one of the other subject areas, perhaps for a Saturday-Sunday class.

Going ahead in mathematics requires some caution. A friend pushed ahead in math in the 70s, and her only option was to skip seventh grade so she could join the new algebra class on offer for eighth grade. She sometimes regrets the lack of preparation in other subject areas, and that missed seventh grade.

Thirty years later, her son was allowed to push ahead in elementary school, so he was finished with seventh grade math when he began fifth grade at the middle school in the same school district. They did not have any program for math tracking, however, so he was put back into fifth grade math. For a few years, this was a disaster, as he was bored out of his mind, distracted other students (surprise, surprise), and earned a reputation as a "bad math student," and judged ineligible for eighth grade algebra, not for his grades or test scores, but because he was inattentive in class. The story had a happy ending, however, as he studied algebra in his spare time (self-driven afterschooling), learned the whole course in six months, and changed schools to one with a placement test, where he passed out of Algebra I. But had he not had the option to change schools, this might have been a problem that haunted him throughout his school years.

Few students are lucky enough to have teachers like the high school physics teacher who knew just what to do when confronted with the future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman.

Feynman recalls:

One day [Mr. Bader] told me to stay after class. "Feynman," he said, "you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You're bored. So I'm going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that's in this book, you can talk again."[8]

The book was advanced Calculus; when Feynman finished with that, Mr. Bader gave him a university Calculus book.

However, for most people, doing advanced work in reading, writing, science, or history is much less likely to cause problems meshing in with the local school than going ahead in mathematics. In these subjects, primary schools typically do not have tracking, and there is no ceiling on how accomplished students can be. (In other countries, the same can be true in mathematics -- Singapore, for example, usually has very difficult tests to allow exceptional students to differentiate themselves, without penalizing the merely above average. A grade of "A1" (equivalent to a US "A") is earned for a 75% score and above.)[9]

Remedial work in any subject is valuable. It is probably best for afterschoolers to choose the most difficult subject and concentrate on that, perhaps changing subjects as time goes by. An hour or two of focused attention a week can make a huge difference in academic performance, without overburdening the student with shame at needing remedial work during school time, or filling up too much of the week with schoolwork at the expense of physical exercise and play.

Academic Goals

These are my goals for my children; you may have slightly different goals or priorities, but I've included this list as a starting point. It does not necessarily align with national or state standards -- in some areas, I think it is important to exceed those standards; in math in particular, I think it is more important to be proficient than exactly on grade level.

End of Elementary School (age 10)

Write a 3-5 page paper (double spaced if typed), with sources, without quailing at the prospect

Reading long, complex chapter books both fiction and non-fiction at a fifth or sixth grade level (search for "leveled book list" online)

Spelling at a fourth grade level (you can find lists online to check your student's level)

Touch typing/keyboarding at 25 words per minute with accurate spelling

Acceptable handwriting (printing, joined up writing, or a hybrid "italic" writing; joined up writing is the norm in the UK right from the start; many American states have now abandoned joined-up writing entirely, but I would recommend it, as it is considerably faster for writing essay exams and taking notes and may, in fact, improve thinking)

Within 6 months of "grade level" in an appropriate math program

General understanding of science and familiarity with the scientific method

Several years' study of history and the ability to write several paragraphs about historical events, both summary of readings and simple analysis

Able to follow written directions without adult supervision, for example following a science experiment directions or making a multi-step recipe

End of Middle School (age 14)

Write a 5-8 page paper (double spaced if typed), with sources, without quailing at the prospect

Reading long, complex books both fiction and non-fiction at high school/adult level (search for "leveled book list" online)

Writing and speaking with a high-school level academic vocabulary

Spelling at a sixth grade level (you can find lists online to check your student's level)

Touch typing/keyboarding at 40 words per minute with accurate spelling

Acceptable handwriting

Within 6 months of "grade level" in an appropriate math program

General understanding of science and familiarity with the scientific method; solid introduction to the following topics:

evolutionary biology

physics and chemistry

earth sciences and astronomy

The ability to read a high school level science textbook with some assistance

Familiarity with the basics of experimentation, lab safety, keeping lab note-books, and dissection

At least six years' study of history

reading and understanding history from a variety of sources: high school level history textbooks, adult-level popular history, middle school level textbooks

able to write 2-4 page papers about historical events, both analysis and summary of readings

Experience of at least one lecture-based course (online or on DVDs)

The equivalent of one year of high school study in a second language, minimum

Solid knowledge of world current events and a comfort with reading adult-level magazines such as The Week

Basic computer skills (word processing, spreadsheet, layout and Internet research)

Looking Ahead

In the American system, the testing for college is loaded towards the end of high school. Students may take the exams earlier, but they will generally score higher the longer they wait, except for some specific subject matter courses. Students will do best by following a general, broad range of studies throughout their school years, which will prepare them for the SAT or the ACT general exams, subject area exams, and occasionally AP (Advanced Placement) exams which are considered to be the equivalent of a year at an American university, and are similar to the British A-Level.

In the British system, there are two cycles of exams, the GCSEs and the A-Levels, both of which are available to homeschooled students. Many schools offer the International Baccalaureate in place of A-Levels, but that exam is not currently available to homeschoolers. The GCSE preparation usually begins in Year 9 or 10, and the exams are usually taken at the end of Year 11 (about age sixteen). Most students take a broad range of classes and sit exams in eight to ten subjects. If a student is in school during these years, course work can count towards the grade, but homeschoolers will find it easiest to take the IGCSE, which is offered around the world, and is exam-based only.

A-Levels are a two-year program (which may be followed by homeschoolers), taken in Years 12 and 13, or age 16-18. Throughout this book, I equate US grade level with the UK year level, and that is fairly accurate, although the British students are a year younger. English students are usually about a year ahead academically of American students by the end of secondary school (both countries finish up typically at eighteen), but English universities are only three years (Scottish universities, however, are four years.) The British system is much more focused after age sixteen -- three or four subjects are usually studied at A-Level (I do know someone who took five), and then at university students generally don't take the breadth of electives offered at most American universities.

Teaching and Learning Sum-up

Encourage a growth mindset -- most students can learn anything if they work at it

Schoolwork should be always difficult, but never impossible

If your students are studying a subject area on their own, let them run with it

Focus your teaching time on the subjects your students find more difficult or uninteresting

Emphasize reading and writing stamina

Emphasize a blend of conceptual mathematics and basic facts to make the concepts easier

Ask questions

twitter Tweet // twitter Follow // facebook Share // facebook Follow // google Google+


Support the Website
Donate with PayPal


1. "Compulsory age of starting school in European countries, 2013." Eurydice. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/shadomx/apps/fms/fmsdownload.cfm?file_uuid=3B48895C-E497-6F68-A237-BCD7AB934443&siteName=nfer [retrieved 12 Dec 2015].

2. Caroline Sharp. "School Starting Age: European Policy and Recent Research." Paper presented at the LGA Seminar 'When Should Our Children Start School?', LGA Conference Centre, Smith Square, London, 1 November 2002. [https://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/44410/44410.pdf retrieved 10 February 2015.]

3. Department for Education and Nick Gibb MP. "Summer-born children 'to get the right to start school later.' UK Government Press Release. www.gov.uk. 8 Sep 2015. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/summer-born-children-to-get-the-right-to-start-school-later [retrieved 12 Dec 2015].

4. Keith Rayner, Barbara F. Foorman, Charles A. Perfetti, ,David Pesetsky and Mark S. Seidenberg. "How Should Reading be Taught?" Scientific American, March 2002, 86.

5. Dorothy H. Cohen. The Learning Child. New York: Shocken Books, 1972. p. 83-84.

6. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010. pp. 11-17.

7. Laura Brodie. "One Good Year: A Look at Short-Term Homeschooling." Brain, Child Magazine. August 27, 2014 [http://www.brainchildmag.com/2014/08/one-good-year-a-look-at-short-term-homeschooling/ retrieved Mar 9, 2015]

8. Richard Feynman. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" (Adventures of a Curious Character). Vintage Digital, 2014. 71.

9. http://www.singaporeeducation.info/Education-System/Grading-System.html [retrieved 20 Nov 2015]

© Kate Laird 2015

November 2015